§ 3.3 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
rose to move, That this House takes note of the report by the working group appointed to consider how the working practices of the House can be improved, and to make recommendations (HL Paper 111); and that the report be remitted to the Procedure Committee, with an instruction that it makes by 8th July recommendations, for approval by the House, as to the implementation of the report.
642 The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
This is an important time for this House, and the decisions that we make about this report may be critical for our future. The debate today is to take note of the report of the group which I chaired. The Motion also asks the Procedure Committee to consider the practical implementation of the group's recommendations and to report back to this House by 8th July with proposals for its approval.
The report is the product of nine months' work. The group comprised the present Leader of the Opposition, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the former Conservative Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, the Chief Whip of the Liberal Democrat Peers, the noble Lord, Lord Roper, the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, and my noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe. I invite your Lordships to study that list and to try and find one of whom it could fairly be said is not devoted to the interests of this House.
We took evidence. We circulated a questionnaire. Our starting point—I ask your Lordships to accept this—was that this House has a duty on behalf of the public to hold any government to account. We believe that Parliament's scrutiny of the Government needs to be enhanced. This is particularly true when any government has a substantial Commons majority.
The changes recommended in the report are intended to improve the efficiency and the effectiveness of this House. The watchdog must have a louder hark and sharper teeth. If one looks at the changes in a fair and open-minded way, I believe that they offer enhanced opportunities to this House.
Efficiency, of course, is bound up with other issues, such as procedural reform, sitting hours and working conditions. Procedural reform alone will not make us more effective. My belief, shared by my colleagues on that small group, is that the effectiveness of the House depends significantly on an approach by consensus in the interests of the general health of Parliament as a whole.
The Government ought to be willing to agree to changes which they may find burdensome or inconvenient. Some of these changes, if approved and adopted, will be. Burdens and inconvenience ought to be accepted if we are to deliver the great prize of improving the quality of legislative scrutiny and therefore of legislative output.
Such an approach is reflected in all that we have tried to do. I fundamentally believe that we can improve the institution of Parliament as a whole. Effective parliamentary scrutiny is a valued and valuable discipline for governments of all complexions. If we go forward on this path, we can go some way to reducing the undoubted present public disenchantment with politics and political systems.
We tried to produce a coherent whole. From the identities I have so far disclosed, plainly, we do not share a unanimous political view, but we have the 643 general view that we ought to have looked for consensus, which we achieved. This is a unanimous report. Therefore, all of us had to bend to the others' opinion. No one could be adamant to his original stance. I stress, as we tried to do in the report, that this is intended to be a package, not every item of which will satisfy everyone, but the broad thrust of which I hope commends itself to the House.
Some proposals looked at in isolation will seem either to burden or benefit the Government, the Opposition or the Cross Benches. I invite your Lordships to look at the totality of what we have tried to achieve. We recognise that the House may want to test the package. Your Lordships will have seen in paragraph 4 of the report that we suggest a trial period of two Sessions, thereafter the House would have to approve any continuation.
In speaking of the drafting of the report, I pay particular tribute to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. Significantly, it was he who induced and encouraged us to produce a short report which was easily understood. Perhaps I may quote from the recent report of the Hansard Society, entitled The Challenge for Parliament: Making Government Accountable. I suggest that these are useful words. It stated:The potential exists [for the Lords) to develop a different dynamic to the Commons, opening up new and innovative means of scrutinising the Government".As a group, we tried to respond to that general call.
We have made some minor, early starts. We now have much more realistic subsistence allowances. At last, we have access to the postal system without paying for it ourselves. Last summer, we acquired Fielden House which will provide more accommodation for your Lordships, who work in difficult circumstances. But we need to do a lot more. As we improve our working conditions, we need to improve our methods of work.
I repeat: we proceeded entirely on the basis of consensus and agreement. At page 7, recommendation (a), our first recommendation, states:virtually all major government bills should as a matter of course be subject in draft to pre-legislative scrutiny".That is closely linked to recommendation (b), which states:subject to the right of the House of Commons to determine its own procedures, bills that have received pre-legislative scrutiny in either House should, on a motion moved in the house in possession of the bill at the end of the session, be allowed to be carried-over into the next session; but if a bill that has been carried over does not reach the statute book by the end of the session following carry-over it should fall, as now".This is a long-term agenda. We are speaking of years, not months, but I have no doubt that if we can achieve more pre-legislative scrutiny, we will have better Bills and a significant lessening of the need to return to the same topic.
Parliament as a whole does not perform its legislative scrutiny well. I must say—I hope without offence to anyone in the other place—that the way to cure that, the remedy, will be found in this House. If 644 we have pre-legislative scrutiny, we will at least address and, I hope, solve a problem. It is a criticism frequently levelled that we produce legislation that is ambiguous, inaccurate and not always fully thought out. In my 10 years' experience here—which I know is brief compared to many of your Lordships—that has been true of all governmental legislation. Constantly, observers of Parliament say that defective legislation is the result of weaknesses in the system. It is often easier for the Government to accept changes to a draft Bill than to seem to accept the humiliation of a change once policy is set. That recommendation will increase the burden on Ministers. The length of time for which each Bill is scrutinised and the lead-time from publication to delivery of Royal Assent will lengthen. However, the potential benefit to the public good is such that that burden is well worth taking on.
It is not in our power alone to make that a reality. It will depend on the Government producing Bills for pre-legislative scrutiny in the first place. My right honourable friend Robin Cook has already given his view that that is the way that we ought to proceed, and I absolutely agree with him. I hope that your Lordships today and subsequently will give strength to that argument by encouraging the Government to follow that direction.
In the past, pre-legislative scrutiny has been conducted in Lords Committees, Commons Committees and Joint Committees. It could occur in the House of introduction or in the other House. Our group thought that it would be a good idea if liaison arrangements were established between the Houses to determine which scrutiny option to adopt. We can proceed with that only if carry-over is adopted. Proposal (a) is utterly linked to proposal (b). The ability to carry over for a single Session would enable each Bill to proceed at its own pace, but I stress that that is dependent on the decision of the House on any particular occasion. In the past, we have performed too little pre-legislative scrutiny. When we have done so, we have produced a better outcome.
I turn to recommendation (c). One of the strengths of this House is that we have a large number of experts who know of which they speak. We do not fully realise the potential of the financial expertise to be found here. I stress as firmly as I can—this is highlighted several times in the report— that we do not intend in any way to encroach upon the financial privileges of the Commons, but we ought to be able to work towards a procedure to enable this House to deal more effectively, within its limited scope, on matters relating to Finance Bills. I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Saatchi and Lord Roper, for their contribution to developing the proposals either in written evidence or, in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Roper, in his personal comments.
We suggest for consideration at least that, before the Chancellor makes his Budget Statement, this House should appoint an ad hoc committee to consider and comment on the Budget and Finance Bill. The terms of reference would absolutely preclude the committee from considering the incidence and rates of tax rates. It would concentrate on the technical issues of tax 645 administration and make suggestions— they can be no more than that—that the Commons may or may not accept. That would enhance the House's opportunity to contribute in an area of undoubted expertise, but I stress again that we make no form of challenge to the Commons. We simply intend, if the proposal is carried, to offer suggestions.
A number of your Lordships from all quarters have said that secondary legislation is not properly scrutinised. It is often as complex and detailed as any Bill. Recently, an extremely thoughtful and careful leader in the Daily Telegraph made that very point. Large chunks of law— secondary legislation—are passed without effective scrutiny. Again, without disrespect to the Commons, I suggest that we can do work here that is not presently attempted elsewhere. Since 1980, the number of statutory instruments laid before Parliament has increased by more than a third. It is no exaggeration to say that much secondary legislation may affect the individual more keenly than primary legislation, which we scrutinise.
We therefore recommend a Select Committee of your Lordships' House to examine the merits of every statutory instrument subject to parliamentary activity. There would have to be a sifting process—the work would he impossible otherwise—but if we work at the mechanisms, we can produce a good outcome.
I turn to Questions. They are extremely burdensome for a Minister who is not entirely on top of his or her brief. They offer the House not only an enjoyable opportunity for those who, like myself, are keen supporters of blood sports hut, especially in topical questions, allow the House to challenge the Government before time passes. We have therefore suggested that, as an experiment, for two days a week—on Tuesdays and Wednesdays—Question Time should be extended to 40 minutes and that the extra, final Question should be a topical Question.
It cannot be claimed, as has been said somewhere, that that is a plot by me to try to safeguard the Government. I did not consult my colleagues before offering that proposal; I expect that they will be extremely cross with me, but I shall have to bear that with such fortitude as I can muster. That is, and is intended to be, an extra burden on Ministers. At present, the executive faces insufficient challenge, as it did when the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was Prime Minister. There is a minor quid pro quo. There would be one day when, say, the Home Office or the education or health departments would not be subject to questions, simply so that Ministers could go to prisons— as they ought to—schools and hospitals.
I shall be as brief as possible, because I know that there has been quite a rush on the red document, but as part of the package, we recommend that we should not sit after 10 o'clock at night, which would mean a new Standing Order. In our happier moments, we frequently congratulate ourselves that we perform revision extremely well. We do not after 10 o'clock at night. We collude together to go home in the early hours of the morning because we are exhausted. If that proposal is acceptable, the detail will have to be worked out by the Procedure Committee.
646 We suggest a greater use of Grand Committees, which were first proposed as long ago as 1994 by the committee chaired by Lord Rippon. Lord Rippon made it perfectly plain that they are not a device to help the Government to pass more legislation more quickly. They are intended to improve scrutiny and therefore produce better quality.
There is no nomination to a Grand Committee; it is a Committee of the whole House. I understand the criticism made in the Commons that the composition of a Committee for the Committee stage of a Bill can be fiddled. There is no prospect of that here, nor ought there ever to he. All Members can attend, and the procedure will be the same, except that there will be no Divisions. We recommended—again, unanimously— that "Rippon Bills" ought to be committed to Grand Committee, but the decision will be one for the House to make on every occasion.
In this House, we receive very good reports from Select Committees, and sometimes, I think, we deal with them rather churlishly. They are of exceptionally high quality. I do not say that in a self-congratulatory mode; I have never been on one. Often, high quality material is produced, only for it to be debated in the dead hours of a Friday. Therefore, it is not properly reported or, ultimately, properly considered.
We also recommend that there should be three additional Wednesdays for Back-Bench debates in each Session and more debates on Select Committee reports and general topics in prime time. That is not a device to emasculate the House: utterly the opposite. We suggested that, on. Thursdays—this is not our old friend, the Wednesday/Thursday split, on which we decided relatively recently—we should start at 11 o'clock and finish at 7 o'clock. Many of us do not live in the South East, and it would be a legitimate convenience for people to know that they could be away—after quite a long day, after all—at 7 o'clock on Thursday.
We recommend that the House—in particular, the Grand Committees— should be willing to sit in September. We will adjust our sitting times, and, in accordance with what has been generally welcomed about my noble friend Lord Carter's timetable for this year, we will have sensible breaks at convenient times. We shall sit not longer but, I hope, more conveniently. The Grand Committees could do useful work in September. I shall explain our underlying thoughts on the matter. Most Committees are not well represented on the Floor of the House. If there are 12 of us present late in the evening, that is a good turn-out. Not every one of your Lordships is interested in every Bill. If we could have Second Readings, say, before we rose in July and had the Committee stages organised well in advance for two or three days:in September, your Lordships would be able to plan, and everyone with an interest in a particular Bill—and others—could attend.
There is a vast wodge of excellent Law Commission reports, most of which have draft Bills at the back, carefully locked away in a cupboard marked "Not to be disturbed". We do not do those things well. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridgeman, has, rightly. 647 frequently complained that consolidation Bills would be useful to the general public, practitioners and the courts. Subject to your Lordships' views, we could consider doing consolidation Bills. I think that I can say, with the eyes of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridgeman, boring into me, that consolidation Bills are not—
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am so sorry. I meant to say the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman. His eyes were boring into me for another reason. That was my fault.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, has frequently said that consolidation Bills would be useful. They are not a subject of pulsating interest to many people. If we could sit in Grand Committees on unwhipped business—there would be no votes in September—we would make the House work better.
I am approaching 20 minutes. The last point that I shall make relates to an observation made by many noble Lords. The increasing volume of Europe-derived legislation is not subject to sufficient scrutiny. That is why we suggest that the Select Committee on the European Union, which does excellent work, should review the House's scrutiny of European legislation and consider the appropriate balance between the scrutiny of general policy and that of specific legislative proposals.
I am sorry if the wording of the Motion caused distress. The original draft Motion that I considered was in a form that the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Roper, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, said was inappropriate. I accepted their suggestion, and we had correspondence about it. The date—8th July—was thought appropriate by the Clerk of the Parliaments. In correspondence, every member of the group agreed that this was an appropriate Motion. I hope that it is not regarded, in any way, as an arrogant attempt on my part to dictate to your Lordships: it is not. I know that the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Roper, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, can confirm that. We all agreed on it.
It is not a brief time. There are seven weeks for consideration of the matters, and not all the recommendations need any scrutiny by the Procedure Committee. I stress that the Motion says that the Procedure Committee should report back by 8th July with proposals—I underline the words—for the approval of your Lordships. The Committee will offer us a menu, and we must come to our conclusion.
I said that that was the last word; lawyers always say that when they have another paragraph. I shall end by thanking Brendan Keith and Chloe Mawson, who put up with us for a long time—16 meetings over many weeks. They smiled tactfully and Delphically, and their work was invaluable, underlining again the high quality of the officials who serve the House. I commend the Motion to the House.
648 Moved, That this House takes note of the report by the working group appointed to consider how the working practices of the House can be improved, and to make recommendations (HL Paper 111); and that the report be remitted to the Procedure Committee, with an instruction that it makes by 8th July recommendations, for approval by the House, as to the implementation of the report.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)
§ 3.26 p.m.
§ Lord Denham
rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, to leave out all the words after "Committee".
The noble Lord said: My Lords, procedures in both Houses of Parliament have evolved over the years, and it is right that they should do so, in order to take account of new circumstances as they arise. But it has always been an accepted rule, again in both Houses, that any change should be made by agreement.
The history of the body whose report we are considering this afternoon has been an unusual one. Its existence was announced by the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House in answer to a Question for Written Answer on 19th July last year, as,a Leader's Group to consider how the working practices of the House can be improved and to make recommendations".—[Official Report, 19/7/01; cal. WA 144]Those recommendations were presumably to be made to the noble and learned Lord himself, although it was he who was to chair the group.
Of course, the noble and learned Lord had every right to appoint such a body to advise him and to select the membership himself. I would have liked to see the inclusion of the noble Lord, the Chairman of Committees, whose knowledge and experience would have had much to add, even among such an already illustrious group of Peers. Again, as the group was set up to advise him, I would have preferred the noble and learned Lord to send such of the suggestions as he personally supported to the Procedure Committee for it to consider and make recommendations to the House in the usual way. However, I shall not make too much of that.
On the morning of Thursday 2nd May, it was widely believed that today's debate would be on a straight "take note" Motion. By the time of the party meetings, however, it had been made known that the debate was to be on a Motion for approval of the whole report. By that time, a considerable number of noble Lords, myself included, had begun to have the gravest reservations on many of the recommendations in the report, but that was not the point. Even to ask the House to approve the report, referred directly to it, of a wholly unofficial group would have been conferring on both the group and the report an authority that neither of them possessed.
When, later that afternoon, I found that the draft Motion for approval had, indeed, been tabled, I added to it a "next business" Motion, which, as your Lordships will know, is the prescribed remedy for a Motion on which it is held to be improper for the 649 House to record an opinion. Within a couple of hours, the Motion, together with my addition, had left the draft Order Paper as mysteriously as it had arrived. I had hoped that Her Majesty's Government would thereafter revert to their original intention of tabling a straight "take note" Motion. That would have been the procedurally correct thing to do. Not a bit of it, however.
On Wednesday, 8th May, a new Motion was tabled in the form in which it stands today, a "take note" Motion to which has been added referral to the Procedure Committee, which is unnecessary, and the setting of a time limit for the Procedure Committee to report, which is unheard of.
A Motion that "this House takes note" is described in the Companion to the Standing Orders as enabling,the House to debate a situation or a document without coming to any positive decision.Guidance about the wording of motions for papers",continues the Companion,applies to take—note motions".And of Motions for papers, it says that,such a motion should normally be withdrawn, since… there is neither advantage nor significance in pressing it".I can find no precedent for "tacking"—and I use a word that, in parliamentary terms, has always been considered highly pejorative, deliberately—any form of instruction on to a "take note" Motion. Nor can I find one for setting the Procedure Committee a time limit over any matter referred to it. On these two grounds alone, I believe that I am justified in pressing my amendment to a vote.
I must also tell noble Lords opposite that I, together with a large number of Peers, have the gravest of reservations about, at the very least, the majority of the recommendations that this report contains. Some of them are all too seductive at first sight—the House normally rising not later than 10 p.m., for example. Who in his right mind could object to that? Yet, if we should reach that hour on the last of the days scheduled on a particular stage of a particular Bill and we still have not finished—we are a revising Chamber, remember—what happens then? Does the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms produce an extra day or two out of somewhere? Or could it be that some gentle form of guillotine might contrive to creep surreptitiously in? I can tell your Lordships this. If, in my time as Chief Whip, I had tried to sell this package or anything approaching it, to the noble and learned Lord's predecessors as business managers of his party, I would have received a very rough answer indeed.
Your Lordships will be aware of the many ways in which, since the general election of 1997, procedures in another place have been changed—not by agreement between the parties which, as I say, has been the long established practice, but through the sheer voting power of the Government's vast majority. Those changes have included, first, the reduction of Prime Minister's Question Time from two afternoons to one, and, no, half an hour on a Wednesday is not an adequate substitute for two separate quarters of an hour on Tuesday and Thursday afternoon; secondly, 650 the all too frequent practice of political advisers making statements direct to the press from Downing Street rather than Ministers making them on the Floor of the House; thirdly, no votes on business after 10 p.m., with all too rare exceptions; fourthly, deferred Divisions on business debated after 10 p.m., these to be taken at 3.30 p.m., the following Wednesday afternoon, by a happy coincidence (for the Government) immediately following the one Prime Minister's Question Time of the week; and fifthly, routine severe timetable motions—guillotines—of Committee and Report stages.
And still to come, first, Tuesday and Wednesday sittings from 11.30 a m. to 7 p.m.; secondly, only 13 Friday sittings for Private Member's Bills; and, thirdly, carrying-over of Bills from one Session to another, this last being already familiar to your Lordships as one of the recommendations on the paper before the House today.
Her Majesty's Government have not got an overall majority in your Lordships' House, but it is against this backdrop that every one of the proposals in the group's report should be examined minutely to make absolutely certain that no hidden agenda attaches to any of them. And this is why it is so vitally important that the Procedure Committee should not feel pressurised by a time limit into taking what might, just might, be disastrous decisions for your Lordships' House. That is all I am asking by my amendment.
I beg your Lordships not to hand to this Government on a plate, just because they have asked you nicely, things they have taken for themselves by brute force of numbers in another place.
I understand that the Table has ruled that today's Motion is in order. Indeed, it has accepted the Motion, so I suppose it must be so. But it is certainly not in accordance with convention—and conventions in this House are always honoured.
The value of the "take note" Motion— I say this to the noble and learned Lord having had the benefit of some years' experience of the procedures of the House—is that it enables important, and sometimes highly controversial matters to be debated dispassionately, without risking a Division. It is infinitely more often used by the government of the day than it is by either opposition party or by Cross-Bench or Back-Bench Peers. If the noble and learned Lord allows this convention to be breached this afternoon, for the sake of some passing convenience, I can tell him that he and, perhaps more important, his noble friend the Chief Whip, will come to regret it, again and again and again. I beg to move.
Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, to leave out all the words after "Committee".—(Lord Denham.)
§ 3.36 p.m.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Denham. I have always believed that if he were not in this House we would have to invent him, because he is a true guardian of its procedures. If one looks at his record, one can see why. 651 My noble friend was for 11 years government Chief Whip and spent 30 years on the Front Bench. What he does not know about procedure and the reasons for it is not worth knowing. We need that expertise in this House. It leads me to recognise how much I miss the contributions made by the late Lord Shepherd and Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos. Between them and with my noble friend they ran this House extremely effectively over many years.
Just after the last general election, not yet 12 months ago, the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House told me that he intended to set up a Leaders' group to examine the working practices of this House. I suggested that it should be chaired by a senior BackBencher, as was the case eight years ago in 1994 when the late Lord Rippon of Hexham chaired such a committee, or as the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, did in the previous Parliament. But the noble and learned Lord felt that this issue was of such importance that he wished to chair the committee himself. I and other noble Lords who have been mentioned joined it.
I regard this as entirely a House matter. I represented myself, not the Conservative party. If any of these matters come to a vote, it will be a free vote. I thank my noble friend Lord Waddington for his work and I join the noble and learned Lord in thanking the Clerks, who worked extremely hard.
Over many meetings we covered almost every subject imaginable dealing with the working practices of this House. It has been said many times outside the Chamber—perhaps it will be said in this debate—that the report hides a secret hidden agenda of the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House. That is not true. The noble and learned Lord has been open about his ambitions. He has discussed them in this House and outside it. His comments have been reported in the press. He has never hidden his view that more business should be taken off the Floor of the House and that, for example, there should be no votes in Committees. He proposes also the selection of amendments; programming debates; the use of guillotines or "bringing down the knife" as it is referred to in another place; the possibility of a Speaker for the House; codifying the conventions; morning sittings and so on.
Those suggestions have been more than a gleam in the noble and learned Lord's eye.
Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that the original intention had been to report well before the Christmas Recess. The report is the result of our work and debates. As the noble and learned Lord said in his introduction, the report was brought about by consent and agreement. It will still affect every single Member of your Lordships' House. It is in part a fundamental change.
When I agreed to the changes, I had two principles uppermost in my mind. The first was to ask whether the proposals reduced the ability of the House to scrutinise legislation. The second was to ask whether they allowed the Government to cram even more, often unnecessary, legislation through Parliament. My 652 view is that on balance the proposals do not offend those principles. On that basis, and after a great deal of discussion, I have agreed to them.
Perhaps I may briefly examine the proposals. There are seven broad issues, four of which are non-contentious. I welcome the new proposals for the Finance Bill. As regards the proposal for a committee on statutory instruments, I believe that we should see how that works. As regards more Starred Questions, I am not wholly convinced that we need more than half an hour, but if topical Questions are on offer let us see how they work in practice. If a ministerial off-day is the quid pro quo, fair enough, but when I asked the Library how many Questions had not been answered by Ministers since the turn of the year I was told just under 20 per cent. Therefore, we already have a system which allows Ministers to visit prisons, schools and hospitals. The fourth relatively non-contentious item is the review of the European committees and I hope that that will take place.
However, three other issues raise more serious concerns. The first is the sittings of the House and how they will fit in with Grand Committees. The second is pre-legislative scrutiny and carry-over. The third is September sittings. As regards our daily sittings, the proposed change to sittings on Thursday was the issue least debated in the group because it had been overwhelmingly popular in the questionnaire sent to every Member of this House. That is precisely the kind of issue on which the House will have a vote when the report comes back from the Procedure Committee in due course.
Likewise, closing at 10 p.m. was popular, but that will not work unless there is clear co—operation between Front and Back Benches and between the Front Benches through the usual channels. In exchange for the time lost after 10 p.m., there is a recommendation that there should be an increase in the number of Grand Committees. In my experience, Grand Committees are not hugely popular. They do not provide much better scrutiny than Committees on the Floor of the House and they do not save much time. But I have agreed with the proposal for an increase during the experimental period in order to see how the system works.
I note in passing that in the 1994 debate on Lord Rippon's report, the then Leader of the Opposition, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said that he was not convinced of the merit of Grand Committees.
§ Lord Richard
My Lords, as the noble Lord has been kind enough to mention me, perhaps he will give way. He will recollect that in 1994 the Labour Party representation in this House was approximately 120, while the government representation in this House was approximately 600. If any noble Lord believed that in those circumstances I would have agreed to give away some of the most important weapons in the Opposition's armoury, I should have been surprised.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a good point and that is why many Members of the House are concerned about a substantial increase in 653 the use of Grand Committees. In addition, the promise in relation to Grand Committees made in 1994 did not work because it was then also tied to an earlier closing by agreement and in the event that did not happen.
I turn to pre-legislative scrutiny and carry-over. We are all in favour of more pre-legislative scrutiny. It is entirely in the hands of the Government and not in the hands of this House, and there is no reason why we should not previously have had more. However, we will need to be reassured by the Lord Privy Seal that it does not mean that another place will undertake all the pre-legislative scrutiny and that the House of Lords will undertake all the carry-over work. That would be unacceptable and it would fulfil the worst fears of those who oppose the proposal.
Sessions are a good discipline for the Government, for the Opposition and for Parliament. Everyone knows where they stand. However, the new proposal is but a limited extension of an existing right that the House has given itself in exchange for the desirability of pre-legislative scrutiny. Again, I believe that we should see how it goes, but in the Procedure Committee the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House will need to explain what, if any, ramifications there are for the workings of the Parliament.
The next contentious issue is that of September sittings. The report is not prescriptive. My view is that if another place starts to sit in September, it will be very difficult for us not to go down that route also, particularly if it is tied in with an earlier rising in July. But that is also a matter on which the House can reach a view in due course.
I am slightly more concerned about Grand Committees sitting in September when the House is not sitting. After all, if Grand Committees can sit, why does not the House sit in a full Committee? I am not sure how the proposal will be made to work in practice. In addition, Law Commission Bills and Bills for consolidation are to change the law and in some cases they are highly contentious. We would find it difficult to agree to the passage of such legislation if they were so highly contentious.
Finally, I turn to my noble friend Lord Denham. I hope that he will not press his amendment to a Division. He raises a most important point today, but it is not hugely significant whether or not the Procedure Committee must meet the 8th July deadline. I am not sure what will happen if the committee does not meet that deadline and, as far as I am concerned, there is no magic in the 8th July date. However, as it was recommended by the Clerk of the Parliaments, I am happy to go along with it. On my understanding of the work which the Procedure Committee must carry out, it should not take it many meetings to deal with the matter.
I know that some noble Lords, including many of my noble friends, have misgivings about the proposals, but clearly the Procedure Committee will take careful note of many of the points raised in today's debate. The Leader of the House will no doubt reaffirm that we will have an opportunity to vote on the proposals in the light of the Procedure Committee report.
654 What is more, I would like to re-emphasise a point I made at the beginning of my comments. I would not have put my name to these ideas if I felt that they limited the ability of the House to scrutinise governments; if I felt that they would enable governments to force even more legislation through Parliament; or if I felt that they encroached on the freedoms and privileges of each and every noble Lord in this House. On balance, I do not believe that they threaten any of that. But if the House believes that they do, it has the unfettered right to amend or reject the report of the Procedure Committee when it comes back.
It would be a fine thing if work in the House was always to the convenience of Members and even of Ministers. However, the old ways and the little inconveniences also have their merits. The noble and learned Lord called them the "burdens". We should never lose sight of our fundamental objective, which is to enhance the authority of this House; sustain it as an independent revising Chamber; and preserve its freedoms.
I have said previously that I believe that many of our procedures could usefully be exported to another place and that, if they were, the whole of Parliament might work better. The worst result would be to import procedures from the increasingly discredited House of Commons. Our free and open procedures have made this House the pre-eminent place for the revision of legislation. We should value those procedures; we should not imperil them. I do not believe that these proposals do so and that is why, with all clue diffidence, I commend them to the attention of the House and to the Procedure Committee.
§ Lord Barnett
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he told us that he was speaking as an independent in terms of a free vote. However, he is the Leader of the Opposition. Is he recommending, in his own right as Leader of the Opposition, that his noble friends and the rest of the House should vote against his noble friend if he insists on pressing his amendment?
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, I expressed the wish that my noble friend would not press his amendment to a vote. I stand by my signing of the report. If there is a vote, I shall be supporting the original Motion.
§ 3.50 p.m.
§ Lord Roper
My Lords, I too speak as one of those who served, with a number of other colleagues, on the Leaders Group. I support the recommendations in the report introduced this afternoon by the Leader of the House. Serving on the group was an educational experience. I learnt a great deal more about the procedures of this House. I want to thank particularly the Clerks, who enabled us to make, over quite a long period, some significant progress. The report is, I believe, in keeping with the evolutionary change in our working practices as reflected in our Standing Orders and in the Companion.
655 It is one of the charms of this House that each of the Standing Orders is accompanied by a side-note giving the date on which that particular Standing Order was first introduced. It is, therefore, interesting to read that we are still governed by Standing Orders the majority of which go back to the 17th century. They have, in fact, been modified and changed on a number of occasions since then; but if the noble Lord, Lord Graham, consults the list of Standing Orders, he will see from the side-notes that, in the majority of cases, their original introduction dates back to the 17th century. We need, therefore, to look at how these can be re-examined and revised to make them relevant; at how we can, as the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House said, improve our consideration of legislation; and at how we can find ways of holding the Government more effectively to account.
But perhaps the most important point about our report—as was made clear by both the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House and by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—was that its proposals have been put forward as an experiment. When they come forward from the Procedure Committee later this summer, they will, if the report is accepted, have a sunset clause attached; that is, they will operate for two years; then it will be for the House to decide whether they will provide a satisfactory way of taking our procedures forward, and we shall have a chance to re-examine them. Therefore, some of the fears that I have heard expressed, both in the Chamber today and elsewhere, have to be seen in the light of that sunset clause.
In another way, this debate reflects the maturity of this House. In no part of this House today will our votes be subject to advice from the Whips, even though the procedural matters that we are considering today—the mechanisms that we use to scrutinise legislation and to hold the Government to account— are probably the most political subject that we have to consider. It is right that we should make decisions ourselves, individually, on this topic.
As has been stated, we came at the end of our work to a consensual unanimity on the proposals that we place before the House today. It was as if, during those 16 meetings, we had been climbing a mountain from different sides. We certainly did not all begin in the same position. However, during the process of our discussions we came to conclusions which we felt we could share and put forward as a useful contribution as an experiment to improve the workings of our House. It was for that reason that, although I do not find the word particularly happy, the word "package" has been used to describe our outcome.
Perhaps I may begin by describing five of the matters that I believe will be widely welcomed, as they will, without doubt, add to the effectiveness of the House. I suggest that the acceptance by the Government that it would be the normal practice for Bills—it is Bills to which I refer, not Green Papers or anything less clear—should go first for pre-legislative scrutiny is an important step forward. It will certainly improve the quality of legislation. To that extent, it 656 will be to the Government's advantage. It will also be to the advantage of all the citizens of this country if we get legislation which is clearer and which does not need—as has happened too often in the recent past— very rapid amendment after its introduction.
The second is the proposal which has been referred to for giving this House, with the expertise that it has, an opportunity to contribute, without interfering with the privileges of the Commons, to the consideration of Finance Bills. Like the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, and indeed my noble friend Lord Newby for some suggestions which led to the final product being something which I believe will be a useful contribution to the future work of the House in this area.
The third area where I believe we are taking an important step forward if, after the considerations by the Procedure Committee, we are able to go forward and make a change, relates to our consideration of statutory instruments. At present, our scrutiny of the substance of statutory instruments, as distinct from the vires of instruments, is selective and far from satisfactory. The new committee that has been proposed would act as an effective filter and would ensure that statutory instruments of political importance were properly considered by this House. That would he an important step forward in this House fulfilling the tasks that it should undertake.
The fourth matter relates to Questions. The half-hour that we have for Questions each day is a relatively effective method—it is one of the ways— of holding the Government to account. This modest increase should therefore be welcomed, particularly as it will include two further topical Questions, which are one of the real strengths of Question Time in this House as compared with that in another place.
Finally, I believe that the extra time made available for debates on the Floor of the House—three extra days, two for the opposition parties and one for the Cross-Benchers, together with more time for debates on Select Committee reports and general debates—is welcome. It is one way of ensuring that the extra time that will become available by more Bills going to Grand Committee will not be used by the Government to push more legislation through the House. That is one dimension of the package.
The second group of proposals, which may well be more controversial, are related to what the Leader of the House has referred to elsewhere as a more rational use of our time. The suggestions for a more balanced year—including a Sitting in September, balanced by more generous Recesses at Christmas, Easter and at the spring holiday, and an earlier date for the commencement of the Summer Recess in July—are, I know, unpopular with those who like to take their holidays in September. But there will be many others of your Lordships who will find that, on balance, a significant step forward—particularly if the dates can be given well in advance so that we have some predictability of the totality of the parliamentary year. 657 As has been said, if the other place is moving to a September Sitting, this is one of the matters with which it seems to make sense for this place to experiment.
The second change in our own sitting times is the suggestion for an earlier start on Thursday. Here, there is obviously a division between those who live and work in the South East and do not like the idea that their morning should be disturbed on a Thursday, and those who live outside the South East and would like to get away on a Thursday evening. This is clearly one of the issues that we shall need to debate in some detail when the report comes back from the Procedure Committee.
Is the proposed 10 o'clock cut-ff a subtle form of guillotine—as was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Denham—taken from another place? Certainly that was not what we discovered in our discussions in the committee. I hope that the work of the Procedure Committee will reassure the noble Lord on that particular point.
There is a feeling in many parts of the House that continuing our debates until midnight and beyond does not always improve the quality of scrutiny. If we had earlier closure, more time would be available because of Committee stages being taken in Grand Committee.
I turn to more controversial issues. It is true to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Denham, suggested, that when a Leader of the House comes forward with a set of proposals for procedural changes, many remember the Latin tag, "Timeo danaos ut dona ferentes". Those of your Lordships who are naturally suspicious of any Leader of the House of another party will look carefully at the proposals for carry-over and greater use of Grand Committees. I suspect that we will hear more of those topics today.
Both proposals seem at first sight to make things easier for the Government, so why have we come to accept them as part of the totality? The possibility of carrying a Bill forward from one Session to another would apply only if there had been pre-legislative scrutiny. The addition of pre-legislative scrutiny inevitably lengthens the time between the beginning of the process and completion of consideration of a Bill. In those circumstances, the House should be prepared to consider carryover on a case-by-case basis.
There are three problems with Grand Committees. First, they may be seen as providing the Government with an opportunity to push through more measures in their legislative programme, by removing one of the restrictions available to opposition parties. We have been given assurances by the Leader of the House that such is not his intention. The proof of that pudding will be in the eating, which is why the two-year experimental period is of great importance. We have seen the number of ways in which the time saved will be used for other useful purposes.
The second serious objection for some is that there are no votes in Grand Committees. We on these Benches do not normally initiate votes in Committee, so we are not so worried about that aspect as others. The third objection stems from the negative view held 658 in all parts of the House about the use of the Moses Room, in terms of its acoustics and ambience. The report has adopted as a possibility the particularly imaginative proposal made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, that the Robing Room should be used. I realise the prerogative problems but I was interested to discover that the Robing Room was used on two occasions in the 1930s—in 1931 and 435—for meetings of Joint Committees. The second was of a constitutional nature, although admittedly to do with the constitution of India rather than the future of this place.
Apart from procedural issues, the report raises significant problems in respect of resources. There are clearly staffing implications for the additional pre-legislative committees, Grand Committees and Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments. There will also be more demands made on Peers to serve on those Committees. We should not agree to the proposals without being aware of the resource implications.
Speaking for myself and having heard the noble Lord, Lord Denham, I hope that the House will consider the amendment but reject it if the noble Lord decides to press it to a vote—and accept instead the Motion moved by the Leader of the House. That will give us the opportunity to try some important experiments in making our work more effective in holding the Government to account.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Lord Craig of Radley
My Lords, as a member of the Leader's Group, I encourage your Lordships to take note of our report and to agree that its ideas and proposals be taken forward by the appropriate committees of the House before formal consideration by your Lordships. I acknowledge a departure from past practice in that the Leader arranged the terms of reference and the membership of his group, which he chaired, on his own authority. He rightly afforded the House the courtesy of informing your Lordships of his intentions in a Written Answer last July, before the committee began its work. Since then, there have been further references to the group and its work. The questionnaire that we circulated in January brought the group's existence and work to the personal attention of all noble Lords.
Before we began our meetings, I inquired whether the Leader intended his group to follow up on the report of the group that had considered the House's committee structure and working practices. There are areas of overlap when considering the broad canvas of work in your Lordships' House but, after nine months and 16 sittings, I am personally grateful that the Leader decreed that that work was for the group working under the chairmanship of the Lord Chairman of Committees.
The Leader's Motion brings the result of our work to the early attention of the House. At first, we were not all agreed to whom we were reporting or the path that the report should take to seek the approval of the House. I made clear from the outset and throughout the course of our work my view that the Procedure 659 Committee and other appropriate committees must be involved—not merely for the sake of form but because a number of practical matters had to be taken into account—such as the need for more deputy chairmen, clerks, Hansard writers and other staff, not least in the Refreshment Department; and the impact on the upkeep of the palace and its rolling programme of works.
Moreover, in the case of issues that involve agreement with the other place and are not matters that can be fixed by government fiat, we should look to the Lord Chairman of Committees to take them forward. I do not underrate the task that we are setting the Lord Chairman and our House committees. It would greatly assist their work to know your Lordships' views, as expressed in this debate. I therefore endorsed the Leader's wish to table his Motion in the form in which it appears today.
While there is a view represented in the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, that the Motion goes too far and is outwith the companion in its prescriptive second part, that is not objectionable if we are to attempt to get our package of recommended changes in place by the start of the next Session. I hope that the noble Lord and those who may have been initially minded to support him will give the Leader's Motion a fair wind as it stands.
I attached great importance to achieving an agreed report. That was not an easy task, bearing in mind the different interests and perceptions of political parties and Cross-Benchers—and the range of individual commitments in which many of your Lordships are engaged, additional to those in the House. However, for an issue that affects all Members of your Lordships' House, broad consensus is essential. It will rarely be possible to achieve unanimity, but if there is not to be continual and even heated debate about any changes, a large measure of acceptance is important. I hope that this will be made easier to achieve because the whole package is put before the House as a trial over two Sessions. It will be for the House to decide in the light of experience whether the package or any parts of it are to continue thereafter.
Part of the difficulty of identifying weaknesses in our working methods is that what is terrible for one is an essential tactical position for another. However, there is a good deal of anecdotal evidence, and responses to the questionnaire reinforces it, that there is genuine dissatisfaction with some of our working arrangements. The changes that we recommend will improve scrutiny, better use the time of Members of the House, and improve the quality of legislation, including secondary legislation. Too much legislation, despite our efforts, does not finish up as good law on the statute book.
Like so much of this type of study, it is not until one gets to the end that one is able to see the whole picture of ideas and proposals that have been discussed at some length individually. The amount of use of Grand Committees, for example, was an issue that caused us difficulty, although this was more a partisan one than one of pressing concern to Cross-Benchers. However, 660 for most of us, there was a worry that it would allow the government of the day additional opportunities to force even more legislation, perhaps inadequately considered, through this House. Eventually, with the commitment to limit late sitting times by Standing Order and to have lengthier short recesses, and with some magnanimous give and take on all sides, a packaged solution was devised in recommendation (g).
I believe that there could be some confusion if we rely on the phrase Grand Committee to cover all sittings off the Floor of the House. I believe that the words Grand Committee should be confined to actual committee work. If an additional sitting takes place at the same time as one in this Chamber, it might be described as, for example, a Moses Room sitting. Parenthetically, I should say that I recognise and share the dislike that the acoustics and microphones of the Moses Room engender, which is why I proposed—as the noble Lord, Lord Roper, mentioned—that, until these are rectified, we should consider using the Robing Room as our equivalent to Westminster Hall for the other place.
The Robing Room was used during World War II for our sittings when the Commons was bombed and then moved into this Chamber. The Robing Room is rarely used except for State occasions, and it should be possible to arrange any sittings in it around such well-programmed events. Moreover, it is almost as adjacent to this Chamber as the Moses Room. Proximity is important if a Division is called here or to allow individual Peers—and not all are so nimble on their feet as they may once have been— who have an interest in both sittings to move easily from one location to the other.
The Lord Privy Seal and earlier speakers have dealt in more detail with our recommendations and the reasons for them. All those recommendations have my full support, and I add my thanks and commendation for the work which the Clerks did in supporting our group. I commend the Leader's Motion to the House.
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, before the noble and gallant Lord sits down, perhaps he can help me with one point. He said that he felt that these proposals, as they may eventually come forward, should be in place by the next Session. Given that some of our arrangements have been in place for very many hundreds of years, why is that necessary?
§ 4.14 p.m.
§ Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate and to commend to the House the recommendations of the group that was appointed to consider how the working practices of the House could be improved. I must, of course, immediately declare an interest in that I was selected to be a member of the group, even though I am a relatively new Member of the House. I come to the subject as one of the many Peers appointed in 1997, and since, as a working Peer. I am 661 a Member of the Select Committee on the European Union as well as being chairman of one of its sub-committees. So, as one who attends regularly, I think that I have been here long enough to have begun to understand not only the accumulated wisdom of this House, but to develop a deep respect for the House.
I come from a background in which change has been a significant feature of the past two decades; namely, in the Civil Service and the trade unions. I know the difficulties that change brings in its wake, but I know, too, the advantages. I found it particularly interesting to hear Her Majesty's reply to the Loyal Addresses of both Houses, in Westminster Hall, when she said that,Change has become a constant; managing it has become an expanding discipline. The way we embrace it defines our future".—[Official Report, 30/4/02; col. 563.]I think that the last sentence has particular relevance for all of us at present.
We all know that change is a condition of life on this planet and that it can be for the better or for the worse. It is in the application of change that the hand of man and woman can affect the consequences. The problem often lies in trying to come to a nice judgement about what is better. But what is true is that our instincts, and the instincts of this House, are for pragmatic change, evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and that we must hold on to accumulated wisdom while trying to find a more effective way of using it.
This House has already seen some quite substantial recent changes, which many would argue were for the better. Indeed, just last week, no less a person than the Leader of the Opposition, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, referred to the House's successes since 1999. These have led to the House increasingly being seen to be at the heart of the legislative process.
Politicians recognise that it is even more important now than it was in the past to connect with the electorate. The electorate expects change, especially of those who, through legislation, expect change of them. It is in the House's own interests to demonstrate its willingness to change.
This report on working practices embodies, in my opinion, the virtues of the House. It represents a considered and cautious examination of the issues. This examination began as long ago as last summer with the aim of securing better, more effective scrutiny, and the more efficient use of the time of all Members of the House. It has not been an easy process. The Leader of the House is to be commended for his patience and desire to proceed by consensus and agreement. Concessions have had to be made by all.
Although the report is not all that I would have wished it to be, I am sure that it is more than others would wish it to be. I am sure that it does not meet all the aspirations of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, who should be congratulated on and thanked for initiating this process quite some time ago by means of a Back—Bench debate in this Chamber. Noble Lords will recall his despair and frustration with the House's committee structure, which had consistently failed to deliver the changes that many Peers had been calling for over the 662 years. None the less, I believe that this report goes a long way towards meeting his and other Back-Benchers' aspirations.
I trust that the report's cohesiveness will not he undermined, nor its implementation delayed, in the Procedure Committee to which it will be referred. However, wherever we end up, I believe that fairness and the democracy of 2002 require that this Chamber should have the final say on what is implemented. Regrettably, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Denham, would prevent that. If it is taken to a vote— I still hope that it will not be, particularly given the urging of the Leader of the Opposition—I would hope that the House will reject it.
§ Lord Denham
My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord will give way. He said that if my amendment were carried, it would be the end of the matter. But, all that I am asking for is the time limit on the Procedure Committee to be removed. It may do what it has to do within the time limit in any case. It is not a wrecking amendment by any means.
§ Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe
My Lords, I would argue that if the time limit were lifted, we would have the problem that my noble friend Lord Peston referred to when he introduced his debate—that the Procedure Committee never brings back issues and changes are never implemented. There is that possibility.
We were conscious that some of the changes might be seen as eroding some of the rights and powers of the opposition and that some proposals might be regarded as making it easier for the Government. But, that is not the case when viewed in the round. We should always remember that governments are in opposition some time, and if they have treated the opposition unfairly, they will suffer the consequences in due course.
The report also places many additional burdens and checks on government, as previous speakers have said. Indeed, it also places additional burdens on the staff of the House. I join others in commending the hard work that was undertaken by the Clerk and his assistant. The extension of legislative scrutiny to virtually all major government Bills as a matter of course is a significant change for all, which, it is to be hoped, will be ultimately beneficial to the public at large.
I am conscious of the Chief Whip's gentle pointer to the advice of the Companion on the length of speeches. We spent some time in the group discussing the Companion, how to get better compliance with it and how to avoid repetition. In recalling those discussions, your Lordships will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to go through all the recommendations in the report and tread in previous speakers' footsteps.
The area in which I have experience is in scrutinising legislation emanating from the European Union. As your Lordships undoubtedly know, the two Houses adopt quite different ways of attempting to scrutinise European legislation. The other place looks at all the documentation with an eye to its political and legal implications. This House has always added an element 663 of in-depth scrutiny which has found a faithful readership even in the European Commission. But it is an inescapable fact of life that the tide of paper increases in proportion to the numbers handling it. The European Union is on the threshold of quite dramatic enlargement. One consequence of that will be a further stimulus to the legislative output of Brussels. We must attempt to meet that challenge.
Apart from a quantitative increase, we are faced at the same time by the deepening of the Union where common practices and regulation now extend to areas of our national life to a far greater extent than they did when we joined nearly 30 years ago. The current convention that is examining how the European Union should organise itself to deal with enlargement and to reconnect with its electorate has identified scrutiny by the national Parliaments of member states as an important element in the future design of the Union.
I particularly believe that the time has come for us to consider some way of using the resources and skills of both Houses to deal with this tide of legislation. It has been growing apace, but the time that both Houses devote to it has not. It is a change which I feel the country would want to see.
This package of reform must he taken as a whole. The moment when we start to pick off particular items that we do not like in the package, it will inevitably start to unravel. In seeking minor change in one area, we risk losing the lot.
The electorate has a right to expect better of Parliament and of this House. If we do not embrace these sensible proposals, we cannot simply revert to the status quo. Change is inevitable and it is better that we have a hand in shaping it.
§ 4.24 p.m.
§ Lord Trefgarne
My Lords, I shall try to be as brief. Three separate questions need to be addressed this afternoon.
First, is there a need for improvement in our procedures, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, seems to think? I am not persuaded. Of course, it is well known that when the House sits late Chief Whips of all parties have difficulty in detaining some noble Lords, but that has been the position for as far back as I can remember. I believe that when my noble friend Lord Denham was a distinguished Government Chief Whip, he had as much difficulty then as I dare say the noble Lord, Lord Carter, has now in keeping his noble friends here late at night to vote.
That is part of the political process that has been inherent in our system for as far back as any of us can remember, and indeed a great deal further. The idea that we shall somehow improve our proceedings by avoiding the need to sit late is not necessarily self-evident. I do not think that that case has been made for the wholesale improvement in our procedures.
664 I turn to the second question and the procedure by which so-called improvements will be arrived at. This is the second time in recent memory that we have had a Leader's Group to inquire into our affairs. Such groups are naturally staffed by eminent Members of your Lordships' House. The Leader of the House himself chaired this one and my noble friend Lord Strathclyde assisted him. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, the Leader of the Cross-Benchers and a very distinguished member of the Liberal Democrat Party, also sat on the committee. Such committees tend to develop a momentum of their own, and they come to the House with proposals that have been recommended from a high source. Perhaps slightly more respectful noble Lords than myself are bowled over by such recommendations and tend to nod them through. I am afraid that I am not prepared to do that, but it will be recognised at once that I was not well brought up and perhaps I should learn better manners.
Be that as it may, such committees are not formally constituted committees of the House. They are selected by the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House. I do not disagree with that, but let it be clear that they have no authority, save their own self-interest. Your Lordships should take their proposals on that basis.
I turn to the merits of the proposals. I shall not run through each one from (a) to (n), but they are all designed to facilitate the passage of government legislation. There is nothing wrong in the noble and learned Lord introducing proposals that will enable him to get his business through the House more quickly and easily, but your Lordships should see them for what they are. The noble and learned Lord is seeking to reduce the capacity of the House—I suppose that that means the Opposition—to question, delay, reform and revise, which is the role of your Lordships' House.
That would be a mistake. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will not seek to shackle the Procedure Committee, not least by asking it to steam through its consideration of his proposals and to make its recommendations as early as 8th July. I, therefore, support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Denham. I hope that the House will agree to it, and I hope that your Lordships will give careful scrutiny to the recommendations of the Procedure Committee when they eventually come before us.
§ 4.28 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Birmingham
My Lords, I shall be brief. I have only three comments to make.
First, there is a moral good in conducting our business effectively and also humanely. If the recommendations of the Leader's Group will help the House to do its work better, use its Members' time more effectively and help them to get to bed at a reasonable hour, they are to be welcomed.
Secondly, I note that the subject is the working practices of the House. These are a matter of housekeeping, not about building the kingdom of heaven. In such matters, we look for improvement, 665 not perfection. We know from experience that all reforms have unintended consequences. The only way to find out what those are, unless we can truly lay our hand on our heart and predict disaster, is to put the proposals to the test of practice, and then review them in the light of experience, as is proposed.
Thirdly, by standing back from the recommendations, I observe that they are one more sign of the increasing professionalisation of the work of the House.
There is an increasingly heavy load of work to be done, not least in the scrutiny of legislation and in the work of government. That work has to be done thoroughly by persons who have both the time and the competence to do it. I am not concerned to pass any judgment on that development; I simply note it. But I also note the consequence for people such as those of us who sit on these Benches. Our primary duties in life lie elsewhere. The more demanding the work of this House becomes in terms of lime and attention, the harder it is for people like us to pull our weight and fully participate in the kind of work that has to be done. I note the fact. How does that lie with the benefit to this House of those who are not members of the political class and who bring with them their day-to-day experience of life and responsibilities that are exercised primarily elsewhere? I ask the question.
§ 4.31 p.m.
§ Lord Brabazon of Tara
My Lords, I speak as chairman of your Lordships' European Union Select Committee. My comments will be confined solely to the contents of the paragraph under the heading, "Select Committees", in which the committee I chair is singled out for uniquely close attention. I am grateful to those noble Lords, including the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House, who have been kind enough to make kind references to the work of the committee.
In passing, I wonder why the work of the European Union Committee was the only one which the group decided to have a look at. I suspect that the reason may lie in the membership of the working group in the form of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, but there are, of course, other valuable Select Committees in your Lordships' House, including particularly the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which does such useful work on scrutiny.
Turning back to the European Union Committee, the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House, as chairman of the Leader's Group, wrote to me last December asking for comments from our committee on the working methods we follow and on some more general matters relating to the House's consideration of European business. The committee had the opportunity to consider the request in some detail and responded in January. That response is available in the Library. I should also add that the committee authorised me to appear before the Leader's Group to give evidence should I have been invited to do so, but no such invitation was in the event received.
666 I turn to the recommendations or the report as they relate to European scrutiny. Your Lordships will note that there is a recommendation for,a review of the House's scrutiny of European legislation".I take that to be a review not only of the work of the European Union Committee but also of the House's scrutiny of European legislation in a more general sense. One area where this point is particularly relevant is the time allowed for debates on our reports. One of the key points made in the committee's submission to the group, and a matter on which the committee felt most strongly, was that there should be more time for debates on the Floor of the House for our committee's reports. We recognise that the usual channels do their level best to make quality time available, but we nevertheless concluded that better arrangements could and should be made. We accordingly proposed that Select Committee reports should usually be debated within 12 sitting weeks of publication, and earlier where necessary. That recommendation, unfortunately, does not appear to have been carried forward by the group.
I should add that, not knowing what the House will make of the other recommendations of the Leader's Group report, if one of the consequences of what is agreed is that there is more time on the Floor of the House for debates on committee reports in prime time, my committee would very much welcome that. I am encouraged by what the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House said on that issue in his opening remarks.
Tied up with the question of debates is the question of how seriously the Government take our scrutiny work. I have recently received a government response to a very thorough report by one of our subcommittees which can best be summarised in the phrase, "Thank you for your letter, the contents of which have been noted". I shall not name the department concerned—it will by now have received a strongly worded letter from me making clear that that is not good enough and demanding a proper response—but the case does illustrate that, in addition to the House having the responsibility to discharge its duty of scrutiny thoroughly, the Government have a duty to consider and respond in an equally thorough manner.
I turn now to the details of paragraph 30 of the report before us today. The suggestion made in the report for a review of European scrutiny includes a review of,the appropriate balance between the scrutiny of general policy and that of specific legislative proposals".I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, referred to that. That is an interesting distinction and one to which the committee is constantly alive. All the six sub-committees, which as your Lordships will know conduct most of the substantive scrutiny work, are aware of that distinction. There is also a related question: at what stage in the cycle of European policy making and legislation can the reports from your Lordships' committees have most impact on those formulating policy?
667 There is a strongly argued case that your Lordships can have most impact at an early stage in the process. This is because the detailed scrutiny of European legislation by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers is not a process in which your Lordships' House, or any other national parliament, is directly involved in the same kind of detailed way as we are in passing United Kingdom legislation.
The suggestion for a review also refers to,the desirability of a greater number of shorter and more focussed reports".The committee will need to consider that suggestion most carefully. There is, of course, no necessary correlation between the shortness of a report and its focus. A quite substantial report can be neatly focused on a complex series of issues while a short report can present its arguments in a muddled and diffuse way, although of course none of ours ever does.
The report from the Leader's Group also refers back to the debate on our committee's report on the possibility of a second parliamentary chamber for Europe and cites the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford, Lord Williamson of Horton and Lord Desai in that debate. Without asking why those noble Lords were singled out for particular mention, I am sure that the House will be pleased to learn that the committee has already taken steps to follow up many of the matters raised in the debate. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, proposed that more attention should be paid to scrutiny of the Commission's Annual Work Programme. We have already heard evidence from senior Commission officials on that topic and next week we shall see a senior official from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and we shall then produce a report on how we might take that matter forward.
I should also add that a number of points made in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, are not matters on which the committee can itself take a decision. For example, one of the suggestions was for the whole European scrutiny business to be made "mandatory and legal". I am not quite sure myself how such a development could be taken forward—it would certainly require a resolution of the House and, indeed, possibly primary legislation. Neither of those are matters which the Select Committee itself can deliver, but it would be happy to give the House the benefit of its views should the House wish that. It would be in that spirit that I would invite the Select Committee to take forward the suggestion in the report and consider those matters.
The paragraph on Select Committees concludes with an invitation to the European Union Committee and the Procedure Committee to explore some of the suggestions made in the second chamber debate. As I have already said, we have already taken some steps in that direction. But if the House through this debate gives the green light to this recommendation in the Leader's Group report, I shall of course report back to the Select Committee and we shall begin work on those issues. We would need to consider taking evidence 668 from, among others, the party leaders in this House, other elements of the Government and, indeed, other national parliaments, to name but a few, to see how we could take our work forward constructively.
If such a review is to be done, it would, of course, need to be done properly. For that reason I am assuming that, whatever the result of the amendment tabled today by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, our committee need not feel under pressure to produce its report by 8th July.
To sum up: I shall invite my committee to take note of the recommendations of the Leader's Group report and in this debate and, if the Motion is carried today, to carry out a review along the lines suggested, building on the work we already do to keep our scrutiny procedures under review.
§ 4.39 p.m.
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
My Lords, I should like to start by congratulating the Leader's Group on producing a unanimous report. I am sure that that is a fairly rare event. It is to the great credit of all the members of that group that they were able to use their skill and expertise to produce a unanimous report.
In moving his amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Denham, is clearly very suspicious of the recommendations contained in the report. I am equally suspicious that the motivation for the amendment is to prevent change, particularly as the ultimate decisions will not be taken today but will be presented to the Procedure Committee, which will have to report back to this House before the decisions are approved. I do not believe that it would be impossible for the Procedure Committee to consider those recommendations in the space of seven weeks. There is no reason to suggest that the process should be delayed. Having been a member of the Procedure Committee, I know that the proposals will be scrutinised in depth, not least taking into account the question of resources that has previously been raised.
During a similar debate almost exactly two years ago, introduced by my noble friend Lord Peston and referred to by my noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, it was suspected that the object of calling for change to our working practices was to make matters easier for the Government and to dilute our scrutiny of the executive. The expression then used was "to make the House more government friendly", about which we have heard a little more today. That is completely wrong. This package clearly does not do that—quite the reverse. I would not support any changes unless they related to efficiency, to doing our job of scrutiny better, to making good law and to making the House more people friendly. These proposals are not about changing the ethos of the House or cloning the Commons; nor are they about diminishing the right of Back-Benchers or introducing timetables and guillotines. If that were the case, I would strongly oppose them. They are not merely about getting through government business, but improving that business.
669 The measures presented to us today show that, with skill and thought, it is possible to restructure and reorganise our working practices, while at the same time increasing the ability of this Chamber to scrutinise in more depth and detail. We should not lose that opportunity.
It seems to me that the recommendations fall neatly into two, but interrelated categories: those relating to improving the level of scrutiny, which is not always done as well as we pretend, and those designed to provide more sensible working hours. I make no apology for specifically referring to a number of them and to the reasons that I support them.
Whether or not we like it, the makeup of this House has changed, giving rise to changing expectations. There has been a significant drop in the average age of Members; the number of women has increased; more Members have young children or care responsibilities for the young and old; more Members have full-time occupations outside the House, and very differing work patterns.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, the noble Baroness says that there has been a drop in the average age of this House. However, she will find that between the removal of the hereditary Peers and the formation of the new House post-1999, the average age of the House actually rose.
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
My Lords, although I am happy to be corrected by the noble Lord, my understanding is that the average age has dropped from 75 to 72; but we shall have to discuss that further. There is no doubt that Members have to balance their parliamentary duties with their outside responsibilities, which we have to recognise and respect.
I am sure that we all appreciate and thank the Chief Whip for the better planning of our time, for earlier notice of dates of Recesses and for earlier notice of business. Now is the opportunity to further improve the domestic management of this House and to some degree remove our unpredictable and unsociable hours. I am sure that we should all be very happy to have extended breaks at Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. However, those cannot be achieved without some other adjustments on time.
In addition, we sometimes forget that this House is a major employer. Changing the procedures, including sitting hours, would be of great benefit to the staff, who do an amazing job, working such ridiculous hours. Late hours do not equate to effectiveness, efficiency or adequate scrutiny. It is a myth that we earn respect from sitting into the early hours of the morning. That is, and is perceived to be, a nonsense. The proposals before us do not diminish the time taken on our deliberations—rather the reverse. The fact that the Committee stage of more Bills will be held in Grand Committee will allow parallel sittings to take place and will make it feasible for us to end our Sessions at about the reasonably respectable hour of 10 p.m., after which time no new item of business could be raised.
670 As my noble and learned friend the Lord Privy Seal said, there are other advantages of increasing our work in Grand Committee. It would allow for greater flexibility in the number of days spent in Committee and, consequently, for greater exploration of issues, more detailed debate and more detailed questioning of the Government as Bills arc examined line by line. It certainly would improve the level of our scrutiny of legislation.
When the idea of a morning sitting was previously considered, it was suggested that it would create a clash with Committee work. So far in this debate, that has not been suggested. Before it is, I would say that the argument is not relevant, as many Select Committees now sit in the afternoons and, to my knowledge, no one has suggested that the House should cease to sit in the afternoons in order to accommodate the Select Committees.
We all agree that any procedural change must increase our ability to check the Government, to make them pause and think again and to make good law. We have here a package of measures that would do exactly that, by providing more power of scrutiny to Back-Benchers. That could be achieved in important and cleverly constructed ways, by the extension of Question Time, and by enabling more detailed examination of the merits of every statutory instrument subject to Parliamentary scrutiny—something that we do rather badly at the moment but which has a direct impact on the implementation of legislation and on people's lives.
Increasing the number of policy debates would be a valuable way of making the Government consider issues in detail—not necessarily issues that they would have chosen to debate. A sharper focus on our many excellent Select Committees would ensure a greater government awareness of our views on topics of public importance, which often prepare the way for future legislation.
Last week, the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House, of which I am a member, as part of its work on devolution, visited the Scottish Parliament to take evidence. That included a consideration of its procedures for the pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills. Its exposure of Bills to public criticism and to non-parliamentary groups not only influences the shape and quality of Bills before they are finalised, but also the entire legislative process is perceived to be much more open and accessible than it is in Westminster—a lesson from which we could learn. The clear advantages of pre-legislative scrutiny are set out in paragraph 7 of the document. I agree with them all. I particularly agree that if they create a less confrontational approach to the way in which we handle our legislation they must be good.
Although it is right that each item should be considered on a case-by-case basis, I believe that, whenever possible and appropriate, a Joint Committee of both Houses is the best course. That would not: only provide more acceptable legislation to both Houses but would also assist the development of better relations between the two Houses.
671 It is also eminently sensible to link that proposal to the question of carry-over to subsequent Sessions. It is a waste of parliamentary time— that is, our time— and a little ludicrous that when we reach almost the final stage of a Bill at the end of a Session, we have to start it all over again in the next Session. That seems to me, and I am sure to many of the electorate, absolutely ridiculous.
In conclusion, the fact that we have functioned in a particular way for a long period—I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Roper, spoke about the 17th century—does not mean that we should always work in that way. It is clear that some people are opposed to and refuse to accept that change is absolutely necessary. The composition of this House has changed, expectations have changed, and we need to adapt accordingly. We need to evolve to suit the changed House. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who is no longer in his place, I believe that there is a need for change. That was clearly illustrated in the debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, when Peers on all sides of the House called for changes to our procedures.
The proposals before us form a package of measures that gives your Lordships an opportunity to more effectively scrutinise the Government, to improve the quality of legislation and to make the House more people friendly. I hope that these proposals will gain the support of the House and that the amendment, which will prevent us doing that work more effectively, will be rejected.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkin of Roding
My Lords, I am sure the House will he relieved to know that I shall make an extremely short speech. That is because I wish only to make one proposal. If this report does go to the Procedure Committee, as I suspect it will, it is a suggestion that that committee might like to consider. It concerns the question of Bills going to a Grand Committee.
When I read the report soon after its publication, I scribbled in the margin against paragraph 23, the paragraph recommending greater use of the Grand Committee procedure, the question, "Why not split the Bill, cf. Finance Bills in the House of Commons?" I was involved in the huge arguments that took place on the Floor of the House of another place during 1966, 1967 and 1968, at the end of which it was initially decided that the whole of the Committee stage of the Finance Bill should go before a Standing Committee.
However, in the end, that decision led to a procedure that has found favour under successive governments and oppositions of different parties. The procedure is quite simply this: when the Finance Bill is tabled, and after Second Reading, the opposition parties are given the opportunity to identify particular issues of great political or economic importance which they would like to take on the Floor of the House. Those debates are taken first. Thereafter, when those issues have been debated in Committee of the whole House, the rest of the Bill is remitted to a Committee upstairs.
672 That process would enable us to overcome the difficulty referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Roper; namely, of there being no votes in Grand Committees in this House. Apart from anything else, I find the Moses Room an absolutely impossible place to hear what anyone is saying that I do not go there very often. If you have a good debate in the Moses Room during a Committee stage, I can well understand it being very frustrating if you cannot vote at the end of it. All I am asking at this stage is that the Procedure Committee should consider splitting the Bill as one of the ways of making the sending of Bills to a Grand Committee perhaps more acceptable to the House. If the Opposition have the chance of choosing certain issues in a Bill for debate in the full House before it goes upstairs, or wherever, that would seem to me an advantage.
On delving into the matter, I discovered that the other place does not now confine this procedure to Finance Bills; indeed, it has been applied to a number of Bills in recent years. I am told that it was applied to the Criminal Justice Bill 1989–90, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill 1989–90, the Sunday Trading Bill 1993–94, the Family Law Bill 1995–96, and the Firearms (Amendment) Bill 1996–97. In those cases, it was applied particularly to issues that might be described as "issues of conscience"—in other words, issues on which there might be a free vote. However, if the Opposition, as in Finance Bills, is choosing the subject, that could equally apply to issues of considerable political consequence.
I know that my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said that we should not,import procedures from the increasingly discredited House of Commons".In a sense, I should like to put the issue the other way round. As many of my honourable friends who are still Members of the other place have said, the processes of holding the Government to account these days have become a pale shadow of what they used to be. Indeed, how many times have I heard, "Patrick, it's awful, compared with when you, and others, were here". I believe that that increases the importance of this House being able to hold Her Majesty's Government to account and carry through our legislative functions as effectively as we can.
I am attracted by the parts of the package that involve sending Bills to a committee because of the advantage that it gives in providing more time on the Floor of the House for major debates. Perhaps I may plead a particular case. After an inquiry that I was privileged to chair, the Select Committee on Science and Technology produced a report a few years ago entitled, Science and Society. As those who follow such matters will know, since that report was published there has been an enormous amount of interest and activity, especially among the learned and scientific societies and other bodies, in recognition of the fact that the whole relationship between science and the public is changing, has changed, and, indeed, must change further.
673 We had to debate that report on a Friday. Like other members of that committee, I tried very hard to get a debate in the middle of the week when the subject matter would have attracted more attention. We had a good debate, but it took place on a Friday and attracted no attention outside the House. There are other examples of Select Committee debates suffering a similar fate. If one of the consequences of this package is that such debates on Select Committee reports can be taken on the Floor of the House in prime time, I should be prepared to see more Bills going to a standing committee, subject, of course, to my caveat that we should adopt the procedure of the other place, which is not of recent origin—it dates back 30 years— of splitting the Bill and having the more controversial parts debated on the Floor of the House.
I do not necessarily share the fear expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Roper, though I hope I get my Virgil right when I say:Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes"—"I fear the Greeks, even when [they are] bearing gifts". I do not believe that I need fear this particular noble and learned Greek sitting on the Front Bench opposite. I think that it is certainly right for the Procedure Committee to consider this package. However, perhaps I may also ask members of that committee to consider my suggestion of splitting the Committee stage.
§ Lord Howie of Troon
My Lords, before the noble Lord concludes. I wonder whether he could assist me. I remember well the occasion that he mentioned regarding the Finance Bill in the 1960s. I believe that it followed a very lengthy and contentious Finance Bill, which caused a good deal of alarm and dissension. I agree with the noble Lord as regards splitting the process. However, when the Finance Bill and other measures in the other place are remitted to a Committee upstairs, I seem to recall that votes are still taken. If that is so, I cannot see why votes should not be taken in our committees in the Moses Room, or wherever. Can the noble Lord say whether I am right in that generalised recollection?
§ Lord Jenkin of Roding
Yes, of course, my Lords. I do not want to weary the House, but in the other place Standing Committees consist of limited numbers. That is the difference. If any Member of this House is entitled to attend and speak at a me1eting of a Grand Committee, I can well understand why votes cannot be taken at that stage. My suggestion of splitting the Bill would allow votes to be taken on the Floor of the House.
§ 4.58 p.m.
§ Lord Wallace of Saltaire
My Lords, it is very good to follow the very thoughtful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, which I believe highlighted a number of useful points that some of us may want to take further. I well remember the excellent report on Science and Society. Two or three months after its publication I happened to be attending a seminar on that theme at Harvard. I suggested to the professor in 674 charge that she might like a copy of the report. She replied, "Oh, I have already read it". Even if it was not debated properly in our House, the report was widely read by experts across the world.
I welcome the package before the House. I believe that we should accept it as such, even though some aspects of it may not be ideal. I am conscious that there is a divide within my own group between those who mainly work and live in London and those who work and live outside the capital. As I work in London but like to spend my weekends mainly outside the capital, I am torn on the Thursday issue because the attraction of taking the 19.25 evening plane to Florence, where my wife works, pushes me very strongly in favour of the experiment for the early Sitting. However, that is a personal view on the matter.
The point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham is one about which we all need to think most carefully. It implies heavier time commitments for a greater number of Members of this House. We are a part-time House; many of us who were nominated to your Lordships' House still earn our salaries elsewhere. We hope that the expertise that we gain from our occupations elsewhere brings something to the House. However, the added strain that more Committee work will place on Members of the House raises questions about the future balance between part-timers and full-timers.
I would like to see an extension of the role of committees in the House. I am happy to hear that we have now got over the old argument that we could not have more committees because we could not possibly have more staff—we used to hear that even four or five years ago. I should like to see not just pre-legislative scrutiny committees but also good, solid committees of inquiry—sometimes Joint Committees, sometimes Committees of your Lordships' House— which would fulfil the functions that were met, many years ago, by Royal Commissions. They would occasionally meet and take evidence outside London to promote a wider and more informed public debate.
My main point is about the Committee stage of Bills. It is high time that we took the Committee stage of more Bills off the Floor of the House. During the past nine months I have examined how many Members were in the Chamber during Committee stages. The noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House said that the average was 12; that matches my observations. There have been five-hour debates in Committee at which no more than seven Members have spoken. I say to those on the Conservative Benches that attendance has most often been thinnest on those Benches. To resist the idea that a Bill's Committee stage, when there is proper inquiry into the Bill's details, should take place in a Committee Room does not fit with Conservative Members' attendance at Committee.
I have worked in Grand Committees. I do not find the Moses Room as difficult as some other Members. I well remember the first time that I was involved with a Bill in Committee, along with Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. It was, I believe, considering the 675 adoption into British law of a chemical convention protocol. We learnt a great deal in Committee and we tested the government, who could not answer all of our questions. It was a useful non-voting experience and it meant that when we reached the Report stage, we could get on with the business rather more effectively. Consideration in Committee has a different purpose from consideration on Report, at which votes should properly take place whenever the government have failed satisfactorily to provide answers to questions that were raised in Committee.
Resistance to the proposal comes from the old idea that Parliament involves a zero-sum game between two parties: the government struggle to get everything through unamended and the opposition attempt to block everything. That is a sort of Westminster wall game, for those who are familiar with that form of public school entertainment.
However, politics is not a game and the House of Lords is not the Oxford Union or the Eton College debating society; nor is it a club. It is a revising Chamber of a legislature. We should all take to heart the words of the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House—that we have to be concerned with the reputation and proper role of Parliament and that we should demonstrate, as a revising Chamber, that we are fulfilling that proper role.
This Chamber benefits from the fact that no party now has a majority. It means that Ministers have to persuade and that compromise and dialogue are the preferred style—Incidentally, that is one of the arguments for multi-party politics as such—it promotes a greater degree of accountability and responsibility. I therefore very much welcome the overall package. It will enable the House to fulfil a proper legislative function and a proper scrutiny function much more efficiently. I hope that we shall go ahead with the proposal.
§ 5.4 p.m.
§ Lord Sheldon
My Lords, the committee did well to produce a unanimous report. However, knowing the standing of the people concerned, that does not surprise me unduly. It appears that implicitly it took account of the fact that the reputation of the House is actually increasing. It is up to us to maintain that improvement in our reputation through the work that we are yet to do.
I am all in favour of the experimental period. However, the decisions that we take today may not last for such a long time. Other things are happening. Any introduction of elected Peers will change the character of this House much more than any decisions that we take today, dividing the House not just between those who have an electorate and those who do not but between those who will be trying to satisfy their electorate and those who will not need to. Those elected Members will need office accommodation with secretaries and other facilities and they will have something of a payroll. At Question Time and in debate they will demand a greater presence because 676 their needs may be perceived as being more pressing. They have to satisfy their voters and obtain their support at any subsequent election. In reality, then, if elected Members join this House, all our efforts to improve the working of the House of Lords will not involve long-term measures. So my approach to the report is based on the assumption that the working practices that we are discussing do not take account of any such changes in our membership.
There are particular matters that concern me. The first is that major government Bills should, as a matter of course, be subject to draft pre-legislative scrutiny by Parliament. That is obviously desirable. However, I believe that the report is rather over-optimistic in assuming that so much extra examination of legislation can be slotted into the same timetable that we have at present. It is a worthy ambition hut, in addition, Members would need to give much more time to that extra examination—and such time would be extra. To have better prepared legislation will save some time in its later examination but not much. So the total time spent in examining legislation—draft legislation as well as legislation at later stages—will be increased. That is right and proper but such scrutiny can he applied only to a limited number of Bills.
I turn to the proposal to carry over legislation to the following Session. It is true that failure to carry over leads to distortion of the parliamentary year. It leads to the rush at the end of the year when all sorts of Bills are passed that should not be. There is no question about that. The proposal could involve two years of gestation. If a Bill is introduced in October and it carried through to September, nearly two years could be involved from Second Reading. That is far too long. I suggest that the carry over should be no more than 12 months after Second Reading. That is mainly because legislation needs to deal with changes that take place and ensuing further amendments. The process has to reach the end of the line at some stage.
I turn to the questions raised by Finance Bills. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, made a useful point about the way in which Finance Bills are divided. I remember very well, as will my noble friend Lord Barnett, those days back in 1968 when lain Macleod led for the opposition. He complained for one and a half days that the temperature of the room was too hot. He thereby got the great concession of dividing the Bill, which has been of value to that House and which would be of value to this place as well. It is not the whole Bill that has to have such an examination. I agree with the greater use of committees, as the noble Lord suggested.
We should be careful with Finance Bills because they are rather special. They have technical aspects, which will obviously go to the Grand Committee. However, we should take account of the fact that such technical aspects are not easily distinguishable from the political aspects. I know full well the enormous volume of correspondence that one receives from lobbyists. If we go along that route, the House will have to endure—and, possibly, accept—sophisticated and expensive lobbying.
677 We must also consider the proposal to examine the merits of statutory instruments. The House of Commons has many problems with statutory instruments. There are thousands of them; over 3,000, I believe. My noble friend mentioned the filtering that will be required. There is no question about that. It already happens in the House of Commons. The amount of filtering required may be so great that one has to place great trust in the people who carry it out. Therefore, statutory instruments will never be brought under the kind of control that I would dearly like to see. In a parliamentary democracy, I can see no way in which the elected Members or the Members of this House could obtain such a degree of control over all statutory instruments.
I am delighted with the proposal to have five oral Questions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I believe that one enormous advantage that this House has is that it is able to deal straightaway with topical matters that suddenly crop up. The House of Commons does not deal with topical questions in the way that we do here. However, there will be a consequence to the proposal. The gentlemanly behaviour whereby we concede the Floor to each other is becoming unworkable now. If we had elected Peers, it would become completely unworkable. It would not be possible to shut them up. They would have elections to fight and would be determined to put their questions. We should need to have a form of Speaker to decide objectively which person was to speak.
The proposal for Ministers to have one day off is right. Great pressure is placed on Ministers. They must frequently answer questions outside their main area of responsibility. The fact that Ministers know the details of each department and that they answer hostile questions on a range of subjects is a tribute to their ability and their work. Of course, that warrants this minor concession.
I turn to the question of additional Back-Bench debates on Wednesdays. The Wednesday debates are among the finest of almost any legislature in the world. Noble Lords do not fight cases from political viewpoints; they fight them because they want this House to take account of matters in which they believe. I consider that additional Back-Bench debates would be wholly valuable.
With regard to Thursday sittings, speaking personally, I do not believe that we should ape the House of Commons and create ever-extended weekends. After all, Friday used to be a full day. It then became a half-day and was then abolished. Now Thursday is coming near to being abolished. As we know, that is also happening in much of industry. When I was young, we used to work on Saturday mornings and finish at one o'clock. That was one's weekend. Of course, the generation before me worked all day on Saturday.
There is a limit to what we can do here. The ability to carry over legislation is valuable, and the next Session should not be so hectic an experience. September sittings could also be worthwhile so long as the dates 678 and debates were announced well in advance. The working group has worked hard on its report and it deserves the support of the House.
§ 5.13 p.m.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, this is an important debate in so far as it may have far-reaching effects on the way in which your Lordships' House conducts itself and on the effect that this House has in scrutinising legislation. I can well understand the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House wishing to alter the methods by which the House operates. I believe that we all want to do that from time to time. But the noble and learned Lord seems to take the view that, if anything has stood the test of time tolerably well, it should be changed. That is called "modernising", which gives it a halo of respectability. The noble and learned Lord sometimes reminds me of Boadicea standing upright in her chariot, careering around the arena and ensuring that, if anything stands, it is felled by the knives on the end of the wheels.
I can understand why the noble and learned Lord wants these changes but I cannot understand why he has set up a special committee. The members of it are, of course, all good men and true. But one becomes suspicious when the noble and learned Lord has co-opted the Leader of the Opposition, the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip and the Convenor of the Cross Benches. It would be difficult for them not to take part. That would be unco-operative on their pan and they would not know what was going on. On the other hand, if they all become involved and produce—
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. I did not choose who was to be on the committee. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, selected himself and the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. The Liberal Democrats chose the noble Lord, Lord Roper, and it was a matter entirely for the noble and gallant Lord to decide who would represent the interests of the Cross-Benchers. I chose only myself and my noble friend Lord Brooke.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord did decide on the total number of Peers who should sit on the committee.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for at least putting me right on that point. I admire his modesty and the fact that the only person whom he chose was himself.
The point is that he succeeded in getting all the chief chicks in his coop. One wonders whether a report which involves all these people does not sometimes look like a Front-Bench stitch-up, and some lesser mortals, such as myself', wonder what is going on and why. If the noble and learned Lord wants to change the procedures of the House, there is a perfectly good and authoritative body which can and should consider the matter; namely, the Procedure Committee.
On principle, it is undesirable that a report of this nature should be made, considered by your Lordships and then passed to the procedure Committee, with the 679 inference that virtually all the work on the subject has been done by this ad hoc committee and all that the Procedure Committee has to do is to rubber-stamp the proposals. The noble and learned Lord said that his committee had worked on the proposals for nine months. We all admire the assiduity with which the committee spent its time. But, under this Motion, the noble and learned Lord gives the Procedure Committee only six weeks. During his speech, he said that the report would go to the Procedure Committee with an instruction to give recommendations. However, he failed to say that the Procedure Committee's recommendations would relate to the implementation of the report.
To my mind, the method of going about this matter is all back to front. The Procedure Committee should have considered the problem first and given the House its views. The House could then amend, reject or approve its proposals. As we all know, the noble and learned Lord has the ability to argue any case, good or bad, with great skill—so much so that he has hoist himself with his own petard. One never really knows whether the noble and learned Lord believes in what he is saying or whether he is simply arguing like a good advocate for a very bad case. Either way, it is enchanting to listen to.
I am bound to say that I find it difficult to equate the view, which the Government are always correctly expressing and which the noble and learned Lord expressed this afternoon and on television on Sunday in a characteristically polished performance, that it is the duty of Parliament to hold the executive to account and that ways must be found of improving that with the endless measures which the Government introduce, which have precisely the reverse effect.
Like school boys, we now have half-term to give us all a rest and to let us go back and spend more time with our families and children. Business on Thursdays should stop at 7 p.m. in order that we should spend more time with our families and children. The noble and learned Lord would like the House to sit in September and probably to rise earlier in July—in order to let us spend more time with our families and children. That all follows the pattern of what is happening in the other place. I agree with the noble Lord. Lord Sheldon, that we do not want to ape the procedures of the other place.
The concept of spending time with families and children may be admirable, but this is all done at a time when the Members of another place have given themselves huge salary rises and when your Lordships' expenses have been greatly increased, too. The idea that all these changes will be implemented for the better scrutiny of Bills is, with respect, absolute nonsense. It is being done for two reasons. The first is to give Members of both Houses an easier time. But if they had wanted that, they should not have become involved in parliamentary business in the first place. The second is to allow Bills less scrutiny.
All noble Lords know that, despite grandiose words about the authority of Parliament, the Prime Minister has an intense dislike of Parliament interfering with his 680 wishes. Early rising truncates business in another place; no voting takes place after 10 o'clock; the Chamber of another place is practically empty; and controversial Bills receive even less scrutiny. Many come to this House with huge tranches not even considered by another place, of which the Animal Health Bill was a good example, as not one amendment was made to it in another place. One merely has to look at the televised proceedings of another place to realise that the House is virtually dead.
The only place where there is any semblance of a check on the executive is here, as the noble and learned Lord has said. Now the Government want to change that. The idea that longer breaks away from Parliament for the convenience of Members of Parliament and Peers should be compensated for by taking more Bills off the Floor of the House and sending them to Grand Committees where no Divisions can take place is unsatisfactory.
One of the great advantages of this place is that, unlike another place, any amendment can be, and has to be, considered. The Floor of the House is the right place for that. Grand Committees are good for various purposes, but they are not the same as the Chamber. They may have their place for specialised Bills, but if we take more Bills away from the Chamber, in effect we shall create two debating chambers. Although any noble Lord may take part in Grand Committees, one is less likely to make an effort to attend, whereas one naturally attends the Chamber. Anyhow, there is no voting in Grand Committees, which certainly makes them less effective.
I am not convinced, although I am prepared to be, that pre-legislative scrutiny is a good thing. As I understand it, it can become a long, drawn-out process, in which, among other things, every lobby group in creation can write in and even come and have its say. That may be fine, but the danger is that once a Bill has received its pre-legislative scrutiny, the Committee stage may be considered de minimis. I believe that that is what the Government want. If the noble and learned Lord and the Government want more of a check on the executive, how can that be achieved without having votes at Committee stage?
It is the duty of Parliament—not of lobby groups—to go through the Bill line by line. In my view, cutting down on the Committee stage of Bills, taking the Committee stage off the Floor of the House and giving it to smaller Committees does not equate with the Government's expressed desire for Parliament to provide greater scrutiny of Bills and a greater check on the Government. In fact, it has the reverse effect.
The idea of Question Time being extended would be universally popular. Every noble Lord enjoys Question Time—rather like schoolboys—not necessarily to elicit the answer, but in order to trip up the master. So much of that is ruined because frequently our questions are too long and Ministers' replies are almost universally too long. At Question Time I once asked the noble and learned Lord—he may remember the occasion—during a somewhat 681 truncated question, whether he thought that Question Time would be more fun if the questions and answers were shorter. As one may expect, his reply was a gem. "Yes", he said and sat down. That said it all; it was all good fun; and it was short, sharp and to the point. I just wish that the noble and learned Lord could persuade his fellow Ministers to follow suit.
Of course, practices will have to change over time, but I regard these proposals with great suspicion. I believe that they will have an effect on Parliament and on parliamentary scrutiny which will be way beyond that expected and that they will be deleterious both to Parliament and to the purpose of Parliament. I do not like the idea that we should give the ideas a whirl for two years to see what happens. That is the same argument as is used for imposing speed limits, but once they are imposed they are seldom taken away again.
§ 5.24 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, I warmly welcome the proposal for five Starred Questions, with eight minutes for each, on certain days of the week. That was not an option set out in the questionnaire sent to noble Lords, but I suggested it as a possible compromise that would not impose excessive burdens on the ministerial team of the day. It is gratifying that the working group evidently found the argument compelling. Of course, there are many other admirable aspects of the report, but, given the short time available, I want to concentrate upon two of the more contentious, starting with the proposal that the House should sit in September.
Most noble Lords have found that to be a bad idea and have disagreed with it as, significantly, the Officers of the House did by an even greater margin—no less than two to one against. It is easy to see why. September has always been an excellent holiday month for the British. Most continentals are back at work or school—la rentrée—by the end of August. In September, beaches, mountains, lakes, villages, cities are all less crowded, low or shoulder-season prices are in force and with any luck discounted flights once again become available. For those who stalk, fish or shoot grouse, which I do not, September has other temptations to offer.
However, there is another reason. The noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Roper, talked of the House of Commons sitting in September, but we are not like that Chamber. The House of Commons works hardest in November, December, January, February, March and possibly April, after which it starts to relax a little. By contrast, this House, despite the best endeavours of successive Chief Whips and Ministers of all political persuasions, tends to twiddle its thumbs to some extent in late autumn and in winter and then works flat out in May, June and July. The fact that the other place is rising a full six days earlier than this House for the Jubilee holiday at the end of the month is evidence of that.
682 I am sure that I am not alone in finding that I usually need to devote the first fortnight of every August to sorting out business matters that have had to be put on the hack-burner during the frenetic days of June and July. I submit that, whatever may be the case for the Commons, in this House we need a long summer break. Moreover, a long break has some of the qualities of a sabbatical. As any good doctor will confirm, sabbaticals are good for one's health, especially if one is over 40, and I am afraid that most of us in this House fall within that age category.
The Leader of the House talked of a few extra days at Christmas and at Easter by way of compensation for September sittings, but one would have to scrabble for the few remaining holiday rooms, if they were available, at high-season prices and one would have to pay high-season fares if one could get on a plane or a ferry to get to one's destination. Unlike the situation in September, one would have to compete with millions of people.
One cannot help suspecting that the proposal for September sittings is not unconnected with the proposal that we should normally rise by 10 p.m. All other things being equal, of course we should welcome that, but all other things are not equal. If we start to rise by 10 p.m., that will have to be balanced by .more Friday sittings or shorter holidays or both. It is a fallacy, of course, to imagine that late sittings are a recent phenomenon. Twenty-five or 26 years ago, when another Labour government were in power, it was common practice to sit well into the small hours. Indeed, Earl Grey made his maiden speech from the Liberal Benches at 3.15—not 3.15 p.m., but 3.15 a.m. I remember that well as I had the privilege of being the first to congratulate him on his speech in October 1976. The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, may remember that too as he took part in the same debate, as did the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who temporarily is not in his place.
That was not considered a particularly newsworthy or unusual event. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should return to those days—far from it. People's concentration wanders after midnight and far too much bad legislation slipped through then. Even midnight is somewhat on the late side. But I submit that 11 p.m., when public transport is still running, is not too late. I would guess that if Peers and Officers of the House were given a choice of opting for either a 10 p.m. finish, coupled with more Friday sittings and shorter holidays, or for finishing at 11 p.m. balanced by fewer Friday sittings and slightly longer holidays that they would opt for the latter.
I believe that we need more time to consider this matter and for that reason I shall support the noble Lord, Lord Denham, if he presses his Motion to a Division.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Lord Gordon of Strathblane
My Lords, my initial reaction on reading the report was one of disappointment. Just as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, was happy to see his write-in suggestion of 683 extra Starred Questions adopted, I found my write-in suggestion of a change to three consecutive legislative days dismissed in paragraph 27. Although it was acknowledged that many Members favoured the suggestion, the paragraph stated:The House did not agree to proposals on these lines in 1999 and 2001 and we do not believe that it would be timely to invite the House to consider the matter again so soon".If one considers that the margin in 2001 was 130 to 128, I think that with an extra little shove we would have achieved it.
I also feel slightly guilty because I did not intervene in the 2001 debate. My remarks in the 1999 debate have been misrepresented as being those of personal convenience since I was coming from Scotland. In fact, my substantive argument is that this House is in danger of overrating the amount of expertise it has within the Chamber. Nowadays, the shelf life of knowledge is very short. There are a good many areas where current experience is needed in order to make a valid contribution. In my view—pace the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers—if people are giving up four full days a week they cannot adequately be participating in any outside activity. I think that three full days a week is more than enough for an unsalaried post.
Having got over that disappointment I recognise that the Leader of the House has probably a much greater sense of what he has referred to in the report as "the balance of acceptability of proposals", than I have. So I then tried to read it dispassionately. The Leader of the House and the group went about things as fairly as they possibly could. They circulated a questionnaire. It is encouraging to notice that 362 Members and 26 members of staff responded to it. I pay particular attention to the views of members of staff because, as other noble Lords, such as the noble Lord, Lord Roper, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, have mentioned, the proposals will put an extra workload on staff. That must be recognised upfront and we must staff-up accordingly to make sure that the job is done properly.
The group is as representative as it can be. It may be dismissed by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, as putting all the chief chicks in one coop, but how else, other than having a committee or a group of the entire House, could one get a representative opinion without using leading figures in each political party and the Cross Benches? Truly, the Latin tag quot hominess tot sententiae was coined for this place. Our very individuality means that no one Peer, even on the same side of the House, represents fully the views of another. That is a good thing. But if one is to have a small and workable group, this assembled one did that job admirably.
One of the report's main recommendations is pre-legislative scrutiny. I very much welcome that. Every government issues White Papers which are increasingly glossy and full of sentiments that we all agree with. Equally, the responses in the consultation period are for motherhood and against sin. It is only when one sees a draft Bill and realises that Schedule 2, 684 Clause 4, subsection (2)(c) will put one out of business that one really responds to legislation. Seeing a draft Bill is an essential part of the legislative process.
That does not in any way inhibit the Committee stage of a Bill. The fact that there is scrutiny by a committee does not inhibit new scrutiny when the Bill is finally published. As an aside, perhaps I may say that I would favour a Joint Committee of both Houses wherever possible. It is absolutely appalling the way that the two Houses of the one Parliament live in total isolation from one another. It would help if we even had one common watering hole. I have that, I suppose, in the airport departure lounges at Glasgow. I can hear from MPs what they have been lobbied about and what pressures they are under. Equally, it sometimes comes as a surprise to them to realise what our attitudes are about matters. It would be ideal if we could enmesh both Houses and get them working closely together.
The Committee stage of a Bill should have a more collegiate atmosphere than a confrontational one. Votes are not necessary at that stage. A Committee stage can identify the points of principle on which legitimate differences of opinion are possible and, indeed, necessary. Those will be voted on and debated fully by the whole House at Third Reading. But a great deal of the rest of the work is removing the gremlins from a piece of legislation. Any government, however well intentioned, frequently finds that the actual legislation produces results other than they had intended. As that is best done in a more collegiate atmosphere, I endorse the idea of Grand Committees.
The new procedures for debating the Budget and Finance Bill are an important step forward and a belated recognition of the tremendous financial expertise in this House. With the number of former Chancellors, senior Treasury Ministers and officials in the Chamber, the idea that we do not talk about Finance Bills at all is, frankly, daft. That is a long overdue reform. But again it is increasing the amount of scrutiny given to government proposals. We have an Economic Affairs Committee and there should be a presumption that we use that body rather than create another committee.
With regard to statutory instruments, from the consumers' point of view they are as much legislation as a Bill, and therefore they should be subjected to as much scrutiny. I realise that the report says that they cannot be amended. I ask why not? I suppose that a Select Committee with the power to replace an instrument,with an instrument cast in different terms",is the equivalent to allowing amendments to be tabled.
I need not dwell on the Starred Questions issue. That proposal has been universally welcomed.
I turn to the 10 p.m. finish. Some people may think that they function better after midnight. I remind noble Lords about what Charlie Parker, the jazz musician said about drugs. He said:They don't make you play better, they just make you think you play better".685 The problem is that our critical faculties to perform decline after midnight. So we may think that we are doing a good job, but frankly we are not. I abide by the advice given by my late mother as regards sleep—an hour before midnight is worth two after.
The holding of Grand Committees in September is a first-class notion. I am quite happy to come back in September for Bills too if that will help the further scrutiny of legislation. Above all, for anyone who was unconvinced by the proposals, the idea that this is only a trial for two Sessions should surely convince the doubters. Then the House will have a chance to re-approve the whole situation.
As I mentioned, not everything that I wanted is in the Bill. That applies to quite a few other people. There will also be many proposals that Peers do not want. But there can be few Peers who would not recognise that the effect of the package, taken as a whole, will be to improve our procedures and our efficiency in scrutinising legislation.
In closing, I ask your Lordships to remember the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham, when he said, "We are dealing with improvement, not perfection". I think that this package gives us an improvement. We should support it today.
§ 5.38 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Harptree
My Lords, I welcome four of the recommendations in the report: first, the proposal to enable the knowledge and experience of finance in your Lordships' House to be used more effectively; secondly, the proposal for the new Select Committee to examine the merits of statutory instruments where we are clearly defective at the present moment; thirdly, the extension of starred questions; and, fourthly, more Wednesday debates. I have no time to elaborate in the time available on those four points.
I now turn to some criticisms. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal is noted for his vivid phrases. He told us at the beginning of the debate that he wanted this House to have a louder bark and sharper teeth. There are at least two recommendations in this report where the bark will be muted and the teeth blunt. The first criticism is the 10 o'clock cut off point where no new items of business could be taken after that time. That is the "office hours" mentality that has infected another place and which is wholly inappropriate to us. On occasion, the only effective weapon that the Opposition of the day have is talk. They must use powerful arguments and many voices to try to persuade the Government of the day that they are wrong and, if that fails, to try to defeat the Government. A 10 o'clock cut-off point would make it easier for the Government of the day and more difficult for the Opposition—not provide a louder bark or sharper teeth.
My second criticism is of the carry-over of Bills from one Session to the next. That is a dangerous process on which to embark. The report says that that will apply 686 only to Bills that have received pre-legislative scrutiny. But once that principle is conceded, the pass will have been sold and it will be but an easy step to extend it to all Bills. One of the fundamental facts of parliamentary life is that if the Government of the day cannot persuade both Houses of Parliament to pass their Bills by the end of the Session, they fall. That is a powerful discipline on any Government. It should make them think twice before they introduce too many Bills. Remove that discipline and more Bills will be brought forward. I think that most noble Lords would agree that we need fewer and better Bills.
So as well as making life easier for the Government, carry-over would deprive the Opposition of the day of one of their most powerful weapons. What about the implications for the Parliament Acts? That will take us into difficult and controversial territory. It will be handed to the Procedure Committee to advise us. That is difficult country, and I should hate to see us embarking on it. Good government needs a stronger, not a weaker Parliament. Again, as the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House said, we need a louder bark and sharper teeth.
I am sorry to be so critical of the report produced by noble Lords from all parts of the House who are highly respected in all parts of the House—I hope that I can say that without appearing patronising—including my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, the leader of the Conservative Party. I hope that he will still talk to me after this debate. But on occasions—not too often, I hope—the time comes when some of us on the Back Benches feel impelled to speak out. For me, this is such a time.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, I have sat through the whole of the debate getting more and more depressed. Indeed, I was in a black mood until my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton spoke and told us what she believed was the average age of your Lordships' House—72. That cheered me up enormously because it would have meant that I am still one of the younger Peers. However, I have since been informed that she got her facts slightly wrong and that the average age is 67, so I am no longer one of the younger Peers. I therefore revert to my gloom.
Anyone who has been a member of your Lordships' House for as long as I have—many Peers have been here longer—is aware of what I have called in my notes the slow pace of change. The correct expression is the zero pace of change. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, gave the game away rather beautifully when he said that we have had these ways of proceeding for hundreds of years and do not need any changes; we are perfectly all right. I am surprised at that.
I suppose that if the noble Lord had been around—as he is an hereditary Peer, perhaps his father was around—when that great man, Harold Macmillan, introduced the Life Peerages Act 1958, he would have said, "What? We do not need any life Peers; we are perfectly happy with hereditary Peers. What? A 687 Conservative Prime Minister is going to let lady Peers into the House? We have done perfectly well with men who have beards and wear silk hats". Incidentally, that demonstrates that if we want a revolutionary change, we should always choose a Conservative to do it. I imagine that when Macmillan also said that Peers who inherit through the female line could join the House, our predecessors had apoplexy.
The fact is that there are Peers who simply do not want any change. Some of my noble friends referred to the debate that I introduced on the subject. If I remember rightly, every single Peer who spoke proposed changes. No one said that it was all OK. One would have thought—and here I follow the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who also gave the game away—that the Procedure Committee on which he is so keen would have met and said, "Well, there has been this debate in your Lordships' House in which everyone said that they wanted things to move forward. We are called the Procedure Committee, which means that we ought to give some thought to that and do something". I must tell noble Lords that at no point did any member of the Procedure Committee come to me to say, "I hear that you introduced this debate. How should we proceed?"
The point is that to go down the route of the Procedure Committee is again to go down the road of no change. The great benefit of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, which I hope that he will press to a vote, is that it will divide the House between those of us who want to move forward on the basis of rational change and those who want no change whatever. My noble and learned friend the Leader of the House has been far too generous. He is the Leader of the House, the Lord Privy Seal. In my judgment, despite some personal remarks that have been made about him, he carries great authority. I am staggered that instead of saying, "Do it!", he is merely saying, "Take note and let us give it to this ridiculous committee".
I can hardly find any language in which to respond to the absurd notion that, after all these years—I have been here 15 years—we are steaming ahead by telling the committee that it might come back to us by 8th July. One knows why the Conservative Party is called the Conservative Party and why it is in the mess that it is if it thinks that this place is steaming ahead in some way or other.
We all have views on what changes we would like and what are our priorities. As your Lordships know, I could detain your Lordships for a long time with various ideas, but I hasten to add that I have no intention of doing so. Instead, my general position is that this is a remarkable report both because of its unanimity and because of its reasonable content. As I said, it provides nowhere near all that I would want, but I shall certainly vote in favour of it. In particular, it takes us towards our ultimate function—which, I am convinced, is to be a dispassionate, genuine scrutinising Chamber based on a combination of 688 expertise, experience and good judgment. In my view, that is what the report will lead us towards and that is where our future lies.
One aspect of the report, however, amazes me. We have been told that the report is balanced between the various interests in your Lordships' House. I find that difficult to accept. There is a bias in the report, and it is a bias entirely in favour of the Opposition and against the Government. Indeed, I am amazed that my noble friend the Chief Whip, on being told of the contents of the report, did not simply storm in to my noble and learned friend and say, "You have got to be joking! You have simply made my job completely impossible."
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, the idea that the report makes life easier for the Government is incredible. The 10 o'clock finishing time means that the Government have to accept more amendments to get their business through. They must respond in an entirely reasonable way when confronted with reasonable arguments from the other side. My noble friend the Chief Whip cannot threaten those of us—including, I regret to say, me—who occasionally make trouble for the Government by saying, "You make any more trouble and I will keep you here all night". He will have to find more days on which we can all make trouble. I cannot see where noble Lords have got the idea that it is a way of strengthening the Government and weakening the Opposition.
I have one last comment to make. I hope that it is a correct interpretation of the substantive Motion to say that the Procedure Committee is not being asked to respond on substance. I interpret the Motion as asking the Procedure Committee to respond on the practicalities of anything in the report that looks good but, on reflection, poses difficulties. It is not part of the Procedure Committee's remit to come up with changes that differ totally from what is in the report. I would regard that—to echo the remarks of, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Denham—as the equivalent of a wrecking amendment. We all know the House's view of wrecking amendments.
I shall give the House a purely hypothetical example of something that is within the committee's remit. I would not necessarily advocate this, but it is an example of what it can do. If the committee were to suggest that we should have prayers 10 minutes before the half-hour so that Questions could start on the half-hour, that would be a sensible, mechanical change that it might put forward in order to make better use of your Lordships' time. If, however, it suggested that, rather than 10 o'clock, the cut-off time should be 12 o'clock or 1 o'clock, I would regard that as a wrecking amendment that we should reject.
689 This is a chance for us to go forward. It is also a chance for noble Lords here today to say exactly where they stand on reform of the House. I shall vote for the Motion, and I hope to get a chance to vote against the amendment.
§ Lord Lucas
My Lords, might it be possible for somebody on the Government Benches to tell us what is right here? The noble Lords, Lord Peston and Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, have both alleged that my noble friend's amendment is a wrecking amendment. That is a serious charge, but it could easily be answered. We are being asked by the Government Front Bench to tell the Procedure Committee that it cannot change anything.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, my noble friend the Leader of the House will have the chance to reply and can tell us what he thinks.
I believe that it is a wrecking amendment on two bases. One is that the record of the Procedure Committee is one of doing nothing. Saying that it should be given more opportunities to do nothing is a way of wrecking the proposals. Secondly, giving it any chance of saying that it wants things changed in a major way is another way of doing nothing. Speaking for myself, I do not want it to have that chance. I have watched the committee do nothing for 15 years; I do not want to give it more than a few weeks to do nothing again.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Lucas is right. We must nail this matter. Several noble Lords have accused my noble friend Lord Denham of putting down a wrecking amendment. It is not. His amendment removes the obligation on the Procedure Committee to report back by 8th July. That is a minor amendment. It is not a serious issue. It does not really matter whether the Procedure Committee reports by 8th July, 18th July or in September. The changes will not take effect until the new Session.
My second point is more important. There is the idea that the Motion obliges the Procedure Committee to report back on every aspect. It must be up to the Procedure Committee to decide what it brings forward and what it does not. The example given by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, was a good one. If the Procedure Committee recommends that the cut-off time should be midnight, that is what will come back to the House. It is then up to the House to decide whether to accept it.
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
My Lords, is the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, suggesting that any points in the report with which the Procedure Committee disagrees fundamentally will not come back to the House for us to decide on?
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, what did the noble Baroness think that the Procedure Committee was for? It is entirely right that that should happen if the committee decides that it should. Such are the powers 690 that the House has given to the Procedure Committee. Nothing in the Motion or the amendment changes that position.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, I hate to come back once more. It is within our rules. The noble Lord is giving the game away. There is a distinction between change and no change. He wants the existing state of affairs to continue; some of us do not. It is as simple as that.
§ 5.55 p.m.
§ Baroness Gardner of Parkes
My Lords, it seems that, after that little interlude, the dock is about to start on my contribution.
This debate is of interest to all Members of the House and probably no one outside it. We are discussing the seemingly mundane, day-to-day operation of the parliamentary business of the House. With over 30 names on the speaking list and given the tradition that we must all be present to hear most, if not all, of the other speakers, it will be a long debate. Much has already been said, and there is little to add. I like and support some—but not all—of the recommendations. The way in which they are offered as a package is not to my taste; I would prefer to pick and mix. However, I understand that I do not have that choice. So, on the whole, I support the proposals.
The proposal for pre-legislative scrutiny is good, but I do not like the idea of allowing government Bills to extend over two parliamentary Sessions. I thought that my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree made the point clearly that it would not be an improvement, only a convenience for the government of the day. It is a healthy thing for the government to be under pressure to get on with legislation within a parliament. Scrutiny of statutory instruments is not enough; it must be possible to amend them. The present situation—all or nothing—allows unsatisfactory statutory instruments to be passed.
I would like to see more topical Questions each week. Sometimes, a Question must be tabled so far ahead that it is out of date by the time that its turn comes. In any review of Questions, consideration should be given to allowing each Peer to have two topical Questions per term—meaning between recesses—rather than per parliament. I refer to the Questions selected by ballot.
Remembering late and all-night sittings, I am sure that the 10 o'clock finishing time would give us a more alert House. I favour that recommendation. I am a keen supporter of committees being Committees of the Whole House and believe that it is a hugely better system for considering the detail of Bills than exists in the other place. If we are to have Grand Committees, it is essential that they take place on the Principal Floor of the House rather than being tucked away upstairs. They must be open to all Members of the House, and I am pleased that the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House confirmed that they would.
I have a preference for sitting on Thursday morning and ending earlier, but I would hate to silt in September, and I am sorry to see that it has been 691 suggested. For an Antipodean, it means either insufficient time to visit family down under if the recess is allocated in little bits through the year, or catching the wintertime in Australia if the recess is in July. That is a personal point and is unlikely to interest the House. More likely to appeal is the point made by the noble Lord. Lord Monson, that the recess is better when it does not match the dates of school holidays. Places are less crowded, and accommodation is easier to find and less costly.
The code of conduct, under the heading "Primacy of the public interest", says:Members of the House shall resolve any conflict between their personal interest and the public interest in favour of the public interest".I must forget my wish to enjoy the Australian sunshine. However, it is in the public interest for Peers to have a relaxed holiday, as that respite enables them to do their work better when the House is sitting.
It adds insult to my September injury to say that Grand Committees may sit in September whether the House is sitting or not. Paragraph 29 states:In practice the number of members involved will be comparatively small".That is exactly the opposite of my view that the full House should be involved in committees. I know that the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House confirmed that the committees would be open to all Members, but that seems to conflict with the statement that, in practice, small numbers would be involved. I ask that particularly because in March your Lordships introduced a code of conduct for Members which stated that they should observe the seven general principles of conduct identified by the Committee on Standards in Public Life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. This is surely a time for those to apply.
Since I entered the House in 1981 I have often felt that there should be greater transparency. I appreciate that in party terms the usual channels are important and on the whole work well, but Members should receive honest, open answers to questions and have information available on how things work.
It took me almost 12 years to obtain a desk in the House. During that time I told my Chief Whip of a number of desks that I discovered were not in use. Each time I received the reply, "Thank you for telling me, I have someone else I shall give that to". No hope was ever held out of a desk coming my way.
I know that I was unpopular with the Chief Whip because when the toilet facilities became desperately short for the growing number of women Peers, I was asked to appear before the Offices Committee to fight for and win the battle to have a second loo allocated for our use. Unfortunately the very toilet Black Rod had decided would be ideal to convert for the ladies was the favourite of the then Chief Whip. When I went to see him to plead on the matter, his response was, "You women want everything. You want to take over this place!" If your Lordships look around you will see that that has not happened yet.
692 I shall never know why I waited so long for a desk, but it was a strange coincidence that in the first week of the new Chief Whip's appointment, I was called in to hear the long-awaited words, "I thought you might like a desk". Perhaps we have sufficient office space now and it is no longer an issue, but it would be better for noble Lords to know where they stand on any waiting list for House facilities. Everyone appreciates that there have to be priority cases, and provision could he made for them, but it would be encouraging to see one's place on a list and some sign of upward movement over the years. A degree of openness in those minor matters would be helpful and should be simple.
The procedures of the Committee of Selection are wrapped in mystery still, as I discovered when I put a Question recently in this Chamber to the Chairman of Committees. At an earlier date I had asked him who had the right to decide on how and when committee members should be changed and he said that he did. My view, expressed to him, was that people had a right to understand those procedures. His reply was that he was in the same position as the Prime Minister and had full power to make decisions. It was confirmed by the Clerk of the Parliaments, who added that noble Lords have never questioned those matters. Why not? It would he healthy if they did.
Whatever its outcome, I welcome the openness and inclusiveness of this debate on our working practices. I hope that we will benefit from wise procedural changes in accordance with the seven general principles of conduct and not find ourselves swept along to suit administrative convenience. If there is a vote, I shall support the original Motion.
§ 6.3 p.m.
§ The Earl of Mar and Kellie
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, will be interested to know that on both occasions when I was admitted to this House I had to wait 18 months for a desk. Perhaps I behaved myself slightly better.
I am another Member from the periphery who applauds many of the report's recommendations. As someone who commutes to the House from central Scotland and stays overnight in the Farmers Club when necessary, I welcome the proposals for an end to business at 7 p.m. on Thursdays and the 10 p.m. rise of the House on other days. The Thursday 7 p.m. rise would allow the use of the last flights to central Scotland at 8.40 p.m. and 9 p.m., and hence the opportunity to be compos mentis the next day. The proposed 10 p.m. rise is reasonable at least for the Anglo-Scottish sleepers which leave Euston at 11.55 p.m. There would be no need to leave early before business was completed, as I have often had to do in the past.
It is reasonable to enable noble Lords from the peripheral areas, not only Scotland, to take a full part in the House's work and to recognise that they have other things to do in their home areas, including maintaining some connection with a career. Contributions in the House are made more worthwhile 693 according to the Member's active outside interests in his or her home area. The House must accept that it is not possible to attend regularly and have a job unless it is in south-east England.
That said, I am pleased that pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills is recommended. That practice has been introduced successfully in the Scottish Parliament, where it is carried out before the equivalent of Second Reading. The merit is that Members can become well acquainted with the Bill's practicalities and engage fully with the legislation through its later stages.
I have long believed that the House goes about its scrutiny in an odd way, trying to alter Bills before gaining a good grasp of the central purpose. Current practice may have been suitable in the past when Bills were shorter and may have had only one central principle, but that is no longer the nature of most legislation. Many Bills have multiple purposes and many principles. The House will gather that I am in favour of a Select Committee inquiry style for pre-legislative scrutiny.
On the subject of incorporating newcomers, I pay tribute to the Liberal Democrats Whip Office for showing me how and encouraging me in 1994 to take part in the somewhat unfathomable procedures of this House. I have long likened the process to a swimming pool: it is the deep end but they want you to learn how to swim. More needs to be done to enable newcomers to learn the ways of this House and for former Members of another place to convert to them.
I turn to the Grand Committee rooms. Despite all that is said of the Moses Room—and yes, it needs to be improved—at least there one has a desk to keep the Bill, Marshalled List., groupings, Explanatory Notes and one's speaking notes in order. I hope that other noble Lords will support the changes and that this House will move on from being an "afternoon tea" Parliament organised for those who live or work in the London area to one which values all its Members and their constituent parts of the United Kingdom.
§ 6.8 p.m.
§ Lord Lea of Crondall
My Lords, on the question of working on Thursdays I am reminded of an apocryphal story told by the noble Lord, Lord Scanlon. A shop steward reported to a mass meeting on what he described as the greatest agreement on working time reduction ever made. He negotiated a one-day week working on Thursdays. He then paused and asked for any questions. A hand went up: "Surely you don't mean we work every Thursday."
I strongly support the main thrust of the report. It is a package deal which we should accept. I will concentrate on the section on statutory instruments in paragraphs 16 and 17. The principal recommendation is a Lords Select Committee to establish the merits of every statutory instrument subject to parliamentary scrutiny. I am member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. It had already occurred to me that there would need to be a good deal of flesh put on the bones of this particular proposal. Perhaps I may mention some of the considerations.
694 At its meeting last week, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments—I mentioned this point to the Leader of the House—decided to write to the Leader of the Commons on the points that arose before the other place relating to this recommendation. The letter indicates that the Joint Committee would wish to establish good relations with any committee established for the purpose to ensure that the respective roles were complementary. But it was apparent that this could not be done in the absence of any certainty on the future shape of scrutiny of delegated legislation in the House of Commons. It was noted that our intention in this place would be to bring in the necessary Standing Orders by the beginning of next Session. I suggest that the time-scale for that may need to be in two bites: an agreement in principle, and possibly joint consideration about how we finalise the detail.
That raises some interesting points about the role of Joint Committees generally—which might be described as a mild form of unicameralism, as well as providing flexibility for the two Houses to carry out work in different, but complementary, ways, having regard, however, to the fact that both horses eventually have to cross the same finishing line.
Among the issues discussed by the Joint Committee is the idea of periodically reviewing a group of generic instruments. I use the word "generic" to mean issues arising out of a particular field—for example, agriculture or transport. So it is not merely a question of examining a particular statutory instrument before it comes into effect, but also of reviewing some of the experiences. Criteria for the consideration of those experiences could include how far the instruments are comprehensible not only to those who have to operate them, but also to those affected by them.
A different question arises as to whether there may be an overlap between the vires of a measure and the terms of its transposition.
Then there is the question of who will carry out all this work. I was interested in the point made by my noble friend Lord Sheldon. Perhaps I may make a parallel point. If Members of this House are to be elected, an issue will arise as to who will do the donkey work and who will be watching the television set in terms of receiving public recognition for the job that they do. That requires some thought.
Finally, if we stop the clock on a particular statutory instrument, how will that affect Civil Service planning dealing with expenditure on all the likely implementations of the statutory instruments? Will civil servants be told in good time to "stop the clock"? There is a wide range of territory where we could be stopping the clock.
Those are some of the questions that arise from the proposals.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I understood him to say that his committee got in touch with the Leader of another place and stated that the new arrangements would have to be in place by the beginning of the next Session. If I understood 695 him correctly, will he tell the House when that letter was written and why it was thought that arrangements had to be in place by then?
§ Lord Lea of Crondall
My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord has intervened. Perhaps I may clarify what I said. The letter written to the Leader of the House of Commons was dated 14th May. It refers, among other matters, to the decision—potentially by this House today—in our report that the matters relating to statutory instruments will possibly be in place by the beginning of the next Session. That was the point to which I referred.
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ Lord Naseby
My Lords, before beginning my remarks, perhaps as an aside I may observe that five minutes for Back-Benchers is more than adequate, and I wonder why the usual channels cannot tune in a little more sensibly to what Back-Benchers feel.
I am motivated by paragraph 3 of the report, and in particular by the sentence:Parliament also has the duty on behalf of the public to hold the government of the day to account".That is my principal motivation for being here.
It seems to me that there is an enormous consensus in favour of pre-legislative hearings. That is basic good practice. The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, said that pre-legislative scrutiny is working well in the Scottish Parliament, and there is probably unanimity across the House that that would be a major advance.
However, there does not seem to be any linkage in legislative terms between the introduction of pre-legislative scrutiny and a trade-off. The House may have to agree to a hold-over. The two considerations are entirely separate. One is a matter of trying to improve the nature of legislation; the other is the length of time that it takes a Bill to complete its passage in this House. It is one of the pressures of Opposition to force the government of the day, who may ill-advisedly have chosen to introduce far too many major Bills, to choose which one to drop. But if all the Bills have received a pre-legislative hearing, they will all get through, and the pressure that the Opposition can apply will have been mitigated.
Parliament needs to go so far as to say to itself that the real problem is that no government have ever agreed to contain the number of major and minor Bills that they will bring forward in a Session. That should be attainable. It would not be for Parliament to determine the nature of those Bills, but the number of Bills should be agreed by all parties. Until that happens, the capacity of Parliament to legislate will remain constant, and there will always be a logjam. If agreement on pre-legislative hearings leads to an automatic carry-over, I for one shall not join that particular army of supporters.
I listened with great interest to the noble Lord who has just spoken, who is a member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which I had the privilege to chair many years ago. It is an invaluable 696 committee. Your Lordships may need reminding that some 4,000 statutory instruments go through in any one year. That is a huge number. The concept of a new committee of this House helping out is laudable and would represent progress, but it is not a gigantic leap forward. We as parliamentarians, must find a way of making sure that, first, we understand the contents of those statutory instruments and, secondly—the noble Lord, Lord Lea, was absolutely right—having understood them, and having found some wanting in terms of time, content or impact, Parliament must have the ability to control those elements. At present, although the Royal Commission made it clear that there should be change and that we should have the ability to amend statutory instruments, until such time as we have such an ability, these proposals are laudable but are only a tiny step forward. I hope that the knowledge of the noble Lord who is a member of the Joint Committee will be used when the Procedure Committee takes its further hurried evidence before 8th July.
On the question of September Sittings, such a proposal is highly questionable unless they take place towards the end of September. It seems to me quite wrong that everyone in the United Kingdom should have to take their vacation in August. That should be resisted.
In conclusion, perhaps I may put two questions to the Lord Privy Seal. He said in his opening remarks that the report is a package of measures. My first question is: will it come back from the Procedure Committee as a package of measures? If it does, that will be a major problem. If it comes back as a series of four or five recommendations, I believe that this House will want to vote on them. If only four get through, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that will be progress.
Secondly—the noble and learned Lord may be intending to refer to this point in his reply—why is 8th July so precious? It is difficult to understand why that particular date is so precious as opposed to a date at the end of July or in September. I can understand why it is necessary for the Procedure Committee to present its proposals before the start of the new Session, but I am mystified as to why it must be by 8th July, unless the House is rising on 10th July.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, many of us want to express our gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Denham, for tabling his amendment—for which I shall certainly vote. An admirable guardian of the conventions of your Lordships' House, the noble Lord spotted that the original Motion was out of order—so much so that an uncharitably disposed person might even imagine that the leaders of the parties were trying to sneak through this House changes in working practices, the effects of some of which almost amount to constitutional change.
I well understand why the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, signed the report. Many of its recommendations would help 697 the Government to push their legislation through Parliament, whatever they say. I cannot understand why anyone else signed. Perhaps the other party leaders were happily anticipating the day when they would be in government and wanting to push through legislation.
I am hard pushed to find anything good to say about the report. I start with paragraph 4, concerning the trial period. We have all heard that one before. It reminds me of a nightmarish double roundabout at Barnton in Edinburgh, which was introduced about 25 years ago on an "experimental basis" and was one of the most difficult and dangerous hazards for a driver to negotiate that I have ever encountered. That experiment lasted about 20 years before minimal alterations were made, so I have little faith in trial periods ever coming to an end.
Pre-legislative scrutiny seems to be the flavour of the decade. It is used in the Scottish Parliament—where, disastrously, it is deemed a fit substitute for a second Chamber. If the Government were not trying to produce more Bills than they have time to think through—and the parliamentary draftsmen had time to draft properly—pre-legislative scrutiny would be unnecessary. I have many misgivings. Not least is my dark suspicion that the next step might be the abolition of one of the latter stages of Bills hitherto taken by the whole House, not by a committee sitting in some upstairs room in the mornings.
Of all the report's thoroughly undesirable recommendations, the carry-over of Bills is much the worse. It is a blatant attempt to neutralize—I would almost say, sterilise— the Opposition. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, expressed concern that carry-over would affect the operation of the Parliament Act—which gives rise to constitutional implications.
I do not approve of Bills being committed to Grand Committees unless they can divide on amendments. I am horrified at the suggestion that the House or Grand Committees should sit in September and that Grand Committees should sit when the House is not sitting—which virtually negates the right of any Peer to sit on a Grand Committee. As to either the House or committees sitting in September, I wonder what consultations took place with Black Rod or the superintendent of the Refreshment Department. It is curious that the report's signatories appear to have forgotten completely repairs and maintenance work on this palace—for which it is absolutely necessary to have at least two clear months in August and September. Extra weeks at Christmas and Easter are no use at all. For serious structural work, it is necessary to have a long, unbroken period at a time when tradesmen are not on holiday. Scant thought appears to have been given to the security staff, catering staff, Doorkeepers and Clerks whose holidays would be affected. We all know how willingly they return for emergency debates, such as that following September 11 and the tributes to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother—but that is no excuse for them to be imposed upon.
698 My list of unacceptable proposals includes sitting at 11 a.m. on Thursday. One reason that the House cannot sit in the mornings is that many Peers still have to earn their livings—which they try to do in the mornings, coming here when they can get away from work. Attending morning sittings on Thursdays would not be possible for them. As one who lives in the north of Scotland, the latest that it is possible for me to leave the House and return home the same night is 6 o'clock—and then It do not get home until after 11 p.m. If the House were to sit at 9 o'clock and rise by 4 p.m., that would be more helpful for getting home that night for those of us who live far away. Most of us just leave early unless we are involved with the business of the day. I think that is a better way. Morning sittings should wait until the House consists entirely of paid Members.
I could live with most of the other proposals reasonably happily and I agree with one—the recommendation that the shortcomings of the Moses Room should be corrected. The acoustics are deplorable and the cold in winter can be such that, on one occasion, I had to leave a meeting to put on my overcoat. Proper heating would be welcome. That should be provided in any event, not be dependent on the implementation of the rest of the proposals.
There is one simple solution to the problems that the report's recommendations are intended to solve—less legislation. Give the poor people of this country a break from endless new laws and regulations to fall foul of—some unenforceable—and from endless changes in the way that the health service, education and local government are run and justice is administered, which drive those responsible for implementing them dotty. Only the lawyers will weep. Then there might be time for the necessary scrutiny of the rules and regulations that pour out or Brussels, which must be properly examined. It would help if another place did its job better, by discussing all amendments to Bills as we do—instead of wasting time on points of order—and getting rid of the guillotine.
§ 6.27 p.m.
§ Lord Lucas
My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, that we need a common watering hole—something about which I have spoken often to Chief Whips, Leaders of the House and others. Nothing has come of it yet. How can we seriously operate as a Parliament? I have been here 10 years and have yet to meet an NIP socially. There is nowhere that I can run into Members of another place, unless I encounter them on business occasionally. I have no rights to go where MPs have a drink and they have no rights here. We cannot even meet to eat. It is ridiculous and something that we should address as a matter of urgency. I am delighted to enjoy support in all parts of the House and wish that there could be the same support from members of the Front Benches.
I agree with my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes that we need to consider the way that committee members are selected. We are giving significant new powers to those who select committees. 699 It is to that extent natural for members of the Front Benches to think that they should choose. The time is coming for moving in the same direction as another place, by giving Back-Benchers a say in who gets on to committees. If we go down the road proposed, Members of the Front Benches will have the power to exclude the likes of myself and the noble Lord, Lord Peston, on the ground that we might disagree with Front Bench policy. That would be entirely undesirable, especially in respect of the noble Lord.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that this is a good report. I am delighted that the Leader of the House has produced, with typical energy and direction, something that for a long time our own procedures have failed to produce. It would have been nice if this had been done gradually over the past 20 years, but that has not happened.
I stand on my dignity as a Back-Bencher and say that this report is not an order to us but a request to us. It is for this House as a whole to consider. The report is very well put together, and I can see the arguments for treating it as a package. However, it is our privilege to decide whether to treat it as a package. There is nothing that this group, however august, can do to instruct us on what our procedures should be.
I was disturbed by the brief discussion that I had with the noble Lord, Lord Peston, on the implications of the Lord Privy Seal's Motion. If the effect is to tell the Procedure Committee that it cannot consider substantive changes to the report and must implement it as it is, I would be very concerned. The report has been produced by Front-Benchers, but there are many Back-Bench aspects that should properly be taken into account.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, I am not for one moment suggesting that, at some point—I hope sooner rather than later—noble Lords who so wish will not be able to move that this or that recommendation should be deleted. I entirely agree with the noble Lord that your Lordships will decide the matter. We may differ on what we may like to delete, but we do not differ on that. I have no doubt at all that this Chamber is sovereign.
§ Lord Lucas
My Lords, I am delighted that we agree on that. The authorities of the House should therefore take note that, if the report comes back in its current form, I shall have half a dozen to a dozen amendments to table to it. We should also ensure that we can debate the report in a sensible manner, committee style, rather than having to take all the amendments at the end of the debate. I am sure that the authorities of the House can find a sensible way of dealing with the matter if the report's rough edges are left unsmoothed.
The first specific proposal I shall deal with is pre-legislative scrutiny, a concept of which I thoroughly approve. The report, however, does not define pre-legislative scrutiny. On a previous occasion, the Government published a Bill which we had one month to consider. Two weeks later, they published the final Bill. That was considered pre-legislative scrutiny. 700 Does such a process justify carrying a Bill over to the next Session? We must have some rules on what constitutes proper pre-legislative scrutiny. In some cases with which I am familiar, the effect of pre-legislative scrutiny has been to fossilise Bills, making it much harder to amend legislation as it is considered by the House. There are so many conversations and deals with outside parties, and so much is agreed between civil servants and various pressure groups, that it becomes extremely difficult to make even small changes to legislation.
It is very important that Back-Benchers who wish to be involved in the pre-legislative scrutiny process have the chance to do so. Under the proposals, it is possible that pre-legislative scrutiny will be done entirely by another place. However, if it is done by this place, those who take part in the process will be chosen by the Front-Benchers. As my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes said, that would be neither sensible nor acceptable.
We already effectively form ourselves into groupings in committees, which are composed of noble Lords who wish to participate and the Front-Benchers' choice of who should participate. We need a similar arrangement for the creation of such committees for pre-legislative scrutiny. Participation in the committees should be open to the whole House. If it is not so open, Back-Benchers may find themselves excluded entirely from the opportunity to influence the legislative detail, as everything may have been decided by those chosen by Front-Benchers at the pre-legislative stage.
As my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree said, we need to consider details such as the interface with the Parliament Acts. Currently, those Acts seem to allow the Government to choose whether to use those powers when we have either taken more than one month to send carry-over legislation back to the other place or failed to do so by the end of the Session. We have to consider such details, and I would welcome it if we could get them right.
It is important that Back-Benchers should have a say on who is appointed to the committee that will consider the Finance Bill as it is going through another place. It does not seem right that Front-Benchers should choose the membership. If a Back-Bencher truly wishes to participate on the committee, why should he not be able to do so? Such a committee would surely not suffer from having one or two more members. It seems undesirable to put the matter within the gift of the Front-Benchers.
Front-Benchers would also exercise control under the proposals for a statutory instruments select committee. They would appoint that committee, which would be this House's only instrument to amend statutory instruments. If I as a Back-Bencher objected to a statutory instrument, I would not have the power to amend it; only the committee could do that. That might be a reasonable arrangement, but it would not be reasonable for the committee to be chosen exclusively by the Front-Benchers. The committee membership must be within the gift of the Back-Benchers. As I said, for very good reason, the other 701 place is moving in that direction. If we accept the proposals, we shall be creating three more extremely powerful, very influential and very important committees that will make decisions that are crucial to the lives and effectiveness of Back-Benchers. Consequently, we Back-Benchers should have at least some say on who sits on the committees. Perhaps we should also be able to talk to the committees and influence their decisions, particularly in relation to statutory instruments. It would be ridiculous if I had no way of asking the statutory instruments committee to amend a statutory instrument about which I had specific knowledge.
If we are to have an amendment process, which I presume will be judiciously used, surely it should be a public process that takes place on the Floor of the House and not locked away in a committee. The committees would not have access to the specialist expertise of other noble Lords, but would consist of those chosen to sacrifice a very large part of their lives to look through an endless succession of statutory instruments. I think that the Procedure Committee should consider that point. If it does not, we shall certainly consider it when we again consider the report.
As for a 10 o'clock cut-off, I think that that should be a matter for the House as a whole to decide. I would favour an 11 o'clock cut-off. I think that if one is here for the night, one is here for the night, and there is nothing much that one can do at 10 o'clock except go home to bed. I do not know why I should be forced to sit up and watch television for an hour until my natural time for going to sleep. It should be a matter for the House. If one is down here from Scotland, one is down here from Scotland. Why should one have to spend more days coming down here from Scotland when one could sit through to 11 o'clock? We should be allowed a voice on such issues, which I do not think are crucial to the proposals. Moreover, if one had dinner from 7.30 to 8.30, there would be only an hour and a half of debate remaining, which is scarcely enough time to get into a good argument. One would have time to deal with only one or two groups of amendments, if they were at all serious. An additional hour would allow us to have a decent session in which momentum could be built up and a fair amount of business could be dealt with.
§ Lord Lucas
My Lords, I do not know what the noble Lord does after 10 o'clock and I shall not ask.
Paragraph 24 states:The precise sitting hours of the Grand Committees should be settled to suit the convenience of the key players",which I take again to be the Front-Benchers. There must be some way in which Back-Benchers can have a say in the matter. If we are dealing with an education issue, for example, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and I should have some say in it. The decision should not be dictated solely by the fact that the Front-Benchers are 702 night-owls or want to go home at 6 p.m. It should he a matter for noble Lords who wish to participate and not for the Front-Benchers.
The paragraph which I assume should be numbered 30 mentions nine specific suggestions by my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford. I cannot find those suggestions. I do not know where they are. They do not seem to be in the Printed Paper Office or in the Whips' Office. Perhaps I could have looked more extensively, hut it seems that we are being asked to approve proposals that have not been included in the report and to which we have no access. Unless I have simply overlooked the suggestions, I do not think that our approval of the Motion can be taken as approval of those suggestions.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for giving way. Perhaps I can enlighten him. The proposals were made by his noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford during the debate about a second chamber for the European Parliament.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I refer the noble Lord to footnote 15 on page 6 of this admirable document.
§ Lord Lucas
My Lords, unfortunately, I do not have my glasses with me and I am incapable of reading such small type. Depending on what the Leader of the House tells us about the meaning of his Motion, I do not think that we should regard something that is not spelt out as being an instruction to the Procedure Committee to accept. We should look at the issue in its full form, and not merely by way of a footnote, which I cannot read.
§ 6.41 p.m.
§ Lord Clement-Jones
My Lords, I wish to make a brief contribution to the debate. It is clear that the report deserves serious reflection, and having reflected and listened to the debate, I believe that the report goes largely in the right direction. I am therefore 95 per cent in favour of the recommendations.
However, at a time when we know that the composition of the House will be considered by a Joint Select Committee of both Houses, I believe that it would be wrong to change working practices on the basis that we have, or can have in the immediate future, full-time working Peers who are able to switch between morning and evening working. That is the assumption lying behind the decision to recommend that the House should sit at 11 a.m. and rise at 7 p.m. on Thursdays. I firmly believe, despite discussions with the Leader of the House, whom I thank for his courtesy, that this is the thin end of the wedge and will lead to morning sittings as a regular occurrence.
I and many other colleagues would find morning sittings even on one day a week a major problem. As an opposition Front-Bencher, it would be virtually impossible for me to fulfil my professional and political commitments if we sat on Thursday mornings. I only undertook my professional 703 commitments in the first place knowing that they were compatible with membership of the House. I do not believe that morning working is a reasonable expectation until we are an elected and remunerated House. I recognise that that proposal may suit the interests of those who live out of town, but catering for those interests means that we are moving towards a three-day week when we may only in reality call the Government to account on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, aptly described from his long experience the way in which the process has gone down a rather slippery slope. He emphasised that we should not ape another place. Indeed, we should recognise the impossibility of doing so, given the current make-up of this House.
The Leader of the House stressed the package aspect of the proposals. They stand or fall together. But the package has to be right in the first place. I hope that it will be a package in due course that can be backed by the majority of the House. I hope that the Leader of the House will therefore reconsider whether the Thursday morning working suggestion should really be part of the core package. The Leader of the House in the other place, Robin Cook, had to agree to delete elements of his original package. If the Leader in the other place, with its huge majority had to agree to that, why cannot we do that here, where the Government do not have a majority?
My opposition to Thursday morning sittings is not just born out of my own circumstances and, I suspect, those of many other colleagues. It comes from considering whether the changes will add to or subtract from our ability to hold the Government to account, as we should. I believe that the morning sitting proposal will subtract from that. It will be easier for the Government to keep house; it will assist Ministers; and it will make it more difficult for the working opposition—Front and Back-Benchers—to attend. We shall therefore have less effective scrutiny.
I should like to give the report a fair wind, but I cannot do so currently. I therefore hope that the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal and the Procedure Committee will have serious thoughts in the meantime about Thursday morning working before coming back to the House.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I fully accept that the working practices of this House are not the subject of passionate debate in the real world outside. I do not think that the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus gives the matter a thought.
Nevertheless, when people do consider what we are about, I suspect that most of them think that if we sit beyond 10 or 11 at night, we are plain silly. When I was in the Commons, my local party members used to say, "If you must sit all night and are daft enough not to change the system, don't blame us because you are tired the following day". The public, whom we are here to serve, cannot believe that legislation is scrutinized 704 better because we do it at midnight. Ministers are tired by then, so they will not do better, and opposition Front-Benchers will not do better; they have to work the following morning. All in all, we do not do ourselves much credit; nor do we provide the public with better scrutiny of legislation. It is plain silly, and in our heart of hearts we must admit that.
Some years ago, before I was a Member of this House, I was talking to a Member of the Canadian Senate who told me that they had embarked on a study of how hard various western legislative assemblies worked. On the basis of hours worked, number of sitting days, and so on, they concluded that the hardest-working legislative assembly in the western world was the House of Commons. Given that I am talking here, there are no prizes for guessing that the second hardest-working legislative assembly was this place. I do not know whether that is still true; perhaps we work harder than the Commons now. There are not many prizes for working the hardest. It is output which counts, not the number of hours spent getting there.
I make no bones about the fact that I am delighted with the report. I trust the six colleagues of all parties who produced it, and I believe that they have come up with a package that will make the House more modern and more in touch with the present century, without sacrificing the effectiveness of the House. I do not believe that the proposals are aimed at benefiting the Government; they provide a balance, and in some respects will make the task of government more difficult.
I could join other noble Lords in unpicking the package and saying that I have this or that idea. But it is best to let the package go to the Procedure Committee in its entirety, without the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, as that would simply kick it into the long grass. We can then get it back and see what happens.
With regard to the amendment, I cannot think of any aspect of British life outside the Palace of Westminster where we would say that we want something, give it to a group of people to take it further, and then say that there was no deadline. Would anyone in business not set a deadline? Surely any self-respecting commercial business or public body would set a deadline for the plan to take the changes that they want further.
Why not do that here? Why adopt standards that we would not expect any self-respecting business outside to adopt? I do not understand that.
§ Lord Denham
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me, but never before has a deadline been set for the Procedure Committee. The long grass would not be that long by the time it reported. My amendment seeks to give it the amount of time that it usually has to discuss such matters, as a courtesy. It would help to ensure that the sometimes difficult to understand recommendations are gone through carefully. Surely that is a sensible way to proceed.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I am sure that we have done that for several hundred years but I suggest that the world has to move on a little. I take my cue from business outside. If business feels that there is a way of moving forward and adopting deadlines as a way of expediting business and making a profit, why cannot we, without the profit motive, also adopt similar standards of efficiency? I am not against all traditions. There are some very important traditions in this House which I would defend to the last, but I do not think that this is one of them. This is an example of a tradition, practice or procedure which is not conducive to efficiency. That is my case but the noble Lord is obviously not persuaded by it.
I particularly welcome the idea of pre-legislative scrutiny. I give an example to set the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, at rest. When I was in the Commons I took part in one of the first Special Standing Committees. I accept that that concerned one House only and I very much believe that pre-legislative scrutiny should now concern both Houses. In that committee about 20 years ago we discussed the Criminal Attempts Bill. The Law Commission gave evidence, at the end of which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, who was then Minister of State at the Home Office, announced to the committee that in the light of the Law Commission's evidence, he proposed to withdraw one particular part of the Bill and redraft it. That was a great success. It meant that we did not have to go through all the business of probing amendments and other such measures. The Minister said that in the spirit of pre-legislative scrutiny he would withdraw a whole section of the Bill and bring it back amended. When it returned amended, it did not require much debate in Committee as we had already made the relevant point. If the proposals are given effect in that spirit—I trust that that will be the case—and government Ministers regard them in that light, it will be a victory for common sense. I give way.
§ Lord Lucas
My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. He reinforces my point when he says that the Bill did not require much scrutiny in Committee; in other words, the crucial part was the pre-legislative scrutiny. That is what Back-Benchers must have access to.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I do not want to go into the minutiae of how one can establish the best structure for pre-legislative scrutiny. Clearly, one cannot have half the House doing it as that would not work. However, it does not preclude subsequent debate and scrutiny by Members of the House who were not part of the pre-legislative process. I rest my case.
I move on quickly. Carry-over is a long overdue procedure. At the moment we battle to get things finished by the end of the spill-over period. To my 706 mind that does not make much sense as a way of conducting business efficiently. I believe that the changes proposed for Starred Questions, particularly topical questions, will make life much tougher for Ministers. I believe that Questions in this House are tougher for Ministers anyway than they usually are in the other place as they are longer and are subject to scrutiny. The topical questions hit Ministers very quickly indeed. In the other place I never answered Questions; I only asked them. However, having answered Questions in this House, I am convinced that it is a tough procedure. The proposed increase in the number of Starred Questions and the additional topical questions will make life tougher for Ministers but better for Back-Benchers on both sides of the House as regards subjecting Ministers to scrutiny.
I have already said my piece about the proposed 10 p.m. finish. We are daft to think that we can do anything sensible in a political sense late at night, although we may be able to deal with other matters. As regards September sittings, if the quid pro quo is that we get longer recesses at Christmas and Easter and do not have such long summer recesses, I believe that that is a sensible way of managing things.
I conclude by saying that we have a responsibility to the general public to conduct our business in a sensible, efficient and businesslike manner. That way we earn the respect of the public. If we sit late at night and into the morning, the public will think that we are not serious. I believe that we are serious and that these proposals will help us to demonstrate that.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen
My Lords, as a relatively new Peer I am pleased to speak in the debate. I came to your Lordships' House exactly two years and one week ago today. Therefore, I am very new in comparison with many who are speaking in the debate. However, I can say that the past two years have been among the most enjoyable of my life. Not only have I encountered friendliness, courtesy and inclusiveness, and that from all sides of the House, but I have also been able to sit in this wonderful Chamber and hear experts in all fields speak. I can sit and learn about new topics.
I particularly enjoy Question Time. I enjoy the repartee and the quick thinking of both those who ask the questions and those who answer them. I try to attend Question Time whenever I can. However, being new to the House, I have found some of the ways of the Chamber rather strange. I refer, first, to the timing of sittings. When I first joined the House I found it very strange indeed to commence a sitting half-way through a normal working day and continue late into the evening.
I add to the comments made by my noble friend Lord Dubs among others. Not many people know what this House does. I have discovered that as I have been asked about it by family and friends and, indeed, by strangers, as I was this lunchtime at a reception. I was asked what exactly the House of Lords does. When one explains what it does in detail, they are quite 707 impressed by the amount of time we devote to examining legislation, as many people consider that that is mainly the job of the Commons. But when one tells them about the timing of Sittings, they think we are mad. Not only do they think we are mad, they think, as I do, that it cannot possibly be in the best interests of our legislative procedures to work as late as we sometimes do. No one can perform at their best late at night, however long such traditions have continued. We need to consider them seriously, as, indeed, the members of the working group did.
When I first joined the House I also found it strange to be able to table amendments which comprised almost the same wording at three different stages of a Bill. I appreciate that that wording must be slightly different but it does not take anyone who has dealt with amendments for some years long to change a few words. Therefore, we are considering almost the same amendments at three different stages of a Bill. I realise that sometimes Ministers become worn down but that does not happen regularly. The working group has considered that matter in relation to Grand Committees. I welcome that consideration.
When the report was published I read it eagerly and thought that it comprised a very interesting package indeed. I congratulate all those who devoted so much time to it. I am also pleased that it is proposed to implement the recommendations for a trial period. I am a great believer in trial periods. When one is changing procedures which have been in place for many years, it is a good idea to do so for a trial period after which one can review the new procedures to determine whether they are exactly right.
I particularly welcome the proposal to increase the number of Starred Questions and to extend the time allotted to them. As I said earlier, I enjoy Question Time. It is also an occasion on which the Government can be held to account on the part of noble Lords on all sides of the House, as, indeed, is the case. Therefore, as I say, I welcome those proposals.
I am afraid that I am in total opposition to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who is not present at the moment. I welcome the proposal for an earlier start and a 7 p.m. finish on Thursdays. Indeed, I would he even more radical and suggest that we should follow that timing every day as they seem much more sensible working hours. Just as some of the noble Lord's colleagues agreed with his views on that matter, I know that some of my colleagues agree with my views.
I also welcome the proposal that the House should normally rise no later than 10 p.m. I have already explained why I welcome that proposal. I also welcome the proposal to increase the number of Grand Committees. Since I arrived in the House I have attended two Grand Committees. The first concerned the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill and took place in the Moses Room. I agree with all the comments that have been made about the acoustics in that room. The second concerned the Employment Bill which took place in Committee Room 4 on the committee corridor. Those experiences were very different. The Employment Bill sat for nine days in 708 Grand Committee. However, much understanding was reached during that time. Had that Committee taken place on the Floor of the Chamber, it would still have taken a long time.
The report is a good achievement. I hope that the Motion will be carried so that the Procedure Committee's work can begin.
§ 6.59 p.m.
§ Lord Lyell
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, as the first two or three minutes of her speech comprised exactly the speech that I would have made. I have enjoyed myself—I hope that I shall still do so—in your Lordships' House. One of the first lessons that I learnt was not to bore your Lordships and to try to be brief. I shall attempt to do that.
The report is to my mind very interesting, legible and digestible. I was fascinated by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, who I believe was the first speaker today to touch on the composition of the House and on how the proposals in the fascinating report might affect a reconstituted House. Indeed, I believe that that was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall.
If we have a recomposed House, I wonder whether we shall have two classes of Peer—those who wish to appear on television and act as professional politicians and those who are here to give advice and act as we do. As it is, I try to explain to my colleagues, as clearly as the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, has explained—I have to say to her that in the glens of Angus people think that this is about as far as the moon and regard me as very brave, coming here and going back every day—that the bicameral system of Parliament is akin to the Wimbledon tennis championships for a fortnight in 1968. Those of your Lordships who, like me, are getting a little long in the tooth may remember that, until 1968, the Wimbledon tennis championships were open only to amateurs. Suddenly, in 1968, professionals were allowed to play, and Mr Rod Laver returned and showed us the talents that we had been missing for all those years. That is one way in which I try to explain the difference between your Lordships' House and the other place; namely, that although we play on one court, we are the amateurs and the other place is for the professionals. I hope that we do our duties in a professional way. But, of course, the Government always must and should get their legislation.
I was very interested in what the noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Clement-Jones, had to say—that perhaps sitting in September might not suit some of the more professional of your Lordships; those who, prior to coming to your Lordships' House, had given commitments to do their duty to the very best of their abilities but had then found those commitments affected by the introduction of the proposed changes. But that is something that can be smoothed over and should not affect our consideration of the report before us today.
709 I enjoyed the comments of my noble friend Earl Ferrers, who referred to the great and the good. He is certainly both. Much of what he said is relevant to the fairly stern and perhaps justified criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, let alone others, about the Procedure Committee. Who does the noble Lord consider to be members of the committee? As far as I understand it, the committee consists of many of the great and good who sit on the Front Benches. I am delighted to see that the noble Lord agrees. I do not think they are all dinosaurs; I speak as a minor, long-legged dinosaur at the back of your Lordships' House. Be that as it may, the report certainly gives us a great glimpse of the powers that could be given to Back Benchers, which is why I shall be interested to hear what the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House has to say in reply to my noble friend Lord Lucas.
With regard to the content of the report, I note that the wonderful word "virtually" is used in paragraph 31(a). The noble Lords, Lord Blake and Lord McCarthy, both of whom formed my political knowledge all of 40 years ago at Oxford, let alone my alma mater, the chartered accountant of Scotland, would not give me particularly high marks for using the word "virtually". It seems to cover quite a lot. However, it may be clarified either by the noble and learned Lord today or on consideration of the entire report when it comes back from the Procedure Committee.
I am not entirely happy with the recommendations in paragraphs 31(k), (1) and (m). If the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, believes that he can leave here at seven o'clock and still catch the last flight to Edinburgh, I shall be joining him on it. Like the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, who is not in her place, even if I manage to take that flight, I do not get home until 11 p.m. But it shows that there is a vast geographical and perhaps ability-spread in your Lordships' House.
I conclude by conveying my deepest compliments to the noble Lords, Lord Brabazon, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe and Lord Grenfell, three of the chairmen of the European scrutiny committees. Of all the work that we do—surely we do the bread and butter work, the revision work, the catching up work, and perhaps some of the work that might have been missed in another place—that of our European scrutiny committees and sub-committees is, in the words of that marvellous regimental motto of the Coldstream Guards, nulli secundus, which means "second to none"; not, as I put it in my recruit days, "no second helpings", for which I finished up in the guard room. The work done by the European scrutiny committees is a jewel in your Lordships' House and a jewel in British democracy, and I am given to understand that it is widely admired in Brussels.
When the noble and learned Lord winds up, perhaps he will indicate what on earth is the significance of the date 8th July 2002. I have two little letters after my name: "CA" stands for chartered accountant; I could also use "CB", which has nothing to do with Companion (of the order) of the Bath, but "a cynical so and so". I wonder whether the noble and learned 710 Lord believes that England are going to win the World Cup, which may perhaps be a suitable day of triumph on which the Prime Minister and the Government could begin to settle and something might happen. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord will enlighten me on that, particularly in view of his great love for kicking the round ball.
§ 7.6 p.m.
§ Lord Parekh
My Lords, I joined your Lordships' House just under two years ago. That is obviously a very short time in which to get to know the place well enough to feel entitled to speak in this debate. However, it also has its advantages, including perhaps a willingness to raise questions about some of our procedures that others occasionally tend to take for granted.
For those of us who live quite a distance from London and have to earn a living, our hours of work cause a few problems. Sitting well beyond 10 p.m. is neither family friendly nor particularly debate friendly. The attendance is almost invariably thin and sometimes limited to the Front Benches. Even the most determined among us cannot be sure of sustaining the high quality of debate that is the hallmark of your Lordships' House. Sitting late on Thursdays would mean that those of us who live outside London could not manage to get home until Friday afternoon, with only two days to recover and spend with our families before getting back on the train on Monday morning.
The hours of our business cannot be discussed in isolation from the kind of work that we do. They are made necessary by the facts that the Government want to get through their legislation and we want to scrutinise it as rigorously as we can. We cannot therefore radically tamper with our hours of business unless we ensure that Bills which come before us are carefully thought through, skilfully drafted and do not require probing amendments or extensive clarification. We also need to find ways of devolving the business of the House to Grand Committees, as well as better balancing our parliamentary year. In short, every part of our business is tied up with some other, and we cannot change one without making appropriate changes to the other.
It is in that context that I want to endorse most warmly the recommendations of the Leader's Group. They sensitively link different areas of our work and constitute a coherent package. They also represent a cross-party consensus, are unanimously arrived at, and are based on ample reflection, as well as the written and oral evidence of those who know your Lordships' House most intimately.
It makes a great deal of sense to meet on Thursdays at 11 a.m. and finish at approximately 7 p.m. The proposal that no new item of business, including a new group of amendments, should be entertained after 10 p.m. on any day of the week also has much to be said for it. In order to make that possible, the report rightly recommends that drafts of all major government Bills should be subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny and that more of the House's business should be conducted in 711 Grand Committee. If these and other proposals were to damage our ability to discharge our functions effectively, we may wish to reject them or radically revise them. But that is not at all the case.
Among many functions performed by your Lordships' House, three are particularly important: first, scrutiny of the executive; secondly, rigorous examination of legislative proposals; and, thirdly, debates on major issues, in which we can discuss important proposals and outline our views. The report's proposals will strengthen our ability to discharge all three functions. For example, it is proposed that the time for Starred Questions on Tuesdays and Wednesdays should be extended to 40 minutes, with the number of Questions being increased from four to five.
Similarly, the proposed greater use of the Grand Committee process and of pre-legislative scrutiny will enable us to scrutinise legislation far more effectively than previously. Moreover, the provision of three additional Wednesdays for Back-Bench debates in each Session, as well as holding more debates on Select Committee reports and on general topics in prime time on the Floor of the House, will also provide great opportunities for the kind of debates for which this House is rightly well known. Therefore, I am convinced that the report is a long-overdue step in the right direction. It deserves to be welcomed and tried out for the period of two Sessions, as proposed.
Your Lordships' House is, rightly, anxious to reform its composition. It would be odd, and even inconsistent, not to reform its procedures, because the two are closely connected. Further, not to accept the report would be to send out the wrong message to the country where there is widespread—obviously mistaken—prejudice that we are opposed to all kinds of change. I therefore suggest that the time for change has long been over due, and that we should grasp the nettle and accept the report's major proposals.
However, that is not to say that one is happy with all the proposals contained in the report. Indeed, many noble Lords have talked about the proposals for September. As an academic, I believe that some of us might find that month a little difficult to accommodate. But such difficulties are only to he expected. No package of proposals will be equally acceptable to all. Therefore, I warmly endorse the report, and commend it to the House.
§ 7.11 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I assume that this debate will be read by the members of the Procedure Committee. Therefore, I begin my remarks with a footnote. At this stage of the debate, I am sure that no one would wish me to speak on every item contained in the report. But silence does definitely not signify consent in every case. I should like to mention only four matters.
First, I was tempted to join in the mini-debate between the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend Lord Denham by pointing out that we have it on 712 the authority of the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, that the committee of the Leader of the House was expecting to report by Christmas. It was not subject to a direction that it should report by a particular time; hut, in fact, the report has only just arrived. I see from the expression on the noble and learned Lord's face that I may be slightly wrong, but perhaps he will put me right when he responds. It is unnecessary to have a direction to conclude proceedings at a particular time to ensure that those proceedings are so concluded, even when there is great difficulty in arriving at consensus. What we do in that respect will depend on what my noble friend says at the end of the debate.
Secondly, on a lesser point, it has been suggested that we should use the Robing Room for Grand Committees "and other business". When I was a young man, I well recall my father taking me on a tour of the House of Lords. He became quite sentimental in the Robing Room, and said, "This is where we sat when the House of Commons was bombed by Hitler"; in other words, those from another place had come here and we had moved to the Robing Room. He added, "By the time you had screened off a Lobby on either side, put railings in front of the Throne and a Bar for the Commons and the public at the bottom, you were left with something rather like a large drawing room in which it was impossible to make speeches. The result was an infinite benefit to legislation, because you could only talk to each other. The worst thing that happened was when we came back here". So perhaps we shall do better when we go there.
Thirdly, subject to the reservations expressed by my noble friend Lord Lucas, which I warmly share, I believe that pre-legislative scrutiny is very desirable. I accept what the noble Lord. Lord Roper, says; namely, that it inevitably extends the time that legislation is in Parliament. However, I do not understand why it is necessary to accompany that with a carry-over at the end of a process. If it is extended by the length of the pre-legislative scrutiny, it seems to me that it should be possible to carry over Bills that have been so scrutinised into the next Session. But if they are only half-way through the process at the end of a Session, I do not believe that Bills should be exempted from the carry-over rule any more than any other legislation.
I see doubt mirrored in the faces of many noble Lords sitting opposite me. However, I should remind them that, like it or not, the day will come when they are sitting here on this side of the Chamber and their only really significant means of keeping the government of the day to account will be by marshalling the expenditure of time. The threat of losing a Bill at the end of a Session gives an opposition considerable leverage over government which they would lose completely if two Sessions could be devoted to one piece of legislation.
Incidentally, I notice from the table in the report that, in one Session—I shall draw a veil over which government were in office at the time—no fewer than 86 Bills went through your Lordships' House. 713 Therefore, to extend the ability to put material through this House seems to me superfluous; it should not happen.
My final point relates to the question of when this House should sit. At the opening of his speech, the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House said that our decisions today—and, presumably those that flow from it—may be critical for our future".We should not take those words lightly; nor, indeed, those that were said two paragraphs later:Procedural reform alone will not make … [the House] more effective".I understand the temptation to make our hours match more closely the hours of the working world, but the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, hit the nail squarely on the head time and again in his remarks. It is not possible for some of us to play a useful role in this House if we are prevented from playing a useful role elsewhere of a morning—in the noble Lord's case, one morning only in the week.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, mentioned how much she had been instructed by those who speak in this House. The reason they are able to instruct her more than others is that they are actually out there learning what they subsequently come here and say. The report makes much of the financial expertise of many noble Lords. That is not because some of us have held high office in the Treasury, and elsewhere, in the distant past: what matters is up-to-date knowledge.
I am sure the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House will not mind my recalling something that he said elsewhere yesterday. I hope this will be a quotation, not a paraphrase. I believe he said that Members of your Lordships' House must make up their minds between being effective parliamentarians and being "part-time Members". I must stress to your Lordships that there is no contradiction between being a part-time Member and an effective politician. Indeed, in this House it is necessary to be a part-time Member in order to be an effective politician, because you live in the wider world. That is becoming increasingly rare in another place. We are here to balance the other place. It is also self-evidently valuable in the debates that take place in your Lordships' House.
I am tempted to continue, but noble Lords will be relieved to hear that I shall put that temptation behind me. Many noble Lords have put the important points so well. I shall, therefore, sit down.
§ 7.18 p.m.
§ Lord Greaves
My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, and the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, I am a member of the class of May 2000; I have been here almost exactly two years. It has been interesting to listen to people who have been here for considerably longer, and to hear their different perspectives. Before we came here, we were obviously told many things about this place—some of which have turned out to be what are known these days as "urban myths", while many have turned out to be true. 714 I should like to list three or four of those things that have turned out to be the truth and which, to my surprise, I have found to be very much "pluses".
The first relates to legislation. Without your Lordships' House, I should hate to think of the state of much legislation. Much current legislation is still in great need of improvement, as many noble Lords have said. Without this House's role of revising and scrutinising legislation, that legislation would he a great deal worse.
Secondly, we have the occasional showdown with the other place. I remember one amazing occasion not too long ago when we were all singing in the Lobby—or at least Members on these Benches were, Your Lordships probably all thought that we were mad, but you are not alone in that. This raises a useful function that this House performs. Occasionally—it would be wrong if it were more frequent—the Government are made to fight hard for their legislation and to defend their proposals. In many cases, they do so against arguments that are based on fundamental principles. It would be wrong if the House were deprived of the ability to do that.
My third point involves the debates that we have in this House, which several noble Lords have mentioned. There was a proposal that the arrangements for Wednesdays and Thursdays should be swapped. The suggestion was that arrangements for Wednesdays are not really terribly important because all we do is debate. Sometimes those of us who take part in such debates go away and think, "That was interesting and good for us. It was stimulating but, for the outside world, what was the point of it? Was it of any value?". Debates in this House are often rational and informed. They are one of the last bastions in this country of something that is important—an affirmation of the value of rational, informed debate. So little of that now goes on outside. The serious newspapers have dumbed down in many ways, so that they are not very different from the Daily Express and the News Chronicle of 30 or 40 years ago. The way in which politics is debated out there on television involves instant opinions on little information, focus group manipulation, instant opinion polls and so on. It is vital to maintain the value and tradition of debate in your Lordships' House.
To my astonishment, I find that a great deal of what is debated here gets noticed out there and sometimes is brought up months after the debate took place. As a North of England person, I have an interest to get back home as soon as possible before a weekend but I am against changing the arrangements for Wednesdays and Thursdays for the reason that I have given. That change would result in the "new" Thursdays being regarded as the fag-end of the week.
To my astonishment, I also find that your Lordships' House is one of the few remaining places in which the Government still have to defend their position on many issues. They are held accountable in the face of what I should call criticism from a broad liberal/Left standpoint. Perhaps we are the last bastion of that. I refer not only to these Benches but also to the 715 Government Benches and the Cross Benches. Indeed, on occasion, the Conservative Front Bench turns out to be taking a more liberal and progressive view of legislation than the Government.
§ Lord Greaves
My Lords, I do not suggest that all Conservatives do so. I notice that my old friend, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is looking quizzically at me. I willingly except him from the accusation of being Left/liberal! Nevertheless, people have said that some on the Conservative Benches represent the last bastion of the old Liberal/Tory tradition. Long may it continue.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, said that we are interested in these matters but asked whether anybody out there was. These are vital matters because the detailed procedures of this House, as part of the British Parliament, involve the basic liberties and rights of Members of the British Parliament to hold the Government to account. I do not suggest that we should go as slowly as the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said we had been going during the past 100 years; however, we should move carefully. I believe that the package is modest, evolutionary and reversible and therefore, as a package, I am very happy to support it.
I turn to Thursday morning sittings. I am with my noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie and not with my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones in this regard. I was once described by David Steel, as he then was—my noble friend now—as being a "North of England nationalist". I said, "No, I am not. I am no more a nationalist than you are a Scottish nationalist. My view of the North of England is as your view of Scotland". I have spent my life arguing against people who believe that the institutions of this country should be organised only for those who live and work in London. I do not suggest that we should move Parliament to Harrogate—
§ Lord Greaves
My Lords, I do not suggest that for the moment; and I do not suggest that our arrangements should be only for those living in the North of England. We are simply asking for a bit of give and take.
My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones said that if he could not be here at 11 o'clock on a Thursday, scrutiny would be more difficult. However, it may be that towards the end of business on a Thursday, many Members from the North of England, Scotland, Cornwall or wherever who currently go home early and miss our proceedings will be present and able to scrutinise. Individual Members of this House—myself, my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and anyone else—do not necessarily have to be here; the important thing is that enough of us are here and that there is a balance. I am in favour of the proposals for Thursdays. I should go on later than 10 o'clock at night, which is 716 nowadays a bit early to finish. I should go on until 11 o'clock or midnight, but not later than that. However, that is a detail.
The package as a whole is a welcome step forward. As a "North of England non-nationalist but protagonist", I suggest that it is a small step towards a future in which this House is more representative not just of the people in the South East or London but of people from all the regions and nations of this country.
§ 7.26 p.m.
My Lords, the hour is relatively late— although possibly not as late as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, would like—and we have had a long debate, so I shall try to be brief.
I find this package eminently sensible. I also find the proposals, as my noble friend Lord Peston said, extremely reasonable. My noble and learned friend the Leader of the House made the case for the package eloquently and persuasively. There is little that I can add at this hour. Many other noble Lords, on all sides of the House, have made a similarly positive case.
There is no hidden agenda in the report. It is an honest attempt to improve our working practices to the benefit of the whole House and—dare I say it—Parliament as a whole. If there is any hidden agenda, I suggest that it is to be found not on these Benches but somewhere else.
We will have plenty of time to discuss all of the proposals in detail when, as I hope, the proposal is agreed and the Procedure Committee comes back at a later date. At this late stage of our debate, I shall say no more about the substance of the report except to express a certain relief and pleasure that among the excellent recommendations is the call for a thorough review of the House's scrutiny of European legislation. As the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, said, that is urgently needed; I totally agree with him.
As a next step, it strikes me as wholly logical and businesslike to remit the report as it stands to the Procedure Committee with an instruction to come up with detailed proposals by 8th July on the implementation of the package so that the House has an early opportunity to debate the proposals fully and to vote on them. Equally logical and businesslike is the proposed trial period of two Sessions. That means that changes in our working practices are not immediately set in stone but can be revisited in the light of two Sessions of practical experience. On that basis, any suggestion that the proposals are being rammed down the throats of noble Lords would be totally absurd.
I turn to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Denham—a person for whom I have both respect and affection. The report's proposals comprise 14 points. As noble Lords may recall, some 85 years ago President Woodrow Wilson produced a rather more famous list of 14 points. Of them, Georges Clemenceau said:They bore me. Even God Almighty had only ten".I should love to think that the noble Lord's amendment was motivated either by mere boredom 717 with the recommendations or by a simple complaint that there are four too many. I am afraid that that is not the case. Like the noble Lord, Lord Denham, and, I believe, probably the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and a number of others, I was brought up on Hymns Ancient and Modern. But I did not make a personal mantra of the famous line:Change and decay in all around I see".However, I am afraid that that is not the case in relation to some noble Lords in this House. Change is not to be equated with decay. Change is regeneration and it is life. That is what we are talking about: the regeneration and the life of your Lordships' House.
Agreement to the amendment would risk unnecessary delay, and that carries with it the risk that this House would be seen as delaying changes on the mere supposition that they might not work rather than putting them early to a practical test to see whether they can work.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will be kind enough to give way for a moment. Can he explain how, if the House sits for less time, it can provide greater scrutiny?
My Lords, I understand that the whole purpose of the proposals is not that the House should sit for fewer hours; their purpose is simply to bring about a redistribution of the time in which we sit. I honestly believe that that was the intention of the recommendations, and I welcome them.
That, and particularly, if I may say so, the very negative line taken by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, hardly squares with what I perceive to he the prevailing consensus in this House; that is, that improvements in our practices are needed to enhance not only our efficiency but also the quality of our working life and that those improvements are long overdue.
Whatever the effect of the amendment, it certainly cannot lend impetus to the process of change, without which we shall remain hobbled by practices which simply do not match the demands of a House which is in the process of modernisation.
Herbert Samuel once, rather unfairly I believe, complained that with the Civil Service there was always,a difficulty for every solution".That could perhaps be more fairly applied today to those who would frustrate progress on this entirely sensible and timely set of proposals. If the noble Lord, Lord Denham, insists on dividing the House, I shall certainly vote against the amendment.
§ 7.32 p.m.
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, I fear that the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House may have been painfully aware of the fact that, when I joined his committee, I did so in a somewhat gloomy and grumpy frame of mind. I had the gravest doubts as to whether a Leader's committee was the right body to consider change. I had the gravest doubts as to whether it was 718 the right time to consider change, when second stage reform was in the offing. And, looking at what had happened in the House of Commons, I believed that I had every reason to be suspicious when the Leader of the House seemed to think that change was necessary.
It is all very well for the noble Lord, Lord Peston, to mock those of us who are suspicious of change, but he should go down to the other end of this building to see what change has done there. In the Commons drastic change has taken place in the name of modernisation: change which has drastically curtailed debate; change which has made life easier for the Members and much easier for the Government; and change which has almost completely destroyed the effectiveness of the place. If anyone doubts that, they should ask themselves what would have happened if, when we took the terrorism legislation through this place, the same restrictions on debate had applied here as applied in the House of Commons. No proper consideration of that legislation would have taken place at all. The Commons have made complete fools of themselves and have allowed the Government to make fools of the people. And — I must say this to the House—I did not want us to make fools of ourselves.
But the committee met and we found that we were able to work together. We came to the conclusion that it was only common sense for us to try to find issues on which we could all agree. The result is a report which is a compromise. One proposal which might advantage the Government is balanced against another which might not. For example, carry-over would occur only if pre-legislative scrutiny took place, and there would be more use of Grand Committees, but not to give the Government even more time to introduce bad legislation.
Perhaps I may deal with just four of the proposals. First, I turn to carry-over. I can tell noble Lords that I should never have agreed to carry-over had it not been linked to pre-legislative scrutiny. Almost every person today has said that pre-legislative scrutiny is a good idea. Here is an incentive to the Government to provide for it. It goes without saying that we were not agreeing to token pre-legislative scrutiny, with the committee setting a ridiculously tight timetable for reporting. Therefore, it will mean that several months will elapse from the publication of a consultative document on a draft Bill to the committee reporting, and the whole legislative process will he considerably extended. Therefore, it does not mean an easy ride for the Government. Indeed, I have my doubts as to whether, in reality, the Government will be able to proceed on the basis that virtually every Bill will have pre-legislative scrutiny.
We tried to strike the same type of balance in relation to the use of Grand Committees. I want to emphasise to noble Lords that the report recommends a greater use of Grand Committees; it does not recommend that many more Bills go to Grand Committee. It does not recommend—here I must correct the Leader of the House if I heard him aright in his opening speech—that the type of Bill envisaged by Rippon should go to Grand Committee; it 719 recommends that additional Bills of the type envisaged by Rippon should go to Grand Committee. To me, that signifies "some" more Bills.
But, even with a 10 o'clock cut-off, it is clear that simply a few more Bills going to Grand Committee will mean that more time is available on the Floor of the House. That is not to be used for even more badly prepared legislation but for more debates—debates on Select Committee reports and general debates.
As to the 10 o'clock cut-off, at no time did the committee envisage that that would mean less time for Bills taken on the Floor and less time for Bills which went to Grand Committee. At no time did anyone on the committee—least of all the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House—suggest that a 10 o'clock cut-off would imply some type of timetabling. Nothing of that kind is mentioned in the report, and I should never have agreed to a cut-off if there had been any such suggestion. The Government are honour bound—I know that they will proceed on that basis—to ensure that Bills receive the same time as they do now.
So far as concerns starting at 11 o'clock on Thursdays, I consider that to be a reasonable solution to a problem recognised on all sides. There was some unhappiness about the decision not to switch the business on Wednesdays and Thursdays. We all considered that it was far too early to readdress that issue. But this is a different way of approaching the very real feelings of those who, in particular, live a long way from London and have a hard time if there is important business on Thursday and the House sits until late in the evening.
With regard to recesses, I believe that recommendation 31(1) is a little unhappily worded. We did not discuss longer recesses at Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. However, we did agree that, if the House of Commons rose at the beginning of July and returned in September, we should be wise to follow suit. The same applied in relation to the other recesses.
I do not think much of the suggestion in paragraph (m). I went along with it because my understanding is that from 2003 the House of Commons will sit in September and, as a result of our other recommendations, this House will sit in September. Therefore, the situation of this House not sitting and a Committee sitting on Bills will not arise. That was the only basis on which I agreed with the suggestion that the Leader of the House wanted to put in the report, but which I could see was entirely irrelevant.
I support the recommendations in the report, but in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, I say that the Motion before the House means precisely what it says. Clearly the Procedure Committee is entitled to recommend as it thinks fit: it can recommend that the report be implemented or that some parts of the report be implemented and not others. That is that.
§ 7.41 p.m.
§ Lord Brightman
My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I want to take advantage of the gap to 720 make what will be the shortest speech in this debate. I want to add a word about those orphans, consolidation Bills, that the Leader of the House told us in opening were securely locked in a cupboard and no doubt the key has been thrown away. Perhaps I may give your Lordships the figures. In the three Sessions, 1990 to 1993, no fewer than 28 consolidation Bills were enacted. In the three Sessions, 1998 to 2001, only one consolidation Bill was enacted. That information was kindly given to me in a Written Answer by the noble and learned Lord's predecessor. I hope that some working practice can be invented that will cope with the backlog of consolidation Bills.
§ 7.42 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated and express my gratitude for the evident care and conscientious approach that has been demonstrated. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, summed up our deliberations in a masterly and generous way. He may be wrong about the second part of paragraph (g). I thought I said that,(a) the House should normally rise not later than 10pm;(b) this should be coupled with greater use of Grand Committees for the kind of bills considered suitable by the Rippon group".It is in the report. Apart from that I believe that we are in entire agreement.
I believe that we all approached each other with a certain degree of caution, overlain with a certain degree of suspicion. At every meeting it was a pleasure to see how much closer we could get, with everyone having to give and take. I shall not respond to every point because I hope that we shall have an early opportunity to debate the matter and to come to our distinct conclusions. I shall deal with the substance, and then turn to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Denham.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, has just dealt with consolidated Bills. I respectfully disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. Consolidated Bills do not change the law in substance; they pull it together and they are not contentious. They are important. We could carry out useful work. Not every noble Lord would need to be present at a Grand Committee on a consolidation Bill or a Law Commission Bill. The key is that those who wish to be present in September—if we use that opportunity—could attend. There will be no disincentive, no discouragement for anyone else who simply wants to attend for the whole or part of the Session, whether he or she wants to contribute or not.
The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, said that I was trying to steam matters through—in my dreams!
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, between my noble friend Lord Carter and I, we have massed behind us quality battalions that amount to just over a quarter of the strength of this House—about 28 or 29 per cent. He and I, with our quality troops, have 25 fewer than 721 the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, so how will we manage to steam anything through? The Liberal Democrats and the Cross-Benchers could vote against us; they have an iron grip on this House. For my part, I see no disadvantage in that. We have to accommodate each other's different views; we have to listen to other people's arguments; and sometimes in a democracy it is salutary that that should occur. It is not for me to say anything about the House of Commons.
I turn to one or two distinct contributions. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, for a graceful and informed speech about the problems of European legislation. I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham for his short contribution that reminded us that we are attending to housekeeping and not building the kingdom of God. It is a shame that this will be almost his last appearance; I believe that he is due to retire on 31st May. I shall miss his contributions as I know your Lordships will.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, it is sometimes said that this is a part-time House. It is not. It is a full-time House that depends significantly upon those who attend part time. We actually work very hard indeed. The Canadian sample, quoted by my noble friend Lord Dubs, is out of date. Compared with any other chamber in the world, the House of Lords is the busiest. Most of the time is spent to the benefit of the public.
I turn to my friend, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who said that with sinking heart he is never quite sure whether I mean what I say. With even more of a sinking heart, I know that when the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, speaks he means what he says. Gently and politely as always, he chaffed me by saying that I had said on a number of occasions that our duty is to hold the executive to account. It is. It is absolutely critical to the health of a functioning democracy, particularly when any regime has a large majority in the other place, that someone attempts to hold the Government to account. It is a matter of pure indifference to me—I cannot say this more strongly—whether a strong government is headed by Mr Blair or by Mrs Thatcher. Any democracy requires the checks and the balances that are offered in this place. That does not mean that the way in which we have always worked over the centuries is productive or useful.
The noble Earl asked what was in the package to hold the executive to account. There is pre-legislative scrutiny and scrutiny of secondary legislation that we all agree is not carried out sufficiently well. I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, that that will have to be approached with great subtlety and care, but we could carry out the work that presently lies undone. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, made observations about the scrutiny of European legislation. That may be holding to account an executive that may not necessarily be domestically based, but nevertheless the work needs to be done.
722 It is not for me to say—but I shall—that Question Time offers a marvellous opportunity, particularly in relation to topical questions, to challenge Ministers, to bring them to account and occasionally to see whether or not they may be induced into an embarrassing pitfall.
On the matter of debates in prime time, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that the voice of Back-Benchers should be heard. The proposal is that there should be more prime-time debates for Back-Benchers on Wednesdays and that the committee reports that are so important should also be debated in prime time. That is my reply to my friend, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who asked me where the material is upon which this House may further, more effectively, more diligently, challenge the executive and bring it to account.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, perhaps the noble and learned Lord can answer better the question that I asked his noble friend Lord Grenfell: how will the House of Lords provide better scrutiny if it finishes work earlier and sits fewer days?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, there are two answers to that question. I shall deal with each of them. First, a blunt calculation of what hours are spent in the Chamber or in committees is not a true indicator of the way we do our work.
Secondly, there is no contemplation—the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is absolutely right—that we should sit less. Indeed,if we sit in September and take longer holidays at other times of the year, the proposal is—and it is plainly implied, if not explicit, in the report—that we should sit the same amount of time. What we will be able to do is to go home at a sane hour, such as 10 o'clock, sit more sensible hours, such as 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, and have the great advantage, with the disbenefits to governments if departments do not get their Bills in order, of pre-legislative scrutiny allied to Grand Committee.
The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is right. If pre-legislative scrutiny becomes the norm, then carry-over of Bills is linked to it. But he is right in saying that if there is no pre-legislative scrutiny there will not be the consequential understanding that carry-over will be available. I stress—and it is worth looking at the text—that carry-over will be available only if the House agrees. I repeat, my noble friend Lord Carter and I have 28 per cent of the vote. So if we were conspirators we should be in the unsuccessful class of Guy Fawkes rather than in the successful—
§ Lord Naseby
My Lords, why are the two impenetrably linked? Pre-legislative assessment clearly has the support of all the parties in the House. Carryover of Bills has almost nil support, unless there is a specific and agreed basis to go forward The Lord Privy Seal said initially that the two were linked entirely. If he is now saying that it needs the unanimous agreement of all parties in the House, he has shifted his ground a little.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I have not shifted my ground in the slightest. They are linked because if one has pre-legislative scrutiny, the legislative process for a particular Bill is much longer. In the nature of things, it must be. I have not shifted my ground in any particular. Paragraph 31(b) states:subject to the right of the House of Commons to determine its own procedures, hills that have received pre-legislative scrutiny in either House should, on a motion moved in the House in possession of the bill at the end of the session, be allowed to be carried over".I repeat, if I were to move such a Motion and your Lordships were against me, that is the end of carryover for that Bill. If we do not behave scrupulously and decently then your Lordships will not agree to carryover. So they are linked, and they are linked in those particular ways.
Perhaps I may mention one matter in passing. With regard to the common watering hole, the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, has the matter well in hand. Someone in the People's Republic of China will read that and wonder what it means.
I now turn away from the debate, which has been an excellent debate with different nuances, to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Denham. The noble Lord must make his own decision. I hope that he does not press the amendment, but in case he does I must deal with his question. I shall deal with the matter in some detail because it may be that the matter troubles your Lordships.
Originally, I had had set down a draft Motion for future business. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, both wrote to me—and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Roper, spoke to me—saying that they were not happy with the original form. Accordingly I wrote to all three with copies to everyone in the group in these terms:Further to your letter, I have given some careful thought to the exact form of the Motion to he tabled in my name for 21st May. I do see the points that you raise and I certainly have no wish to provoke hostility. We have come so far in a consensual way, I would like to proceed by consensus if at all possible. I have talked the matter over with the Clerk of the Parliaments and I would like to suggest a compromise wording which Michael Davies advises he would be content with. My suggestion is",and then it is word for word the Motion here.Michael thinks this is a reasonable timetable. I would not like to go on without the group agreeing".I hope that your Lordships think that that was appropriate. The original Motion may have been too harsh. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and the noble Lord, Lord Roper, asked me to rethink the matter. I took advice. The advice was that 8th July would give seven weeks. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, asked the question: Why did I not bring my report in on time before Christmas? I am expecting—I hope that your Lordships expect—the Procedure Committee to produce its report on time. The answer is plain. We were not working to a defined agenda; it was open-ended. The Procedure Committee is being asked to deal with certain particulars. Not all of these recommendations, I remind your Lordships, require any action by the Procedure Committee.
724 I am not imputing bad motive to anyone. There was a suggestion that the group which I had the privilege to chair could be accused of trying to sneak something through. I am sorry that such words were used. In response I shall say no more than, "Please look at who was in the group before using words of that kind." I put that matter on one side.
We are not trying to sneak anything through. What we are saying is that we now have a decent momentum and dynamic for improvement. Much of that is additional burden on the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, was concerned about the carry-over of Bills. I listened, as I always do, with great care to what he said. But your Lordships will have noted on page 2 of the report that our House has already approved the principle of carry-over. The reference is given in footnote 7 on page 2. I shall not trouble the House by reading it out.
I think that it is reasonable and proportionate and not. I hope, aggressive to ask the House to vote in the terms of my Motion. I recognise the concerns that some noble Lords have, but I believe that we have come a very long way in a spirit of amity and consensus achieved at the 16 meetings. I would ask your Lordships to trust the group and to support my Motion.
§ Lord Lucas
My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, does he share my noble friend Lord Waddington's interpretation of his Motion?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, the Motion is perfectly plain. The instruction is, by 8th July, to make recommendations—and I underline the following words—"for approval by the House, as to the implementation of the Report".
All this rests with the House.
§ 7.57 p.m.
§ Lord Denham
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for what he has said. My main concern in this was seeing that the conventions of the House were not disturbed. The two that particularly worried me over this matter were: first, that a take note Motion had an instruction tacked on to it, which has never been done before and is certainly against the spirit of the Companion; and, secondly, it had never been done before and I thought it dangerous to do it on this occasion to set a time limit for the Procedure Committee.
It has been a very friendly debate on the main topics of the report. I do not think that I managed to get a great deal of support among my noble friends and others who spoke to my particular worry over the time limit and the Procedure Committee. I think in that case it would probably be unwise for me to divide the House without support going across the debate. So, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.