HL Deb 18 December 2003 vol 655 cc1282-4


Lord Phillips of Sudbury

asked Her Majesty's Government: What plans they have to inform and involve the public better in the legislative process.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, the Government are keen to involve the public in the legislative process and are doing so through consultation on legislative proposals and through publication of more Bills in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Baroness for her Answer. I should probably declare an interest, as founder and president of the Citizenship Foundation, which is pre-eminently preoccupied with matters of citizen information.

In the spirit of Christmas and of fairness, I accept that we are all in the same boat on the issue of citizen competence. Whichever yardstick one uses—whether anecdote, polling data or electoral turnout figures—it is common ground that the public have never felt so uninformed as they do today. My question is this: if the public were much better informed and involved, would not the sheer volume and complexity of law-making defeat the purpose of information and consultation, given that we are now legislating at the rate of 12,500 pages of new law a year—that is two, three and four times the amount generated by comparable countries? Does not this lead to information overload, suffocating bureaucracy and, above all, a sense of public resentment? What will the Government do to address this overarching problem in 2004?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, for his Question. He made some very similar points in our debate on the Queen's Speech, which I took on board.

The noble Lord has raised the issue with respect to public information and the volume and complexity of our legislation. There are two separate issues here: first, the content of the legislation and what we are trying to do with it, and, secondly, how we talk about it, when we sit, and the access that the public have to both Houses of Parliament. While there is a volume and degree of complexity in our law-making, the public are quite able to understand when there are major policy issues at stake, if we take the trouble to explain them. There is a responsibility not only on us as a Government but on others involved in the process to be clear about what we are trying to do through legislation. There is also an issue relating to the kind of language that we use in Parliament, which we need to take on board.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, it is a challenge to explain the process. For example, the public surely will not understand, because many noble Lords do not understand, why the Government are so eager to allow pre-legislative scrutiny for Bills such as the civil partnership Bill, but not for a Bill that will fundamentally change our constitution and, in particular, our administration of justice.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the decisions on pre-legislative scrutiny are taken by considering a range of different factors, including urgency, how ready a Bill is for publication and the overall needs of the programme. This Government should be congratulated on bringing Bills forward for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the development of e-government needs to be paralleled by a development of e-democracy? Should we not therefore have appropriate electronic consultation at the pre-legislative stage of all draft Bills—which should perhaps include most Bills? Is that not particularly relevant when we are dealing with the rather opaque situation of devolution, when primary legislation for Wales is drafted not always with the full interests of Wales or the National Assembly at heart?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. We need to use all the facilities available to us, which is why there is an e-envoy and why all Bills and their Explanatory Notes, and draft Bills, are published on the Parliament website. That is why we are considering ways in which committees can engage more through that process.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, I wonder how my noble friend would answer a question that might be asked of her by a member of the general public. Why do some Members of this House insist on resisting the idea that the House of Commons has primacy over the House of Lords? That was indicated by the fact that a majority of this House repeatedly voted against and ultimately destroyed Clauses 41 and 42 of the Criminal Justice Bill, on jury trial, despite the fact that the House of Commons on three separate occasions with increasing majorities indicated that it wanted to keep those clauses in the Bill. The Commons wanted it and we said, "No". I wonder how my noble friend would seek to explain to a member of the general public what is right about that.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, my noble friend raises a very important point, which is at the heart of the relationship between the two Houses. It is important that we recognise and respect the fact that the other place is the elected Chamber. We do that through a number of conventions. Of course, this House has the right to ask the other place to think again. However, I agree with my noble friend that there have been times when the other place has made its views absolutely clear on a number of occasions and when this House has time and time again gone back to the other place.

The relationship between the two Houses will evolve over time. Looking back at those examples, I am sure that we will be part of that process.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the Minister take care that this suggestion does not lead to inflicting unnecessary pain on the public? Before the public are further involved in our processes, would it not be just as well if those processes were really tidied up, especially down the other end of the corridor?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I am not entirely certain which particular suggestion the noble Lord makes reference to. There is an issue with respect to consolidation of legislation, which is being considered; but the wider point of involving the public is one that is very well taken by the Government.

Baroness Strange

My Lords—

Lord Grocott

My Lords, we have had 24 minutes. We have only six minutes left for the next Question.