HL Deb 01 July 2003 vol 650 cc732-7

3.14 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the Second Report from the Select Committee (HL Paper 126) be agreed to.—(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:

Appointment of an additional Sub-Committee of the European Union Committee

1. At their previous meeting on 17 February, the committee considered a proposal from Lord Grenfell that two additional sub-committees of the European Union Committee be set up. This request was related to the review of scrutiny of European instruments conducted by the European Union Committee. The Liaison Committee took the view that it was at that stage premature to come to a decision on Lord Grenfell's proposal before the House had debated the European Union Committee's report and before the Government's response had been received.

2. The report was debated by the House on 9th May 2003. At the end of the debate Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean indicated that the Leader of the House would support the creation of one additional sub-committee. In the light of this Lord Grenfell has proposed that one additional sub-committee be set up, so that the division of policy responsibilities between sub-committees might be improved; to deal better with the increase in workload of the Select Committee; and to anticipate outside pressure for an enhanced role for national parliaments in the European Union stemming from the proposals of the Convention on the Future of Europe. Lord Grenfell has indicated that the European Union Committee would be content to reduce slightly the number of Members of the House serving on each sub-committee so as to minimise the effect of the appointment of an additional subcommittee on the availability of Members to serve on them.

3. A majority of the committee agreed that an additional subcommittee should be appointed for the reasons provided by Lord Grenfell in his original proposal. Concern was expressed, however, that the appointment of such a sub-committee might lead to an increase in the number of reports recommended for debate. Current pressure on time for debates was already very high. Concern was also expressed that the appointment of another sub-committee should not place undue pressure on the availability of Members of the House to serve. Accordingly, the committee recommends that the European Union Committee appoint an additional sub-committee with effect from the next Session; that the committee exercise restraint in the number of reports recommended for debate; and that the number of Members of the House serving on sub-committees should not exceed ten.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I rise to ask the Chairman of Committees a couple of questions. I shall place the matter in context. When I first saw this document I assumed that it was a wind-up and as such one of the most brilliant spoofs I have seen in this House.

First, there are the remarks that whatever we do we must minimise the effect of the appointment in this case, but we must generalise it to cover any case, on the availability of Members to serve on the subcommittees. The expression, should not place undue pressure on the availability of Members of the House to serve". Given that there are several hundred people who comprise the membership of your Lordships' House, is it not odd that the availability of Members to serve on important sub-committees is so limited? Whenever we debate the role and future of this House—and I assume we are due for another such debate any minute—we always emphasise our enormous contribution, our total commitment, the fact that we do this marvellous job, and so on, yet when one comes to a small subcommittee, which is not put forward frivolously by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, one of the immediate considerations is the somehow limited availability of Members to serve. This is not a trivial matter, because, regarding the Finance Sub-Committee, which your Lordships are keen on—where I was told that this House was full of experts in the scrutiny of the Government's finances—I had to go around cap in hand to persuade almost anybody to serve. Whenever someone asked, "Do I have to turn up?", I replied "Yes, you not only have to turn up but this committee will be meeting continuously for about four weeks". The answer was, "Regretfully, no". This is a serious matter. If our House is being prevented from doing its job because of availability, there is something much more wrong with our House than I was willing to take seriously.

The more important wind-up—and this is brilliant of the Liaison Committee—is that whatever this new sub-committee does it must exercise restraint on the number of reports recommended for debate. This is not doing what, again, I thought we set up committees to do, which is to look at the subject, study it properly, write a report and then rather pathetically hope that people are interested so that we might have a debate. Now the approach is, "Well, we have been set up, but we had better not do anything in case it might lead to a request to debate our recommendations". It is so ridiculous that, if this is the way our House is to run in future, one starts to come to the view that perhaps the world would be better off without us altogether.

I do not believe that for one minute. But the lesson we must learn is that if we decide to so something—and in this case the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, has put forward a serious suggestion—the correct response is to say, "If it's worth doing, we will provide the resources to do it. We will, I am sure, find Members to serve, and when they have produced a first class report, we will find time to debate it". That is our justification.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, I largely support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, about membership of committees. However, is there a minimum level below which there should not be a committee? Ten members sounds fine. But has there been any research on all the committees of this House that have sat over the last two or three years, and on their attendance levels? There are a large number of people who accept membership of committees and are unable to serve for all sorts of reasons. Some of the reasons are manufactured in this House. As the noble Lord, Lord Peston, knows, I have been unable to attend this committee on two successive weeks through being involved in discussion of amendments in the Chamber or in Grand Committee. There are around 100 people who are doing an enormous amount of work; the remaining people are not sharing the burden. It would be useful to know the attendance figures. The last thing we would wish to do is to appoint 10 members, and then find that only five ever turn up regularly.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, as a former chairman of a sub-committee I am also concerned that we are reducing the number of members from 12 to 10. Is it possible that the situation might be reviewed in light of the views expressed? The European Union Committee actually asked for two additional subcommittees to undertake its work, but we have ended up with only one. The principal reasons seemingly being given are that we are short of resources. In light of the fact that we have nearly 700 Members of this House and that we have problems ensuring that EU scrutiny is carried out correctly, would the Liaison Committee be prepared to set up an investigation to try to see why we are having difficulty finding sufficient people, and can it take steps to ensure that we have sufficient people?

Lord Grenfell

My Lords, I would like to shed a little light without pre-empting what the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees has to say.

I start by saying that I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for granting us one of the two committees we asked for. That will help. There is tremendous pressure at the moment. The mandates of individual sub-committees are very wide. They are all important, but a particularly significant one at the moment is the Environment and Agriculture Sub-Committee, which is also meant to deal with public health and consumer affairs. We wanted an extra sub-committee so that we could have a committee devoted to social policy and consumer affairs, which would include health, worker protection and education and other issues. I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for providing us with an extra committee. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness the Deputy Leader of the House, who told me first that the Government Front Bench would support it. I am grateful to her for having promoted it in the Liaison Committee.

With regard to numbers, I think that we can make things work with 10. I have never been a great supporter of large committees. The question is whether we get people who will attend. If we have a committee of 10 and we can guarantee that seven or eight will be there for the meetings, it will work. What we must avoid is a situation in which the usual channels feel that they must put so-and-so on to a committee because they need the party numbers, and so-and-so does not show up. My philosophy is to keep the numbers reasonable but to make sure that those on committees are genuine attenders.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, raised a concern about debate times. There may be a slight misunderstanding here. I do not think that it was the intention of the Liaison Committee—the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees can confirm it—that the extra committee, which will be known as Sub-Committee G and will deal with social policy and consumer affairs, would have to go slow in producing reports. The Liaison Committee was saying that the whole constellation of sub-committees must not produce more reports than the House can digest. I accept that; it is a fair point. It does not invalidate the point that I have made for a long time, which is that we should try to get prime time for our reports. We are making determined efforts to ensure that reports that can be for information only, rather than debate, will not be brought to the Floor of the House.

One of the reasons why we are doing a great deal in the Select Committee and the constellation of subcommittees to improve our external relations and our publicity is that we want to make sure that reports that are for information will not just be for the information of the House but will be made available to the outside world.

We can live with 10 members. We are grateful to have a seventh sub-committee. Provided that we can get time in the House for the really important reports, the Select Committee on the European Union and its sub-committees will deliver what your Lordships want.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, I pay tribute. first, to the work done by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. I know how much he does and what a great job he does. I understand why he does not want to upset the Liaison Committee. Having got one of the two committees that he requested, he might want to go back sometime for the other one.

I never thought that I would find myself in disagreement with my noble friend Lord Peston. When he said that he had to go cap in hand to get anybody to serve on the Finance Bill sub-committee, I was quite offended on behalf of those who did join, including the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, who is certainly not "anybody" and was an excellent member of the committee, as was my noble friend Lord Sheldon. We had an excellent Finance Bill sub-committee as, I am sure, those noble Lords would agree.

I agree with my noble friend on one important point. It is not that relating to the size of committees. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, that a committee of 10 members, provided that even nine of them work full-time, can do a great job. Usually, on our committee—the Economic Affairs Committee—we do not have 100 per cent. The more important question has been raised before; I have raised it before. How do we find time to debate the reports? There is no point in having reports from committees if we do not find time to debate them on the Floor of the House. I noted the recent suggestion that time might be found for debate in the Moses Room or in a Grand Committee room. That is an excellent idea, and I hope it will be followed up, although 1 would prefer reports to be debated on the Floor of the House. There are so many excellent reports from committees of your Lordships' House. It is an important matter.

Those on the Government Front Bench always say that they do not have control of more than 27 per cent—even then, it is only for some of the time—of your Lordships' House so they cannot decide how many days should be allocated for Select Committee debates. That is a matter for the usual channels, as we call them—that is, those on all the Front Benches. I hope that they will take note of the mood of the House, and I hope that time will be found, one way or another, if necessary. We might even sit for an extra day or evening in order to debate important reports. As I said. that is not a matter for the Government Front Bench alone; it is a matter for all Front Benches. I hope that they will take note of that and that the last words of paragraph 3 of the Liaison Committee's report will be, if not deleted, noted with some concern.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, first, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that the report is neither a spoof nor a wind-up. It is the work of the Liaison Committee. As noble Lords will see, the committee was not unanimous in wishing to set up an additional European Union sub-committee. It agreed to do so only with the accompanying recommendation about reducing the number of members of the committee from 12 to 10. At present, there are six European Union sub-committees. They are not all up to strength, but, if they were, they would involve 72 noble Lords. There will now be seven sub-committees of 10, adding up to 70.

The committee was conscious of the additional work of committees in train at the moment. A new statutory instruments committee is to be set up in the new Session. There are pre-legislative scrutiny committees for several Bills, and the number is likely to increase. There is also, of course, the finance subcommittee, to which the noble Lord, Lord Peston, referred, not to mention the Select Committee on the Speakership of the House that is due to be set up later this week.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, made a second point about whether reports should he recommended for debate or information. That was answered by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, to whom I am grateful for his intervention. I am grateful that he is happy with what the Liaison Committee has come up with.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, I must say that I have no research into attendance at committees. So far as I am aware, there has not been a problem finding a quorum, whatever that may be. We can look into it. No doubt, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, will wish to do that in respect of the European Union sub-committees.

The noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, also, I think, largely answered the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, referred to a membership of 700 in the House. The active membership of the House is considerably fewer than that.

The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, asked for more time for debates. I am sure that the usual channels will have heard that request. I hope that they will be able to respond to it. All the report asks is that the committee exercises restraint in the number of reports recommended for debate, does not insist that all reports should be debated and agrees that some should be only for the information of the House. I hope I have answered most of the questions. I commend the Motion to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.