HL Deb 25 June 2003 vol 650 cc293-304

3.9 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall make a further Statement concerning the Government's proposals for the Speakership of this House.

On Thursday 12th June the Government announced proposals to reform the office of Lord Chancellor, including a proposal that this House should choose its own presiding officer. Last Monday I announced a week of consultation on that proposal.

I am very grateful indeed that many of your Lordships from all around the House have contributed to that consultation, by either walking through my open door or writing to me. I have also gathered views from others by less formal means. This consultation has served a useful purpose in giving me and the usual channels a fair idea of where consensus may be found and how we may move forward.

I suggested last week that the main question was, shall we take this opportunity to set up a mechanism to appoint our own Presiding Officer? There are many who think that we should. I do not pretend that there is consensus. Some see no case for change at all and some believe that the House benefits from having a member of the Government as its presiding officer.

Many of your Lordships advised me that the question of the appointment of our Presiding Officer cannot be separated from the question of powers and functions. I accept that. Some of your Lordships favour a Speakership with significant powers of order, but I have to say that they are in a minority. More favour either a Presiding Officer with no more powers and functions than the Lord Chancellor exercises at present, or a Presiding Officer who would take from me and my colleagues on the Government Front Bench our role as upholders of the conventions of the House set out in the Companion. Either way, there is strong support for continued self-regulation, and strong feelings against a Speakership in this House on House of Commons lines. So I believe that the process of consultation, which was very extensive and very helpful, has been useful.

It is not strictly relevant, but I ought to mention that several noble Lords on all sides of the House took the opportunity to give their view that in recent months self-regulation has slipped a bit in the direction of self-indulgence.

Of those who commented on the method of appointment of a Presiding Officer, most favour election. Some proposed safeguards, such as a minimum number of nominations from each group in the House. But there are other views, including the view that an elected Presiding Officer would inevitably be too powerful for self-regulation to survive.

In short, there is plainly not a level of consensus which would allow me to put proposals straight to the Procedure Committee. On the contrary, there is very strong support on all sides of the House for a Select Committee on the speakership, and that is what I now propose. I shall shortly table a Motion to set up a committee, with a remit as follows: To consider the future arrangements for the Speakership of the House in the light of the Government's announcement that it is intended to reform the office of Lord Chancellor". That remit will allow the committee to consider not only the role of the Presiding Officer, and the method of appointment, but also the following issues which your Lordships have identified as important: the Presiding Officer's title, pay, term of office and accommodation—the latter was a topic of keen interest, particularly among those of your Lordships who assured me they had no interest in occupying the particular post—Deputy Speakers; the relationship with the Chairman of Committees, the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Clerks, and the House authorities generally and, of course, State Opening and other ceremonial functions.

As your Lordships will understand, I am not proposing today a Select Committee on the Government's proposals for the Supreme Court and judicial appointments. As my noble and learned friend said in answer to the earlier Question from the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, the Government's proposals on those matters will be published on 14th July. Of course the committee will be able to have regard to them if it considers them relevant to the question of the Speakership.

As to timetable, I envisage that the committee will start work before the recess, and report by the end of the Session, with a view to changes being introduced early in the new Session, subject, of course—I underline that if I may—to the committee's recommendations and the wishes of the House. The House will, of course, have a full debate on the committee's report.

My Lords, copies of this Statement are available as usual.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble and learned Lord for making the Statement. I also thank him for the trouble that he has taken to consult widely across the House in the short time that he allowed himself. Perhaps he will give us an idea of the number of representations that he received. All I shall say is: if only the Prime Minister had done the same; life would have been a lot easier.

For myself, when there is so much other pressing business. I find it hard to see the urgency in this matter. After all, we have a system that works. It is old certainly but it is not bad just because it is old; it has become old because it works.

From our perspective, this is a House matter. It is certainly in no sense a government matter, and in that sense I think that a Select Committee is the right response. I also have no quarrel with the terms of reference suggested by the noble and learned Lord, if he will underline the point made in his Statement that the Select Committee must have regard to the whole range of changes proposed to the role of Lord Chancellor.

Can the noble and learned Lord say when the House will be able to debate the promised Motion to set up a Select Committee? Can he promise us that when the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is in a position to tell us what should be done with the other parts of his office, he will make a Statement to this House—certainly in advance of any press briefing on 14th July? He might also give an opinion as to whether or not he believes that will be in the form of a White Paper. This may be a point better made when we debate the terms of reference, but I see no need to make any changes to the role of Speaker of this House until the Lord Chancellor is divested of his other responsibilities.

The noble and learned Lord proposed examination of the State Opening. Are the Government proposing any other change in that great ceremony other than in the role of the Lord Chancellor? Will he confirm that the noble and learned Lord will play the usual role in the State Opening this year?

The noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House must be under no illusion as to the importance we attach to the freedoms of Peers in this House and to the value of self-regulation. He added a gentle poke about our self-indulgence. I agree it is important that noble Lords on all sides display restraint if self-regulation is to work as it always has. But the answer I suspect lies not in changing the system or subjecting us to a Chair but in each of us knowing and respecting the rules. I certainly subscribe to the importance of that. Perhaps I may be allowed my own aside. Self-regulation might sometimes work better if Ministers answered the questions they were asked, and did so briefly.

We have to look at the issue of the Speakership; the Government have placed it on the agenda. But there is no case for haste. We on this side of the House are content with the role played by the Lord Chancellor in this House, but if the House agrees to establish a Select Committee, we shall play our full part in it. But the Select Committee must do its work thoroughly and should resist any blandishments from the Government.

3.18 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House. He has, indeed, been a paragon of consultation in the past week or so. We are grateful to him for keeping his door open to all Members who wished to consult with him. However, that, in the view of these Benches, does not detract from what I can only describe as a disgraceful handling of this matter—one that in our view was unfair to a very distinguished former Lord Chancellor and also unfair to Members of this House who should in our view have been consulted much more thoroughly before such a huge constitutional change was made.

Having said that, we on these Benches strongly support the idea of a Select Committee. We believe that it is the right way to go forward. We believe that that Select Committee will examine very carefully all the various considerations that have been raised by Members of this House. Having said that, it would be very helpful—-perhaps the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House can assist us on this matter—if we could have a list of all the functions of the Lord Chancellor that will remain with that post, with the exception of those posts that pass to the Minister for Constitutional Affairs, and also the judicial responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor. Members of this House will know that there are, as the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition indicated, many functions pertaining to the Lord Chancellor, including even such rather controversial issues as the appointment of certain members of the Church of England clergy. It would be extremely helpful if Members of the House could know what those functions are, and if the Select Committee could know what they are before it starts its work.

I have two final points. In our view, serious consideration should be given to retaining the title. The person who will preside over this House will also in many instances represent this House, particularly abroad. We should think very carefully before abandoning a title that has great historic reverberations associated with it, and that enables those persons who preside over this House to establish themselves as very major personalities when they visit other parliaments and other senates in other parts of the world.

With regard to the understandable expression of some concern about self-indulgence by Members of this House in continuing to discuss matters, for example, on Report and at Third Reading that have already been dealt with in Committee, many noble Lords would be more than happy to co-operate in assisting in speeding up the business of the House, but we require a serious commitment from the Government. The largest number of new amendments to legislation going through this House are presented by the Government themselves, literally in the thousands in the course of a Session.

If we could receive an assurance from the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House that he will ask Ministers who bring forward legislation to do so in the most complete form possible, recognising therefore that amendments should come up only if there are urgent reasons for doing so, all of us in the House would be able to handle the business much more efficiently and effectively. We would therefore continue the excellent tradition of self-regulation.

3.22 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I was very shocked that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, proposed without consultation of any sort revolutionary constitutional changes; namely, that Ministers should be expected to answer the questions put to them. He is quite right, of course, and I am very grateful for the tone of his remarks and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and also for the tone with which all noble Lords came for consultation. There are different views, but no view was expressed other than in a spirit of co-operative amity, and I am very grateful for that.

There were a large number of respondents. I cannot give the precise number. because responses were still pouring in as I left my room to come to the Chamber, but there were well over 80 very deeply considered and well thought-out proposals. Of course, there were informal ones as well. Our attendance is perhaps of the order of 300 to 350, so that is quite a significant tribute to the interest that all noble Lords have shown and taken. Many noble Lords said that they came with a generalised view, representing views additional to their own, so in that sense 80 is a shade of an underestimate.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the matter is for the House. I will not be proposing any Front Bench representation from our side on the Select Committee, and I hope that that strikes noble Lords as appropriate.

The question of the Motion for the Select Committee is intended to be first business on Thursday 3rd July, in answer to the noble Lord's specific question. We have no proposals for altering the occasion of State Opening. Indeed, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has made it plain himself, and also through me with his authority, that he is perfectly content to discharge such duties for such a time as your Lordships think appropriate. I know that his generosity of heart and approach has been welcomed by all noble Lords.

The noble Baroness asked about a list of the manifold duties of the Lord Chancellor. Urgent work is in hand on that. Speaking on behalf of my noble and learned friend, I can say that, although I think that he has to appoint 500 or 600 vicars to the Church of England, he has nothing at all to do with the appointment of Bishops.

A number of noble Lords had different views about the title, to return to the specific point of the noble Baroness. There was very little support for "Presiding Officer". It reminded your Lordships too much of Scotland—or Wales. There was some support for "Speaker", but that was underlined by the fact that we did not want any confusion with the sort of beast that the Speaker is in the House of Commons. I was happy to note that there was some support for "Lord President", and I heartily endorse that.

A Noble Lord


Lord Williams of Mostyn

Oh dear, my Lords. Who said boo? There was some support for a novel title but, it being novel, I think that it ought to be immediately discarded. That was "Lord Speaker". There was more support for "Lord Chancellor". All those ideas, as the noble Baroness and the noble Lord said, are matters for the committee to look at it in detail at the appropriate time.

3.25 p.m.

Lord Carrington

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House and the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition bear in mind, when the time comes, that ex officio we have always had two members of the Cabinet? On more occasions than not, we have had only those two. If we abolish one of those ex officio members. we might have only one member of the Cabinet. For the second Chamber, that would really not be enough.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord. That observation was contained in the proposals put to me. I have had every observation collated. They are not to be identifiable in the sense of who made the proposals, as that would be a breach of confidence, but a very full log has been kept, and that aspect will feature in the papers that we are happy to provide to the committee if it so wishes. At the moment, thanks to the immaculate helmsmanship of the Prime Minister, we rejoice in having three Cabinet Ministers.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that, in the 88 Standing Orders of the House, the role of the Lord Chancellor as Speaker is mentioned in only five, and that he appears only four times in the index to the companion? I make that point became it seems to me that the role of the Lord Chancellor in this House is entirely a matter of convention. That means that if the House decides to agree on new conventions and amend its Standing Orders, it is entirely free to do so. Is it also true that the role and title of the Lord Chancellor, excluding the Speakership, must remain until it is changed by statute?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there will be statutory requirements, as I think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, has pointed out. I am aware of the fact that, of the 88 Standing Orders, only five refer to the Lord Chancellor as Speaker. I am aware of that because, of course, my noble friend Lord Carter told me that he was going to ask me the question before I came in.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that, not so long ago, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland argued that there could not be proper scrutiny of the Bill on the Northern Ireland Assembly in the House of Commons because the House of Lords insisted on scrutinising it properly itself? Does that absurd position not underline how important it is that we do absolutely nothing that could weaken our ability to scrutinise legislation properly? Is it not essential therefore, among other things, that any Presiding Officer should not have the power, for instance, to select amendments?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I believe that we scrutinise Northern Ireland legislation extremely well. It is a tribute to the flexibility of our procedures that, within 10 days or fewer of the suggestion being made that we ought to have a Standing Order on Northern Ireland legislation, we introduced one. I agree entirely. We scrutinise legislation well, and it is no coincidence that sometimes very difficult, intricate and sensitive legislation in the Northern Ireland context is introduced into this House.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, will consideration be given to the position of those employed to render various services to the Lord Chancellor? At the moment, they are in a position of total misery, uncertainty and distress.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord's observation is right. No one likes uncertainty, and it is a duty on those who employ others or work with others to keep them as fully informed as possible.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord on having decided to set up a Select Committee. I am sure that that is the best way out of the problem. During the Statement, he slipped between talking about the Speaker and then the Presiding Officer; and about the Presiding Officer and the Speaker. He also said that the majority of people did not like the term "Presiding Officer" and I agree. Would the noble and learned Lord be kind enough not to refer to Presiding Officer? I do not know what the difference is between the two, but I am sure that there is a significant one.

Secondly, will he bear in mind the fact that whereas the present Speaker puts only formal questions—for example, moving that the Question be now agreed—once one pays a Speaker, even if he is elected, he will be much more intrusive? There must of course be a Deputy Speaker, a Chairman of Ways and Means and so forth, so the bureaucracy will grow. I hope that the noble and learned Lord agrees that that would be a bad thing.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I used the phrase "Presiding Officer" neutrally, as the noble Earl will readily accept and understand, in order to describe the person who presides on the Woolsack. It would have been deeply presumptuous of me to have used any particular denomination for the successor to my noble and learned friend because it would have appeared to be usurping the function of the role of the committee and your Lordships' decision.

We have a paid Speaker at the moment. He sits not far away from me to the left. His predecessor was paid, I remind myself. Your Lordships will have rejoiced to know that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, was paid a distinct component of his salary for being Speaker. So for once—I can hardly remember such a thing happening previously—the noble Earl is wrong.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, when the committee examines the functions of the new post—I do not know what to call it for the purposes of today's discussions—will it also examine the accommodation requirements that go with it? I do not mean merely the residential accommodation, but the whole range of accommodation at this end of the building. Some of it might go begging, might it not?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, if it does, I shall bear my noble friend Lord Dubs firmly in mind. With the best will in the world, I believe that all these issues are matters of detail rather than for today.

Lord Elton

My Lords, turning to a slightly larger issue—

Lord Naseby

My Lords—

Noble Lords


Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, when this happens, there is a large undertow shouting, "Speaker!". Shall we take the noble Lord, Lord Elton, first and then the noble Lord, Lord Naseby?

Lord Elton

My Lords, thank you. My noble friend Lord Carrington made an important point in referring to the possible discarding of one of the two ex officio Cabinet seats in this House, which are sometimes the only seats we have. That strongly links the decision the Select Committee will have to take with other decisions relating to the office of Lord Chancellor.

I was therefore reassured when the noble and learned Lord explained that the present Lord Chancellor had said that he would be happy to discharge such functions for such time as your Lordships might wish. However, I was disturbed to note that the Statement indicated that the timetable set would provide for the implementation of the changes soon in the new Session.

Is it not the case that there are at least 5,000, and possibly 15,000, references to the Lord Chancellor, his duties and powers in statute and that every one will have to be amended or reallocated by statute? Is it also not the case that until the possibilities are understood, no reasonable decision can be taken? Can we therefore have an undertaking that the decision we make will not be finalised until at least those components are known and published, as they will be when my four Questions for Written Answer are answered?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I used to be well versed in the art of selective quotation when I was at the Bar. I shall complete the quotation that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, did not finish: subject to the committee's recommendations and of course the wishes of the House". I respectfully suggest that we take it step by step. No one dissents from setting up the committee. I have already said that our Front Bench will have nothing to do with it—it is a matter for others to decide about their nominees. But we must not try to resolve everything today.

Lord Naseby

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that his decision that the committee shall consist only of Back Benchers is greatly welcomed across the whole House? Will he therefore go further in the spirit of co-operation and consider that the chairmanship of the committee should rest with its members or, preferably, that it should go to a Member from the Cross Benches?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that latter suggestion was put to me vigorously and firmly by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. I promised to give it every consideration. I hope that your Lordships will be satisfied about the identity of the Peer who chairs the committee.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, in order to inform further consideration of the problem, can the noble and learned Lord the Lord President say whether there is any reason—constitutional, legal, conventional or other—why the future occupant of the Woolsack should not be called Lord Chancellor?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not believe there is. Ultimately, the Lord Chancellor in his modern guise is in many ways a creature of statute—in the sense that the responsibilities discharged by him are given to him by statute. But these matters should be considered in some depth by the committee.

As soon as I gave an impromptu answer, I realised that I should not have done so. I noticed the unfortunate coincidence, from my point of view, that sitting immediately next to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, and I thought that I should not be offering legal answers in such august company.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, when I was first appointed a government Whip, I had drummed into me that it was not the Minister on the Bench but the Whip who was in charge of keeping order in this House—unless the Leader was present in which case he naturally took that role. Will that role of the Leader of the House be examined by the Select Committee?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, certainly. It seems to me that anything relevant to any possible change in our arrangements should be considered. Speaking on behalf of the committee, of which I shall not be a member, we welcome representations from all quarters.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord on reaching the conclusion to which many of us have come following informal soundings around the House. However, the questions addressed to him today show that the work of the Select Committee will encompass very complicated matters. Given that there are likely to be only 50 more sitting days before the state opening, how can he possibly expect the Select Committee to complete its work in the time-scale he envisages?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, first, I do not believe that Select Committees operate only on sitting days. Secondly, no one could suggest that the vast spectrum of alternatives has not been canvassed, at least on an initial basis. When we look at the work of other Select Committees, not least that which the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, was significantly responsible for setting up, I have no doubt that they work extremely efficiently and well, not least because they are extremely well served by the Clerks of this House, who do extremely good work.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, given that members of Select Committees are paid only when they meet on sitting days, we shall require some very noble Lords to sit on this committee. Is the noble and learned Lord aware that the Lord Chancellor's appearance in statute is about to be increased by one as a result of the draft civil contingencies fund Bill? There is therefore clearly a role for the Lord Chancellor beyond the mere Speakership of this House and his role in the judiciary and the conduct of law in this country. The committee might consider whether some additional powers which the Lord Chancellor now exercises should remain with him because they are not central to government but properly exercised by someone who also has the role of the Speakership of this House.

Perhaps I may take up a remark made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. When the noble and autolytic Lord on the Woolsack was taking the Sexual Offences Bill through this House, he introduced many government amendments, mostly in response to points made by the Liberal Democrats and ourselves. I should be sad if the Government ceased to bring forward amendments on that basis.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I was tempted to make that last point earlier but, not wishing to be unduly partisan, I did not. The ethos of this place appears to be more accommodating to accepting amendments where appropriate than the other place. That is one of the virtues of the way we work. My understanding is that the assumption of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about remuneration is not correct.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, following the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, it is not the Leader of the House or the Whip on the Bench who keeps order. They merely voice the views of the House on who should speak. The House keeps order itself. They merely articulate what they perceive to be the views of the House.

When I first entered the House 23 years ago, there was no problem whatever. If two Peers—particularly at Question Time—stood at the same time on opposite sides of the House to ask a supplementary question they would both sit down and say, "After you". Nowadays Peers stand and shout. I am sorry but it is a matter of manners. We need to return to the previous position.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I mentioned that it had been detected and reported to me, to my shock, that a tendency towards self-indulgence had been creeping in.

Lord Dahrendorf

My Lords, when the terms of reference for the Select Committee are drafted will the Leader of the House seek to ensure that the issue of ceremonial functions outside the House is not overlooked? Such functions are often more than just ceremonial. When I was warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, it was a great pleasure to have the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, as visitor of the college. An interesting question is: who, in future, will undertake those functions? It may be the wish of the House that they should be undertaken by the Lord Chancellor on the Woolsack.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, that that is within the terms of reference as drafted following advice from the Clerk of the Parliaments. Visitors of universities have other functions which are not purely ceremonial. Apparently I am now the visitor of 17 universities and I imagine that I shall shortly discover which ones. The functions are not purely ceremonial, but the disciplinary functions will soon be transferred to a more open, transparent and reformed system.

Recently, visiting Ottawa to speak to the Canadian Senate the point raised by the noble Lord was reinforced to me. Very often the Speaker of the Commons attends Speakers' Conferences and the existence of the House of Lords is sometimes overlooked. All those matters are appropriate for consideration.