HL Deb 17 September 2003 vol 652 cc913-7

3.25 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

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

Any questions which your Lordships may have would be best addressed to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon.

Moved to resolve, That the Commons Message of 16th September be now considered; and that any Lord may participate in the proceedings of the Standing Committee on the Inter-Governmental Conference appointed by the Commons, but may not vote or move any Motion or be counted in the quorum.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I turn to the point on the quorum. I shall not mention the names, but I have served on two Joint Committees; the quorum is a perennial and constant problem. We cannot be part of a quorum unless we have a vote. Therefore, it requires rethinking, to some degree, about where your Lordships' stand on these committees. I suggest that some thought be given to whether those who accept to serve on these committees do not, as a matter of honour, agree to attend because on so many occasions there has been no quorum. The matter could be considered by an appropriate committee of this House.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, perhaps I may shake the Leader of the House by offering warm enthusiasm for what he has done with regard to the second stage of the scrutiny of the IGC. In the light of concerns expressed by Members of this House about the issue of noble Lords not counting towards a quorum, not being able to move a Motion arid not being able to vote, perhaps the appropriate mechanism would be a Joint Committee of the two Houses rather than a Standing Committee of the Commons, which obviously implies these limitations on the rights of Peers.

Having said that, although we are grateful for this second stage, we hope that the noble and learned Lord can assure us that it does not set a precedent for any future studies of this kind on matters arising from the European Union. There is a particular reason for that. Apart from procedures which have left us with a Standing Committee rather than a Joint Committee, a tremendous contribution is made by this House towards the scrutiny and consideration of European Union developments and legislation. I hope that the noble and learned Lord is able to give us an assurance that this second stage—which we accept because it is the second stage of a Standing Committee—does not imply any precedent for the future.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, first, I shall deal with the questions that remained unanswered, asked by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and my noble friend Lord Barnett. Of course, then I shall give way to the noble Lords, Lord Howell and Lord Stoddart.

The noble Baroness is right. This is a Commons committee, which is the reason that Peers will be invited to attend and speak, but not to vote, move Motions or count towards the quorum. The noble Baroness rightly identified the nature of this committee and that this is a second stage. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, has indicated that this will be a useful co-operative venture.

For the future, we should determine whether we can agree possible differences with our colleagues in the Commons. The noble Baroness will know that a number of these points were raised at the Procedure Committee. I promised to write immediately to my right honourable friend Peter Hain, as Leader of the Commons. I did, and copied the letter to the noble Baroness, to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I am awaiting a reply because the letter went only a few days ago.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and my noble friend Lord Barnett asked specific questions which I should answer. There was concern before the committee met on previous occasions about notice of meetings. I think that that was dealt with satisfactorily in the end. It is a Commons committee but, of course, our colleagues in the Commons want to be helpful. Therefore, the plan is for meetings to be set after consultation between the FCO and the usual channels in the House of Commons. The FCO has undertaken to keep the Chief Whip's Office informed. As always, the office of my noble friend Lord Grocott will ensure that the usual channels are kept in the picture. I hope that gives a degree of assurance.

Questions were also put about whether an FCO Minister would be present on every occasion. I am happy to say that I understand that a Minister will always be in attendance, but not on every occasion can there necessarily be a guarantee that it would be a Minister from the FCO.

I did not want those questions to go unanswered because they were specific and the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, was quite right to say that I would deal with them.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, we welcome the continuation of this committee in a new form, but I wish to make a serious point relating to the issue of the quorum which I should like the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House to take back to his colleagues for consideration. Like the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, I attended all the earlier committee meetings. Because the quorum for the committee is quite large and confined to Members of the other place, interruptions frequently arise. Indeed, on one occasion we had to abandon the meeting of the committee altogether which, after it had been planned a month ahead, was very tedious.

The problem could be solved by reducing the size of the quorum so that it would not be necessary to keep Members of another place there in such large numbers. It would be a simple move and is one that should be given some attention. In that way we could achieve uninterrupted attendance at the committee, which was successful and I hope will be as successful in the future.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful for that suggestion. It certainly offers one possible solution. A further long-term solution referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, is that if one had a Joint Committee, it is possible that the problem of the quorum could be solved in that way.

I undertake to do as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, has invited me: I shall bring this proposal to the attention of the Leader of the Commons. I know, too, that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has very distinguished experience of serving on a Joint Committee when he was a Member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which avoided some of these difficulties.

For the moment, however, it is understood that this is a Commons committee which noble Lords attend but in which they do not participate any more fully than I have indicated. However, it seems to me that there is no reason why we should not have perfectly calm and rational discussions to see how procedures can be improved with the agreement of both Houses.

Lord Renton

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord take the opportunity to have a word with the Leader of the House in another place so that he may tell the members of the committee that, although Members of your Lordships' House will not have a vote, there are among our Members far more people with experience and expertise of the relevant matters than can be found in another place?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I shall convey the message of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, in as tactful a way as possible.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I was about to criticise the buck-passing which appeared to be taking place between the Lord Chairman of Committees and the Leader of the House, but of course the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House has now accepted the buck and dealt with it very well indeed.

The only point I wish to emphasise is that Ministers really must treat Members of this House equally. I should like an assurance that they will do so.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, as I said earlier, I shall transmit the concerns expressed by noble Lords to the Leader of the Commons. Perhaps the best course for me to follow is to enclose a copy of Lords' Hansard relating to these matters.

On the matter of the quorum, I think I can help a little further. In the committee on the convention, only Commons Members who were members of certain Select Committees could count towards the quorum. In the committee on the IGC, all MPs count towards the quorum, so it is reasonably possible that the problem of a failed quorum may be mitigated. However, I shall take these points forward. We can move on only by agreement, but I do not see why we should not look for a reasonable compromise on this issue.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I do not want to hold up the proceedings for any longer than necessary. However, while listening to this discussion I have become increasingly concerned. It has highlighted the concern felt by many of us that this is a Commons committee. There seems to be no reason at all why it should not have been a Joint Committee, and the fact that it is not one seems to suggest that, once again, there is not a full realisation in the other place of the important role we play.

Bearing in mind the expertise in this House, I think it extraordinary that it was thought sufficient to have a Commons committee rather than a Joint Committee. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will press on his colleagues in another place our case for Joint Committees to be set up in the future.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord has made a perfectly legitimate point and I was not derogating from the theme of his remarks simply by endorsing what was said by the noble Baroness. She pointed out that today we are dealing with the present circumstances: this is a Commons committee and therefore we have limited "rights".

I undertake to put forward all these points to the Leader of the Commons. However, I have to say that both he and Mr Cook, his immediate predecessor but One—his immediate predecessor was in place for too short a time to hold any meaningful discussions—have been extremely helpful and receptive to all proposals that I have put forward in the interests of this House.

On Question, Motion agreed to; and a message was ordered to be sent to the Commons to acquaint them therewith.