HL Deb 26 January 2005 vol 668 cc1330-84

7.6 p.m

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath rose to call attention to the report of the Labour Peers' Working Group on reform of the powers, procedures and conventions of the House of Lords; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it was a great honour to have been asked to chair the Working Group of Labour Peers and to open this debate today. I begin by paying tribute to the members of the working group, its advisers and secretariat, who did such a wonderful, hard-working job and supported me throughout the preparation and publication of the report.

I am delighted that so many distinguished Members of your Lordships' House are taking part in the debate. It has one clear aim: to discuss how we can improve the contribution of this House to the nation's Parliament. In seven years' membership of your Lordships' House, both as a Minister and as a Back-Bencher, I have seen at first hand the work of this House in complementing the House of Commons in holding individual Ministers to account and in improving legislation—even some of my own.

I have no doubt about the value of this place as a revising Chamber. Nor do I doubt the contribution made by so many Members of this House to public life in this country. But we cannot be complacent. Not all our work is of the highest quality and our reliance on voluntary constraints and informal and ever-moveable limits on the use of our powers is surely unsustainable.

This is not the first report that has ever been written on Lords reform and I suspect that it will not be the last. Indeed, one of the most pleasant of the working group's tasks was to plough through some of the many reports written on Lords reform over a century or so. We started with the Bryce conference of 1918. Viscount Bryce and his 31 fellow parliamentarians did not get as far as they would have liked, but I am sure that if he were here today, he would recognise many of the arguments that will be deployed in our debate.

Moving on 50 years, the 1968 White Paper was a remarkable piece of work and supported by many Members of your Lordships' House. Indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who I see is in his place, spoke in the debate on the 1968 White Paper proposals and broadly supported them. Alas, the unholy alliance between Enoch Powell and Michael Foot did for the legislation.

Thirty years on, we had the Royal Commission on Lords reform. That report was the most substantive ever written on the subject and it is a delight to see the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, speaking in our debate today. Despite his efforts and those of many other would-be reformers in the past 100 years, progress can at best be described as "steady as you go".

We have of course seen some changes. The absolute veto has been replaced by delaying powers; life Peers have been introduced; women Members have been introduced; and the right of most hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House has been removed. But more, much more, remains to be done.

Inevitably, much of the current debate on membership has been about composition and whether Members should be elected. Consensus on that remains as elusive as ever. This is hardly surprising given the likely impact that significant changes to the composition of the House is likely to have on the position of the House of Commons. It certainly suggests to me—and, I think, to the working group— that decisions on composition are best made when there is clarity about the role and functions of the second Chamber.

I make no apology for the terms of reference, which are quite intentionally focused on powers, conventions and procedures. Our report is not the longest that has ever been written on Lords reform, but it covers a great deal of ground and I shall be able to concentrate on only one or two aspects.

Two key themes run through the report. For many years the Lords has recognised the pre-eminence of the Commons and relied upon informal constraints to govern its relationship with the elected Chamber. But this is a voluntary decision. Conventions are not coded in legislation or standing orders; they can be ignored at any time the House decides—and in recent years the House has so decided. It has pushed at the limits of the convention that it must consider the Government's business without unreasonable delay; it has broken new ground in annulling statutory instruments; it has resurrected a method of challenging the Government unknown for nearly a century; and the House has seen threats to the legislative programme.

No doubt some noble Lords will argue the merits of each of those individual actions today. That is fair enough—but can noble Lords deny that they are illustrative of a more assertive House? As my noble friend Lord Carter has written: the House can operate only if all its members observe the conventions … The delivery of the government's programme of legislation in a House where the government are in a minority depends entirely upon the co-operation of the opposition parties and the observance of the conventions of the House by all its members". The working group concluded that the second Chamber needs to operate within clear and transparent rules, achieved through a combination of statutory changes, agreement between this House and the Commons and procedural decisions of this House. Far from undermining the role of this place, we believe that the House is likely to have greater influence and satisfaction if it is confident in the use of its powers and procedures.

So we make a series of recommendations: an overall time limit for legislation to go through Parliament; a time limit for the second Chamber to consider a Bill; reaffirmation of the importance of the current delaying power; reconciliation machinery to try to resolve disagreements between the Lords and the Commons; the absolute power on secondary legislation to be replaced by a delaying power; and that Bills starting in the Lords should be subject to the Parliament Acts.

Let me expand on one or two of those points. We propose a time limit for the second Chamber to consider a Bill. There is no question that we should have enough time to consider a Bill properly, but it is equally wrong that a Bill or a legislative programme can potentially be in jeopardy because some Peers, within the rules of the House, can threaten to spend endless time debating a particular Bill. Our aim would be to set a reasonable time limit which reflects current experience with Bills in the Lords. If it was an exceptionally long Bill, or if the Government brought forward many amendments at a late stage, the limit could be extended.

A time limit would impose a discipline on all sides, including the Government—let me stress that—to deal with legislation efficiently. I would not care to be in the shoes of a Minister coming to the Floor of the House to ask for an extension of the time limit because 200 extra amendments had been put down at a late stage in a Bill's proceedings

I turn now to the issue of Parliament Act delays. The ability to delay legislation is the key power of the House of Lords. I believe that the central purpose of those Acts remains as valid as ever. Herbert Morrison, the Leader of the Commons, at Second Reading of the Parliament Bill of 1947, said: The Lords are, in our view, entitled to ask that the Commons should be required to give time and consideration to the Amendments which they propose to Commons Bills". He went on to say that, if the position were that the Lords sent their Amendments to the Commons, but the Commons could indifferently ignore them and pass the Bill into law without further ado, then the Lords would be entitled to say that there was no guarantee that any serious consideration would be given to their Amendments, and that we might as well resort to single-chamber Government".—[Official Report, Commons, 10/11/47: col. 38.] Amen to that. The Acts have been in operation for many years and have met the test set by Herbert Morrison. We believe that this principle should be carried forward into any new Parliament Acts.

But anyone reading the Parliament Acts would, I think, agree that the delaying powers are fairly dense, complex and difficult to understand. We believe that a new Act would enable a much clearer understanding of the provisions while maintaining an appropriate period of delay.

Alongside the Parliament Acts, we think it is important to codify the conventions. Of course, the most important of these is Salisbury/Addison. Its practical effect is that the Lords will not assert its right to vote against a manifesto Bill at Second or Third Reading or pass a wrecking amendment. This convention is so important that there ought to be no doubt or ambiguity about its application in all circumstances, and we make proposals for codification of the conventions. We would prefer an agreement between the major parties in the House rather than legislation, but legislation must be kept as an option in reserve.

Getting the Parliament Acts and the conventions sorted is, of course, important, but so, too, is the scrutiny of legislation, which, after all, goes to the heart of what this Chamber is all about. We do a fairly good job, but we could do better. Some of the debates that we have on legislation are riveting and attract a large number of speakers and attendance, but we spend too much time discussing minor amendments to elicit factual and technical information from Ministers. There is an awful lot of repetition. Amendments to Bills introduced in the Lords in Committee will often be repeated on Report and even Third Reading. The speeches can be strikingly similar as well.

Of course, some of this repetition is in order to allow the Government an opportunity to reconsider a point or to place something on the record, but much is self-indulgent. Not surprisingly attendance at many debates on Bills is disappointing. We are rather full tonight—we are debating ourselves—but look into the House at seven o'clock on most nights and you will find it can be fairly empty.

So, without going into the details, we make suggestions for changing the way in which we deal with legislation, essentially to get much of the technical information out of the way and on the record, so that when a Bill comes to the full Chamber of the House the debates will go to the core of the principles of the Bill and will be given much stronger scrutiny than occurs at the moment.

We also consider in the report how the House conducts itself. We have discussed the principle of self-regulation on many occasions and I do not intend to go over the ground very much today. But self-regulation will work only if individual Members observe that principle. Too many do not, and we list some examples.

We are not an amateur House; we are a serious part of the legislature. The House is entitled to have its affairs conducted in an orderly manner, with Members observing the spirit of standing orders. I believe that a Speaker would help.

We also make practical suggestions to make the Lords work better. I will mention two. We think that Back Benchers ought to be provided with some help to do their job. When it comes to legislation, too much reliance is placed on outside pressure groups for help with research, amendments and speaking notes. We are not full-time politicians; we do not have huge offices staffed with researchers and associates, nor would I want that to happen. But we must ensure that Back-Benchers have sufficient help, when taking part in legislation, to do a decent job.

I also want to help the Opposition Front Benches. At present, I think that only the Leader of the Conservative Party and the Chief Whip are entitled to draw a salary. I know, as a former Minister, how hard-working Opposition spokespeople are and how much time they have to give. I think that it is in the public interest, and the interest of this House, that people who take senior positions on the Opposition Front Benches are given the support that is necessary. I hope that that recommendation will be seen as a visible indication of our good faith in wanting a second Chamber to be as purposeful as possible.

This report has been produced by a group of Labour Peers, but I hope that its message and contents will commend it to many other Members of your Lordships' House. We are in no doubt about the value of this House in complementing the House of Commons, nor are we in any doubt about the contribution of this House to the scrutiny of legislation. But neither do we doubt the need for reform and improvement in what we do. That reform will best be undertaken if the House is clear about the appropriate use of its powers.

A modern second Chamber, able to exercise such powers with confidence, can undoubtedly add value to the deliberations of Parliament. This report points a way ahead to do just that. I commend the report to the House. I beg to move for Papers.

7.22 p.m

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I think that the authors of this report are to be thanked for their efforts. The noble Lord and his team are to be congratulated on what I think is a substantial piece of work. That said, I am afraid that there is a lot in their paper with which I do not agree. My first point is that their paper would not have been written in this way except by supporters of the governing party. Its major fault as a programme for action is that it does not take an all-party approach, which is essential if progress is to be made.

I feel I know what I am talking about, having spent the great bulk of my political career managing government business. Business managers want predictability and order, and the report goes a long way towards giving them just that. Oppositions need an opportunity every now and again to let off steam, to be really angry and, bluntly, to cause a certain amount of mayhem.

Sensible business managers on both sides know this. They need a degree of flexibility to resolve these matters on an ad hoc basis so that everyone feels they have had a fair crack of the whip. There are two fundamental principles in the way in which we conduct our business. First, a government who command a majority in the Commons are entitled to get their business. And an Opposition who accept that principle are entitled to their rights, and their rights, frankly, are to be very difficult from time to time. The real test of an opposition's conduct is whether they would object to something if they were the government. So detailed and prescriptive rules are counterproductive from everyone's, including the government's, point of view.

I cannot deal, in a short speech, with all the points noble Lords made in their report, but let me deal with one or two. I am grateful to them for supporting a number of the recommendations that we made in the report of the Royal Commission, of which I had the honour to be the chairman. I point out that the Royal Commission included a number of very experienced members of the Labour Party, and was a unanimous report.

Let me take some of the Labour Peers' Working Group's key conclusions. I willingly concede that all the points they make are serious and need careful consideration. One of the principal reasons why we did not recommend that Bills starting in the Lords should be subject to the Parliament Act was because it limited, to some extent, the amount of legislation that a government could force through Parliament in any one Session. We felt that that was good for democracy. But there were many other reasons, which we set out in our report. In particular, if a Bill started in the Lords but was then heavily amended by the Commons, this House would not, as a revising Chamber, have any opportunity to do its work properly.

We gave a lot of thought in our report to whether formal reconciliation machinery for disputes between the Houses should be set up, and I think that a good case can be made for it. But such a body would have to consist of senior figures on both sides, and there would have to be a genuine attempt at a compromise. I would not object to an experiment to see whether that was useful. It would try to resolve matters which ought to be, and usually are, resolved by the usual channels. The House will not be surprised to hear me say that I believe that quiet diplomacy behind the scenes is the way to resolve these difficult matters. It usually entails finding some concession for the opposition that gives them something to crow about but lets the Government get their business.

The report makes a powerful case for codifying the key conventions, but, on balance, it is not, in my view, the right thing to do. It would encourage oppositions to stick to the letter of the rules and in practice I suspect that that would lead to more delay, not less. The House of Lords has a high reputation for working things out pragmatically, and a degree of flexibility is required from everyone's point of view, including the Government's.

My last point, but one of the most important, is whether we should have a Speaker with powers. I cannot think of anything more likely to damage the nature of our debates and to cause endless delays. Any House that can contain the late, much-lamented, Lord Hatch, can prosper under self-regulation. Any Speaker, even one given the lightest of rules, has to be in charge, and he will be forced to make judgments, if only to maintain his self-respect.

In a democracy, these rulings will lead to questions, not of disagreement but of eliciting explanations. Points of order will follow, as night follows day, and will have the effect of prolonging debate and increasing troublemaking.

I will finish there, because I believe in order and rules when it comes to these things. I shall write to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor because I have plenty more to say.

7.28 p.m

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I welcome the debate as I welcomed the interesting report of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, when it was published. The report is a very useful agenda to which members of all parties, and of none, can decide whether it is time to make some changes.

Of the seven authors of the report, a majority have experienced life in the House only when sitting on the Government Benches—inevitably a one-sided perspective. Two others have been Ministers, one of them new in the House in 1997, and one a Whip. And the noble Lord, Lord Carter, although a veteran of 10 years in Opposition, was an admirable Chief Whip for a whole Parliament and beyond.

I make no criticism of the membership of the working group—it would be inappropriate—but the analysis and conclusions of the report have inevitably the flavour of the objectives, problems and frustrations of life on the government side. In that respect, I entirely share the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham.

Ministers often find the ways of the House time-consuming and repetitive when they want to get on with their departmental work or pass legislation quickly through. Back-Benchers can be bored stiff and restless when they are required to stay late with nothing much to do. But that is the price and privilege of sharing in Parliament.

Since the general election of 1997, there has been an unprecedented surge of new Members—300 in eight years. Some existing Members feared that the quality of the House would be diluted. Experience has shown something very different. The House now has a wider range of talent than ever before: this includes a higher, though very modest, proportion of women. As for political balance, we now have 203 Labour Peers and 202 Conservatives. Although the promise of "proportionate creations" for Liberal Democrats—the words in the 1999 White Paper—still falls far short, I hope that that failure will soon be remedied.

These developments are a sufficient reason why the House should undertake a thorough review of its role, performance and methods. But if the House is to consider any of the changes suggested by the report of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, some principles must guide the outcome. First, the report is too heavy when it refers to ever-deteriorating behaviour in the Chamber. I agree that there are some rough edges in self-regulation, but the party leaders, especially the Leader of the House, can do much to ease the problem. We should have a sense of proportion, taking one Parliament with another.

Secondly, even if the conventions between the House and the House of Commons, which is usually a euphemism for the Government, have recently been tested as the Government claim, it is far too soon to conclude that existing understandings are fatally fractured. In that respect, the report leans the wrong way. Thirdly, and following on from that, we should not rush into a new Parliament Act unless the shortcomings cannot be remedied by agreement. I would be particularly alarmed if the Government were to take unilateral decisions in advance of any cross-party discussions.

Fourthly, nothing should be done to enhance the formal role of the parties and diminish the role of the individual Member. We should not make the House a three-day week for the convenience of Ministers, or to justify turning it into a family-friendly House, especially when four out of five Members are over the age of 60. Members have chosen to serve in a working Chamber, and their obligations to Parliament should not be diminished.

The report says that the House should add value to and supplement the work of the House of Commons. At a time when the Commons is seen to be in decline, we should not prejudice the independence of this House until its composition is finally resolved.

7.33 p.m.

Lord Williamson of Horton

My Lords, for this debate I have regained my freedom; I do speak not as Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers, but for myself. I am thus in a similar position to the authors of the report, who, I understand, speak not for all their colleagues but for their working group.

The report gives us a good opportunity to explore some of the issues which, so far, the House has not been very willing to open up. I welcome that. There are four sets of important proposals in the report: there is a radical change in the handling of legislation, notably the present Second Reading and Committee stages, and the proposal for time limits on all Bills. There is the new Parliament Act, the codification of the current conventions, notably the Salisbury/Addison convention, and there are other provisions on self-regulation, which is apparently to be improved and partially changed.

I take those matters in the order in which they appear in the report, starting with the Parliament Act. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, I agree with the proposal that all Bills, whether they start in this House or the other place, other than any Bill to extend the life of the Parliament, should be subject to the Parliament Act. The Parliament Acts are a key assertion of the primacy of the first elected Chamber, and that is why I take that view. I am in favour of a fairly wide use of the carry-over provisions, and I could look favourably on a procedure for conciliation meetings between the two Houses in the event of serious disagreements likely to trigger the application of the Parliament Act. In another Parliament, I have experienced those conciliation meetings, and they are sometimes quite useful.

On the question of what the report describes as time limits for each Bill in Parliament, I understand the motivation but believe that the report goes too far. If in due course some changes are to be made in the present system of considering Bills in Committee, there would in any event be some speeding up of the passage of Bills in this House. Of course a programme on which a Government have been elected must go forward at a reasonable pace in Parliament, but getting it through must also involve getting it right.

On the second point raised, on the codification of conventions, I would myself find no difficulty in embedding the Salisbury/Addison convention by including it in an agreement of all major groups to be approved by resolution. That is, not legislation but a resolution. I would not find great difficulty with that.

On the third point, which is the handling of legislation, I would not favour the loss of a Second Reading, which would fall under the proposals in this document. But I believe that some of the repetition at Committee stage and the tabling of many amendments which are withdrawn could be reduced. Some form of deliberative stage could be introduced which would make some difference, and pre-legislative scrutiny would help.

On the fourth point, which is self-regulation and the Speakership, I am in favour of self-regulation and not in favour of a Speaker. But I would not find it difficult to give the noble Lord on the Woolsack a limited role at Question Time in avoiding discord about who is to ask the next supplementary question or in asking noble Lords not to ask too many questions or make too many speeches in the guise of a single supplementary question. That would go a little beyond what the Chief Whip does now, but would not change the basic structure; we would not have a Speaker; we would have someone who would make the point, but not necessarily as we do it now.

Finally, on a Cross-Bencher's conception of the role of the House, I see the role of the two Houses as equal, subject of course to the power of initiative of the House of Commons, the right of the House of Commons always to overrule us if it thinks it necessary, and the control by the House of Commons of the money supply. But in the scrutiny and, I hope, improvement of legislation, and in the drawing of the public's attention to major points—we had a marvellous example today in the debate secured by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker—I see the role of the two Houses as equal.

It is most important that we do not take the view that we are simply a subsidiary House, which we are inclined to do from time to time. At the next election, we shall probably have a turnout of about 54 per cent of the electorate, whereas for the whole period from 1947 up to 1997, we had an average of 76 per cent. Why is that? Because people—very notably the young—feel themselves detached from the political process. People blame the Government, but I do not: I blame Parliament to a considerable degree for that situation, and it is extremely important as we make changes in our procedures or in the relations between the two Houses that we do not inadvertently make that situation worse.

7.39 p.m

Lord Carter

My Lords, it was a privilege to serve on the Labour Peers' Working Group under the expert chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. After 10 years on the opposition Front Bench and five years as Chief Whip, I believe that the central point is actually quite simple. What combination of powers, procedures and conventions will help to strike the crucial balance between the undoubted right of the elected government to obtain their programme of legislation without unreasonable delay, and the right of the House of Lords to scrutinise, revise and if necessary delay, with the overlaying consideration that whatever the composition of the House the government of the day will always be in a minority?

As a former business manager, I am naturally concerned with the effective and efficient progress of business which should be the central consideration of any Chamber of any Parliament; but by that I do not mean giving the government of the day an easier ride or increasing the load of legislation. The key consideration in the management of parliamentary business is time, and the effective and efficient use of the time of the House will help the Opposition as much as the Government.

One of the key changes in recent Sessions—introduced by Motions of both Houses, not by legislation—is the use of carry-over. I have long supported the principle of carry-over. If a Bill is ready, why should it not be introduced instead of having to wait for arbitrary sessional dates, with the inevitable pile-up of business at the end of each Session? Parliamentary logjams do not make for the proper consideration of well drafted Bills. But if carry-over becomes the norm, there will have to be agreement on the total amount of time allowed between introduction in the first House and completion in the second House. Currently, one Session is allowed. With carry-over as the norm, each Bill should have effectively its own mini-Session of, say, 12 months, with a suitable division of the time in each House. The group has suggested 60 parliamentary days as the possible time in the Lords, which would be approaching 50 per cent of the normal Session of 140 to 150 days.

If there were a clear agreement in and between both Houses and both Houses had agreed to suitable changes in their Standing Orders, it is a moot point whether such a change would necessitate legislation. A problem arises when a Bill does not complete its passage within its agreed time limit of, say, 12 months. How would the Parliament Act then work? I am not sure that it is clear how well the current Parliament Act applies to Bills that are carried over. If there were to be the change I have described whereby each Bill had its own mini-Session, the Parliament Act would need to be amended to accommodate that.

In any reconsideration of the Parliament Act, there are three crucial elements. How long should a Bill be in Parliament the first time round? Currently it is one Session; but, as I say, it could be 12 months from its first introduction. If it falls the first time round, how soon could it be reintroduced, and how long should it have the second time round before the Parliament Act applies? That is obviously too complicated to deal with in detail now, but the principles are clear. I would argue that all Bills should be eligible for carry-over. There should be an agreed total time limit on each Bill—I have suggested 12 months—and an agreed time limit in each House.

In conclusion, perhaps I may deal with two arguments that we have heard already—that all these changes will give the Government the chance to steamroller through more legislation, and that the Opposition will lose their powers of delay.

The first proposition is incorrect. There are only so many parliamentary days in the year. So the same number of Bills would be introduced, but they would be spread much more evenly through the life of the Parliament, and the workload of both Houses would be more evenly spread—and that is both in each House and between the Houses.

The Opposition will have exactly the same power; in fact, they will have more power. The power that they have now is exercisable at the end of the Session on the Bills that have not completed their progress—what we call the "wash up" at the end of each Session. The Opposition will have that power at the end of each mini-Session on each Bill. I can see the Chief Whip really blanching when he reads that in Hansard.

Lord Grocott

I am here.

Lord Carter

I think he has collapsed, my Lords.

The Opposition would have the power at the end of each Bill to exercise the negotiating skills that they have now. Also, as carry-over does not apply at the end of a Parliament, the Opposition will be just as powerful as they are now as we approach the end of a Parliament.

There is one final and very important point. It has been argued that any attempt to amend the Parliament Acts would allow the tabling of amendments that deal with composition. I understand—and I have discussed it—that if the amendments deal strictly with time limits only, then amendments that deal with composition will be outside the scope of the Bill. In other words, if the amendment were to replace the two Sessions currently provided in the Parliament Act with, say, two periods of 12 months, such an amendment would not open the door to amendments on composition.

I have spoken on only one important aspect of a very important report. I hope that our recommendations will be taken forward for constructive dialogue within Government, with the Opposition and between both Houses.

7.45 p.m

Lord Renton

My Lords, I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, with much interest, especially when he expressed some doubts about the feasibility of some of the Labour Peers' proposals for reform of your Lordships' House. Although I agree with some of them, I cannot accept the need for all the legislation proposed. In particular, I strongly disagree with the suggestions in paragraphs 3 to 7 that even our internal powers of procedure should become statutory. I say that because it really is necessary that we should continue to be flexible in the conduct of our own procedures.

Of course, the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 could, and in my opinion should, be brought up to date and made more clearly workable, while ensuring, however, that your Lordships' policies and powers are not entirely ignored. I say that because, during my 59 years in Parliament, there have been vast constitutional changes caused not merely by changing legislation, but in the composition and experience of Members of both Houses.

During my 24 years in the Commons, there was a vast amount of varied expertise and experience among the elected Members, including Members of every profession, businessmen, trades unionists, farmers, miners and others. Now, Members of Parliament are mostly less experienced. Among your Lordships, however, there is wide experience and expertise. Perhaps I may give one example. We used to have 20 or 30 Queen's Counsel in the Commons; now there are only 10, of whom eight are Conservatives. But here in your Lordships' House, we have 34 QCs spread across the parties and, of course, the Cross Benches.

As to legislation, it has in my opinion become over the years too detailed and covers ever more of our national life. It might help the Government and Members of both Houses to have a look at a report published in 1975 on the preparation of legislation by an official committee of which I was the chairman, but with much more eminent members on it than I was. We made 121 proposals, of which the most important were numbers 13 and 15, recommending that in legislation we should make use of statements of principle and purpose instead of enacting masses of hypothetical detail, which had been the practice for too long.

Those are the things that I needed to say, but I should also say this: because of the current experience and expertise in your Lordships' House, we should no longer be regarded merely as a Chamber for consultation. I really do think that when the Parliament Acts are renewed, as I hope they will be, the greater expertise and experience to be found in your Lordships' House will be acknowledged.

7.49 p.m

Lord Lloyd of Berwick

My Lords, it is a privilege, as always, to follow the noble Lord, Lord Renton. He referred to the number of QCs in the House. I think I am right in saying that he is by far the most senior of those QCs; I think he has been in silk for 50 years or even more. He is certainly, as far as I am concerned, the most respected.

I welcome this report. That does not mean that I agree with every word, but I agree with a great deal of it. I should like, however, to concentrate on a single point, the one which the group makes at the bottom of page 12 under the heading "Legislative Process Within the House of Lords". It is an important point which was touched on by my noble friend Lord Williamson of Horton.

The problem as I see it is not so much with our legislative process—the fault does not lie there; it has served us well over the years. However, our process was designed for a more leisurely age than that in which we now live. The real problem we face is the remorseless pressure of endless legislation with which we have to deal. Departments seem to vie with each other to get a place in the Queen's Speech. All governments want to fill the Queen's Speech to overflowing in case it be said that they are running out of steam.

There is nothing that we in this House can do to reduce the pressure of legislation, though I wish there were. So it seems to me that instead we must do something to adapt our processes so that we can deal with this new situation. That is what, among other things, the committee under the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has bravely undertaken.

It is not only the quantity of legislation that is the problem, but also the way in which legislation is put together—take the Constitutional Reform Bill by way of example. I mention it by way of example because it is the Bill with which I am most familiar although other Bills could no doubt have been mentioned. That Bill contains three major issues of principle: the abolition of the Lord Chancellor; the creation of a new Supreme Court; and the creation of a Judicial Appointments Commission. Each of those issues was worthy of a full Second Reading debate. When we came to the Second Reading, a fourth issue was added; namely, whether the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee. So many noble Lords wanted to speak on those issues that, if my memory is right, we had six, seven or perhaps even fewer minutes to deal with four major issues, which amounts to less than two minutes each.

It was inevitable in those circumstances that the points of principle for which there was not time on Second Reading spilt over into the Committee Stage where they inevitably became mixed up with true Committee points. The usual objection was made, as always, that one was making a Second Reading point rather than a Committee point.

As regards these important Bills, I do not believe that we have the balance right between time spent on Second Reading and time spent in Committee. It seems to me that the solution—this is what I think the report is aiming at in paragraph nine—is to find some way in which we can make better use of the limited time which is available to us. That to my mind means more time on Second Reading issues and less time on Committee issues.

I may have misunderstood but I think that is what the committee is aiming at when it refers to the decision stage. That is the important stage. I am not sure that my noble friend Lord Williamson—to whom I always defer—was quite right about that. I think the report basically favours a longer Second Reading stage and a shorter Committee stage. That is certainly what I would favour. The proposal looks revolutionary but in that respect the committee is very much on the right lines. I hope that it will not be necessary to indulge in too many discussions with the House of Commons on that point—which it seems to anticipate—as we could deal with it ourselves. I believe that we should deal with it urgently.

7.54 p.m

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Hunt and the committee for all the work that they have done. The document that they produced is certainly causing the House to think about its procedures rather than its composition. That in itself is a change. Previously discussion has focused on composition. We ought to also discuss procedures.

I could not agree more with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, when he said that the procedures of this House were designed for a more leisurely age. I put it another way: time has passed by and the House has not changed. Far too often noble Lords pat each other on the back and think that all is well with the world. However, whether we like it or not, we shall be examined. Lords reform will be an election issue; it is bound to come up. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, laughs at that. However, what is different this time is that the Lords are taking a lead. Far too often this Chamber has reacted to the proposals of others rather than putting forward its own.

Many of the proposals that we are discussing are modest and were designed to try to reach a consensus across parties. As has rightly been said, we will not achieve change in this House without a consensus for change. It is very important to remember that the House of Commons is the premier House. We should all start from that basis. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, mentioned carry-over. I see much merit in his proposals in that regard. An interesting suggestion was made regarding reconciliation machinery being set up between ourselves and the House of Commons. That might be one way of getting over difficulties when we are seen to be totally at odds with the other place. As we all know, in the end the House of Commons is the elected House and it is bound to get its way. Would it not be better if Members of both Houses met to see whether they could reach agreement before that stage was reached? We could then probably avoid use of the Parliament Act. That is an important point.

I turn to a matter that we ought to consider and that is the role of a so-called Speaker for this House—I do not care whether that person is called a Speaker, a presiding officer, or whatever—who would have the relevant powers to take a decision. Some of those powers are vested in the Leader at present. It would be better if such a decision were taken by a neutral person presiding on the Woolsack. Such a person would be helpful if he or she stopped the time wasting that goes on. As has been outlined in the report, time after time Second Reading speeches are made in Committee and at Report. That goes on and on. Amendments are tabled and retabled. We need someone to remind us gently—we are not talking about the Commons—that that is not permitted and to remind noble Lords when they reach their allotted time in timed debates. If such a reminder were gently put to noble Lords, I am sure such a person would command the attention of the House.

As I say, I see much good in the report. If we do not make up our minds to change, change will come anyway and we will not be in the driving seat bringing that about. This is a constructive debate and is making all of us think about something that should have been considered long ago; namely, our procedures. There is nothing wrong in making them more effective and more in keeping with this century rather than previous centuries.

7.59 p.m

Lord Biffen

My Lords, I take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, concerning the possibility of more formalised arrangements for our first item of business, Question Time. It is a relatively narrow issue, but on the other hand it is a premium time during the day when the House is crowded. It is an occasion when the House has the opportunity to demonstrate its effectiveness with advantage. At the moment, we are supposed to be guided by the Companion to the Standing Orders, which suggests: Supplementary Questions may be asked but they should be short and confined to not more than two points". Secondly, such questions "should not be read". If this were rigorously followed, this place would be fit only for apprentices to a Trappist monastery. They are not rigorously followed; they are widely disregarded. I suppose the situation was brought to my mind sharply when we had exchanges on the minimum wage on 15 December. I am not critical of those who took part in those exchanges, but they were not particularly elevating for the conduct of the House, and we almost got to the point of business proceeding by public acclaim or public dissent; that cannot be wise for this Chamber. Therefore, I have a good deal more sympathy with the proposition of a Speaker, or whatever title you may give it, to take some role during Question Time. I notice that the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and his committee, say: A Speaker should be elected by the House. Members of the House should become more disciplined and abide by its rules and procedures". That is fairly robust language for entering into a situation in which hitherto we have moved with great circumspection. After all, there is a great nostalgia for having a free-for-all; it was like that in the eighteenth century, it is not as though it is something that we have lived with for the past two or three years. It is something we have had because we never had the experience of Parnell and the Irish home rulers, who transformed the House of Commons from being something like a good-natured rabble into the much more disciplined organisation that it is today. It is perfectly true that there are some dangers if you establish the position of someone having supervisory authority at Question Time, but alas as I am under the garrotting after five minutes I cannot enter into a real debate with my noble friend Lord Wakeham. However, the idea that the place would be seized with points of order—the position is not like that. The chemistry here is totally different. The point was made that there were only eight QCs in the House of Commons; there are 80 barrack room lawyers all dying to make a way of life out of points of order. It would be totally different here. None of us can say how this will proceed, but we ought at least to make some move and do it without great expectation but none the less as a constructive experiment.

I conclude by quoting from the evidence given by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, to the Select Committee on speakership on 15 October: I do not seek to have a Speaker in this House with a high profile approach … I would want the Speaker to be elected by the whole House, to be totally impartial once elected and, if he came from a political party … I would want him to leave his political party for the remainder of his life to show that impartiality. The Speaker would become the servant of this House". That is an ambitious aspiration, but we cannot continue with the present arrangements for the conduct of Question Time. This House is changing, in its composition and in its authority. With those changes, there must be changes in our practice. I agree entirely with the previous speaker that if we do not change; change will overcome us.

8.4 p.m

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I have not spoken seriously from these Benches for a long time now, so noble Lords must forgive me if I am a bit rusty. I have spent most of my time in this House doing Select Committee work or as the Chairman of Committees. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and his colleagues on producing a useful report, which is a useful starting point for a wide-ranging debate, and which I hope we will all take the opportunity of building on. I agree with a number of the key conclusions. I will not go through them in seriatim, but I will pick out one or two.

On the subject of time limits, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. I see no possibility of time limits, because Bills vary so much. We have had reference already to some of these "compendium" Bills that come through now, where really three or four Bills are within the same cover. The amount of time that is necessary to deal with some of the items both at Second Reading— and I do not altogether go along with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, in what he said, but I understand it—and in Committee. Yesterday, we saw a good example, where the first amendment took over two hours; but it was a magnificent debate, which showed this House at its best. We must be careful that we do not constrain ourselves to inhibit that sort of debate, because it makes a real contribution to an issue that is commanding widespread interest in the country and which cannot be dealt with in the Commons.

The problem comes when these sort of things are repeated on Report and sometimes at Third Reading. I was moved to stand up a few weeks ago to complain that noble Lords were putting down amendments to remove whole clauses at Third Reading. That is improper and is certainly outside the Companion. The trouble is that there is a theory in this place that it is only by putting time pressure on the Government that we can get concessions. That is true, but let us examine the situation and figure out just how many concessions we get in a Session. It may be two or three, but if the whole process of the year is geared up to putting that pressure on in the last couple of weeks in the Session, we are being rather silly in how we use our time.

If the present rules were observed, there would be no problem. I have said that to the Chief Whip. I understand why the Government are reluctant to intervene too often in persuading Members of your Lordships' House to stick to the rules: they feel that they might be accused of bias. I do not believe they would be, but I can understand why they might take that view.

The rules should be observed. It needs someone to stand up and say, "Look, this is not right", and for Members from all the other Benches to agree with and support that. Of course, the Chief Whips cannot be in the House all the time. However, before we go into some of the other details of the report, we must see whether we can get our House in order and make self-regulation work properly.

The question of the Speaker was dealt with in the committee on which I had the honour to sit, under the distinguished chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick. If people were to read that again, it might answer some of the points raised in the report. I think that, in fact, the phrase used came from the Clerk of the Parliaments, although perhaps it is unfair to mention this in his absence. He said that if we are to have a Speaker, the role should be as the guardian of the Companion. That strikes me as a very useful phrase. The Companion is our rulebook and we need someone to exercise that rulebook quietly and gently.

On a minor point, I see that there is a suggestion that the Public Bill Office should decide on groupings of amendments. I do not like that idea. It may well be that the Public Bill Office should recommend groupings of amendments, but a decision on the groupings must rest finally with your Lordships.

On the question of changes to the process, I refer noble Lords to the Rippon report—again, I had the honour to serve on that committee. At one stage, we considered recommending the reintroduction of First Reading debates, which they used to have in the Commons. In a sense, that bears on some of the suggestions that have been made here whereby a Minister can come before the House and answer questions on his report. As I am talking about self-regulation and I see that five minutes are up, I shall sit down.

8.10 p.m

Lord Gordon of Strathblane

My Lords, like others, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hunt on his report. I know that the members of his group have widely disparate views, but those views have been harmonised into a coherent package which has merited the serious consideration given to it by your Lordships this evening.

At this point, if it is not premature, perhaps I may say that I believe the tone of tonight's debate reflects very well on the House as a whole. Noble Lords are not fulminating about people trying to railroad government legislation; we are trying to tweak what has been suggested and make it better. I very much echo the views of the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that this is the start of the debate and not the end of it.

The noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, struck a responsive chord with everyone in this House by arguing for flexibility. We all love flexibility; we do not like statutory provisions which lawyers will limbo-dance under. But there is a difference between flexibility and lack of clarity. When the validity of the Parliament Act 1949 is a matter to go before the courts, as is the case at present, and some doubt has been expressed by no less eminent a person than the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, I think that that is taking flexibility a little too far. We need some clarity.

In any event, the Parliament Acts date from 1911 and 1949 and so arguably revision is long overdue. The powers of the House could be considered without seriously impairing our work as a revising Chamber. As has already been suggested, this House's main value is to force the Government to think again. In my view, a reversal forces reconsideration not necessarily by the Government but by individual MPs. That is because the Lords have shone the spotlight of publicity on something which has been totally overlooked by the Commons. The Commons then realise that the public support the Lords' viewpoint and the Government have to change their mind. So it is that spotlight of publicity, rather than the length of any delay, which makes the difference. For that reason, I am quite flexible about the length of the delay.

My main enthusiasm for the report centres on pages 12, 13 and 14, where a new and different way of dealing with legislation is considered. As a Peer who entered the House at the same time as my noble friend Lord Hunt, it seems to me absolutely amazing that we get any legislation through Parliament at all, with one end hardly talking to the other and the two seldom working together.

There has been a general welcome for pre-legislative scrutiny, and I would love that to be conducted by a Joint Committee of both Houses. It would harmonise the skills of both Chambers with a much better result. It is to be hoped that that might be a precursor to both Houses working together more closely as complementary parts of the one Parliament. I do not see much sense in a Bill going through all its stages in one House and then doing the same in the other. We could interleave the process. The report of my noble friend Lord Hunt is the start of a debate on this matter, but let us look more sensibly at how we can best improve the legislation that comes before us.

I have no objection to moving to one continuous Session of Parliament that starts immediately after a general election and ends with prorogation before the next general election. I also would not object, or think it very iconoclastic, if we moved the State Opening of Parliament from this House to Westminster Hall, arguably the oldest part of Westminster. That might remove much of the tension between the Lords and the Commons.

I disagree with the little dig of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, about this place working a three-day week. If one wants the House of Lords to go the same way as the House of Commons, one can maintain the present working hours and end up with no one with current experience of what is going on. At the moment, if we are to demand four days a week from everyone, how can anyone be a Member of the House of Lords unless one is fully retired, independently wealthy or living and working within the M25? My reason for arguing for three consecutive legislative days is precisely to retain the current experience and expertise held by Members of your Lordships' House. I hope that the proposal will commend itself to the Procedure Committee when it comes to consider the matter.

8.14 p.m

Lord Jopling

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has done the House a service in introducing this debate. I hope he will forgive me if I gently tease him. On page 79, the report complains of constant breaches of the guidance on the length of speeches. The Chief Whip told us at the beginning of the proceedings that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was allocated 15 minutes and if the clock says " 15 minutes" and he is still talking, he has been talking for too long. I noticed, with some amusement, that the clock said "16 minutes" when he sat down.

I have three issues to raise. First, as a general rule on the reform of parliamentary proceedings, I have a theory, which is an old one, that "if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it". Of course. Parliament is a living institution. Every now and again, it is necessary to reform the procedures, but when that happens it is essential that there is broad consent across the parties.

My colleagues may recall that in another place in 1991 I chaired a Select Committee on reforming the procedures of another place. We had a unanimous report, but because we could not get all-party agreement until 1995 or 1996, the government of the day did not seek to implement the recommendations. I know that the Government could have driven the matter through, but did not because it was essential to achieve all-party agreement. That has not been a feature of this Government's behaviour on procedure over the past eight years.

My second point concerns the report. As, I believe, the third of four former Chief Whips speaking tonight, I hear familiar echoes in the report of government Back-Benchers' restlessness due to the long hours of tedious waiting for a Division that often does not happen. The report is full of ways to make it easier for government to achieve their business, or of making it easier for government Back-Benchers to perform their duties. Quite frankly, a great deal of the report is a government Chief Whips' and government Back-Benchers' wish list. Let us not get away from that.

I could quote many examples of that: voting only between three o'clock and seven o'clock, which I regard as an abomination; taking Second Reading and Committee stages off the Floor of the House, which is implied on page 13; and, if you please, officials answering questions in those proceedings. In the early days of a Parliament with a mass of highly contentious legislation coming through, a time limit of 60 days on all Bills would mean a greatly reduced opportunity to consider Bills properly. Finally, the extension of the carry-over between Sessions, or even the abolition of Sessions altogether, I would regard as a business manager's dream.

My third point is that the general tone of the paper is of impatience that the House in recent years allegedly has become more assertive. I believe that that is inevitable, as most of the hereditaries have left and the House is now dominated much more by those of us who have experience in another place.

One statement that I underline most strongly and applaud is that the government of the day must be allowed to get their business. Considering the examples of the greater robustness, which appear on page 5 of the report, I hardly believe that there is very much evidence of it leading to the Government failing to get their business outside the normal setbacks and amendments which governments have to put up with and which are the standing hallmarks of that awkwardness and cussedness that we call parliamentary democracy.

But all this is putting the cart before the horse. The report omits any reference to the future composition of the House, and I understand why. The House will become infinitely more assertive, robust and cussed if we have either a large or a small influx of elected members. I believe that we ought to consider reform of the procedures once we have decided what the composition of the House should be, because whether it is all elected or part elected or all appointed, it will make a great deal of difference in the future to the way the House behaves.

8.20 p.m

Viscount Bledisloe

My Lords, this very interesting report contains a large number of specific recommendations. If one looks at them individually, one can find some with which one agrees, others with which one disagrees, and yet others which would provide a helpful introduction to further consideration—for example, the rolling programme of legislation.

However, I would emphasise that if any further work is to be done to move forward these recommendations, it is a matter for the Procedure Committee or for a sub-committee set up by it, and not for an ad hoc working group, brought into being by the Leader, outside our organisational structure, and, as in the past, dominated by party leaders and whips, to the virtual exclusion of Back-Bench interests.

In the very short time available I wish to adopt the invitation of the group and to look not at individual proposals, but at the proposals as a cohesive package designed as a contribution to the overall question of the functions, powers and composition of the House.

For that purpose I pose two related questions: first, would the procedural changes recommended in this report, seen as a package, enable the House to perform its proper tasks better; and, secondly, if these changes were introduced, would a second Chamber conducted on these lines be more likely to attract the kind of members which it will need to enable it to perform those functions to best advantage?

Having considered my two questions, on balance there is no real doubt. I am convinced that the answer to each of them is a resounding "no". I believe that the changes would reduce the efficacy of this House as a real force in the legislature, and would deter rather than attract the calibre of person which the House needs.

The underlying reason for this rather depressing conclusion is not hard to find. The report approaches the legislative processes of the House almost entirely from the position of a government who wish to get through their business and of the loyal supporters of such a government, who have to be available to vote for that business. That is hardly surprising when one takes the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, about the composition of the body.

The group's state of mind is most obviously exemplified by the proposal that, first: Voting on legislation … should take place in prime time"— that is, between three o'clock and 7.30. It does not tell us what is to happen to Committee and Report stages after 7.30, unless the House is then to go home. Secondly, the report proposes: Delayed Divisions for non-bill votes. This would enable members to maximise their attendances as they would know when votes were likely to happen". "Maximise their attendance" seemingly means to turn up only when they are required to go through a Division Lobby.

Nothing in that does anything to encourage or help Back-Benchers or indeed any Members of the House who wish to take an independent line and seems to treat all debate as a formal preliminary to the votes which are to pass the Government's business. Therefore, I do not think its recommendations will achieve the purposes that should be in mind.

The report also reveals, but does not address, a basic dichotomy. The conventions of this House arose because the House in the past recognised that it lacked democratic legitimacy, being dominated by one party. That lack has been reduced, and presumably will be reduced yet further in future changes. So as that lack is reduced, so is the justification and need for the conventions. It is strange that the group should wish to cast those conventions in legislative stone shortly before their justification will have evaporated, or largely gone.

8.25 p.m

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords, I begin by saying that I considered it a privilege to have been elected to the working group that wrote the report. I pay tribute to my colleagues on it for their dedication and willingness to seek consensus among ourselves for agreed conclusions and record my thanks to our advisers and secretariat, who gave us such unstinting time and support. In particular, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath on his skill in chairing a group with strongly held differing views with great dedication and good humour.

It should be said that although we all hold different views about the exact form of a future second Chamber, we all agree with the content of the report. It is important to stress what is stated there: The proposals in this paper are a cohesive package of measures which require consideration as a whole rather than in a piecemeal way". I am therefore in complete agreement with all the contents of the report, which were thrashed out during our many meetings, and I commend the report in its entirety to your Lordships.

In the time available to me, I shall highlight two points. The first is a recommendation about the legislative process and our proposals for a deliberative stage, a second stage for decisions and a revision stage to replace the current First and Second Readings, Committee, Report and Third Reading. As we state, that would, reduce many of the traditional ritualistic and repetitive proceedings". Time prevents me going into more detail, but our thinking is all laid out on pages 12 to 15, and we believe that those changes would improve the quality and effectiveness of the legislative process in the Lords. There is no need for us simply to mirror the processes of the House of Commons.

Secondly, I highlight our welcome, as a step forward, for the recommendations on the functions of the Speaker in the report of the Lords committee on the Speakership, which we enumerate in our report on page 18. As we state in our report, I believe very strongly that self-regulation depends on self-discipline by the Members of the House, which would be strengthened by a Speaker guiding the proceedings.

However, if that fails and Members do not exercise that self-discipline, as we state in the report: the case for a regulated second chamber becomes very persuasive". In my opinion, it becomes overwhelming. I speak as one who has experienced being on the opposition Benches and I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, andthe noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, that three out of seven of the working group have had experience on the opposition Benches. I have also been a government Whip and am now a Deputy Speaker and I have seen the ever-increasing problems with self-regulation.

I conclude, as does our report, with the opinion that, a modern second chamber, able to exercise its powers with confidence, can add value to the deliberations of Parliament, scrutinise the Government and complement the work of the House of Commons". Our recommendations would ensure just such a modern second Chamber.

8.29 p.m

Lord Hunt of Wirral

My Lords, continuing uncertainty about the future of a legislative body debilitates it and undermines its authority, so I stress the urgent need to resolve the way forward for this House. I hope that I can reflect that urgency in my remarks.

As many of your Lordships have already pointed out, the report is well written and thought-provoking. I commend the excellent speech of my friend and colleague the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. The report contains several good suggestions but, inevitably, as several noble Lords have already pointed out, it only tells part of the story. The crucial role of this House as a revising body, and any changes to that role, are not the property of any one party or group, and any sustainable arrangement must enjoy support from all parts of the House.

In the time available, I have four brief points to make. First, the Salisbury doctrine is a good one, and I am sure that the proposal to codify it short of legislation is wise and workable.

Secondly, I see considerable merit in a less formal deliberative stage, suggested in the report, for our first scrutiny of new legislation. I know from my time as a Minister that no drafting is ever perfect, and some points should be taken on board quickly in the same, wholly non-partisan spirit in which they are made. Last week, I pointed out what I believed to be a flaw in the Charities Bill and proposed an important change, to which Ministers swiftly acceded. The new deliberative process proposed in the report might make it possible to resolve many more non-contentious issues of that kind in an efficient, amicable and informal way at the earliest possible stage.

I am sad to say that my third point is less laudatory. The report calls for our effective veto on secondary legislation to be abolished, and for a mandatory time limit on our scrutiny of Bills. As several noble Lords have already pointed out, I can well understand why a party in government might favour such changes, but I am sure that it is wrong. Time limits are never reasonable, and guillotines, as we have seen from the other place, impose a rigidity that prevents proper scrutiny.

As to secondary legislation, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, may well recall an instance in 2002 when he was a Minister and I prayed against a statutory instrument that he had laid relating to NHS charges payable after a road traffic accident. There had been no consultation on that important and controversial measure and, in view of my opposition, he graciously revoked it. I refer to his parliamentary Answer on 6 February 2002. The system can and does work, so why meddle with it?

My fourth point is that, if we move to a Supreme Court, I hope that we in this place will still be able to call on the excellent work of Law Lords. I refer in particular to the vital contribution that they have made in chairing, for example, the Law and Institutions Sub-Committee of the European Union Committee. I hope that we can in some way continue to call on the accumulated wisdom, experience and expertise of distinguished former senior judges such as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, who spoke earlier.

In sum, let us hope that the elusive consensus on which a new constitutional settlement must be built is now not too long in coming.

8.33 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and his committee on producing a thoughtful and comprehensive report, most of the recommendations of which I support in principle.

The growing and constant breaches of the Companion have been illustrated by other noble Lords. They make it clear that, if the Companion is not adhered to, at some stage there will be more and more demand for a Speaker to draw attention to it and be its guardian, as the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, identified. One wishes that that was not necessary and that self-regulation worked; unfortunately, that is not the case.

I fully support the proposal in the report that there is a need for the simplification and re-examination of the workings of the Parliament Act. Of course, the uses of the Act must always be a last resort after every effort has been made to resolve the differences between the two Houses. The powers of the suggested joint conciliation committee would need careful consideration. Would it, for instance, have a remit not only to consider the issue in dispute but be empowered to reach the final decision? That must be a better way than the current method of ping-pong, as there would be established a period of calm rather than the current frenetic procedure.

One area that is not discussed is that of establishing a business committee—I see the Government Chief Whip in his place—on similar lines to that of the Scottish Parliament. This proposal has received cross party support in many reports. Such a committee would not replace the usual channels but would ensure a more inclusive process.

The recent report of the Select Committee on the Constitution, Parliament and the Legislative Process, in which I declare an interest as a member, and the report we are considering today, call for improvements in the way that primary legislation is scrutinised. The scrutiny in this House is of a different nature from that in the other place, often more expert and authoritative, and it is often the only time that the whole of a Bill is examined in detail. That places a responsibility on this Chamber to get it right and we can do that more effectively by making better use of the mechanisms that are already in place, as well as arranging new ones.

The provision for carry-over and a rolling programme of legislation was agreed by both Houses in 2002, but is rarely employed. There appears to have been a reluctance to break out of the existing sessional mentality. Although there are many advantages, Bills can be staggered and more Bills can be produced in draft with more time for legislative scrutiny. While there has to be a pre-determined cut-off date, it would remove what has been referred to as the "tidal wave" approach to legislation.

It is generally recognised that pre-legislative scrutiny has been a significant and positive development in improving legislation. It allows for a more reassured consideration of a Bill's principles, questions new policy initiatives and allows time for consideration of practical and technical issues. It also allows for a wide range of interested and expert parties to exercise influence at an early stage, connecting the legislative process with wider parliamentary and public opinion—and, of course, it makes it easier for the Government to readjust their thinking before the final Bill is published, usually to the satisfaction of the people involved.

The deliberative proposals for the stages of a Bill through your Lordships' House are imaginative and should receive serious consideration. There is absolutely no reason why we have to follow the pattern of the other place. Our concern has to be further to improve the quality of our scrutiny.

Finally, post-legislate scrutiny has not yet been mentioned. Currently, it is patchy and tends to occur only when problems become apparent. Proper post-legislative scrutiny can illuminate what lessons can be learnt for future handling of Bills, as well as determine that the legislation has achieved the purpose for which it was intended. Legislators have to be responsible for the law in its totality, so ways must be found to carry out this important function.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said in his opening remarks, this report adds to the many reports that have already been produced on the procedures and powers of your Lordships' House—many still sit on shelves, gathering dust. Let us hope that that is not the case with this report and that it is the start of a serious debate.

8.38 p.m. Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, I welcome this report. I agree with much of it, but I am a tad more cynical in my approach than some noble Lords were in their speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, rightly said that the ability to delay is key to the powers of this House. But he and his group make no mention of what they believe the right time for delay should be. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that Peter Hain, the Leader of the House of Commons and the Lord Privy Seal, after we delayed the Bill to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor at Second Reading a few months ago, announced the Government's intent1ion to reform the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts. But he added: I think instead of just looking at the composition, we will also seek to curtail the powers of the Lords and seek to get manageable procedure into the Lords … we need to bring down the period that it can frustrate the will of the Commons from a year to under a year, and we need to get procedures in place that will allow legislation to go through". When the Leader of the Commons says "manageable procedure", he means, of course, procedure that the Commons, particularly the Government, will find satisfactory and, thus, a delaying power of less than one Session. I am wholly opposed to that.

At the moment, there is a widespread impression that the executive government—Nos. 10 and 12 Downing Street—strengthened by a large majority, over-dominates the Commons and pays precious little attention often to what is said there. Statements are made to the press at 10 a.m. in order to catch the evening press, rather than waiting for the Commons to be in business. The Prime Minister frequently does not bother to vote. In consequence, the public, too, comes to regard the "Today" programme as more influential—perhaps even more decisive—than Parliament.

To put that right, I have no doubt, after 23 years in the Commons and being a government Chief Whip there, that we need a second Chamber with more power, not less, and a Chamber that will not hesitate to use that power. It is, of course, impossible to separate powers from constitution, which I think the closing remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, implied is his judgment too. I suggest therefore that when the Parliament Act is revised, the delaying power should be returned again to two Sessions rather than one, particularly as a result of the carry-over powers that are now becoming more and more popular. But those powers must be matched by an appropriate change in our constitution.

Throughout the 20th century, the reduction in the powers of the Lords was constantly justified because of the predominance of hereditary Peers. The second Chamber was, therefore, not considered legitimate— the words used to justify diminishing the powers of this House. The same argument will apply if, by stages, we all become appointed, whether by the Prime Minister, an independent commission or whatever.

Therefore, at the same time as the return of a two-year delay, there is a necessity for the election of Members of at least a substantial part of the House. The two things would go hand-in-hand. Only that will give us the legitimacy we need to exercise genuine, reforming and revising muscle on the Commons, whose ultimate superiority, of course, I accept. For good measure, I throw in the thought that one-third of the upper Chamber should remain Cross-Benchers of no political allegiance, genuinely independent, either appointed or elected, possibly on a self-nominated regional basis or elected by profession, as in the Hong Kong legislative council. I have no problem that the reconciliation Standing Joint Committee should resolve differences to prevent Parliament Act procedures being used too often, which follows the practice of the Bundestag and the Bundesrat in Berlin.

My five minutes are almost up, so perhaps I may just make a personal reference. The recommendations that I make here very briefly can be seen in much greater length in the final chapter of my book, Chief Whip, of which of course I gave a copy to the Library. I was delighted to hear just now from the librarian that it has been very frequently consulted.

I remind your Lordships of a remark that was made to me by a colleague recently when we were talking about the lack of trust, belief and interest in Parliament today. He said that after the State Opening of Parliament, a friend of his had said to him quite seriously, "Do you always wear your ermine when you're in the House of Lords?". That is the image of this place that we have to improve.

8.43 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry. As he alluded, he was both a Chief Whip and the author of a book on Whips, which is an excellent provenance and pedigree for this debate. Like the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, I, too, shall be speaking as an individual.

The report that we are debating is on very worthwhile issues, but it has a flavour of Procrustes about it in its serial curtailment of debate. It is an irony that your Lordships' House, in order to debate it today, has had to take the anti-Procrustean step of extending the amount of time for debate in order to accommodate us. Some in your Lordships' House will recall the parlour game of Telegrams. You are given a word. You take the individual letters which become the initial letters of the words of the telegram, which has to be relevant. An undergraduate contemporary of mine once caught the word "marble" as it fell from the lips of the umpire and upon the instant said: Marbles Arriving Registered Baggage Love Elgin". Even with the extra time, five minutes to reflect on a 20-page report obliges telegraphy.

First, the motivation. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, the mover of the Motion, whom we congratulate on his salience, is a former Minister in the Department of Health. I have always regretted that governments of different hues have rarely put into that department Ministers with a prior personal experience of effecting change in large organisations. I am similarly curious as to who in the noble Lord's committee was chosen for his capacity to change human behaviour; not so much individually—both the noble Lords, Lord Hogg and Lord Carter, could do that—as collectively, for that is what reform of your Lordships' House requires.

In drafting this report, no one seems to have concentrated on the human reaction of other parties, encapsulated in the adage, "not invented here". Your Lordships' House has many virtues. One of the greatest is the quality of human relationships which extend across the Chamber and help to lubricate the eccentricities which no continental philosopher or draftsman would allow.

Observers of Parliament have divided participants in this Palace into healers and warriors. The risk the tone of some of this report runs, at least outside the faithful of the party sponsoring it, is that of making warriors out of healers. If in a short speech I can quote only one example, I offer from the first paragraph of page 11 the phrase: A new Parliament Act will need to incorporate the following: Someone wishing to persuade rather than to instruct might have put that phrase in the subjunctive.

When I visited Washington some 18 months ago, I noticed that manners in Congress had become tenser, sharper and less amiable. If by structural change we translate the manners of your Lordships' House into something more like today's Commons, we shall have lost more than we can imagine or afford.

It is dangerous to draw analogies from other walks of life, but in my 18 years in the private sector before entering government, I always believed that the business deal most likely to succeed was the one that was a good deal for both sides. As my noble friend Lord Wakeham said, this report reads too much like a report designed to pursue a party rather than a general advantage.

Of course there are excellent ideas in it. I particularly like "post-legislative scrutiny". The European Union would likewise be improved and would indeed become more popular if its plans and projects received more retrospective monitoring. But to go back to Procrustes, too much of the report takes a heavy legislative programme as something that we should take for granted. Perhaps the Home Office Minister who had to defend the concatenation of Home Office Bills under this administration to the post-legislative scrutiny of a future Select Committee might make the downside of that assumption even clearer.

I genuinely hope that something comes of all this, but it will have a better chance if alliances are sought. To go back to the Whips' Office, where in more senses than one I began, the collection of prints and photographs of 19th century Chief Whips assembled at 12 Downing Street by the late Lord Cocks in the late 1970s had one particular characteristic. In the manner of that century, they were all signed. The Liberal ones signed themselves "Yours sincerely", while the Tories signed with "Yours faithfully". The authors of this document might ponder how, in similar mode, they would have signed their report if they are really serious about it coming to pass.

8.48 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, I owe my noble friend Lord Hunt and the group two apologies. First, I was not able to testify or take any part in the group's deliberations because at the time I was busy getting married. Secondly, I also apologise because, not having given my opinion before, I shall do so now. It will not be much to the liking of those who wrote the report.

I do not agree with the proposition that composition can wait and procedural issues should be dealt with first. I have always thought that composition is important and that the majority, if not the total, of the House should be made up of elected Peers. I have never veered from that position, and I say that because what we call the "supremacy of the House of Commons" is a weakness of the constitution rather than a strength. A party commanding a substantial majority in the House of Commons can ride roughshod over the country because the Executive has far too much power in that place.

I am a sort of reform junkie, but whenever I have spoken on reform of the Lords I have held that a strengthening of the House of Commons will be the only sensible check on the Executive. The House of Commons does not constitute a good enough check unless the party in power is falling apart in sex stories, quarrels and so on.

But we cannot always rely on that, although human behaviour is a good guide. Therefore, let me add a further point. I have spent seven years on the opposition Benches and seven years on these Benches. I know what it is like to be in opposition. Time is the only weapon the Opposition have against the Government. It is easy to say, "Let's get the business done". Even though the party in power should get its business done, sometimes the business is not worth getting done. Someone has to say again and again, "It is just not worth doing this. You are wrong". I have debated Home Office and education Bills on that side and on this and I can tell your Lordships that three-quarters of them were not worth passing. We must say that.

Unless we can say that to the Government and to the elected Chamber at length and in detail, as we do, we will not perform our function. Our function is not merely to sign a Bill off and send it across to the other place. Our function is to say, "Stop and think". That will be performed only if we have the time.

I am impressed by what my noble friend Lord Carter said; that a 60-day rule for a Bill will strengthen the Opposition rather than weaken it. I will have to examine that view in detail before I am entirely convinced. Who knows, within my lifetime I may be on the opposition Benches—I am only 64—so I want to ensure that I will be happy there.

Let me make one further comment about the report's interesting proposals on the two stages. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, also agreed that one way to reform our procedures is to treat the House as a Committee of the other place. After Second Reading of a Bill in the other place, it will come to us immediately. We will conduct the full Committee work here and then report it back to the House of Commons. We will not have to go through all three stages in both Houses. We can improve time management. There is no doubt that we do much better Committee work than they do because they do not have the time, they are under the Whip and they have partisan considerations. In any future proposals, I would once again urge that on the House for consideration.

I approve of there being a Speaker. I do not necessarily think that I should be the Speaker but I would like there to be one because our procedures are becoming far too loose. If we are going to preserve our freedoms, that would be a good thing to do.

8.53 p.m

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, in the time available, I want to make three quick points. First, like many noble Lords, I welcome the report and this debate as a contribution to the discussion on the role and functions of the second Chamber. As has been pointed out, too often debate on the reform of this House is focused exclusively on composition. That focus has tended to permit tunnel vision and lazy thinking. What is needed is to take a much broader view of the political system and of the place of the second Chamber in that system. That requires clear thought and reflection. Agreement on the role and functions of the second Chamber should be a prerequisite to deciding the composition.

The report starts from a similar premise. I therefore disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Desai. I agree with the authors of the report that the second Chamber should complement the first, enabling the elected Chamber to maintain the direct electoral accountability that is a fundamental attribute of our political system. We are extremely fortunate in being able to maintain that accountability while having a second Chamber that adds value to the political process. It is a combination that few other countries can emulate.

Secondly, I agree very much with the report on what the House of Lords should be able to do. The House should fulfil the functions listed in section 5 of the report. These are largely the tasks ascribed to the House at the moment. The report seeks to identify ways in which they can be fulfilled more effectively.

I agree particularly with the contention that there is a need to improve the way we deal with legislation. I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, that what we do we do well, but we could do it far better. Given the emphasis on our work as a Chamber of legislative scrutiny, I attach special importance to that.

Thirdly, I think that on the actual reforms proposed the report is something of a curate's egg. I think it is particularly good when it is at its most innovative, and weakest where it is essentially derivative.

I welcome the fresh thinking about how to deal with legislation. I would not necessarily endorse all the proposals in the report but I welcome the thinking that lies behind the recommendations. I accept that there is a case for introducing changes to how we scrutinise legislation. I am particularly keen to move away from the existing insular approach that is adopted by both Houses. We need to be able to provide greater opportunity for input from those outside Parliament.

One of the recommendations in the report of the Constitution Committee, which I chaired, on Parliament and the Legislative Process —to which the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, has already referred—is that at some stage during its passage each Bill should be examined by an evidence-taking committee. We could do much more in drawing on informed opinion and making sure that each Bill is fit for purpose. If we start to think along these lines we will be able to produce more effective scrutiny.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, I also welcome the report's comments on the need for post-legislative scrutiny—again a subject taken up in the report of the Constitution Committee. This at present constitutes something of a parliamentary black hole and, again, it is something that we need to pursue. Parliamentary responsibility for legislation should not be seen as ending once Royal Assent is given. We need mechanisms to check whether it has fulfilled its purpose.

Where I think the report is less persuasive—indeed, where I disagree with it—is where it is essentially derivative, putting forward recommendations to emulate practices in the House of Commons. I am opposed to the concept of delayed Divisions. I think electing a Speaker and conferring powers on the occupant of the chair will transform the nature of the House, and not for the better.

The changes will not simply involve enforcing rules and conventions. Far from bringing greater order into our proceedings, they have the potential to do the opposite. One transfers responsibility from everyone to a particular individual; one thus removes the obligation of responsibility on the generality of Members with attendant unhealthy consequences. I therefore disagree with my noble friend Lord Biffen. Time taken up with challenges to the Chair may occupy far more time than the occasional difficulties we encounter and which can be addressed by other means.

In any event, these recommendations essentially run counter to the aim of the report, which is to carve out a second Chamber that complements rather than emulates the work of the first. I would therefore encourage the authors to pursue their blue sky thinking; basically to look upwards rather than along the Corridor.

I welcome the report as a contribution to an important and necessary debate. I do not agree with all the recommendations and I would caution against rushing to legislation, but I am more than happy to engage with those responsible for it to explain why.

8.59 p.m

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I echo my noble friend's welcome for the report. I am absolutely delighted it has been produced. Like him, I disagree with about half of it, but let me start with the positive things.

The first thing I really like about the report is that it is a Back-Bench production. This is our House; we ought to take a part in what happens to it and how it works. Far too often matters are dealt with by some kind of cabal. Our party in this House is the worst of all for that—being the only one that does not elect its leader—and the thought of our party appointing a similar committee is beyond hope. I wish we would change. We ought to be more democratic.

Noble Lords


Lord Lucas

I am glad I have the right audience for this, my Lords.

So I am particularly depressed that the report recommends that the Leader of the House convene a small working group to take our recommendations forward. That is entirely the wrong way round. We started by opening this discussion to the House; let us continue by opening it to the expertise which is all around the House. Let us have a process which all of us can participate in, own and contribute to, and which has a chance of arriving at consensus.

I agree that we should not have a mechanism that might be blocked for party political reasons generated down the other end. Let us have something that we can all see. Let us not have this doubly undemocratic idea of a working group under the Leader of the House. A privilege committee is the worst thing that ought to happen; the Leader of the House ought to be beyond consideration.

The second thing I welcome is the acknowledgement in the report that the House needs the power to defeat the Government and that the consequences of maintained defeat ought to be significantly inconvenient for the Government. That is the basis on which this House has any influence on what happens down the other end. That the report comes from the Government Benches is a very welcome antidote to the continued flow of calumnies from Mr Hain down the other end, which I enormously resent. So that gives me great pleasure.

The report contains a number of interesting ideas which I would like taken forward and experimented with. We ought to seek to improve ourselves all the time; left to ourselves, we do. We have introduced a number of important innovations over the years. We ought to continue to do so and to look at ways in which we can conduct ourselves better and more effectively.

I should be delighted to see some of these proposals taken forward, but it ought to be by way of experiment rather than by imagining that we can leap to some new way of doing things which will automatically be better. In particular, the idea of a time limit for legislation is misconceived. Delays are mostly due to the Government. The delay to the Constitutional Reform Bill came about because we were given an entirely unthought-through piece of legislation which had not been exposed to pre-legislative scrutiny or, indeed, any scrutiny. I think the Bill has benefited enormously from the delay we imposed on it. We have sought not to destroy it but to get it right, as the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, said. That is what this House should be about—taking the time to get it right. We must not filibuster. If we start filibustering, we will lose everything. I have never seen it happen to any significant degree and have no reason to think that it will.

I like the idea of doing away with annual Sessions. Done right, having a Session for each Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said, would enable us to put pressure, more consistently, on every Bill. We have very little control over Bills that start early. Something to enable us to put pressure on every Bill would be fine.

I support what my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth said about finding ways of involving people from outside in every Bill. One of the great ways that Parliament has of reconnecting with the world outside is if we involve people and offer them access to our procedures. We also—dare I say it?—benefit enormously from that. I cannot think of a Bill that has suffered from that process. When the relevant expertise is not resident in this House and Back-Benchers have only a small desk and a telephone, with no kind of support, it is very difficult to be effective.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, says that this is a package. Absolutely. His proposals for the way in which matters should operate within this House presume that Ministers will no longer be told, "Resist, resist, resist" and that it will not take the same question asked three times to get it into the heads of Ministers and officials that what we said first time was right.

9.4 p.m

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, on 20 December, there was a very interesting intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, on the Constitutional Reform Bill. He effectively complained about the abuse of the Companion, and, in particular, misuse of Third Reading amendments, tedious repetition on Report and other matters. If one adds to that the long-winded supplementaries and breaches of guidance on length of speeches, it is quite clear that we have a totally undisciplined House. We all know that nothing is going to change, because Members ignore advice.

The truth is, in my view, that the standards of conduct in the House of Commons are immeasurably higher than in the Lords. The selfish corralling of time by individual Members, which denies others speaking time, is a far greater sin than any noisy interventions in Commons debates. I therefore commend paragraph 12 in our report, as it further develops proposals in the report of the Lords Select Committee on the Speakership of the House by suggesting an element of regulation.

Secondly, the use of repeated Divisions—three, four and even five of them—on issues of principle crucial to a Bill's passage, against a background of impending Prorogation, is an affront to the Commons. How can Peers, who do not knock on doors to win support for their views, insist on not simply amending but repeatedly overturning the decisions of those who face the brutal judgment of the electorate? The truth is that on occasions, particularly as we near Prorogation, the House becomes unruly—some say "stroppy". The fact is that it is losing its influence on the Commons. Indeed, as we have heard today, some Members wish to curtail its powers. I reject that view, as has our committee.

We believe that we can draw on the tremendous experience in this House and the ability to analyse complex issues free of political rancour. Our recommendations for amendment to the Parliament Act, the 60-day or thereabout delay, carry-over and codification, would all make for a more efficient House of Lords. We believe that we can make this House better. I want a respected second Chamber that is listened to and influences events in the Commons, not by provocative delay and procedural ploy but by force of argument—a debate that pulls the teeth of ministerial argument, challenges Civil Service "resist" recommendations and obliges those who formulate public policy to sit up and listen.

I have a very different view of the role of this House. I start from the premise that power and influence in the House of Lords should stem not from the Division Lobbies but in the accountability of Ministers and civil servants to Select Committees, Joint Committees and Standing Committees, where the Executive are questioned in detail. With that in mind, I positively commend our recommendations for increased use of prior scrutiny. I have sat on two of those committees; the most interesting observation that I can report is to watch civil servants, who have worked tirelessly on a Bill, wriggle in their seats as their handiwork is taken apart by a Joint Committee, with the result in the case of the Corruption Bill that the Bill disappeared from the legislative timetable because it was badly drafted, while in the case of the Charities Bill, a well-drafted Bill has been welcomed by this House. That proves that the system works.

Finally, if the remit is to get Ministers and civil servants to sit up and listen, what better than our proposals for deliberation on legislation? Gone would be the old Second Reading with its, if I might say, too often boring debates, which civil servants invariably ignore, and in would come the new, questioning, deliberative stage, which would hold Ministers and civil servants to account.

The whole report is exciting, I hope that it is implemented, and I compliment my noble friend on the excellent work that he did as chairman of our committee.

9.9 p.m

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I speak only to the recommendations as to the Speakership at Question Time in paragraph 12 of the report, which takes a step forward from the report of your Lordships' Select Committee, which was based on the assumption that the office of the Lord Chancellor would be abolished, as was the Government's intention.

It is conceded by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that the extant regime shall continue unless otherwise resolved by your Lordships on substantive debate. But is not the proposed policy— commitment to an elected Speakership—based upon a fundamental misconception, that such is the only way to ensure self-regulation at Question Time? Has this ill-conceived preconception inhibited timeous intervention by the Leader of the House and permitted disorder?

Has the report given any consideration as to the merits of retention of the Lord Chancellor as Speaker, or retention and restoration of the extant regime albeit with adjustments, an argument deployed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cooke of Thorndon. when writing in the Law Quarterly Review and when speaking on the Constitutional Reform Bill, in a speech to which the noble and learned Lord paid tribute?

In the course of that Bill, the status as Keeper of the Great Seal, Membership of your Lordship's House, legal qualification, a constitutional role in Cabinet, to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cooke of Thorndon, refers, were discussed as regards retention of the office. Unfortunately, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cooke of Thorndon, who would have wished to attend today, cannot do so. But writing in the Law Quarterly Review, in January 2003, he wrote that the Lord Chancellor's, presence on the Woolsack has symbolic significance underlying the history and unity of the United Kingdom, and the origins of this House as the Curia Regis ". In his speech on this Bill on 11 October 2004, to which I have just referred, the noble and learned Lord said: What is the greatest legal office in the world? Before the Bill was conceived, there could have been little doubt that it was that of the Lord Chancellor … His … high status has been an enduring symbol of the commitment of the United Kingdom to the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary … because he was a senior Member of the House of Lords and of Cabinet—an illustrious and universally respected lawyer who was able to speak with authority for all that the law represents … a kind of guarantor or watchdog of legality at the heart of the constitution". He continued: This great office is a distinctive product of the United Kingdom's evolution. It carries a prestige which is irreplaceable … In international eyes He said in conclusion: The advantages of the office of Lord Chancellor"— as Speaker— are partly psychological, yet they are real and internationally resonant. Some administrative adjustments may now be advisable, but rather than throw away this special legacy, Parliament should surely take pride in it and build on it as essentially one of the highest lawyer's offices in the land, with powers of significance".—[Official Report, 11/10/04; col. 38.]

9.14 p.m

Lord Parekh

My Lords, I welcome the report and thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and his colleagues for their efforts in putting it together. It contains some extremely interesting ideas that—I very much hope that they will be tried on an experimental basis—if adopted would make your Lordships' House even more efficient and effective.

Some of these interesting ideas have already been mentioned. I therefore want to spend my next four minutes making a few points either by way of elaboration or reservation. First, the problems that the report highlights, and which it tries to address, are not at all unique to your Lordships' House; they are to be encountered in many other countries such as France, Germany, the United States, Canada and elsewhere. I am therefore a little surprised that the report does not draw on their experiences and the ways in which they have tried to tackle these problems—problems of how to avoid repetitive speeches or the same amendments being made at Report and at Third Reading. Many of these problems have been faced by other jurisdictions and we might benefit from the experiments that they have undertaken.

Secondly, the report makes the mistake of separating functions and powers from the composition of the House. It assumes the primacy of the other place, the House of Commons, largely because it assumes that your Lordships' House will remain an appointed House. If your Lordships' House were to be fully elected, or elected on a different basis, or composed in some different way, its relations with the other place would need to be rethought and the whole notion of the primacy of the House of Commons would have to be radically reconsidered.

Thirdly, a reconciliation Standing Joint Committee of the two Houses to resolve persistent disagreements would in my view be unlikely to work. It exists in other countries, including India, for example, where it has created more problems than it has solved. How would such a committee be composed? How would it decide matters? Would it decide the matter itself, or would it arrive at a consensus and refer it to the two Houses to decide? Either course of action is fraught with difficulties.

Fourthly, the report concentrates almost entirely on legislation. Nearly a sixth of our time is devoted to debates, including on Unstarred Questions. Very often I, as a new boy, have wondered what the purpose of those debates is as they do not seem to influence either government policy or legislation, and we do not have periodic reports on what has been done by the Government in response to the suggestions made in those debates. Could we not find some way of integrating those debates into debates on legislation? For example, we have important debates on Second Reading. There is no reason why Second Reading could not be integrated with the debates that we have on Wednesdays. That sort of thing occurs in some countries and we might benefit from adopting that process.

Fifthly, as we are talking about conventions and procedures I want to make a simple and rather elementary suggestion that relates to matters which have often puzzled me. It is a convention to address this House as "my Lords", which is what I and other noble Lords do. However, we do not have only Lords; we also have Ladies. Either the Ladies are subsumed under"Lords" or they are ignored. In either case it is either discourteous or sexist and I am surprised that the lady Members of your Lordships' House have not raised an objection to that. I am not trying to instigate trouble; I am simply suggesting that to an outsider this is an obvious oddity.

I refer to a second conceptual quirk. Your Lordships' House is part of Parliament and yet your Lordships are not allowed to call themselves Members of Parliament— that designation belongs to people in the other place. In the past four or five years since I have been here I have noted about seven conceptual or terminological oddities. It would help your Lordships and those who have to explain your Lordships' procedures to people outside, including those in other countries, if we were to find some way of rationalizing them.

9.19 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I rather think it would be unwise to follow the noble Lord on some of the things that he was just talking about. My noble friend Lord Wakeham once answered a Question on that matter, and I refer the noble Lord to that Answer, which I am certain was a total clarification.

I am not against reform of the House of Lords and I am not against reform of the procedures of this House; but I doubt very much whether it is right for these proposals to come from one political wing of the party. I was even more troubled to read that apparently the proposals that we are considering, whatever their merits, will find their way into the Labour Party manifesto at the next election. Procedures of one House of Parliament or another have no place in a party manifesto. They should be decided by Parliament itself, and in relation to this House, by your Lordships. It is therefore wrong for a group of parliamentarians to take a political stance on these issues, as appears to have been the case on this occasion. That is not to say that the proposals brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and his colleagues do not have some merit; they may have some merit, although I have not yet been able to detect much.

I start from the position that the role of this House, like the role of the House of Commons, is to hold Ministers to account. Anything that is done to our procedures to make it more difficult for the Back Benches in particular to do that ought to be considered with the greatest circumspection and very likely not accepted. Like several noble Lords, I fear greatly that the main thrust—which may not be the intent but is certainly the effect of the proposals brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt—is to make it easier for governments to get their business. I agree with my noble friend Lord Jopling, who is not in his place, that in the end the government are entitled to get their business. Yes—in the end. But that does not mean that they are entitled to get it straightaway. They must argue it through this House, and they must listen to noble Lords who move amendments and who may go on moving amendments. They must listen to the minority views of those on the Back Benches whose views may not find a majority in favour. In the end, those views must be heard, listened to and taken into account. It is against that yardstick that these proposals generally fail.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, complained that the House is nowadays a more assertive place. As my noble friend Lord Jopling also said, that is perhaps a fairly direct result of the departure of most of the hereditary Peers three or so years ago. It is not necessarily a bad thing for noble Lords to be more assertive—it is a change, and I do not much welcome that change—but that is a personal view, and others may take a different one.

I do not want to comment on all the proposals in the paper brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, but I am particularly against fixed times for Bills. I do not like the sound of that, because it sounds like it is a way of dragooning Bills, or getting more Bills into the programme, and we do not want that from either side. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, shakes his head. I dare say that these are worthy proposals, worthily intended at least, but I do not welcome that.

The proposals refer to "reconciliation machinery". What is the point of "reconciliation machinery" if in the end the view of the House of Commons will prevail? They only have to resist any reconciliation, knowing full well that sooner or later the Bill will go through in any event. Voting in prime time is something to which the House of Commons has come recently and not very attractively. I am also opposed to carry-over. I am opposed to Leader's groups, as I have mentioned before. Leader's groups are a way of dragooning a view in the Lords against the views and wishes of the Back Benches, who are generally unrepresented or only minimally represented on such things. They are not a good idea.

The effect of these proposals, if not their purpose, is to facilitate the passage of government legislation in a way that I truly regret. I am not against reform of the proceedings of your Lordships' House and, frankly, I am not against reform of the composition of your Lordships' House. But that must be by parliamentary consensus—by agreement with all the parties—and not by unilateral imposition.

9.25 p.m.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, I, too, thank the Hunt committee for its useful work, which is certainly nothing if not provocative. I, like many other speakers starting with the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, find the proposals too managerialist and controlling. I must confess that, in the six or seven years that I have been here, I have been amazed at how well this Chamber has worked. It seems to me that it has extraordinary flexibility and good will. I honestly believe that, in the proceedings and procedures of this House, we cannot take any lessons from the other place, which very often churns over Bills and passes them to us with large parts completely unscrutinised.

I want to concentrate on an issue touched on by the noble Lords, Lord Williamson and Lord Renton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd—that is, over—legislation. It is a theme that I have pursued since I came into this place, and I believe it is the fundamental challenge that we as parliamentarians face in terms of the resolution that we are debating.

I wandered into the Library just before the debate. The latest bound volumes for 2003 contain 13,407 pages of new legislative material. I put it to the House that that amount of legislation—ever more complex, ever less consulted-upon and ever less participated-in legislation—is an unsustainable level of law-making. It represents 6,000 to 10,000 pages of additional law every year that we sit here and I believe that that bloated corpus of legislation is sinking under the weight of its own obesity.

Such a volume is utterly beyond our society and culture to cope with or digest. Even we in this House, as I observe year by year, are fazed by it, with more and more of us feeling that we are not up to engaging with these horrifically complicated and vastly voluminous pieces of legislation. If it begets that in us, what effect does it have on the population at large? It gives a generalised sense of incompetence and of being put upon by the state, and it induces a profoundly serious democratic crisis. I think it is the root of so much of the democratic malaise that we and others observe. It is a form of dry rot which imperils the quality and character of our society.

Comparable nations legislate at a much lesser rate. I looked at the statistics for some European countries and found that we are legislating at two and three times the rate of other countries. There must be something to be learnt from that.

So, before we do anything to widen the legislative superhighway, as I believe some of the committee's proposals would, we should stop and thoroughly and impartially investigate the status quo—for example, the circumstances giving rise to this state of affairs; the role of disproportionate Commons majorities, party whipping and patronage; and the degree of real constraint exerted on the Executive by Parliament. We should look at the effects of hyper-legislation in terms of our own culture, the disaffection and frustration that it begets, the overheads to society in terms of the constant resort to specialists, lawyers, accountants, consultants and heaven knows what.

I believe that there are deeper consequences of over-legislation. It penalises the poor and the unselfconfident; it rigidifies the society of which we are part; and it discourages trust, fair dealing and common sense in favour of black letter law. So, before anything, I urge that we establish a Royal Commission to investigate these intractable but vital matters.

9.29 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, it is now almost impossible to confer on anyone that which was conferred on me: to be one of those Peers who was elected to remain in this House. It is a particular honour, as I believe that members of my family have been in one or both Houses since the 14th century. When I finally go, that will be the last of the Onslows. There may be great roaring cheers, but it will be a matter of regret to myself in view of the enormous honour bestowed on me.

Since the 1999 Act, this House has become much stroppier. The point of Parliament is to be stroppy; it is to hold the government to account; it is to stop the government getting all their business through. The myth that governments must always get their business is surely wrong. I am not suggesting to your Lordships that we go back to the situation in which it was possible for Pitt to lose a Bill to reform the House of Commons or to abolish the slave trade, which were major planks of government policy, but I do not see why every single Bill should get through Parliament just because it has been churned out of a government machine.

Considering the fact that we are now responsible for approximately only 40 per cent of our own law, a percentage which is diminishing all the time—the rest is handled in Brussels—and considering the amount of legislation that the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, has said that we pass, it is a horrendous amount.

When the Constitutional Reform Bill came to this House, it was sloppily thought out and back-of-an envelope stuff; it was appallingly bad. The announcement was made on the television and against the Government's will and against the silver-tongued eloquence of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor thank goodness he will continue to be the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor—your Lordships voted to send the Bill to a Select Committee. What happened? Parliament worked. The Government had to come to a packed House and argue their points one by one. I had no idea which way the Divisions would go. That is what Parliament should do.

I believe that the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has gone seriously wrong because it has produced an apparatchik idea of what your Lordships should do. It makes the Government's job easier. My job is to make the Government's job more difficult. That applies to my noble friends if, peradventure, they should get back into power on 5 May, or whenever. I regard it as an honour to make the government of whatever party is in power squirm.

The other day I happened to say to a Chief Whip in another place that if, by any chance, there were to be a change of government the next time round, the House of Lords would be extraordinarily difficult to a Conservative government. I said, "I relish the prospect", to which he replied, "I don't think you need worry about that because I'm going to send lots of loyal people who will do as they're told, like Archie Hamilton, to the House", which made me laugh and filled me with a certain amount of dread.

I still do not want any House to be a servant of the government. My noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry and the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said what I believe is essential about the composition: the majority of Members must be elected. We will then have legitimacy and authority and then we can make the government's life more difficult. If we make it more difficult, the Commons will tend to follow suit, because it will not want to be picked up by the Lords. That is how Parliament should work. That is what our forbears in 1688 wanted the Magna Carta to do. At the moment in the words of the Dunning resolution of 1780—slightly paraphrased—the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. At the moment, the influence of the executive has increased, is increasing and must be diminished.

9.34 p.m.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, on introducing this debate with his usual fluidity and reasonableness. As a result he has provoked a debate of high-quality speeches and a certain high-mindedness, which fills me with a certain trepidation because I fear that I shall lower the tone a little by trying to put some of these proposals in a political context as far as the next steps are concerned.

My approach is greatly influenced by having taken part as a member of the joint Labour Party'Liberal Democrat study group on constitutional reform prior to the 1997 general election. That committee was known as the Cook/Maclennan committee after its distinguished co-chairmen.

It is interesting that so much of Cook/Maclennan has been enacted and that is a tribute to the thoroughness of the preparatory work done by that committee and the cross-party nature of its deliberations.

Indeed, it was only when the Labour Party acquired the hubris of office and started to go it alone that the momentum of constitutional change faltered. So let me say at once that we on these Benches believe that the kind of constitutional reform which sticks is best carried forward on the basis of consultation and cross-party consensus.

We were able to do that in 1996 because at that time we and the Labour Party believed that both Parliament and government were in need of radical modernisation and reform. We saw the need to strengthen the powers of Parliament against an over-mighty executive. We saw the need to curb the powers of patronage with its corrupting influence on our political life.

That, in some ways, makes this evening's debate so sad. Faced with the real challenge to our democracy referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, among others, the Labour Party responds with a paper which, while containing many interesting ideas, has an underlying theme which curbs and restricts the powers of this House. Its claim to do that is based on the wholly bogus idea that the House has abused its powers in recent years. The reality is that the Government have continued to get their business.

The Leader of the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, with her usual courtesy, came and told me personally why government business prevented her being here tonight. However, in an interview in the Daily Telegraph printed on Monday, she gave us a taster of what she would have said. The headline tells it all: Labour back-pedals on reform of the Lords". The cat is out of the bag. Asked if the long-awaited plan on future composition would be in the manifesto for the election expected on May 5, she said: 'No. I think there is still more work to be done'". Thus, after two terms of Labour government with landslide majorities, a 100 year-old commitment to democratic reform is laid to rest, just at the moment when the Conservative Party, hitherto one of the chief barriers to democratic reform, espouses the idea. It is a rum old world.

Instead, we are promised by the noble Baroness, Lady Amos—and here again I quote from her Daily Telegraph interview—that there was an urgent need to clarify and "codify" the powers of the Lords.

Suddenly, the idea that this paper is a spontaneous outpouring of Labour Back-Bench initiative takes on a more sinister hue. For, as the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, has pointed out, if what is on offer is that radical and democratic reform is to be replaced by a prudent pruning of the Lords' powers in favour of government convenience, then I think we have a difficulty on our hands.

Let me make the position of these Benches crystal clear. If the merry wheeze on which we are embarked is that the Labour Party will use the ideas in this paper to justify lines in its manifesto curbing the powers of the House of Lords, then, if re-elected, it starts citing the Salisbury convention to force those changes through the next Parliament, I have to say to the Government that such a strategy will be fought every inch of the way by these Benches.

As the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, has pointed out, we face the prospect that so distorted has our electoral system become that the next government could have a three-figure majority in the House of Commons on the basis of receiving less than 20 per cent of those entitled to vote. What the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said about using the Salisbury convention then becomes, frankly, disturbing. The Salisbury convention was designed to protect the non-Conservative government from being blocked by a built-in hereditary-based majority in the Lords. It was not designed to provide more power for what the late Lord Hailsham rightly warned was an elective dictatorship in another place against legitimate check and balance by this second Chamber.

Unless changes in the powers of the Lords are accompanied by real reform to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of both Houses, along with a strengthening of the powers of both Houses to call the executive to account, the Lords will be right to resist any piecemeal and arbitrary attempts to limit its powers.

The paper calls for streamlining, better focus and codification of conventions. In doing so, it shows a disregard for the realities of parliamentary life. What it offers is a Chief Whip's charter for a quieter life. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, that a living parliament should not be an easy place for Ministers or governing parties. The strictures that, the House should become more disciplined and abide by its rules and procedures", were endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. I therefore found his speech a little disappointing because, frankly, I have always thought of him as one of the great parliamentarians of his generation, and this is not a charter for parliamentarians.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way?

Lord McNally

No, my Lords.

Noble Lords


Lord McNally

All right, my Lords.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, is not the essence of the noble Lord's case based on the fact that the Liberals have immense power in the House of Lords? They hold the balance of power in a way that is totally disproportionate to their membership numbers in the House of Lords.

Lord McNally

No, my Lords. My case is based on a belief and a love of Parliament and parliamentary democracy. If the noble Lord really believes that a government in the other place with a three-figure majority based on 20 per cent of the popular vote will not undermine the credibility of our Parliament, he disappoints me greatly.

I can think of nothing worse than further rules and conventions on our behaviour. This House self-regulates itself well, and the odd eruption is the sign of life. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, was right to say that we should look at other examples. An eminent Canadian told me recently that the Canadian House of Commons had so hobbled itself with rules of procedure and time limits on speeches, it had virtually driven all life and serious debate from its Chamber.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, asked me what I believed in. Parliament should be like a mediaeval fair, with its arm wrestlers, acrobats, knife throwers and contortionists.

Noble Lords


Lord McNally

I can point them all out, my Lords. It should be lively, irreverent and, as the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, indicated, just a little dangerous.

I shall close on a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral. If you ask for a memorable moment in this Chamber, for me it was listening to a mortally ill Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, speaking about the threat to civil liberties posed by a Bill proposed by the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard. The Labour Benches cheered him that night. But this House has to be a House for all seasons—for government and for opposition. This paper is too biased towards the interests of government.

In the right spirit and in the right context, many of the ideas in the report could and should be considered. But the spirit has to be that of a genuine search for cross-party consensus, and the context must be that of a real and urgent modernisation of our political and parliamentary system, to re-link it to the political process of the people whom we serve.

9.44 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, that speech certainly stirred up this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for initiating the debate. Like many noble Lords, I enjoyed reading the report, perhaps at no point more than when I got to the second page and it talked about this new House testing the boundaries of some of the conventions.

It is hardly surprising, as has been said many times during this debate, that there has been uncertainty surrounding the future of this House over the past few years. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, a former Leader of the House, said in 1999, when the hereditary Peers were expelled, that this House would have a new legitimacy—and as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, observed, a massive influx of new Peers have come in. My noble friend Lord Onslow referred to the "stroppiness" of the House. All such matters are true and not surprising: there is an air of uncertainty due to what happened in 1999.

I, too, join those who have said that it is right to put an examination of powers and, to some extent, procedure, before looking at composition. I am sorry that I disagree with my noble friend Lord Jopling on that. I remember saying as much in 1998; namely, that we should find out what this House is for and what we want it to do before we look at who should sit in it. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, on Monday there was the strongest possible signal in the newspapers that the Government were beginning to feel the same way. That is an interesting change and, perhaps, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will comment on that. I look forward to his speech. The noble and learned Lord has obviously thought carefully about this paper and I hope that he will tell the House specifically which of these recommendations he favours and which he does not.

I cannot give this report the warm reception that, no doubt, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and his noble friends would have liked. One reason for that is that I do not detect anything in it that would strengthen the House. That was a missed opportunity. I know that perhaps the intention was to try to do that, but that has not happened in practice.

The group was highly experienced—a total of 28 years on the Front Bench, 50 years in the House of Commons, although just 34 on the Back Benches here. But it had one major weakness. As my noble friends Lord Wakeham and Lord Trefgarne said, the group's members were all from one party—the party of the Government. That may be why so many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord McNally, have found that its ideas smacked too much of the convenience of government. I agree.

For my part, change of that type in this House, or any other, should be made on the basis of cross-party consensus. The noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, agreed with that, but gave the impression that there had been little change in the past few years. When we looked at procedure under our previous Leader of the House, Gareth Williams, and in the recent review, ably led by the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, the Leader of the House, we agreed to change on a cross-party basis. Frankly, that is the only way to proceed; it is the way that has led to massive changes.

My noble friend Lord Lucas did not recognise that almost every year we experiment in changing our procedures. I take as an example the simple issue of Grand Committees—although 1 could have chosen the example, so ably given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, about advisory time limits on Second Readings. His example showed how those limits were not helping scrutiny. Grand Committees are pretty unpopular on our side of the House, but they give noble Lords on the Government side what they want—not having, in the immortal phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Warner, to sit around waiting for the Opposition to play the voting game". Well I never!

So in a spirit of co-operation we have agreed to many changes. In the first three Sessions after 1997, 20 Bills went to Grand Committee, taking 79.5 hours over 28 days. In the past three Sessions, 34 Bills have gone to Grand Committee, taking 487 hours over 134 days. That is a six-fold increase in time and a major change in our procedures.

After those changes, the Labour Party is back for more. They seek to reduce votes at Third Reading, to restrict timing of votes, and even to adopt the Commons procedure of deferred votes. But what are the facts? In the past two full Sessions before the experiment with wider use of Grand Committees, 22 per cent of Divisions were at Third Reading. In the three Sessions since the experiment, 23 per cent of Divisions have been at Third Reading. I sense no abuse there. Of course, if the House cannot vote in Committee, there will, in time, be strain on later stages. The proportion of all Divisions in Committee dropped from 30 per cent to 20 per cent. I would oppose a ban on votes in Committee, deliberative stages or a limit on times when Divisions could take place.

As my noble friend Lord Onslow said, it is not the job of this House to be convenient to governments or to government Peers. It is the job of this House to test, challenge, scrutinise and, if necessary, to ask the government to think again. If we never did that, we would really have no purpose. No government like it. I did not like it when I sat where the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, sits, but the paradox is that governments are often the better for it.

Many of us may wish that we had listened to this House more about, for example, the way in which the community charge was introduced. Many noble Lords opposite may wish that the Government had listened to the concerns of this House on 24-hour drinking in the legislation that we passed a couple of Sessions ago.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, that there is far too much legislation. No one out there understands it—the people who are most affected by it do not understand it—and how can they possibly keep up with this massive amount of new legislation? The report referred to deteriorating behaviour, abuses and the need for order as justifying a Speaker to foster discipline. I cannot help thinking that if the first Martian were to arrive on this planet and look at this House and the House of Commons he would not have very much difficulty in deciding which House has more abuse and disorder. We have to get this in proportion.

Anyway, I do not think that a Speaker sitting on the Woolsack would use the powers necessarily better than the Leader of the House. In any case, they are the House's powers vested in the Leader: they are not the Leader's powers. But I say to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, that we should improve the enforcement rather than change the enforcer.

The report states that we should lose the power to annul a statutory instrument, because we used it in 2000. That was part of stretching the boundaries of the conventions for the reasons that I have given. However, in 1994, this House formally resolved that it should retain the unfettered right to reject regulations. The Conservative government at the time did not immediately move to abolish that right.

Incidentally, I am not convinced that that convention is a convention of the House. I think that it is a convention between the two main parties. I do not think that it has ever been agreed to by the Liberal Democrats, and it could not be agreed to by the Cross Benches. It has been surprisingly robust over the decades. If it is used, that power should be used most sparingly. When we now have legislation such as the Civil Contingencies Act on the statute book, it is important for this House to preserve at least the possibility of using that power.

Many noble Lords have mentioned the experience of the Constitutional Reform Bill; that sending it to a Select Committee was the right thing to do, as none other than the noble and learned Lord has accepted. He said that it was wise and the right thing to do. Of course, I agree with him.

I am instinctively against codification and firm rules. Had we had such rules, the Government would have lost the planning Act last Session that the usual channels agreed to save by using an exceptional and unprecedented Motion. We should remember that another place has plenty of codes, but it has precious few freedoms from government control.

Our flexible approach to Grand Committees proves that we on this side of the House do not oppose change. But I urge the House, with all seriousness, to hold to the free procedures and powers that we have, which have enabled us to become the most successful revising Chamber that I very much believe we are.

Perhaps I may finish with a warning that is really an echo of what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said a few moments ago. We should resist uncompromisingly any attempt to increase the scope or bite of the Parliament Acts or to introduce in this place the kind of time limits and guillotine Motions that have been the ruin of another place.

If we are to change our procedures, it should be done as we have always done it: by consultation and discussion cross-party and not on the basis of a single-party proposal. I trust that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will agree at least to that.

9.55 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, I start by saying a few words in tribute to Lord Aberdare, who passed away on Sunday. Lord Aberdare had a long and proud record of service. He served in the Welsh Guards throughout the Second World War and later had a distinguished parliamentary career. He entered this House in 1957 and served as Chairman of Committees, Minister of State in the Department of Health and as Deputy Speaker. Indeed, I am sure that Lord Aberdare would have welcomed this debate, having himself chaired a group which looked at how to improve the conduct of business in the House. His dedication to public service was matched only by his enthusiasm for tennis and his support of the Tennis and Racquets Association. Along with all noble Lords, I feel his loss deeply. On behalf of the whole House, I should like to pass on our condolences.

This has been a quite remarkable debate. Among other things, it has been marked by the quality of the debate. We have had the benefit of hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. I agree with my noble friend Lord Hunt that the noble Lord produced what was one of the finest Royal Commission reports on what to do with the House of Lords. We heard the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, whose contribution to public life has been huge. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, who is a former Chief Whip in another place, made a significant contribution. The noble Lord, Lord Biffen, was Leader of the House in another place. He delivered an absolutely excellent speech. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, who has experience of other forms of parliament—I say that advisedly because I recognise that it is a rather sensitive issue. My noble friend Lord Carter was the Chief Whip in this place and has unrivalled experience. Finally, I turn to my noble friend Lord Hunt, who made such a valuable contribution to our debate.

Only three speeches were political in tone. I turn first to that of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. He indulged in a vicious attack on his own party, by which we were deeply and profoundly surprised. I have always thought of them as a bit of a cabal, but I was very glad to hear that confirmed by the noble Lord.

Some may remember that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was formerly an apparatchik of the first water for my noble friend Lord Callaghan when he was Prime Minister from 1978 to 1979.I do not remember the noble Lord, Lord McNally, saying at the time how much he admired the Lords for knocking back bits of the legislation of the Labour government of the day. Can you imagine the noble Lord, Lord McNally, delivering that impassioned plea if there had not been such a terrible misunderstanding in 1983 with the electorate in Stockport? If the people of Stockport had maintained their faith—which I agree would have been difficult for them—the noble Lord, Lord McNally, would be railing not on behalf of the interests of the Lords but on behalf of the interests of the Commons. So I would take what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, says with a pinch of salt.

However, the noble Lord made one important point that is very significant to our debate. He appeared to be saying that the Liberal Democrats intend to abrogate the Salisbury convention. That is what I thought he said. I thought that that was his suggestion, although I may have misunderstood him. I hope that that is the case.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, all I want to say to the noble and learned Lord is this. Has he not heard of the sinner that repenteth, and that there is more room? Is it not lovely to see someone like the noble Lord, Lord McNally, behaving like a parliamentarian and not as an apparatchik? Well done him.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, yes, I have heard that sinners can repent. I simply urge noble Lords to look at the noble Lord, Lord McNally, with some degree of scepticism. That is all.

Noble Lords


Lord McNally

My Lords, perhaps I may say to all noble Lords that the road to Damascus is a very pleasant journey. On the Salisbury convention, perhaps I may give a little warning to the Government Front Bench because I can see how their minds are working. I do not think that I was wrong in my interpretation. The Salisbury convention was for a different House of Lords at a different time. We may well have to examine the convention, but if this Government think that on 20 per cent of the popular vote and a couple of lines in a manifesto they can emasculate this House of Lords, that is a matter that we would take to the hustings.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, if the noble Lord takes it to the hustings, I hope that he will abide by them. If the hustings say they want it, I would have thought it right not for the Lords to stop it, but to give effect to the House of Commons. I do not understand why the noble Lord, Lord McNally, says that he would take it to the hustings and then ignore the result. With the greatest respect, his position has no logic to it whatever.

Lord McNally

My Lords—

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I think I must get on.

Lord McNally

My Lords—

Noble Lords


Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I think I must get on. Like everyone else, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hunt on procuring the debate. I also congratulate him on the quality of his contribution to it and to the report of the committee he chaired. Everyone is right to say that a group of Labour Back Benchers produced it, but the right thing to do is to look at it on its merits and deal with each individual case. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, rightly dealt with the issue of whether it was too government-minded not on the basis of simply addressing those who had produced it but by going through the detail. That is a fair way, rather than the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who looked as though he was going to say something detailed on it and then, sadly, never did.

It is important to emphasise that the Hunt report is about the functions, powers, procedures and conventions of the House and not its composition. Although there are plainly relationships between composition and powers, it was right that our debate primarily focused on that.

The starting points on which most of us, though not all because of the position expressed by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, are agreed are, first, that a credible and effective second Chamber is vital to the health of our democracy. Secondly, the cornerstone of our democracy, pace the noble Lord, Lord McNally. is the primacy of the elected House of Commons. Thirdly, the second Chamber should complement, not rival or undermine, the House of Commons. Fourthly, its main functions should be detailed examination of legislation and holding the Government to account. The ability effectively to hold the Government to account and to examine legislation involves the power to propose amendments to the Commons and to delay legislation to ensure the proper consideration of its proposed amendments and the holding of Ministers to account. We all agree that that is one of its prime purposes.

Fifthly, over many years the House of Lords has by convention exercised restraint on the use of its nominal powers. These conventions, alongside the Parliament Act, have guided and determined its relationship with the Commons. Sixthly, the Lords must have some degree of flexibility, but without ultimately challenging the primacy of the Commons. I agree with my noble friend Lord Hunt's proposition that uncertainty about the functions, powers and procedures of the House are ultimately bad for the House and bad for the good functioning of our parliamentary democracy. But I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, that there needs to be flexibility.

In my view, the noble Lord's speech indicated the tension: the Government are entitled to have their business; the Opposition are entitled to make as much fuss as they can. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and most people who have been involved with this House for some time will agree, there must be some limits within which anarchy in the UK as the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, would propose, is to be conducted. If you do not have some limits, you are not able to deliver the first proposition of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, that ultimately the Government are entitled to have their business.

The public should know what the powers of the second Chamber are. The composition of this House has changed fundamentally over the past 60 years. We have seen the change from a House dominated by hereditary Peers to one where almost all Members of the House are life Peers. We have also seen the change of the House from one traditionally dominated by one party to one in which the parties are more evenly balanced. Even after the last two elections, this Government still have only 29 per cent of the Members of this House. The balance in the membership of the House is likely to be a permanent feature. It means that the role of the House in the passage of legislation is now much more significant and it will continue to be so.

We should recognise that this is the House where there is real leverage in relation to legislation—apart from the Government. In so far as people are talking about the House being more assertive and having more power, it already has it. We must realise that we are in a totally new situation; not one that changed because of 1999 and the removal of the hereditaries, although that had an accelerating effect, but it has been happening since 1958. We should recognise that we are in a new place and that there needs to be a look at the powers and functions of the House in that context alone, quite separately from any other compositional changes there might be.

The effect of the change in the composition of the House makes it all the more important that the House should have clarity about its functions and transparency about its powers so that it can use those powers with confidence. I do not think it is right to talk about reducing those powers but rather about ensuring that what we all conceive as the role of the House is reflected properly in the way that it operates.

We should also take note of two particular comments made earlier in the debate. First, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said that this is a serious House and wants its affairs conducted in an orderly way. That does not mean that it has to be a House that is very pro-government but that it is a House where the people who work here as Members of the House believe that there is some degree of sense and order about the way in which it conducts its affairs.

The second point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, who drew our attention to the reduction in the number of people voting in general elections. All of us—not only Members of this House but all of those involved in the parliamentary system— have an obligation to retain the confidence of the public. The more confidence they have in us, the more they will be prepared to vote in those elections.

Perhaps I may now turn to the detail of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. I am not about to announce that the Government propose to adopt all— or, indeed, any—of the proposals in the paper. We said that we would return to the question of reform of your Lordships' House in the context of our manifesto, and I do not intend to trail any of our ideas today.

The Government agree with the report's premise that, in looking at the contribution which your Lordships' House makes to the legislative process, it is important to look at that process as a whole. The House is part of a bicameral Parliament. It will work best if it is consciously complementary to the work of the House of Commons. It does not seem to be unreasonable to suggest, as the report does, that changes to the rules under which the House operates might be in order even if a major part of the end result is to improve the efficiency with which the other place can operate.

So, for example, the proposal that the Parliament Acts should be applied to Bills which start in this House should not be dismissed out of hand as a sinister attempt to curtail the rights of this House. We should rather look at what it might imply for the management of business through both Houses over the course of a whole Session.

The realistic prospect that the Parliament Acts might need to be invoked on a Bill arises in most cases only right at the end of its parliamentary passage, when the issues on which the two Houses cannot agree are narrowed down to a few contentious issues. At that point, how much difference does it make in which House the Bill started?

As the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, once again rightly identified at the beginning of the debate, what it does make a difference to, however, is the House of introduction. We are all familiar with the pattern of a Session, where this House is short of business at the beginning of a Session and desperately busy at the end, while the House of Commons faces precisely the opposite problem. It has serious bunching of Bills queuing up for their Second Reading at the beginning of a Session, and comparatively little business, particularly for the Floor of the House, towards the end. The report argues that applying the Parliament Acts to Bills started in the Lords could provide a remedy to that situation by removing an artificial constraint on the distribution of Bills between the two Houses.

The same motivation lies behind the proposal of the working group of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that we should replace annual Sessions with a time limit for all Bills or, alternatively or additionally, allow automatic carry-over. I recognise that the discipline of the Session is something to which many, both within government and outside, attach importance, but the proposals from the group would not undermine that discipline. There would still be limits on the time available to process each individual Bill but, the report argues, the time of each House could be better used and the workload spread more evenly throughout the year if one of these approaches were adopted. I think we would all agree that that is a motive worth pursuing. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, pointed out, the commission on strengthening Parliament, which he chaired in 2000, made very similar recommendations. The precise solutions the report proposes may not turn out to be right, but the group's structures are plainly right, and the quality of the proposal at least deserves a response.

The proposal that a Bill should be limited in the length of time it may remain before this House also needs serious consideration. It must be constructed to ensure that it cannot curtail either debate or scrutiny. But if its effect is to allow proper scrutiny and ensure that a Bill does not get lost because some Peers can put a Bill in jeopardy by endless debate, it will improve scrutiny and ensure that the respective parts of the Bill receive the appropriate level of attention. It should help the House in planning its own use of its time.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, could the noble and learned Lord give an example of when we have put a Bill in peril by talking too much?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, we had to agree to carry over the Constitutional Reform Bill. The Bill took 10 months to get out of this House and a great deal of time was spent on it.

It is not just a question of the period of time imperilling a Bill; it is also the extent you ensure that each bit of the Bill receives proper scrutiny. How many people in the Chamber tonight have seen a bit of a Bill being debated in great detail in Committee or on Report before 6 o'clock and then watched people withdraw their amendments between 7.30 and 11.30 as the evening wears on and interest wanes? Is that proper scrutiny of each relevant part of a Bill?

Lord Roper

My Lords, if one looks over the past two years, the Bills which have gone beyond the so-called 60-day limit proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, have, on the whole, been those on which the Government have introduced a large number of amendments on Report or at later stages. It is not the fault of this House; it is merely that the Government have realised that Bills have had to be amended. Therefore, this artificial limit would reduce the quality of consideration.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the 60-day period is, in general cases, generous. We would need to consider, if this proposal went ahead—and I am simply saying that these proposals need to be discussed— whether there needs to be provision to extend the time, particularly in the circumstances that the noble Lord, Lord Roper, posits; namely, the Government bringing forward lots of amendments. It would plainly be totally unfair on the 59th day for a Government to produce great tranches of amendments. But if the proposal were to go forward, we would need to deal with that situation.

The report also proposes considering the length of time that this House can delay proceedings under the Parliament Acts. We all agree that the power of this House to delay legislation and require the House of Commons to think again is a vital part of the parliamentary process. It ensures that the views expressed in this House have to be taken seriously and cannot simply be brushed aside. But that is not the same as accepting automatically that the precise arrangements which were thought appropriate 50 years ago are still appropriate now. I was interested to see that the leader of the QC party, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, supported the idea of modernising the Parliament Act. We do not want to curtail the ability to delay, but we need to make the process simpler, clearer and much more appropriate to today's arrangements.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords—

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, do you mind if I do not give way, because I only have one more minute?

Noble Lords


Lord Falconer of Thoroton

Thank you, my Lords.

The report also recommends that this House's powers over secondary legislation should be changed from one of veto to delay. Given the reception a similar proposal in the Government's 2001 White Paper on the reform of this House had, this is either a brave or a foolhardy recommendation by my noble friend. Predictably, most noble Lords who have contributed today have once again expressed their opposition to it. However, I think the report raises a valid criticism. An absolute veto seems inappropriate and inconsistent with the pre-eminence of the Commons and with this House's role as a revising Chamber. The use of secondary legislation has moved on very considerably since the Statutory Instruments Act 1946 and the Parliament Act were passed. Serious consideration needs to be given to arrangements relating to secondary legislation. We do not want a delaying power to become a perverse incentive to delay everything. But in the light of the way in which legislation is now drafted, we need to ask ourselves whether we become more effective as a revising House if there is the power to delay secondary legislation but not the ability to veto it. I am quite sure that the House has exercised very considerable restraint in the way in which it has dealt with secondary legislation because its only power has been to veto rather than to delay.

I have concentrated my remarks on those aspects of the report that involve legislation to implement and where it would therefore be proper for the Government to have a view. The report itself goes much further than that. For example, it raises questions about the conventions under which we operate, how they could be dealt with under a non-legislative agreement approved by a resolution of the House. With such a process, it is much better for the Government not to have a view in relation to the way in which this House would run its affairs or pass particular resolutions in that regard.

Paragraph 12 deals with self-regulation of the House. It is fair to say that the Government endorse the report's conclusion that all is not always for the best in the best of all possible worlds when it comes to how the House conducts its business, but I make it clear that it is a matter for the House and not for the Government to have a view about it. There is one aspect of the paragraph on which I would like to comment, however: the question of the Speaker of your Lordships' House. As the House knows, it is the Government's wish that the Lord Chancellor should no longer be the Speaker of your Lordships' House.

If the Constitutional Reform Bill is enacted in the form in which it left this House, including Schedule 5, there will be no statutory barrier to separating the offices of the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker of the House. There remains, however, Standing Order 18, which states: It is the duty of the Lord Chancellor ordinarily to attend the Lords House of Parliament as Speaker of the House". I am of course the servant of the House and, as I have said all along, I shall fulfil the House's requirements to the best of my ability. However, it is only fair to say that, given the Government's desires on the question of the Lord Chancellor, what the Lord Chancellor does is not compatible with his sitting on the Woolsack, and I hope that the House will very soon feel able to amend Standing Order 18 accordingly.

I have gone on three minutes' too long, for which I apologise. I express gratitude to all who have taken part in this important and thoughtful debate. The number of speakers is an indication of the great interest that we in this House attach to our own affairs. The number of points that have been made have all been impressive. The Government have listened carefully to the points made on all sides. They, as well as the proposals in the report, will inform our further consideration of the proper powers and role of the House.

I once again congratulate my noble friend Lord Hunt and his fellow members of the working group on bringing forward the issues in such a helpful and considered manner.

10.18 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, it is late and I shall be very brief, particularly given the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, pointed out—and he has me bang to rights—that I went over my time in my introductory remarks.

This has been a splendid debate. I am very grateful to all noble Lords and to my noble and learned friend for the spirit in which they took part, which has mostly been co-operative and constructive. I hope that we can take forward these discussions in the House together. There is much to discuss. For me, seven years' membership of your Lordships' House has been a wonderful privilege and I want to assure this House that I want the second Chamber to be effective in revising legislation and to have leverage over the House of Commons. This report is aimed at doing just that. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at twenty minutes past ten o'clock.