§ 3.20 p.m.
§ Lord Peston
rose to call attention to the case for a review of the workings of the House of Lords in the 21st century; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, my approach to today's debate will be a good deal less portentous than the wording of the Motion. I would be glad to think that what we suggest will last as much as a decade rather than a century. In addition, my concern is with practicalities. My main focus is on the question: what can your Lordships' House usefully do? Many of the suggestions that will be made, in my judgment, can be met without involving a committee of inquiry. But I accept that, for some proposals, further discussion by a committee may be necessary.
I start with the assumption that the House remains a balanced one with no party having a majority, but with the Government and principal Opposition being about the same size. I am not sure that it is fully appreciated how significant that is. I take it for granted that we continue to govern ourselves, preferably without a Speaker.
We must also accept the preliminary wording of the Royal Commission and have,regard to the need to maintain the position of the House of Commons as the pre-eminent chamber of Parliament".I also assume that there will be no significant reform of the Commons for the next few years.
That leads me to the first possible controversial topic. We are not an elected Chamber, and even if the hybrid Chamber recommended by the Royal Commission were accepted—I have grave doubts about that—we would continue to be predominantly appointed. It follows that for the foreseeable future the Salisbury convention must hold. I interpret that to mean that legislation promised in the government party's manifesto must, in principle, be carried. I use the words, "in principle", advisedly. I do not take them to mean that such proposed legislation is not to be amended. Quite the contrary. A manifesto Bill is likely to be very important and therefore deserves extra scrutiny from your Lordships rather than less.
I offer two hypothetical examples. When the Tories decided to introduce a poll tax, it was not the job of your Lordships, whatever their views, to wreck such a proposal. But it was reasonable for Peers to seek to make the tax more sensitive; for example, to differences in income and wealth. Noble Lords will recall that Peers from all parties tried to do that, but failed. Such an attempt would not fall foul of the convention. Equally, we are about to examine a Freedom of Information Bill. The Government are entitled to have such a Bill passed. But in my judgment, the Government's definition of "freedom of information" is not ipso facto the only possibly valid one. Thus a Peer who sought to amend the Bill by saying this rather than that is the proper definition, is quite within his or her rights to do so.
1575 I hasten to add, by the way, that in saying on matters of legislation that the Government are not automatically right, I am not saying that the Government are automatically wrong.
§ Viscount Cranborne
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord so early in his remarks, but he said something rather important in relation to the Salisbury convention. Does it follow from what he said that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, believes that we would be within our rights, and within the convention as he understands it, to insist on the sort of changes to the principle and how it should be applied that he outlined, in any quarrel with another place?
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, the noble Viscount anticipates what I am going to say. The word "insist" appears in a moment and he will hear in a few minutes my view of it. I was discussing something slightly more general, but I am glad he raises the point.
If the Commons is pre-eminent and the Salisbury convention holds, it follows inexorably that we must regard ourselves as largely, but not entirely, a revising chamber. I believe that we can do that job on the basis of our experience, our knowledge and our expertise. Perhaps I may make an uncharacteristically acerbic comment here. One of the more fatuous recommendations of the Royal Commission is that we should be broadly representative of British society. My view is much more old-fashioned, and is precisely the opposite; namely, that our value derives from the fact that we are not representative, either as individuals or as a group. That is, of course, quite different from the need for our Chamber to be balanced.
We have a comparative advantage compared with the Commons and, for reasons which I do not understand, we also appear to have more time seriously to scrutinise Bills. We are useful when we are able to say, "That part of the Bill makes no sense"; or "That part of the Bill does not achieve what it sets out to do"; or "That part of the Bill has damaging side effects"; or, as happens quite frequently, "Would it not help if the Bill were amended to attend to this additional problem?". That is a way in which we can make a great contribution.
If scrutiny is our main task, there are certain procedural consequences, many of which are already built into our system. If I may don my old-fogy hat, in recent times we seem to have forgotten our own ways. One is that Second Reading speeches on broad matters of principle should be confined to Second Reading. I admit that I offend as often as others, but we should all behave ourselves better.
Next, I for one should like to see a more dispassionate approach to the Committee stage. That involves greater tolerance and a willingness to listen on all sides. Government briefs with the word "resist" typed all over them can no longer be the norm. I have always believed, and my experience of Whitehall stretches back to nearly four decades, that that is for the convenience of officials, not Ministers, and they sell it as a kind of macho principle. But if Ministers 1576 have to be macho, no one can blame the Opposition or sundry Back-Benchers from showing what they can do by flexing their muscles.
Having said that, the Opposition must be reasonable too. Indeed, if we accept that the Government, having been elected by the people, are entitled to govern, then the Opposition have to show more tolerance. They cannot operate on the equally daft approach of "insist, insist, insist", let alone, "divide, divide, divide". I do not doubt that sometimes an amendment is seen by its proponents as so fundamental that they cannot compromise and must insist and must divide. And of course we are a political House and have our basic differences. But I have to say that we cannot die in the last ditch on everything; indeed, logically we can only die in the last ditch once. It follows that when either side can agree on an amendment after due reflection following the Committee stage, the Report stage is when we should divide. And I return to the consequence of such Divisions in a moment.
Let me now mention briefly Third Reading. When I first came to your Lordships' House I was told that Third Reading was for minor technical amendments and was a way of last minute tidying up. Over the past few years that has gone by default. We see substantive new amendments tabled by all and sundry, not least the Government. Sometimes we appear to get entirely new departures at Third Reading. I am convinced that that must stop, and the Government must take the lead. If the Bill is not broadly right by Third Reading then it really ought to go.
All governments have a rather inflated sense of the value of their legislation. I can only say that I can think of quite a few Acts of Parliament of which, quite independent of their political origins, it is difficult to say what net loss to national welfare would have occurred if they had been allowed quietly to die. To put it the other way round: if the Bills are that important, they ought to be drafted correctly to begin with.
Where there are Divisions, how is their outcome to be responded to? Let me start with a non-government amendment which is defeated. The practice has grown that if we are defeated once, we must try, try and try again; which means using the same speech over and over again. Again, ignoring the dying in the last ditch phenomenon, we ought largely to stop that.
More importantly, what of a non-government amendment, opposed by the Government, which is carried? It will go back to the Commons in the usual way and what is important is how the Government respond to it. Two changes in the method of response are required. They are both based on the assumption that what we have done is to ask the Government to think again. First, having put forward a reasoned case, even though the Minister in our House disagreed, there need be no loss of face on the part of the Government if they say that on further reflection that amendment, or something similar to it, is now acceptable.
Secondly, if their conclusion remains that the view of your Lordships is not acceptable, they must be obliged to come back to us with a fully reasoned 1577 argument as to why not and not merely say, "The Commons do not like it: end of story". If the Government are more open-minded in their approach to defeats in this House, it would seem to me that the so-called game of "ping pong" between the two Houses should become more of a rarity than it has been in the past few years. I reiterate that all that depends on good sense on both sides.
I turn briefly to secondary legislation. Many of us expressed our views on that in the excellent debate opened by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, just a couple of weeks ago. All the contributions made that day were sensible and do not need repeating now, except to emphasise that we should, on occasion, vote on such matters as secondary legislation, obliging the Government to come back again, preferably with the order amended satisfactorily.
When I have discussed these points with other Peers throughout your Lordships' House they have objected that the approach of constructive engagement that I have outlined here holds the executive less to account than direct confrontation. Frankly, on the basis of my experience in your Lordships' House, I beg to differ. Speaking directly to the Opposition and also to some of my colleagues on the Back Benches, the best way to embarrass the executive is by informed exposure of their failings; not knockabout rough stuff, much as I enjoy that sort of thing.
Furthermore, what I propose is an implicit contract. If one side does not meet its part of the deal, the other side should feel no obligation to continue to do so. I am talking about a convention here, rather than something set in tablets of stone—that is to say, something that should really be dear to your Lordships' hearts.
There are a few other topics that I wish to mention before concluding. The specialist committees, including the European committee of your Lordships' House, have been most successful. They investigate topics of public importance, throwing light on them and often preparing the ground for future policy and legislation. In my judgment, we should have more of them. My own view is that we should not imitate the other place and track individual departments. Instead, our committees—our new committees, I hope—should be subject based; for example, I believe that we should have one based very broadly on international affairs, one on all aspects of social policy and one on constitutional questions. Indeed, there may be others that noble Lords will suggest. In addition, we should continue to have general debates in which we are able dispassionately to participate in the process of helping the public form opinions on matters of general importance.
We should not exaggerate how important we are. Sometimes I, and others, despair that we talk to no one but ourselves. I hope that that is not entirely true. Certainly, as long as we are privileged to be a central part of the parliamentary system, we have a duty to raise public awareness of difficult problems, not least 1578 in the realm of values. Let me add that I remain an old-fashioned liberal in the sense of recognising that, on many of these topics, there is no certainty and more than one approach may be valid.
All this leads me to the questions of facilities and working hours. Perhaps I may be allowed one anecdote. When I first came to your Lordships' House, Lord Home sat next to me in the Bishops Bar and regaled me for a long time with marvellous stories of life when Baldwin was Prime Minister. He asked me what I thought of this House. I said, "Well, I actually love it"—it was only early days—"but the only thing that troubles me is the enormous length of the working day here". I cannot do an imitation of his marvellous voice, but he said, "Oh yes, dear boy, I fully understand that. When I first came we had difficulty in keeping the business going until tea time".
On the subject of resources and working hours perhaps I may say, first, that we have lived too long as church mice. It is high time that we had a substantial increase in resources, not equal to, but not far from what the Commons have. Secondly, our working hours are absurd. We really must take more seriously the possibility of at least one morning session. If committees can meet in the morning, surely some legislative business can take place then as it does on some Fridays. The obvious time to experiment with is Thursday morning. My general view is that if we ask industry, commerce and the public services to reexamine what they do and raise their productivity, why should we not do the same?
I have two concluding remarks to make. One is that we ought to discuss these subjects today independently of where we sit. The future is uncertain. Governments do change, as do oppositions. We do not know when, but we can be confident that some day all of us, for one reason or another, will be sitting or lying elsewhere. I hope, therefore, that this debate does not deteriorate into a party wrangle.
A leading Member on the Opposition Benches, a man I hold in the highest esteem, said to me, "The trouble with you, Maurice, is that you are hopelessly naive. You believe totally in reason and reasonableness". I pleaded guilty to him then and I plead guilty to the charge again today. It seems to me that we have a great opportunity to make this House very much more effective and able to fulfil a serious role in the constitution. I hope that we take the chance and do not walk away because of the risks involved. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.35 p.m.
§ The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)
My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my noble friend Lord Peston for giving us the opportunity to discuss a very important issue. My noble friend opened the debate this afternoon with characteristic individualism and panache. He focused attention on the primary task of how we scrutinise legislation. I know that other speakers will also concentrate on this procedure, but the agenda is very 1579 wide. We may this afternoon legitimately range from computer facilities to committee structures, from financial resources to organising refreshments.
My purpose in speaking early is to welcome such a broad debate and to hope that we can translate at least some of the proposals that I expect to hear today into action and change.
In his conclusion, my noble friend said that,we have a great opportunity to make this House very much more effective and able to fulfil a serious role in the constitution".I entirely endorse that position. Noble Lords are aware that the Government have accepted the principles of the Wakeham report on stage two reform, but I think that we should separate the Royal Commission's proposals from the kind of ideas that may come forward today and approach their consideration in a different, perhaps more ad hoc, more flexible way. A House .for the Future, to borrow the title used by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, can be built in many ways. After all, despite perceptions that our working practices may have been set in particularly sticky Victorian aspic, they have been regularly altered in modern times.
Until last year, the ways by which people became Members of this House had been constant for 40 years. The volume of business had increased but not fundamentally changed in character; but the ways of doing business have changed considerably over that same period. For example, we now have the Grand Committee procedure on some Bills. The dinner hour is now used more productively, following the introduction of time-limited Unstarred Questions. We have established the authoritative Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee and now have two topical Questions each week. I am sure that noble Lords on all Benches will agree that these changes have improved the capacity of the House as a revising and debating chamber. I give these examples simply to illustrate that it is possible to pursue a practical agenda to make the House more effective, without embarking on fundamental constitutional reform.
As I say, I think that we have now a great opportunity. It is an opportunity where we could even lead the Westminster Parliament in bringing this House more obviously into line with some aspects of contemporary life. After all, in 1985 we were the first Chamber to introduce television coverage—four years before the other place followed suit. The House of Lords was rightly praised for its early recognition of future trends.
I do not need to remind your Lordships that, today, digital television and computer technology are revolutionising every part of our lives. They are revolutionising the way people work and the way they want to live. Achieving a good work:life balance has become a universal aim. I would suggest that it has particular resonance for those engaged in parliamentary life.
I turn to one fundamental issue to which my noble friend has already referred. I believe that we should examine our sitting hours and days. This House already sits longer than almost any other legislative 1580 chamber in the world. In terms of weeks, it outranks the House of Commons, and in terms of the hours, it runs very close. We need to analyse whether this is necessary, desirable or even defensible.
The need to balance sensible sitting hours with effective scrutiny is not a new problem. The other place has long made efforts to structure its workload in ways which reduce the need for that House to sit late, while retaining Members' ability to hold the Government to account. Under a previous administration, the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling—who I am pleased to see in his place—introduced a package of reforms, securing him a very important place in parliamentary history.
In this Parliament, the House of Commons has achieved an increase in debating time without an increase in sitting time by holding "parallel sittings" in Westminster Hall. Parliament's role is not reduced, but the time is used more efficiently.
The devolved institutions and the European Parliament have written into their standing orders what are called "social hours", compared with the often "unsocial hours" we demand of ourselves.
In Canada and Australia, the second chambers have also similarly altered their patterns of sitting. I am not suggesting that the issues are identical for your Lordships' House, but I do think that we should look at these other chambers to see what we can learn from their working practices.
One special characteristic of your Lordships' House is that we take pride in being part time, and, in the best sense of the word, an amateur House. However, this has consequences. The first consequence is that many Members of the House want to play a full part here but also need to earn their living. Members of this House are typically juggling three competing priorities: their work here, their work outside, and their family responsibilities.
So we need seriously to ask whether the way we work here balances those competing priorities in the best way possible. My personal view is that the answer is "No". Our hours, like those of the other place, to some extent reflect the desire to juggle two careers: to earn a living in the mornings, and to be in the House later in the day.
But where does that leave family life, especially for those who do not live in central London? And, can anyone feel that they are performing adequately in their other roles if they have been in this House until 2 a.m., as they were this morning, fulfilling their duties as legislators?
One alternative would see the House working a more nine to five pattern, finishing at a time that allowed for some free evenings. But what would that mean for those who pursue a professional career outside the House, or indeed for those who may enjoy being here for social reasons because their families are far away?
It is, of course, possible that morning sittings could be arranged so that they involved an active quorum of Members—after all, the quorum for business on the 1581 Floor of the House is only 30—or that our new offices should include the latest modern technology to make it easier for people to keep in touch with outside work, which is often now not tied to a particular physical place.
I am not going to pretend that I, or the Government, have a blueprint for any such change. But I do believe that we should consider very carefully how we try to reconcile parliamentary and personal priorities in a 21st century context. From my experience as a Minister in this Government with responsibility for improving working lives across the public sector and as Minister for Women, I know that the issue of the work:life balance has become a top priority in today's society. This week is national Work:Life Balance Week and the House may have seen the research published to mark it—showing that half of this country's fathers spend fewer than five minutes a day with their children during the working week.
As my noble friend Lord Peston suggested, handling legislation is at the pivot of our improved effectiveness. But to the outsider, although I recognise not to the traditional parliamentarian, it seems common sense, for example, to try to reduce the number of occasions on which virtually every Member of the House has to be here in case there is a vote.
There are a variety of ways of achieving change. For example, do we need to take as much legislation on the Floor of the House? As my noble friend Lord Peston suggested, do we need to have a regular format for Divisions in Committee, or should we look more daringly at alternative procedures? Could we, for example, contemplate electronic methods of voting?
I am not going to canvass the full range of options this afternoon. I have no doubt that other noble Lords will have their favourites which they will urge on the House. I know that some noble Lords will suggest that the only thing we need to do is to reduce the amount of legislative and other business the House is asked to consider.
§ Baroness Jay of Paddington
My Lords, I am glad to have obtained that response from the Opposition. The amount of parliamentary business is not a unique burden imposed by this Government. In 1980, for example, the Conservative administration acted as newly elected administrations often do to achieve the programme on which they were elected. That administration put 57 government Bills through this House, compared with a total of 27 in 1998–1999.
If we are not prepared seriously to examine the issues of timetables and social hours, I am afraid that there will be increasing difficulty in attracting those whom we would all wish to see as working Members of the House. Those with professional and business careers and who enjoy professional distinction outside the House add greatly to its authority, but they do not expect the vagaries of timetable that our present arrangements produce. These days people are not 1582 prepared to order their working lives so that they never know whether they are going to finish at 7 p.m. or midnight. This is especially true of younger people and for everyone with family responsibilities.
The Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords proposes a chamber that encourages membership from under-represented groups. It proposes that at least one-third of the membership should comprise women. Frankly, I think that it may be difficult to achieve and sustain this proper ambition with our present working practices.
Following last year's reforms, this House operates less like an exclusive gentleman's club. But there is much more we can now do to make it an attractive modern environment for effective work. I suggest that these are issues that can be considered and not postponed until further constitutional reform.
This debate offers an important opportunity to look critically at ourselves in the context of the changes that have taken place in working practices in other legislatures and in the outside world.
In conclusion, last year my noble friend Lady Hilton of Eggardon chaired a very useful working party on procedures. In 1994, Lord Rippon's inquiry produced far-reaching proposals on saving the time of the House. If we believe—as I do—that there could be still further practical change to the benefit of Parliament and its Members, we should build on that experience and find a mechanism to consider progress now. I am hopeful that practical, useful proposals will emerge this afternoon and as Leader of the House I look forward to working to achieve them.
§ 3.46 p.m.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, is already an institution in this House. He has been here long enough to see many changes. As he well knows, the most useful changes have always been those adopted by agreement within. I respect his honesty and integrity. He is a party loyalist but he is also an independent man. He, no more than I, would want to see an attempt by the Executive to "mug" this House under the misnomer of modernisation.
Let me make clear where I stand on these matters as Leader of the Opposition as well as a simple Member of the House. We should not make changes in our procedures for our own personal convenience—still less that of Ministers—but only such changes as enable our House to operate more effectively in scrutinising not just this Government but all governments. I believe that in essence that was the point that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, made.
As the noble Baroness the Leader of the House said, this House is not one that never changes. Let us consider some of the things that have happened during the time that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, has been a Member of the House. I refer to the Denham Convention; the strengthening of the Select Committees of the House and the creation of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. These and many other changes have been agreed by this House. They range from sparing the noble and learned Lord 1583 the Lord Chancellor from the necessity to wear breaches or to read out the Queen's Speech to far more significant issues—these were not recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Peston—such as suspending Peers' right to re-open issues voted on in Committee and lost. Therefore no one should claim that this House rejects change; quite the reverse is the case.
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House mentioned the introduction of the Grand Committee or Moses Room procedures. Some see this as an example to debate more widely at Committee stage. However, it is not a change that has been entirely successful, I fear. The use of the Moses Room was intended to relieve pressure on the Chamber—to reduce the number of late Sittings. All that has happened is that governments have tried to cram even more business into already overloaded timetables. Here is an example of a way of improving the working practices of this House which has failed and has simply allowed governments to snatch an advantage. The number of sittings which last until after 10 p.m. has risen, not fallen. That is not because the Opposition are any better than their predecessor, or more tiresome, but because the Government are pushing through more major, and often poorly drafted, Bills. We should be wary of not making it easier for governments to stuff the legislative sausage machine ever more tightly with ever less scrutiny.
We have had two record Sessions since 1997. That is perhaps not surprising on the part of a new government. But already, it seems, we face another, and this is after we have devolved Scottish legislation to the Scottish Parliament. The insatiable appetite of the Whitehall bureaucracy never seems to wane.
§ Baroness Jay of Paddington
My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt. I know that it is a timed debate, but there is a certain amount of flexibility.
I referred to only one figure in my opening remarks. Perhaps the noble Lord would care to comment on the fact that during the year 1979–80, under a Conservative government, the total number of Bills passed in this House was 71; in the second Session of that government it was 57; and in the third 60. In the first Session under this Government it was 52 and in the second 27. Does that reflect what the noble Lord is describing?
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, I make two points in response. First, successive governments are all guilty of that. Secondly, the noble Baroness will recognise the weight and size of the Bills that have been introduced by this Government and the weight and number of amendments. No doubt the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip, when he responds to the debate, will confirm that record numbers of amendments have been agreed in this House during the last two Sessions of Parliament.
It must be right to review our procedures from time to time, but I have always felt that the Procedure Committee is effective enough to do that. Perhaps that should be the way forward.
1584 I dislike the wording of the Motion because it implies that the workings of the House are somehow outdated and unfit for the 21st century—even for the first decade of the 21st century—and that they should therefore, in the cliché of Blairism, be "modernised" or changed to fit into what the noble Baroness called "contemporary life". Change for change's sake is not a good maxim, particularly for the procedures of Parliament.
I am all for changes which strengthen the ability of this House to do its job and which improve the committee system in order better to scrutinise governments. For instance, I am all for the new Economics Committee, which the noble Lord, Lord Peston, has championed; for a new Constitutional Committee; for a truly independent Appointments Commission; for shorter ministerial answers; for a weekly Question Time of the Leader of the House; and for better scrutiny of the mass of regulations that all too often amount to "rule by decree" by government departments. But when it comes to modernisation, I am a sceptic.
Whether on the receiving end in government or on the scrutinising end in opposition, I have come to see the open procedures of this House as a treasure store of parliamentary freedom. In my view, if this House is to function effectively as a revising chamber, there is one prerequisite of fundamental importance, and that is to preserve the freedom of Back-Benchers in this House.
We are a House of equals. A Bill Committee is a conversation of the whole House; every Peer has a right to set down business, to ask questions, to propose amendments and to take the opinion of the House. That business, those questions, those amendments will always be heard. It is important that we should maintain those rights—and that would include the right to take the opinion of the House.
After all, what is the function of Parliament if not to express an opinion? Nothing provides government Ministers with more incentive to explain a case and to draft legislation properly than the fear of facing a difficult vote at a time not necessarily to their convenience or of their choosing.
We—and Back-Benchers in particular—are fortunate that there is no mandatory grouping or selection of amendments; no ban on manuscript amendments, except at Third Reading; and no curtailing of discussion by timed votes. Do we, for the convenience of a few Ministers, want to be the generation that looks back and says, "Yes, we were the House that introduced the guillotine into the Second Chamber"? The Government do not have a stranglehold on our timetable or our business, as in another place; we do it by agreement—and, surprisingly, it works rather well.
There is therefore in this House the implicit contract mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. The newest Back-Bencher has the same right to press his or her point as the most venerable former Leader o f the House. That is the mark of a truly free House. I do not want to see that changed; I do not want to see matters 1585 rearranged for the convenience of the Front Benches rather than the Back Benches; I do not want us to lose, for example, the minimum intervals that protect this House from the executive railroading legislation through, as all too often happens in another place.
I have heard it said that some of our newer colleagues are annoyed that they have to spend time hanging around in the evening waiting for a vote. To them I say, "Welcome to Parliament". They will have to learn that that goes with the privilege of being a Member of this Parliament.
I shall say one thing about "family friendly". I am the father of three small children. They are in bed in the evening and therefore I am free to do my work in this House. But my children, who are of school age, revel in playing with me in the mornings. I find the idea of going to morning sittings rather more complicated than other noble Lords whose children may be older. I am not saying that there is not a case for it; I am simply saying that it is not quite as obvious as some of its proponents believe.
If you curtail discussion on an issue, you curtail the freedoms of this House. This House does not filibuster; I trust that it never will. Equally, it looks into the nooks and crannies of the law; I hope that it always will. Too often I have the sense that some in the executive considers Parliament at best a boring formality and at worst a tiresome nuisance, to be swatted or bypassed whenever it can be.
I hope that when we come to look at our procedures we shall remember that they are the product of the wisdom of many generations; that they are part of the safety glass in our constitution; and that they are one reason why a perceived House of privilege has so often been the defender of the weak and the disabled when the other House has been rolled over into submission by the Whips of the government of the day. I believe that, far from encroaching on the free procedures of this House, we should be exporting some of our freedoms to another place. Any changes to procedure that we consider should begin and end with one great principle—that is, to build a stronger and more independent Parliament. That would surely be a noble cross-party objective for politics in the 21st century.
§ 3.56 p.m.
§ Lord Rodgers of Quarry Rank
My Lords, I, too, from these Benches, welcome the bold and far-ranging Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Peston. It will result in something of a portfolio of a debate, with many rather different ideas about somewhat unrelated subjects, but it need not be the worse for that. I very much liked the tone of the noble Lord's remarks; it was what I would call "moderate radicalism". He was looking at the case for change but not assuming that we could in some way fundamentally alter the character of the House. This seems precisely the moment for the House to be discussing the issue. Following the changes, which occupied us for much of last year, the House has become more confident in a way that we could not have foreseen. That is good; but it places new 1586 responsibilities on us. The changes to the composition of the House have brought into it more men and women with recent and valuable professional interests. We have to take account of that as well. My conclusion is that we are a rather better House than we were a year ago. It is therefore entirely right that we should review its work and consider how Members of the House can best contribute to it.
I follow the noble Lord, Lord Peston, in a great deal of what he said. Certainly, when it comes to legislation, the official conduct of business does not involve a failure to scrutinise. On the contrary, if we are orderly and there is a large measure of agreement on both sides of the House, the Government are more likely to get their legislation through in good time. At the same time, the opposition parties will have reasonable opportunities to have their amendments accepted.
The noble Lord referred to "constructive engagement" and to "flexibility". It would be a very good thing if all in the House today—government and opposition parties—agreed on more flexibility in matters relating to legislation.
Where I do not necessarily follow the noble Lord—or, for that matter, the Leader of the House—is in the attempt to look for a "family friendly" House, to use what seems to be developing as the conventional description. Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness put forward powerful arguments that need to be seriously considered.
However, I counsel caution. First, it is very important that the House should not reduce its effectiveness in relation to government by changing the balance in favour of the government of the day, of whichever party. It would be very easy for the Government to say, "Go home early; stay away— except when we require you to be here to enable us to get our business through." That is not the way to approach the second Chamber. We need balanced debate on all issues; we must not simply be creatures of the government in terms of how we do our job. Back-Benchers on all sides can be a nuisance to government. However, if they spent too much time with their families they would be rather less of a nuisance than they ought to be.
Secondly, all professional people, certainly in mid-career, have very demanding hours. Those hours involve evenings away. I hope that we do not complain too much about the life that we lead. Most of us rather enjoy it. I say that both in relation to Members of this House and Members of another place as well. Let us not complain too much. It is a hard life for many men and women pursuing their careers, whatever those careers may be. It follows from my comments about the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that as between change and the status quo I unequivocally vote for change, although it must be sure-footed and enduring. It must be incremental to achieve those purposes. Change which the House is obliged to accept against its best judgment is not change which will survive. The more there can be broad consensus for change, and for particular changes, the better.
1587 Perhaps I may summarise the areas of change I should like to see. First, I think we should consider and, if we agree, implement without delay all those recommendations of the Wakeham report which do not require legislation. I do not press that further today because I think that the approach I have suggested would be fully consistent with avoiding the cherry-picking—however much some of us might like it—against which the Leader of the House has set her face. Many recommendations in the Wakeham report chime very well with points made in the past by noble Lords on all sides of the House. I see no reason why—indeed the Liaison Committee is considering some of the recommendations now—at an early date the House should not have an opportunity of reaching agreement on those proposals.
Secondly, we should refuse to allow any Treasury reservations to prevent or inhibit the expansion of the Select Committee system. This cannot happen quickly. It requires Members willing to serve. We all know that there are problems of accommodation. But we should not treat the Treasury as a private bank which will allow us only a drip-feed for any changes we want to see. We are a very cheap House, compared even with the Commons, and it is very important that the argument that the Treasury will not like it should not carry if we decide, as I hope we will, to expand our Select Committee system in a number of important directions.
Thirdly, I hope we can adopt a more efficient system for the management of our part of the Palace of Westminster. I have seldom sat through more unsatisfactory meetings than those of the Offices Committee of this House, for reasons that most of those who have been members of it will readily know. By any standards, the Offices Committee, as presently constructed, is a very poor advertisement for the way Parliament conducts itself. I hope we shall see some change. Indeed, I wonder whether the time has come for a House of Lords Commission, comparable to the Commons Commission, which, it seems to me, gives responsibility to a wide spread of Members and yet allows the House of Commons finally to decide. I ask only that we look hard at more efficient management—and that the House is receptive to it when the time comes—of the prosaic aspects of our business.
Fourthly, I hope that the time will come, and the mechanism does exist, for considering jointly with the House of Commons some better ways of working together. I have more than once mentioned from these Benches, without many enthusiastic nods except from the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that there is a case for all Bills having a Second Reading first in the Commons, and then coming for Committee, Report and Third Reading to this House before moving back to the Commons. I think there would be real advantages for government. Furthermore, it would enable this House of Parliament to scrutinise legislation before the government of the day are irrevocably committed to it because it has been through the elected House. I think 1588 that legislation would be better, and I think that this House would feel more satisfied that its flexibility had achieved the purposes it is meant to serve.
There is scope for change—for incremental change. We should not postpone it until after the general election. Let us begin now. And we should not postpone it until further reform of your Lordships' House.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Durham
My Lords, it seems right and proper that at this point in deliberations all the discussions that are taking place in various quarters should be brought together on the Floor of this House to give us the opportunity to hear what is going on in other quarters. So we are particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for this initiative.
I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, for her openness to reform and her readiness to discuss the relationship between the personal lives of Members of this House and their effectiveness here. I should like to support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, about the urgency of getting on with the non-legislative matter contained in the Wakeham report.
I hope I do not need to repeat the keen and continuing interest of the Bishops on these Benches in the reform of both the membership and the workings of this House. A great deal of work is going on, with a group of Bishops looking at detailed responses to the Wakeham report. We are hoping to be in discussion with the Government about that.
I should like to make one very general point and then two more detailed but minor points. The general point concerns the ethos of this House, which the Bishops very much appreciate. The workings of the House reflect that distinctive ethos. It is not perhaps professional in the political terms of another place, which is rightly so. That does not make the House less effective but it does make for a different approach to debate and decision-making. It is certainly my hope that we should retain something of that distinctive ethos.
Many Members of this House make their best contributions because they are not tied to party affiliation. Many Members—not by any means only Bishops—make their best contributions because they hold responsible jobs and exert an influence in their regions and within their professions. Therefore, they are able to bring quite distinctive professional commitments, views and responses to this House.
In any new working arrangements, means should be found to include those without party affiliation and who are not full-time participants in the committee and other machinery which makes this House effective and efficient. I think I would extend that argument to include the retention of Bill scrutiny on the Floor of the House, rather than farming it out to a committee that is hidden away somewhere else in this place. It 1589 does make it much easier for those of us who cannot be here every day to participate in Bill reform when it takes place here in the Chamber.
That is my general point. I want to make two smaller but significant points. One is that these Benches appreciate very much the very significant attendance at the daily prayers of the House. We believe that they are integral to our working; that work and worship are two parts of a single song. Although there may be room for some discussion about the content and the style of those prayers, we hope that any working arrangements of the House that are under discussion might retain that as an essential feature of our life.
Finally, could those who are looking at the workings of the House of Lords in the 21st century please look at why it requires 26 of its Members to dress in the 17th century style? We are quite ready to continue with our dog-collars as a sign of the proper humility that would be expected of us, but robes simply make for billowing in the corridors and perspiration in the Chamber.
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, I sense that in this debate noble Lords probably want to talk about procedures rather than facilities. However, the two are connected and it is just worth remembering that improvements in facilities do not necessarily improve the workings of a place any more than do changes in procedures. For instance, more office accommodation and more secretarial assistance undoubtedly accelerated the decline in attendance in the Chamber of the House of Commons and, consequently, the importance and influence of debates there. Anyone who has been in the other place would not doubt that for one moment.
We are greatly indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for his reasonable and conciliatory approach. I certainly agree with him that this is not an appropriate time for a full-blown inquiry into our procedures with a view to major change. It is not an appropriate time simply because we have gone through so much change recently in any event and we have little idea yet what effect those changes will have on the authority of our House and the balance between the two Chambers, let alone what effect any Wakeham changes may have. It cannot be disputed that some procedural changes could have a dramatic effect on our ability to check the Government and cause them to pause and think again. No one questions for one moment the right of the Government to get their business. What is open to question is whether it should be made easier for a government to get their business; and easier at a time when most commentators recognise that there has been a decline in the authority of the other place and in its ability and willingness to check the executive.
Two separate factors seem to have been at work. I have canvassed these in debate before and so I shall put them only in summary form. First, the Prime Minister has adopted a policy of bypassing Parliament whenever possible. The most obvious example is the 1590 practice of making important policy statements outside Parliament rather than within, which time and time again has attracted adverse comment from Madam Speaker. Secondly, the Government have sought, not always successfully, to take a very firm grip on the Parliamentary Labour Party, threatening with draconian penalties those who step out of line. If I, when Chief Whip, had tried to enforce a rule requiring Members to tell me if they were going to table any Motion, amendment or Prayer, people would have thought that I had gone off my head. When the House of Commons has been weakened, let us for goodness' sake be jealous of our own procedures.
I am sure that noble Lords opposite are keenly aware of the fact that Labour will not be the government forever and that the day may come when they will be very glad to see this place operating as an effective check on the executive. We are certainly entitled to ask members of the Labour Party to remember that under our system the power to impose delay on the passage of government business is the one effective protection which minorities and individuals have to enforce consideration of their points of view. I remember the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, saying that if that right were taken away, Parliament would cease to be an instrument for the preservation of freedom and would become an organ of tyranny and oppression.
I think it is a very happy circumstance that we have no guillotine here. I cannot imagine any democratic government wishing to impose on this place restrictions on debate which were forced on another place only by Irish obstruction of government business in the latter part of the 19th century and which I can say from my experience are wholly unnecessary here. I do not think that any noble Lord can point to a practice of filibustering in this place and to any need for formal restriction on debate. As to intervals between the stages of Bills, they are necessary not just to secure proper consideration here but to give interests outside the House the opportunity to contact noble Lords and try to mobilise support for their points of view. One of our most precious rights, a right long ago removed from Members of another place, is the right to insist on separate discussion of amendments to Bills.
Lastly, with regard to working hours, I really am deeply suspicious of any suggestion that they should be changed. Morning sittings could conflict seriously with committee work. I fear that what the Government are really interested in is not to make life easier for noble Lords but to make life easier for themselves. It is no part of our duty as Back-Benchers to help them in that ambition.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Warner
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Peston on identifying this topic for debate today. I remember being taught macro-economics by him as a young civil servant. I am pleased to see that he retains his capacity to challenge the established order.
1591 As a fairly new Member of this House, I suppose I ought to show due reticence in commenting on its workings. However, 18 months' experience has caused me to be deeply underwhelmed by the way it operates. For those who like to while away hours in a club-like atmosphere, it provides an extremely convenient location and an appropriately courteous and relaxing atmosphere. But as a business-like place of work, functioning in the 21st century, it leaves much to be desired.
Inevitably, the working arrangements need to be related to role and composition. If we take as our starting point the Royal Commission's report, I believe that we need fundamentally to re-engineer our working practices. This is particularly the case if we expect a reformed House, in the words of the Royal Commission's report,to bring a range of different perspectives to bear on the development of public policy".If we want men and women from a variety of ethnic, social and professional backgrounds to serve here and to combine that service with other jobs and responsibilities, the processes and practices of this place have to change.
Perhaps I may mention a few areas to illustrate where I believe change would improve efficiency with no loss of effectiveness. The first is the way we deal with legislation. I have no quarrel with this House subjecting a government's legislative programme to effective and rigorous scrutiny. What I do have difficulty with is taking the great majority of Bills in Committee on the Floor of the House. That simply ties up a large number of people unnecessarily in the House in order to keep the Government on edge by playing the voting game. It is not about effective scrutiny. There is no reason whatever why detailed scrutiny could not be undertaken in smaller committees by those with real interest in the subject and expertise. That would also make it possible to have more flexible working arrangements using mornings sensibly and sensitively in respect of other people's demands and commitments. It would also reduce the number of—
§ Lord Warner
My Lords, I thought that the rules of the game are that we are allowed to make our speeches uninterrupted.
Secondly, our rule book—and our lack of policing of it—is a recipe for filibustering and wasting time. For example, we allow the same or virtually the same amendments to be moved and the same speeches to be made successively in Committee, on Report and at Third Reading. People move an amendment, withdraw it, move it again, withdraw it, move it again and divide. For the most part this is a waste of everyone's time. In 18 months I have rarely heard many new arguments brought out. What it does do is enable people to polish their speeches between Committee and Third Reading. At the very least, there should be just one shot at an amendment after a reformed Committee stage. Moreover, the absence of 1592 a Speaker means that there is no one to put a stop to breaches of procedure and time-wasting. On this issue I differ slightly from my noble friend. I do not think that we should accept the status quo.
Thirdly, if this Chamber is to scrutinise the government of the day effectively, it needs to move to much more of a research and evidence-collecting committee style of operating and to link its work much more with the Select Committee system adopted in the Commons. Why should there not be more combined committees of both Houses covering the main areas of government? The second Chamber could give a lead by taking more functional areas which spread across government departments—for instance, matters relating to children or elderly people.—and scrutinise the activities of several departments and the joined-up approach of government policy.
I very much welcome the commission on the scrutiny role of Parliament set up by the Hansard Society under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, with other Members of this House. I hope that it will be radical and that we shall not be stuffy about responding to its recommendations.
Time does not permit me to go into the many other areas where I believe change is needed. Some have already been mentioned and more will no doubt arise during the course of the debate. I merely say in conclusion that my perception of this place after 18 months is that it is excessively introspective and rather self-satisfied, with some deeply held social prejudices. It needs to open itself up far more to external influences on its working practices and bring in outside help and expertise to modernise its arrangements.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ Viscount Cranborne
My Lords, I listened to the noble Lord with increasing surprise and disagreement, as he gave us the benefit of his views and long experience of this House. If I had to characterise his speech, I rather came to the conclusion as he reached his peroration that perhaps he was committing what has seemed to me to be a perennial difficulty for newcomers to Parliament; namely, they confuse efficiency with effectiveness. I shall not bother to go further into the noble Lord's remarks. I profoundly disagreed with the substantial burden of what he said.
However, I was much more agreeably, not surprised, but confirmed in my views when I listened to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Peston. We should be extremely grateful to the noble Lord for the manner in which he introduced the debate. If I understood him aright, he emphasised the value that he attaches to our habit of proceeding by convention, and therefore by agreement, rather than by rules. That has been one of the great strengths of this House. The noble Lord also implied that there would be virtue, as we examined our procedures, in a gradual and cumulative approach—that does not necessarily mean an unhurried one—rather than a "big bang". In both respects, I find myself in profound agreement with the noble Lord.
1593 It is sensible from time to time for all institutions—particularly as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, observed, an ancient institution such as this House—to examine the mechanics of how they work. That is particularly necessary at a time when the nature of this House has changed so rapidly, as indeed has its membership. Surely it is true that, even though the fundamentals of our structure may be sound—a view to which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Peston, would subscribe—it is sensible for us to examine what barnacles may have grown on our collective bottom during the course of the past few decades, and to examine whether innovations might be necessary; to continue the nautical analogy, to see whether a ski-jump might not improve the performance on our flight-deck.
If we are to examine our procedures and to follow the principles proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, I hope that above all we shall remember one thing. During the short amount of time available to all noble Lords in this debate, I hope that I shall set a good example by making only one broad point among the many that have no doubt occurred to all Members of this House in the consideration of what is clearly a broad subject. The single point that I want to make applies equally to the debate that will follow this one.
It is a truism, but I shall nevertheless repeat it, that the interests of this House in performing its proper functions and the interests of the Government are not one and the same. I refer not only to the present administration; I mean all governments, including the government of whom I was a member. All governments, as your Lordships have no doubt observed ad nauseam, want to cram as much legislation through Parliament as they can. That is the nature of governments. Anyone who has served on legislation committees will testify to that.
As distinguished Members of this House have frequently observed, notably my noble friend Lord Renton, the result is far too much legislation, and, increasingly, legislation that is both ill conceived and ill prepared. As a result, Parliament and our system of government are brought into disrepute and are held increasingly in contempt. I have noted that the present Government deplore, as we all do, the increasingly low turn-outs at elections. I cannot help wondering whether the disillusion that that betokens may have been generated, at least in part, by lousy legislative arrangements cumulatively occurring over the past few decades.
I am convinced that any government will want to ensure that any review of our procedures makes it easier for legislation to pass through this House. For us to become even more of a legislative sausage machine, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde called it, than we already are would merely add to the poor results of which I am already complaining. Any change that increases the volume rather than improves the quality of legislation will pander to any government's short-term perceived self-interest. As someone who enthusiastically endorsed the original Grand Committee procedure in the Moses Room, I put into 1594 that category taking Committee stages in Standing Committee, and certainly any encouragement of your Lordships to retire to luxurious offices with substantial facilities. I wholly subscribe to the experience in another place of my noble friend Lord Waddington when that process was beginning and when I was briefly a Member there. It will undermine the ability of Parliament in general to do its work and of this House in particular to maintain its independence.
So by all means I hope that the Procedure Committee will undertake a number of inquiries and begin to consider a number of the suggestions that may arise from this debate and possibly produce them in the form of a number of reports which could be debated at convenient intervals in this House, and that we can, in the incremental fashion suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, begin to adopt them so long as they begin to satisfy the one criterion against which this House ought to consider any suggestion: whether it will make us more effective, rather than more efficient as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, has in my view erroneously suggested.
§ 4.28 p.m.
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
My Lords, I should like to add my appreciation to that already expressed to my noble friend Lord Peston for initiating this important debate and for his skilful introduction. The debate is timely. We all spend time behind the scenes discussing these issues, and it is time that they were aired in the Chamber. Irrespective of some of the comments, I believe that there is considerable support for the idea that improvement should be made in the structures and facilities provided for both Members and staff. I believe that that view is shared on all sides of the House, not merely on these Benches.
As might have been expected, it has been suggested that the debate is about reducing the level of scrutiny of the executive—making the House more government-friendly. For me, it is about efficiency, effectiveness, doing our job of scrutiny much better, and making the House people-friendly. While I fully agree with the observation of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham about the ethos of this House, there has been a change in its nature, structure and make-up as a result of changing expectations. It is balancing those factors which is so important.
Turning to the change in the composition of the House, the number of women Peers has increased, if somewhat slowly, to 105. There has been a significant drop in the average age of Members. More Members have young children or care responsibilities for the young and old, full-time occupations outside the House, and differing life responsibilities and work patterns. All of those should be respected. As my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal rightly said, this means that Members must balance their parliamentary duties with home and work.
Research shows that both men and women single out as important their ability to balance work with personal life requirements. I do not believe that it is 1595 any different for parliamentarians. This is a matter which, increasingly, leading employers understand, with the result that family-friendly working practices have been implemented. Sometimes we forget that this House is a major employer. We should consider how to implement such practices in this House, which means changing the procedures and sitting hours. It would be regrettable if the mother of Parliaments was the last in line to put such policies into practice. As my noble friend Lord Peston observed, our sitting hours are absurd. The House rose at 1.42 this morning. We shall sit late tonight and, with the Committee stage tomorrow, we shall be late again on Thursday. That is not acceptable.
This Chamber works longer hours than any other, including the other place. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have sensibly not followed our example. Longer hours do not equate to effectiveness, efficiency or adequate scrutiny. However, even those who believe that it does—incorrectly, in my view—should accept the need to restructure and reorder our business timetable. That does not mean closures and guillotines. Various red herrings have been introduced into the debate. I do not believe that those matters are on the agenda because this is a revising chamber. However, we can look at sitting hours and how we structure our business.
The idea of morning sittings has been raised. That may not be acceptable to all, but it should not be dismissed out of hand. Morning sittings would be acceptable to many Members and therefore should be considered. We should also consider a greater number of Friday sittings and how we can use our time more efficiently. We have also had comments about the conduct of the Committee stage of Bills in the Grand Committee Room. It has been suggested that somehow that will detract from the level of scrutiny. The reverse is true. I believe that such a procedure will enable noble Lords to explore matters further, to hold much more detailed debates, and to examine Bills line by line in a way that is not always possible in this Chamber. We should consider that idea and dismiss the red herring that that means that the Government can bring forward much more legislation.
We need to look at the procedures laid down in the Companion, in particular the timing of speeches on amendments which at the moment are not limited. Sometimes speeches can be very long. Perhaps there should be a limit of 15 minutes. Perhaps we should also consider proceedings on Third Reading where the Companion appears to have been forgotten. If we want an example of that, we need look no further than the House of Lords Bill. It may be that we should be more radical and question whether all the stages are necessary. Should we introduce electronic voting and times at which we vote? How can we achieve the best procedure for true scrutiny?
All of these points need consideration. I hope that this is not just an interesting debate and intervention in our proceedings, but that the matter will be followed through. Some do not agree with the idea that a committee should consider this. I believe that we need 1596 an all-party Select Committee with the widest remit, which the Procedure Committee cannot have, to look at all of these issues.
There are many other matters that I do not have time to raise, not least facilities, allowances, the whole question of reporting structures, and how to provide a much healthier environment. We spend a good deal of time in this environment which leaves a lot to be desired. It is time to move from rhetoric to reality and to plan positively for an efficient and effective legislative Chamber for the 21st century.
§ 4.35 p.m.
§ Lord Jopling
My Lords, many of your Lordships have referred to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Peston. The noble Lord does us a great service in introducing the debate this afternoon. We are always told that the House of Lords is different, and so it is: it is so different that those of us who come here from another place often find it very difficult to gain an understanding of the way that business is performed in this House and the manner in which noble Lords behave in dealing with it. There are no rules of order, very little of the ribaldry and party-political point-scoring to which we were accustomed in another place and practically no filibustering. When my noble friends Lord Strathclyde and Lord Waddington made that point I detected no murmurs of dissent from noble Lords opposite.
There are other differences. All this is hardly surprising as the roles of the two Houses are quite different, as many noble Lords have already said. I believe that it is sensible for the two Houses to perform their functions in broadly the way they do at present, but we must look at the possibility of change. In considering change I should like to make two principal points that are common to both Houses. While there are differences, there are principles which apply fundamentally to both Houses. I speak with the experience to which the Leader of the House referred. She was extremely generous to me in her remarks. I am not entirely sure that she would have been quite so generous had she been aware that I was the Government Chief Whip who was responsible for all the legislation between 1979 and 1983. In passing, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that morning sittings are all very well. In another place the committee which I chaired introduced morning sittings, but only for uncontentious business. Ministers' lives are made a misery if they must always be present for the possibility of votes. Therefore, morning sittings are a possibility. We proposed that measure down the corridor and it proved to be very successful.
If we are thinking of change there are two fundamental principles which must never be forgotten or undermined. First, as my noble friend Lord Waddington observed, the government of the day must always, in the end, get their business. Secondly, the very delicate balance of power which exists between government and opposition must not be unfairly tilted to give the government of the day a short-term advantage. Those two principles were never far from the mind of the Select Committee of 1597 another place which I chaired some years ago, and they must never be far from the mind of anyone who considers change in your Lordships' House.
The Government must get their business. That creates a problem in your Lordships' House where the government party is in a minority. At the risk of being tedious, I say for the fourth time—the Government Front Bench has never responded to me—that I believe the present number of government supporters in your Lordships' House, which now stands at 27 per cent, is not enough. I am not one of those who complain about Tony's cronies being packed into your Lordships' House. I believe that the government of the day are entitled to more than 27 per cent of the membership. I hope that I shall receive some response from the Front Bench following my fourth request. I dealt with the issue in detail in the Wakeham debate. I shall not repeat my argument now. I think that it is only fair to government to have a larger presence. Of course, overall, government must have the means of overcoming their deficit on the arithmetic through having only a minority of Members. That is provided for the Government in your Lordships' House by the Parliament Act. In your Lordships' House that is equivalent to the guillotine in another place.
Secondly, I referred, as a principle, to the rights of opposition which must not be diluted for the short-term advantage of government. I cannot overstress how vital it is to keep in mind that delicate balance between government and opposition. There is not, and I hope never would be here, a danger of reducing the opportunity for your Lordships to examine legislation. That would be very dangerous. Therefore no thought should be given to the introduction of guillotines here.
Nor should there be any thought given to the growth of carry-over Bills or, worse, letting Sessions run into each other without a State Opening and a new start each year. As a former business manager in another place, I often thought how much easier life would have been if we had had more carry-over Bills and did not need to have State Openings. But it never became a serious option in any discussion I had with colleagues at that time. So let change be our ally. Let us consider reform, but let us not ignore those two principles.
Finally, if reform is proposed, it should be introduced with broad all-party support. I remind your Lordships that when I was chairman of a committee along the corridor all those years ago, it took between three and four years to gain all-party agreement on its recommendations. Virtually all the matters we recommended were taken up by the House of Commons. It is crucial that changes in procedures of this kind must have all-party support.
§ 4.41 p.m.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, this is a huge topic and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Peston for raising it. How can I condense all that I have to say into six minutes? I shall limit myself to two issues: modernising what I value most and what I like least about your Lordships' House.
1598 What I value most is the opportunity to serve the public. I am sure most noble Lords value this honour and privilege. However, in the 21st century, having just a feel-good glow is not enough. This is the information age, the communication age. So we should be communicating with and informing the British public about what we are doing—talking to them, as my noble friend Lord Peston said.
At the end of the 20th century this communication was largely achieved through press officers, spin doctors, public relations experts and communications experts. I think and hope that in the 21st century many of these people will become redundant. People will want to communicate with us directly over the Internet. It is already happening. Requests via e-mail for general information about your Lordships' House rose from 100 in March last year to 320 in March this year. That led me to explore the website of your Lordships' House. It is informative but unfriendly and impersonal. Nowhere does it say anything about us as individuals and about our role in serving the public. That led me to submit a paper to the January meeting of your Lordships' Library and Computers subcommittee whose members are the people who look after these matters. I suggested that all noble Lords should have their own website informing the public about who we are, what we have done, what our interests are, the topics on which we speak and the issues we support. The public would be better informed about us and we could receive directly their thoughts and ideas and be better informed about them. My noble friend the Lord Privy Seal touched on this issue.
If we are to be a revising chamber and a chamber of experts as described by my noble friend Lord Peston, we need such outside communication to do our job effectively, especially now that the old certainties of Left and Right have gone and there are so many new issues which have become politicised. Some noble Lords may feel awkward and insufficiently skilled to work in this way, but we shall have to learn to adapt because that is the way it will be in the 21st century. If we do not learn to adapt we shall become marginalised. So that is my view of one way in which we can modernise the way we serve the public in the 21st century.
My other point relates to what I value least about your Lordships' House—the many hours wasted while waiting to vote. From many points of view it really is an imposition. The Lord Privy Seal reminded us that this is work:life balance week; and we certainly have our voting arrangements out of balance with the rest of our lives. Like my noble friend Lady Jay I think that it is an unjustified imposition on busy men and women who have work to do other than in your Lordships' House or who do not live in London. I agree with Recommendation 63 in the Royal Commission's report which states that the reformed second Chamber should contain a substantial proportion of people who are not professional politicians.
The commission calls for part-time membership of the second Chamber to be facilitated and encouraged. Hanging about endlessly waiting to vote neither 1599 facilitates nor encourages that kind of membership. What can we do about it? I believe that we should abolish Divisions in Committee. My noble friend Lord Peston has other reasons. But my argument is that it would eliminate 50 per cent of the time spent waiting to vote; and voting on Report and at Third Reading would take place on important issues which noble Lords can understand and appreciate.
Noble Lords have suggested other ways of reducing the waiting time to vote: the guillotine; time limits; or debating only selected amendments. Generally, I am not in favour of those solutions because I do not wish to curtail discussion. We are a revising Chamber and all issues deserve to be debated. But I wish to avoid repetition. The serious issues will reach Report stage and Third Reading—issues which could justify our working late occasionally into the evenings in order to divide.
Indeed, I would go further and suggest that in order to emphasise the importance of the voting stage, Ministers from another place could be invited to attend your Lordships' House to respond to the Opposition. In fact that might facilitate the deals between the Government and the Opposition on Report or at Third Reading —deals so often necessary for the Government to get their legislation through, as the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, pointed out. That is important in a House where, as my noble friend Lord Peston reminded us, the Government do not have a majority.
If I had more time I should speak about improving our work in the Chamber by giving the Chairmen more authority, re-editing the Companion to make the rules firmer and more precise, and improving our efficiency with better facilities and services. I also have remarks to make about the way committees take evidence and on combined committees. I spoke on this issue in the Second Reading debate on the Financial Services and Markets Bill. Sadly, those issues will have to wait.
§ 4.48 p.m.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, it is always fun listening to the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, even if one disagrees with most of what he says. The noble Lord spent several years on the Opposition Benches longing to become a member of the Government; and now that he finds himself on the government side he complains like mad at having to stay around and vote. That happens to be an elementary part of politics. If he does not like it, all I can say to him is what the schoolboy would say, which is "hard chops".
It is customary to congratulate the mover of the Motion—in this case, the noble Lord, Lord Peston—on introducing an excellent debate. Perhaps I may excuse myself from that because when I saw this Motion on the Order Paper I thought that it was a frantic waste of time. Anyone who says, "Such and such is not suitable for the 21st century", is rather like a person six months ago who would have said, "Such and such is not suitable for the latter part of the 20th century". That usually means that they cannot think of 1600 any other argument. It is a bad argument. Having said that, I congratulate the noble Lord on his excellent, fair, balanced and reasonable speech.
We spend a great deal of our time considering the House, what we are doing and what we might do better. We spent ages discussing the breeches and buckled shoes of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. I believe that we spent two hours discussing that matter on the Floor of the House. It then went to a committee, which reported, and the matter then returned to your Lordships' House. We then spent two hours debating not only the breeches and buckled shoes, but also the alteration to the introduction procedure. What for: to save five minutes when it took 10 hours of debate?
Now we have this debate. Later on we are having a debate concerning the noble Lord, Lord Neill. So a whole day will be spent discussing the work of your Lordships. Then we say that we have not got enough time and that it is running out. I believe that we spend far too much time messing around with our own institutions instead of getting on with things. On the whole, I believe that the procedures of your Lordships' House work very well. There may be one or two things which we can tidy up and alter here and there, but to say that the procedures do not work well is an irrelevance.
The noble Lord, Lord Warner, said that he wants lots of changes to the practices of your Lordships' House. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, not only nodded assent, but even said "Hear, hear!". Of course, she would, wouldn't she? She would like to alter everything, but, fortunately, not everyone thinks that way. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, said that he wants Committee stages to be taken off the Floor of the House, and a Speaker. I am sorry that the noble Lord is so dissatisfied. Perhaps he is a slow learner and needs more than 18 months. He reminded me of the schoolmaster who wrote a half-term report on a child and said that he was "trying". The parents said that they were so pleased. The end-of-term report arrived. It said, "Very trying". I would not put the noble Lord quite into that category, but I believe that his views are such that they do not necessarily meet with everyone's approval.
We talk about there being not enough time for things. Instead of wagging her head, perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, might like to listen to this particular part of my argument. In fact, only 12 Bills have been passed so far through your Lordships' House. We are practically up to the Whitsun Recess. After that, another 23 Bills have to be dealt with. What have the Government been doing with the time? A great deal of this problem is due to the Government not applying themselves properly. They are going to produce an absolute bow wave of work later on.
The noble Lord, Lord Peston, said that secondary legislation should be voted on. I believe that that would be bad because it would mean that the unelected Chamber—except for a few noble Lords who have been elected—would be overturning the views of the elected Chamber. That would be quite wrong. He and 1601 a number of other noble Lords said that they wanted the hours of working altered in order to raise productivity. There is nothing the matter with productivity. If one makes more and more new Peers and tells them that they are working Peers, how do they work? They make speeches. Just consider the number on our speakers' list today. One of the best ways of getting the business of the House through better and more quickly is to reduce the number of Peers to 400. We would find that we would get on equally well.
I believe that it would be a disaster to have Thursday morning sittings. It would certainly fall out of kilter with the Scots who said earlier that they did not even want to attend on Thursday because it was such a bore getting back to Scotland on Thursday evening. They wanted the business to end on Wednesday.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said that she wants to make this House a nicer place in which to work. I would have thought that this is one of the most agreeable Houses in which anyone could work. It is difficult to imagine any other place of work which would be better than this House. We must stop nannying ourselves. The Government must stop interfering with procedures which work perfectly well.
There is no virtue in passing more and more legislation. One of the best things that happened was the Lib-Lab pact because no legislation could be passed because no one could agree. Everyone loved it; the House of Commons loved it; your Lordships loved it; and the people out in the sticks loved it because they all knew where they were and the law was not being changed. Now there seems to be virtue in putting through as much legislation as possible. I do not agree with that. I agree with my noble friend Lord Waddington who said, "Let us be jealous of our procedures". That means that they can, of course, be amended, but they should not be capsized completely.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I have listened with great interest to the speeches that have been made so far. As regards working practices, many suggestions have been made. I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Warner, said, but I did not care for the way in which he said it. He made some good points.
When considering the working of the House we need also to consider its composition because that will be very important. Until now our relations with the House of Commons have been clouded by the fact that the Liberal and Labour parties disliked the House of Lords because of the enormous influence of the Tory hereditary Peers, somewhat modified by the Salisbury convention, but nevertheless that influence hung over the whole proceedings of the House. That did not make for good relations with the Commons.
If we are to be effective, not only do we need good working procedures, but a good relationship with the Commons. I believe that most people are agreed that our present powers of delay represent the proper stance to take. But we want to be more effective. We 1602 need to see that there is more good government. I disagree slightly with the noble Lord. Lord Jopling. The main point is not to get through government business, but to improve government proposals, and perhaps even to delay them. Certainly, we should act for the people of this country.
The composition of this House is therefore very important—there will be no hereditary Peers—but how will that be achieved? There are two possibilities. One is election and the other is selection. The Commons would not like election because there would then be a competing House. I believe that we are all agreed on that.
I cannot see that a partially elected House would help its business. If we had a partially elected House I would despise the elected Members and I daresay that they would despise me. There would two types of Member. That cannot be a good thing for the smooth working of the House, which is what is required. Nomination appears to be the proper way to proceed. If we have that then we have a point at which we could all work together.
I totally agree that there should be no majority for the Government. I totally agree also that if the other procedures are followed and the independent selection committee or nomination committee notes that people of ability and standing are coming into the House constantly, that would be admirable, particularly for our Select Committees, which are valuable and highly appreciated in Brussels, certainly, and in many other places. That would be a great help to the workings of the House.
In the main what has been said about procedures is useful. We do not want to have a great deal of morning working because you cannot expect people of standing in their profession or business to be here in the mornings. There is no reason why they should not attend during the afternoons or evenings to debate subjects in which they are interested.
The procedure of the House depends on the people in the House, therefore we need to be careful. When two years ago I made a speech on the subject I said that there should be a retiring age of 78. I was then 78. I am now 80, so I put the retiring age at 80. However, I believe that there should be a lower age limit. While I am allowed and my fare is paid, I shall come to the House, becoming less useful as each year passes.
I hope that our procedures will improve and that we shall be more courteous than we are at the moment. During Question Time, for example, too many people stand up and fail to sit down when it is obvious that someone else has priority. Like many people, I like this House and believe that it could be even more useful.
§ 5.1 p.m.
§ Lord Bragg
My Lords, in the leisurely history of your Lordships' House—an evolution which can make the process of natural selection of homo sapiens seem a bit rushed—now, the year 2000, is clearly the perfect time to discuss the workings of the House in the 21st century. After all, it was only in 1999 that, for most of us, the House slipped into the 20th century— 1603 and in the nick of time. Your Lordships need a long run-up, it seems, and by offering us the whole century my noble friend Lord Peston, in his excellent speech, has done your Lordships' House a service.
There is bound to be repetition in this debate. We ought to welcome it. Repetition is itself a statement.Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow",said Shakespeare, and that repetition says so much more than one sole, weedy "tomorrow" on its own ever could. Repetition makes the point. Repetition is often the point.
Like many of your Lordships, I am a working Peer. However, Garter King of Arms was at pains to emphasise that the title emanated from Her Majesty in the same manner as all other titles and seemed rather miffed—if "miffed" is a word at all applicable to the dignity of Garter—that the word "working" should have interfered with the purity of the word "Peer".
As a working Peer, and privileged to be so, I was properly quizzed by my noble friend Lord Carter, and while promises were not exacted, reassurances were expected and given. I made it plain, as I am sure did all other working Peers, that I was not giving up my job outside the House, but would and could find the time to discharge obligations required here. But I needed to keep the other work going.
Let me emphasise, first, that those who serve the diurnal workings of the House, from the doorkeepers, to the librarians, to the restaurant staff and everything to do with the office of Black Rod, exercise considerable intelligence and care to ensure that the present system works. Indeed, I sometimes think that we see a little daily miracle, especially in the matter of messages—often like notes on a cleft stick smuggled through the lines to Mafeking.
Now to the Motion. I shall stick, rather glancingly and by indirection, to days, hours, conditions and pay. Detailed constitutional matters have already been well dealt with by many of your Lordships who are much more qualified than I.
We do three days of what I might call "official work" here, but then we turn them into four by insisting on Wednesday as a kind of seigneurial sabbath. I have listened to arguments for the retention of Wednesday as a breather, based, I may say, on a rather "invalid", even "invalid", view of your Lordships' House.
To the serious argument that the only way to get your Lordships to stay for our normal Wednesday business is to keep it on Wednesday because it would flit the coop if it transferred to Thursday, one has to say, "If it is not important enough to bear waiting for, it is not important enough".
Three official days, with one or two mornings thrown in, would make it much more practicable for a Peer such as myself and many others to be here. Helping our effectiveness—in tribute to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne—could help yours. Wednesdays should become Thursdays. Lewis Carroll would have approved and you cannot be more traditional than that.
1604 The hours are hopeless. The Duc de Berry would go mad commissioning a Book of Hours for your Lordships' House. The hours I am objecting to are those which rightly require votes, but, to my mind, often maroon us in admittedly pleasant Bars or Libraries waiting sometimes for Godot who never arrives. Again, it seems to me a largely unnecessary strain.
Is it beyond the combined wisdom of the House to resolve matters on the majority of issues within known parameters which would be of greater assistance to all, especially to those of us who have outside meetings and events which should not be needlessly a: odds with the work we do here?
What about conditions? Well, with the greatest respect, as the 19th century mills of Lancashire are to Silicon Valley, so are the conditions of your Lordships' House to the way the 21st century really conducts its business. It is often hilarious.
Perhaps I may give one small example from scores. I hope that like my noble friend Lord Peston I may be allowed one anecdote. I refer to those phones in the Corridors—often the only phones available. Try to work out a difficult contract with international musicians, as I was doing the other day, while a metre away a noble Lord, whose name will never escape my mind or my mouth, read out in full, fortissimo and with feeling the entire menu of that evening's fare in the Barry Room. It was a tour de force. It was probably much more important than my contract. It was magnificent. It was interminable. I abandoned my contractual negotiations, retreated to the Library and came back some minutes later to find all the phones occupied. Miffed! It really will not do. If we are invited to come here as working Peers, our outside work should also he taken seriously; more and better phones, faxes, e-mails, privacy and the message system. There is now a n opportunity to show the world that we can leap from the Middle Ages to the New Millennium in one bound.
Finally, I turn to pay. We do not mind footballers being paid £50,000 a week, but we—or rather we as represented by the wealth of the fourth estate—do not seem to like paying those who pass, scrutinise, devote themselves to, and deliver, the laws of the land.
Traditionally, of course, politics was regarded as an occupation largely for a gentleman of independent means, and one certainty about our country is that such traditions die very hard. But now we are populated by many who do not have independent means and while that has been recognised in another place, here, in your Lordships' House, there is a lag which is the single most restrictive factor for those who can come here.
We are in a transient House; we are in a temporary House. But we are here as Members of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and to have people barred for lack of means, or to see hard-working Peers unable to afford a very late night taxi back to constrained accommodation, is no longer amusing or tolerable. We should seize this nettle.
1605 I suggest £10,000 a Session for those who attend over 50 per cent of the time; and for those who attend less than 50 per cent, pro rata payments. That, in my opinion, should be the least of it. If some of your Lordships wish to waive it, all well and good. If the press cries, "Mercenary", let them try a Session's work experience among us at our rates. I am convinced that the quaint antiquity of our remuneration is part of the reason that in the public eye your Lordships' House receives less respect than its achievements merit.
All of us here are proud to be here. All of us want the best for this House, this country, these countries. We took 99 years to catch up to the 20th century; let us surprise them all and ambush the 21st at the outset.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ Lord Roberts of Conwy
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, who certainly gave us a great deal to think about. It is also a great pleasure to compliment the noble Lord, Lord Peston, on securing the debate.
I approach the subject with a degree of humility appropriate to my paucity of years in your Lordships' House. I am constantly finding new features here, from the hour glasses we use to time Divisions to the more arcane intricacies of procedures. However, I brought with me some 27 years' experience in the other place, more than 15 of them spent in government. So I am not without sympathy with the Government's first and last aim in Parliament, which is to get their business through both Houses unscathed.
It was said of the American Senate that it provided "the pause that refreshes", and that is certainly true of your Lordships' House. The volume of government amendments that are tabled in this place is a constant reminder of the inestimable value of the time and opportunity provided by the second Chamber to the government of the day to ensure that legislation is as clear, effective and durable as possible before it reaches the statute book.
We do not always achieve that high aim, despite our best endeavours, but most of us would agree that time is of the essence even to achieve a modicum of success. Therefore, if we change our working methods we must exercise the greatest care that we do not reduce the time available to those who work behind the scenes to give effect to improvements proposed in legislation. The integrity of our law-making process must, therefore, be maintained at all costs, and enhanced if possible.
Of course, there is a great deal more that can be said about this basic issue which is so central to our role as a revising chamber. We could encourage the Government to legislate less. That suggestion achieved a cheer this afternoon. However, in my experience that is a forlorn hope. Every government must learn the hard way just how much legislation they can get into the pint pot of a parliamentary Session.
More pre-legislative consideration is also a fashionable cry these days, and it has its value, especially when the subject of legislation is complex. 1606 However, such consideration has its limitations when it is conducted remotely, as has been the case with a number of Bills in this Session, the Welsh content of which has been discussed in the National Assembly for Wales and its committees.
One of the most glaring drawbacks of such consideration is that a verbatim record of the discussions in Cardiff is not available to your Lordships, except on the Internet. The effect is to promote isolation. I welcome the fact that the Government are clearly dissatisfied with the present position, and the Secretary of State for Wales has announced that they are working with the Assembly on a protocol to deal with primary legislation as it affects Wales. I sincerely hope that they will be successful in their efforts, otherwise the Assembly and the people of Wales will soon find themselves with deficient laws which are inadequate to meet their needs.
What I said with regard to Wales opens up the whole field of devolution, to which the Royal Commission on the reform of your Lordships' House devoted much thought. Its conclusion was that one of the new second Chamber's four main roles should be to,provide a voice for the nations and regions of the United Kingdom at the centre of public affairs.These 'regional members' should not be drawn from the devolved administrations … but should be able to speak for each national or regional unit of the United Kingdom".In short, they would be directly elected.
Neither the commission nor I know the pattern of future devolution. The Government's ardour appears to be cooling as the centrifugal forces inherent in it become more apparent and unmanageable from the centre of power. Those tendencies are manifesting themselves in a demand for ever more separate and independent powers. Those of us who warned that that would happen may reiterate our warnings till the cows come home. However, our cries will be drowned by the incoming tide of perceived self-interest that vents itself through nationalism in Scotland and Wales and a sharp metropolitan/urban awareness that will become increasingly evident in London and the big cities.
With due respect to the Royal Commission, I am far from certain that more regional representation here is the bulwark that will stem the rising tide of regional interests. It may even turn out to be the high wind that drives the sea to shore, to hatter the weakened walls of the United Kingdom's unity. But something must be done. There is a growing urgency to tighten the apron strings that bind our fledgling devolved bodies to this United Kingdom Parliament. The Government can make a start by examining closely what has been done and the way that it works, or is failing to work, for the benefit of the people whom it is designed to serve.
That is why I support the commission's Recommendation 32 for a committee,to provide a focus for its [the second Chamber's] consideration of the issues raised by devolution, possibly as a further Subcommittee of the proposed Constitutional Committee".If the Government wash their hands of the devolved bodies and leave them to their own devices, as the Government tend to do currently, and wrongly in my 1607 opinion, they and Parliament will be blamed before the electorate for any governmental shortcomings. Of that we may be sure. A better, closer working relationship must be developed between this Parliament and the devolved bodies before the centrifuge of devolution spins us into ever greater separation.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
My Lords, the debate is in danger of being repetitive. That is why I emphasise that I do not intend to repeat the arguments advanced by my noble friend Lord Warner, who evinced some criticism from the Benches opposite. Suffice it to say that he enjoys a great deal of support for his arguments from these Benches.
First, I want to emphasise that, once again, two myths are being portrayed. The first is that there is too much legislation. As my noble friend the Leader of the House emphasised, the amount of legislation that passes through the House under this Government roughly parallels the amount of legislation dealt with under previous Conservative governments. Therefore, in my view, it ill befits a former Chief Whip and former Home Secretary to berate this Government for overwhelming Parliament with excessive legislation when in fact he served in administrations which were capable of putting forward legislation at much the same rate.
The issue is quite straightforward. This House does not dictate the amount of legislation to be dealt with within the parliamentary timetable. We all know that such issues are planned against the perspective of what it is possible to achieve in the Lower House on the number of days available. That is the case both in relation to the Opposition in presenting their arguments and to the Government in getting through their legislation. It takes place against a background where it is recognised on all sides that a principle obtains with regard to this House; namely, that at the end of the day the Government must have their legislation.
If that means that in some extreme circumstances (perhaps I may say that it is very unlikely to occur this year) 12th August—the grouse shooting season—is threatened with postponement by Parliament still sitting until that date, then that will be what happens if the Government need their legislation. Therefore, let us not pretend that we are concerned about restraining governments with regard to the amount of legislation that they put forward. That is dictated by the conventions and rules largely of the lower House. That is where the authority should lie because that is the elected mandate.
We must decide whether we are effective in dealing with legislation. The real issue which stands out on every side and which must be considered is this: there can be no argument for saying that consideration of legislation benefits from constant repetition of the arguments, day after day and week after week, on the same piece of legislation. That cannot be defended and, therefore, must lead us to conclude that we should organise ourselves more effectively.
1608 People could be nominated, or, indeed, could put themselves forward, for specialist Committee stages of Bills to be held in another part of the House. Issues on which we need to vote could be identified for consideration at a later stage of a Bill. However, the issues at Committee stage should be scrutinised effectively and carefully by those who have the expertise. In this House we pride ourselves that we have expertise. Let us be frank and admit that in some areas we have greater expertise than has the Commons.
However, that expertise should be concentrated in the Committee stage of a Bill and we should avoid the absurd situation in which the whole House is expected to be on duty. At present, many of us participate in circumstances in which we know that, in effect, we are passing the time until the crucial voting issues must be faced. We would not be a serious chamber if we did not take the issue of voting seriously because that is an important duty laid upon us.
The second myth is that somehow we earn respect from prolonged consideration of legislation late into the night. It was a myth perpetuated in the other place, too, that somehow we earned medals for the number of occasions on which we continued until three or four o'clock in the morning. Of course, the reality was that the general public thought that we could not organise ourselves effectively. We never received any commendation for that at all; neither does this House. If I go back, as I did today, to my place of work in Coventry and say that I regret that I urn five minutes late for a 9.30 meeting this morning but I was in the House deliberating until past midnight last night and may be doing so again this evening, the people there merely look askance upon a situation in which it looks as though we cannot organise ourselves effectively. We should address those issues.
Although we cannot look forward easily into the deeper recess of the 21st century, we can clearly see that it is the intention on all sides—just look at the Wakeham report; it makes it quite clear—that this House should have a broader representation. There will be people who are not based solely in London, able to fulfil their important jobs in London, be working Peers and able to contribute to this House. Many people will live so far away that that is not possible. Many of my colleagues are in just that situation at present. Working Peers are eager to play their role and yet they are faced with a situation in which this place wastes hours of their time and occupies them for four days a week when the work could be done in three days.
The pressures will clearly exist. That is why it is essential that we address the question of whether we cannot organise the issues in such a way that they can be dealt with on three working days per week. The business which we usually deal with on a Wednesday should be shifted to a Thursday to make things more manageable for noble Lords in the regions. That is a recognition that in the 21st century we cannot have a House based upon the premise that we come from the deep landed shires to comfortable abodes in London to while away our time in gentlemanly pursuits.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Harptree
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for introducing this valuable debate. As he was good enough to say, it is really a follow—up from the balloted Motion which I was fortunate to have on 29th March. Time is very short so I want to deal with two points: first, Select Committees; and secondly, the implication of devolution for your Lordships' House.
As regards Select Committees, it is generally agreed on all sides of the House that the House excels in the high quality of its Select Committee reports. They help to form government policy; they influence government; they influence the Commission in Brussels. I am very glad that we are now building on the success of the long—established Select Committees.
We now have ad hoc Select Committees which look at draft Bills. Pre—legislative scrutiny by Parliament and outside interests may influence the shape of Bills before they are set in concrete. That new activity should lead to better legislation.
We also have in prospect a Joint Committee on human rights to monitor the Human Rights Act. That is of great importance. When that Act comes into operation, there is a greater risk of disputes developing between Parliament and the judiciary. It has happened in previous centuries. It did not do Parliament or the judiciary any good. If that new Select Committee can help to avoid those disputes arising in the future, it will do a very valuable job.
Then there is a proposal for a constitutional committee in your Lordships' House. That was recommended by the Royal Commission; it was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Peston; and I believe that there is general agreement in the House that that would be valuable. The fact is that our constitution is still largely unwritten. That is a British way of doing things. It provides flexibility and room for manoeuvre. But it has its dangers. It means that one single vote, particularly down the Corridor in another place, may mean that a Bill of major constitutional importance is passed, having gone through exactly the same procedures as those which apply to the most technical, detailed Bill. So there are dangers in that.
If we can be given an early warning by the proposed constitutional committee as to the importance of any constitutional issues arising in Bills, that would be a valuable safeguard for the House. I expect that if the new committee is set up, which I hope it will be, it will work in a way which is similar to that of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, which is already doing a very good job in warning the House of matters with regard to delegated legislation. When the Government Chief Whip replies to the debate, I hope that he will be able to give a fair wind to that proposal for a constitutional committee.
My second point concerns devolution. The Royal Commission stressed that your Lordships' House should play a valuable role in giving a voice to the nations and the regions of the United Kingdom and should serve the interests of the whole of the United 1610 Kingdom. There is no doubt that good relations between Westminster and the new bodies will require tact and good sense on everybody's part and a real understanding of each other's differing points of view. That was mentioned by my noble friend a few moments ago.
I believe that your Lordships' House can be more effective than another place in fulfilling that role. After all, in another place, there is bound to be some competition between Westminster MPs and MPs elected by the same constituents in the devolved bodies. There are bound to be some demarcation disputes. That does not apply in your Lordships' House because, at any rate at the moment, we are all here either by succession or by nomination.
It is the case also that in your Lordships' House there is a strong representation from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So noble Lords can carry out a valuable job in helping to provide a unified force for the United Kingdom as a whole, without treading on the toes of the devolved bodies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
It is clear from what has been said in the debate so far that our procedures are evolving to suit the changed House and new needs. None of those proposals which have been mentioned so far questions the primacy of another place or the right of government to get their business after adequate scrutiny. Therefore, I believe that the proposals which are being discussed today show that the House is developing new vigour and greater legitimacy to serve Britain.
§ 5.27 p.m.
§ Lord McConnell
My Lords, I do not intend to detain the House by going into all the topics which have been covered today and which have been covered by the Royal Commission. I shall content myself with dealing with one matter which I think is important and which could very easily be remedied; that is, the question of unsociable hours. To sit at three o'clock on a Thursday afternoon to start a day's business is not only unsociable hours but it is quite ridiculous. It means, of course, that Peers from Scotland and Northern Ireland and other places find it very difficult to stay if they want to get home that evening. In fact, it is virtually impossible. It is all right for Peers from the Home Counties to say that they can sit here late at night: to get home, they only have to take their car a few miles down the road. Many of us must go a good deal further.
It is sometimes said that it is done so as to allow party meetings to take place. I find it very difficult to understand why party meetings cannot take place on a Monday, a Tuesday or a Wednesday and why we must be detained by them on a Thursday. Indeed, at the end of a Session, the House usually sits on a Thursday at eleven o'clock or half past eleven. If that can be achieved at the end of a Session to allow those who live in the Home Counties to push off to the Continent, it could easily be done every week.
1611 It has been suggested, although I may not try to propagate it, that this Government and the previous Government, when dealing with an unpopular measure for Northern Ireland or Scotland, would table it at the end of Thursday's business in the hope that we had all gone home and they would get it through without any difficulty.
It has also been suggested that the Law Lords frequently give judgments on a Thursday morning, but they could give those judgments on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. I believe it would be quite easy to cure that. I find it difficult to agree with the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who said that it would be disastrous if the House sat on a Thursday morning. I am not sure where he lives: if he lives somewhere round about, it may be disastrous, although, from the point of view of those who have much further to travel, it would certainly not be disastrous. I believe it is time that this matter was cured.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, I join with those who have already paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Peston. The speeches of the noble Lord are always worth listening to, even if one does not agree with them in their entirety. I believe that today he spoke particularly well, with a lot of good sense, and his approach was commendable.
The purpose of reviewing our procedures should be to ensure that the legislation that we produce is effectively scrutinised, revised and in some cases amended so that it may be understood more easily by those who have to implement it outside this place. The House must always be mindful of the motives for change, the least justifiable of which would be to facilitate the passage of government business.
The role of this House, as a revising chamber, increases in every Parliament as successive governments choke the legislative system with more and more Bills. One advantage of the House of Lords is that it can take a broader, longer—term and more detached view than the Commons. Unhampered by penal whipping arrangements and constituency considerations, it can be much less partisan in reaching its conclusions. Moreover, so long as it maintains its amateur status it will retain that degree of independence which is so admired outside Parliament.
I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, mentioned the composition of the House. From the outset, I have had reservations about an all—elected Chamber. The more I have thought about the matter and the more I have read the proposals of the Select Committee, the less I like them. Now, I believe that to have any elected members would be a great error and would drastically change the character of the House, sadly not for the better.
We seem to have become victims of the "democracy at all costs" syndrome, referred to during our debate on 7th March by the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, and by my noble friend Lord Waddington. Democratic elections do not guarantee democracy, nor do they necessarily contribute to efficiency. We 1612 have enjoyed the best of both worlds with an elected House of Commons and a non—elected House of Lords.
Presumably in any new House elected members would be paid; perhaps all Peers will be paid. Whichever route is followed, two, or several, categories of Peer will emerge, which will cause rivalries and the relationship with another place will give even more cause for concern.
The Royal Commission and the Government appear to be of one mind, in that the Commons must remain supreme. Few would disagree. However, in my view, that admirable objective could be put at risk in the longer term by the introduction of elected Peers.
The setting up of a constitutional committee is a good suggestion, even if it could be represented as closing the stable door after the horses—in the form of Scotland and Wales—have bolted. Nevertheless, it would provide the opportunity to eliminate earlier mistakes and provide wise counsel for overenthusiastic Ministers. Setting up further committees, such as the noble Lord, Lord Peston, suggested, or Joint Committees of both Houses may help to provide experience which nowadays is lacking in the House of Commons. My noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell touched upon that subject in the debate on 7th March. I agree with what he said.
When, 30 years ago, I was first elected to the Commons, I found that it contained a wealth of experience from many walks of life. Distinguished servicemen, successful businessmen, captains of industry, trade unionists who had been at the coalface have now been replaced by schoolteachers, university lecturers, merchant bankers and, of course, professional politicians, many of whom have never run anything. I do not criticise any of them individually, but I suggest that there is a lack of that wide experience that used to be available to the House of Commons. Anything that can be done to supplement existing resources should not be ignored.
Extending the role of the House of Lords by involvement in special committees and so on is one thing, but I am less convinced about increasing the powers of the House, especially if there is a possibility of having any elected members whatever. That is exactly where an elected element may see opportunities to flex its muscles and prove its legitimacy. I would prefer to see a more gradual sanction employed rather than the giving of full—blown powers of rejection.
§ 5.36 p.m.
§ Lord Hoyle
My Lords, like many speakers before me, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Peston on introducing the debate. I have found it most interesting, having been in the House since the previous general election, and having been on both the Front Bench and the Back Benches.
I like some points about the way in which the House operates, but I feel that some matters need to be changed. However, I believe that we must get away from the amateur status. If those outside the House are 1613 to respect the work carried out here, we must move towards a more professional chamber. Like other members, I feel that we must strike a balance between the Government wanting to get their legislation through the House and our right to scrutinise it. That will always be so, whichever party is in power. We must be careful to ensure that that balance is maintained whatever changes are brought about.
This may be a jarring note, but I feel that we need some radical solutions, for instance, dealing with all Committee stages off the Floor of the House, unless constitutional changes are involved. If we did that, I wonder whether all Members of the House should be involved in such a Committee—I have no fixed view on the matter—but that may lead to better scrutiny. I also believe that at Second Reading and in Committee amendments should not be tabled; amendments should be tabled on Report or at Third Reading. However, I do not believe that the same amendments as were tabled on Report should then be retabled at Third Reading. Like other noble Lords, I do not believe that we should have "Second Reading" speeches at every stage. That would help to improve matters. I disagree with those who say that there is no filibustering; I take that itself to be filibustering. If, once defeated, one tries again, I believe that that is filibustering.
I also agree with what has been said about Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I believe that we should have government business on those days. On Thursdays we could have non—government business so that those with long journeys could get away if they needed to do so. I believe that would make for more sensible use of the time of the House.
I know that I disagree with most noble Lords when I say that I think that we are coming to the end of self—regulation in this House. As the House becomes more professional, I feel that, even if we do not need a Speaker, we should at least give the right to intervene to the Chairman and Deputy Chairmen. That would increase control over the House. At the moment, speakers can go on and on and often we do not know who is going to speak from which Bench. Often at that point the Whip has to intervene. It would be better to put this on a more practical footing.
We ought to consider also the facilities for Members. Although sometimes we can agree, on this occasion I must disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, because I think that we have got to provide facilities for Members so that they can do their jobs. There should be better office, research and secretarial facilities. It would benefit the House if those were provided. Furthermore, it would help those entering the House and, in the future, those who are part—timers. That kind of back—up service would enable them to do their work properly.
I have always found it rather surprising that so many noble Lords simply rise and read out a speech. Whatever has been said in the debate, some noble Lords are determined to read out that particular speech to the end. I do not think that that adds to the debates that take place in this House or, indeed, in the 1614 other Chamber when the same thing happens there. Some noble Lords who have been Members for a long time have told me that this practice has grown. I am also a little critical of the other place because more speakers there are reading out speeches and asking extremely lengthy questions. Such practices do not add to the value of debates in either House.
Finally, perhaps I may say that I do not think that we should lose the benefit of this debate today. We should carry it forward. The only way to do that is by securing the agreement of all parts of the House. We shall never make progress if that is not done. To that end, perhaps we should set up a review committee to look at what has been said today and at other matters that may not have been raised.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Baroness Seccombe
My Lords, I did not intend to speak in this important debate today, but when I heard that there may be a request for a crèche, I felt that I had to make a short intervention.
However, before I come to that point, I want to say that I think it is important to keep procedures under review and to note what, if anything, is not working. But change for change's sake is, I believe, a huge mistake and change just because we are now in the 21st century is, in my estimation, rather silly.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for instigating this debate. I have never thought of him as an arch moderniser, but having listened to the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal, I hope that this is not another of the Government's modernisations, which, to date, have not been a howling success.
I worry that what is behind this debate is the wish of the Government to get their business more easily without the necessity for Members to be present in the House for many hours just in case Divisions might be called. However, I believe that the role of this House is not to set up procedures which would, in effect, rubber stamp the decisions of the other place. We are here to scrutinise legislation and, from time to time, to ask the other place to think again. It is the duty of the Opposition to operate in this way and I would be absolutely against any proposals of change for that purpose.
I am very anxious that we do establish family friendly policies so that both mothers and fathers are able to share in the thrills and spills of family life and still contribute to public life. My mind goes back about 15 years to when I was invited to take part in a discussion on "Woman's Hour". My fellow interviewee was a woman living in Bristol who, as a single parent, had employment in London. She told me that she had a three year—old daughter who accompanied her to work each day. Everything was wonderful because there was a crèche. She seemed to be quite unfazed by the demands she was making on that little girl. She could not understand why I was concerned that she was dragging her daughter away from home in the early hours and not returning until late at night. I feel that such actions are selfish in the extreme and verge on cruelty. I wonder why people who take such a cavalier 1615 attitude towards their children have children at all. I believe that children's needs come first and that parents who wish to further their careers should take that into account.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, I take the view that a crèche in your Lordships' House would be quite inappropriate as our timings are, shall I say, flexible and very often go on into the hours when children should be in bed. I believe that parents should make appropriate arrangements for their children based around the home so that their upbringing can be as uninterrupted and as free as possible.
In consequence, I would favour Members being able to receive some financial support if they have a relative for whom they are responsible. I believe that that could apply to a Member with young children or children who are in need of constant care. In addition, it could apply to a Member who has a sick spouse needing care. Obviously there would have to be strict guidelines along the lines of the financial loss allowance that magistrates are able to claim under arrangements approved by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor.
Members who attend and work in your Lordships' House without remuneration are performing a public service and should, I believe, if they incur expenditure, be able to qualify for benefits that other volunteers receive. The amount of the allowance would be the amount of the expenditure incurred or up to a limit to be set in the same manner as other allowances.
As I said earlier, I am all in favour of family friendly policies and have spent much of my life encouraging women into all forms of public life. As a consequence of that, I am aware of the demands on a mother, and indeed a father, especially at times of school holidays. I should like to suggest that your Lordships' vacation should take place in July and August when schools are on holiday. I know that the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal, in her role as Minister for Women, talks continually about helping women. I speak for myself only, but I hope that the noble Baroness and noble Lords will give sympathetic consideration to these two family friendly ideas.
Finally, I am sure that this year the Lord Privy Seal will use all her powers of persuasion to ensure that everyone will be able to start their family holiday with their children and grandchildren by the end of July. Such a family friendly decision would certainly be worthy of inclusion in her glossy magazine, "Voices".
§ 5.47 p.m.
§ Lord Harrison
My Lords, as I have 1,000 things to say but only around 100 seconds in which to say them, I shall confine my remarks to the role, function and practice of the committee system of the House.
Because the House of Lords is primarily a revising and scrutinising chamber, it should play to those strengths by enlarging and improving its committee system. First, the proposal in the Wakeham report that we should institute new committees associated with human rights and with UK devolution is spot on. 1616 Secondly, but spot off, is the relationship we have with the other place—our co—legislature. Indeed, that quaint phrase, "the other place", succinctly illustrates the yawning and unforgivable gap between the two legislative Houses. We should find better ways of working for common aims. Greater use of joint committees of Parliament is one way to save time, cost and muddle.
Thirdly, the House of Lords should abandon the tortuous process of the House sitting in Committee in this Chamber. Its confrontational format and the use of the redundant grace—notes of forced politeness are barriers to the serious study and parsing of the before us. At the moment, the Moses Room is used for non—controversial legislation; yet that is inadequate because of its hopeless acoustics. But we carry on taking the tablets. Real people sit around real tables to sort out real problems. Let us get real by formatting a proper, modern committee system.
Fourthly, let us increase the good work done in the European Select Committees. The House of Lords should fill the niche market of scrutinising European legislation. We should become the House of Europe. Indeed, we should become the "Time Lords" of Europe because, unlike the Commons, we have the time and inclination to forge links with other national parliaments and with the European Parliament. That is a proposal enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty, but left unactivated. Let us work with other parliaments through joint committees to fill the democratic deficit.
Incidentally, since arriving here six months ago, I am often told that your Lordships' EU reports, the contents of which are often first class if boringly and unhelpfully presented, are widely read throughout Europe. Indeed, I heard that view repeated this afternoon. I am afraid that does not square with my experience of a decade as an MEP. I received only those reports for which I specifically asked. When I asked the House authorities to whom such reports were sent in Brussels, I was told only to the chairs of European parliamentary committees. How foolish! All the expenditure of producing excellent reports but failing to provide copies to British MEPs of all political persuasions on the spurious grounds of limited budgets. British MEPs are, after all, the other legislators whose vote might make the difference for Britain.
Let us recommit ourselves to that worthy objective through an improved committee system, worthy of this worthy House, at the front end of the 21st century. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Peston on helping us to get there. I see that I shall finish early; I feel that noble Lords who finish before their time should receive a special bonus at the end of the year!
§ 5.52 p.m.
§ Lord Mancroft
My Lords, I hope I qualify for that bonus.
The whole House is, of course, immensely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for giving us the opportunity to debate this subject today. The length of the list of speakers indicates the degree of interest in the way that this House runs and conducts its business.
1617 There are one or two things that your Lordships may like to bear in mind. First, this House has just undergone one of the biggest changes in its history with the departure of an enormous proportion of its Members and the arrival, within the lifetime of one Parliament (in this House's terms, a mere blip in time) of an enormous number of new Members. While of course we welcome all new noble Lords and value their contributions, I am unclear how valuable those contributions are to this debate. I know that after 13 years' membership of the House I am only just beginning to fully comprehend the many nuances of its work and procedures, and that any opinion that I formed during the early months and years of my membership, when I was rather more active than I am now, were often misconceived. On balance, I would have done better to have listened and learned, and kept my own counsel for a while.
I should also say at the outset that after three years of this chaotic and unusually incompetent Government with their passion for modernisation, I have little idea of what "modernisation" means, except perhaps change for the sake of it or for short—term political gain with little thought to the long—term consequences, unless it is to engender the feeling that the Government are doing something. I have a feeling that this Government embark on programmes of change, particularly constitutional ones, as a way of distracting the electorate's attention from the failure of their domestic policies, just as mediaeval kings went to war to keep their subjects' minds off problems at home.
That having been said, I am firmly in favour of change if it leads to improvement, and this House, like any body or institution, is always capable of being improved. There are two distinct areas which bear careful examination. First, your Lordships may wish to examine ways in which the Members might be assisted in fulfilling their role. The conditions in which we work, the facilities made available to us and the system of remuneration are all areas that could be improved. For instance, I should like to see better research facilities, and I am not the first speaker today to say that. Like other speakers, I have long thought that the present system of expenses is wholly inappropriate, and the concept that it is linked to daily attendance presumes that all activity linked to membership of this House ceases on those days when this House is not sitting. That is clearly absurd. While I am uncomfortable with the idea of a salary, I recognise too that the amounts provided for day and overnight subsistence are way below a reasonable sum for either, and I suspect it results in some real difficulties for some Members of your Lordships' House.
I have heard, and my noble friend Lady Seccombe mentioned it, that there is talk of a crèche. I have no desire to get involved in that particular debate today and on balance would probably prefer a kennel to a crèche. But I am one of the younger Members of this House who has young children. My noble friend Lord Goschen in front of me has also, as well as my noble 1618 friend the Leader of the Opposition. Of course there are difficulties, though they are not perhaps difficulties for the fathers as much as for the mothers. I am not sure if I am correct in this, but I believe only one noble Baroness has a small baby. I understand the difficulties. But this is not an ordinary workplace. This is not a factory; it is not an office. It is the second Chamber of the legislature of our nation. To be a Member of this House is both a great honour and a great privilege. In accepting membership and the privilege that goes with it, we must understand that privilege has its burdens. One of those is the stricture under which we work. We all make sacrifices of one kind or another to attend and play our parts. If we cannot make those sacrifices, then we should not accept the honour of membership.
The other area we should look at is the way that the House conducts its business—the procedures of the House. In fact we do change and develop our procedures through the committees of the House. There have been many changes in the time that I have been here, and doubtless there will be more in the future. But the governing criteria that we should all bear in mind is that change should facilitate the role of the Back—Bencher and, most important of all, it should not make it easier for the executive to get their business through. That only serves to diminish the role of Parliament in general and this House in particular. That role has already been diminished too much and, particularly under the present Government, the position of the executive is far too strong.
It is for that reason that I am opposed to guillotines. I am equally concerned about the idea of having fixed sitting times and fixed votes, both of which, though helpful to individual Members, are far more helpful to the government of the day.
There are enormous problems in bringing forward any changes, and many of them have been touched upon today. The biggest of those I suspect is the enormous increase in legislation—not only the increase in the size of legislation, but also the deterioration in its quality. There are too many Bills; they are far too big; and they arrive in your Lordships' House in a frightful mess. Consequently, they require far too many amendments, and far too many government amendments. Those we should resist if we possibly can. Perhaps this House should have the ability to compel the Government to divide over-sized Bills into smaller, more manageable ones and the power to reject at any stage, even before Second Reading, Bills that require amendments that fundamentally alter their shape and which the Commons has not debated. That would at least focus the Government's attention on the need to improve their legislative performance.
It is difficult to make progress in this area, but the clock is ticking and this debate serves to remind us of that. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and it is interesting that it should take such an experienced and respected Labour Back-Bencher to put his own party under pressure on this subject.
§ 5.59 p.m.1619
§ Baroness Crawley
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said, we are indeed grateful to my noble friend Lord Peston for initiating this very important and timely debate. He did so highly effectively and in a balanced way that was, as always, run through with much humour and wit.
It is an enormous privilege, especially as a relatively new Peer, to be a legislator in the House of Lords in the 21st century. Our aim in our work, from whichever part of the House we originate, has to be to increase the effectiveness of this Chamber in making good law and, of course, in holding the executive to account. To do that properly and in a modern context, we must facilitate Peers' work, particularly by ensuring that we are able, as my noble friend the Leader of the House said, effectively to combine our parliamentary work, our paid and unpaid work outside the House, as well as our family life and responsibilities.
In order to achieve these properly ambitious aims of being a first-class modern legislature, it is not good enough at the beginning of the 21st century to say, "Well, this is how things have always been for decades and with the odd tweak of procedure here and there we can carry on this way for the next half century". Nor is it any use to say to those of us who do advocate some sensible modernisation, "Well, you knew what you were letting yourself in for when you came into this House; you knew that late nights and politics go together like Flanders and Swann, fish and chips and New and Labour".
Those arguments, as well as having more than a whiff of complacency about them, will cut no ice with the kind of people we want to attract to our 21st-century House. Who are the people that we want to attract? They are the experts and the professionals in their fields—people who need more than a few communal phones on an open-corridor table to conduct their professional lives outside the House, as well as their political responsibilities within the House. Who are the people we want to see? We want to see the captains and "captainesses"—if that is a word—of industry, who need more than serial tea parties to ensure that their corporate business remains intact while they perform their political duties. They need a few facilities, such as offices, computer points and workstations along with, perhaps, a proper reception area for visitors. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to thank the staff in this House, who do an enormous amount of good work and are extremely courteous. Indeed, as one of my noble friends has said, it is a small miracle how the staff keep this place operating day by day.
I suggest that what we want to see as regards the people who come here in the 21st century—at least, what many of us want—is the minimum 30 per cent of women Members as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, in his Recommendation 70. If that is ever to come about, we need to have a House of Lords that is female friendly and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seccornbe, said, is also family friendly. It is not just special pleading, as intimated by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, when we call for realistic facilities to be made available. Indeed, every effective business and firm in 1620 modern Britain would see that as a reasonable demand from a trade union. Childcare facilities for Peers' families should be part of the modernisation process.
Along with my noble friend Lord Tomlinson, I helped to establish the crèche in the European Parliament 10 years ago. We heard all the arguments about it not being necessary and about it being completely outside the reason for us doing our political work. Yet we overcame those arguments and, indeed, the challenges of having children from 15 countries speaking 11 different languages to each other in that crèche. It is now accepted as a normal, reasonable part of the working facilities of that Parliament and is highly effective.
So we have a challenge to ensure that Members in this Parliament can complete their work in the knowledge that they are making a contribution and without bearing the burden of guilt that they are not giving enough time to their responsibilities here because of the pull on their outside responsibilities. We are already making progress in that respect. I believe that the transitional House has a working atmosphere that perhaps the pre-transitional Chamber did not quite have.
While listening to the reaction of some noble Lords to even the necessity for this debate, it seemed to me that there was a danger of the debate becoming hijacked by the past and by a certain ancestor worship. Indeed, we must respect the past but we must not cling to it without justification. Recruiting people with different experiences and from different industries and races means that we are being seen by the public as a pluralist, progressive and purposeful House of Lords. Down the road we have a building called the Tate Modern: let us be the "politics modern" of the 21st century.
§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Viscount Goschen
My Lords, I thought that the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, clearly illustrated an independent-minded, thought-provoking and loyal Back-Bencher—indeed, to use the term of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, a "real person". I hope the noble Lord considers that there are more than one or two real people in this House—perhaps even some who do not find the need, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, seems to believe, to be artificially polite, but only when they are in this Chamber and when they do not have their sleeves rolled up. This House is full of people who give a very real contribution to our political settlement, to the debate of important issues and to the scrutiny of government. That is why we are here. I do not believe that we should ever lose sight of our primary objective.
I feel that this discussion of procedures is extremely valid, particularly in the context of the extraordinary changes that this House has undergone within the past year. However, we ought to look at those procedures with a certain degree of respect. I wholly reject the statement made a few moments ago that the House of Lords as it was formerly constituted perhaps did not have the reputation of being, shall we say, a working 1621 House. I firmly believe that it did. There were a number of objections and strong points of view as to the way in which that House was constituted, but I believe that we would find very few people who would argue with the output of that House and the job that it actually performed. That is why I feel that the description of some Peers as "working Peers" and others, presumably, as idle or "non-working Peers" is tremendously artificial.
It must be the keynote of our debate to look at the effectiveness of the House of Lords as it stands at present. We must look at the output of the House and the degree to which it does hold government to account. That is sometimes uncomfortable for government. I certainly felt very uncomfortable at 2 o'clock in the morning, when, as a Whip, I used to sit and listen to employment debates. I see the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, is nodding his head; indeed, I believe that we shared a degree of discomfort at that time. However, we were doing an important job. Part of the reason why this House sits so long is because of the freedom of the Back-Bencher to raise issues—not to face a guillotine and an executive that says, "We've heard enough of this line of argument. Therefore, we shall stop it". The key of this House is the ability of the Back-Bencher, as well as the Official Opposition and all Members of the House, to hold government strongly to account.
This House comes out well in any comparison with another place and, indeed, with the European Parliament in terms of the volume of legislation that it considers and the commitment of all its Members—be they hereditary Peers, appointed Peers, Bishops, Law Lords, or whoever. We should be measured by the output of the House. However, that does not mean that I am against change. I believe that we should look very carefully at our procedures in many areas, but I would argue most strongly against constraints such as guillotine measures and timed votes designed to make the Government's life easier. As almost every speaker this afternoon has said, the Government have a very strong role to play here by bringing forward more carefully considered legislation—legislation which does not require 300, 400 or 500 government amendments to put it into the sort of shape that the public demands and expects of this House. Less legislation would undoubtedly prove to be a major benefit.
Another question that was raised this afternoon is whether our current rules are sufficient for this House. Many of the rules do cover a number of the problems that we have, or are perceived to have, as regards the way that the House works at present. However, there is, perhaps, a degree to which the rules are there but are not being adhered to; indeed, I believe the noble Lord, Lord Peston, referred to the number of Second Reading speeches in Committee, and so on. I certainly agree with him in that respect, although I always think that it is a question of other people making Second Reading speeches and oneself making powerful and well-argued interventions that are fully suited to the Committee stage.
1622 I believe that there is considerable advantage in taking Committee stages within the Chamber of the whole House. That focuses the attention of more Peers of the whole House on the business that is under consideration. To have too many processes running parallel might dilute that degree of consideration.
I accept that we work long hours. I certainly agree with the sentiments expressed by my noble friend Lord Mancroft; namely, that when Members come to this House, either via the route of the hereditary peerage or by appointment, part of the deal is that they have to put in the hours that will enable us to perform our role effectively. However, we certainly sit for extraordinary lengths of time and perhaps some of the points that have been mentioned should be considered.
I agreed with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, said, particularly when he mentioned the reading of speeches. He put his finger right on the button in that regard. However, I thoroughly disagreed with him as regards the need for a Speaker. If Peers who have been Members of this House for some time as well as previous generations of Peers have been able to exercise the self-constraint and courtesy which a self-governing House requires, I see no reason whatsoever why incoming Peers should not also be fully capable of doing the same. I do not think that the noble Lord's comment says a great deal for his attitude towards his contemporaries.
Finally, I urge the Government not to pursue measures that simply make their life easier and make it easier to process legislation in pursuit of a system which fully facilitates the digestion of large quantities of legislation at short notice. We need full consideration.
§ 6.11 p.m.
§ Lord Gordon of Strathblane
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for introducing this debate. Like the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, I do not think that any of us should simply try to make the life of government easier.
I too believe that the prime role of the House of Lords is the scrutiny of legislation. However, that has considerable implications for both the composition and the working practices of the House of Lords. After all, nowadays the shelf life of knowledge is extremely short, particularly in some rapidly changing fields. If the House of Lords is to have access to the degree of expertise that is required, we must guard against it becoming a Chamber which only barristers, those who are fully retired or those who live within the M25 boundary can possibly attend. We need to consider that matter.
I know that noble Lords have addressed my next point in the past. I hope that they will address it again in the future and produce on that occasion a favourable verdict. I believe that there is an overwhelming case for moving the general business day from Wednesday to either Monday or Thursday. If our prime duty is the scrutiny of legislation, it does not follow that we should deliberately prolong that process to a four-day week when some people may 1623 genuinely be able to attend on only three days because of their public service commitments elsewhere in the country. Tomorrow morning I shall rise at five o' clock. I shall leave my flat at about 5.30 a.m. to get to Shetland in time to chair a 10.30 meeting of the Scottish Tourist Board. I believe that that is a legitimate public service duty. It would be far better to consider legislation on consecutive days to enable people to participate on all those days.
It would be a serious mistake—it is interesting to note how many speakers have echoed this point—if a significant element of the House were to be directly elected. I must confess that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, showed great ingenuity in suggesting a 15-year term with no re-election. However, an elected element still poses some dangers. I believe that it would undoubtedly endanger the primacy of the House of Commons. If people are elected to this House at a different point in the electoral cycle, they could claim that they have a greater democratic legitimacy than Members of the House of Commons. If they are elected by a different electoral method— perhaps a better electoral method than that employed for the House of Commons—the same claim could be made. As I said, such a process would endanger the primacy of the House of Commons. If such a process were adopted in this House, it would undoubtedly pose a danger of creating first and second-class citizens. We should guard against that danger.
Even given the ingenious suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, of the 15-year term, there is still the problem of the payment of salaries. If one pays salaries to elected Peers, one cannot in all conscience not pay salaries to all Peers. We shall all work equally hard. Problems would arise in that area. If this House, which has borne great testimony to the tradition of public service in this country, suddenly decides to pay salaries to its Members, I believe that the public will assume that they must be doing more than they were before the House took that step, and therefore that the House has more powers. I am afraid that the payment of salaries would engender that problem. On the other hand, it is important that lack of means should not be a bar to anyone entering this House. Therefore I readily support the payment of distinctly more generous allowances than those paid currently, which, frankly, are unrealistic.
I also echo the pleas for better facilities in this House. If people are to combine service in this House with some perfectly legitimate public service or business activities elsewhere, they need, for example, to be able to keep in touch with offices. Consideration of such elementary points is overdue.
There is also a case for considering the way in which we run Committee stages. As a comparative newcomer to this House, it has always seemed to me a little silly that we take virtually all stages of a Bill in one House and then do the same in the other House. Surely, if Second Reading is meant to be an issue of principle, we should take the Second Reading of a Bill in both Houses and then take the Committee stage. I wonder whether we could take a revolutionary step and have a 1624 Committee of both Houses. I wonder too whether we could replicate at the Committee stage the consultation that takes place at the pre-legislative stage and give a Committee the power to call witnesses and examine the evidence of people who really know about the subject concerned and will potentially be affected by the legislation. I believe that there is a case for taking that step.
I am sure that all noble Lords accept the vital importance of the Cross-Benchers. It its important that a government should have to win a vote in this House rather than simply rely on being able to do that. However, for that to apply, the vote must be winnable and the balance of Cross-Benchers should be genuinely independent and not closet admirers of one political party or another. A heavy onus will be placed on the body charged with the appointment of Cross-Bench Members to ensure that that result is achieved.
Finally, the present conventions, by and large, ensure that the clear will of government, as expressed in a manifesto, will not be frustrated. The delaying power of the House of Lords is, however, extremely useful in focusing media and public attention on individual issues. It is ultimately that awakened public opinion which persuades government to change their mind. If the Lords is to carry weight at the bar of public opinion, it will be because the public will have come to trust the verdict that we reach.
§ 6.17 p.m.
§ Lord Phillips of Sudbury
My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for initiating this debate I am sure he would agree that he is subjecting us all to intense frustration because so much that has been said is of great moment to all of us but one has time only to make broadly one point.
However, in passing, I say that as a relative new boy I, like the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, am immensely grateful to the staff who make the working of this place not only efficient on the whole but also a pleasure. I have spent nearly 20 years of my professional life dealing with the constitutional reorganisation of institutions of every conceivable kind. I remind noble Lords—if reminder is needed—that there is no institution or organisation which is remotely as complicated as this one. To contrive to create a democratic assembly that does justice to all the things that we hold dear is, frankly, a work that the Archangel Gabriel could not satisfactorily undertake and deliver. If we were all to observe the Companion—I must be one of the most non-observant Members of your Lordships' House—many of the complaints that have been voiced today would disappear.
Many noble Lords have concentrated on the issue of the effectiveness of this House. Effectiveness can be looked at internally and externally. Today, understandably, most noble Lords have concentrated on the internal effectiveness of the workings of the House. However, even if we were perfect in all respects, it would be fruitless if we were externally ineffective, and here I take up the theme started by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel.
1625 How would we judge external effectiveness? I suspect that we would judge it by how much notice people took of what we said and did here; by how much they were aware of what we were doing here; by how much they felt they owned what we were doing here; by how much they felt involved in and committed to what we were doing here. I fear that by all those yardsticks, one would come out with a fairly dismal story.
I do not need to labour the fact that democracy in this country is currently in extremely bad shape. I think that sometimes we rather brush all that under the plush carpets of Westminster. The voting statistics—whether municipal, mayoral, national or European—all point in one direction, as do all other signs of democratic health.
Let me turn now to the Royal Commission report. It rightly stated that the new second Chamber would have four main roles; I shall refer to two of them. First,It should provide a voice for the nations and regions".Secondly,People should feel that there is a voice in Parliament for the different aspects of their personalities—regional, gender, vocational, ethnic, professional, cultural or religious".But, having been given a voice, one needs to have someone to provide a voice for; someone with whom one has a close relationship. I come back to what I said earlier: I do not think that we have that relationship. We have to, by every means, resuscitate the vitality of this House in the minds and hearts of our fellow countrypeople.
One may ask, "Is that not being done?" I fear that it is not. Only since 1996 have we had an information office in this House. It does brilliantly, but it comprises only one director, one personal assistant and two telephonists, with a budget of £75,000 a year. If I may say so, that is a smaller resource than even a modest sized company would have these days to spread its message and its image.
If we are to take seriously—as I am sure we do—the impact of this place in the world beyond, we have to look to perhaps creating a committee for external affairs. One hesitates to suggest creating a new committee, but we need a committee which has an exclusive duty to invigorate public realisation of what we are about. We need to make people aware when big Bills are to be discussed; to ascertain whether people have a point of view to feed into the process; to make them aware that important debates are coming up.
I am staggered how few people seem to know when we do have important debates. In the recent debate on tourism, I discovered that the East of England Tourist Board was unaware that the debate was taking place. When we have a good debate, how often does it reverberate within these ancient and hallowed walls, and nowhere else? Why is it that the Guardian newspaper has ceased to have a lobby correspondent?
We need to take the external aspects of effectiveness infinitely more seriously. They need more resources—and by that I mean significant funds—great 1626 imagination and great commitment, because none of this is easy stuff. I want to encourage consultation in an effective way. I want to encourage people to lobby us, to try and bend our ears when something that they feel passionately about is coming up. It may be a nuisance; we may all say, "For God's sake, no more crazy letters". If we have a vital House, there will be crazy letters—but there will be many more sane ones.
I want us to provide speakers for all occasions—indeed, I want to encourage people to come to us for speakers. I want us to have an effective website, to which reference has been made. I want us to do everything we possibly can to enable a bemused citizenry to take part in the deliberations of this fine House.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ Lord Marlesford
My Lords, I believe that the prospect of a fundamental future change to this House is a cloud which hangs over the things that need to be changed. In saying that, as the Leader of the House knows, I, among others, accepted the need to deal with the perceived problem of there being previously an overwhelming number of hereditary Peers in this House. I accepted that the Labour Party had a mandate to do what it spelt out in its manifesto. I never accepted the view of my party encapsulated in the slogan, "No stage one without stage two".
However, as a result of the brilliant negotiating skills of my noble friend Lord Cranborne, I believe that we have ended up with the best of both worlds. We have now in the House more than 100 of the most distinguished and able of our hereditary colleagues, as well as having those who have been appointed for life. When one is asked, as I am sure we all are, "What is the difference in the House between then and now?", I reply that I find remarkably little difference except for a greater self-confidence.
If there were to be a need for a stage two, my noble friend Lord Wakeham has produced an ingenious and perhaps workable compromise package for the future. However, my belief is that no government should contemplate further structural reform until we have had the time—at least five years—to see how the new structure we have today works in practice.
That is not only because there is no longer the political demand for further reform at grass-roots level, or because any government's legislative programme would certainly have higher priorities—we have heard much about the compaction of the programme to introduce new, highly controversial legislation—but much more because the British constitution is a delicate plant. It would be crazy to embark on further changes when the inter-effect of many of the changes which have already taken place are only now beginning to provide perplexing and often unexpected results.
1627 In my remaining few minutes I should like to make four points. First, it is crucial that new appointees to this House add to the lustre and credibility of the whole House. I recognise that it has not been easy for the Labour Party to find the numbers it requires in the time available. However, new Labour is so different from old Labour that its net could catch some bright fishes which would have previously swum vigorously in the opposite direction.
My second point concerns the Procedure Committee. I am extremely suspicious that there is an intention in certain quarters to use the Procedure Committee to introduce changes to make the Government's life—any government's life—easier. I would not accept that.
My third point is that we have to improve facilities for Members. I am opposed to a taxable remuneration. Indeed, I wonder how many people have recently refused peerages on the basis that we were not paid. I was a member of the ad hoc group of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. We made certain proposals to the Government, which were agreed. The noble Lord, Lord Bragg, said that it takes a long time for us to get anything decided. It will be a good test of what the noble Lord said to see whether we can get those modest and practical proposals imposed within a rapid time-scale.
My fourth point is much more specific: there is a significant information gap for Peers. Although we have a superb Library, and Parliament as a whole has made a big attempt to introduce us to the wonders of IT through the PDVN, there is one astonishing lacuna: Members do not have access to any of the main-line economic databases. These have been expanding very rapidly in both capability and user friendliness. For many years, Datastream and Reuters dominated the scene. They were very expensive—with an annual subscription rate of some tens of thousands of pounds—but now there are new entrants into the market.
I was recently given a demonstration of a new Swedish product called Ecowin, which, in collaboration with Reuters, provides an astonishing range of financial and economic information. Social information may easily be grafted on to it. Not only does it have the advantage of operating through the Windows system, which we all have on our PCs, but it is a great deal cheaper. For the first user, it is £6,000 per year; for the second, £3,000; and for the third and subsequent subscribers, it is only £1,500.
Those are practical ways in which I believe we can be made more effective. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for introducing this debate, will at least agree with me on that particular proposal.
§ 6.29 p.m.
§ Lord Brett
My Lords, when I put down my name to speak in this debate I did so with great trepidation as I have been a Member of your Lordships' House for only a few months. I did so with the intention of regaling noble Lords with my immediate reaction on becoming a Member of this House. However, I found myself in total agreement with the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Warner. Therefore, it is with even greater trepidation that I now speak because I have only half the service of the noble Lord, Lord Warner, and I am twice as liable and vulnerable to the patronising of certain Members opposite. I also agreed very much with the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Haskel and Lord Hoyle.
What I think is a great strength of the House is its friendly nature—we call it comradeship in some other quarters—which transcends party lines. A second strength is the quality of debate. I stand in admiration of the quality of debate which I have heard from all Benches. The third strength is the quality of the staff. Those were my initial impressions and they remain with me. I formed a second impression. On my first day as a Member of the House I could not find a hotel within the allowance paid me to stay in a hotel overnight. The only remotely reasonable allowance is the motor mileage allowance.
I also enjoyed very much the star performance of my noble friend Lord Bragg. My only point of difference with him is that I am not yet personally convinced on the question of payment of salaries. But I am convinced that if we are to have people doing a good job here we have to pay, not, as has been said, "generous expenses", but expenses which do not leave people out of pocket. I think that is not a major earth-shattering decision that requires a great deal of legislation.
I sit on the governing body of the International Labour Organisation, where I lead a group of 24 worker members from around the world. Among that group are four members of the upper chambers of their parliaments, one from Venezuela, one from Chile, one from the Czech Republic and one from Barbados. They all congratulated me on my becoming a Member of your Lordships' House. We swapped anecdotes about the workload, the allowances, the conditions and the back-up in our respective parliaments. On every single point they were astonished. None of their astonishment was to the credit of this House. The workload is far in excess of anything that they would know and the facilities are far less than anything that they would expect. I told them that the research department for the whole of this House consists of four people. That astonishes me because my research department when I was a trade union leader had eight people in it. Research cannot even start to be done unless we have adequate and efficient ways of doing it.
I will give ground to those who would say that I have not been here long enough to play a major part in a discussion about how to change the constitutional way we do things in committees and so on, but I am content, having heard speeches today and indeed 1629 previously, that within the four political groupings— if I can call the independents a political grouping—there is enough talent for a review committee. I am much attracted to the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, of a review committee to take these matters forward by agreement. I do not believe that we have to confuse efficiency with effectiveness. I believe that we can improve efficiency and effectiveness. Scrutiny is about effectiveness and efficiency. What we have at the moment is a traditional way of doing things which no private sector organisation, and, dare I say, no public organisation would have endured for so long without a degree of change. As a former trade union leader, I have to say that none of my Members would have employed me for five minutes had I allowed them to work under the conditions one finds in your Lordships' House.
I do not personally quarrel about the late nights. As the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said, you accept the package as it comes. However, I am equally clear that they are not helpful in terms of family circumstances, even my own. I have two children of school age and a wife who is an academic. We manage to balance the child care until we come to the school holidays because of course they never coincide with either her leave or mine. Therefore, there is a difficulty. Unlike the Leader of the Opposition, my children are at school and therefore the opportunity to see them this morning, after a finish beyond midnight, was very limited, and the opportunity to see them tonight is totally denied. We have to find more family friendly policies. One has only to look at international comparisons. We are a very strange organisation if we are not able to make changes which are not constitutional but managerial.
My final point is a personal plea. I should like to see a room here where you could simply take your laptop, plug it in and have access to the Internet. That could be communal. We do not have to have individual offices. I am not, as was suggested earlier by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, looking for a luxurious office. A locker would be a start. I think that half a chair leg is as much as I can expect in terms of accommodation in the next five years. If we had a communal area, one could have what the Americans call "hot-desking". But your Lordships should worry not. This House, with a capacity for perhaps 300 people—for the past 300 years people entitled to be here have been measured in hundreds more than that—we could claim to have invented the phrase, but here it is called "hot-benching", particularly at Question Time when we have to wait to take our places. So if we can do it in the Chamber why can we not modernise our backroom operations? Why can we not move into the 21st century?
I am very much attracted by the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, about the personal website. Certainly, I have been receiving messages on the Internet. I do not know how people obtained my e-mail address, but it came after the debate on the age of consent. Most of it was fairly hostile to my view, but it 1630 did tell me how people felt and made me aware. I think that the website issue is something that we should look at with some urgency.
§ 6.36 p.m.
§ Lord Inglewood
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Peston, on introducing this debate. I believe that it has been an extremely worthwhile occasion.
All major political parties in this country agree that we should remain members of the European Union. Yet, as we all know, it is not by any means a universally popular opinion among the British public. I believe that one of the reasons for this serious matter is that government's political and administrative activities in this part of the political landscape are not sufficiently scrutinised. Rather I believe that they are thought to be arranged behind the Arras where The Foreigner—spelt with a capital T and a capital F—always cheats. I actually believe that the same kind of view is held elsewhere in other member states.
In a world which is becoming—to use an architectural metaphor—more and more open plan, government in future will take more actions which either de jure or de facto are legislative, not in this Parliament but outside it, and outside the jurisdiction as well. Whether or not we are in or out of the European Union will not alter that.
Perhaps I may for a moment put on my hat as a Member of the European Parliament, I am able to scrutinise the Commission and also the European Council as a whole. I have no direct leverage or access to Her Majesty's Government. My experience in your Lordships' House on the Government Front Bench, when I used to attend the Audio-visual and Culture Councils, corroborated by my time as an Opposition Front-Bencher and on the Back Benches, suggests to me that on the whole this House and this Parliament are often in the dark about what our government are up to on our behalf in international fora. I believe that that is inherently undesirable and that it damages the political process in this country and democracy. For that reason, I am delighted that the Royal Commission looks in the future to this House for greater scrutiny of European business.
Turning to the Government's package of constitutional reforms over the past few years, I notice one big dog that does not bark. Perhaps to be more accurate, the mastiff that was expressly muzzled by the instructions given to my noble friend Lord Wakeham and his commission. I refer to the pre-eminence of the other place, which has acquired, passed down from Parliament to Parliament, a quasi-sacramental character inherited by each House of Commons from its predecessor.
As I have explained to your Lordships on other occasions, I am a bicameralist. I am not looking for parity between the Chambers, merely greater equivalence. I want this Chamber and this House to increase their political role. I am in favour of checks and balances in the constitution and I am opposed to monopoly and excessive concentrations of power.
1631 The pre-eminence of the other place is kept in place principally by the Parliament Acts and conventions which relate, on the whole, to legislation and public Finance. They are more or less silent about scrutiny which, for the reasons I have outlined, will, I believe, become ever more important as the nature of the world we are moving into changes. I believe that, increasingly, policy areas traditionally considered to be domestic will be the subject of legislation enacted away from here.
There is a remarkable opportunity before the House which the House should seize. We should develop our system of scrutiny, already highly regarded by the specialist and the expert, and extend it thoroughly and methodically to all areas where our government are negotiating outside the jurisdiction to legislate, or committing themselves to legislate, or to spend our money. If we do that well—I believe that we can do it well—I am confident that we can regain a place much closer to the centre of national political life which has been lost over the past couple of centuries or so because of the arguments about our composition. If we can do that, we would be doing the right thing for the House but, much more importantly, it would be in the wider national interest.
§ 6.41 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, it is a special pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. I suppose that I have a family bias in his case, but the noble Lord is the personification of what we want to see in an hereditary Peer. I may be biased in that direction also, but he is the kind of hereditary Peer we want.
I have said many times how saddened I have been by the disappearance of some very good Members of the House who were hereditary Peers. But, by and large, one has to say that it is now a better balanced House than when I first arrived. At that time there were only a handful of Labour Peers. It is altogether a better balanced place. As long as we have 100 or so Members who are hereditary Peers, we shall not go far wrong. Therefore, like the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, I am very optimistic about the future of the House.
I realise that many Members of the House perform their best service in committees—either during the Committee stage of Bills or in special committees or specialist bodies. I have not done anything of value in committees but I have opened many debates in the House, some of them quite recent. It is dangerous to boast because you always find someone who has opened a few more than you have, but on the face of it I have opened more than most—debates on homosexuality, prisons, universities, polytechnics, hospices and suchlike. Perhaps I may put my message 1632 in a nutshell. I hope that new and younger Members of the House, brim-full of energy, young men like the noble Lord, Lord Peston—that kind of youngster—
§ The Earl of Longford
He has his hair, anyway. I hope that young men like that, or even younger, will have the same opportunities as I have had over the years.
This House is distinguished above all for the quality of its debates. The most remarkable debates are the ones on general subjects outside the party framework. I mentioned a few that I initiated myself but I shall now mention some other recent debates. In January a debate on religion generally was initiated by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. A debate on asylum was recently introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Various initiatives have been taken by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, sometimes in connection with legislation. Those have all been notable debates.
More recently we have had a debate on the disabled. Nowhere in the whole wide world, now or at any time, would there be a more impressive debate than we had in the House recently on the disabled. Thirty years ago, Alf Morris, now the noble Lord, Lord Morris, on his own initiative—a Back-Bencher in the House of Commons—introduced a Bill in favour of disabled people which became the law of the land. I had the honour of playing a small part in that as I was the spokesman for the Bill in this House. Much more interesting than anything I did was the fact that speaking that day were two ladies in wheelchairs—the noble Baronesses, Lady Darcy de Knayth and Lady Masham. They are still speaking in the same wheelchairs, so far as one can see, that they spoke in 30 years ago, having done a great deal of active work in the meanwhile for this House. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, who went totally deaf, was also involved. I gather that his hearing has since improved. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, on two sticks since war injuries 50 years ago, spoke in the recent debate on the disabled, as did the noble Earl, Lord Snowdon, who has done so much for the handicapped, having suffered some disadvantages himself at one point. Nowhere else in the world would one get that kind of debate going.
To repeat my point—it is a quite short one—I hope that in the future the new Members coming here, brim-full of life and energy will have the same chance. On present showing, I do not know whether they will. There are more than 40 Unstarred Questions down for debate. Who is arranging for these new Members to come on? It is all very well to be cannon fodder. All these people are coming here. Are they expected to sit here and toe the line? We all have to do that. I do it to the best of my ability—not quite 100 per cent but quite often. We want these young people to feel that they have a chance to make themselves heard and make their views known. I hope that that will be ensured.
I have no obvious suggestions to make except one. We need more days set apart for general debates. Today is a good example of a general debate. But, on 1633 the whole, not enough time is given for Unstarred Questions and debates. All these people are longing to express themselves and to offer some thoughts outside of the party machinery. They may be members of parties or they may be independents. There they all are—the rising generation of Peers. I hope that they will he given the chance.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, after that magnificent tour d'horifon of the noble Earl, it seems strange and unsatisfactory to be able to take only one point. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for introducing the debate.
Perhaps your Lordships may well think that the crucial question arising in this debate is whether the workings of this House should be reviewed in accordance with the recommendations of the Wakeham commission and whether the Select Committees should now be set up to review our procedures and conventions in accordance with those recommendations. As my noble friend Lord Strathclyde pointed out, there has been a continuous process of change. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House said that there was a great opportunity to improve the workings of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, supported expanding the working of the Select Committees now as there was scope for change now and said that we should not wait until stage two substantive reform. In that, the noble Lord was supported by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham—grabbing the knocker of his cathedral to claim sanctuary from what I propose to say. Is not this the issue on which the Government are not prepared to give way, having maintained that there should be no review of our procedures and conventions until stage two substantive reform? Is not that the question that lies at the root of the debate—an issue for the House, not the Government, to resolve?
The issue has arisen at Question Time (pages 21 to 23 of the Library notes). It arose on the speeches of many noble Lords on the third and fourth days of the debate on the Address. In their view, circumstances no longer existed in which conventions had been devised and implemented. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said, in today's circumstances new conventions are required and will have to be developed.
The matter arose again in the debate introduced by my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree concerned with the convention as to the exercise of restraint as recorded at page 187 of the Companion. In that context, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said that it was deplorable that the usual channels had not arranged a full—scale debate on the mode of operation of the House. In that debate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, stated that there would be no review of our conventions and procedures until stage two substantive reform-a somewhat Neronic attitude to the requisite regeneration of working practices, as it was put by one noble Lord. Indeed, 1634 having donned his toga, the noble and learned Lord proclaimed that conventions concerning primary and secondary legislation should remain, so that the elected Chamber would not be prevented from doing in principle what it proposed to do.
There is the Salisbury convention, which has not be codified. Paragraphs 4.21 to 4.34 of the Wakeham commission report suggest a new version which represents a new balance of authority as between the two Houses and reconsideration of the mandate doctrine. There are the recommendations in the Wakeham report concerning our procedures and the setting up of committees, such as the constitutional committee, and committees to scrutinise primary and secondary legislation and international treaties, and so forth.
The question is: are those recommendations as to our working practices just to lie in limbo and gather dust pending substantive reform, heaven knows when—a period of five years has been suggested; it could well be 15; it could well be more. It was not the intention of the commission that these should lie in limbo. It was the intention that they should be considered by the House. This was confirmed to me by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, personally after the debate on the Motion introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree.
§ 6.53 p.m.
§ Lord Barnett
My Lords, a great deal of congratulation has been offered to my noble friend Lord Peston. I admire him, but that must be remedied by one point. There has been no criticism of the noble Lord. I have a criticism. My noble friend was far too statesmanlike. He was nothing like as provocative as I should have expected him to be, so on that I disagree with him.
A great deal has been said in the debate about the need for change. I do not agree with all of it. I strongly disagree with those who have almost implied that everything is marvellous and we should leave matters alone. I hope that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, will not mind my saying that he was somewhat patronising towards one of my noble friends and the speech that he made. The noble Viscount may not have appreciated it, but he was. There is a need for change. I do not agree with all that has been suggested, but perhaps I may refer to one or two areas where change is certainly needed.
This House is a congenial place. I like it very much. But we must remember that we are the second Chamber of Parliament. We have problems in managing our affairs, and those problems need looking at. I do not believe, given what has been said in this and previous debates, that there is a consensus on the Wakeham commission recommendations on composition. I do not have time to deal with that. However, there is one area where I do believe that there is consensus. I almost referred to "my noble friend" Lord Jopling, because we were paired for so long; before the noble Lord was unfortunately made Chief Whip, he used to pair with me regularly. I agree 1635 with him on the need to make such changes by agreement between the parties. That agreement should be available to us. So I hope that there will be consensus on the need for at least some changes, because this Chamber has an important job to do.
All governments put badly drafted legislation on the statute book. Having put a large number of Finance Bills on the statute book, I willingly concede that many of those were badly drafted. Of course, they were not even allowed to be considered by this Chamber. It would be no had thing, apart from examining the money matters, if a committee of this House, on a non-party basis, did consider Finance Bills. It might result in their being rather better drafted.
What I have said applies to all governments, not merely the present one. The other place is party political, and, not surprisingly, tends to concentrate on party-political matters and soundbites rather than on the proper examination of legislation. There is a danger that that could happen in this House as well. Indeed, I have heard some soundbites in this House. Members producing them have never been reported because, as they have never appreciated, no one cares what they are saying! In this place we can offer the proper scrutiny of legislation. But if we are to do the job effectively, we need substantial increases in the resources that are available to the House. However substantial, they would he modest by comparison with what is happening in another place. I have referred to this previously: £200 million for a building providing 200 offices—a million pounds a piece. I do not suggest that we do anything like that. I have suggested to a member of the House authorities that we could perhaps build on Black Rod's Garden. The person to whom I mentioned it did not seem madly happy about the proposal, so I shall not repeat it now. But cost should not be an issue as regards the changes that need to be made.
In the past, I have criticised the House authorities. I was probably unfair, particularly to their officials, although they may have been a trifle slow in the past. It is not a matter for the House authorities; it is for this House to tell them clearly what needs doing, and I am sure that they will then do it. But we must give them clear instructions—and if the Treasury sought to stop any of the expenditure that we are talking about, it would be for this House to tell the Treasury what it could do with its opposition.
Perhaps I may list a few of the areas where there is a clear need for extra resources. First, everyone agrees that we need more Select Committees, which in this House do a first-class job in a non-party-political way, unlike those in another place. We need to recruit and train officials and staff, and we need rooms for those additional Select Committees. It is incredible that one should have to state that we need an office for every working Peer—not luxurious offices, but a desk perhaps for every Member of this House! It is not a lot to ask and I hope that it can be achieved. We need a fax and photocopier, which works all the time, in every office, not just one or two located centrally for the 1636 whole House. It is not unreasonable to ask that such facilities should be made available. We have started to use e-mail technology, for which, incidentally, we require more trainers. Those are just a few of the matters that we need.
I return to the Motion before us which asks for a review of the workings of the House of Lords in the 21st century. I take the workings of this place seriously. I believe that the House of Lords is an important second Chamber. The kinds of change to which I have referred do not need a review; they can be implemented now. It is for this House to instruct the authorities to get on and do it. If the House of Commons does not give up the rooms that it occupies, it should be told to leave; it is our accommodation and we should use it.
There is no reason why the Government Chief Whip should not tell the House tonight that, by agreement with all the Front Benches, a review will be set in place to consider the powers of your Lordships' House, and perhaps the times of sitting and the other matters referred to in the debate. That is the only way that we shall ever get change.
§ 7.1 p.m.
§ Lord Lucas
My Lords, I find myself wholly in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, when he speaks about the facilities with which we must live in this House. I am lucky enough to have a desk; many noble Lords do not. I do not suppose that many noble Lords are aware of the extent to which the accommodation in this House is occupied by MPs—there are rooms full of them— when many Peers have to use desks and telephones in corridors to conduct their daily business in this place.
I am enormously grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for giving us the chance to debate this subject. It is important to recognise the need for continuous evolution. This House has evolved a great deal in the time that I have been here, and evolves still I give the example of the way in which noble Lords address one another. There is a strong tendency on the part of some Peers to refer to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, as "Lord Peston" rather than "the noble Lord, Lord Peston". If I have to say "the noble Lord, Lord Peston" frequently enough I tend to agree with them. One member of the Government has gone as far as to insert his Christian name into his title on his letterhead.
Evolution is about trying out variations: those which are unsuccessful die; those which are successful are propagated. We should not try to suppress variations but ensure that they are addressed critically. Above all, we must proceed at an evolutionary pace, not with great leaps into the dark. Evolution produces a strong system and is a great ward against the law of unintended consequences. But in order to evolve we must ensure that it is a continuous process and not one that we just look at every 10 or 20 years or neglect to deal with in small doses all the time.
In the evolutionary process the guiding principle is that we should become a more effective Chamber. A long while ago we left behind the world in which 1637 railway timetables were settled by train drivers; now the public have a major influence in their determination. We should follow that principle. What the public requires of us should determine what we do. However, within that we must pay attention to our conditions of service to ensure that what is asked of us is reasonable and, if not, that perhaps we adapt the way that we work.
I should like to make three suggestions. First, on a small scale, towards the end of last year we had the very successful example of pre-legislative scrutiny of a Bill. I refer to the draft Freedom of Information Bill. We were able to consider that legislation in Committee and take evidence upon it. This year I had enormous difficulty in seeking to make any changes to the Limited Partnerships Bill which did not have that scrutiny. The Minister kept saying that these matters should have been raised in pre-legislative scrutiny. We need to adapt to the changes which the Government seek to make, quite rightly, in exposing Bills to public criticism before they come before the House. We must he able to get our word in at that stage; otherwise, because so many people have been consulted and involved in it effectively it is impossible to make changes.
Secondly, I like the Moses Room procedure which has been successful for those Bills in which I have been involved. I like the idea of a group of people considering a Bill in which they have a particular interest. For most subjects the number is fairly limited; even for the important ones there may be only 20 or 30 people. Such committees can sit outside normal sitting times. It may be we can experiment by allowing them to take evidence to a limited extent, because there are always corners of specialist subjects where we do not have the expertise within this House.
But in any proceedings in the Moses Room, or any other proceedings of that kind, we must ensure that the Report stage follows the Committee pattern. Before the Bill reaches the whole House a great deal of the guff can be cut out in Committee in the Moses Room. All the little points which arise from misunderstandings have been dealt with and the Government have been given the opportunity to explain themselves in detail. The Bill is much more compact and compressed and what remain are the major issues of contention. I believe that those matters must be debated according to Committee stage rules. Report stage is far too restrictive for a Bill which has not been debated in Committee format before the whole House.
Thirdly, I am attracted by the idea that there should be a time limit on sittings. Why not start by saying that the House shall rise at midnight? That would have some interesting effects. We know that work expands to fill the time that is available. In those circumstances the Government would recognise that work could be compressed. If they faced a reduction in time they would have to do things to compress the work that the House was being asked to do, particularly in the months that lie ahead.
1638 It is well within the power of government to bring major Bills before the House earlier. There is a great deal of unused time earlier in the Session. An enormous amount of time is taken up by government amendments which are tabled in this House merely because the draftsman has not bothered to make the changes earlier. He has not given himself sufficient time or had the manpower to do it. If the Government knew that the time available to them was limited and they could not extend sittings into the small hours they would be forced to follow better practice, which would in turn force the House to follow better practice. In those circumstances there would be better control over repetitiveness. When there is unlimited time there seems to be no reason to control it. If time were limited, repetitiveness, which is largely a Front Bench phenomenon, would be much better controlled. Self-regulation in this House works and should be encouraged.
§ 7.7 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, it gives me pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and accept much of what he said. I do not begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Peston. I should first like to congratulate Labour Peers who gave up today, their Wednesday debate day, because they believed that this issue deserved an airing. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Peston, on having been invited by the Labour Peers to lead them in this debate. This is not a Labour issue but a House issue.
Having listened carefully to the debate over the past three or four hours, it is clear that there is much common ground across the Floor of the House on which we can build. I was surprised that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who is not now in his place, repeated a question which he has asked on many other comparable occasions: why change something that works perfectly well? Perhaps the present situation suits the circumstances of the noble Earl. Whatever his circumstances, the present arrangements suit the manner in which he has been brought up and has performed. However, I can assure the noble Earl that that is not my experience. I speak as chairman of the Labour Peers Group.
In the debate I have been struck by two matters: first, the influx of new Members in the past few years; secondly, the depressing fact that we continue to do our duty, not just to our party but to the House and the country, in such an abominable way. The noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, referred to those occasions when he and I, acting as Whips, were here until two or three o'clock in the morning. As have many colleagues, I have been here until three or four o'clock in the morning; and it is mad. It is daft. Who imposes that situation? We impose it on ourselves; but we can change it.
I served on the Government and Opposition Benches in another place, as I have in this Chamber. There was always the feeling that any change would benefit the government of the day. I would say, "Oh ye of little faith. One day you may be the government". So if some issue appears to create a benefit, why not be 1639 big about it? Why not recognise that if, while in opposition, one digs one's toes in all along the line, one overlooks the fact that in this country history shows that governments change on a fairly regular basis? Therefore why not do something while in opposition that one would like to achieve in government? The sad fact is that many of those who resist measures while in opposition put them into effect when in government; and the government of the day then oppose those measures.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, is not now present. I was impressed not only by his parliamentary record and service as a Government Chief Whip but also by what he told us to bear in mind: first, that any change will take place only if there is agreement; and, secondly, that one has to be patient. I think he said that after recognition of the need for reform, three or four years had passed before consensus and agreement was reached. I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench can gain agreement at least to establish a special commit tee to consider the various issues raised.
We need to pay particular attention to the hours that we impose upon ourselves. When I was Chief Whip three years ago, the average age of Labour Peers was 71. That has come down a little. With the influx of newer, fresher Members, I hope that that average will come down even further. When I went back to my constituency—I still refer to Edmonton as my constituency even though I am no longer an MP—individuals would say, "Ted, are you really telling us that voluntarily the House of Lords decides to sit until three or four in the morning?" I would say, "It's not voluntarily, but that's the way it works". I believe that many people in this House think that because things have always been done in that way, they should always be done in that way.
I was impressed by the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe. She showed an appreciation of the changing circumstances. There are younger and older Members with family responsibilities which need to be taken into account. The public cannot understand why the second Charnber—the House to which, in her gracious Speech, Her Majesty always refers to as the Upper House—acts so differently from another place when considering ourselves. With great respect, I believe that we are too timid. Members of another place examine a problem and solve it; they get round it. We do nothing like that. I look forward to an all-party committee examining seriously how this House can work better in the future.
When people ask me, "Are you telling me that the laws of the land were determined by elderly people at three or four in the morning?", and I say, "Yes", they shake their heads and think that we are mad. I am not mad. I am optimistic that this debate, so ably led by my noble friend Lord Peston will achieve what it should: to move us forward into the next century.
§ 7.14 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, let us not forget that 1640 Parliament was invented not to provide government but to control government. On many occasions, governments have shown an inclination to want to do without it. On the first occasion, it was brought to an end by the civil war. On the second occasion it was brought to an end by the revolution of 1688. Since then we have not been modified like a machine. We have grown like an organism; and at present we are in a post-operational state, having had, not a modification, but surgery committed on this House to alter its membership. Some will consider it beneficial surgery; others will think it unnecessary.
My purpose is, first, to remind noble Lords that, however we are composed, Parliament exists on behalf of the governed to supervise government. It does not do so on its own behalf but on behalf of whit we have come to talk of as the electorate. But we are the custodians also of those too young, too mad or too wicked to form part of the electorate. We are here on behalf of the whole population of this country. It is natural that the House which is filled with people sent there by the electorate—those who are old enough, sane enough and good enough to be the electorate—should be the most powerful House.
For that reason, and reasons of history, that House now has control of one of the main means of influencing government: the power to grant or deny taxes. That leaves us with the second and third means: the delimitation of the laws that a government want; and public discussion of the policies that they advocate. As regards the second, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, put his finger on the point when he said that far too little from this House is heard by the public. When I came to this House, The Times published a full parliamentary page every day that either House sat. The top part of that page was occupied by reports of your Lordships' doings—and it was usually the larger proportion. That has now changed. So has changed the fact that it was only 4.30 when one began one's speech by saying, "My Lords, at this late hour"—largely because the last train to Oxford left from Paddington at two minutes past six. But I digress.
Those are the functions. As regards our efficiency, the question is: how well do we constrain government? Do we enable government to do what the nation wants it to do; and do we constrain it from doing things that the nation does not want it to do? What role does an unelected Chamber have in that regard'?
In two essentials we differ from another place in a way which adds value to this Chamber's functions. First, unlike them, we are not dependent wholly upon our activities here for our subsistence. We are forced to be engaged in work outside. That is why ask your Lordships to think carefully about the extent to which we make a financial reward for coming here sufficient for people to subsist upon it. Once we become, a professional House, we lose two-thirds of our value.
Secondly, we cannot be removed and we have no general access to office, so that the Government and the Opposition Front Benches have far less control over the activities and words of those sitting behind 1641 them. I helped to lead a rebellion against the wish of the right honourable Michael Howard to institute prisons for 12 year-olds. The measure eventually failed at second bid. It would be difficult to do that in another place and expect preferment. But I, and most of your Lordships, expect none.
The third comment is that the means of constraining legislation is by using the time available to amend it. I am not afraid of the idea of reducing the time for doing that, because it increases the efficacy of the weapon. But what would destroy its efficacy would be if government were given the power to restrict the amount of time given to particular business without the agreement of the Opposition of the day. A guillotine in this House would be a disaster for what, oddly enough, I call democracy.
For the benefit of the noble Lords, Lord Warner and Lord Brett, whose speeches I heard—I regret that I had to chair a committee out of the Chamber for an hour and I missed others—the idea of having a Speaker to control our proceedings is very attractive at first sight until one looks at the product of such a procedure in the other place. The reason why we are always drawing back from the brink of tumult in this House is that we know that there is nobody else to make us do it and that, if we do not, all business will come to an end. In this House, courtesy is a necessity. With those words, the time says that I must sit down.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Lord Tomlinson
My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Peston on the excellent way in which he introduced his vision of a modern role for a modern second Chamber and emphasised—in parts of the debate it might have been lost—what were the imperatives of that role. It is based not on making life easier for the Government or us, but on holding the Executive to account in the process of making law—one hopes, good law. It may be it does not make life easier for us, but it gives us the opportunity to use our time and energies more efficiently and effectively.
I believe that today's debate has shown us very clearly that there is not only a continuing but a developing concern about a wide range of issues regarding the management of the House. They are not just issues reflected by what has been said by relatively new Members of your Lordships' House, but views expressed right across the spectrum of the House. They are concerned with how we manage our affairs; how our working practices and procedures are modernised; our working conditions; the physical question of offices; resources and the question of allowances. There is the question of staff. Everyone has praised the quality of the staff, but there are serious shortages in numbers if this House is to do many of the things that it is supposed to do on behalf of the people whom we serve.
Today's debate has cautiously encouraged me. My noble friend the Leader of the House made a wide-ranging review of some of the possibilities which exist 1642 for change. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, seemed to me to be quite impatient to get on with some of the things that Wakeham has said we should be doing without requiring legislation to do them. I believe that many of those issues need to be looked at as a matter of some urgency. Other noble Lords have drawn attention to a wide range of issues that could be easily be changed and improved.
I support the view of many noble Lords who have spoken that the process of change by consensus is imperative. With good will, consensus should be available on a wide range of issues if we agree the necessary mechanisms to consider the agenda. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, is unable to be with us. I believe that his speech had great merit, although he made one point with which I disagree. He said that, for example, there was very little filibustering in this House. There is no need for formal filibustering because we have developed a system of institutional filibustering. We have the possibility of making the same speech at Second Reading, in Committee, at Report stage and on Third Reading. We are a House of institutional filibustering and there is no need for it. With that exception, I very much welcomed his speech.
However, what was disappointing and predictable was the reaction of certain noble Lords such as the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who conjured up images of Members deserting the Chamber to go to fictional offices and fictional luxury towers. When most Members talk about having facilities, they are not talking about trying to emulate another place. Many Members of this House do not yet have a locker. Many aspire not to a whole desk, but to the opportunity to share one and have somewhere where they can put down their papers and have a telephone. There are even extremely ambitious Members who are looking for a half-share in a filing cabinet. That illustrates many of the circumstances which your Lordships face today. Basic facilities should be accepted as a need and not caricatured as a luxury which might divert us from our duties. Too many Members of this House spend too many hours, particularly late at night, wandering around as though they were of no fixed abode. For the first time in my life, when I arrived here I felt like a gypsy.
Today's debate has shown us some very clear ways ahead. Very few noble Lords appear to be satisfied with the status quo. Very few believe that the Procedure Committee is the right forum to examine the changes that need to take place. Many noble Lords who seek change have emphasised the need to do so by consensus. Most noble Lords agreed on the kind of agenda that is at least capable of being discussed even if there was not agreement on the solution.
There was agreement that we need to improve the mechanisms for the scrutiny of legislation. The Committee stage certainly needs to be looked at. There was clearly a wide expression of view on voting at Committee stage. There was the issue of the repetitiveness of amendments. In addition, there was the question of how to make self-regulation work, 1643 because it clearly is not at the present time. If we do not make it work better, we need to consider what are the alternatives.
A wide range of issues were raised by a number of Members concerning facilities, not the creation of fictional luxury offices, but basic facilities available to Members to do their job. There should be some privacy and all Members should have a desk with somewhere to work with an assistant. The staff of the House should be adequate to its needs. There should be adequate provision of fax, computing and e-mail facilities. There should be proper financial resources along the lines that the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, put to us. When we are challenged by a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury on having enough guts in our own House to challenge the Treasury about our needs, that shows how serious is the situation. We should be able to look at the structure of the week and the hours of work in the House.
We should progress these issues by establishing a working group or some committee of the House. I shall be extremely disappointed tonight if I do not hear my noble friend speaking from the Front Bench indicate his thoughts along those lines.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Lord Goodhart
My Lords, I greatly welcome this debate and warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for introducing it. It has been particularly valuable because it deals with the functions, procedures and facilities of your Lordships' House, not with its composition. We have discussed the composition ad nauseam. Its functions are at least as important and have not received nearly as much attention in debate.
I begin by apologising for my absence from your Lordships' House for about an hour in an early part of the debate. Rather topically, that was due to the fact that I attended an important meeting of one of the subcommittees of the European Communities Select Committee.
I believe that nobody in this Chamber has any doubt that a second Chamber of Parliament is needed. All the major democracies in the world have second chambers. A valuable book has recently been published written by Meg Russell, a member of the staff of the Constitution Unit. She has described many of these second chambers. They have a wide variety of powers and functions. In federal nations such as the USA, Australia and Germany, the second chamber usually represents the interests of the constituent member states. In unitary nations, no consistent pattern of functions emerges. The United Kingdom is in a peculiar position; not federal, but no longer quite unitary. Perhaps we should describe ourselves as being a lop-sided semi-federation. Foreign guidance is too diverse to help us much. Therefore, the starting point for any consideration of what we should be doing is to look at what we do now. Should we do things that we do not do? Should we stop doing things that we do? Can we do things better?
1644 Let us look first at the Select Committees. It is plain that the work of the committees is highly regarded. They have expert members and expert staff. Reports of committees such as the Select Committees on the European Union and Science and Technology are widely respected outside your Lordships' House, even if, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, suggested, not necessarily so widely read. The European Union Select Committee has no rival in any parliament of any other member state in its work of monitoring and reporting on current issues in Europe and possible future developments there.
What we could and should do is to expand our system of Select Committees. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that we should not mirror the other place by setting up departmental Select Committees, but I agree with the report of the Wakeham Commission, and with many noble Lords who have spoken today, that we should set up new committees of our own or sub—committees of existing committees. They could report on constitutional issues; there could be a human rights committee with a wider remit than the Joint Committee on human rights which will be set up soon; there could be a committee to report on devolution issues; and a statutory instruments committee to draw the attention of the House to significant statutory instruments.
One committee not mentioned in the Wakeham report, but which would be valuable and which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, is a committee on treaties and international agreements. It would report to your Lordships' House on the impact of treaties prior to ratification. The United Kingdom is one of the few democracies where there is no parliamentary process before the ratification of treaties unless primary legislation is needed to comply with the treaty obligations.
At this stage, I suggest only that there should be a report on treaties and an opportunity to debate that report. There is much to be said for requiring parliamentary consent to treaties, but that goes outside the scope of reform of your Lordships' House.
I return to proceedings in the Chamber, for which purpose I include the Moses Room. Your Lordships' House undoubtedly plays an extremely valuable role as a revising Chamber. Some of us who have sat long into the night during Committee and Report stages may believe that the process is altogether too slow moving. Indeed, a number of noble Lords indicated the same view, particularly those on the Government Benches. Do we really need three stages at which Bills can be amended when the other place makes do with only two? At the Report stage, would it be possible by agreement through the usual channels for important amendments to be listed for debate early in the day, even if that means taking them out of order? What happens now is that amendments are all too often debated at great length in Committee; debated again at the Report stage but not voted on because the debate takes place at 10.30 at night; and then debated again and finally voted on at Third Reading. As the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, said, that is institutional filibustering.
1645 Clearly, the facilities for your Lordships' House need improving, as many noble Lords have said. We need more office space. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, on that, but I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Barnett. I have a desk—I am lucky to have a desk at all—in a room with 11 other desks. Originally, I shared it and went in for "hot desking" with one of my noble friends. I am afraid that after a month the desk was so cluttered with my papers that he felt it necessary to find space for himself elsewhere. However, I should like a few feet of shelf space on which to put my files because the papers on my desk are reaching a dangerous height.
I now want to touch on a more controversial question. Should your Lordships' House be more assertive in its dealing with Bills and statutory instruments? My answer is a cautions "yes". I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, the only noble Lord to raise the issue today, although the noble Lord, Lord Elton, came close: we need greater equivalence between the two Houses. This House should not be frightened of conflict with the other place from time to time.
If we had proportional representation in the other place, my view might be different. However, we still have the first-past-the-post system, which means that for more than 60 years all governments have been elected on a minority vote. But when the government have a working majority, the Executive is virtually in absolute control. The first—past—the—post system gave large majorities to Conservatives between 1979 and 1992 and now to Labour. In every case, it was on less than 45 per cent of the national vote. I say with great regret that there is no more than a remote possibility that we shall move away from the first-past-the-post system in the near to middle future.
However, wherever the Executive has clear control of the other place, your Lordships' House has a potentially vital role in making the Executive think again. That is not by blocking legislation permanently, but by delaying it—and delaying it for long enough to make it worth the Government's while to come to the negotiating table to see whether there is room for a compromise. The power to delay legislation by forcing the Government to use the Parliament Act was exercised only once between 1949 and 1998. The one-sided nature of party balance in your Lordships' House throughout that period made it politically impossible to exercise a power to reject Government legislation. The power to reject secondary legislation was, again, exercised only once before this year.
Your Lordships' House is now slightly more legitimate and therefore more representative because it has a political balance that is more representative of that of the country—though by no means yet entirely so. My only comment on the composition of the House is that only a predominantly elected House would have the real authority to act as a check on an Executive which exceeds its proper powers.
Even so, power to delay primary legislation or to reject secondary legislation should be used sparingly. Over time, we must work out the principles on which 1646 it should be used. Broadly, like the noble Lord, Lord Peston, I agree that we should stick to the Salisbury convention, although there may be exceptions to that, particularly where legislation not affecting Scotland is passed by reason of the votes of Scottish MPs.
The power to delay should be used only where a Bill gives rise to a fundamental objection of principle or conscience and is unacceptable to most or a large section of the public. The classic example of that, in which the power should have been used, was the poll tax. A case in which it was used—and I think used legitimately—was in respect of the age of consent for homosexuals. Although I personally strongly support a reduction to the age of 16, I accept that rejection by your Lordships' House last year was a legitimate use of that power because of the strength of feeling of the opponents of change.
I would also accept that the Parliament Act should apply to Bills starting in your Lordships' House as well as to Bills starting in the other place. The result of the present system is that the Government are understandably reluctant to introduce controversial Bills in this House because, if they lose them, they are unable to bring them back through the Parliament Act procedure. That distorts the timetable for the Session because your Lordships' House does not receive much of the legislation work until late into the Session.
I do not believe that the House of Lords has too many powers, nor, indeed, that it has too few. The real problem is not that your Lordships' House needs more or different powers but that it needs to exercise those it has. I believe that democracy needs a strong, legitimate and assertive second Chamber with powers to make government, whatever its complexion, stop and think again.
§ 7.40 p.m.
§ Lord Henley
My Lords, some time ago the noble Baroness the Leader of the House informed us that this was National Work:Life Balance Week. I must say that this was a new one on me in the great plethora of national weeks and days. However, I was most interested to hear it and I rather wish that the noble Baroness had told me about it earlier in the week—a week in which I believe we sat until midnight on Monday; until 2 a.m. on Tuesday; I dare say until about 11 p.m. tonight, if not later; possibly until 11 p.m. tomorrow and we shall be sitting on Friday.
I do not know how one is supposed to react to these national weeks. I have a brother who makes a point of always smoking on National No Smoking Day. Perhaps when the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip comes to answer, he can advise me how I should react to National Work:Life Balance Week, particularly in terms of my relations with the Government. I shall offer my apologies for the late hours that we have kept them up these past few days.
I start by reasserting the general principles which we on these Benches believe should always govern and guide us in any discussion about the procedures—or what are described in this Motion as the "workings"— 1647 of this House. The first and most important one—here I believe that I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and we are in agreement on this—is that, whatever we do, it must be designed to strengthen Parliament, and this House in particular, and not weaken it.
As we all know, both when we have been in government and in opposition, it is always tempting for governments to seek to find ways to make it easier for themselves to get their business through Parliament. Here I also accept the point made by my noble friends Lord Waddington and Lord Jopling that it is legitimate that the Government should get their business through. We do what we can to assist them in that, although it is, of course, legitimate that we should oppose them as and where appropriate and use all the methods that are available to us. However, whatever changes are made, they must not be made at the cost of greatly diminished parliamentary scrutiny.
The second point that I should like to make was raised also by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, and I believe that it should be borne in mind throughout our discussions and in any discussions that take place later. There should be no diminishing of the rights of Back-Benchers. There must be no timetables, no guillotines and no selection of amendments.
As we all know, Back-Benchers in this House have achieved a great deal. As I look around the House at noble Lords on the Government's own Back Benches, I consider what has been achieved over the years in the disability field by, for example, the noble Lords, Lord Morris of Manchester and Lord Ashley of Stoke. In looking at the Cross Benches, one has only to consider what was achieved by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, with regard to organophosphates. A great many Ministers, both in the previous and in this Government, have answered questions from a wide range of different departments on that subject and great changes have been achieved.
Let us consider what was achieved by the noble Lord, Lord Freyherg, with regard to war widows. I turn to my own Benches and think of what was achieved by the late Lady Faithful on children's and other social security issues. I was a victim of a great deal of that. I also think of the achievements in agricultural matters of a former Member of this House, my noble kinsman Lord Stanley. I could cite Liberal Peers as well. There are many Back-Benchers, all of whom have achieved great things, and we do not want to see their rights in any way marginalised. It is not only that their campaigns could become less effective if the wrong changes were made; it is that the House as a whole could become less effective.
I want to touch on a number of the points that have been covered, although obviously I—as do we all—await with interest the response of the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip. However, a number of issues have been raised and many bear a degree of repetition. The first and obviously the greatest concern of a large number of Peers is the length of our sittings, the time that we spend on legislation, and what the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal described as "the need for social hours".
1648 I accept that we sit long hours. In the 20 or so years that I have been a member of this House—I go back to just before 1979, the time when, as the noble Baroness mentioned, the great raft of new Conservative legislation came in—the number of hours that we sit has increased greatly. Back in 1979, 1980 and 1981 we certainly did not sit for the number of hours that we do now. Quite obviously, it is in the Government's own hands to reduce the number of hours that we sit. They could introduce less legislation or they could ensure that that legislation is better drafted. I shall come to that point in a moment.
In terms of easing the balance of the work throughout the legislative year, there is no reason why more legislation could not be introduced in this House rather than in another place. However, we all know that the Secretaries of State in another place are so firmly attached to their own legislation—it is their little bit in the history books—that they are desperate to introduce it there. It is very difficult within the appropriate committees of the Cabinet to persuade them that more should be introduced in this House.
As has been mentioned, when we were in government we introduced the Moses Room procedure. As many noble Lords have remembered, we introduced it with the intent to reduce the number of nights on which we would have to sit late or later than 10 p.m. As my noble friend Lord Strathclyde quite rightly pointed out, it was designed to ease the pressure on this House. However, what seems to have happened in reality is that it has allowed the Government to introduce more legislation and to palm some off to the Moses Room while still sitting the very long hours, of which this week is a fairly classic example.
I believe that this Session, with, I stress, the agreement of the official Opposition, we have seen a record number of Bills going through the Moses Room. I should be very grateful if the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip could confirm that we have seen more Bills in the Moses Room as a result of our agreement and co—operation than was the case in previous Sessions.
As I said, there have been a number of complaints about the length of our sittings and demands for more social hours. There have been demands that we should sit, say, from nine till five, Monday to Friday. That might be more social and more attractive for those who live in London and never venture beyond there, but that is not necessarily the case for the rest of us. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde mentioned the fact that his children are of pre-school age and that, therefore, he finds it quite family friendly to be able to see them in the mornings. Other noble Lords have referred to their own family responsibilities.
My own children are somewhat older—at least, some of them are a tiny bit older—than those of my noble friend. However, they live not in London but far away in Cumberland. From my point of view, the idea of sitting a nine to five, Monday to Friday, week is distinctly family unfriendly. I believe that most of us who come from Scotland, the north of England, or 1649 even the Midlands or the West Country would far prefer the idea of sitting for three or four days a week and getting back to our families at a civilised time. The only alternative—
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House who made the suggestion that the House should sit from Monday to Friday, from nine to five? He majors on that point but I cannot recall it having been made in this debate.
§ Lord Henley
My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, suggested that there were a number of different views. She talked about sitting in the mornings and about the need to sit on more occasions on Fridays. I make a simple point. It is irrelevant whether we sit from nine until five every day. However, if one starts early on a Monday and then continues to Friday, life becomes very difficult for those of us—I see noble Lords opposite nodding—who come from outside the M25.
I was simply going on to make the point that for that reason I am somewhat sympathetic to the suggestion—I agree that it is not necessarily popular with all noble Lords on my own Benches—made by a fellow Cumbrian, the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, that possibly we should swap Wednesdays for Thursdays. In that case, we could possibly abandon Fridays in their entirety. I do not know what the Chief Whip would think about that. Speaking personally, I have no particular objections to the more family-friendly policy of sitting Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on legislative business, Thursday mornings on other business, and then we can go home on a Friday. I just float that idea before the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip.
I end on the question of family-friendly matters. The noble Lord should take up the suggestions which have come from both sides of the House that it really would be more family friendly if we could be told when the Recess is going to be, particularly now that the school terms have moved so far away from parliamentary and legal terms. Perhaps we could break up at the beginning of July and come back in September, although I appreciate that that might cause some disruption for those who like to attend party conferences.
The time I have is very limited and I want to deal briefly with one other point; that is, the question of voting in Committee. I understand that many noble Lords opposite do not enjoy—and they made it quite clear that they do not enjoy—voting in Committee. Funnily enough, I seem to remember in the days when I was at the Dispatch Box opposite, when we were in government, that there was no dislike of voting in Committee. Many noble Lords have come to the House since 1997, but I can tell them that their colleagues were particularly enthusiastic about voting in Committee. They voted in Committee on a great many occasions. I am sure that that enthusiasm will reemerge when we are in government in due course and they will greatly enjoy the prospect of voting in Committee, on Report and at Third Reading.
1650 I conclude by paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, as all other speakers have done, for what I thought was a particularly seductive speech. I say that it was "seductive" because it all sounded very tempting. However, one suspects that there may be some underlying dangers. But it has been a very good debate and a great many interesting ideas have emerged. I hope that in due course we shall allow the Procedure Committee the time to consider all those ideas which are suitable and which are designed to increase the effectiveness of the House and of all its Members, both Front-Bench and Back-Bench, in performing their duties. I hope that such ideas can be considered and, where appropriate, adopted.
§ 7.51 p.m.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, we have certainly had an interesting and extremely useful debate. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Peston, as are all noble Lords, for giving us the opportunity to debate this subject which concerns us all so closely. There have been many interesting contributions. Many suggestions have been made and opinions voiced. But one thing seems clear. There is scope to improve the workings and facilities of the House so that the House can perform its functions more efficiently and effectively. Two words which occurred in a number of speeches were "efficiency" and "effectiveness".
In the time available, it will not be possible to deal with all the contributions but your Lordships may be sure that everyone involved with the workings of the House will read Hansard with very great care.
I come to this debate not as Chief Whip but as a committed parliamentarian. I had an interest in the function and mechanisms of Parliament long before I entered this House. That grew during my 10 years on the Opposition Front Bench. I believe that it is in all our interests to keep party politics out of this debate. I make this speech today from the standpoint of a parliamentarian who is keen to improve the working of the House for all its Members, even if that improvement is inconvenient for the Government.
It strikes me that the concerns voiced today fall broadly into two groups. First, there is a desire, one way or another, to make it easier for noble Lords to attend the House. The obstacles which make this difficult at present include the hours we sit—the fact that they are unsocial, and also that they are unpredictable—and the general lack of facilities. Those concerns are typical of the concerns of many people working in many different walks of life, and innovative solutions are being found. The new technology we have heard about can help.
As regards facilities, and especially desks, your Lordships will know that until we reach the autumn of this year the problem will not be solved. More accommodation will become available this autumn and next summer. That is when I hope that every Peer who needs a desk can have one.
The second group of concerns relates to ways in which the job we all do here could be done better. We are all keen to find ways in which the quality and 1651 efficiency of the House's work can be improved. The advent of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee is an excellent example of a way in which we have in recent years improved the quality of the scrutiny we give to secondary legislation. That leads us on to ask what else we could be doing that we are not doing now that would make this House more effective, more rigorous in its scrutiny of the executive, sharper and more innovative. No-one with any knowledge of the House is in any doubt of the quality of the work which this House does; but there is no organisation anywhere which cannot do things better.
There are some steps which the House can take immediately. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, will be glad to hear that earlier this week the Liaison Committee agreed to recommend the appointment of a constitutional committee along the lines recommended by Wakeham. The committee also noted the Government's proposal to establish a Joint Committee on human rights before the Human Rights Act comes into force later this year. Those proposals from the Liaison Committee will come before your Lordships for approval in due course. They are good examples of the way in which we can immediately improve the effectiveness of the work of this House.
Formalised attempts to reach agreement on proposals have been made in the past, with a good degree of success. In 1992, the Committee on the Committee Work of the House, which we all know and remember as the Jellicoe committee, published a report. As a result of that report, we now have a much revised and more effective committee structure in the House. Perhaps the greatest success of the committee's reforms has been the establishment of the universally-acclaimed Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, which has done so much to improve the quality and effectiveness of the work which this House does.
Two years later, in 1994, the then Leader, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, set up a Leader's Group, chaired by Lord Rippon of Hexham,to consider the practices and procedures of the House in so far as they affect sittings of the House".The setting up of that group followed mounting concern that the sitting hours of the House of Lords were growing and growing and had reached a level which was too high. That was in 1994, under a Conservative government. The concerns expressed today are not just those which have arisen under a Labour Government and the arrival of new Labour Peers.
The Rippon group came up with several very useful suggestions for saving the time of the House. Perhaps their most far-reaching proposal was that of Grand Committees in the Moses Room. I am sure that many of your Lordships agree that this has been a very sensible improvement, which has reduced the number of occasions on which a small caucus of Members were kept sitting late into the night going over the fine detail of those Bills. I shall return to that later.
The Rippon group also made some interesting comments on the idea of a carry-over for public Bills. The group believed that, in certain circumstances, the 1652 advantages of carry-over would outweigh the disadvantages and recommended that continued attention should be paid to the idea. That point was picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling. Since then, of course, another place has instituted its own carryover procedure. I do not think that since the Rippon group reported the proposal for carry-over of Bills has been seriously considered in the Lords, and I am mindful of the group's injunction that continued attention should be paid to the idea. I should say in passing that it is interesting that the Rippon group suggested that one possible advantage of such a procedure would be that recess dates could be agreed earlier. That might save the Opposition Chief Whip asking me in February for the date of the Summer Recess. Most recently, in March last year, another Leader's Group was set up, this time chaired by my noble friend Lady Hilton of Eggardon. Its remit was,to consider how the procedures of the House can be improved within the existing framework of self-regulation: and to make proposals for ensuring that the Lords are better informed of procedure so that self-regulation can work".The Hilton group made a number of recommendations to improve the working of the House. Marshalled Lists of amendments for Committee and Report stages and draft groupings lists are now produced a day earlier, making it easier for all those involved with Bills to prepare more thoroughly for their task. The practice of subjecting draft Bills to pre-legislative scrutiny has been welcomed, and a number of pre-legislative committees were set up last Session to try to ensure that Bills are introduced into Parliament in a better state and with a better degree of consensus achieved. Perhaps I could point cut that the Jellicoe and Rippon committees were chaired by distinguished Conservative Peers.
Today's debate has produced a number of constructive and interesting suggestions. The more I listened the more I felt that perhaps change is now possible. Noble Lords counselled against making change for the sake of convenience. I agree. Noble Lords insisted that any change should improve our procedures. I agree. Noble Lords commended the fact that the Government do not have a stranglehold in this House. As Chief Whip, I am fully aware of that. I also agree that the House proceeds always by agreement. Noble Lords stressed the importance of safeguarding Back Bench rights. So do I.
I found the speech of the Leader of the Opposition, Lord Strathclyde, a shade disappointing. I felt that, like Dr Pangloss, the best in the best of all possible worlds is alive and well and safely ensconced in the office of the Leader of the Opposition. He said that changes should produce more effective scrutiny. I agree. He said that under all governments there is too much legislation. I do not know of a Government Chief Whip anywhere who has ever complained that the programme is too light. He went on to say that the changes must not curtail the important discussion needed for scrutiny but must improve the quality of scrutiny.
The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, said that the change should be "sure-footed, incremental change", which is an excellent phrase. He 1653 also made another good point. Understandably, a lot of attention given to the Wakeham report has related to the composition of a reformed House, but as we all know there are also a large number of recommendations in the report that do not require any legislation and that could be applied now to the work of the House. The noble Lord's idea that those recommendations should be considered sets an excellent agenda for any committee that may be set up.
The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, also mentioned the possibility of a House of Lords commission that would be similar to that in the Commons. Already consultants are in the process of being appointed to consider the administration committee structure—not the political committees—of the House and the general administration of the House.
I must emphasise that any changes that we may make to working hours—perhaps with morning sittings—will not help Ministers. They will make life more difficult for them and for the Government. The noble Lords, Lord Waddington and Lord Jopling, repeated, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has outside the Chamber, the right of the government of the day to get their business through. As Chief Whip, I find that encouraging.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said that the interests of the House are not the same as the interests of the Government. That is absolutely correct. There should be what I would describe as a dynamic tension between the interests of the House and the interests of the Government. I was much impressed by the selflessness of the noble Viscount in rejecting a luxurious office with excellent facilities. It is a little hard to envisage the noble Viscount in a hair shirt, but there we are! My noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton mentioned an extremely important point, although there was some criticism from some noble Lords about the use of the term "family friendly". However, the staff of the House have to be considered. I received a degree of criticism from some noble Lords for allowing a one-day half-term break in February—Thursday through to Sunday. Your Lordships would be surprised by the number of members of staff with young families who thanked me for that innovation. It gave them a chance to spend just a couple of days with their children in the half-term break.
The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and other noble Lords said that the government of the day should not gain a short-term advantage from any changes. When all the new Peers have been introduced, there will be 201 Labour Peers, supporting the Government—not all of them all the time—out of a total House of 687. Changes have to be made by agreement. With those numbers, there is no way that the Government can achieve a change to its short-term advantage.
The noble Lord made a point, as he has done previously, about the imbalance of numbers and the fact that the Government are a minority government with only 27 per cent of the House. There is not time now to deal with that, but in order for his ideas to 1654 work—as Chief Whip I certainly sympathise with them—Members would have to withdraw from the House or from the voting Whip after each election to recreate the balance that would be required.
I have not heard a better statement of the case for better facilities than that given by the noble Lord, Lord Bragg.
The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, and others referred to improving scrutiny. If we can give more time to detailed scrutiny, the function of holding the executive to account will be made more stringent. That should be the objective. I say that as a parliamentarian and not as Chief Whip. If we make changes in the way we handle Bills in Committee, or to the sitting hours, or whatever, and if that increases the chance for detailed scrutiny, that will be of considerable advantage to the House. The noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, and others referred to the burden. Many of the arguments in the debate were to make it easier for Back-Benchers to contribute to the work of the House and thereby improve the scrutiny of the executive.
I fully recognise the contribution made by BackBenchers in the House and I would fight to the end to maintain that right. But let us be realists. Let us deal with the myth of the whole House in Committee. On important Bills, we all know that only a handful of Peers are involved as the day and the night wear on. The whole House goes into Committee at the start of the Bill at teatime. Between teatime and dinner the numbers begin to drop and we all know that for the rest of the evening the House is populated by FrontBenchers and a few Back-Benchers. The idea that there are queues of Back-Benchers anxious to get into the House in the late hours to contribute to Committee work is just a myth.
The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, referred in curious terms to the pre-eminence of the House of Commons when he said that it has a quasi-sacramental character and that that had been handed down over the centuries. It is nothing of the sort. The House of Commons is elected and the party with the majority forms the government. We are not elected and after the first stage of reform no party or group in the House has a majority.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, produced some interesting ideas regarding the timetabling of Bills. Unlike the Commons—although the other place has started to do this now—we timetable all Bills by agreement as to the number of days that they require. He had some extremely interesting ideas about the timetabling of Bills on the day when they are considered. I shall certainly want to explore those.
The noble Lord, Lord Elton, and others appeared to have a fear of the guillotine. That has never come within my consideration. I have always said to colleagues and to other noble Lords who have suggested it: how can you guillotine business in a revising chamber? It is just not logical. All our business is timetabled by agreement through the usual channels.
The noble Lord, Lord Bragg, and others mentioned the possibility of a Wednesday/Thursday swap. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, also remarked on that point. 1655 In fact, last year I proposed that in an amendment to a Procedure Committee report and I would be happy to see the matter considered again.
My noble friend Lord Brett said that one room should be wired for "hot-desking". As I understand it, in the Writing Room six desks are wired to allow Peers to plug in their laptops and to "hot-desk", which is an awful phrase.
The noble Lord, Lord Henley, referred to the number of government amendments. He is right to say that there are too many. When I came into the House in 1987 the first of the major Bills with which I was involved was the Education Act 1988. I dealt with all the clauses dealing with special education from the Back Benches. As I remember, there were 400 or 500 government amendments on Report in this House. I do not defend that and I do not say that that is right, but I hope that the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats will agree that I have tried hard this Session to encourage departments to produce government amendments in good time so that they are tabled at least a week before they are considered. That has not always worked, but I have tried. If noble Lords had seen some of the letters that I have sent to the departments they will understand that I have insisted that amendments are tabled at least a week in advance and that an explanation or a briefing is sent to all those involved on the Front and Back Benches.
Bills taken in the Moses Room have increased. Ten were scheduled during the last three Sessions of the last Parliament. So far 15 have been taken during the first three Sessions of this Parliament. A fair point has been made that the intention behind the shift to the Moses Room was to ease the problem of the sitting hours in the House. However, what we have tended to schedule for the Moses Room have been smaller and less contentious Bills which in fact have not saved all that much time on the Floor of the House. The only way to make a substantial saving of time in this place and thereby make our hours more social would be to send larger Bills to the Moses Room or to another venue. I shall return to that point.
The lesson we can learn from previous initiatives and from today's debate seems clear. Each time a group or committee is set up to improve the workings of the House, progress is duly made. The previous committees and groups have all been ad hoc. They have been tasked to consider one particular aspect of the practices and procedures of the House and they have been closed down once their inquiries were complete. In order to make consistent progress, perhaps what we need is to put in place some form of consistent machinery to drive that process. As a number of noble Lords have suggested, this could mean setting up a permanent committee charged with the brief to consider ways in which to improve the workings of the House. If such a committee were considered to be the best way forward, it would have 1656 to be finely balanced, big enough to contain a representative cross-section of the House and yet small enough not to be unwieldy.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, what is the Procedure Committee if it is not what the noble Lord has just described?
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, the Procedure Committee would not be appropriate. That committee deals with the fine detail of procedure as we go along. I believe that we are here considering a separate brief to improve the general workings of the House. It would deal with legislation, the sittings of the House and many other subjects. Interestingly, the Leader's Groups that were set up, such as the Jellicoe committee, the Rippon committee, the Hilton committee and so forth, were not—
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord again, but does not the fact that we are debating yet again these matters demonstrate that those previous groups were, in fact, not successful? It would be far better to have a permanent, standing committee like the Procedure Committee, which debates these issues on a regular basis during the course of the year.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, I certainly agree that there should be a permanent, standing committee. However, I am not sure that the Procedure Committee, as presently constituted, is the right committee for the task. This is a point that should be discussed through the usual channels.
In the meantime, there are plenty of strategies that already exist and are set down in the Companion which we could use if we so wished. If we choose to do so, we can already make use of Grand Committees, Public Bill committees, special Public Bill committees and Select Committees on Bills after Second Reading. I should be more than happy to experiment further during the course of this Session to see whet her the use of those committees can improve our ways of working. The 10 Peers who worked here until twenty minutes to two this morning might feel particularly disposed to support that proposal.
Again, if the House wishes, I shall be happy to reinvigorate discussions with the usual channels on this subject to see whether there is a will to make more use of procedures already available to us which would not need any further investigation before being brought into use.
It is something of a paradox that this House is justly proud of the expertise and experience that noble Lords bring to its deliberations. But our ways of working may in fact make it more difficult for noble Lords to carry on the outside activities that provide the basis for that expertise and experience. My noble friend Lord Peston has performed a signal service to the House by initiating this debate. We must ensure that we do not miss this opportunity for sensible, balanced and agreed change.
§ 8.14 p.m.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, remaining in statesmanlike mode, facing my noble friend Lord Barnett, and expressing extreme gratitude to my noble friend Lord Longford for referring to me as a "younger Peer" because I still have a full head of hair, my main task now is to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and have made such excellent speeches. Incidentally, it goes to show that even with a time limit of six minutes it is still possible to make a very good speech indeed.
One thing I hate is talk and no action. As I understand from the remarks of my noble friends the Lord Privy Seal and the Chief Whip, the Government are disposed to do something. I hope I correctly interpreted the Liberal Democrats as saying that they, too, would co-operate in moves for change. I was a little worried by the Opposition Chief Whip when he expressed a desire not to be seduced by my sweet reasonableness. I have heard rejection of my sweet reasonableness on previous occasions, but I hope that in principle the Opposition would also co-operate with an attempt to move forward practically so that our House can do its job better. That, I hope, was something on which we all agreed.
I thank all noble Lords and beg to withdraw the Motion.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.