§ 5.38 p.m.
§ Lord Norton of Louth rose to draw attention to the case for strengthening the role of Parliament in calling government to account; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am delighted to raise this matter this afternoon. The Motion raises a topic that is crucial to the health of our political system.
§ I have previously argued in the House that the constitution that evolved at the end of the 19th century, which has been termed the Westminster model of government, has served this country well. The system of government that emerged was not perfect, but it has attributes that in combination render it preferable to the other systems that are on offer.
§ A core, but not the only, attribute of the Westminster model is that of accountability. We have one body, the party in government, that is responsible for public policy. That body is chosen through elect ions to the House of Commons. It is answerable to electors in a general election. If the voters do not like what the party in government has done, they can sweep it out. Between elections, that body is answerable to the electors through Parliament. Parliament is the authoritative institution—the only one—that between elections can call government to account.
§ Parliament is thus central to our body politic. It is not itself a body of government. The government must govern. But government are elected through Parliament and their political authority rests on that fact. Undermine Parliament and in the long term we undermine the authority of government. Undermine the authority of government and ultimately we undermine the effectiveness of government. Consent and effectiveness are the basic underpinnings of political stability. To maintain both, we need a Parliament that can call government to account. In short, good government needs an effective Parliament.
§ Calling government to account constitutes, therefore, an essential role of Parliament. It is not the only one that it fulfils. Calling government to account encompasses a number of tasks. It includes ensuring that the measures and actions of government are subject to scrutiny on behalf of citizens and that the government answer for their actions. It includes ensuring a structured and effective opposition; that the voices of citizens, individually and collectively, are heard by government and that, where necessary, a redress of grievance is achieved.
§ Parliament fulfils well many of its tasks. However, when it comes to calling government to account, my argument—the basis of this debate—is that it is not as effective as it should be. Parliament can and should be more effective in calling government to account.
§ In July 1999 I was invited by the Leader of the Opposition, William Hague, to chair a commission to strengthen Parliament. The membership included my 290 noble friends Lord Waldegrave and Lord Forsyth. The commission operated independently of the Conservative Party, taking evidence from people drawn from all parties and from none. Various Members of your Lordships' House gave evidence. The commission reported in July last year.
§ The commission was clear as to the purpose of parliamentary reform. Reform can be carried out for a number of purposes. It may be carried out t o enable the government to get their business more expeditiously. It may be carried out for the convenience of Members. It may be carried out to get rid of archaic and unnecessary procedures. It may he carried out to strengthen Parliament in calling government to account.
§ Recent changes have been unfocused, having been carried out for different purposes and invariably subsumed under the heading "modernisation'', a term that covers everything and therefore means nothing. We were clear as to the purpose of reform. We wanted to strengthen Parliament in calling government to account. That must have priority. That was the focus of our report.
§ In undertaking our analysis we proceeded on the basis of four well-founded assumptions. The first was that there was no "golden age" of Parliament. We focused on what we believed the relationship between Parliament and government should be, and not on some romanticised perception of what it used to be. The second assumption was that changes in powers, structures and procedures are not by themselves sufficient to strengthen Parliament as a scrutinising body.
§ Introducing new powers and procedures will help Parliament only if Members are prepared to use them. There has to be a change in parliamentary culture if behaviour is to change and Members are to make effective use of the tools at their disposal. The third assumption was that procedures are none the less important. Procedure is an important constraint on government. The fourth assumption was that Parliament is not, in its relationship with the executive, a monolithic entity. Parliament is the sum of many parts. There are not just two Chambers; there are different configurations within each Chamber. To strengthen Parliament one has to look at the several parts and undertake changes that are specific to those parts.
§ We also recognised that to some degree recommendations for change require the support of government. That entails government recognising that they too will be the beneficiaries of an effective Parliament. A government, confident in the rightness of their policies, should welcome questioning and scrutiny. Effective reform, though, requires also the support and sustenance of Members. Changes to procedure have, in effect, to be the property of each House. Members not only have to want change; they also have to be willing to sustain it. That is not something that parliamentarians can look to others to do. They have to do it themselves.291
§ In our commission inquiry we looked at the reasons why Parliament was not as effective as it should be in calling government to account. We identified several developments that, in combination, have undermined Parliament as an effective body of scrutiny and influence.
§ Government has grown and the volume of public business is now enormous. Bills are not only longer than they used to be, but also more complex. Political parties are essential to our political system, but the partisanship that is now apparent, at least in the other place, militates against an effective dialogue between the parties. Parliament, primarily the other place, is increasingly denuded of people with experience and expertise that enables Members to question government effectively. Power within the political system is fragmenting, with some passing upwards to the institutions of the European Union, some flowing to the centre—that is, Downing Street—and some to the courts. Parliament is also threatened by what we term depoliticisation; that is, by decision-making power being hived off to a range of unelected bodies and, more corrosively, by the growth of direct-action pressure groups. Such groups believe that they have a monopoly of wisdom and are not prepared to engage in reasoned debate. They undermine the basis of a deliberative—that is, a parliamentary political process. In all those developments, Parliament is getting left behind as the media rush to cover what they believe to be the real centre of power and of political action.
§ What emerges from that is that there is no single explanation for the present imbalance in the relationship between Parliament and the executive and that the problem that confronts us is a serious one. The scale of the problem requires a serious and radical response. Changes are needed that are substantial and, in some cases, innovative.
§ In our report we went for what we termed a "big bang" approach. By that we meant not one single, over-arching reform, but rather a number of substantial and, we believe, achievable reforms that could be implemented in the lifetime of a Parliament. The combined effect of the changes, we believe, would be to strengthen Parliament enormously in fulfilling its roles in calling government to account.
§ In the time available, perhaps I may briefly mention the headings under which we proposed reform. We made recommendations directed at strengthening the other place in respect of the Chamber, committees, the Opposition, parliamentary parties and the individual Member of Parliament. We made especially extensive recommendations for strengthening Select Committees and for strengthening the individual Member, not least through the introduction of incentives for parliamentary scrutiny. We made recommendations to strengthen your Lordships' House, primarily in respect of committee work. We believed that reinforcing this House in its committee work would enable it to play to its undoubted strengths. We recommended referring Bills for Select Committee scrutiny prior to the normal Committee 292 stage on the Floor of the House. We also favoured making more use of sessional committees for post-legislative scrutiny.
§ We made recommendations for strengthening Parliament in undertaking legislative scrutiny. We wanted to see more effective scrutiny of primary, delegated and European legislation and we offered proposals in respect of each. We were keen to see steps taken, for example, to prevent the so-called "gold plating" of European directives.
§ We made recommendations to strengthen Parliament in undertaking financial scrutiny. Our recommendations under that heading were commended not only by my noble friend Lord Saatchi but also by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, who I am delighted to see in his place, during the debate at Second Reading of the Finance Bill last July.
§ Furthermore, we made recommendations to limit government. Government are too large, pervasive and unconstrained in their conduct of public business. We wanted to constrain government in order to strengthen Parliament. We recommended, among other changes, a reduction in the number of Ministers and parliamentary private secretaries and a fixed parliamentary year. We believe that that would serve as an important discipline in relation to government.
§ We recommended changes to deal with constitutional change. These included a reform of the process for dealing with Bills relating exclusively to English, or English and Welsh matters.
§ We also recommended changes to provide for greater access to Parliament. We wanted to strengthen the link between citizen and Parliament. We therefore favoured harnessing new technology to the benefit of Parliament, the creation of a petitions committee, as well as opening up the institution much more to the media.
§ Those changes, we believed, would, in combination, help to transform the relationship between Parliament and government, ensuring that the relationship is what we want it to be. In the longer term, we suggested reviewing the size of the House of Commons and even considering whether or not Bills should be sent to Committee prior to being considered on the Floor of the House.
§ The proposals we put forward are extensive, quantitatively and qualitatively, and ambitions. But they are none the less achievable—or rather, they are achievable if the political will is there to achieve them. For Parliament to be strengthened in calling government to account, parliamentarians have to want to call government to account. They have to want to fulfil that core fundamental task of Parliament. It is not a task that can be hived off to others.
§ When the Commission to Strengthen Parliament was appointed, one political correspondent asked how we could ensure that our recommendations were implemented. My reply was that we, as a commission, could not ensure that they were implemented; we could only make recommendations. The ultimate responsibility for change rests, as it must, with Members of the two Houses. This is not an issue which 293 can be resolved by anyone else. Members of the two Houses of Parliament are responsible for calling government to account. It is responsibility that cannot and must not be shirked. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 5.53 p.m.
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to thank the noble Lord for introducing this important and interesting debate. I shall concentrate my remarks on your Lordships' House but I must say a few words about its relationship with the other place.
I begin by reminding your Lordships that our skills are different from Members in the other place. On average, we are older. I have no hesitation in saying that we are far more expert, but we are mostly part-time and have other jobs. Indeed, it is a paradox that although we are part-time and unpaid, we seem to have more willingness and capacity to examine Bills in detail than do Members of the House of Commons. That has always puzzled me.
The essential point, which we must not ignore, is that we are not elected. It may be that in due course there will be some elected Peers but I retain my doubts about that and do not see it as adding to the legitimacy of your Lordships' House. However, I believe that the 1999 Act made us much more legitimate, gave us the potential to strengthen our role in the process of accountability, and enabled us to be more effective.
Scrutiny and accountability go hand in hand. Our role is to question, to look for logical flaws in legislation and to ask whether any particular piece of legislation effectively does what it is supposed to do. We may well also query the purposes of a Bill or an order but in my judgment purpose is a matter for the executive and for the other place. The role of the executive is to listen and to demonstrate that it is doing so. Its response to sensible questions must be sensible answers. Its response to reasoned argument must be reasoned argument
However, accountability does not mean that the executive is run by, let alone replaced by, the legislature. A fortiori, it does not mean that the executive should be run by or replaced by your Lordships' House. I believe, as I hope we all do, that in the final analysis the executive, based on a democratically elected majority in the House of Commons, must get its own way. That does not imply that they are right but they have the absolute right to be wrong—just as we have the absolute right to say, "We told you so".
That leads to what I believe is a weakness in our existing system. I refer to what I call "retrospective scrutiny". We set up committees to examine matters as they go along. Your Lordships' House specialises in committees which typically examine general topics rather than specific decisions. Rightly, we certainly do not shadow individual government departments; we leave that to the other place. But we have a role which I do not see us playing as well as we ought. We should ask more often, "What is the evidence to show that a particular Act of Parliament or a specific executive 294 action has achieved what it set out to do?" Related to that matter is a question which the great philosopher, Karl Popper, taught us in his great work, The Urban Society: we must always look for the unforeseen side effects of actions, especially those which are adverse.
The subject arouses political sensitivities. No government like exposure such as, "You [the Government] said this would happen but it has not"; or, "You said that this would do good and by your own criteria it has done harm". But I am convinced that parliamentary democracy requires precisely that form of exposure. Perhaps I may go into my normal mode of tartness and say that I am extremely interested in the fact that the Opposition are most keen on such accountability. During my years here when they were in government they showed not the slightest interest in accountability or scrutiny of any form. They were very keen on their massive majority.
However, that does not mean that their new view is wrong and it does not mean that I would advise my right honourable and noble friends to take that view. I believe that accountability is most important and that governments should be taking the lead in seeing that we have it. But I can never resist the kind of acid comment in which I specialise.
Furthermore, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Norton, closely because I believe that accountability is a matter for Parliament rather than for committees of inquiry and investigations by senior lawyers, so beloved of recent governments of all kinds.
Finally, I believe that slowly and surely we in your Lordships' House are making progress. We are using Committee stages much more for careful scrutiny and we are postponing most votes until subsequent stages. That is a good thing. We are also groping, albeit rather slowly, towards a more suitable way of scrutinising statutory instruments and I should like to see more of that. And we have some new committees. In my own field, with any luck and any day now, we shall have our economics affairs committee. Having achieved that, I believe that we could strengthen our scrutiny powers with one or two other committees. I should like to see one on social affairs and another on the arts generally. There are other areas in which we can make a contribution.
In conclusion, I make another "economics" point. Several noble Lords from all sides of the House agree that in terms of accountability we can, without offending the Parliament Acts, find a way to become more involved in a constructive analysis of tax reform.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Viscount Cranborne
My Lords, your Lordships will have noticed that there has been a plethora of short debates on constitutional and allied matters in the past few weeks. I do not believe that we should make any apology for that. It is a thoroughly good thing. One reason is that the usual suspects are trotted out in the process. For me, it means that more than once I have had the pleasure of following the noble Lord, Lord Peston, with whom on this subject in matters of substance I am more frequently in agreement than 295 disagreement. We should do well to follow the noble Lord's advice on retrospective scrutiny, particularly in the Constitution Committee whose first meeting took place this afternoon. The debate is also very good for all the reasons so eloquently put forward this afternoon by my noble friend Lord Norton, to whom we are once again indebted.
I merely observe that there are at least two pieces of common ground that appear to unite most participants in our debates on these matters. First, there has been almost—I emphasise that word—universal consensus that Parliament, particularly vis à vis its relationship with the executive, is weaker than it was and that that is bad in every respect. Secondly, there is almost complete consensus on another matter that my noble friend rightly emphasised which perhaps flows from the first; namely, if Parliament is to be strengthened your Lordships' House should have a part to play in it.
Perhaps rather impertinently, it may be that I have bored your Lordships endlessly with my contention that the central purpose of a properly reformed upper House is to make sure that another place does its job better than it does now. It is self-evident that a more powerful—because it is more authoritative—and influential upper House would increase its standing, of course at the expense of another place. That standing cannot be increased from anywhere else. Paradoxically, by using its greater influence it can become a more effective check on another place, and, in so doing, the lower House will become more effective and in consequence its own standing will increase.
Beyond those two emerging pieces of consensus, in most parts of your Lordships' House there is very little agreement as to the means by which those basic contentions can be put into effect. Those who have taken part in these debates are well aware that my list includes a large number of matters, most of which are extremely carefully set out in the commission's report to which my noble friend alluded. I believe that a proper stage 2 reform of your Lordships' House, which is rather more carefully thought out than the Government's apparent, but unspoken, adherence to what has come to be known in the trade as "Wakeham B", is a much better way to deal with it, particularly if we proceed by means of an attempt to build consensus among parties which are already riven on the subject of reform.
We would also be wise to think of a trigger mechanism for post-legislative referendums on big and, by their nature, irreversible issues along the lines frequently proposed by my noble friends Lord Campbell of Alloway and Lord Dean of Harptree. I also suspect that there is now emerging a convention that the Government accept the strictures of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation. Again, I pay tribute to this Government's performance in that respect.
There are a number of other proposals about the way in which the other place should reform its procedures which perhaps it is impertinent of me to 296 suggest, and certainly there is no time to do that this evening. Above all, both the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and my noble friend Lord Norton are absolutely right to say that endless commissions have sat on the question of how Parliament should reform itself. I refer not only to my noble friend's commission but also to the Hansard Society's commission under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Newton. In the end, Parliament alone can reform itself. In order to ensure that it performs its job properly, all it must do is exercise its will to do so. If it wants to do it, it will; if it does not, it will not. In the end the muscles that it possesses will atrophy.
In view of the consensus to which I have alluded, noble Lords might have thought that there would be no impediment to doing just that. However, the important exception to that consensus is Her Majesty's Government. With the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, this debate provides her with an opportunity to say this afternoon that she joins that consensus. I hope that she will answer the unspoken question raised by all speakers so far: whether the noble Baroness and her colleagues believe that Parliament needs to be strengthened vis à vis the executive. If not, why not? If she does believe it, what are the Government's proposals to ensure that something is done about it?
§ 6.6 p.m.
§ Lord Dahrendorf
My Lords, in thinking about the contribution that I might usefully make to the important debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, it occurred to me that, rather than just agree with him or the noble Lord, Lord Peston, I should introduce one or two comparative observations. Earlier speakers, notably the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said that Parliament had become weaker or was not as effective as it should be. I am bound to say that if I compare my knowledge of this Parliament with the parliaments of other European countries, Westminster is still vastly preferable to other systems on offer.
Some time ago I had the opportunity to talk to the Prime Minister of a major European country. He is no longer in office; otherwise, I would not tell the story. We were admiring aspects of the palatial mansion in which he resided and worked. I pointed out that it had one disadvantage; namely, that it was rather far away from the parliament. He replied that he went to the parliament once or twice a year and if he wanted to see members of parliament he asked them to visit him. In another parliament which I know quite well, where there is some semblance of Prime Minister's and Ministers' Question Time—it has been adapted rather than adopted—questions are asked at eight o'clock on the morning and answered by very junior Ministers. I do not believe that any Cabinet Minister has ever answered a question in that other parliament. I make what may appear to be a facetious point but for me it is a serious one. Those questions are answered from a location that is way above where Members of Parliament sit. Indeed, the Government Front Bench 297 would have to answer from the Throne, if not a more elevated position, to copy the practice to be found in other places.
When I escort foreign visitors around Westminster, often they are struck by the fact that, first, government and opposition are so close that they can see each other directly, and, secondly, they are on the same level. I could go on but I shall not do so. However, in this country Parliament has more opportunity to hold government to account than any of the larger countries of Europe. It is for that reason that I agree wholeheartedly with the demand of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, that it is for Parliament to make sure that the opportunities that it has are fully used and extended.
Sticking to comparisons for a moment, there is one striking exception to the point that I made. It is the Budget. We all enjoy the wonderful scene of the Chancellor of the Exchequer outside No. 11 holding up the red box, the contents of which have only just become known to quite a few members of the Cabinet. He then springs his surprises on Parliament. After that, and on the one hand, the Resolution is passed before Back-Benchers have a chance to have their essentially desultory debate about it and, on the other hand, the price of petrol at the pumps goes up within a matter of hours. Indeed, one of my first traumatic memories of this country was friends telling me, when I became engaged almost 50 years ago, "You had better buy the ring before the Budget because the Chancellor may put up the luxury tax", or whatever it was called at the time.
That is an interesting weakness of Parliament in holding government to account. If there is one point that disappointed me about the Norton committee report, it was the mildness of the recommendations on the way in which Parliament should deal with the Budget. Perhaps the committee was unduly impressed by the important evidence given to it by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, who will, I am delighted to see, speak in the debate.
Perhaps I may add as a footnote that I think it is part of the strength that we have, although not exercised enough, that we can actually debate the Finance Bill and the Budget in this House. We can even make amendments. Finance Bills do not come under the Parliament Act, so we could. Perhaps this is one area in which we could go further than we have done.
My time is up. I would have gone on to say a little about committees. I shall confine myself to making one point. I believe that our committees have had a good start. I have been a member of the European Union Committee and of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is chairing the Constitution Committee. Yesterday, I was very sorry to hear that we cannot yet find the instruments for looking at treaties. That seems to me one important issue where government have to be held to account. However, I conclude as I began; basically, I am firmly convinced that our Parliament is still preferable to other systems on offer in Europe.
§ 6.13 p.m.
§ Lord Howe of Aberavon
My Lords, I certainly do not differ from what the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, has just said about the value, quality and importance of our Parliament. Nor do I differ from him and other noble Lords who have spoken in extending my thanks to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for introducing the debate and for the formidable quality of his commission's report. I do not differ on the emphasis that has been laid on the need for both Houses of Parliament to be ready to assert themselves if the changes that are necessary are to be made.
However, I have to utter a warning note. A s our constitution is at present constructed, the relationship between governments and their legislative supporters somehow give governments a formidable power to prevent Parliament achieving the necessary result.
One needs to look at that in relation to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. He was rather mocking those on this side of the House for suddenly being on the side of reform as we are in opposition. That is a characteristic of the system. One finds that oppositions are always anxious to achieve reforms of this kind. The result when oppositions become governments differ from time to time. When the present Government came into power, most of their changes seem to have been to scatter and diffuse the powers of the executive to other places in ways that noble Lords have described—I make no criticism of that, I note it as a fact—but not to give greater power to Parliament to oversee the executive. That is what the debate is about.
I would say that the arrival of the Thatcher administration in 1979 was different in that respect, at least for a time. Governments tend to develop habits after a time. One of the achievements of the Thatcher administration was the introduction of an effective Select Committee system in the House of Commons. It is one of the most important advances made in asserting parliamentary control in both Houses. A further step needs to be taken in the other place—the power to compose Select Committees should be removed from the administration and placed in the hands of the legislature. That is the administration to which the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, referred with such courtesy and tact.
It is quite right that the powers of the administration over our budgetary and fiscal arrangements are grotesquely untarnished by parliamentary intervention. I have to confess that there is no moment when I have ever felt more powerful than when standing at the Dispatch Box making my Budget speech and saying: "These increases will take effect at the pumps at 6 p.m. tonight". Never does one come closer to having a semi-divine status than when one says that.
A particular illustration of that is relevant to my main point. Parliament needs to acquire much greater control over legislation as such, and, above all, over fiscal legislation. The volume of fiscal legislation is intolerable. That makes the quality of it intolerable.
299 That is one of the features to which our Tax Law Rewrite Project is addressing itself. I am grateful to this House for supporting it on our first Bill.
But merely rewriting the existing law is not enough. We have to find ways of stopping the torrent at its source. So far on the Tax Law Rewrite Project we have produced one Bill of about 300 pages. That is after three or four years' work. Last year, the Chancellor produced one Finance Bill of more than 600 pages. Our task is like that of painting Brighton Pier with some character called the Chancellor anxious to see it arrive at the French coast. That is not a tolerable way of proceeding. The mischief in this respect lies with the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968. It was first enacted in 1913 in response to Lloyd George's understandable attempt to prevent this House stopping the Budget altogether. But it was designed for a very narrow purpose. It was designed simply so that, whatever the argument about structural or tax reform, the basic taxes and the basic changes in rates could in fact be enacted by an automatic and self-imposed guillotine.
Somehow the habit has developed whereby Chancellors have been allowed to introduce Finance Bills, the whole of which become subject to that automatic privilege. Mr Andrew Tyrie, an honourable Member in the other House, said that Finance Bills have thus become "unstoppable juggernauts". We need in some way to amend the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act so that it applies only for its originally intended purpose—for the continuance of income tax and the imposition or alteration of any duties necessary for adjusting the revenue.
The remaining technical measures should be separated off into a separate taxes management Bill. My noble friend Lord Norton recommends that in his report. I was advocating that even before I became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Somehow I never got around to doing it—while I was in that office.
We have to make a change of that kind. We need to address also the futile hopelessness of the Standing Committee on the Finance Bill in the other House, which noble Lords know very well achieves almost nothing.
This is the final point I have time to make. It is rather a sad reflection that this House makes more effective amendments to legislation than the other place because its Standing Committee system, for reasons traced by my noble friend Lord Norton, has become a sham. If this House were allowed to take part in the amendment of Finance Bills they would be substantially better. We have made one advance by establishing the Joint Committee of both Houses currently considering the Tax Law Rewrite Bill. We need to develop that procedure and put in place a more powerful organisation for making proposals not just on tax law rewriting but on tax policy simplification to be achieved under greater parliamentary control.
I do not have time to make any other points. But if we achieve what I have said in the past few minutes we shall be doing a great deal better than I did when in government.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, Parliament, says my noble friend's report on the strengthening of Parliament, is the crucial link between the citizen and government and its actions should be at the very centre of the nation's affairs. But there are some very uncomfortable facts to be faced.
The media, apart from the gossip columnists, pay scant attention to Parliament, not out of malice but because they do not think that Parliament is the place where things happen; and, generally speaking, they are right. Government policy is announced at press conferences rather than in the House of Commons; White Papers, like yesterday's White Paper on competitiveness, are leaked to the media before they are formally published; and the Prime Minister reveals his thoughts in chat shows rather than on the Floor of the House of Commons. In fact, the Prime Minister rarely goes near the place, just like the European premier to whom the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, referred. Perhaps he is preparing himself for a role in Europe.
The uncomfortable facts have to be faced. He spoke in only three debates in his first two years as premier; in 1998, he voted in exactly 14 Divisions out of 328; and the public, seeing on their televisions that the Chamber is empty for most of the week, probably think that, as the Prime Minister does not go there, no one else goes there either. The public did not just see an empty Chamber at the time of the fuel protests last October; they saw a locked Chamber; a place firmly shut; lights out. At a time of crisis, the representatives of the people were not there to express the nation's concerns.
Mr Tony Benn, who is one of our great parliamentarians, clearly does not think that Parliament is where things happen. Not so long ago he was moved in some exasperation to say that the Commons was dying on its feet. Mr Tam Dalyell spoke in like vein. He said:The Commons is atrophying. In 36 years I have never known membership of the Commons to be so marginalised".He went on to describe how on 16th December 1998 he was struggling to try to force a Division on Iraq and being prevented from doing so by the Government. Mr Blair was not in the House of Commons telling people what was happening in the skies above Iraq; he was announcing government policy in Downing Street. Mr Robin Oakley, who is as knowledgeable about parliamentary affairs as most, said recently in the House Magazine:The Executive cares little for Parliament … unless the Government begins to respect the Commons more, will anyone else begin to do so?It is a sad fact that the Government's response to all the concerns expressed has not been to introduce measures to meet those concerns; on the contrary, they have introduced the time-tabling of all Bills and an end to votes after 10 p.m. to make life easier for Members, but also to make life very much easier for government.
It is a depressing scene, but comfort can be found in the fact that others are looking at ways of strengthening Parliament. I believe that the report 301 produced by my noble friend Lord Norton is a treasure store of ideas. His ideas for Prime Minister's Question Time are admirable. Two Prime Minister's Question Times a week would mean that Thursday would once again become a proper parliamentary day. Tabling four or five Questions on specific subjects would make Prime Minister's Question Time far more useful than it now is. In fact it would be a very good idea if the questioning of other Ministers proceeded in a similar way.
No one watching Parliament on television can fail to be struck by the poor attendance in the Chamber. If Members do not feel that what is going on is of any real interest, why should the public? Of course, attendance has been declining for some time and there are a number of reasons for it. The setting up of the Select Committees had an effect on attendance in the Chamber, but no one is suggesting that that worthwhile change should be reversed. The provision of offices and secretaries has had some effect on attendance in the Chamber. Real efforts have to be made to lure Members back to the Chamber by making the parliamentary agenda more meaningful, attractive and stimulating.
It would certainly help if the ministerial code was amended to require Ministers to make the most important announcements to Parliament rather than elsewhere. It would also help if there were more short debates on matters of current concern and on Select Committee reports, with speeches time limited. And there is surely an overwhelming case for relaxing the criteria to allow the Speaker to grant more emergency debates at the start of business.
Altogether, more important things have to be found for Members to do. It really is worth looking seriously into the idea of providing a career structure for Members who do not particularly want, or perhaps are not qualified, to climb the ministerial ladder. The paying of Select Committee chairmen would cost a little, but, as my noble friend said, the cost could be offset by a reduction in burgeoning government. The number of Ministers has gone up and up—and not only under this administration. The number of PPSs has gone up; tying them to the Government without paying them and preventing them from doing worthwhile work in the way of scrutinising government.
At the end of the day we have to ensure that all Members of Parliament realise that they have a worthwhile role to perform questioning government and that that, is just as important a role as serving in government.
§ 6.27 p.m.
§ Lord Weatherill
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for giving us the opportunity once again to debate Dunning's famous Motion. I shall address my brief remarks to my experience in the House of Commons rather more than to that in your Lordships' House.
As the House may know, I was a Whip for some 12 years, and subsequent to that, Speaker of the House of Commons. The Speaker is the traditional guardian 302 of the rights and privileges of Parliament. It is the Speaker's duty to give Back-Benchers an opportunity to question the Government and to hold them to account. I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said about Standing Order 20 debates, as they used to be called. I recollect that I was not all that popular when he was the Chief Whip in granting so many of them. They are an opportunity for Back-Benchers, rather than Front-Benchers, to lead a debate.
In my time as a Whip it was our responsibility to ensure that the views of Back-Benchers were made known to the Front Bench—both in government and, mostly in my time, in opposition. Increasingly, the Whips today in the other place have far too much influence and power in being able to impose the wishes of the government of the day on their Back-Benchers. In my day, the position was very much the reverse. I have recounted to your Lordships on other occasions the words attributed to Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman, "I am their leader. I think I must follow them". That was certainly the truth in my experience as a Whip. It was no use leaders leading their troops in the wrong direction. They had to take account of what Members were prepared to take.
The noble Lords, Lord Waddington and Lord Norton, have drawn attention to the empty Commons Chamber. I agree. I am appalled when I turn on the television or occasionally pay a visit down there to find how few Members are in the Chamber. These days, the Chamber is full only for Prime Minister's Questions. Sadly, in my judgment, that gladiatorial contest which takes place once a week brings no credit to the other place, however popular it may be on television in the United States of America.
Originally, I had my doubts about departmental committees for the reason that I judged that they would tend to encourage Members to spend more time serving on committees and less time on the Floor of the House of Commons. So it has turned out because, as noble Lords will know—in particular those who have served in the other place—the Speaker can call a Member to speak in a major debate only around four times a year. If the choice is between speaking in a debate or participating in a Select Committee, there is no choice: the Member must go to the Select Committee. I am therefore in favour of the committees. It is an area where government certainly are held to account.
Is there a solution to the problem of how to bring Members back into the Chamber? I believe that there may be one, which I shall mention rather more in hope than in anticipation. This morning I checked once again with the Postmaster as regards the volume of post received into the Palace of Westminster. He told me that the Palace receives, on average, around 50,000 letters a day. That is a vast postbag. Much of it is generated as a result of the now well established practice of holding constituency surgeries at the weekend. Noble Lords who have served in the other place will know that at least two-thirds of the problems 303 brought before Members in their constituencies concern local government. Those problems have nothing to do with Parliament.
If some way could be found of returning to local government the powers that have been taken from it over recent years while at the same time making it more accountable by allowing local authorities to raise more of their own revenue than is the case at present, we would go some way towards redressing the balance. At a stroke it would free up Back-Bench Members of Parliament to spend more time on the Floor of the House rather than working in their offices answering vast numbers of letters.
In our defence, I should say that there is no country in the world where the electorate is more personally represented than is the case here, but too many problems are dealt with in Parliament rather than by local politicians.
My time is nearly up. As I have said, I should like to see the powers of the Whips decreased. Like the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, I am deeply concerned about the extraordinary decision to wrap up votes on a Wednesday afternoon. I spoke recently to an old friend from the government side of the House of Commons about this matter. He told me that he, too, was concerned about it, but that it had, "Done a power of good for my Division record". We all know that Parliament is not a family-friendly place. The work is there and has to be done. To a large extent, that work is done here in your Lordships' House, but not to the extent that it should be in the other place.
I understand also that a guillotine has been introduced for debates on Second Reading. The other day, the guillotine fell on a debate on Northern Ireland, which meant that David Trimble was unable to speak at all. I would submit that that is not Parliament as it should be, but is rather more akin to a dictatorship.
I conclude simply by repeating what I said earlier: the influence of government has increased, is increasing and certainly should be diminished.
§ 6.34 p.m.
My Lords, along with other speakers, I should like to start by thanking my noble friend Lord Norton for his extraordinarily important report on the constitution. It is valuable not only for its detailed and well thought-through analysis of the difficulties we face today, but also for the detailed and well thought-through solutions that are offered.
There are a number of points that I wish to make. I hope very much that, when they come to consider these matters, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and other members of the Government will consider seriously all the points that have been raised in this debate. We have seen a great deal of constitutional change over the past four years. Unhappily, very little of it has been effected on a cross-party basis. Constitutional issues are extremely important. I believe that such changes work much better when a measure of agreement is secured, not only as regards the problems which ought to be 304 sorted out, but also about their solutions. This afternoon's debate is valuable because a great measure of cross-party concern has been expressed about the role of Parliament.
In that connection, before the debate began, I read through the extremely interesting report of the Liaison Committee of the House of Commons entitled Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive published last year. The report contained a great many recommendations which were considered by the Government, nearly all of which were turned down. In its final report back to the Government, the committee stated that:We believe that in its Reply the Government has missed an opportunity of reforms which would have been greatly to its credit".It went on to say that,any real modernisation of Parliament must provide better accountability and tougher scrutiny of the Government of the day".Those words reflect exactly the sentiments which are being expressed this afternoon and are a measure of cross-party recognition in both Houses and throughout Parliament.
Chapter 2 of my noble friend's report examines what he calls the "decline of Parliament" and looks at pressure groups. I think that nothing is more alarming than the effect of organisations such as some of those involved with animal rights. It also considers more powerful political parties, the concentration of power in Downing Street, along with a number of other issues. As one reads the report, one is aware of the effects of these matters not only on Parliament, but also the effects outside. We can see today two very disturbing elements.
The first element is that young people, in particular those attending university, appear to find politics to be a complete turn-off. When I ceased to be Chancellor of Greenwich University, I was astonished when a senior academic said to me: "It is amazing. There is really no debate about politics at all". When I consider the amount of time spent in my youth on political argument, I am astonished that it now seems to be by-passed.
The second element is the recent extremely low polls at elections. Not only was the turn-out for the European parliamentary elections disgraceful—perhaps due in part to the extremely complicated electoral system—but also that for local government. Furthermore, many are predicting a low poll for the forthcoming general election. This too reflects a lack of understanding and knowledge of or interest in what Parliament does. I believe this to be a profoundly serious development.
I have never been a Member of the House of Commons, so I hesitate to embark on any comments on reform of that House, save for one which I shall come to shortly. However, so far as concerns the House of Lords, I think that, whatever happens in the future, the powers of the House of Lords must not be diminished. This is an important point on which I hope that we can all agree. I know that there has been 305 debate—the noble Lord, Lord Peston, referred to the matter—about changing around the business taken on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Some of us see the danger of introducing a three-day Parliament. Furthermore, there is a danger—again hinted at by the noble Lord, Lord Peston—that we shall not have votes during the Committee stage of Bills. Although such changes may be seen as only small, in fact they can have a profound effect.
For those reasons, I am glad that my noble friend Lord Norton has suggested playing to the strengths of the House of Lords. I am delighted about the establishment of the Constitution Committee, along with one to examine economic affairs. I would personally support other general committees of that kind, which would be valuable and would make good use of the expertise that this House is able to offer. These are valuable suggestions and we need to look at them closely.
On a personal note, I should like to point out that I much regret the workings of the Parliament Act over the issue of the age of consent. That issue was a matter of conscience and never completed its parliamentary procedures because the Parliament Act was applied. I did not think that that was helpful.
Finally, I should like to make a brief comment on the role of Parliament and how it might be strengthened. One of these great questions is the effect of devolution. I have for the first time detected many people in England beginning to talk about the English dimension; that is just bubbling along. I do not believe that the West Lothian question can be left on one side. I believe that it needs to be addressed before it becomes really serious. It is a matter for the decision of Parliament, particularly another place—for Members of the House of Commons representing English and Welsh constituencies. It also affects us in this House. I believe that there is agreement that we wish to see a United Kingdom. We should not do anything to encourage the break up of that union because of a feeling that one part of the country is not being represented as fully and fairly as it should be.
§ 6.41 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Harptree
My Lords, it seems to me that there are in our constitution four checks and balances particularly relevant to this debate. First, all governments, if they can get away with it, are authoritarian. They are more likely to get away with it if they have substantial majorities in another place. Secondly, Parliament is not the government. It is the job of Parliament to control the government, not to attempt to be the government. Thirdly, the government are entitled to get their business after due debate, as long as they can command a majority. Fourthly, the House of Commons—in reality, the government—can override your Lordships' House by the use of the Parliament Act, thus ensuring the primacy of the elected House.
One of the most important characteristics of your Lordships' House is its independence. The Back Bench element of your Lordships' House is of vital 306 importance. Of course, there is also dependence among the political parties because the party battle is not so intense. Unhappily, that has disappeared from another place during our lifetime.
In 1964, when I was first elected to another place, knights of the shires sat on the Tory Benches. They did not want office. On the whole, they were loyal to their party. However, if they felt that their party was wrong, they said so by voting to that effect. Exactly the same occurred on the Labour Benches. There were people on the Labour Benches who worked in industry and in trade unions. They did not want to take office either. For the most part, they were loyal to their party. However, if they disagreed, they, too, voted to that effect. Alas, that has disappeared. Now most MPs want to be Ministers. Although there is nothing wrong with that ambition, it weakens the independence of the individuals concerned and greatly strengthens the power of the Whips.
I therefore suggest that it is very important to maintain and strengthen the independent elements of your Lordships' House. I do not believe that we need new powers. We need more effectively to use our existing powers.
One of the main functions of your Lordships' House is the revision of legislation. I am very glad that we debate all stages of most Bills on the Floor of the House. There is no selection of amendments, although not all are moved. There is no guillotine or curtailment of debate. If they wish, all noble Lords can speak, although in practice those who specialise in the subject of the debate make the greatest contribution to it. I believe that that is essential to prevent our procedures for examining Bills being diluted, which is sometimes suggested in certain quarters. That is all the more important as the so-called modernisation in the House of Commons during this Parliament has weakened the power of that House and strengthened the power of the Government.
I am delighted that, to their credit, the present Government are introducing an increasing number of draft Bills. That is good progress. It greatly assists in relation to the scrutiny of Bills before they become set in concrete. It allows for discussion to take place, both in Parliament and outside, which means that more minds are applied to the draft of a Bill before it is tabled. That, in turn, results in better legislation. I hope, too, that that example will be followed in the case of the more important statutory instruments. It would greatly assist the House to see those in draft form.
Another strong element of your Lordships' House is the Select Committees. Those committees produce high quality reports, which can and do influence government policy. I am delighted that we now have two new Select Committees—the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I hope will help to prevent clashes between the courts and Parliament, and the Constitution Committee, of which my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth is chairman and to which I referred in my Unstarred Question on Monday. In view of the constitutional revolution that we have 307 experienced in this Parliament, there is no doubt that the latter will have much work to do. We therefore have a formidable range of committees with great knowledge and experience. The real question is whether the Government will listen to them.
My final point concerns statutory instruments. I am very glad that during this Parliament the House has asserted its right to vote down statutory instruments. They are now of great importance in our personal and business lives. It is important that, when appropriate, that right should be exercised. It is not a question of veto. It is a question of telling the government of the day, "We think that your statutory instrument is wrong. Will you reconsider it?" If, having done so, they decide that they are right, they can again table it for debate. However, one hopes that, if convinced by your Lordships' arguments, they will table amended statutory instruments.
In conclusion, I suggest that we have adequate powers and a wealth of knowledge and experience with which to call government to account. But those powers will be rendered null and void unless the government of the day are prepared to show due respect for Parliament.
§ 6.47 p.m.
Lord Bruce of Donington
My Lords, I venture to suggest that, in considering the question of the executive becoming more accountable, we are concerned not only with the legislation that it introduces to Parliament, whether by way of a Bill or otherwise; we are also concerned with the Government's actions abroad, particularly in Europe. Some kind of control should be exercised over what the Government agree to in Brussels, or elsewhere, on behalf of this country and Parliament. In that respect, we are at present singularly deficient. That is partly due to a decline of political interest in what happens in the European Community. I can remember the time when debates were held in the other place on the European budget, to which we contribute £2.5 billion per year. Those have now fallen into disuse.
It is assumed that the Select Committees of this House, especially those concerned with EC matters, and the Standing Committee on European matters in another place, provide a partial safeguard for the ordinary Member of Parliament. I venture to remind your Lordships that the various Select Committees are responsible to their own Houses. They are not in any way responsible to the Government, nor are the Government in any way responsible for them. The decision whether or not to follow a Select Committee's recommendation is a matter entirely for the Government.
The Select Committees—and I single out for special mention the Select Committees of your Lordships' House—are responsible for informing your Lordships after due inquiry. Some of their inquiries are very extensive and most of them result in very good reports, which are highly informative to the House. But, of course, the Government are not bound to follow their recommendations.
308 The recommendations usually take the form—do they not?—of, "The Committee recommends this report for debate"; or, alternatively, "It is recommended for attention and information". Surely we ought to be able to take some action to enable Members of Parliament to have some influence on the actions of the executive. I put it no higher than that at the moment.
We get no reports whatever on the activities of the representatives of Her Majesty's Government in Europe, except by way of an occasional presidential communiqué, which is drafted by the president and which, very often, does not bear much relationship to what occurred. We have seen the documents ourselves. We have to do something about this situation.
This is an important problem. Its extent can be gathered by examining the proceedings of the European Scrutiny Select Committee in the House of Commons. The number of documents considered by that Select Committee on which further information is required from the Government numbered no fewer than 98 on 8th February, of which 33 questions go back to the year 1994. The Government have not even bothered to reply to those questions. As far as concerns documents not yet considered by the Committee, they number no fewer than 149. I do not know whether any of your Lordships have been along the path that I have very often trodden during my time here of examining Community documents, but to suggest that anyone could even read that number of documents in the time allowed is stretching one's belief to a point of incredulity.
The same thing applies to the Select Committee on the European Union in the House of Lords. It will be noted that many items are referred to the Select Committee itself or to its sub-committees, of which there are six—A to E. Those items receive good consideration and the reports are normally very adequate. However, on 16th and 23rd January, no fewer than 53 communications from the EC were considered and passed by the chairman of the Select Committee.
We have to devise a way in which Parliament can be adequately informed as to exactly what is being done and what is projected to be done in our name. I make no arguments about it merits or demerits, but we should know what is being done. It is up to us to see that we know. As one who has been in Parliament since 1945—with odd absences every now and again—I sincerely congratulate the noble Lord who introduced the debate on his speech. As a democrat, it made me, for once, both cheerful and proud.
§ 6.54 p.m.
§ Lord Patten
My Lords, I listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, and particularly to what he said about the necessity for better scrutiny of matters European in this House. I used to listen to him speaking forthrightly about these matters in another place when we were both there.
I have listened to a number of important contributions, some of which I shall attempt to debate in my speech in the short time that I am allowed.
309 However, at this stage, I cannot let pass without comment the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, in which he claimed that Whips these days have got far too much power and are far too much in control of matters. As a member of the entry of 1979, I remember that there was nothing more terrifying than a summons to go to see the Deputy Chief Whip, and the threats of condign and savage punishments that would rain down on us. I remember them well—and, yes, they may well find a place in any memoirs that are written of that period.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth on what he has done. In that respect, I can do no better than echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. Compliments fly as thick and fast in this House as insults fly thick and fast in another place. One should be as restrained in compliments as one should be in insults, but I think that I see the mantle of m y noble friend Lord Blake beginning to slip elegantly around the constitutional shoulders of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. We should be grateful to him for what he is doing on behalf of the whole House because so much is being done in a bipartisan spirit.
That is enough of compliments, except to mention one other point. I have a personal reason for being indebted to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. Some years ago I looked for, and was lucky enough to have, a special adviser par excellence, Mr Clifford Grantham—-why should not these people's praises be sung; why should they be wholly unsung?—who came from my noble friend's excellent stable at Hull University.
The first of the two or three detailed points that I wish to make—unlike the necessarily broad-brush points made by my noble friends, by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and by other noble Lords opposite—is that I believe that special advisers are necessary in government. They are not a necessary evil; they are necessary. I know that there are noble Lords on both sides of the Chamber who have been special advisers the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for example, on the government Benches, and my noble friend Lord Taylor of Warwick on our Benches—and who have performed the task of advising at the interface between the Minister and the private office or the Civil Service about what 'the Minister feels and what the Minister does. They have helped with the drafting of White Papers and, yes, from time to time, they have actually talked to the press on behalf of their Minister. I believe that that is all perfectly proper.
However, the situation in regard to special advisers has got absolutely, completely and utterly out of control. There are far too many of these sub-teenage apprentice spin doctors in government now. They do nothing for the body politic and bring discredit on the Whitehall system. We need a cap on their numbers and a cap on the expenditure on special advisers who play such a notable part—so my friends in the press tell me—in the internecine warfare that characterises so much of Whitehall these days.
310 I suggest to your Lordships that there should be a committee of both Houses of Parliament to carry out a very important role; that is, to look, first, at the numbers of special advisers and their expense; and, in a one-off exercise, to do exactly the same in relation to the numbers of Ministers who serve in the Government. It is my belief that there are far too many Ministers, particularly at the Parliamentary Under-Secretary level. I sometimes question the very purpose of some ministries. I do not know—and never have known—what the Department of Trade and Industry actually does, let alone the number of Ministers who inhabit it. On the other hand, there are some very busy and important ministries which need all the ministerial help they can get. I think that probably the numbers in the Home Office and the Treasury are about right.
Both Houses of Parliament should step hack, in as bipartisan way as we can manage, and look at the number of special advisers and the number of government Ministers. Like an NHS consultant. each government Minister leads to a trail of public expenditure running into millions of pounds—not only for private offices and cars, but for the whole apparatus of government. Both this House and the other place have a number of such people of all parties who could carry out that task. We have a cabal of ex-Cabinet Secretaries in this House who could help to advise on the correct size of government and thereafter filter any applications for increases in the numbers of special advisers and, much more importantly, of Ministers, because I believe we have far too many.
In conclusion, I follow exactly the point which my noble friend Lady Young raised about the English question. I believe that all of us in this Chamber and in the other place are looking at a locomotive coming rapidly down the track towards us. There is not just the English question as set out by my noble friend Lady Young but, for example, the question of what is to happen to Bills that refer to and concern only England but on which those from another country, from Scotland, whom I greatly respect, can vote and substantially influence what happens in that legislation affecting only England. I believe that people in this country will find that unfair. Fairness is critical to a democracy run on the basis of consent. This and the other place will have to get to grips quickly with this matter in the new Parliament otherwise we shall find ourselves in fearful trouble.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth has rendered signal service in moving this debate and for the manner in which he did so. It has produced a variety of speeches and with none of them could I find any point with which I disagreed. It is really a remarkable occasion because of the diversity of the contributions. I agree with my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth that there must be substantive and innovative reform. Government has become so extraordinarily complex. Members of both Houses are overburdened with primary and secondary legislation, European legislation, the law on human rights and with 311 mountains of correspondence. The concept that Members of another place discharge their function as representatives of the people must remain of general application, but it has suffered a sea change since the days of Burke.
How can the role of parliament be strengthened to call the government to account on behalf of the people? It is on their behalf that this question arises. As my noble friend Lord Cranborne put it, how can we close what is presently an unclosed circle between Parliament and the electorate? In that single sentence perhaps all is said.
It may be that our powers are adequate as my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree said. But should not each House conduct an urgent re-appraisal of its procedures to ensure adequate scrutiny by a Select Committee before debate and to ensure time for meaningful debate? Should not Parliament, on Bills whose provisions substantially affect the constitution, be able to resolve, if it so wishes, that a referendum should be called to settle the form of question and the general conduct of the referendum?
As my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth knows, I do not for one moment accept that a referendum called by Parliament can in any way undermine it. There are circumstances in which there is no other reasonable way to close the unclosed circle.
Should not a new practical working relationship be established between the two Houses by a new convention which reflects the new balance of authority between the Houses on the re-appraisal of the mandate doctrine? That should be by consensus. As I said before on one occasion, it should be carried out in the spirit of the Cranborne/Addison doctrine. That would strengthen the role of Parliament and would, indeed, tend to close the unclosed circle.
The weaker the power of another place under its procedures to control the executive, the greater the burden that rests on your Lordships' House in the due discharge of our functions exercised in accordance with the provisions of the Parliament Acts. I believe it was my noble friend Lady Young who said that the power of this House must not be diminished. I agree without reservation that Parliament alone can reform itself and must do so. I hope that that is a proposition which attracts the agreement of the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. Only by self-denying ordinance should resort be had to the Parliament Acts, the rejection of government Bills and the exercise of your Lordships' right to insist. That should be devised by consensus and assuredly not by amendment to the Parliament Acts, or imposed statutory reform such as being expressly rejected by the commission.
Until some new convention has been established the strengthening of the role of Parliament to call the government to account shall remain in limbo. It is a matter which requires the urgent attention of both Houses. I hope that it will be possible to devise some way in which that may be achieved by consensus.
§ 7.7 p.m.
§ Lord Phillips of Sudbury
My Lords, as others have said, the ability of Parliament to hold governments to account is a function of our own authority, confidence and will. I shall speak briefly about where we obtain those characteristics. Other speakers, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Young, have touched on that. Our ability depends on the degree to which the public give us their confidence and the authority to do that which we need to do. John Pym, the great parliamentarian of the 1640s, summed up the relationship between the public and Parliament in the vivid phrase regarding the vigour and cheerfulness of allegiance which ordinary citizens have towards their Parliament.
As has been pointed out, there is little vigour and cheerfulness of allegiance to Parliament now. I would like briefly to look at why that might be. I entirely concur with the anecdote given by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, as regards her position as a university chancellor. I was recently involved in interviewing 36 brilliant young graduates whom I believe most of us would describe as the crème de la crème. One of the questions I asked each of them was whether they were interested in politics. The answer was infinitely depressing. Most said that they were. In answer to the question as to what they were interested in and whether they were involved in politics, in two out of three cases they said that in truth they had no engagement with politics either directly or indirectly. One bright young woman from a north-western comprehensive school who went to Nottingham University and gained a First in law, said that it was an interesting question but that when she looked back at her time at university she had not had a single conversation about politics in her three years there. I asked whether she meant that she did not go to a lecture on politics or hear a politician speak. She said that she had never had a discussion about politics. I asked if she had not had such a discussion in a bar, in a club, in her hall of residence or anywhere. She replied, "Nowhere". That may be an extreme case, but I suggest that it is not and that the state of affairs is worse than we would like to admit.
One comment I shall be bold enough to make, after only two and a half years in this place, is that there is a temptation for us to lead a somewhat cloistered existence. Those outside these walls might say that we are somewhat deaf to the concerns and interests of the public. I believe that we could, and should, reach out to the public a great deal more than we do.
For example, it is a source of wonderment to me that we have only three or four servants of the House who are responsible for public relations, education and the press when any small to medium-sized business would have at least that number trying to sell its wares. I find inadequate the attitude that "people can find information on the website and read the broadsheets". I urge Members of this House and those who have responsibility for these affairs to take a proactive view in terms of trying to interest the public, particularly younger members, and to be imaginative in finding ways of letting them know about our debates and our 313 concerns; and to invite them to get in touch with us, however inconvenient that may be in terms of the postal load. Unless we do that, we shall get nowhere.
Other speakers referred to the complexity and volume of legislation. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that a formal impact assessment of legislation which directly affects the public should take place two or three years downstream from the time it conies into force. I think we should get a real shock at the gulf that exists between the intentions of the legislature and the achievement on the ground. I should be ruthless about repealing legislation that was not doing the work consigned to it.
We all k now about the complexity of legislation. But the number of noble Lords attending debates at Committee stage and at subsequent stages of complex Bills is tiny. I do not say that as a form of criticism; it is an observation. If we, as sophisticated legislators, are unable—as I believe is truthfully the case—to grapple with so much legislation, what hope is there for the public?
We must bear in mind that the public need to identify with what we do. They need to have a sense of ownership of us and of the work we do. It is easy to use those words but very difficult in the modern age to make a reality of them. The fact that we are not doing so is manifest in the grotesquely inadequate turn-outs at elections. The turn-out in the under-25 age group is frightening: it has been calculated that only 15 per cent of under-25s voted in the European elections—the very group that should be most engaged, stimulated and excited by Europe.
Having made those remarks, I shall hold my peace, except to make one further, and rather different, point. Secondary legislation is being pumped through this House in unbelievable volumes: 3,000 instruments a year. It is a sheer Alice in Wonderland pretence for us to be content with the scrutiny that we give that legislation, given that the only opportunity we have to amend it is to throw out the whole instrument. Our inability to amend statutory instruments needs careful and urgent reconsideration.
§ 7.14 p.m.
§ The Earl of Onslow
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, was right about Oppositions liking to call governments to account more than governments like them to do. I note that five-and-a-half speakers in this debate are non-Conservatives—I refer to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, as the "half", as he is, at least for once, a conservative Whip.
Gone are the days when Pitt could lose the first Reform Bill—a government measure—by one vote and not resign. Gone are the days when Gladstone could walk to the House of Commons, make a speech and chuck out Disraeli's government, because the House of Commons would listen to him. Surely we must realise that the House of Commons is the place where the government get their power. The House of Commons has the power—the only power—to tax. The House of Lords, in a fit of cowardice in 1348, I believe, said, "No, no, we do not want to offend our 314 tenants. They ought to do it down there-. That is where power comes from. It has been very distressing how this Government have appeared to treat the House of Commons with a certain amount of disdain.
That has happened not only under this Government; it has been a trend for some time. It is illustrated by the dreadful "creep" questions that are asked at Question Time: "Isn't my right honourable friend the Prime Minister the greatest political genius since Marcus Aurelius?"—"Rah, rah, rah", go Members on one side. "Isn't Michael Howard the greatest law-giver since Justinian" "Rah, rah, rah" go the other side. "Doesn't Robin Cook make Talleyrand look like a club-footed ape in foreign affairs?"—"Rah, rah, rah", go the Government. It is this form of ghastly creep question that brings the House of Commons into disrepute.
During the passage of the House of Lords Bill, we teased the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, by "banging on" about "Tony's cronies". It was peculiarly effective, and slightly unfair. It is to the credit of a large number of new Members on the Labour Benches in this House that they are not Tony's cronies. If I wanted to make a "crony" attack, it would be against the Liberals—who are like Lloyd George's poodles. When they are told, they vote like soldier rats—which is immensely amusing. There are certainly signs that there are independent-minded people on the Labour Benches who are quite happy to argue with the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. That is both good for her soul and good for Parliament.
It is essential that the Government should bear in mind my other criticism. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, talked about wanting, to do something before he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and wanting to do something after he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, but forgetting to do it while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is perfectly understandable. Ministers are busy people. However, I hope that when my noble friend Lord Strathclyde winds up for this side, he will say that in the probable, possible, or impossible—use which adjective you like—event of a Conservative government coming to power after the next election, they will give an undertaking that they really will give power back to Parliament and take account of what Parliament says.
We have got into a certain habit: when a piece of legislation goes through—for example, on the Scunthorpe by-pass—no matter which government is in office, if anyone on the government side says that they have got the Scunthorpe by-pass order wrong, the Whips then squeak that the whole of the government's authority is going to collapse because the government are paying no attention to that Back-Bencher. If the government do pay attention to that Back-Bencher, the media refer to them as being split and say that they are weak. We saw that when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, when some of the Labour Left were kicking up rough; and we saw it under the previous government, when some of the Tory Euro-sceptics were kicking up rough. Any Back-Bencher who shows disrespect for the government is accused of rocking the boat, and the government are accused of being weak.
315 I believe that to be the duty of all Back-Benchers, if possible, because I am by nature a disrespecting soul. The media then say that the Government are over-arrogant in not paying attention to their Back-Benchers. They cannot have it both ways.
A further point was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. It has been worked out that 80 per cent of our laws are now passed in Brussels. Not only are they passed in Brussels; they are also gold-plated here. Ministers say, "We could not get the piece of legislation that we wanted through in the ordinary amount of time, but we shall tack it on to a European statutory instrument and it will go through under the European Communities Act". That is a bad habit, and we ought not to let it continue.
I accept that, as Arthur Bryant says, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars foreign countries found it odd that English liberties—let us remember that the House of Commons is the fountain of our liberties—were guaranteed by gentlemen making speeches to themselves in an odd-shaped Chamber.
I have not had time to talk about the horrendous possibility at the next election of a Tory England, a Labour UK, a Labour Minister of education and health and devolved powers which are unique to England being imposed by a Labour UK on Scotsmen and on Welshmen. That is a serious matter. We sit in a Parliament that has continued at least since the reign of Edward I. It is a wonderful organisation. It has saved the liberties of the world so many times. It invented modern taxation and representative government. It invented the freedoms that we all hold dear. For Heaven's sake, let us all make sure that it works. I have spoken for a minute too long.
§ 7.21 p.m.
§ Viscount Goschen
My Lords, during the course of this debate, which has in itself been an example of Parliament holding government to account, there has been a universal acceptance of the concept that a strong Parliament benefits all. It benefits the country and it even benefits the Government, although in the short term it can make life difficult.
I am quite sure that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will not say that she believes in a weak Parliament. None the less, I believe that we have to look at the evidence of what the Government have done and the actions they have taken as regards Parliament since they took office. Encroachments on the authority and standing of Parliament have ranged from outright legislative change, through amendments to procedures, to the actions of Ministers in making announcements, as we have heard, and, indeed, their observations concerning the role of the legislature, particularly this House, especially when this House takes a contrary view to that of the Government.
I do not believe that any noble Lord who has spoken this evening has suggested that the House of Commons is now an effective forum for the detailed scrutiny of legislation. Indeed, your Lordships' House has shown itself as the place which is relied upon to provide that 316 role. One example of that was the passage of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill last year. On the face of it that was a modest measure, but when the detail was considered it was discovered to be a dangerous piece of legislation. Before the Bill went to the House of Commons for scrutiny, Ministers in another place thought that it was wonderful. When it emerged from scrutiny in another place, largely unchanged, they still thought that it was wonderful. However, when the Bill came to this House it was extensively rewritten by your Lordships. The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, felt that the Bill emerged from this House considerably better than when it arrived here. This House performed a real service, not only to those who were to be regulated by the Bill but also in preventing serious embarrassment to the Government.
It is universally accepted that constitutional change should, wherever possible, be undertaken on the basis of consensus. Yet, with the reform of your Lordships' House, the opposite approach was taken. I suggest that that measure was driven through in as confrontational a manner as possible which gave the Government a fight when they could have had a constructive debate. To do that without informing Parliament, and via Parliament the country, of the eventual measures which would take the place of the previous arrangements must be considered a considerable arrogance.
The Government have had their will and have imposed constitutional change, particularly with regard to this House. But what has happened to the Jay doctrine of a more legitimate House? Before major issues have even been debated here we have been told what the consequences of our rejecting a major piece of government legislation would be. We have, in effect, been threatened with the use of the Parliament Act. When this House has taken a contrary view to that of the Government, Ministers have fallen over themselves to attack this House in the media as being unrepresentative and, indeed, to state what is factual; namely, that the House is unelected. Why will they not recognise that this Administration put through a Bill to create this House in its present form? Any criticisms of the legitimacy of this House fall squarely upon their own shoulders.
The Parliament Act is the ultimate nuclear sanction. It should be used only in the most dire circumstances. However, it has already been used and we have been given clear indications that the Government see it more as a standard tool of government than as something to be reserved for the most dire circumstances.
Another illustration of the Government's cavalier attitude towards parliamentary procedures is to be found within the Regulatory Reform Bill which your Lordships are currently considering. As your Lordships know, that Bill will allow primary legislation to be amended by order in the widest of circumstances. We have been assured by Ministers that there will be considerable restraints on the use of those powers. However, that is not to be found within 317 the Bill. The restraints lie in ministerial assurances which we know cannot be binding on successor governments.
Without even going into the problems which Scottish and Welsh devolution have thrown up, it is clear that Parliament has been considerably weakened, although I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, that in comparison with many other legislatures it is still strong. With the current Administration's declared intention to pursue further political integration within the European Union, Parliament is certainly heading in a dangerous direction.
I note that the Leader of the Opposition, Mr William Hague, welcomed forcefully my noble friend's thorough report. He accepted certain specific proposals immediately and committed to providing consideration of all of the others as a matter of priority. All eyes will now be on the Government to see whether they share our determination to see Parliament strengthened.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, brings great independence of mind and originality to this House. We always look forward to any debate that he initiates. This debate has not fallen short in that respect. I am grateful for what he said about a report with which I was not previously familiar and to which I should perhaps pay attention.
However, I end the debate feeling not a little depressed. I agree with my noble friend Lord Dahrendorf that both Houses of Parliament should be given high marks in terms of the comparative performance of democratic institutions. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that good government needs an effective Parliament. But where I part company with him—although I am not sure whether I part company with many noble Lords, or at least with what they feel in their hearts—is in a genuine belief that Parliament will be strengthened, certainly within my lifetime. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said that confident government should welcome a strengthened Parliament. I cannot disagree with that. It is a worthy sentiment. But the reality, as I think we all know, is that confident governments have done little indeed to strengthen Parliament. I say that of governments of all political colours.
If I think that I detect a tone with which I most agree it would be that of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill. I look back over 20 years in the other place and over 10 as a Minister. I must not misrepresent him but I believe that beneath his remarks there was the thought that for all that the parties have tried over the years and for all the debates in this House and elsewhere there has been an incremental movement towards Parliament being less able than at one time to exercise control over the executive. I remember reading a book by Herbert Morrison entitled Government and Parliament nearly 50 years ago. It was the first insider's view of how the system worked. In his book, he said that oppositions 318 can be right and governments can be wrong. He referred to what he called the delicate balance of power between the Cabinet and the House of Commons. But Herbert Morrison was a great, tough party manager and when he had to find a way of demonstrating the alternatives he referred to democratic strengths on the one hand and wobble and weakness on the other. He came out in favour of democratic strength.
We all want democratic strength. But I do not believe that the choice is quite as vivid as that. We can retain effective government while at the same time giving Parliament a better opportunity to play its part. There has been an erosion in the role of Parliament over many years. My remarks today are not critical of this Government but are made through an awareness that it is endemic that governments want to get on with the job and do not much like the trouble that Parliament occasionally believes right.
I believed in this Government's good intentions in 1997. They have honoured their constitutional commitments in respect of Scotland, Wales and London and a number of important respects. But there is no evidence that they are less executive-minded than their predecessors. Other noble Lords have referred to the Prime Minister's one day a week Questions. They have referred to the fact that the Commons is now a three-day-a-week Chamber. There is iron discipline. We all know the historic reasons for it. But, like the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, I believe that it has gone too far. What I most regret, and did not believe would occur in quite this way, is that the House has become more gladiatorial and adversarial than it was. I had assumed that under this Government they might move in a different direction. However, the truth is that except in minor ways governments are, on the whole, unwilling to surrender power and only if Parliament actually takes it back with the voters behind it shall we see any meaningful change.
In a lecture given by the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, in June of last year he referred to the good track record of the Lords in committee work. I agree with the sentiments expressed today to that effect. But the committee work of this House does not call Government to account. Although we may not like it, I find it difficult to point to one major government change of direction which has been the result of our own committee work. That does not mean that governments are indifferent to our non-controversial recommendations. They take account of them. They may make changes. But on major issues of policy that is not so.
With regard to Select Committees of another place, I pay tribute not only to the Conservative government of 1979 when the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, was responsible for the setting up of departmental committees, but also to the late Willie Whitelaw, when in 1970–71 the estimates committee was succeeded by the expenditure committee which had six semi-autonomous sub-committees. I was the chairman of one of them. Although in those days chairmen were often successful in getting unanimous reports from the committees, irrespective of party, I much regret that in recent years committees have been in the habit of 319 producing minority reports and dividing on party lines. Their reports, therefore, have been ignored frequently by government or government have outwitted them while seeming to pay lip service to what they have done. I do not believe that there is nearly as much comfort as we might like in the Select Committee system, certainly of another place.
It is true that we now have a more pluralist, political system. I make two remarks about that. First, there is much to be said for it. I do not object to the role of pressure groups and to any campaigning organisations making their views known. I do not object to the development of Green Papers, which allows a wider debate, or the extent to which we have begun to have pre-legislative discussions. Even if I did, I believe that it is an irreversible change. I agree with Peter Riddell that Parliament should remain the core of the system. But Parliament will remain the core of a more pluralist system if it becomes more pluralist itself.
On this occasion I shall not embark on the case for proportional representation. The House might begin to show a degree of boredom. But I put it seriously to the House that, setting aside the traditional arguments about fairness, there is much to be said for proportional representation in so far as it would produce a more pluralist House of Commons; and a more pluralist House of Commons would be more likely to be a restraint on the executive than present Parliaments have been.
I turn to the role of this House in calling governments to account. Perhaps I may make one final remark about the position of my party in recent and future discussions. The formal position of my party has been and remains that we prefer a predominantly elected House. But we are open to argument, and the composition of this House should be part of the terms of reference of the Joint Committee when it is set up. This is particularly so because the Joint Committee would be concerned equally with our exercise of powers and our relationship with the House of Commons and the two cannot be separated.
I also believe that in so far as it proves possible—I put it no higher than that—there is everything to be said for seeking to move towards a consensus even if it takes somewhat more time. Since last summer my party has had amiable but rather fruitless discussions with the Government on these matters. I make no complaint. I am glad that the Government have accepted our proposal that there should be no further discussion and no appointment of the Joint Committee until we have a new Parliament. That will be the time to pick up the matter again; and it will be in time for legislation in the second Session of a new Parliament.
There is one outstanding question. I hope that the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal may feel able to give a satisfactory reply. The noble Baroness will recall the debate on 24th January initiated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. On that occasion we discussed the doctrine of the mandate, the role of the election manifesto and the Salisbury convention. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able 320 to say that the Labour Party will not include in its manifesto any details of the next stage of Lords reform which would effectively exclude meaningful discussion, compromise and the search for agreement afterwards. If that sentiment were to be endorsed, we could see your Lordships' House playing an increasing role in ensuring that our governments, of whatever colour, are properly accountable.
§ 7.38 p.m.
§ Lord Strathclyde
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate and I thank my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for initiating it. My noble friend has come to be associated very much with this theme and it gives me great pleasure to respond to him.
Let me state unequivocally that we on this side of the House want a stronger Parliament. Perhaps I may answer head on the question of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. When we return to office we shall take immediate steps to increase the ability of Parliament to scrutinise the executive. My right honourable friend William Hague has made that utterly clear in another place; and I gladly do so here.
Perhaps once it could have been said that the Conservative Party was somewhat immobile on the constitution. But if the Conservative Party were ever guilty of immobilism—and let us remember there would be neither Law Lords, life Peers, nor women Peers in this House if it had not been for reforms by Conservative governments—then that is certainly not true today.
By commissioning the distinguished reports of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, William Hague has pointed the way to a raft of reforms that would truly strengthen Parliament. It is the Conservative Party that wants a Joint Committee of both Houses to find a way towards genuine reform of your Lordships' House, so allowing Parliament's voice be heard. The Government have set their teeth against cross-party talks. It is the Conservative Party that has opened its mind to new thinking on the Parliament Acts and the Salisbury doctrine, while the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, grits his teeth, like Lord Eldon of old, and says that nothing has changed and nothing must change.
It is the Conservative Party that initiated debates on the principle and fought for the fair referendum rules, as originally proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, while the Government used the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to fiddle the rules to suit the executive. It is the Conservative Party that yesterday in another place called for an end to the appointment of Select Committee chairmen by party Whips, while the Leader of the House, Mrs Beckett, set her teeth so firmly against that Back-Bench freedom that the Liberal Democrat spokesman said that the stand she had taken in an attempt to control the House displayed the worst centralism.
It is the Conservative Party leader who has pledged himself to two 20-minute Question Times a week, while the Prime Minister has the worst voting record 321 of any Prime Minister, has initiated fewer debates than any Prime Minister and chose as his first act in office a cut in Prime Minister's Question Time to once a week. Finally, it is the Conservative Party that asks the English question and dares to provide an answer, while the Government, in the memorable phrase of the Lord Chancellor, say that it is a question better not asked.
Our party is not afraid of a stronger Parliament. As my noble friend Lord Cranborne argued, we believe that a stronger Parliament makes for a more authoritative and respected government. As my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth said today, strong governments need strong Parliaments.
I wonder how the Government will respond tonight. Will we be told that Ministers recoil in horror when Mr Alastair Campbell says that a policy would be better leaked to the Guardian than announced in Parliament; that Mr Blair has a secret plan to restore Prime Minister's Questions to two days a week so that he can be better held to account; or that the Foreign Secretary is telephoning his counterparts in Europe to tell them that he will surrender no further powers from Westminster to Brussels? I should be surprised to hear any of that and I hardly think that we shall receive those answers.
Hansard could not show it, but the anguished face of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, spoke volumes last week. Asked to give one example of a way in which this Government had strengthened Parliament, he finally hit on the limp answer that they had expelled hereditary Peers. What a historic victory for parliamentary freedom that was. No doubt in centuries to come the Blair Bill will be spoken of in the same breath as the tales of Simon de Montfort, John Pym and the authors of the Bill of Rights. Perhaps that is how the Government genuinely believe it to be, but I do not. No doubt, as he clutched for a straw, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, had in mind the famous promise of a stronger Parliament set out in what is now widely recognised as the Jay doctrine—the pledge that the new House will be more legitimate and able to speak with more authority and that its decisions will carry more weight.
If only it were so. We tried. We tried to show the same touching faith in the noble Baroness' words as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, has shown and as the noble Lord, Lord Peston, showed this afternoon. The new House has tried to build its authority and assert its freedom and has tried to make its voice heard even more. But do the Government listen any more now than they did before? Sadly, they do not. Were cross-party objections to the restriction of jury trial heeded? Sadly, they were not. They were simply swatted aside.
So I offer the Falconer challenge this evening. Can the noble Baroness give us even three instances of the Government agreeing to think again after a defeat in your Lordships' House? Even on non-manifesto issues, the Parliament Acts have been brandished with all the instinctive caution and hesitation with which a member of the French riot police reaches for his truncheon.
322 When I am asked whether this Government have strengthened Parliament, the words that ring in my ears are those of the noble Baroness that your Lordships' House is a "subordinate" House. My fear is that not only is this House seen as subordinate to another place, but that Parliament as a whole is seen as subordinate to the will of the executive. I venture to say that no government since the 1650s have done more to weaken the Westminster Parliament than this one.
In the eyes of No. 10, Parliament is there to do what it is told. As my noble friend Lord Waddington said, the Prime Minister does not respect Parliament; he does not listen to Parliament; and he does not go to Parliament. In his view, when it comes to taking the decisions that shape people's lives, anything is better than Parliament. Devolved bodies are better, regional offices are better, unelected judges, whether domestic or European, are better, and, God forbid, even focus groups are better. He prefers anyone and anything to the Westminster Parliament. Against the track record of this Government, I would take a deal of convincing that they saw Parliament for a split second as the first place to make announcements or to reconcile differences of opinion among the people of this country.
Let me illustrate that by reference to one event this week. We heard two days ago that the Government have abandoned their manifesto pledge—-a pledge repeated by the Leader of the House last summer and by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, last week—to set up a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider reform of your Lordships' House. Where did we hear that announcement, which is of such direct concern to the future of this House? It was not in a Statement to the House, but in a private briefing given to Mr Patrick Wintour of the Guardian. Has there been a Statement to the House since? Was there a willingness to answer the Private Notice Question that I asked on the issue? Sadly not.
No Government that believed in a strong Parliament would refuse to trust Parliament to discuss Parliament's own future. It may be a small issue in the great scheme of things, but am I alone in thinking that it matters? I think that I can answer my own question, having sat through the debate. It matters. These things are important. Private briefing is no substitute for coming to Parliament and holding oneself to account.
That is why I very much thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for coming to answer the debate this evening. It is also why, in thanking once again my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for giving us the opportunity to have the debate, I urge the noble Baroness to use the first minutes of her reply, before she moves on to her substantive speech, to explain to the House the exact position on a Joint Committee, how she plans to build cross-party consensus and how the Government now intend to consult Parliament on future reform.
§ 7.48 p.m.
§ The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of 323 Louth, for his customary authoritative and, if I may say so, very clear introduction to the debate. I found it particularly helpful to hear him highlight again the main points of his report produced last summer, which adds enormously to all our discussions on the issue. As I was not present for the debate earlier this week and it has not been mentioned this evening, I congratulate him also on his new position as chairman of the Constitution Committee. The debate on that committee earlier this week showed that there are many relevant and serious issues for it to consider. Some of them were touched on today. We all look forward very much to the noble Lord's involvement in that and his leadership of a discussion that will inform many of our debates.
I think that I can call this an enjoyable debate, although I can say with my hand on my heart that I have not heard anything very new. No doubt noble Lords will say the same about my contribution this evening, and I shall simply respond by saying that that demonstrates the consistency of the Government's position on many of these issues. But then, as the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, would say, I am one of the usual suspects in that respect. As various noble Lords have pointed out, this is our fifth debate on the general issue of the constitution and Parliament since Christmas.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, demonstrates with enormous vigour his new-found enthusiasm for constitutional reform—something which, I must say, was not apparent during the many years in which I was in opposition in this House. The noble Lord was in government when that enthusiasm seemed to be somewhat muted.
I am always fascinated by the fact that, although Members of this House, and particularly noble Lords on the Conservative Benches, are enthusiastic when in opposition about regularly discussing what I believe one could rightly call the theory and mechanisms of executive and parliamentary powers, they show less interest in holding government to account by debating the practical policies of the government. Those are matters which, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, rightly said, are of great interest to the population beyond the Westminster village.
Although in the past few weeks we have had five debates on these broad issues of accountability, we have had none since the Queen's Speech before Christmas on employment, the National Health Service or schools, except in response to government Statements. I suggest that those are the practical policies on which this Government—indeed, any government—should certainly be held to account. Perhaps noble Lords opposite take the view that on these policies the Government's record is not to be criticised.
However, the fact is that with regard to the general constitutional issue, as my noble and learned friends Lord Williams of Mostyn and Lord Falconer have both said in reply to similar debates in the past month, the Government respect profoundly the right of Parliament to criticise and hold them to account. As 324 the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said in a very eloquent address on this matter in which I agreed with his points if not necessarily with his conclusions, the ability to command the support of the House of Commons is and must remain the sole source of the Government's legitimacy between elections.
I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, that where we have introduced reforms, such as in relation to devolution and the Human Rights Act, which, I suggest, have taken government closer to the people or given the people rights which they can exercise directly against the Government, those have not diminished but rather have strengthened parliamentary practice. We do not apologise for that; nor do we believe that they amount to shaking the balance of power.
A constant consideration in our programme of constitutional reform has been the wish to preserve the position of the Westminster Parliament. That is why, for example, we have very much supported and developed a system of devolution as against any suggestion of federalism. Indeed, that is why, following the implementation of the Human Rights Act, the courts may only make a declaration of incompatibility against primary legislation and not remotely set it aside.
I believe that all those changes have strengthened the reality of today's parliamentary democracy in which the Westminster Parliament remains supreme. As I have already said, within Parliament the elected House is in turn supreme and will always remain so. In a debate on 19th January, my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General described that as the respectful balance between the two Houses. I believe that that is the settled position and that at least it answers the rhetorical point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne.
I hope that I shall not irritate my noble friend Lord Peston if I say that in my view he put the Government's position very succinctly—I know that that is not something which he always intends but I believe that on this occasion he has certainly helped. We respect the right of this House to question the Government, to probe their legislation and their activities, and to ask the other place to think again. We are convinced that, in order to make Parliament effective as a whole, both Houses of Parliament need to work together and to work as closely as possible in scrutinising the Government and holding it in general to account.
We continue to believe that the best form of Parliament for the United Kingdom is a bicameral one in which the second Chamber has a distinctive contribution to make. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that that distinctive contribution is based on the authoritative contributions made by virtue of the quality of the Members of that House.
I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, that, for example, your Lordships' Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee is now immensely authoritative, precisely because of the authority of its contributions. That is not simply because it is a committee of your Lordships' House, but because of 325 the nature, function and particular recommendations that it makes. I believe that we all agree that it fulfils a particular function in the legislative process and fulfils it very well. We have already referred to the potential role of the Constitution Committee. I hope that over time it may achieve a similar status.
There have been some suggestions, perhaps best exemplified by what the noble Lords, Lord Rodgers and Lord Strathclyde, said, that one of the objectives of reform of your Lordships' House has been to produce a body which, in a sense, is important and easy for the Government to control, as, at the moment, they control another place because of the size of the Government's parliamentary majority. However, I believe that that does not stand up to examination.
As I have said on numerous occasions since the House of Lords Act was passed and since we debated the House of Lords report by the Royal Commission under the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, we want to create a House which can deliver on parliamentary scrutiny and on revising the legislative function, which complements the other place but which does not, ultimately, defy it or try to supersede it. I believe that that is an example of what we have said consistently. It was said again this evening by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree. It is one of the reasons why we have argued consistently for the value of the significant, non-party element in any further reform, and why, equally consistently, we have said that we do not believe that any political party should have a majority in your Lordships' House.
It always seems to me to defy common sense, as well as any kind of parliamentary calculation, that a House in which the government of the day have no majority can be described as one which they control and press through executive power. To that extent, I believe that this House will always have the strength of its own position.
I am sure that your Lordships acknowledge—indeed, this point was made by several speakers—that ultimately it is the other place where the Government must stand or fall and that the Government are entitled to get their legislation passed. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has made that point on several public occasions and it was reinforced tonight by the noble Lord. Lord Dean of Harptree.
After reading the report of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and hearing him speak on this matter in several forums, in general I believe that he shares the vision of the proper balance between the two Houses and of where true accountability lies—in the House of Commons. Therefore, I do not believe that he wants to extend the powers of this House at the expense of those of another place. He may well want to extend the powers of this House in addition to those of another place, but that is a different matter.
However, after listening to some of the contributions this evening and to the debate in general, I am not sure that that is true of everyone who spoke. I detected an element of the view that the other place can no longer be trusted to do its job properly and that, therefore, additional functions should perhaps fall to 326 this House. Although in debate and, indeed, in conversation we are sometimes critical of the activities of another place, it is important that we should not believe our own propaganda about its work. We should respect the work carried out by the Select Committees. Since the advent of the Westminster Hall system, which I am sure your Lordships have witnessed, Select Committee reports have been debated in much greater number than ever before. I can assure noble Lords that the Government take seriously both the reports and the debates which have been extended through that additional scrutiny system.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, made some trenchant criticisms of the quality of the work that is sometimes carried out by the Finance Standing Committee. However, I believe that in general noble Lords would agree that Standing Committees on Bills, where MPs have a chance to become expert on a subject and to devote a considerable amount of time to consideration of an issue, can be properly described as an effective method of scrutiny. I believe that your Lordships will agree that we often benefit—or perhaps the word is "suffer"—from that scrutiny when government amendments are moved in this House in response to issues which have been raised in the other place through that system.
The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, in particular, together with the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, made some detailed criticisms of changes in the way in which procedure operated in the other place. Perhaps noble Lords will forgive me, but I am not sure whether it would be proper for the Government to comment in detail on some of those points.
However, I shall refer to two points which were raised because they were mentioned by several noble Lords. One is the question relating to the Prime Minister and his accountability. That question, which has been raised and, I should have thought, has been answered substantially on several occasions, suggests that somehow having one 30-minute session at Question Time reduces the accountability of the Question period. It seems odd to suggest that two 15-minute periods of Questions is better than one 30-minute period. For example, when Mr Major was Prime Minister, he missed more Question Times simply because he was drawn into other parts of government business to a greater extent than the present Prime Minister has been. It is easier for my right honourable friend effectively to organise his diary to attend Question Time for one 30-minute session each week.
The figures show that Mr Major missed 49 out of 399 Question Times over a Parliament because of the demands of other government business. That is an average of 12.3 per cent. My right honourable friend has missed only six out of 118 Question Times, an average of 5.1 per cent. I am not sure how important those statistics are, but they are relevant to the broad criticism that the present Prime Minister has reduced his accountability by reducing the time that is available 327 at Question Time. Another statistic, which may or may not be important, shows that during the previous Parliament Mr John Major made 28 Statements, but the present Prime Minister has made 32. The reiteration of the mantra that the Prime Minister pays no attention to Parliament should be defeated by these arcane but none the less relevant statistics.
I enjoyed the exchange between the noble Lords, Lord Patten and Lord Weatherill, about the relative discipline of the Whipping system under previous administrations. Noble Lords also discussed whether the other place is increasingly dominated by the Whips. I was interested in the comment only two nights ago by the deputy Leader of the other place, Mr Paddy Tipping, who pointed out an obviously salient truth about the operation of the other place. He said that there had to be two-way traffic between Back-Benchers and the Whips. He also said that, to be blunt, any Whips' Office that forgets the nature of this relationship is in for a terrible shock.
Several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, touched on the question of our powers over secondary legislation. The suggestion was that during this Parliament the transitionary nature of this House meant that it should be more acceptable for this House to challenge and vote against secondary legislation. I am not sure why a transitionary House should have that effect. Many of the proposals that have been advanced in that context bear consideration, including super-affirmative instruments and the many other points raised in the report by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, by the Royal Commission chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and by the Procedure Committee in another place. Many of those proposals bear proper examination, but none of them leads to the conclusion that it is sensible for the House routinely to deny government an instrument that they need to be able to govern. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, the same points apply in that regard as apply with regard to primary legislation.
I was interested in the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Rodgers and Lord Strathclyde, about the importance of bipartisan co-operation and consensus in relation to further reforms and further constitutional changes that the Government may envisage. I was somewhat surprised by the argument of the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen. He seemed to assert that any criticism of the nature of the transitionary House, especially with regard to the points that I made about the ability to vote down secondary legislation, boomeranged on the Government because we alone created this House in a single-handed and rather arrogant stroke. If the noble Viscount looks back—I am glad that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, are in their places to attest to this—he will see that the House of Lords Act 1999, which produced the present transitionary House, was created by cross-party consensus on the way to move forward. It was the result of the sort of collaboration that the noble Viscount appeared to deny had taken place.
328 On the present position of the Joint Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, rather jumped the gun. As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, all that happened this week was that Mr Robin Cook and Mr Robert Maclennan, as the joint leaders, as it were, of the Liberal Democrats and the Government in relation to the discussions on the Joint Committee, agreed not to have further talks. There was no formal abandonment of the Joint Committee proposal and there were no developments that would have needed a substantive and formal procedure. As the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said, it is true—this was confirmed by my right honourable friend Mr Robin Cook—that the Government and the Liberal Democrats agreed that they have taken their discussions on reform of the second Chamber as far as they presently go. That much is fairly clear.
The Government do not feel that they have to answer any accusations about dragging their feet over seeking to find consensus. We have been struggling—I believe that that is the right word—since last summer to find a way in which to have a sensible bipartisan or tripartisan suggestion about how the Joint Committee could consider further the Royal Commission report on further reform of your Lordships' Chamber. We have made it clear that we are not in favour of any Joint Committee considering composition, although that would be a matter for your Lordships and Parliament to discuss when legislation was produced. All Members of both Houses would have an opportunity to contribute to the many debates that there would be on that matter. Looking back at the debates on the more simplified version of the original House of Lords Act 1999 suggests that those further debates would be very lengthy.
In conclusion, I reiterate the fact that the Government are not remotely afraid of parliamentary scrutiny. We are quite happy to be held to account by Parliament, particularly by the other place and on the specifics of our practical policies. We have introduced a number of changes to the way in which the other place operates, which are designed to make it work more effectively and efficiently. It is wrong to assume, as some noble Lords who spoke in this debate seem to have done, that the intention is to reduce parliamentary scrutiny. Time does not necessarily equal effectiveness. I do not like the word "presenteeism", but it is used in industry to describe that function by which people are present in their place of work but not necessarily performing a particular function—the virtue is simply to be there. Presenteeism can afflict Parliament, as it may afflict other walks of life.
The Government are clear about the fact that the House of Commons must be the primary source of accountability, and that it will become even better equipped to deliver that accountability. The role of your Lordships' House will always be to complement that process. We look to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, to take the lead in our efforts to be imaginative when devising methods to improve that function.
§ 8.8 p.m.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all those who participated in this debate. I suspect that I have about 30 seconds to make my remarks so I shall be very brief.
We have had an excellent debate, which was marked by the substantial number of speakers and by the quality of their speeches. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, who said that we have a system that is absolutely preferable to others. We need to defend it and strengthen it. I welcome the recommendations that noble Lords made in this 330 debate about strengthening Parliament. Some excellent proposals and significant statements were made and important questions were asked.
The noble Lord, Lord Peston, said that oppositions tend to favour the strengthening of Parliament. I stress that I have been calling for a strengthening of Parliament for the past 20 years. That leads me to my final point. My Motion calls for Papers. Plenty of papers are available; I have contributed to the amount of paperwork. I do not want more papers; I want parliamentarians to read the papers that exist and to act on them. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
§ House adjourned at nine minutes past eight o'clock.