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Earl Russell: My Lords, am I right in believing that the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Rippon of Hexham, under the previous government, as was the Moses Room procedure?

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, it is certainly being reinforced by the present Government. With regard to Statements, the number made by Ministers in this Government is comparable to previous ones. At the outset of this Parliament there were, indeed, noises from the Opposition that the Government were offering too many Statements.

Additionally, the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly will not be a restriction on our parliamentary democracy but an extension of our nation's democracy. And when the English regions have assemblies, that again will be a further extension of our nation's democracy. These are the means of taking democracy to the people and for representatives to be more accountable to those who elect them.

I do not have a great deal of time, but I wish to draw to the attention of the House the fact that under successive Tory governments there was a failure to consult Parliament over many issues. Action was taken and business was conducted through the media and by way of Statements. Suffice it to say, there are a number of examples such as the Gordon Downey Report, the

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basic pension plus, the Scott Report, the egg industry support, the Guildford and Woolwich bombings, the community care White Paper and the poll tax fiasco. All are on record. There has been much discussion of them in the other place and the Speaker has made reference to them on occasions.

I know that perfection there is not. But the record of this Government in their efforts to increase and extend democracy, to modernise and make more effective our parliamentary procedures and to establish greater accountability to the British people in just one year far exceeds anything done by the government supported by noble Lords opposite during the long, long 18 years they were in office.

4.25 p.m.

Lord Renton: My Lords, the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, reminded me of the contributions we used to hear from the old Labour Back Benches in days gone by. Perhaps he will forgive my saying so. In view of the way he expressed himself, I do not believe he should have said that the Opposition had "gone over the top" in raising these important constitutional matters. I believe that my noble friend Lord Cranborne has done a valuable service by raising them. These matters are fundamental to our parliamentary democracy.

Before referring to them, I pay tribute to both maiden speakers. My noble friend Lord Biffen, spoke with the advantage of distinguished and wide experience not only as a Member of another place but in the Cabinet, in not too distant times. He made a scintillating speech after being a Member of your Lordships' House for one year. I hope that he will not delay his next speech for another year.

My noble friend Lord Dartmouth adds to your Lordships' House the kind of experience and expertise which makes the House so valuable. He referred to the victory of the Labour Party last year and said that it was the greatest since 1945. In fact, it was the biggest landslide victory since 1906. I am glad he mentioned that because it is the factor which dominates the present constitutional situation. We can learn a lot from what happened in 1945 when I was first elected to another place. Although the Labour landslide was not quite so large as last year's, the party was led by Mr. Clement Attlee who confessed himself to be a Fabian Socialist, one who wants socialism to come gradually. In four-and-a-half years, with Mr. Attlee as Prime Minister, the Labour Government rushed through as much nationalisation and state control as could be done in that time. One wonders why Clem Attlee put up with it and why he did not resign. Almost certainly it was because he knew that if he did resign he would be replaced by some extreme socialist.

I invite your Lordships to apply that example by analogy to the present situation. The Prime Minister is said to be a very moderate socialist; in fact, we have heard him described as a crypto-Tory. I have no doubt that he is moderate by socialist standards. That is why he conceived the idea of New Labour, and this purports

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to be a New Labour Government. But the landslide resulted in a vast number of "Old Labour" Members being elected to Parliament, and sooner or later they may try to force his hand by getting him to put the clock back, to a greater or lesser extent, to accord with their view of socialism. That would be anathema to Mr. Blair, I believe.

The landslide was due really--let us face it--to the first-past-the-post system. It occurred in spite of the fact that the New Labour Party got fewer votes on 1st May last year than the Conservative Party got in 1992, five years previously, but which gave it only a very moderate majority. That is one of the strange ways in which the first-past-the-post system has worked.

This extreme landslide may be the reason why the Prime Minister is now keen to have proportional representation of some kind and why he has appointed a bunch of people under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who, as a Liberal Democrat, is committed to proportional representation in one form or another. Meanwhile of course that will not stop Old Labour from asserting itself. We shall have to be very vigilant in this House when it tries to force the Government to do things which the more moderate Mr. Blair may not wish to do. It is a strange thought that we may have to come to the support of the Prime Minister, but it would not surprise me if that happened.

I come to the important part to be taken by your Lordships in present circumstances under our constitution. We all accept that the democratically elected House of Commons is answerable to the people and must therefore have the last word on decisions taken by Parliament. However, it is essential--it is vital--that your Lordships should have the opportunity with your independence (and I mean being independent of, and above, party politics) of putting the national interest first. Whatever our party may be--and if we belong to no party it is perhaps much easier--we should have the opportunity to get the Government and the House of Commons to think again.

When the last government were in power, some of us, although Conservatives and keen supporters of the government, never hesitated to vote against the government if and when it seemed to be in the national interest to do so. I was MP for Huntingdonshire for 34 years until we got a much better Member who became Prime Minister in eleven and a half years, which is a record in this century. Once, at a great gathering in Huntingdon when he was Prime Minister he teased me by asking why I had voted against the government a number of times. The answer that I gave him was, "I felt obliged to do so to save the government from their mistakes" but I added, I hope tactfully, that they were not always mistakes made by Ministers. They were sometimes the mistakes of civil servants and others who advised them--mistakes which Ministers were too busy to detect. It is a fact that in the vast mass of legislation during recent years Ministers have not always been able to master all the detail for which they are responsible.

During our 18 years in power your Lordships made about 2,000 amendments a Session on average when you asked the Government and the House of Commons

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to think again, and 98 per cent. of those amendments were accepted year by year. I ask the Government to bear that in mind, and I particularly invite the attention of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, to this because his performances, if I may say so, from the Front Bench--and he has a tremendous load put upon him--are something which we very much admire. We appreciate the open-mindedness he so often displays. However, I would ask him on behalf of the Government to bear in mind that all that would not have happened if this House had been democratically elected, by whatever means, whether directly or indirectly, or if a majority of it had been democratically elected, because, if so, we would have become a mere party political rubber stamp for another place. That is something that must be avoided in the years to come.

There are no Scottish or Welsh Conservative Members of Parliament in the other place but a highly representative gathering of Peers exists in this House who know Scotland and Wales well. They have a special responsibility. I hope that the Government will bear that also in mind.

4.36 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, this promises to be a great reforming Parliament but it is important nevertheless for us not just to implement reforms but to pause and reflect at regular intervals and to ponder what of the old is having to yield to the imperatives of the new. It is for this reason that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, is to be congratulated on initiating this debate.

The Motion draws attention to the growing ministerial practice of announcing policies outside Parliament. That is not unique to the present Government, as has been pointed out. It is a practice which started long before and was caused eventually by the advent of television news and the need to catch lunchtime headlines. The remedy perhaps lies with Parliament itself in adopting sensible working hours with morning sittings.

There is, however, a much deeper problem. Much is said, usually in nostalgic if not atavistic terms, about the increasing threats to the sovereignty of Parliament. Usually such things are said in relation to the European Union or, more recently and indeed in speeches today, about the consequences for Westminster following the creation of a Scottish parliament and assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland. I, for one, am not worried about what I regard as these wholly welcome developments. They are long overdue reforms which, for the most part, bring the twin but conflicting principles of efficiency and democracy into a better and more modern set of arrangements.

I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to a more recent and growing phenomenon, which seriously constrains Parliament's ability, in the words of the Motion,

    "to scrutinise and control the actions of the executive".

I refer to the remorseless creation of a plethora of what have come to be known as quangos and other such para-state agencies. They are designed to make government more efficient by introducing flexibility and

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expertise into its workings. They are part and parcel of the modernisation of government and, as such, are to be accepted as a practical necessity. Nevertheless they do pose very real problems for democratic accountability. The mushroom growth of such agencies under the previous government made it almost impossible to render them systematically accountable and to keep track of their activities.

This growth continues apace under the present Government. We should note, however, that there have been some perceptible mutations away from quangos in favour of what are now styled variously as task forces, review bodies and so on. They are fast becoming one of the distinguishing features of the present government.

The phenomenon is, of course, all part and parcel of the discretionary role of ministerial action. They offer flexibility, secrecy if necessary, and are governed by few known rules, all of which can be circumvented if it suits Ministers or officials. Scarcely anything is known about the roles and functions of these review bodies--for example, how members are appointed, how long lived they are, how they fit in with central and local government, how open they will be and how they are to be made accountable.

We do not even know how many there are; nor do the Government. In February, the Government issued a list of 164 bodies (112 "reviews", 29 "task forces", 12 "groups" and 10 "exercises" described severally as "working parties", "forums" or "audits". The thesaurus is exhausted.) Professor Tony Barker of Essex University and Mr. Stuart Weir, director of the think tank Democratic Audit, also based at Essex University, have assiduously detected a further 63 bodies, making a working total of 227. That is not stop press news, it has doubtless increased since then.

As I have indicated, I am not a constitutional Bourbon. I accept the need for augmenting existing Civil Service expertise and government capacity, the better to improve policy making. However, the scrutiny of the activities of these proliferating bodies is increasingly difficult. Perhaps we need to invent some protocols governing them, including regularly updated lists. There may also be some merit in incorporating the American device of so-called "sunset laws", whereby such bodies automatically cease to exist after a specified time, unless formally reconstituted for a further set period.

The modern in me accepts the rise of these para-state agencies as necessary and expedient: the ancient in me does not hark back, calling for a renewal of traditional conventions--even if that were practical--no, the ancient in me calls for the creation of new devices designed to ensure a relevant system of checks and balances in our parliamentary arrangements. As the German philosopher Thomas Mann once sagely remarked,

    "form is no mere formality".

4.41 p.m.

Lord Dean of Harptree: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition for introducing this immensely important debate on the

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future of parliamentary government. My noble friend said that Parliament is under threat. I should like to give your Lordships a few examples of where I believe that to be the case.

The first is ministerial statements of great importance being made outside Parliament rather than within Parliament itself. Successive Speakers of the House of Commons have had cause to reprimand Ministers for this. I admit that it sometimes happened under the previous government; there were occasional lapses from parliamentary rectitude. But in this case the Government seem to be making a habit of it. It is fundamental to the principles of our constitution that the Government are accountable to Parliament, that the Government must retain the confidence of Parliament and that the Government can be dismissed by Parliament. Parliament cannot do its constitutional job effectively if it is going to be bypassed in that way. Of course, that applies both ways. If the authority of Parliament is undermined, then the Government lose their firm base and their legitimacy.

The second development that worries me is the proposal from another place for the carry-over of government Bills from one Session to another. I realise that the original proposal has been somewhat modified, but I still believe that it will be bad for Parliament. One of the most effective checks that Parliament has on the Executive is that if the Government cannot get their Bill through by the end of the Session, that Bill falls. That is an immensely important power and I would very much regret it if we were to see Parliament surrendering it. Further, it is good discipline for the Government to know that their time is limited. If we were to have carry-over as a principle, there is a risk that Governments would be tempted to introduce still more legislation in the knowledge that if they could not get their Bills through by the end of the Session, they could always carry them over to the next. Surely we want fewer and better Bills, not more.

My noble friend Lord Renton, who spoke a moment ago, paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. I should like to echo that tribute. Indeed, the noble Lord treats the House with great courtesy and pays keen attention to all points that are made. He is also able to cover a wide range of issues. Therefore, on this point, I wonder whether the noble Lord will give the House an assurance that when a proposal like that for a carry-over system, which affects both Houses individually, is brought forward, there will be adequate consultation with this House before any changes are made. I suggest that the proposal should go before the Procedure Committee of our House, that the committee should report on the matter and then, if necessary, that there should be a debate before any changes are made. I am glad to see that the noble Lord is nodding his head. I hope that that means that there will be a favourable response in due course.

Another point which worries me is the recent use of the guillotine in another place for constitutional Bills. It has been a strong convention for a great many years--certainly since the Attlee Government immediately after the war--that the Committee stage of constitutional

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Bills in the other place should take place on the Floor of the House, without a guillotine. That convention has been broken by the Government as regards both the Scottish and the Welsh Bill. I know that the noble Lord will probably say that the Opposition agreed to it. However, the Opposition had no choice. They realised that, had they not agreed to those Bills being guillotined, there was a very good chance that an even tougher guillotine would have been forced through by the huge majority that the Government have in another place. I greatly regret that this important parliamentary safeguard with regard to constitutional Bills has been removed. I fear the worst; namely, that it will now be used as a precedent for other constitutional Bills.

It is not, of course, all gloom as far as concerns Parliament; indeed, there have been some good developments in recent years. We now have an increasing number of Green Papers and White Papers being presented to Parliament, which gives us an opportunity for debate before government policy is crystallized. In another place there was the reform of the Select Committee procedures in 1979 which has meant that many of these Select Committees are now as effective in influencing the Government and public opinion as Select Committees in your Lordships' House.

I also welcome the fact that we are now developing pre-legislation procedures in that the Government are introducing draft Bills. I believe that these are all to be welcomed because they allow for debate before Bills are actually set in concrete. However--and this is a bad point--in recent years we have seen skeleton Bills increasingly being introduced, and so-called Henry VIII clauses--regulation-making powers in the hands of Ministers. For today's circumstances, I admit that some of those developments are probably inevitable, although they are regrettable.

I have the privilege of serving on the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. However, in what I am about to say, I speak purely for myself and not for the committee or, indeed, for our chairman, who is to speak shortly. In the face of those developments, I believe that we need to tighten up the procedures for earlier scrutiny. This is a matter which I hope will be considered by both Houses. I say that because it concerns both Houses, and I believe that there would be a very valuable development in this respect if both Chambers were to look at such propositions together.

As has been mentioned on a number of occasions, particularly from these Benches, the present Government's attitude to Parliament is disturbing. The Government have a huge majority in another place. As my noble friend Lord Renton said, that means the role of this House is that much greater. We certainly do not want a quango dependent on the patronage of the Prime Minister and shorn of an independent element. We were ticked off by the noble Lord the Leader of the House for resurrecting the phrase, "an elective dictatorship". If we are to avoid an elective dictatorship, we need a one-stage reform which will produce a House which is strengthened and invigorated to enable it to play its traditional role in the checks and balances of parliamentary government.

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4.50 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, the review committee chaired by Lord Home of the Hirsel reported in March 1978 that the provision of some measure of constitutional protection and safeguard was one of the functions of your Lordships' House. That is perhaps part of the value of our House to the nation, as was expressed in the masterly speech of the noble Earl, Lord Longford.

Whilst associating myself with personal tributes that have been paid to certain noble Lords opposite, I have to say that this administration is overtly authoritarian. They fail to honour the traditional relationships between government and parliament. This has been mentioned by many noble Lords, by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and in the remarkable speech of my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree. That was a most important speech on aspects of abuses of procedure, the "carry over" and the plea for earlier scrutiny.

The Government seek to use delegated legislation to create an unprecedented ministerial power. They have adopted the presidential style of bypassing Parliament. That is deviant from the traditions of our constitutional monarchy under the Queen in Parliament. Although as yet there is no imposition of absolute power--as under the reign of King Henry VIII--we are moving in that direction, as we are reminded from time to time by the Select Committee of your Lordships' House. One of the problems is that even in debate in your Lordships' House the manifesto myth and the electoral landslide are often invoked as justification. Does one not detect a whiff of arrogance somewhat reminiscent of that ill-fated and much regretted vaunt of triumph, "We are the masters now"?

A most disturbing feature of this new style of governance--that is what it is--is resort to primary legislation to create by regulation a nebulous ambit of ministerial power to impose the will of government in the light of circumstances as they evolve. This is in total derogation from the authority of Parliament and it inhibits the ability of Parliament to scrutinise and control actions of the Executive. For it is common ground that examination of regulations is all but perfunctory in another place. In your Lordships' House the custom is to decline to exercise our entitlement to pray against, amend or reject secondary legislation--a situation worthy of reappraisal on any proposals for reform for at present there is no effective parliamentary control or scrutiny. As my noble friend Lord Biffen said in his remarkable and authoritative maiden speech, control of the power of government is essential for democracy. This lack of control over the Executive is compounded by a wholly misplaced reliance upon an opinion of the Appellate Committee of your Lordships' House in Pepper v. Hart which is ill used for a purpose for which it was not intended. Ministerial assurances are offered as to how regulations may be implemented, in substitution for the drafting in primary legislation of the nature, purpose and scope of delegated powers. I hope your Lordships will allow me to mention a pretty horrifying example.

On 5th May in the Committee stage of the Fireworks Bill, my noble friend Lord Renton--the mildest and most measured of men--was constrained to say that he

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had never seen a Bill like this during his 53 years in Parliament, save in time of national emergency. He said that the Bill was without precedent. The Bill defined "fireworks" with reference to a specification; would-be fireworks were not defined. It was stated that this definition, or non-definition--which governed a whole panoply of diverse regulations; eight of them in that skeleton Bill--could be amended by regulation subject to annulment. That is a gross abuse. Naturally amendments were tabled to rectify that state of affairs. The amendments were opposed by the Government, who supported the Bill as drafted. They gave a ministerial assurance that this power to amend primary legislation by regulation is,

    "a power that we should expect to exercise only narrowly to make marginal adjustments to reflect the understanding at the time of what a firework is ... this power would be used only in the most restricted circumstances".--[Official Report, 5/5/98; col. 562.]

Such verbiage has no meaning. It lacks legal efficacy. It affords no protection to the subject as the courts are obliged to implement regulations unless ultra vires. It serves as no substitute for the proper drafting of primary legislation under which delegated, ministerial power is conferred.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, must have his fun and that is fair enough, but the reason he had his fun, using the concept of the elective dictatorship, is because he knows that now the prophetic wisdom of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, in this regard has come home to roost under this administration.

4.59 p.m.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, under the terms of the Motion of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, we are today discussing,

    "Parliament's place at the centre of the nation's affairs".

That is why I welcome the noble Viscount's decision on behalf of the Opposition to introduce this debate today. I regard that as crucially important to democracy.

That said, I hope that the noble Viscount will not think me unkind if in his absence I describe his speech as similar to a sermon by Satan on sin. It is almost as though this were the only Government in history who leaked aspects of policy to the press before Parliament was informed. That has been going on almost since the day Parliament was created. I do not condone it, but it has become built into the parliamentary procedures and democracy of this country.

On the basis that confession is good for the soul, the noble Viscount confessed that in government his party had neglected local government. I wish that were true. Far from neglecting local government, the past government damaged local government almost to the point of destroying it. Anyone who examines the record will be clear in his mind that the Greater London Council, for example, being seen as a threat to government, was abolished. The metropolitan counties throughout England were seen as a threat to government and were abolished. Legislation was introduced for anything seen as a threat to the Conservative Government of that time and the threat was abolished.

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The substantial reduction in the powers of the trade union movement was in order to remove what the government at that time saw as a threat.

Noble Lords opposite have referred to the question of Scotland and Wales. Although I am interested in Scotland, I shall not refer to that issue because we shall have an opportunity to deal with the Scottish position in some detail after the Whitsun Recess. I was interested to note that almost every noble Lord who spoke in the debate gave the impression that Parliament is only about the Government. Parliament is not only about the Government; it is about the Opposition too.

I understand that noble Lords opposite do not wish to mention the Opposition. If I were part of that Conservative Opposition, I should keep it as quiet as I could. It is the weakest and worst-led Opposition that we have had in parliamentary democracy since the Second World War. It is one of the great problems for Parliament at present. If anyone wants an example of the weakness of the Opposition, he need look no further than yesterday. Over three consecutive days, there has been a great build up on the radio as to how the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Howard, was going to destroy the Foreign Secretary on Sierra Leone. Yesterday the Shadow Foreign Secretary was wiped away like crumbs from the rich man's table. That is one of the best examples of the weakness of the Opposition. As we say in Scotland, "Put your own house in order before you start trying to tidy up anyone else's mansion". The Opposition, too, have a role in parliamentary democracy.

That brings me to my abiding interest on the relationship between the Back-Benches of both Houses and the Executive. For the past 25 years the Executive has had a stranglehold on Parliament. We have to consider how that came about. When I came to Parliament in the early 1970s, Back-Benchers could table two Oral Questions to government Ministers. The net effect was that groups got together using one of those Questions to conduct campaigns and the other for constituency issues. But that became a problem for the Government. The 1970-74 Conservative Government abolished that system.

When I came to Parliament, one could ask the Speaker of the House of Commons to count the House. If there were not 40 MPs in the House of Commons, the Government lost their business for the whole day. But that became a problem for the Government, so the Conservative Government abolished it.

When I came to Parliament, the quorum on any committee was 13, not including the chairman. It was easy to have a committee adjourned because there was no quorum. But that became a problem for the Government, so the Conservative Government reduced the quorum from 13 not including the chairman to 6 including the chairman. With a government Bill one had two Ministers for the department responsible for the Bill, and a Scottish or Welsh Minister. With three Ministers, one Whip, the chairman and one ambitious Back-Bencher--I have no complaints about anyone with ambition, and there was no shortage of ambitious Back-Benchers--one had one's quorum. Almost

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everything that became a problem for the Conservative Government was changed by them. So the relationship between the Back-Benches and the Executive was weakened considerably.

Having divided noble Lords, perhaps I can bring us all together again. It is in all our interests that Back-Benchers in both Houses of Parliament are given back their former powers in order to call to account the Executive on any occasion when that is necessary. Noble Lords may ask, "What about the Select Committees?" I recall a debate in another place when Select Committees were being established. Those of us who were not in favour of them argued that they would become a battle between the civil servants on the one hand and members of the Select Committee on the other. That is precisely what happened. The power and effect of the Select Committees was completely nullified because of the expertise and continuity involved.

I hesitate to mention this matter with the rumours of reshuffles, but Ministers do not last in perpetuity. However, civil servants seem to last a fair number of years. The battle between the Select Committees and the Civil Service has been damaging to the relationship between the Back-Benches and the Executive.

In conclusion, I am strongly in favour of the Motion calling attention to the need to restore Parliament to the centre of this country's affairs. But we have to find ways and means of doing so. There is no point in criticising the Government because they have a large majority; the people gave them a large majority. Perhaps I may say this to the noble Lord, Lord Renton. I suspect that the reason Clem Attlee never thought of resigning was that he was desperate to have the legislation creating the National Health Service on the statute book. We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Health Service, introduced by the Labour Government of which Clem Attlee was Prime Minister. I mention that as an aside because the noble Lord, Lord Renton, referred to it.

We have to return to a more civilised relationship between the Back-Benches and the Executive; and we have to find ways and means of doing so.

5.8 p.m.

Lord Alexander of Weedon: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition for initiating the debate. I admire the way in which he consistently upholds the role of Parliament in our society. From my personal dealings with him on behalf of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee I know the importance he attaches to parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, and his encouragement, support and backing within government were of the highest value to the work of the committee. I am glad that the trend he set has been endorsed by the similarly highly supportive approach which his successor as Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, takes to the work of our committee.

I believe that all of us would readily accept, simply as a proposition, that Parliament ought to be at the centre of the affairs of the nation. We may not have a formal constitution, but we would subscribe to the importance

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of the three-fold separation of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary. We tend to vaunt particularly our doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament. But the reality is markedly different. The modern system in which general elections are increasingly presidential, and where the parties within the House of Commons are heavily whipped, has brought us very close in recent years to the "elective dictatorship" against which my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham rightly warned us 20 years ago.

I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, describe the Executive as having "a stranglehold" on Parliament. That trend was noticeable during at least two parliaments of the previous Conservative administration, and has never been more marked than since the last election. It is reflected in the slightly muted and unreal spirit in which the work of this House is currently conducted. Noble Lords know that they may argue powerfully and convincingly, and sometimes successfully, in favour of amendments to legislation. However, there is something of an air of unreality about it all. For it is widely recognised that such amendments will, whatever their merits, generally be reversed by the Government using their juggernaut majority in the House of Commons. That devalues the work of this House, and the very ability of a government fiat to command the will of the legislature shows that Parliament has become ever less independent, ever less influential.

The erosion of meaningful parliamentary checks on the Executive increasingly leaves our independent and able judiciary as the sole check on the misuse of power. That is one reason why I supported the incorporation into our domestic law of the European Convention on Human Rights. I pay tribute to the skill, determination and promptness with which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor piloted the Bill through this House.

There is obviously a good deal that can be done to improve the work of the House of Commons. Recognition of that by the modernisation committee is welcome. Not least is the scrutiny of legislation. We in this House know how much legislation has come to us in the past relatively poorly thought out and ill-digested. The proposals first made by Mr. John Major when Prime Minister for greater pre-legislative consultation and scrutiny are valuable. The trend towards early consultation must ensure better considered legislation. Indeed, that is recognised in the deregulation Act, which provides for widespread prior consultation by government departments before ever a deregulation proposal is put forward for scrutiny by both Houses of Parliament. That procedure works well and merits wider use in pre-legislative scrutiny. I agree with every word said on this point by my noble friend Lord Dean.

Clearly, too, the way in which the House of Commons is composed determines its representative quality and the vigour of its work. However, I do not want to say much about that today. I am a member of the Independent Commission on Voting Reform--which has been quaintly described by my noble friend Lord Renton as, "this bunch of people"--chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. Our task is not to decide--I emphasise "not" to decide--whether there

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should be an alternative voting system. That is rightly for the people to decide. Our role is the more limited one of making recommendations as to the best form of alternative voting system, taking into account various criteria including broad proportionality and extension of voter choice. The intention, as I understand it, is that voters will then, through a referendum, decide whether they prefer that there should be change or that the existing system should be kept. The arguments will no doubt be strong and vigorous both ways. But what is important is that the people should be given a clear opportunity to decide how they want the Parliament, which after all represents them, to be made up.

Perhaps I may say a few words in conclusion about the long-trailed proposals for reform of this House. Change has been talked about for most of this century, and was famously foreshadowed in the Parliament Act 1910. It now seems to be high on the agenda and contemplated in earnest. I find it an immense privilege to take even a small part in the work of this House. A lot of valuable work is done here, particularly in the traditional role of the House as a revising Chamber. This work has proved remarkably durable in the 130 years that have passed since Walter Bagehot described the House as "a second-rate force".

But it seems increasingly hard, and I sense that at least some colleagues feel this, to sustain the notion of a second Chamber with a large element of hereditary membership. Nor is it easy to see how a Chamber which has in practice an inbuilt Conservative majority, whatever the complexion of the party in power, can carry long-term credibility. So I favour some change precisely in order to legitimise, underpin and support the work of this House.

What I do not like is the apparently piecemeal, or indeed salami slicing, approach to change. As I understand it, the likelihood is that the Government will seek to abolish the voting rights of hereditary Peers, but will not at the same time enact a total package for the revised composition of the House. I find that wholly unsatisfactory. I believe that the right course for the good of this House would be for a joint committee of all parties and Cross-Benchers to be working constructively together to come forward with all the changes that are needed to strengthen our work. However, I get the impression that neither the Government nor my own Front Bench are particularly keen to engage in such discussion. I am glad to see my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition indicating that I may have it wrong--because what I should like to suggest to the Leader of the House is that any failure to have a joint committee working on a package is deeply disappointing, and I passionately believe that it is wrong.

In the past, fine statesmen such as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and the noble Earl, Lord Home, were able to come forward constructively with a package which would have enabled valuable change to be made at a single stroke. We need that vision, and we need that wisdom now. I do not believe that it is for the good of this House to have a Bill that simply abolishes the voting rights of hereditary Peers and does not decide what to put in its place. Surely, every single one of us

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would agree that the importance of the proper composition and role of this House far transcends party politics.

If that is so, I would ask the Leader of the House--and perhaps the noble Lord the Minister will respond to this point, as he always responds directly to points put to him--to ask the Liaison Committee now to establish a committee of this House to come forward with a comprehensive package of reforms. I am encouraged from the indications given by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition during this debate to feel that he would place his authority and the strength of view of our party behind that approach.

This is an immensely important topic. The future is precious. Let us have a sensible way of deciding it once and for all.

5.20 p.m.

Lord Beloff: My Lords, I have never fully understood the workings of the "usual channels" in arranging lists of speakers. However, I note that, whatever the subject, I am always the 15th speaker. That gives me considerable latitude in deciding with which noble Lords I will disagree. On this occasion the choice is marked.

I shall begin, if I may, with the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, who referred to his belief that the Opposition in another place were extremely weak. I do not believe that he can have attended in recent times Prime Minister's Questions. If he had, he would have seen Mr. William Hague run rings around Mr. Tony Blair. That is not surprising since Mr. William Hague secured a first- class degree and Mr. Blair a second. Though I have no commitment to Papal infallibility, the infallibility of the Oxford examiners is unquestionable.

Again, because I do not wish to make this an occasion for party dispute, I disagree with my noble friend Lord Renton. My noble friend seems to be worried that under the facade--or whatever it may be called--of New Labour there lurks the monstrosity of socialist old Labour. I disagree with my noble friend, because if I had to choose between old Labour and New Labour, my sympathies would undoubtedly be with old Labour. In every advanced democratic society there ought to be a party which puts at the forefront of its consideration the betterment of the less well off. That, whether or not one agrees with the methods, was the prime moving force that created the old Labour party.

The trouble is--this is why I link this with the problem of New Labour--that we do not know what New Labour is all about. The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, referred to a seminar in Downing Street at which the Prime Minister was interrogating various second-rate dons and chaps from think-tanks in order to discover what it was all about. I would rather he had the company of dons than drug-addicted pop stars, so that is an improvement. But after a year in government the Prime Minister ought to know what it is all about.

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That leads me to a suspicion that there is indeed a governing idea; but the idea does not relate to matters of policy, foreign or domestic. It relates solely to changes in the constitutional structure which would guarantee a permanent Labour Government.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred to the golden age of mid-Victorian Britain. However, he may agree that if we take a slightly longer stretch of Victorian history--say from the first reform Act to the second--we will find that it was a period of great change, with many important reforms in our constitutional, administrative, domestic and social arrangements. All of those were the fruit of long and continuous debates in the House of Commons. Nothing was rushed. Items would appear on the agenda and be put back for a year or two while the House and the people became accustomed to the notion. What worries me about the present spate of constitutional reforms is that what in the Victorian age was put into a generation we are asked to accept within a matter of 12 months.

It may well be that the Prime Minister--I can see his difficulty--does not have a House of Commons which could, in the same way as the Victorian House of Commons, criticise, debate and consider issues of policy which demand a certain degree of intellectual concentration and perhaps a certain amount of time. As several noble Lords mentioned--I believe the noble Lord, Lord Davies, was the first--the House of Commons, as it is now constituted, was constituted by a landslide. What happens in a landslide? As we saw on television, in tragic circumstances, it deposits a great deal of mud. Looking at the Government Benches, as I frequently do--I spent two hours yesterday in preparation for this debate watching the House of Commons proceedings--one can see that not all Members would figure prominently in the kind of House which was available to the noble Earl's ancestors.

So these changes are made and they are dressed up in different ways, including, I must say to my noble friend Lord Alexander of Weedon, the disastrous notion of proportional representation in any form. In my lifetime I have seen two results of proportional representation which no one can doubt. It killed the Weimar Republic and brought Hitler to power; and recently it killed the peace process in the Middle East and put us all on the verge of another war in that region. I should have thought that by now people would think that proportional representation was to be avoided like the plague.

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