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Earl Russell: My Lords, will the noble Lord consider the possibility that the disasters to which he referred, especially in Germany, are the result of a large anti-democratic party? That is disastrous in any system of representation, whether proportional or otherwise.
Unlike the Leader of the House, I have considered in detail what Mr. Mandelson said. It illustrates my point exactly. If we believe in focus groups, citizens' juries, the odd plebiscite and the odd this and that, we are trying to build up a system of power in which a single party will nominate all those people, control their membership and decide their agenda. In fact, we are making way for what I believe to be the purpose of New Labour; that is, New Labour indefinitely prolonged.
Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate, which everybody will agree is important and topical. I believe that openness in government is of paramount importance and I believe that to be the view also of the Government. That includes openness in relation to Parliament.
The promise of transparency and openness was one of the pledges made to the electorate at the time of the general election. Despite some difficulties, the Government have honestly sought to carry that out. And in spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, said, devolution was intended to widen and deepen democratic participation. It was thought about and discussed for many months, indeed years, before being put into the party manifesto. As for referenda, they are intended not to replace Parliament but to add to the parliamentary process.
Of course, there has been a rather different view expressed today from the Opposition, notably by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. It was expected that the Opposition would make much of Sierra Leone. And not just today; the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, rather went over the top, if I may use that phrase again, when moving an amendment to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill last night. What his speech had to do with the amendment was rather difficult to see. However, I would emphasise that we are still at the stage of allegations being tossed about, and we have been promised an inquiry--in fact, two inquiries. I should have thought it advisable to postpone judgment until those have taken place.
Certainly, when in government, the Opposition took that view in relation to a number of embarrassing incidents in which their Ministers were involved. One has only to recall the affair of "arms for Iraq" and the "Pergau Dam affair". I remember so well how we queued up for our copies of the report of the Scott Inquiry--queued up at the Printed Paper Office for our copies of the massive report only to find that there was hardly any time to digest its contents before the debate took place. That was scarcely an example, I should have thought, of open government.
The attempt to follow an ethical foreign policy is, however, a very different matter. Very few people would quarrel with that as an aim. It is a popular objective and a start has been made with the ban on land mines. There are and will be difficulties. Situations are rarely black and white. There will be hard choices. Nothing could apparently be more unethical than the arms trade--the sale of arms often to leaders and governments of doubtful legitimacy--and the pursuit of an ethical policy could perhaps sometimes damage employment prospects in this country. Nevertheless, the aim is an entirely laudable one and I should have thought that the Opposition would have been fully in support of it.
It is not easy to bring some openness into the job of governing and legislating, particularly when the culture has clearly been somewhat different in the past, and restoring the powers of Parliament which have been undermined in the ways indicated so graphically by my noble friend Lord Ewing in his remarkable speech. But a start really does seem to have been made. In the other place there are proposals for explanatory memoranda to Bills to include Notes on Clauses and for some Bills to be drafted in advance and laid in the Session before they are debated to allow for greater pre-legislative scrutiny. Everyone has been demanding that there should be much more detailed scrutiny. Surely that is a good idea. The Select Committees have been strengthened, as my noble friend Lord Davies of Coity said, and Cabinet Ministers appear before them more frequently. There has been a greater number of Statements, with the Government utilising them as a means of giving more immediate information to Parliament. These are moves which everyone should welcome.
We live in an era when the media have become all powerful. There has been a cultural change in the past 10 or 15 years. There is enormous competition for readers leading to a constant search for sensationalism. Much of the low esteem in which politicians of all parties are said to be held by the public derives from the way in which what is done is filtered through the media. As we all know only too well, the reporting of what is actually done in Parliament has now diminished until it is practically non-existent. That used not to be the case. Nowadays, the press is interested in disputes, rifts, sensations, scandals affecting individuals and not much else. That makes the job of government very difficult.
In the circumstances, I think the present Government seem to be doing rather well. They clearly still retain their popularity and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister seems to have kept his amazing lead in
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Cranborne for initiating this debate. My noble friend has a record on both Front Benches in this House and in my view has gained the respect of the whole House.
Representative democracy and accountability are endangered species under the present Government. We are witnessing on a daily basis serial abuse of the authority of Parliament and it is becoming endemic. I make no apologies for repeating the quotation used by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition of Mr. Mandelson when he said:
The Government have a tendency to avoid taking policy decisions by instead using plebiscites and referenda, a technique used either by weak governments who wish to avoid making hard choices or governments who wish to use such devices to avoid addressing the detail of policy, where we all know the devil resides, and to sideline Parliament and the parliamentary process. We are also witnessing the sidelining of the Civil Service by resorting to the use of an unprecedented number of political advisers.
The use of pre-legislative referenda, the prolific use of Henry VIII clauses and the presentation to Parliament of skeletal Bills resulting in discussions and deliberations taking place in a vacuum are now daily occurrences. Examples include the referendum Bills for Scotland and Wales, the devolution Bills for Scotland and Wales, the Competition Bill, the National Minimum Wage Bill, the Teaching and Higher Education Bill and, more recently, the Social Security Bill where the Government inserted a whole new section on national insurance and taxation at Third Reading in this place which denied Committee and Report stage discussions in this place and Committee, Report and Third Reading stages in another place. My noble friend Lord Higgins
The scrutiny report on the School Standards and Framework Bill, already referred to, was the most severe that the committee has produced to date. Although only one recommendation of the report has been accepted by the Government, perhaps I may repeat the question posed by my noble friend Lord Cranborne. Will the Minister give an undertaking that each of the recommendations will be accepted and will be acted upon?
When in government, my party, and I as a part of that party on the Front Bench opposite, honoured every single recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. Indeed, I am on record as saying that as a Minister I found the scrutiny reports incredibly helpful not only to our deliberations in this House but in strengthening the hand of Ministers when dealing with civil servants in the department.
Another worrying feature of business in this House is the way in which Ministers avoid full answers to questions by professing that the subject at issue is not on their portfolio or that the subject is a matter for another parliamentary colleague and therefore not their responsibility in this House. It has been the convention of this House that when Ministers respond at the Dispatch Box they do so on behalf of the whole department and all their ministerial colleagues.
An even greater concern is the quality of Answers to Written Questions. I shall give two recent examples. I tabled Questions on two occasions for information about the number of applications for education action zone status and the nature of the leading applicant--whether it was an LEA or non-LEA interest. On both occasions I was refused the information only to discover that all the applications, in full, had been made available to a public body. I await an explanation as to why that happened. How can the Government justify such contempt of those of us in Parliament and in particular those of us who must meet our responsibilities as Members of the Official Opposition?
My other example is a Question I put to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. I join with all those on both Benches who have praised the effectiveness of the noble Lord in this House. I speak also of the occasions when I had to spar with him across the Dispatch Box when he was on the Opposition Benches. I could not have wished for more effective co-operation from an Opposition Member of this House nor could I have wished for a doughtier opponent in this House. Nevertheless, when I asked for a list of policy presentations that had been made in public in the past year and their cost I was told that to get the information would be disproportionately expensive. I merely say this: in the space of one year have there been so many without regard for costs?
As to House of Lords reform, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, the Lord Privy Seal, misses the point entirely. Should there be a need for reform--personally, I am not entirely convinced that that is the case--it should be approached in the context of Parliament as a whole. Assuming that there is to be a second Chamber, then its powers, functions and its relationship to another place should be determined. Then and only then the issue of composition should be addressed. Whatever is decided, the second Chamber should retain a substantial independent element.
However, what we are faced with is reform based on two things. First, this House is seen as opposition to Mr. Blair's Government and therefore it must be emasculated. Secondly, there is the long-established old Labour politics of envy. House of Lords reform is being used as a piece of raw meat--and, I might say, off the bone--to toss to the unhappy old Labour bunnies on the Benches in another place as a peace offering.
One has only to observe the serried ranks of obedient, passive, politically-neutered Members of New Labour on the Benches in another place to realise the influence of Messrs. Mandelson and Campbell on the executive. It is a matter of public record that the Prime Minister spends little of his time in Parliament. He has the poorest of voting records--another example of contempt for Parliament.
I, for one, do not underestimate what could be the outcome of the current legislative programme, skeletal, piecemeal and ill thought through though it may be. There is the dismantling of our constitution and, among other things, devolution for Scotland and Wales, London and the regions, and House of Lords reform. There is the assault on Oxford and Cambridge universities; the demise of grant-maintained schools and grammar schools; and a massive increase in bureaucracy and central control. There is the weakening of Parliament and its processes; the lessening of the influence of our Civil Service by political advisers; and the manipulation of the media--all culminating in strengthening and giving more power to No. 10 and the executive.
Lord Naseby: My Lords, I wish to concentrate on just two issues, but I shall make one or two general observations before I go into a little detail. First, I believe that it is no surprise to Members of your Lordships' House that my noble friend the Leader of the
Secondly, the Leader of the House highlighted the fact that 51 Ministers had attended the Select Committees, presumably in the past year, and that this was a 20 per cent. improvement on the figures for the previous government. I am not here to challenge his statistics; I am sure they are right. However, I suggest to your Lordships that the interpretation which is placed on those statistics needs a little examination.
For a start, it is normal at the beginning of any Parliament for there to be a substantial number of Ministers to attend the Select Committees. I do not know whether the 20 per cent. increase was made at the beginning of those Parliaments. Furthermore, it suggests to your Lordships that if the whole drive of the communications policy of the Government is to suggest to Ministers that they should attend the Select Committees and that suggestion is put to the clerks and the chairmen of the Select Committees, it is not surprising that they are invited and they turn up. So I do not believe that one should give too much credence to the number of Ministers who have attended the Select Committees.
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