Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I may be wrong, but I did not hear the noble Lord saying that when his party was in office. If it is unsatisfactory, let us hear some positive suggestions for improvement.

A number of noble Lords referred to the use of guillotines in the Commons. That has been a feature of parliamentary activity over many years. However, we have been able to improve on the situation by programming proceedings by agreement on several major Bills on the Floor of the Commons. As a result, the Government have had to use guillotine Motions only three times: on the Finance Bill, the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill last year, and the European Communities (Amendment) Bill before Christmas. Those who sat through the European Communities (Amendment) Bill in this House might have felt that the availability of a guillotine would have been no bad thing.

The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, said that we guillotined the Scotland and Wales Bill. We did not; there was an agreed timetabling Motion.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. The point about the use of the guillotine was made in relation to matters of constitutional importance; it was not that it had been used only three times in relation to three Bills. I regard the Finance Bill and referendum Bills as constitutional matters.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I have to disagree. The referendum Bill is a paving Bill for the real constitutional Bills, which are the Scotland and Wales Bills. Nobody has ever suggested to me before that the Finance Bill is a constitutional Bill. However, it is a fact that the use of the guillotine has declined since the previous government left office.

There has also been reference--my noble friend Lord Richard referred to this--to the improvements in the Select Committee procedure in the House of Commons. I was glad to have that confirmed again by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree. We have two larger committees, each with two sub-committees, to monitor the work of the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. We have a new Select Committee on Environmental Audit and a Public Administration Committee which brings together responsibility for the public service and the work of the ombudsman.

There was some reference to the Prime Minister's attendance in the House at Question Time. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to it. I have to tell the House that the Prime Minister has spent longer in the House at Prime Minister's Questions than his predecessor did during the

13 May 1998 : Column 1145

same period, and that his record of attendance in the House stands up very favourably when compared to that of his predecessor.

Lord Naseby: My Lords--

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, this is a timed debate. I will give way to the noble Lord, but I cannot continue to give way.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, just to correct the record, when the noble Lord checks Hansard, he will note that I did not make one mention of that fact.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am delighted to have that on record. If I am wrong, I apologise to the noble Lord.

One of our manifesto commitments was to improve the scrutiny of European Union legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, referred to that point. We have already agreed to extend the terms of reference of the Commons European Legislation Committee to include subjects dealt with under the inter-governmental pillars. The scrutiny reserve will be extended to political agreement at European Councils. The modernisation committee in the Commons is considering the examination of further changes. The House of Lords European Communities Committee, whose reports have consistently drawn deserved praise, has produced a report on the scrutiny of the third pillar which is due for debate in this House, and I hope that that will be soon. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, will, I hope, forgive me if I do not go into the wider non-parliamentary issues that he raised.

In relation to parliamentary Questions, I was grateful for the comment of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that the quality of Answers has improved. I acknowledge the point he made that they have not improved enough--for him at any rate. But we do try. We have certainly not been doing any less in quantity, if not in quality. For example, the Prime Minister has dealt with 40 per cent. more written parliamentary Questions than occurred under the previous administration. The extent to which my noble and right honourable friends have been willing to answer questions that were previously pushed aside has been remarkable.

I now turn to parliamentary privilege and delegated powers and scrutiny. As the House will know, the noble Lord, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, has been appointed to chair a joint committee on parliamentary privilege to address such issues as the prosecution of MPs for bribery and modernising parliamentary privilege.

There is much debate on delegated powers and deregulation. I have tried to find specific allegations about delegated powers and deregulation and whether we have been negligent or shown ill-will in our reaction to the reports. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, claimed that the previous government always obeyed the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. Perhaps I may remind the noble Baroness of just one example; namely, the Railways Act 1993. The Delegated Powers Scrutiny

13 May 1998 : Column 1146

Committee, as it then was, called for consideration of the exclusion of the hybrid process--an absolutely essential element in the Railways Bill--and said that the House should think most carefully before allowing that to take place. "Most carefully", in the wording of the scrutiny committee, is a very serious criticism. In reply, for the Government, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, opposed the amendment to give effect to the report of the committee. The Government whipped against it, and the amendment was defeated by six votes.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, referred to criticisms of the Fireworks Bill. What he neglected to say was that the form of words was approved by the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred to the answers given by my noble friend Lady Blackstone to questions on education action zones. It is my duty to reply to that. I can confirm that she will be in a position in June to announce which zones will start in September and which next January. At present, teams from the standards and effectiveness unit are visiting applicants to test the quality of their applications. In April, the 60 applications received were initially appraised by an advisory panel consisting of DfEE administrators and advisers, Ofsted, the Government Offices in the regions, and representatives from the standards task force, a head teacher, the director of education of an LEA and a business representative.

Before the advisory panel was established, the Local Government Association sought involvement in the assessment of the applications. The department's view was that it would not be appropriate for it to have formal representation; however, it was agreed at official level that we would let its offices see copies of the applications and would take note of any comments they offered. In the event, no comment was forthcoming. So there was no inconsistency. No final decisions have been taken, nor will be taken until well into June. As soon as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State takes decisions he will inform both this House and another place.

The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, made reference to the National Audit Office and the remit of the Public Accounts Committee. Certainly, we must all be concerned to see that that remit is not in any way reduced. However, this Government have increased the remit of the Public Accounts Committee and the NAO to include royal expenditure and lottery funding through Camelot. I hope that that will, if not satisfy, at least please the noble Lord.

A number of noble Lords referred to the comments of Madam Speaker made on a number of occasions about the need to make statements to Parliament first rather than to the press. Madam Speaker has said that, and a number of noble Lords have acknowledged that previous Speakers have said the same thing. Madam Speaker said it about the previous Conservative government. I am not attempting to shift responsibility by saying that it has always happened. It has always happened, but it should not happen at all. However, I have gone through Madam Speaker's comments with great care. Her responses to Opposition complaints are

13 May 1998 : Column 1147

always a general statement that it should not happen rather than an agreement that it has happened in a particular case. Of course it should not happen and we must continue to give the same care as we always have to ensure that it does not.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, made a specific complaint about not receiving an answer on the costs and number of policy presentations. The excessive cost referred to in the answer she was given was the cost of providing the information to her; we are not talking about the excessive cost of policy presentations. I am proud of the policy presentations we make. It is a proper role of government and I am sorry that it was not possible, within the rules of answering parliamentary questions, to answer the specific question of the noble Baroness.

We heard the usual comments in regard to spin doctors and in particular in relation to Mr. Peter Mandelson. I will not add to the full answer given by my noble friend Lord Richard in relation to Mr. Mandelson's speech, except to say--since it did not seem to sink in--that when he talked of other democratic means he did not mean instead of Parliament; he was saying specifically that other means of communication are complementary to Parliament. That was the essence of his speech. There was no detriment whatever to Parliament in what he said.

I felt that my noble friend Lord Desai was a little unfair. He criticised the use of information technology in Westminster. If he looks at the parliamentary website now he will see that it is the most comprehensive in the world.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page