Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, in referring to the referendum on this issue did the noble Lord say "when" or "if"?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not know which I said. I do not speak from a script. When the Government have decided that it is right for the country to adopt the euro they will proceed, but only after a decision of Parliament and then the decision of the people in a referendum. Our present position is prepare and decide.

I challenge the contention that the constitutional changes that are taking place weaken Parliament and democracy. All of them were spelt out very precisely in the Labour Party manifesto which was endorsed overwhelmingly in the general election less than two years ago. The devolution settlements have been approved in referendums. The legislation has been discussed and amended, despite the comments of some noble Lords, and passed by Parliament. Voters will return to the ballot boxes to elect members of the devolved bodies. Is that undemocratic? I do not believe that it is.

The constitutional changes will be underpinned by incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Freedom of Information Bill. Both measures will strengthen our democracy and not undermine respect for Parliament. Indeed, they will extend the rule of law and greater disclosure of information. I believe that both of those are objectives for which Members of your Lordships' House have pressed for many years.

I should like to say a word about the quality of legislation. Criticism has been made of some legislation. When we had a comparable debate in May of last year, it was conspicuous how many noble Lords said that the quality of legislation had on the whole improved. I do not know whether that is universally the case. I am sure that there is a long way to go. However, since May of last year the introduction of explanatory notes to legislation has made it enormously simpler for Members of Parliament and your Lordships' House to understand what legislation is intended to do and what it actually does.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, for his observations about the extension of pre-legislative scrutiny. We set up a joint committee to examine the draft Financial Services and Markets Bill. A Select Committee in the Commons is taking evidence on the draft Food Standards Bill. Two other Bills have already been examined. There will be further draft Bills this Session on freedom of information, local government and the funding of political parties. That is a practical way of maintaining respect for Parliament.

We are doing more about the consideration of Bills. The explanatory notes to which I have referred give Members of both Houses a clearer understanding of legislation. We have introduced informal meetings in

17 Mar 1999 : Column 794

this House involving Members of the House, Ministers and officials on specific Bills. In the Commons we have revived the procedure for the establishment of Special Standing Committees. This very week the Immigration and Asylum Bill is going through a Select Committee-style evidence-taking phase. From the start of this Session we have brought into effect Section 19 of the Human Rights Act at the earliest opportunity so that every government Bill will be accompanied by a ministerial statement on compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights.

As to European legislation, we have implemented our manifesto commitment to overhaul the system of scrutiny. Changes have been made to the procedures of both Houses to ensure that documents under the second and third pillars of the Treaty of Maastricht are subject to parliamentary scrutiny. We have also taken steps to improve non-legislative scrutiny in both Houses. I refer to the committee of this House that deals with monetary policy following changes to the rules of the Bank of England. A joint committee on human rights will be set up later this year. In the Commons there is a new cost-cutting Environmental Audit Committee. None of these is the action of a government lacking respect for Parliament.

I should like to make a few comments on some of the negative points made about the accountability of Ministers and the Government in general to Parliament. I do not accept the factual basis of some of the criticisms that have been made. I agree that the Prime Minister answers Questions only once a week, but he does so for 30 minutes instead of 15 minutes, so it is the same time in total as that for his predecessor. He is much less likely to miss these sessions through international commitments. He has missed only one session since the general election, and that was at the time of the Good Friday agreement. He has answered more Questions, and for longer, than his predecessor over a comparable period. He has also made 17 Statements to the House on such matters as Northern Ireland, Iraq and Europe, compared with 10 by his predecessor in a comparable period.

Referring to Statements, obviously a government elected in 1997 after a long period in opposition would be bound to be active. But if we failed to have respect for Parliament we would have had fewer, not more, Statements. In the previous Session, 117 Statements were made to both Houses, compared with 97 in an equivalent period after the 1992 election. We spent more time on Statements in the Commons and have had more Private Notice Questions, and there were 82 appearances by Cabinet Ministers before Commons Select Committees in the previous Session.

I heard what noble Lords said about leaks. We take the criticisms of the Speaker very seriously indeed. There are several kinds of leaks. Some leaks may be official or semi-official. The Speaker has criticised such leaks. It is far more likely that it is impossible to keep policy away from the media given their present power and the intense scrutiny to which government actions are subject by an increasingly powerful media. That reached a climax when I heard the complaints about the leaks on the Statement concerned with access to the

17 Mar 1999 : Column 795

countryside and the right to roam. The complaints were not that the leaks were right but that they were wrong. On which side are we? Are we complaining about information getting out or saying that if the information gets out it should be accurate? There is also the question of leaks from Select Committees to Ministers. That is a serious matter which is being investigated by the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee. Noble Lords would not wish me to anticipate the outcome of that matter.

Having covered the main themes of the debate, I should like to respond to some special points raised by individual noble Lords. I begin with the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington. He made a very powerful speech about the role of communication between the public, the media and government.

I note that in an excellent maiden speech, the noble Lord, Lord Bell, described his business as being the management of reputation. I note that in referring collectively to the terrible triplets Chadlington, Bell and Saatchi, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, referred to their trade as "communication". When the Conservatives do it, it is communication; when the Labour Party does it, it is spin doctoring. Is that the distinction? I just want the definitions on the record.

However, I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, said. He referred to special advisers. Let me assure the noble Lord that the position of special advisers has been regularised since the election. Their model contract was made public for the first time in May 1997. My experience of special advisers is that rather than politicising the Civil Service, they have made it possible to maintain the Civil Service code for those who are civil servants by separating those activities which are properly party activities rather than making it more difficult for civil servants. If noble Lords were civil servants, I think that they would generally agree. The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was famous for having a thorough press summary at eight o'clock every morning. I have one too, but it is not paid for by the taxpayer; it is produced by the Labour Party, and very good it is too. That is another example of the separation of politics from the role of the Civil Service.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I doubt whether he can answer now, but perhaps he can look into the matter and write to me. I am informed that the political advisers to the Secretary of State for Scotland will resign in order to campaign with the Secretary of State for Scotland who hopes to be the leader of the Labour Group for the Scottish parliamentary elections. Will they be reappointed as members of the Civil Service after the election?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not know the answer. I shall write to the noble Lord. I suspect that there may not be an answer. I suspect that no one knows whether they would want to be reappointed even if that were possible. But I can assure the noble Lord that whatever decisions of that kind are

17 Mar 1999 : Column 796

taken, they are taken in public; they are taken by the Secretary to the Cabinet; and they are taken in accordance with published codes.

In an excellent two-minute speech, the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, made a complicated seven-part syllogism which concluded with a proposal for a lease-lend scheme for distinguished Cross-Benchers. I think that he should consult the Cross-Benchers rather than expect a response to that from Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, could repeat the four positive points he made in evidence to the Neill Committee which is consulting now on the effectiveness of its first report. I am sure the noble Lord knows where to go for that. He asked me about the People's Panel and the publication of the results. He is entirely right. The results have been published so far, and they will continue to be published. They are available, if nowhere else, on www.servicefirst.gov.uk. I apologise for the somewhat Orwellian name of the website, but it is there.

I have taken up enough of your Lordships' time. I am sorry if I have not responded to some of the more negative points. This has been a very mixed debate. There have been some excellent speeches; and there have been some of the worst speeches that I have heard in my time in your Lordships' House. It is only right that I pass on, having said that. However, I hope that I have shown that this Government recognise the need for an effective democracy of which an effective Parliament and House of Commons are a part. We recognise the difficulties of maintaining that, but we are determined that it will continue.

7.44 p.m.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I feel indebted to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for the courteous way in which he sat through the debate, and the way in which he summed up the matter. I shall not take him up on any of the points he made, although I do not agree with him that any of the speeches we heard today were other than extremely useful and well informed. I think that we have had a very good debate. We have had excellent contributions from experienced parliamentarians such as the noble Lords, Lord Shore of Stepney, and Lord Weatherill. We have heard from experts in the handling of the media (or whatever is the appropriate way to describe their activities).

I am grateful to every noble Lord who has taken part in the debate. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page