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Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am glad to have obtained that response from the Opposition. The amount of parliamentary business is not a unique burden imposed by this Government. In 1980, for example, the Conservative administration acted as newly elected administrations often do to achieve the programme on which they were elected. That administration put 57 government Bills through this House, compared with a total of 27 in 1998-1999.

If we are not prepared seriously to examine the issues of timetables and social hours, I am afraid that there will be increasing difficulty in attracting those whom we would all wish to see as working Members of the House. Those with professional and business careers and who enjoy professional distinction outside the House add greatly to its authority, but they do not expect the vagaries of timetable that our present arrangements produce. These days people are not

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prepared to order their working lives so that they never know whether they are going to finish at 7 p.m. or midnight. This is especially true of younger people and for everyone with family responsibilities.

The Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords proposes a chamber that encourages membership from under-represented groups. It proposes that at least one-third of the membership should comprise women. Frankly, I think that it may be difficult to achieve and sustain this proper ambition with our present working practices.

Following last year's reforms, this House operates less like an exclusive gentleman's club. But there is much more we can now do to make it an attractive modern environment for effective work. I suggest that these are issues that can be considered and not postponed until further constitutional reform.

This debate offers an important opportunity to look critically at ourselves in the context of the changes that have taken place in working practices in other legislatures and in the outside world.

In conclusion, last year my noble friend Lady Hilton of Eggardon chaired a very useful working party on procedures. In 1994, Lord Rippon's inquiry produced far-reaching proposals on saving the time of the House. If we believe--as I do--that there could be still further practical change to the benefit of Parliament and its Members, we should build on that experience and find a mechanism to consider progress now. I am hopeful that practical, useful proposals will emerge this afternoon and as Leader of the House I look forward to working to achieve them.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, is already an institution in this House. He has been here long enough to see many changes. As he well knows, the most useful changes have always been those adopted by agreement within. I respect his honesty and integrity. He is a party loyalist but he is also an independent man. He, no more than I, would want to see an attempt by the Executive to "mug" this House under the misnomer of modernisation.

Let me make clear where I stand on these matters as Leader of the Opposition as well as a simple Member of the House. We should not make changes in our procedures for our own personal convenience--still less that of Ministers--but only such changes as enable our House to operate more effectively in scrutinising not just this Government but all governments. I believe that in essence that was the point that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, made.

As the noble Baroness the Leader of the House said, this House is not one that never changes. Let us consider some of the things that have happened during the time that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, has been a Member of the House. I refer to the Denham Convention; the strengthening of the Select Committees of the House and the creation of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. These and many other changes have been agreed by this House. They range from sparing the noble and learned Lord

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the Lord Chancellor from the necessity to wear breaches or to read out the Queen's Speech to far more significant issues--these were not recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Peston--such as suspending Peers' right to re-open issues voted on in Committee and lost. Therefore no one should claim that this House rejects change; quite the reverse is the case.

The noble Baroness the Leader of the House mentioned the introduction of the Grand Committee or Moses Room procedures. Some see this as an example to debate more widely at Committee stage. However, it is not a change that has been entirely successful, I fear. The use of the Moses Room was intended to relieve pressure on the Chamber--to reduce the number of late Sittings. All that has happened is that governments have tried to cram even more business into already overloaded timetables. Here is an example of a way of improving the working practices of this House which has failed and has simply allowed governments to snatch an advantage. The number of sittings which last until after 10 p.m. has risen, not fallen. That is not because the Opposition are any better than their predecessor, or more tiresome, but because the Government are pushing through more major, and often poorly drafted, Bills. We should be wary of not making it easier for governments to stuff the legislative sausage machine ever more tightly with ever less scrutiny.

We have had two record Sessions since 1997. That is perhaps not surprising on the part of a new government. But already, it seems, we face another, and this is after we have devolved Scottish legislation to the Scottish Parliament. The insatiable appetite of the Whitehall bureaucracy never seems to wane.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt. I know that it is a timed debate, but there is a certain amount of flexibility.

I referred to only one figure in my opening remarks. Perhaps the noble Lord would care to comment on the fact that during the year 1979-80, under a Conservative government, the total number of Bills passed in this House was 71; in the second Session of that government it was 57; and in the third 60. In the first Session under this Government it was 52 and in the second 27. Does that reflect what the noble Lord is describing?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I make two points in response. First, successive governments are all guilty of that. Secondly, the noble Baroness will recognise the weight and size of the Bills that have been introduced by this Government and the weight and number of amendments. No doubt the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip, when he responds to the debate, will confirm that record numbers of amendments have been agreed in this House during the last two Sessions of Parliament.

It must be right to review our procedures from time to time, but I have always felt that the Procedure Committee is effective enough to do that. Perhaps that should be the way forward.

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I dislike the wording of the Motion because it implies that the workings of the House are somehow outdated and unfit for the 21st century--even for the first decade of the 21st century--and that they should therefore, in the cliche of Blairism, be "modernised" or changed to fit into what the noble Baroness called "contemporary life". Change for change's sake is not a good maxim, particularly for the procedures of Parliament.

I am all for changes which strengthen the ability of this House to do its job and which improve the committee system in order better to scrutinise governments. For instance, I am all for the new Economics Committee, which the noble Lord, Lord Peston, has championed; for a new Constitutional Committee; for a truly independent Appointments Commission; for shorter ministerial answers; for a weekly Question Time of the Leader of the House; and for better scrutiny of the mass of regulations that all too often amount to "rule by decree" by government departments. But when it comes to modernisation, I am a sceptic.

Whether on the receiving end in government or on the scrutinising end in opposition, I have come to see the open procedures of this House as a treasure store of parliamentary freedom. In my view, if this House is to function effectively as a revising chamber, there is one prerequisite of fundamental importance, and that is to preserve the freedom of Back-Benchers in this House.

We are a House of equals. A Bill Committee is a conversation of the whole House; every Peer has a right to set down business, to ask questions, to propose amendments and to take the opinion of the House. That business, those questions, those amendments will always be heard. It is important that we should maintain those rights--and that would include the right to take the opinion of the House.

After all, what is the function of Parliament if not to express an opinion? Nothing provides government Ministers with more incentive to explain a case and to draft legislation properly than the fear of facing a difficult vote at a time not necessarily to their convenience or of their choosing.

We--and Back-Benchers in particular--are fortunate that there is no mandatory grouping or selection of amendments; no ban on manuscript amendments, except at Third Reading; and no curtailing of discussion by timed votes. Do we, for the convenience of a few Ministers, want to be the generation that looks back and says, "Yes, we were the House that introduced the guillotine into the Second Chamber"? The Government do not have a stranglehold on our timetable or our business, as in another place; we do it by agreement--and, surprisingly, it works rather well.

There is therefore in this House the implicit contract mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. The newest Back-Bencher has the same right to press his or her point as the most venerable former Leader of the House. That is the mark of a truly free House. I do not want to see that changed; I do not want to see matters

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rearranged for the convenience of the Front Benches rather than the Back Benches; I do not want us to lose, for example, the minimum intervals that protect this House from the executive railroading legislation through, as all too often happens in another place.

I have heard it said that some of our newer colleagues are annoyed that they have to spend time hanging around in the evening waiting for a vote. To them I say, "Welcome to Parliament". They will have to learn that that goes with the privilege of being a Member of this Parliament.

I shall say one thing about "family friendly". I am the father of three small children. They are in bed in the evening and therefore I am free to do my work in this House. But my children, who are of school age, revel in playing with me in the mornings. I find the idea of going to morning sittings rather more complicated than other noble Lords whose children may be older. I am not saying that there is not a case for it; I am simply saying that it is not quite as obvious as some of its proponents believe.

If you curtail discussion on an issue, you curtail the freedoms of this House. This House does not filibuster; I trust that it never will. Equally, it looks into the nooks and crannies of the law; I hope that it always will. Too often I have the sense that some in the executive considers Parliament at best a boring formality and at worst a tiresome nuisance, to be swatted or bypassed whenever it can be.

I hope that when we come to look at our procedures we shall remember that they are the product of the wisdom of many generations; that they are part of the safety glass in our constitution; and that they are one reason why a perceived House of privilege has so often been the defender of the weak and the disabled when the other House has been rolled over into submission by the Whips of the government of the day. I believe that, far from encroaching on the free procedures of this House, we should be exporting some of our freedoms to another place. Any changes to procedure that we consider should begin and end with one great principle--that is, to build a stronger and more independent Parliament. That would surely be a noble cross-party objective for politics in the 21st century.

3.56 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I, too, from these Benches, welcome the bold and far-ranging Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Peston. It will result in something of a portfolio of a debate, with many rather different ideas about somewhat unrelated subjects, but it need not be the worse for that. I very much liked the tone of the noble Lord's remarks; it was what I would call "moderate radicalism". He was looking at the case for change but not assuming that we could in some way fundamentally alter the character of the House. This seems precisely the moment for the House to be discussing the issue. Following the changes, which occupied us for much of last year, the House has become more confident in a way that we could not have foreseen. That is good; but it places new

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responsibilities on us. The changes to the composition of the House have brought into it more men and women with recent and valuable professional interests. We have to take account of that as well. My conclusion is that we are a rather better House than we were a year ago. It is therefore entirely right that we should review its work and consider how Members of the House can best contribute to it.

I follow the noble Lord, Lord Peston, in a great deal of what he said. Certainly, when it comes to legislation, the official conduct of business does not involve a failure to scrutinise. On the contrary, if we are orderly and there is a large measure of agreement on both sides of the House, the Government are more likely to get their legislation through in good time. At the same time, the opposition parties will have reasonable opportunities to have their amendments accepted.

The noble Lord referred to "constructive engagement" and to "flexibility". It would be a very good thing if all in the House today--government and opposition parties--agreed on more flexibility in matters relating to legislation.

Where I do not necessarily follow the noble Lord--or, for that matter, the Leader of the House--is in the attempt to look for a "family friendly" House, to use what seems to be developing as the conventional description. Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness put forward powerful arguments that need to be seriously considered.

However, I counsel caution. First, it is very important that the House should not reduce its effectiveness in relation to government by changing the balance in favour of the government of the day, of whichever party. It would be very easy for the Government to say, "Go home early; stay away--except when we require you to be here to enable us to get our business through." That is not the way to approach the second Chamber. We need balanced debate on all issues; we must not simply be creatures of the government in terms of how we do our job. Back-Benchers on all sides can be a nuisance to government. However, if they spent too much time with their families they would be rather less of a nuisance than they ought to be.

Secondly, all professional people, certainly in mid-career, have very demanding hours. Those hours involve evenings away. I hope that we do not complain too much about the life that we lead. Most of us rather enjoy it. I say that both in relation to Members of this House and Members of another place as well. Let us not complain too much. It is a hard life for many men and women pursuing their careers, whatever those careers may be. It follows from my comments about the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that as between change and the status quo I unequivocally vote for change, although it must be sure-footed and enduring. It must be incremental to achieve those purposes. Change which the House is obliged to accept against its best judgment is not change which will survive. The more there can be broad consensus for change, and for particular changes, the better.

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Perhaps I may summarise the areas of change I should like to see. First, I think we should consider and, if we agree, implement without delay all those recommendations of the Wakeham report which do not require legislation. I do not press that further today because I think that the approach I have suggested would be fully consistent with avoiding the cherry-picking--however much some of us might like it--against which the Leader of the House has set her face. Many recommendations in the Wakeham report chime very well with points made in the past by noble Lords on all sides of the House. I see no reason why--indeed the Liaison Committee is considering some of the recommendations now--at an early date the House should not have an opportunity of reaching agreement on those proposals.

Secondly, we should refuse to allow any Treasury reservations to prevent or inhibit the expansion of the Select Committee system. This cannot happen quickly. It requires Members willing to serve. We all know that there are problems of accommodation. But we should not treat the Treasury as a private bank which will allow us only a drip-feed for any changes we want to see. We are a very cheap House, compared even with the Commons, and it is very important that the argument that the Treasury will not like it should not carry if we decide, as I hope we will, to expand our Select Committee system in a number of important directions.

Thirdly, I hope we can adopt a more efficient system for the management of our part of the Palace of Westminster. I have seldom sat through more unsatisfactory meetings than those of the Offices Committee of this House, for reasons that most of those who have been members of it will readily know. By any standards, the Offices Committee, as presently constructed, is a very poor advertisement for the way Parliament conducts itself. I hope we shall see some change. Indeed, I wonder whether the time has come for a House of Lords Commission, comparable to the Commons Commission, which, it seems to me, gives responsibility to a wide spread of Members and yet allows the House of Commons finally to decide. I ask only that we look hard at more efficient management--and that the House is receptive to it when the time comes--of the prosaic aspects of our business.

Fourthly, I hope that the time will come, and the mechanism does exist, for considering jointly with the House of Commons some better ways of working together. I have more than once mentioned from these Benches, without many enthusiastic nods except from the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that there is a case for all Bills having a Second Reading first in the Commons, and then coming for Committee, Report and Third Reading to this House before moving back to the Commons. I think there would be real advantages for government. Furthermore, it would enable this House of Parliament to scrutinise legislation before the government of the day are irrevocably committed to it because it has been through the elected House. I think

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that legislation would be better, and I think that this House would feel more satisfied that its flexibility had achieved the purposes it is meant to serve.

There is scope for change--for incremental change. We should not postpone it until after the general election. Let us begin now. And we should not postpone it until further reform of your Lordships' House.

4.5 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, it seems right and proper that at this point in deliberations all the discussions that are taking place in various quarters should be brought together on the Floor of this House to give us the opportunity to hear what is going on in other quarters. So we are particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for this initiative.

I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, for her openness to reform and her readiness to discuss the relationship between the personal lives of Members of this House and their effectiveness here. I should like to support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, about the urgency of getting on with the non-legislative matter contained in the Wakeham report.

I hope I do not need to repeat the keen and continuing interest of the Bishops on these Benches in the reform of both the membership and the workings of this House. A great deal of work is going on, with a group of Bishops looking at detailed responses to the Wakeham report. We are hoping to be in discussion with the Government about that.

I should like to make one very general point and then two more detailed but minor points. The general point concerns the ethos of this House, which the Bishops very much appreciate. The workings of the House reflect that distinctive ethos. It is not perhaps professional in the political terms of another place, which is rightly so. That does not make the House less effective but it does make for a different approach to debate and decision-making. It is certainly my hope that we should retain something of that distinctive ethos.

Many Members of this House make their best contributions because they are not tied to party affiliation. Many Members--not by any means only Bishops--make their best contributions because they hold responsible jobs and exert an influence in their regions and within their professions. Therefore, they are able to bring quite distinctive professional commitments, views and responses to this House.

In any new working arrangements, means should be found to include those without party affiliation and who are not full-time participants in the committee and other machinery which makes this House effective and efficient. I think I would extend that argument to include the retention of Bill scrutiny on the Floor of the House, rather than farming it out to a committee that is hidden away somewhere else in this place. It

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does make it much easier for those of us who cannot be here every day to participate in Bill reform when it takes place here in the Chamber.

That is my general point. I want to make two smaller but significant points. One is that these Benches appreciate very much the very significant attendance at the daily prayers of the House. We believe that they are integral to our working; that work and worship are two parts of a single song. Although there may be room for some discussion about the content and the style of those prayers, we hope that any working arrangements of the House that are under discussion might retain that as an essential feature of our life.

Finally, could those who are looking at the workings of the House of Lords in the 21st century please look at why it requires 26 of its Members to dress in the 17th century style? We are quite ready to continue with our dog-collars as a sign of the proper humility that would be expected of us, but robes simply make for billowing in the corridors and perspiration in the Chamber.

4.10 p.m.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I sense that in this debate noble Lords probably want to talk about procedures rather than facilities. However, the two are connected and it is just worth remembering that improvements in facilities do not necessarily improve the workings of a place any more than do changes in procedures. For instance, more office accommodation and more secretarial assistance undoubtedly accelerated the decline in attendance in the Chamber of the House of Commons and, consequently, the importance and influence of debates there. Anyone who has been in the other place would not doubt that for one moment.

We are greatly indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for his reasonable and conciliatory approach. I certainly agree with him that this is not an appropriate time for a full-blown inquiry into our procedures with a view to major change. It is not an appropriate time simply because we have gone through so much change recently in any event and we have little idea yet what effect those changes will have on the authority of our House and the balance between the two Chambers, let alone what effect any Wakeham changes may have. It cannot be disputed that some procedural changes could have a dramatic effect on our ability to check the Government and cause them to pause and think again. No one questions for one moment the right of the Government to get their business. What is open to question is whether it should be made easier for a government to get their business; and easier at a time when most commentators recognise that there has been a decline in the authority of the other place and in its ability and willingness to check the executive.

Two separate factors seem to have been at work. I have canvassed these in debate before and so I shall put them only in summary form. First, the Prime Minister has adopted a policy of bypassing Parliament whenever possible. The most obvious example is the

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practice of making important policy statements outside Parliament rather than within, which time and time again has attracted adverse comment from Madam Speaker. Secondly, the Government have sought, not always successfully, to take a very firm grip on the Parliamentary Labour Party, threatening with draconian penalties those who step out of line. If I, when Chief Whip, had tried to enforce a rule requiring Members to tell me if they were going to table any Motion, amendment or Prayer, people would have thought that I had gone off my head. When the House of Commons has been weakened, let us for goodness' sake be jealous of our own procedures.

I am sure that noble Lords opposite are keenly aware of the fact that Labour will not be the government forever and that the day may come when they will be very glad to see this place operating as an effective check on the executive. We are certainly entitled to ask members of the Labour Party to remember that under our system the power to impose delay on the passage of government business is the one effective protection which minorities and individuals have to enforce consideration of their points of view. I remember the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, saying that if that right were taken away, Parliament would cease to be an instrument for the preservation of freedom and would become an organ of tyranny and oppression.

I think it is a very happy circumstance that we have no guillotine here. I cannot imagine any democratic government wishing to impose on this place restrictions on debate which were forced on another place only by Irish obstruction of government business in the latter part of the 19th century and which I can say from my experience are wholly unnecessary here. I do not think that any noble Lord can point to a practice of filibustering in this place and to any need for formal restriction on debate. As to intervals between the stages of Bills, they are necessary not just to secure proper consideration here but to give interests outside the House the opportunity to contact noble Lords and try to mobilise support for their points of view. One of our most precious rights, a right long ago removed from Members of another place, is the right to insist on separate discussion of amendments to Bills.

Lastly, with regard to working hours, I really am deeply suspicious of any suggestion that they should be changed. Morning sittings could conflict seriously with committee work. I fear that what the Government are really interested in is not to make life easier for noble Lords but to make life easier for themselves. It is no part of our duty as Back-Benchers to help them in that ambition.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Warner: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Peston on identifying this topic for debate today. I remember being taught macro-economics by him as a young civil servant. I am pleased to see that he retains his capacity to challenge the established order.

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As a fairly new Member of this House, I suppose I ought to show due reticence in commenting on its workings. However, 18 months' experience has caused me to be deeply underwhelmed by the way it operates. For those who like to while away hours in a club-like atmosphere, it provides an extremely convenient location and an appropriately courteous and relaxing atmosphere. But as a business-like place of work, functioning in the 21st century, it leaves much to be desired.

Inevitably, the working arrangements need to be related to role and composition. If we take as our starting point the Royal Commission's report, I believe that we need fundamentally to re-engineer our working practices. This is particularly the case if we expect a reformed House, in the words of the Royal Commission's report,

    "to bring a range of different perspectives to bear on the development of public policy".

If we want men and women from a variety of ethnic, social and professional backgrounds to serve here and to combine that service with other jobs and responsibilities, the processes and practices of this place have to change.

Perhaps I may mention a few areas to illustrate where I believe change would improve efficiency with no loss of effectiveness. The first is the way we deal with legislation. I have no quarrel with this House subjecting a government's legislative programme to effective and rigorous scrutiny. What I do have difficulty with is taking the great majority of Bills in Committee on the Floor of the House. That simply ties up a large number of people unnecessarily in the House in order to keep the Government on edge by playing the voting game. It is not about effective scrutiny. There is no reason whatever why detailed scrutiny could not be undertaken in smaller committees by those with real interest in the subject and expertise. That would also make it possible to have more flexible working arrangements using mornings sensibly and sensitively in respect of other people's demands and commitments. It would also reduce the number of--

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