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This House is distinguished above all for the quality of its debates. The most remarkable debates are the ones on general subjects outside the party framework. I mentioned a few that I initiated myself but I shall now mention some other recent debates. In January a debate on religion generally was initiated by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. A debate on asylum was recently introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Various initiatives have been taken by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, sometimes in connection with legislation. Those have all been notable debates.
More recently we have had a debate on the disabled. Nowhere in the whole wide world, now or at any time, would there be a more impressive debate than we had in the House recently on the disabled. Thirty years ago, Alf Morris, now the noble Lord, Lord Morris, on his own initiative--a Back-Bencher in the House of Commons--introduced a Bill in favour of disabled people which became the law of the land. I had the honour of playing a small part in that as I was the spokesman for the Bill in this House. Much more interesting than anything I did was the fact that speaking that day were two ladies in wheelchairs--the noble Baronesses, Lady Darcy de Knayth and Lady Masham. They are still speaking in the same wheelchairs, so far as one can see, that they spoke in 30 years ago, having done a great deal of active work in the meanwhile for this House. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, who went totally deaf, was also involved. I gather that his hearing has since improved. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, on two sticks since war injuries 50 years ago, spoke in the recent debate on the disabled, as did the noble Earl, Lord Snowdon, who has done so much for the handicapped, having suffered some disadvantages himself at one point. Nowhere else in the world would one get that kind of debate going.
To repeat my point--it is a quite short one--I hope that in the future the new Members coming here, brim-full of life and energy will have the same chance. On present showing, I do not know whether they will. There are more than 40 Unstarred Questions down for debate. Who is arranging for these new Members to come on? It is all very well to be cannon fodder. All these people are coming here. Are they expected to sit here and toe the line? We all have to do that. I do it to the best of my ability--not quite 100 per cent but quite often. We want these young people to feel that they have a chance to make themselves heard and make their views known. I hope that that will be ensured.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, after that magnificent tour d'horizon of the noble Earl, it seems strange and unsatisfactory to be able to take only one point. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for introducing the debate.
Perhaps your Lordships may well think that the crucial question arising in this debate is whether the workings of this House should be reviewed in accordance with the recommendations of the Wakeham commission and whether the Select Committees should now be set up to review our procedures and conventions in accordance with those recommendations. As my noble friend Lord Strathclyde pointed out, there has been a continuous process of change. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House said that there was a great opportunity to improve the workings of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, supported expanding the working of the Select Committees now as there was scope for change now and said that we should not wait until stage two substantive reform. In that, the noble Lord was supported by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham--grabbing the knocker of his cathedral to claim sanctuary from what I propose to say. Is not this the issue on which the Government are not prepared to give way, having maintained that there should be no review of our procedures and conventions until stage two substantive reform? Is not that the question that lies at the root of the debate--an issue for the House, not the Government, to resolve?
The issue has arisen at Question Time (pages 21 to 23 of the Library notes). It arose on the speeches of many noble Lords on the third and fourth days of the debate on the Address. In their view, circumstances no longer existed in which conventions had been devised and implemented. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said, in today's circumstances new conventions are required and will have to be developed.
The matter arose again in the debate introduced by my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree concerned with the convention as to the exercise of restraint as recorded at page 187 of the Companion. In that context, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said that it was deplorable that the usual channels had not arranged a full-scale debate on the mode of operation of the House. In that debate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, stated that there would be no review of our conventions and procedures until stage two substantive reform--a somewhat Neronic attitude to the requisite regeneration of working practices, as it was put by one noble Lord. Indeed,
There is the Salisbury convention, which has not be codified. Paragraphs 4.21 to 4.34 of the Wakeham commission report suggest a new version which represents a new balance of authority as between the two Houses and reconsideration of the mandate doctrine. There are the recommendations in the Wakeham report concerning our procedures and the setting up of committees, such as the constitutional committee, and committees to scrutinise primary and secondary legislation and international treaties, and so forth.
The question is: are those recommendations as to our working practices just to lie in limbo and gather dust pending substantive reform, heaven knows when--a period of five years has been suggested; it could well be 15; it could well be more. It was not the intention of the commission that these should lie in limbo. It was the intention that they should be considered by the House. This was confirmed to me by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, personally after the debate on the Motion introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, a great deal of congratulation has been offered to my noble friend Lord Peston. I admire him, but that must be remedied by one point. There has been no criticism of the noble Lord. I have a criticism. My noble friend was far too statesmanlike. He was nothing like as provocative as I should have expected him to be, so on that I disagree with him.
A great deal has been said in the debate about the need for change. I do not agree with all of it. I strongly disagree with those who have almost implied that everything is marvellous and we should leave matters alone. I hope that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, will not mind my saying that he was somewhat patronising towards one of my noble friends and the speech that he made. The noble Viscount may not have appreciated it, but he was. There is a need for change. I do not agree with all that has been suggested, but perhaps I may refer to one or two areas where change is certainly needed.
This House is a congenial place. I like it very much. But we must remember that we are the second Chamber of Parliament. We have problems in managing our affairs, and those problems need looking at. I do not believe, given what has been said in this and previous debates, that there is a consensus on the Wakeham commission recommendations on composition. I do not have time to deal with that. However, there is one area where I do believe that there is consensus. I almost referred to "my noble friend" Lord Jopling, because we were paired for so long; before the noble Lord was unfortunately made Chief Whip, he used to pair with me regularly. I agree
All governments put badly drafted legislation on the statute book. Having put a large number of Finance Bills on the statute book, I willingly concede that many of those were badly drafted. Of course, they were not even allowed to be considered by this Chamber. It would be no bad thing, apart from examining the money matters, if a committee of this House, on a non-party basis, did consider Finance Bills. It might result in their being rather better drafted.
What I have said applies to all governments, not merely the present one. The other place is party political, and, not surprisingly, tends to concentrate on party-political matters and soundbites rather than on the proper examination of legislation. There is a danger that that could happen in this House as well. Indeed, I have heard some soundbites in this House. Members producing them have never been reported because, as they have never appreciated, no one cares what they are saying!
In this place we can offer the proper scrutiny of legislation. But if we are to do the job effectively, we need substantial increases in the resources that are available to the House. However substantial, they would be modest by comparison with what is happening in another place. I have referred to this previously: £200 million for a building providing 200 offices--a million pounds a piece. I do not suggest that we do anything like that. I have suggested to a member of the House authorities that we could perhaps build on Black Rod's Garden. The person to whom I mentioned it did not seem madly happy about the proposal, so I shall not repeat it now. But cost should not be an issue as regards the changes that need to be made.
In the past, I have criticised the House authorities. I was probably unfair, particularly to their officials, although they may have been a trifle slow in the past. It is not a matter for the House authorities; it is for this House to tell them clearly what needs doing, and I am sure that they will then do it. But we must give them clear instructions--and if the Treasury sought to stop any of the expenditure that we are talking about, it would be for this House to tell the Treasury what it could do with its opposition.
Perhaps I may list a few of the areas where there is a clear need for extra resources. First, everyone agrees that we need more Select Committees, which in this House do a first-class job in a non-party-political way, unlike those in another place. We need to recruit and train officials and staff, and we need rooms for those additional Select Committees. It is incredible that one should have to state that we need an office for every working Peer--not luxurious offices, but a desk perhaps for every Member of this House! It is not a lot to ask and I hope that it can be achieved. We need a fax and photocopier, which works all the time, in every office, not just one or two located centrally for the
I return to the Motion before us which asks for a review of the workings of the House of Lords in the 21st century. I take the workings of this place seriously. I believe that the House of Lords is an important second Chamber. The kinds of change to which I have referred do not need a review; they can be implemented now. It is for this House to instruct the authorities to get on and do it. If the House of Commons does not give up the rooms that it occupies, it should be told to leave; it is our accommodation and we should use it.
There is no reason why the Government Chief Whip should not tell the House tonight that, by agreement with all the Front Benches, a review will be set in place to consider the powers of your Lordships' House, and perhaps the times of sitting and the other matters referred to in the debate. That is the only way that we shall ever get change.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I find myself wholly in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, when he speaks about the facilities with which we must live in this House. I am lucky enough to have a desk; many noble Lords do not. I do not suppose that many noble Lords are aware of the extent to which the accommodation in this House is occupied by MPs--there are rooms full of them--when many Peers have to use desks and telephones in corridors to conduct their daily business in this place.
I am enormously grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for giving us the chance to debate this subject. It is important to recognise the need for continuous evolution. This House has evolved a great deal in the time that I have been here, and evolves still. I give the example of the way in which noble Lords address one another. There is a strong tendency on the part of some Peers to refer to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, as "Lord Peston" rather than "the noble Lord, Lord Peston". If I have to say "the noble Lord, Lord Peston" frequently enough I tend to agree with them. One member of the Government has gone as far as to insert his Christian name into his title on his letterhead.
Evolution is about trying out variations: those which are unsuccessful die; those which are successful are propagated. We should not try to suppress variations but ensure that they are addressed critically. Above all, we must proceed at an evolutionary pace, not with great leaps into the dark. Evolution produces a strong system and is a great ward against the law of unintended consequences. But in order to evolve we must ensure that it is a continuous process and not one that we just look at every 10 or 20 years or neglect to deal with in small doses all the time.
I should like to make three suggestions. First, on a small scale, towards the end of last year we had the very successful example of pre-legislative scrutiny of a Bill. I refer to the draft Freedom of Information Bill. We were able to consider that legislation in Committee and take evidence upon it. This year I had enormous difficulty in seeking to make any changes to the Limited Partnerships Bill which did not have that scrutiny. The Minister kept saying that these matters should have been raised in pre-legislative scrutiny. We need to adapt to the changes which the Government seek to make, quite rightly, in exposing Bills to public criticism before they come before the House. We must be able to get our word in at that stage; otherwise, because so many people have been consulted and involved in it effectively it is impossible to make changes.
Secondly, I like the Moses Room procedure which has been successful for those Bills in which I have been involved. I like the idea of a group of people considering a Bill in which they have a particular interest. For most subjects the number is fairly limited; even for the important ones there may be only 20 or 30 people. Such committees can sit outside normal sitting times. It may be we can experiment by allowing them to take evidence to a limited extent, because there are always corners of specialist subjects where we do not have the expertise within this House.
But in any proceedings in the Moses Room, or any other proceedings of that kind, we must ensure that the Report stage follows the Committee pattern. Before the Bill reaches the whole House a great deal of the guff can be cut out in Committee in the Moses Room. All the little points which arise from misunderstandings have been dealt with and the Government have been given the opportunity to explain themselves in detail. The Bill is much more compact and compressed and what remain are the major issues of contention. I believe that those matters must be debated according to Committee stage rules. Report stage is far too restrictive for a Bill which has not been debated in Committee format before the whole House.
Thirdly, I am attracted by the idea that there should be a time limit on sittings. Why not start by saying that the House shall rise at midnight? That would have some interesting effects. We know that work expands to fill the time that is available. In those circumstances the Government would recognise that work could be compressed. If they faced a reduction in time they would have to do things to compress the work that the House was being asked to do, particularly in the months that lie ahead.
It is well within the power of government to bring major Bills before the House earlier. There is a great deal of unused time earlier in the Session. An enormous amount of time is taken up by government amendments which are tabled in this House merely because the draftsman has not bothered to make the changes earlier. He has not given himself sufficient time or had the manpower to do it. If the Government knew that the time available to them was limited and they could not extend sittings into the small hours they would be forced to follow better practice, which would in turn force the House to follow better practice. In those circumstances there would be better control over repetitiveness. When there is unlimited time there seems to be no reason to control it. If time were limited, repetitiveness, which is largely a Front Bench phenomenon, would be much better controlled. Self-regulation in this House works and should be encouraged.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, it gives me pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and accept much of what he said. I do not begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Peston. I should first like to congratulate Labour Peers who gave up today, their Wednesday debate day, because they believed that this issue deserved an airing. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Peston, on having been invited by the Labour Peers to lead them in this debate. This is not a Labour issue but a House issue.
Having listened carefully to the debate over the past three or four hours, it is clear that there is much common ground across the Floor of the House on which we can build. I was surprised that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who is not now in his place, repeated a question which he has asked on many other comparable occasions: why change something that works perfectly well? Perhaps the present situation suits the circumstances of the noble Earl. Whatever his circumstances, the present arrangements suit the manner in which he has been brought up and has performed. However, I can assure the noble Earl that that is not my experience. I speak as chairman of the Labour Peers Group.
In the debate I have been struck by two matters: first, the influx of new Members in the past few years; secondly, the depressing fact that we continue to do our duty, not just to our party but to the House and the country, in such an abominable way. The noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, referred to those occasions when he and I, acting as Whips, were here until two or three o'clock in the morning. As have many colleagues, I have been here until three or four o'clock in the morning; and it is mad. It is daft. Who imposes that situation? We impose it on ourselves; but we can change it.
I served on the Government and Opposition Benches in another place, as I have in this Chamber. There was always the feeling that any change would benefit the government of the day. I would say, "Oh ye of little faith. One day you may be the government". So if some issue appears to create a benefit, why not be
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, is not now present. I was impressed not only by his parliamentary record and service as a Government Chief Whip but also by what he told us to bear in mind: first, that any change will take place only if there is agreement; and, secondly, that one has to be patient. I think he said that after recognition of the need for reform, three or four years had passed before consensus and agreement was reached. I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench can gain agreement at least to establish a special committee to consider the various issues raised.
We need to pay particular attention to the hours that we impose upon ourselves. When I was Chief Whip three years ago, the average age of Labour Peers was 71. That has come down a little. With the influx of newer, fresher Members, I hope that that average will come down even further. When I went back to my constituency--I still refer to Edmonton as my constituency even though I am no longer an MP--individuals would say, "Ted, are you really telling us that voluntarily the House of Lords decides to sit until three or four in the morning?" I would say, "It's not voluntarily, but that's the way it works". I believe that many people in this House think that because things have always been done in that way, they should always be done in that way.
I was impressed by the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe. She showed an appreciation of the changing circumstances. There are younger and older Members with family responsibilities which need to be taken into account. The public cannot understand why the second Chamber--the House to which, in her gracious Speech, Her Majesty always refers to as the Upper House--acts so differently from another place when considering ourselves. With great respect, I believe that we are too timid. Members of another place examine a problem and solve it; they get round it. We do nothing like that. I look forward to an all-party committee examining seriously how this House can work better in the future.
When people ask me, "Are you telling me that the laws of the land were determined by elderly people at three or four in the morning?", and I say, "Yes", they shake their heads and think that we are mad. I am not mad. I am optimistic that this debate, so ably led by my noble friend Lord Peston will achieve what it should: to move us forward into the next century.
My purpose is, first, to remind noble Lords that, however we are composed, Parliament exists on behalf of the governed to supervise government. It does not do so on its own behalf but on behalf of what we have come to talk of as the electorate. But we are the custodians also of those too young, too mad or too wicked to form part of the electorate. We are here on behalf of the whole population of this country. It is natural that the House which is filled with people sent there by the electorate--those who are old enough, sane enough and good enough to be the electorate--should be the most powerful House.
For that reason, and reasons of history, that House now has control of one of the main means of influencing government: the power to grant or deny taxes. That leaves us with the second and third means: the delimitation of the laws that a government want; and public discussion of the policies that they advocate. As regards the second, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, put his finger on the point when he said that far too little from this House is heard by the public. When I came to this House, The Times published a full parliamentary page every day that either House sat. The top part of that page was occupied by reports of your Lordships' doings--and it was usually the larger proportion. That has now changed. So has changed the fact that it was only 4.30 when one began one's speech by saying, "My Lords, at this late hour"--largely because the last train to Oxford left from Paddington at two minutes past six. But I digress.
Those are the functions. As regards our efficiency, the question is: how well do we constrain government? Do we enable government to do what the nation wants it to do; and do we constrain it from doing things that the nation does not want it to do? What role does an unelected Chamber have in that regard?
In two essentials we differ from another place in a way which adds value to this Chamber's functions. First, unlike them, we are not dependent wholly upon our activities here for our subsistence. We are forced to be engaged in work outside. That is why I ask your Lordships to think carefully about the extent to which we make a financial reward for coming here sufficient for people to subsist upon it. Once we become a professional House, we lose two-thirds of our value.
Secondly, we cannot be removed and we have no general access to office, so that the Government and the Opposition Front Benches have far less control over the activities and words of those sitting behind
The third comment is that the means of constraining legislation is by using the time available to amend it. I am not afraid of the idea of reducing the time for doing that, because it increases the efficacy of the weapon. But what would destroy its efficacy would be if government were given the power to restrict the amount of time given to particular business without the agreement of the Opposition of the day. A guillotine in this House would be a disaster for what, oddly enough, I call democracy.
For the benefit of the noble Lords, Lord Warner and Lord Brett, whose speeches I heard--I regret that I had to chair a committee out of the Chamber for an hour and I missed others--the idea of having a Speaker to control our proceedings is very attractive at first sight until one looks at the product of such a procedure in the other place. The reason why we are always drawing back from the brink of tumult in this House is that we know that there is nobody else to make us do it and that, if we do not, all business will come to an end. In this House, courtesy is a necessity. With those words, the time says that I must sit down.
Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Peston on the excellent way in which he introduced his vision of a modern role for a modern second Chamber and emphasised--in parts of the debate it might have been lost--what were the imperatives of that role. It is based not on making life easier for the Government or us, but on holding the Executive to account in the process of making law--one hopes, good law. It may be it does not make life easier for us, but it gives us the opportunity to use our time and energies more efficiently and effectively.
I believe that today's debate has shown us very clearly that there is not only a continuing but a developing concern about a wide range of issues regarding the management of the House. They are not just issues reflected by what has been said by relatively new Members of your Lordships' House, but views expressed right across the spectrum of the House. They are concerned with how we manage our affairs; how our working practices and procedures are modernised; our working conditions; the physical question of offices; resources and the question of allowances. There is the question of staff. Everyone has praised the quality of the staff, but there are serious shortages in numbers if this House is to do many of the things that it is supposed to do on behalf of the people whom we serve.
I support the view of many noble Lords who have spoken that the process of change by consensus is imperative. With good will, consensus should be available on a wide range of issues if we agree the necessary mechanisms to consider the agenda. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, is unable to be with us. I believe that his speech had great merit, although he made one point with which I disagree. He said that, for example, there was very little filibustering in this House. There is no need for formal filibustering because we have developed a system of institutional filibustering. We have the possibility of making the same speech at Second Reading, in Committee, at Report stage and on Third Reading. We are a House of institutional filibustering and there is no need for it. With that exception, I very much welcomed his speech.
However, what was disappointing and predictable was the reaction of certain noble Lords such as the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who conjured up images of Members deserting the Chamber to go to fictional offices and fictional luxury towers. When most Members talk about having facilities, they are not talking about trying to emulate another place. Many Members of this House do not yet have a locker. Many aspire not to a whole desk, but to the opportunity to share one and have somewhere where they can put down their papers and have a telephone. There are even extremely ambitious Members who are looking for a half-share in a filing cabinet. That illustrates many of the circumstances which your Lordships face today. Basic facilities should be accepted as a need and not caricatured as a luxury which might divert us from our duties. Too many Members of this House spend too many hours, particularly late at night, wandering around as though they were of no fixed abode. For the first time in my life, when I arrived here I felt like a gypsy.
Today's debate has shown us some very clear ways ahead. Very few noble Lords appear to be satisfied with the status quo. Very few believe that the Procedure Committee is the right forum to examine the changes that need to take place. Many noble Lords who seek change have emphasised the need to do so by consensus. Most noble Lords agreed on the kind of agenda that is at least capable of being discussed even if there was not agreement on the solution.
There was agreement that we need to improve the mechanisms for the scrutiny of legislation. The Committee stage certainly needs to be looked at. There was clearly a wide expression of view on voting at Committee stage. There was the issue of the repetitiveness of amendments. In addition, there was the question of how to make self-regulation work,
A wide range of issues were raised by a number of Members concerning facilities, not the creation of fictional luxury offices, but basic facilities available to Members to do their job. There should be some privacy and all Members should have a desk with somewhere to work with an assistant. The staff of the House should be adequate to its needs. There should be adequate provision of fax, computing and e-mail facilities. There should be proper financial resources along the lines that the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, put to us. When we are challenged by a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury on having enough guts in our own House to challenge the Treasury about our needs, that shows how serious is the situation. We should be able to look at the structure of the week and the hours of work in the House.
We should progress these issues by establishing a working group or some committee of the House. I shall be extremely disappointed tonight if I do not hear my noble friend speaking from the Front Bench indicate his thoughts along those lines.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I greatly welcome this debate and warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Peston, for introducing it. It has been particularly valuable because it deals with the functions, procedures and facilities of your Lordships' House, not with its composition. We have discussed the composition ad nauseam. Its functions are at least as important and have not received nearly as much attention in debate.
I begin by apologising for my absence from your Lordships' House for about an hour in an early part of the debate. Rather topically, that was due to the fact that I attended an important meeting of one of the sub-committees of the European Communities Select Committee.
I believe that nobody in this Chamber has any doubt that a second Chamber of Parliament is needed. All the major democracies in the world have second chambers. A valuable book has recently been published written by Meg Russell, a member of the staff of the Constitution Unit. She has described many of these second chambers. They have a wide variety of powers and functions. In federal nations such as the USA, Australia and Germany, the second chamber usually represents the interests of the constituent member states. In unitary nations, no consistent pattern of functions emerges. The United Kingdom is in a peculiar position; not federal, but no longer quite unitary. Perhaps we should describe ourselves as being a lop-sided semi-federation. Foreign guidance is too diverse to help us much. Therefore, the starting point for any consideration of what we should be doing is to look at what we do now. Should we do things that we do not do? Should we stop doing things that we do? Can we do things better?
Let us look first at the Select Committees. It is plain that the work of the committees is highly regarded. They have expert members and expert staff. Reports of committees such as the Select Committees on the European Union and Science and Technology are widely respected outside your Lordships' House, even if, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, suggested, not necessarily so widely read. The European Union Select Committee has no rival in any parliament of any other member state in its work of monitoring and reporting on current issues in Europe and possible future developments there.
What we could and should do is to expand our system of Select Committees. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that we should not mirror the other place by setting up departmental Select Committees, but I agree with the report of the Wakeham Commission, and with many noble Lords who have spoken today, that we should set up new committees of our own or sub-committees of existing committees. They could report on constitutional issues; there could be a human rights committee with a wider remit than the Joint Committee on human rights which will be set up soon; there could be a committee to report on devolution issues; and a statutory instruments committee to draw the attention of the House to significant statutory instruments.
One committee not mentioned in the Wakeham report, but which would be valuable and which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, is a committee on treaties and international agreements. It would report to your Lordships' House on the impact of treaties prior to ratification. The United Kingdom is one of the few democracies where there is no parliamentary process before the ratification of treaties unless primary legislation is needed to comply with the treaty obligations.
At this stage, I suggest only that there should be a report on treaties and an opportunity to debate that report. There is much to be said for requiring parliamentary consent to treaties, but that goes outside the scope of reform of your Lordships' House.
I return to proceedings in the Chamber, for which purpose I include the Moses Room. Your Lordships' House undoubtedly plays an extremely valuable role as a revising Chamber. Some of us who have sat long into the night during Committee and Report stages may believe that the process is altogether too slow moving. Indeed, a number of noble Lords indicated the same view, particularly those on the Government Benches. Do we really need three stages at which Bills can be amended when the other place makes do with only two? At the Report stage, would it be possible by agreement through the usual channels for important amendments to be listed for debate early in the day, even if that means taking them out of order? What happens now is that amendments are all too often debated at great length in Committee; debated again at the Report stage but not voted on because the debate takes place at 10.30 at night; and then debated again and finally voted on at Third Reading. As the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, said, that is institutional filibustering.
Clearly, the facilities for your Lordships' House need improving, as many noble Lords have said. We need more office space. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, on that, but I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Barnett. I have a desk--I am lucky to have a desk at all--in a room with 11 other desks. Originally, I shared it and went in for "hot desking" with one of my noble friends. I am afraid that after a month the desk was so cluttered with my papers that he felt it necessary to find space for himself elsewhere. However, I should like a few feet of shelf space on which to put my files because the papers on my desk are reaching a dangerous height.
I now want to touch on a more controversial question. Should your Lordships' House be more assertive in its dealing with Bills and statutory instruments? My answer is a cautions "yes". I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, the only noble Lord to raise the issue today, although the noble Lord, Lord Elton, came close: we need greater equivalence between the two Houses. This House should not be frightened of conflict with the other place from time to time.
If we had proportional representation in the other place, my view might be different. However, we still have the first-past-the-post system, which means that for more than 60 years all governments have been elected on a minority vote. But when the government have a working majority, the Executive is virtually in absolute control. The first-past-the-post system gave large majorities to Conservatives between 1979 and 1992 and now to Labour. In every case, it was on less than 45 per cent of the national vote. I say with great regret that there is no more than a remote possibility that we shall move away from the first-past-the-post system in the near to middle future.
However, wherever the Executive has clear control of the other place, your Lordships' House has a potentially vital role in making the Executive think again. That is not by blocking legislation permanently, but by delaying it--and delaying it for long enough to make it worth the Government's while to come to the negotiating table to see whether there is room for a compromise. The power to delay legislation by forcing the Government to use the Parliament Act was exercised only once between 1949 and 1998. The one-sided nature of party balance in your Lordships' House throughout that period made it politically impossible to exercise a power to reject Government legislation. The power to reject secondary legislation was, again, exercised only once before this year.
Your Lordships' House is now slightly more legitimate and therefore more representative because it has a political balance that is more representative of that of the country--though by no means yet entirely so. My only comment on the composition of the House is that only a predominantly elected House would have the real authority to act as a check on an Executive which exceeds its proper powers.
The power to delay should be used only where a Bill gives rise to a fundamental objection of principle or conscience and is unacceptable to most or a large section of the public. The classic example of that, in which the power should have been used, was the poll tax. A case in which it was used--and I think used legitimately--was in respect of the age of consent for homosexuals. Although I personally strongly support a reduction to the age of 16, I accept that rejection by your Lordships' House last year was a legitimate use of that power because of the strength of feeling of the opponents of change.
I would also accept that the Parliament Act should apply to Bills starting in your Lordships' House as well as to Bills starting in the other place. The result of the present system is that the Government are understandably reluctant to introduce controversial Bills in this House because, if they lose them, they are unable to bring them back through the Parliament Act procedure. That distorts the timetable for the Session because your Lordships' House does not receive much of the legislation work until late into the Session.
I do not believe that the House of Lords has too many powers, nor, indeed, that it has too few. The real problem is not that your Lordships' House needs more or different powers but that it needs to exercise those it has. I believe that democracy needs a strong, legitimate and assertive second Chamber with powers to make government, whatever its complexion, stop and think again.
Lord Henley: My Lords, some time ago the noble Baroness the Leader of the House informed us that this was National Work:Life Balance Week. I must say that this was a new one on me in the great plethora of national weeks and days. However, I was most interested to hear it and I rather wish that the noble Baroness had told me about it earlier in the week--a week in which I believe we sat until midnight on Monday; until 2 a.m. on Tuesday; I dare say until about 11 p.m. tonight, if not later; possibly until 11 p.m. tomorrow and we shall be sitting on Friday.
I do not know how one is supposed to react to these national weeks. I have a brother who makes a point of always smoking on National No Smoking Day. Perhaps when the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip comes to answer, he can advise me how I should react to National Work:Life Balance Week, particularly in terms of my relations with the Government. I shall offer my apologies for the late hours that we have kept them up these past few days.
I start by reasserting the general principles which we on these Benches believe should always govern and guide us in any discussion about the procedures--or what are described in this Motion as the "workings"--
As we all know, both when we have been in government and in opposition, it is always tempting for governments to seek to find ways to make it easier for themselves to get their business through Parliament. Here I also accept the point made by my noble friends Lord Waddington and Lord Jopling that it is legitimate that the Government should get their business through. We do what we can to assist them in that, although it is, of course, legitimate that we should oppose them as and where appropriate and use all the methods that are available to us. However, whatever changes are made, they must not be made at the cost of greatly diminished parliamentary scrutiny.
The second point that I should like to make was raised also by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, and I believe that it should be borne in mind throughout our discussions and in any discussions that take place later. There should be no diminishing of the rights of Back-Benchers. There must be no timetables, no guillotines and no selection of amendments.
As we all know, Back-Benchers in this House have achieved a great deal. As I look around the House at noble Lords on the Government's own Back Benches, I consider what has been achieved over the years in the disability field by, for example, the noble Lords, Lord Morris of Manchester and Lord Ashley of Stoke. In looking at the Cross Benches, one has only to consider what was achieved by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, with regard to organophosphates. A great many Ministers, both in the previous and in this Government, have answered questions from a wide range of different departments on that subject and great changes have been achieved.
Let us consider what was achieved by the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, with regard to war widows. I turn to my own Benches and think of what was achieved by the late Lady Faithfull on children's and other social security issues. I was a victim of a great deal of that. I also think of the achievements in agricultural matters of a former Member of this House, my noble kinsman Lord Stanley. I could cite Liberal Peers as well. There are many Back-Benchers, all of whom have achieved great things, and we do not want to see their rights in any way marginalised. It is not only that their campaigns could become less effective if the wrong changes were made; it is that the House as a whole could become less effective.
I want to touch on a number of the points that have been covered, although obviously I--as do we all--await with interest the response of the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip. However, a number of issues have been raised and many bear a degree of repetition. The first and obviously the greatest concern of a large number of Peers is the length of our sittings, the time that we spend on legislation, and what the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal described as "the need for social hours".
I accept that we sit long hours. In the 20 or so years that I have been a member of this House--I go back to just before 1979, the time when, as the noble Baroness mentioned, the great raft of new Conservative legislation came in--the number of hours that we sit has increased greatly. Back in 1979, 1980 and 1981 we certainly did not sit for the number of hours that we do now. Quite obviously, it is in the Government's own hands to reduce the number of hours that we sit. They could introduce less legislation or they could ensure that that legislation is better drafted. I shall come to that point in a moment.
In terms of easing the balance of the work throughout the legislative year, there is no reason why more legislation could not be introduced in this House rather than in another place. However, we all know that the Secretaries of State in another place are so firmly attached to their own legislation--it is their little bit in the history books--that they are desperate to introduce it there. It is very difficult within the appropriate committees of the Cabinet to persuade them that more should be introduced in this House.
As has been mentioned, when we were in government we introduced the Moses Room procedure. As many noble Lords have remembered, we introduced it with the intent to reduce the number of nights on which we would have to sit late or later than 10 p.m. As my noble friend Lord Strathclyde quite rightly pointed out, it was designed to ease the pressure on this House. However, what seems to have happened in reality is that it has allowed the Government to introduce more legislation and to palm some off to the Moses Room while still sitting the very long hours, of which this week is a fairly classic example.
I believe that this Session, with, I stress, the agreement of the official Opposition, we have seen a record number of Bills going through the Moses Room. I should be very grateful if the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip could confirm that we have seen more Bills in the Moses Room as a result of our agreement and co-operation than was the case in previous Sessions.
As I said, there have been a number of complaints about the length of our sittings and demands for more social hours. There have been demands that we should sit, say, from nine till five, Monday to Friday. That might be more social and more attractive for those who live in London and never venture beyond there, but that is not necessarily the case for the rest of us. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde mentioned the fact that his children are of pre-school age and that, therefore, he finds it quite family friendly to be able to see them in the mornings. Other noble Lords have referred to their own family responsibilities.
My own children are somewhat older--at least, some of them are a tiny bit older--than those of my noble friend. However, they live not in London but far away in Cumberland. From my point of view, the idea of sitting a nine to five, Monday to Friday, week is distinctly family unfriendly. I believe that most of us who come from Scotland, the north of England, or
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