Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Earl Russell: My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would consider withdrawing the word "subject". The committee has no authority over this House. It

10 May 2000 : Column 1699

will take no decisions. It will comment. In the light of that, is his argument a little like that which used to be advanced against any discussion of parliamentary affairs outside this House? I believe that we abandoned that when we allowed the publication of parliamentary debates.

Lord Elton: My Lords, we subject ourselves to scrutiny in the same way as an actor subjects himself to the spotlight. "Subject" is definitely the word. That calls to mind the reaction of the noble Lord, Lord Neill. Again, there is nothing whatever personal in anything that I say about him or about any member of the committee, all of whom I hold in high regard. What is at issue is not their personality but their position.

When it was suggested that an amendment would be appropriate--that is, to say that his committee was "invited" instead of "welcome"--I recall that he rather vigorously rejected that as being a change to the status quo, not welcome and, indeed, not agreeable to the situation as he saw it.

Therefore, the central issue concerns not your Lordships' probity, which may be above reproach, but the fact that it should, from time to time, be subject to scrutiny. The question is whence that scrutiny comes. I do sympathise with the noble Baroness. My back has been giving me torture too. My cushion is at her service since I have had a little time on my feet. I have completely lost the thread that I was following. The question of probity needs investigation but the question is: who should do it? We are dealing with constitutional precedent and any decision we take this evening is a precedent for future decisions.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, invites us to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Neill; but it is not just him. What he is welcoming in the guise of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and his eminent committee is an agent of the chief executive of the Crown disposing of the prerogative of the Crown. That is something about which wars have been fought. It is fundamental to the structure of Parliament. It is not irrelevant; it is not intellectual; it is not abstract; it is the substance of politics. The noble and learned Lord said how he thought it was appropriate to have a completely non-political debate. In that case, the Civil War was not political and there is no Whip on the government Members this evening. I am reassured to hear that there is not. That is at least one step in the right direction.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, does the noble Lord think that this House would have been asked to approve the activities of the Royal Commission on the future of the House of Lords, whose impact on this House seems to me potentially to be far greater than that of the Neill committee?

Lord Elton: My Lords, there is a long-established position relating to the role of Royal Commissions and I do not believe that there is any analogy whatever.

The tragic point is that this debate would be unnecessary, and could still be unnecessary, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, in

10 May 2000 : Column 1700

a most luminous and luminary speech, has made clear, were the Government, even at this stage, to say that if the Motion and the amendment were both withdrawn, they would give government time for the passage of a Motion which many of my colleagues and I would undertake to support--and I expect that my Front Bench might do the same--inviting the noble Lord to come to the House.

But it is one thing to have somebody subjecting you to scrutiny at your invitation and it is quite another to be beaming and opening the door to an emissary sent from a power outside. I repeat to your Lordships that we are discussing the balance between the Crown and Parliament. If we must have a Division or Divisions, I am in the camp of the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg. But I very much hope that by that simple manoeuvre, all that can be made unnecessary.

11.3 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I welcome the Motion standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, although I cannot support it. I welcome it because I hope that it has cleared the air and removed some misunderstandings because with hindsight--I emphasise "with hindsight"--I think there might have been a better way of introducing the inquiry of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, to the House; in other words, enabling the House to take account, at an earlier stage, of the fact that he had embarked on his inquiry.

When I first heard about the inquiry and received formal notice from the noble Lord, Lord Neill, on 8th March, it did not come as a surprise. It was--I use the expression used by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer--not a "thunderbolt". It did not occur to me that any noble Lord would take exception to it. In that, I was clearly wrong. I looked at it as a Member of your Lordships' House who had served as a member of the Griffiths committee. Indeed, I spoke from these Benches when its report was discussed and approved on 1st November 1995. It seemed to me that as almost five years had since elapsed, there was an adequate case for another look at those matters. I noted that the House had been significantly reformed. One consequence of the changes is that now there are nearly 200 new Members who were not in the House at the time of the Griffiths committee report. All those reasons seem to be good ones for not being surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Neill, should embark on his inquiry.

In addition, it seemed to me that public opinion was even more concerned about standards in public life than it had been five years ago. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, said, we cannot ignore public perceptions about how we conduct our business if we are expected to recognise and to exercise the privileges, rights, and obligations of one of the two Houses of Parliament.

That is why I took it for granted that the inquiry of the Neill committee would cause no great surprise. However, I always took the view that the Griffiths committee, on which I served with the noble Baroness,

10 May 2000 : Column 1701

Lady Hilton, among others, was too limited in its scope and experience and even rather unprofessional. I do not believe that the House should pass responsibility to the great and the good, but, in my view, the new committee is better equipped to do the job. The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, said that it had the expertise needed for an inquiry. I am sure that she is right.

I concluded that it was perfectly reasonable that the Neill committee should conduct the inquiry. It did not seem to me that it was a cause for controversy. In that respect, I certainly misjudged the mood of some Members of the House. It seemed to me that the five reasons that led me to be "unsurprised"--if I may put it that way--by the arrival of the Neill committee are points that stand now. They are all relevant to the decisions we are called on to make.

Five years have elapsed since the Griffiths committee. The House has been significantly reformed. There are nearly 200 new Members. Public opinion and perceptions of this place are important, and the Griffiths committee or a successor committee of this House would not be fully equipped for the job. It seems to me that all those are very good reasons for why we should welcome the Neill committee and speed it on its way in the task that it has to do. However, with hindsight, it may have been better to approach the matter in a different way. It may have been better to report to the House the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, to undertake the inquiry and to ask formally for its co-operation. It may have been better for the Procedure Committee to have considered the request and to have been the agent by which the House made its decision. But that is in the past. That is the way in which we may view it with hindsight.

If mistakes were made, today we are picking up the pieces. For that reason, I welcome this debate, but that is not sufficient reason for failing to support the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer. I cannot support the Motion. I hope that on all sides of the House this will be a free vote. Certainly on these Benches it will be a free vote, although I recommend my noble friends to support the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, if it comes to a vote.

All sides have said that the House itself will finally decide. There is no dispute about that. In relation to self-regulation, again the House will regulate itself. It will either support the report of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, or amend it, or reject it. Whatever the noble Lord, Lord Neill, may recommend, I believe that the House has the will and the strength to decide what is right for it in future. I have no anxiety on that account at all. I have more faith in your Lordships' House than some Members of the House appear to have.

10 May 2000 : Column 1702

The Neill committee will recommend. It cannot lay down rules. It will not infringe the constitutional sovereignty of the House. None of these matters is at stake. That is why we can and should support the inquiry of the noble Lord, Lord Neill.

Lord Elton: My Lords, perhaps I may put a point to the noble Lord before he sits down. If he agrees that it was a mistake not to issue an invitation, why will he not support me in my request to the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal to set the mistake right by offering that invitation on behalf of the House as a result of a Motion of the House on the withdrawal of these two Motions?


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page