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The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend abandoned the cynicism with which he began and that he ended on a note of optimism, which was well judged. This is not kicking the matter into the long grass; the momentum will be maintained. However, I am not willing to be drawn into saying anything which trespasses either on the functions of the usual channels or, more importantly, on those of the Joint Committee. It is inconsistent to praise the width of the remit proposed to the Joint Committee and, at the same time, imply that it must report the day before yesterday. That is certainly an issue for the Joint Committee. The speed with which it comes forward with its proposals will be a matter for the Joint Committee, but I am sure that it will do so with all deliberate speed commensurate with the huge importance of the subject matter for the future of Parliament as a whole.
Lord Naseby: My Lords, when the Lord Chancellor uses the phrase "the Britain of today", is he excluding Northern Ireland and therefore the United Kingdom? Is he also saying that the Joint Committee will consider the composition of the other place in addition to the composition of your Lordships' House?
Baroness Boothroyd: My Lords, I give a warm welcome to the Lord Chancellor's Statement. I shall resist asking a number of detailed questions, which would not be appropriate at this time. However, the Lord Chancellor said that the Government do not intend to give a particular steer to the committee. Do I take it that the committee will be allowed to determine its chairman and that the chairman will not come from government sources?
Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, can I tempt the Lord Chancellor to be a little more specific about what he expects to be the remit of the Joint Committee? The effective legislative powers of this House depend upon the effectiveness of the legislative arrangements of the House of Commons. Does he expect the committee to be able to examine the legislative arrangements in the House of Commons and make reform of this House conditional upon improvement to those arrangements?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, that is a matter on which I shall not be drawn. The terms of reference of the committee have yet to be settled. Their broad outlines have been heralded by the Statement. Thereafter, it will be for the Joint Committee to interpret its remit.
Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, I welcome the Statement as it lays out a method of taking forward the whole process of reform, which all noble Lords want. Does my noble and learned friend agree that the resolution of differences and conflict between the two Houses is as important an issue to be addressed and resolved as the discussion of the composition of the reformed House?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, that is certainly so. The Statement itself in terms said that the Joint Committee would have to consider the most effective mechanismsI paraphrasefor resolving conflicts between both Houses. I believe that the noble Baroness makes an important point. The Government have always stated that no single party should have an overall majority in the reformed House. That means that the government of the day will always be in the minority in this House and, therefore, liable to be defeated at any time. So mechanisms for resolving conflicts between the Houses are critical and that is why the Statement highlighted that the Joint Committee should give express consideration to that issue.
Earl Russell: My Lords, following the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay of Cartvale, is the noble and learned Lord aware that the device of a Joint Committee, to which he has had such fruitful recourse, has been used in past centuries for resolving deadlock on the content of Bills? Is that a precedent worthy of re-examination?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, although this is essentially a matter for the Joint Committee, I agree that it must proceed with all deliberate speed, but commensurate with the gravity of the subject matter that it addresses. As to the second point raised by the noble and learned Lord, I believe that he lures me into the merits much further down the line.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I welcome my noble and learned friend's Statement, which has been greeted with universal enthusiasm. While I fully understand why he does not believe that it is proper for the Government to seek to influence the detailed deliberations of the Joint Committee, does he agree that the first task for the Select Committee, of preparing a list of optionssomething that most noble Lords could accomplish by this eveningis one that could be achieved fairly quickly? Will he therefore use his influence to suggest that that stage of the committee's work could be carried out expeditiously so that a vote of both Houses could take place before the Summer Recess?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I am reminded of what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said on the final Question at Question Time, that it is more important to get things right than to proceed too quickly. With respect to my noble friend, when one considers the history of this House and the colossal difficulty of securing consensus, it is somewhat unrealistic to agree on a Joint Committee and then to crack the whip, to be prescriptive and to say that it is very easy. I prefer to trust the Joint Committee.
Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, in considering the future composition of this House, will it be within the terms of reference of a Joint Committee to look at the three years' experience of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies? Will it also be able to consider whether there should be more formal links between those assemblies and this House, given that, by pure coincidence, the Presiding Officers of the three assemblies are Members of this place? There is no guarantee that our successors will be likewise beneficially endowed.
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the thrust of that question is in sharp contrast to the thrust of the previous question, which was to get on with it the day before yesterday. The thrust of this question is that it would be of advantage to the Joint Committee to consider the practices of the Scottish Parliament and the other Assemblies. That is a matter for the Joint Committee within its terms of reference.
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the Statement said that it is generally accepted, and I believe it to be so, that the House of Commons is the pre-eminent Chamber which should always ultimately have its way. However, I repeat that the Joint Committee is inhibited in its consideration only by its terms of reference, which will be settled by the usual channels in the light of the Statement I have made
Lord Haskel: My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that I welcome a free vote on the composition of both Houses? Does he agree that the view of both Houses on the composition of a reformed House, as expressed in a vote, would have to carry a lot more weight than the responses to the consultation to the White Paper?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, that is a nice question! In one sense, yes. However, proper weight must be given to the responses to the consultation. Obviously the Joint Committee will wish to do that, though it must be saidthe question may have implied thisthat those who responded to the consultation were self-selecting. It is also the fact that they are fewer in number than the total membership of both Houses. I imagine that Members of both Houses will not only be entitled but will also be interested to vote in free votes on issues critical to the nature and future of Parliament. It is for that reason that we have put responsibility in the hands of Parliament on free votes.
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