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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, between my noble friend Lord Carter and I, we have massed behind us quality battalions that amount to just over a quarter of the strength of this Houseabout 28 or 29 per cent. He and I, with our quality troops, have 25 fewer than
I turn to one or two distinct contributions. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, for a graceful and informed speech about the problems of European legislation. I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham for his short contribution that reminded us that we are attending to housekeeping and not building the kingdom of God. It is a shame that this will be almost his last appearance; I believe that he is due to retire on 31st May. I shall miss his contributions as I know your Lordships will.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, it is sometimes said that this is a part-time House. It is not. It is a full-time House that depends significantly upon those who attend part time. We actually work very hard indeed. The Canadian sample, quoted by my noble friend Lord Dubs, is out of date. Compared with any other chamber in the world, the House of Lords is the busiest. Most of the time is spent to the benefit of the public.
I turn to my friend, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who said that with sinking heart he is never quite sure whether I mean what I say. With even more of a sinking heart, I know that when the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, speaks he means what he says. Gently and politely as always, he chaffed me by saying that I had said on a number of occasions that our duty is to hold the executive to account. It is. It is absolutely critical to the health of a functioning democracy, particularly when any regime has a large majority in the other place, that someone attempts to hold the Government to account. It is a matter of pure indifference to meI cannot say this more stronglywhether a strong government is headed by Mr Blair or by Mrs Thatcher. Any democracy requires the checks and the balances that are offered in this place. That does not mean that the way in which we have always worked over the centuries is productive or useful.
The noble Earl asked what was in the package to hold the executive to account. There is pre-legislative scrutiny and scrutiny of secondary legislation that we all agree is not carried out sufficiently well. I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, that that will have to be approached with great subtlety and care, but we could carry out the work that presently lies undone. The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, made observations about the scrutiny of European legislation. That may be holding to account an executive that may not necessarily be domestically based, but nevertheless the work needs to be done.
It is not for me to saybut I shallthat Question Time offers a marvellous opportunity, particularly in relation to topical questions, to challenge Ministers, to bring them to account and occasionally to see whether or not they may be induced into an embarrassing pitfall.
On the matter of debates in prime time, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that the voice of Back-Benchers should be heard. The proposal is that there should be more prime-time debates for Back-Benchers on Wednesdays and that the committee reports that are so important should also be debated in prime time. That is my reply to my friend, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who asked me where the material is upon which this House may further, more effectively, more diligently, challenge the executive and bring it to account.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, perhaps the noble and learned Lord can answer better the question that I asked his noble friend Lord Grenfell: how will the House of Lords provide better scrutiny if it finishes work earlier and sits fewer days?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, there are two answers to that question. I shall deal with each of them. First, a blunt calculation of what hours are spent in the Chamber or in committees is not a true indicator of the way we do our work.
Secondly, there is no contemplationthe noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is absolutely rightthat we should sit less. Indeed, if we sit in September and take longer holidays at other times of the year, the proposal isand it is plainly implied, if not explicit, in the reportthat we should sit the same amount of time. What we will be able to do is to go home at a sane hour, such as 10 o'clock, sit more sensible hours, such as 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, and have the great advantage, with the disbenefits to governments if departments do not get their Bills in order, of pre-legislative scrutiny allied to Grand Committee.
The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is right. If pre-legislative scrutiny becomes the norm, then carry-over of Bills is linked to it. But he is right in saying that if there is no pre-legislative scrutiny there will not be the consequential understanding that carry-over will be available. I stressand it is worth looking at the textthat carry-over will be available only if the House agrees. I repeat, my noble friend Lord Carter and I have 28 per cent of the vote. So if we were conspirators we should be in the unsuccessful class of Guy Fawkes rather than in the successful
Lord Naseby: My Lords, why are the two impenetrably linked? Pre-legislative assessment clearly has the support of all the parties in the House. Carry-over of Bills has almost nil support, unless there is a specific and agreed basis to go forward. The Lord Privy Seal said initially that the two were linked entirely. If he is now saying that it needs the unanimous agreement of all parties in the House, he has shifted his ground a little.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I have not shifted my ground in the slightest. They are linked because if one has pre-legislative scrutiny, the legislative process for a particular Bill is much longer. In the nature of things, it must be. I have not shifted my ground in any particular. Paragraph 31(b) states:
Perhaps I may mention one matter in passing. With regard to the common watering hole, the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, has the matter well in hand. Someone in the People's Republic of China will read that and wonder what it means.
I now turn away from the debate, which has been an excellent debate with different nuances, to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Denham. The noble Lord must make his own decision. I hope that he does not press the amendment, but in case he does I must deal with his question. I shall deal with the matter in some detail because it may be that the matter troubles your Lordships.
Originally, I had had set down a draft Motion for future business. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, both wrote to meand I think that the noble Lord, Lord Roper, spoke to mesaying that they were not happy with the original form. Accordingly I wrote to all three with copies to everyone in the group in these terms:
I am not imputing bad motive to anyone. There was a suggestion that the group which I had the privilege to chair could be accused of trying to sneak something through. I am sorry that such words were used. In response I shall say no more than, "Please look at who was in the group before using words of that kind." I put that matter on one side.
We are not trying to sneak anything through. What we are saying is that we now have a decent momentum and dynamic for improvement. Much of that is additional burden on the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, was concerned about the carry-over of Bills. I listened, as I always do, with great care to what he said. But your Lordships will have noted on page 2 of the report that our House has already approved the principle of carry-over. The reference is given in footnote 7 on page 2. I shall not trouble the House by reading it out.
I think that it is reasonable and proportionate and not, I hope, aggressive to ask the House to vote in the terms of my Motion. I recognise the concerns that some noble Lords have, but I believe that we have come a very long way in a spirit of amity and consensus achieved at the 16 meetings. I would ask your Lordships to trust the group and to support my Motion.
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