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Privy Council and House of Lords Reform

Lord Lamont of Lerwick asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, no.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for that reply, but is it not time for some more vandalism masquerading as modernisation? Does the noble Baroness remember that the previous Lord Chancellor—now something of a cult figure on this side of the House—said that the decision to retain 92 hereditary Peers until stage 2 was complete was an agreement made between Privy Counsellors on Privy Council terms and was binding in honour? Does the noble Baroness the Leader of the House agree that no mention was made of any small print that the promise could be broken if the Government could not make up their mind about what to do about stage 2? Is not the simple truth that the Government have broken their word and devalued the word of a Privy Counsellor?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, no. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, who will be aware that this House came to one conclusion in respect of the next stage of House of Lords reform, voting 3:1 for an appointed House. The noble Lord will also be aware that in another place, when the seven options were put forward, there was no clear decision on any of the options. In view of that, the Government have made it clear that they will go ahead with the next stage, which is the removal of the remaining hereditary Peers.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, while I accept that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House gave a clear answer to the first part of the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, I must confess to some sympathy with the second part of his question. The commitment made to this House about the second stage was understood by most of us at least to involve a serious attempt to discuss with all parties in this House what would now happen as a result of the differences at the two ends of Parliament. Is the Minister aware that many of us are deeply disappointed that the

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Government are now going ahead with one part of their reform without paying too much attention to anyone else's proposals for reform?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Baroness feels that. There has been a White Paper; there has been a joint committee. The joint committee put proposals to the two Houses. There has been no agreement between the two Houses. In the absence of any agreement, the Government have put forward proposals for consultation. We are expecting the results of that consultation after December.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that there are some advantages in the present Privy Council system? For instance, the oath taken by a Privy Counsellor is equivalent to signing the Official Secrets Act as regards protecting sensitive and confidential information, such as records of Ministers' discussions, as well as official secrets.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, members of the Privy Council sign an oath which enables them to have conversations with each other that can remain secret. I entirely agree with the noble Lord that there are some advantages to that system.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, as the son of an MI6 officer, perhaps I may steer your Lordships back to the question of House of Lords reform. Does the Government agree that one of the issues that needs to be revisited is not the either elected or appointed issue, but the different modes of election and different modes of appointment? That is something which we need to look at again.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, that may well be something which this House feels the need to look at again, but I must say that there was a clear majority in this House in favour of an all-appointed Chamber.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, as regards the answer that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House just gave to the right reverend Prelate, surely the Government have made up their minds on the nature of this House? Is not this policy a sign of the failure that the Government have had on constitutional reform? They started with broad agreement on change; they are now entirely isolated. No political party agrees with their way forward on the reform of the House of Lords.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, if there had been broad agreement on change, we would not have gone through the lengthy process that we have gone through until now. The Government tried very hard to ensure that there was a degree of consensus. That is why there was a Royal Commission; that is why there was a White Paper; and that is why there was a joint committee.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree, or is she aware—she was not

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here at the time—that the essence of this arose because there should be no stage 1 before stage 2? Is the noble Baroness aware that it was to accommodate that contention that this deal in honour was struck? It is quite contrary to the essence of the deal to proceed as the Government are now proceeding. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on this matter.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, the noble Lord's memory is slightly different from mine. I understood that one of the reasons that we came to that deal was to enable pressure to be brought for a further stage of reform. My reading of the debates in this House indicates that. However, I must repeat that there has been no agreement between the two Houses about the next stage of reform. In the absence of that agreement, the Government have put forward their own proposals.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the greatest obstacles to a consensus within this House on the subject of House of Lords reform is that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the Opposition, is wholly out of step with virtually every member of his own party?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, there are very clear differences on the Opposition Benches, but I have to say that there are differences on our Benches too.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, declaring an interest in this matter as a Privy Counsellor, perhaps I may go back to my noble friend's original Question. Will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House tell us what is the use of the Privy Council at the moment, apart from oaths and such like? Given that there are a number of members of the Privy Council from the Commonwealth, would it not be helpful to seek their advice and experience about how either their elected or partly elected Houses work in their countries? Would that not be useful information for the Government, who are rather lacking in inspiration on this matter?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, we have a considerable amount of information, not just from Commonwealth countries but also from other countries, about the operation of their parliamentary systems. With respect to the noble Lord's question about the use of the Privy Council, given that the noble Lord is a member, I am sure that the Privy Council must have some use.

Lord Rea: My Lords, as a hereditary Peer who has been prepared to step down at any time during the past 21 years—far too long a period for me to have been here—it seems rather strange that when the House of Commons could not agree, the Government should say that that was the end of the matter. Surely, when an impasse like that has been reached, should not the

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answer be for the Government to say, "go back to the drawing board", and not to say that that is the decision?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, my noble friend will recall that, historically, it has been incredibly difficult to reach a degree of agreement on House of Lords reform, not only within this House but across the two Chambers. In the absence of that agreement, the Government have put forward their proposals. Otherwise, we could go on debating these issues ad infinitum.

Legal Aid

3.10 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How they propose to address the potential withdrawal of many solicitors from the legal aid scheme in England and Wales.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin): My Lords, the Legal Services Commission monitors the supply of legal aid services monthly. Indications from the new bid round for civil legal aid suggest that there will not be a significant reduction in the number of solicitors' firms providing publicly funded legal services.

A joint review by my department and the Legal Services Commission is under way, looking at demand, supply and purchasing arrangements to determine whether the current legal aid remuneration strategy and contracting structures represent the most cost-effective way of providing publicly funded legal services. The review will report in December 2003 and it will be published.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, under the Human Rights Act 1998, there is a fundamental right to access to independent legal advice and that currently approximately 40 per cent of our population is deterred from receiving it? Is he aware that there is a growing crisis in the legal aid system, whether or not he agrees with that assertion, in particular as regards the civil legal aid arrangements? Since January 2003, one in four solicitors has dropped out of the system. What is planned immediately to deal with those situations?

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