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House of Lords

Wednesday, 10 February 2010.

11 am

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield.

House of Lords: Companion to the Standing Orders

Question

11.06 am

Asked By Lord Campbell-Savours

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, no such statistics are kept. In a self-regulating House, interventions to draw the House's attention to the guidance in the Companion are not confined exclusively to the Leader. In the Leader's absence, this role falls to the Deputy Leader or to the senior Government Whip present; and the opposition Front Benches and the Convenor also can and do draw transgressions to the attention of the House.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, have not attempts over the past week more vigorously to enforce the Companion clearly indicated, despite some success, that some Members simply ignore or refuse to accept the authority of the government Front Bench? That being the case, should not the Procedure Committee be prevailed on to ask the Lord Speaker to intervene and act to defend the finer aspects of self-regulation?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I believe that many Members of this House strongly support self-regulation, and I believe that most Members of this House accept the authority of the House. I, of course, was present yesterday and I think that most of the House were very much with me yesterday in what I was doing.

The role set out for the Leader in the Companion is simply to draw the House's attention to the guidance in the Companion and to any transgressions of the guidance. In relation to the Procedure Committee, I know that on the Benches behind me, and in other parts of the House, there is a strong desire for change-not throughout the House, but on the Benches behind me. I suggest that if any Members wish to take matters to the Procedure Committee, they can so do.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware that from this side of the House, we greatly support and admire the work that she does in

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drawing the attention of the House to those Members who occasionally transgress the rules? Before making any change, would it not be a very good idea for more Members of this House to visit another place and judge for themselves whether discipline and behaviour in the House of Commons are better than in the House of Lords?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am grateful for the support of all Members of the House in ensuring that discipline is properly maintained in this House. I do not think that I want to comment greatly on what happens in the other place, but I am mindful of it.

Lord McNally: My Lords, there is a mood for change in this House, as the Leader rightly says. Why is she shilly-shallying about setting up a Leader's Group? This House is not affected by a general election. We could get on straight away with listening to ideas for improvement. If there are worries about the composition of the group, why not hold a ballot of all Members of the House on the composition of such a group-to be conducted by STV, of course?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I could not go as far as STV. I understand that there is a mood for change in some parts of the House. The Leader has not been shilly-shallying. The Leader has been doing what it is appropriate for the Leader to do, which is to try to ensure that all parts of the House are included in such a Leader's Group. I accept that not everybody wishes to establish a Leader's Group at this point. Notwithstanding what the noble Lord said about the election, I think that with six weeks-who knows?-before an election, although we know that an election will come before June, perhaps it would be better to wait until we return after the election. I can see the noble Lord nodding his head. We are all coming back. If, as I very much expect, we are still sitting on this side of the House and it should please the Prime Minister that I should still be the Leader of this House, I will set up a Leader's Group. But I do not think that it is appropriate to do so in the last six or eight weeks before an election.

Lord Boston of Faversham: My Lords, does the Leader of the House accept that her strictures, especially over the past week, are very welcome in all parts of the House? Does she agree that frequently these days, when the fourth Question is reached, we are well into the 23rd minute of Question Time? Will she encourage noble Lords to bear that in mind because it prevents the fourth questioner having the time he or she should expect?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for pointing out to the whole House that when the clock says 23 we are actually in the 24th minute.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us on the Benches behind her and elsewhere in the House regard self-regulation as we have it, supplemented as it is from time to time by the government Front Bench with suitable tact and

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lightness of touch, as infinitely preferable to rule from the Chair or the Woolsack which would, whatever the merits of the occupant, lead, as we see every day in the other place, to excessive adversarialism across the House and constant challenge to the rules of the House?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, it is interesting to have another view from the Benches behind me. That encapsulates the different views around this House. I am Leader of the whole House and, therefore, I have to ensure that all views are taken into proper consideration and that proper procedures are followed.

Lord Elton: My Lords, does the Leader consider the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, as applying, as I am sure he intended, to Ministers as well as to Back-Benchers?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Yes, my Lords. I frequently remind my ministerial colleagues in our weekly meetings that they should keep their answers short in order to ensure that Back-Benchers have proper time for questions.

Lord Dykes: Should there not be wider aspects of reform at this urgent moment? Why should not all Peers pay UK taxes and declare in the Register when they make extra payments as inducements to prospective candidates?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, that question is rather wide of the mark. However, as all noble Lords will know, an amendment was put to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill in the other place, and I am confident that in future all Peers will pay tax.

Sri Lanka

Question

11.14 am

Asked By Lord Sheikh

Lord Brett: My Lords, we continue to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to address the underlying causes of conflict. We hope that recent progress on returning the internally displaced persons from the camps to their homes continues and is carried out according to international standards. However, progress towards an inclusive political solution that addresses the legitimate grievances of all communities, including Tamils, is slow and that puts at risk the long-term peace and stability of Sri Lanka.

Lord Sheikh: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. Does he support the view that the Government should put pressure on President Rajapaksa to address the plight of Tamils in internment camps as

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a matter of urgency and arrange for the displaced persons to return to their homes? Secondly, what steps will Her Majesty's Government take to ensure that President Rajapaksa makes reconciliation between the Tamils and the Sinhalese a priority and undertakes development assistance in the Tamil-populated areas?

Lord Brett: My Lords, the latest official United Nations figures, from 15 January, estimate that 187,500 internally displaced persons-IDPs-have been released from the camps and that around 100,000 remain. This progress is welcome, but we continue to have concerns. Humanitarian agencies lack the full access that is required to assist IDPs to recover their livelihoods and to rebuild their communities. The restriction on the freedom of movement of those who remain in the camps has eased, but there are still constraints. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to his opposite number, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, on 5 February and urged him to allow all IDPs full freedom of movement and to lift remaining restrictions. On the noble Lord's second supplementary question, it remains our view that genuine national reconciliation is a requirement that will bring the Sri Lankan Government to promote and protect the rights of Sri Lankans, including Tamils. We urge that policy on the Government and hope that they will put it into practice. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister wrote to the President of Sri Lanka, urging him to use his new mandate to take forward a process of national reconciliation.

Lord Avebury: The Minister may have seen the claim made yesterday by a Sri Lankan Minister that all the IDPs have been resettled except 70,000. Whatever the actual number, does the Minister agree that there is no coherent programme for making the former inhabited areas that were subject to conflict safe for habitation by removing the mines and by rebuilding the damaged or destroyed houses? Also, what progress has been made in dealing with the 11,000 alleged former LTTE fighters who are in indefinite detention? Will they be brought to trial?

Lord Brett: The noble Lord makes two important points. I will have to write to him with up-to-date information on the point about the detainees, but he is absolutely right about the requirement for demining and for reconstruction. DfID is providing some £12.5 million of humanitarian funding aimed at supporting two British NGOs, the HALO Trust and the Mines Advisory Group, to undertake demining activities. We are also supporting the UN operations team to provide transitional shelter for 2,000 returning IDP families to the Vanni area.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, over the years, the Commonwealth has had a remarkable record in seeking to bring together factions within Commonwealth countries. India is involved here as well as Sri Lanka. Does the Minister see any prospect of an intervention or initiative by the Commonwealth Secretary-General?



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Lord Brett: My noble friend makes an important point about the role of India, which is an important player in the region. I am not aware of any current Commonwealth proposals to intervene in the situation. There is a newly elected President and a dissolved Parliament as of yesterday, with elections to be held within the next eight weeks. Hopefully we will move forward from there. I have no specific information in respect of the Commonwealth.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, does the Minister accept that we on this side of the House are extremely concerned about the hardship and suffering among the Tamils, and about other matters that my noble friend Lord Sheikh has raised? We fully support the Minister's concerns about human rights, the actions of the present Government, which seem to be very much on the edge of human rights, and the general turn of events in this unhappy land. Does he also accept that there is now a need for an independent inquiry into the alleged war crimes committed by both sides in the recent military conflict, which might help, and does he accept above all that any support that the Government can give for reconciliation processes will have our full support on this side of the House?

Lord Brett: My Lords, I am deeply appreciative of the support that the spokesman for the Opposition has given to the Government. I think that we are at one in this House in wanting to see reconciliation in that troubled country. Tamil and, indeed, Sinhalese communities have been disturbed by violence, and by deprivation as a result of violence, and we want to see them returning to their homes and to a much better life. We urge reconciliation on that Government and we are providing humanitarian assistance. We have urged the Government to allow an independent inquiry into crimes that were stated to have happened during the conflict. The country is not part of the Rome treaty and cannot be imposed on from outside, but a new mandate is being formed and a new Government are coming to power. We hope that the pressure that the international community puts on them from all sides will bear fruit.

Lord Eden of Winton: Now that the military and the presidential campaigns have been won, is not this the best possible time to show magnanimity and statesmanship? In the mean time, will the Minister say a bit more about the financial assistance that has been given to the displaced people in the Tamil north and, in particular, the work of international organisations such as the World Bank and the International Organisation for Migration?

Lord Brett: My Lords, I do not have an up-to-date figure for the amount or the activity of the international bodies, although I will happily write to the noble Lord on that. His first point is crucial. Now is the time for the Government and the President of Sri Lanka, in this moment of military victory and an election victory by a substantial majority, to reflect on the words of Winston Churchill, who said, "In victory, magnanimity". That lesson has been well learnt in other parts of the world. In this part of the world, it could be essential in bringing together a community that is damaged by a quarter of a century of conflict.



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The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, did the Minister see a report from the governor of the Central Bank yesterday that $1 billion is being raised for reconstruction in the north? However, none of it is going to reconciliation. Will DfID therefore make that one of its priorities?

Lord Brett: As I indicated, DfID funding has been determined in terms of humanitarian concerns. I will take away the point made by the noble Earl and bring it to the attention of my DfID colleagues.

Electoral Reform

Question

11.21 am

Asked By Lord Tyler

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, the other place voted last night by 365 votes to 187 in favour of amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill to provide for a referendum to take place before the end of October 2011, offering a choice between the current system for elections to the House of Commons and the alternative vote system.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on keeping a straight face while he gave that extraordinary excuse to the House. I gently point out that that does not fulfil the requirement given in the Labour Party manifesto in 1997; namely, to have a review, which was undertaken by Lord Jenkins and his very distinguished commission. Why do the Government think that a consensus was required before a referendum on that recommendation was permitted, while last night no consensus was achieved? Indeed, Conservative MPs did not have a veto last night as they had on the Jenkins commission. Is the Minister saying that in future no Labour manifesto promise will be of any worth whatever unless the Conservatives agree to it?

Lord Tunnicliffe: I can hear some amusement from the last comment. The 1997 manifesto had a commitment to put a proportional alternative in a referendum. During that Government there was considerable legislation, new institutions were established, there was the Jenkins report, new voting systems were tried, and a great deal of learning took place. Neither the 2001 nor the 2005 manifestos had any reference to proportionality, which requires multi-Member constituencies or two classes of MPs. That would destroy the clear central theme of the House of Commons and the link between the single Members, all of whom are a common class with their constituencies.

Lord Henley: My Lords, will the noble Lord continue to try to keep a straight face and tell us when the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill will come to this House, and whether he thinks that he can get it through before the general election?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, when things happen in this House is for the business managers.



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Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, what does my noble friend feel are the problems with first past the post?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, the first past the post system has the strong constituency link and the equality of Members, and produces decisive governance. It is a good system. We nevertheless believe that the alternative vote builds on that system. Alternative votes will ensure that MPs will be elected with broader support. We believe that this majority mandate will enhance the legitimacy of MPs as they will need to reach out to a wider range of voters than under the existing system. Crucially, AV maintains the essential link between an MP and a single geographical constituency.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, why did the Government reject the sensible advice of the Jenkins commission that they could have the unique distinction of breaking the spell under which parties, when they want to reform, do not have the power to do so and, when they have the power, do not want to reform?

Lord Tunnicliffe: The position taken by the Government has been to introduce a great deal of constitutional reform, and they have developed an understanding of the consequences of that reform. The Government are strongly of the belief that no system of proportionality would make sense in the special circumstances of the House of Commons, and they think that they have a strong consensual position in that regard. Last night, a proposal to introduce a proportional amendment was defeated by 476 votes to 68.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, do not the elections to the European Parliament indicate the dangers of having multi-Member constituencies through the opportunities offered to extreme parties like the BNP to get representation in Parliament?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, electoral systems have results and in democracies we live with them. The European Parliament is a very different place from the House of Commons. It is primarily a representative body and is not an executive body in the sense that the Executive are not drawn from it. We believe that representatives in the European Parliament should be broadly representative of the electors of the UK, and that is why we think that PR is appropriate for UK European elections.

The Lord Bishop of Chichester: Does the Minister accept that the most fundamental need is to restore confidence in the democratic process in this country, which should encourage us to do everything we can to increase the number of people who consider it important that they should exercise their vote at the general election?


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