The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The Government are giving careful consideration to the responses to their consultation paper. More than 1,000 were received, and the Lord Chancellor has promised that we will publish them.
I also welcome the Public Administration Committee's thoughtful contribution to the debate, which has proved that it is possible to find a centre of gravity on the composition of reform among those who want a reformed second Chamber.
Fiona Mactaggart: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, but what discussionsif anyhave taken place between Cabinet Ministers since the conclusion of the consultation process? What work is under way to produce within seven weeks a response to the Public Administration Committee's report, and to produce plans for reform of the House of Lords that are acceptable to this House? In a recent speech, the Prime Minister described that as a necessary part of the "third phase" of new Labour.
Mr. Cook: Like my hon. Friend, I read that speech with great care, and I was encouraged by its commitment to House of Lords reform as part of the Government's "third phase". She asks whether members of the Government have discussed this issue, and I can assure her that there are constant discussions between us. I have
We have undertaken that we will respond to the Public Administration Committee's report within the normal two-month period. I hope that we can indeed do so, but I ask the House to bear it in mind that that period includes three weeks in which the House is in recess.
Mr. Bryant: It is interesting to learn from my right hon. Friend how many people have replied to the consultation exercise, but it would be particularly interesting to know how many of those respondents prefer an elected element to the second Chamber, especially bearing it in mind that almost half the Members of this House signed an early-day motion calling for a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber. We should also remember that, in giving evidence to the Public Administration Committee, the Lord Chancellor said that a majority of Members oppose a large elected element.
Mr. Cook: A number of Members of Parliament and peers responded to the White Paper, and their views are on the record. As I said, we will publish the responses in full in due course, so the House will understand if I do not go into them in detail. However, my hon. Friend asked me a direct question, and I would be misleading the House if I did not say that the overwhelming majority of respondents favour a substantially elected second Chamber.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Does the Leader of the House consider that the outcome of this evening's vote on hunting in the other place could affect the time scale for House of Lords reform? Have the discussions to which he referred dealt with the way in which the Parliament Act could be employed in such circumstances?
Mr. Cook: I was rather hoping that our questions might provide a 15-minute interlude in the debate on hunting. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is noI cannot see that that has any bearing on the timetable for House of Lords reform.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): Does not the right hon. Gentleman face a real dilemma, in that a majority of members of the parliamentary Labour party, of the Opposition parties, of the Public Administration Committee and of the public want a largely elected second Chamber, but just one manthe Prime Ministerwants to sustain a House of cronies? Will the right hon. Gentleman properly represent the views that exist in the House by going to Downing street this week and telling the Prime Minister that he has got it wrong on this issue, and that he should back down? Or is he afraid that, if he did that, he might be sent to the other place?
Mr. Cook: I entertain no such apprehensions. I invite the right hon. Gentleman to read with more care, as I am sure that he would wish to, the speeches my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. They are always rewarding, and frequently inspiring. In my right hon. Friend's most recent speech, he will find a very clear commitment to reform.
If a dilemma exists in the House, it rests with the Opposition. How on earth do they square their commitment to having an 80 per cent. elected second Chamber with a lifetime opposition to having any elected Members of that Chamber?
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Should not House of Lords reform aim to give future Members of that House a greater spirit of independence? Would not measures such as long, non-renewable terms, the exclusion of Ministers and the development of an investigative rather than legislative role weaken the grip of Whips, and reduce the often malign influence that they exert, in this House and elsewhere?
Mr. Cook: I cannot hold out any prospect of a second Chamber without Whips, but my hon. Friend touches on what I think is a broad consensus in the debatethat the purpose of the second Chamber should be to revise, deliberate and advise, and not to usurp the role of the first Chamber. That is why it is important that we get the balance right: the second Chamber must be legitimate, in that it represents the British people, but it must not compete with this House in terms of the democratic mandate.
Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): What is my right hon. Friend's definition of the phrase "in due course" in relation to the response to the consultation? Does he agree that the experience with appointed second Chambers in other countries is that they are as likely as elected second Chambers to flex their muscles and disagree with their lower Houses? Might not the debate taking place in the other House today be a further illustration of that?
Mr. Cook: I do not want to predict the outcome of today's debate in the other place, although I shall follow it with close interest. My right hon. Friend asks about the definition of "in due course", but the House should bear in mind thatquite rightly and properlywe delayed the end of the consultation period so that we could take account of the report from the Select Committee on Public Administration. We have committed ourselves to responding to that report in the course of April. I think that it would be sensible to publish the responses in the same period.
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The Modernisation Committee published last month its proposals to strengthen the Select Committees, including a more independent and impartial system of nomination to the Select Committees, more specialist staff to support them, and a larger Committee size to enable more members to take part in scrutiny.
I warmly welcome today's report on our proposals from the Liaison Committee. It concludes that the Committee can support "most of the proposals", and welcomes our statement of core tasks as a valuable contribution to improving the focus of Committee work. Good scrutiny makes for good Government, and I believe that the House is on course for better scrutiny through stronger Committees.
Vera Baird: Given my right hon. Friend's view that good scrutiny makes for good Government, and that Select Committees are the most developed vehicle for scrutiny, will he do his best to ensure that, in future, Bills are produced in draft in sufficient time to allow thorough scrutiny before they are brought to this Chamber for Second Reading?
Mr. Cook: I very much agree with my hon. Friend's proposal, and with the thrust of her question. I have said repeatedly to the House that, if we want the House of Commons to shape legislation, it is important that it and its Members have an opportunity to intervene early, when a Bill is still in draft form. It will take time to achieve the objective of making pre-legislative scrutiny the norm and the routine for most Bills, but I hope that we will produce more draft Bills in the course of this Session than was the case in the previous Session, and that we continue to increase the number in the next Session.
David Cairns: I begin by declaring an interest to my right hon. Friend. Under the current system of appointing Select Committee members, and despite my best endeavours, I have been completely unsuccessful in getting on to one, so I welcome any reform.
I warmly welcome the plans described by my right hon. Friend to strengthen the role of Select Committees. Does he agree that if that reform is to be successful it must be funded reform, and that if Committees are to be given more tasks, especially in scrutinising legislation, they will require more in the way of clerking and expert advice? What plans does he have to ensure that Select Committee reform will be accompanied by an increase in resources?
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend will be encouraged by the proposal to increase the size of the membership of Select Committees, which will allow another 50 Members to join them. I hope that his ambition will thereby be fulfilled when the report is accepted.
On resources, we have proposed that specialist staff should be appointed, especially to help Committees with financial scrutiny. I am grateful to the National Audit Office for its willingness to second staff to carry out that role. In return, we ask Select Committees to apply more discipline and consistency in the way in which they tackle financial scrutiny.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Has the Leader of the House notedI am sure that he hasthe strong view expressed by the Liaison Committee that all Select Committees should get more involved in Departments' estimates? Has he further noted the willingness of the National Audit Office to get involved in the work of advising Committees? Does he agree that Parliament built
Mr. Cook: Yes, and I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for welcoming our proposals on providing staff. I referred to the National Audit Office; its offer is very helpful. If the Select Committee system is to be successful in carrying out the high-quality standards of scrutiny that we all desire, it must be able to tackle financial estimates and to look at outturns at the end of the financial year.
Tony Baldry (Banbury): The Leader of the House is correct that the Liaison Committee broadly supported the proposals by the Modernisation Committee, but does he accept that one suggestion that did not command support from the majority of its members was that the number of Select Committees should be substantially increased, and that many Chairmen and members of Committees take the view that the present number of Committees is an optimum number that enables effective scrutiny and effective participation in the work of Committees?
Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman is correct that we did not get a 100 per cent. score, but in his press release the Chairman of the Liaison Committee described the reports as excellent, and I shall happily settle for that as a pass mark.
The hon. Gentleman will have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) say that he and many others are excluded from participation in Select Committees. I do not think that a Committee of 15 members, which is after all the size of the Modernisation Committee, should preclude us from reaching consensus.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Before 1997, I served for eight years on the Select Committee on European Legislationnow European Scrutinywhich scrutinises European Union matters and does valuable work for the House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that its authority should be extended so that it can deal with individual nations in the European Uniontaking that brief away from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairsand its work can be much more substantial as regards dealing with matters that go beyond procedural issues and are concerned with the entire politics of the European Union?