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4.42 p.m.

Lord Hayhoe: My Lords, first I want to add my appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, for initiating this debate, the importance of which is underlined by the very fact that the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the House are to reply. Unlike preceding speakers, I have no great expertise on these important matters, but I venture to intervene because for four years, from early 1990, I was chairman of the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government. As chairman, I was involved in the establishment of the Hansard Society Commission on the Legislative Process, whose report has been much referred to today. Most important of all, I persuaded my noble friend Lord Rippon of Hexham to be chairman, and I share the real anguish of many of us that he is not able to be in his place today to participate in the debate, as I know he would have wished to.

The original suggestion for the commission came from my noble friend Lord Aberdare, then Chairman of Committees. The financial backing to make the commission possible came after a great deal of effort from the Nuffield Foundation and we were most fortunate to secure the services of Michael Ryle, a former Clerk of Committees in another place, to act as secretary. These, together with an authoritative and distinguished group of colleagues, produced this very important report.

I was also glad that we were able to publish a selection of the written evidence and I hope that any of those who have an interest in the matter do not confine their reading merely to the report and its recommendations but look at that evidence which is set out in the appendices of the report.

The Hansard Society—perhaps I should say a brief word about it—was founded in 1944 and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Stephen King-Hall, the founder, had as his principal objective "to promote knowledge of and interest in parliamentary government", and through publications, schools' conferences, mock elections, its Hansard scholars programme, and many, many other activities, the Hansard Society carries through the objectives of its founder. From time to time it sets up commissions on matters of considerable public interest. For example, in recent years there was the commission concerned with the place of women, particularly in public life, which published a report Women at the Top. The chairman of that commission was Lady Howe, the wife of my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon, whose important contribution today was welcomed in all parts of the House.

In 1991 was published An Agenda for Change: The Conduct of Election Campaigns, a commission chaired by Christopher Chataway. I hope that its recommendations will be implemented more widely as time goes on and that there will be greater appreciation of their value. Last year, Making the Law came forward.

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No one can be satisfied with our law-making processes. The Hansard Society Commission puts forward more than 100 detailed recommendations which deserve detailed consideration, and much more consideration than can possibly be given in our short debate this afternoon. I wonder whether this debate will at least encourage Ministers, parliamentarians, civil servants, advisers to Ministers and officers of both Houses to look again at the report, its recommendations and the evidence. I wonder whether the Government might be prepared to go a little outside their normal way of dealing with matters and perhaps provide a government response to the report along the lines of the responses which government normally make to the recommendations of the report of a Select Committee. I believe that if there were a real desire by the leaders of both Houses of Parliament to contribute to this important public debate they could find a way of publishing a detailed response to these recommendations.

So far as concerns the critical comments we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, and from my noble friend Lord Renton, perhaps I may refer them both to paragraph 22 of the report, where it is said:

    "There may be doubts and disagreement about the details of our proposals"
—I suspect there would be quite a few of those if we were to get a formal report from government—

    "but above all we hope that our conclusions and recommendations may stimulate further debate, open up the argument, and get the thinking moving".

That really is an objective to which we could all subscribe. I realise that my noble friend the Leader of the House may not be in a position to give a positive response this afternoon but I hope that he will consider the possibility of giving a more formal response in written form to these recommendations.

In conclusion, I had intended to reiterate the guiding principles that are set out at the end of Chapter 2 but the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, has pre-empted me in that, although I must say that those five principles certainly deserve repetition and I hope will be constantly in the mind of those who are concerned and responsible for the various parts of our legislative process, which of course must be improved. This debate, the Hansard Society Commission report, the as yet unimplemented recommendations of my noble friend Lord Renton in his report on the preparation of legislation some 20 years ago—all those and much else besides, as my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon made clear, have contributed to a widespread general agreement about the essential requirements of reform. All that is now required is a determined will by all concerned to get that reform moving.

As someone who is not a great expert in the legislative process, I would add one last plea to governments of all complexions. I believe that there has been far too much legislation in recent years. If only we could have less legislation the public interest would be better served. It is a fairly standard political response to

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anything that a government may do to say, "It is too little and too late". As regards legislation the record shows that "It is too much and too soon".

4.50 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hayhoe, not least because for the years in which he was chairman of the Hansard Society, I had to do so as his vice-chairman. It gives an indication of the cross-party and all-party nature of the Hansard Society that I should be following him from this side of the House. If anything, in his usual modest way he understates his role in having established this commission under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Rippon.

I believe that the Hansard Society performs the role which he has described and that it is sometimes neglected in the very adversarial political culture in which we live; namely, the role of delineating the public interest. This is surely a matter of public interest and not merely of partisan interest.

As well as paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Rippon, as other noble Lords have done, and expressing my regret that he cannot be here, and without in any way detracting from his contribution and that of the other members of the commission, I wish to make particular mention of the secretary to the commission, Mr. Michael Ryle. As the noble Lord, Lord Hayhoe, has said, he is a former Clerk of Committees. The report bears the imprint of his drafting and the clarity of his thinking. I believe that that is one of the reasons for it being such an outstandingly useful document.

This has been a very interesting debate. We enjoyed and are grateful for the opening contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, and we are grateful to him for procuring this debate. What the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, asked the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, was particularly important. He asked: whose responsibility is it within the Government to run with this issue? Unless it has a departmental and ministerial home it is very unlikely that anything will happen. I hope that when the noble Viscount responds to the debate he will tell us what his thinking and that of the Government is on this matter.

The point which the noble Baroness, Lady David, made about scrutinising legislation to see whether it complies with the European Convention on Human Rights is extremely important. I know that is being considered by the Liaison Committee of this House. Perhaps when the noble Viscount responds he will tell us something of the Government's attitude to that matter. We are not just signatories to the treaty. The British citizen now has a right of individual petition to Strasbourg. It is important that legislation complies with the European convention. I shall be interested to hear what the Government's attitude to that will be.

As he always does, my noble friend Lord Lester made an outstanding contribution to the debate. He has particularly drawn our attention to the outrageous pricing policy on the cost of Hansard. I believe it is now all the more important because there is no broadsheet quality newspaper that any longer reports in a sober way what happens in Parliament. Parliamentary reporting has

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become a sub-branch of political reporting and political reporting itself seems to have become a sub-branch of showbusiness. Therefore it is extremely difficult for interested members of the general public to gain any sense of what is happening in Parliament. That is all the more reason why I believe that the Government and HMSO should look at a popular pricing policy instead of a prohibitive and elitist one for their publications.

Although I am associated with the Hansard Society, I agreed with the observation of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, about the need for a statement of purpose and principle in Bills. I was interested to note that the Hansard Society reached the opposite conclusion. I am sure that that is a matter which we should pursue.

One common theme which has distinguished this debate has been the need for more consultation with the general public and expert bodies of one kind and another. The truth is that this and previous governments have no clear policy in this matter. As regards some Bills and legislation there is consultation; on others there is very little or none at all. When the noble Viscount the Leader of the House replies perhaps he will tell us whether it is contemplated, in the recesses of Whitehall, that there should be a consistent policy which will operate across all legislation on the matter of consultation. That seems to be intrinsically within the principles set out by the Hansard Society as a necessary and good thing.

We should accept that we compare very unfavourably in Parliament with Congress, the Bundestag and with the European Union itself, in our pre-legislative discussion and the ability to have consideration of legislation before it reaches too final and definite a form.

The noble Lord, Lord Hayhoe, and my noble friend Lord Lester both referred to the five principles adduced in the Hansard Society report—that is to say, that the law should be clear; that it should be intelligible; the product of consultation; democratically scrutinised and that it should be accessible. They are good principles. If we pursued the thought of the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, that there should be an audit in this age of charters, and said "Let us have a real Citizen's Charter", what would it say about our own activities? What requirements might be laid on Parliament to conduct its own activities in accordance with those principles? If we were to check performance against principles, how well would we respond? If there were a regulator or "Oflaw", would "Oflaw" have reason to criticise Parliament fairly often and say that we have not lived up to our obligations to the citizen? I suspect that this putative regulator would say that we had failed in our obligation to meet the principles of accessibility, clarity, democratic scrutiny, intelligibility and so on.

I personally have no doubt that if these problems are put in a wider context, they are not merely mechanical and procedural. I believe that they are symptoms of overload; that there is a systemic problem about what Parliament does as well as a procedural problem. We are now probably the most centralised democracy in the world. We have—and it is a common matter for academic discussion—a part fusion of the Executive and the legislature. One can see what has happened to Parliament by looking at the statistics in the appendix to

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the report. There has been a 20-fold increase in statutory instruments during this century from about 156 in 1901 to nearly 3,000 currently. We have a Parliament which, as has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Hayhoe, is possibly trying to do too much.

What is the answer to this? I am not convinced that it is merely exhortation that we should exercise restraint in some way. I believe that part of the solution is to devolve more power from this Parliament to the nations and states, the regions and the local government of the United Kingdom. Perhaps we are too congested at the centre because we are trying to do too much. If we did less, we might do it better. We would do less if we devolved power.

In conclusion—this is the only political point that I shall make in what has otherwise been an admirably bipartisan discussion—I do not get the impression that the Government, measuring their months or years ahead, have a particularly full legislative kit bag. They do not seem to be overburdened with legislation that they would like to put on the statute book. The Government now seem to be in the depressive cycle at the moment—governments tend to go through manic depressive phases. If that is so, could not the Government turn their full attention and energy from the product of parliament to the process of parliament, from law to law-making? Is this not a good time for trying literally to clean up the parliamentary act? A good indication of a determination to do that—a good first step—would be for the Leader of the House to pick up the proposal that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Hayhoe, and to tell us whether the Government feel able to make a formal and full response to the Hansard Society Commission. That would be in the spirit of your Lordships' debate and would take us one step further.

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