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Lord Richard: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Surely the point is this. How can he say that we are treating Parliament with contempt when Select Committees of the House of Commons ask Ministers to attend and they do so in rather greater numbers than under the last administration? That is clearly the point.
Lord Naseby: My Lords, that is not quite the point that the noble Lord made in his introductory speech. If he wishes to change the ground on which he is now making the point, I will listen to him. But I have not made that assertion and I do not believe that the noble Lord can accuse me of having done so.
I move to another point that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, made. He said that the format of the Government making statements through the media is nothing new; all governments have done it and it is part of the normal form. Nobody in this Chamber today worked closer than I did with Madam Speaker in the previous Parliament for the whole of their five years. I admit that there were times when the previous government transgressed what was appropriate and they were duly taken to task by Madam Speaker. But the number of times they were taken to task in the whole of those five years bears no relation at all to the number of times she has had to take the present Government to task in the past 12 months.
I do not want to be party political this evening. I wish to look at two aspects of the control by Parliament of the Executive. I ask noble Lords to cast their mind back to 1983 when in another place--and it is 15 years ago now--we debated a Private Member's Bill called the
I do not need to remind any of your Lordships that for the best part of 700 years the key debate has been about who controls the expenditure of public money. I submit that until that Act was pushed through--it was piloted through the Commons by one of the current Members of your Lordships' House--the ratchet had never before been pulled back in favour of Parliament bringing the Executive to task.
That Bill established three provisions of importance. It made the Comptroller and Auditor General responsible to Parliament rather than the Executive. Secondly, it gave Parliament the right to scrutinise all--or almost all--public expenditure. The Bill as originally drafted sought the right to scrutinise all public expenditure, but a little acquiescence had to be granted to the government of the day and we lost the right to scrutinise local government expenditure to the Audit Commission and we lost the right to scrutinise the expenditure of the nationalised industries to themselves--or, rather, to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Perhaps that is not such a great loss now as there are not many nationalised industries left.
That Act regained for Parliament the opportunity to question and to audit the Executive. But that was 15 years ago, and I wonder whether the time has not now come for that to be reviewed across the Benches to see whether future reforms should be undertaken to improve the operation of that practice.
The second area where I believe that there should be joint activity relates to the nature of legislation. All of your Lordships will know as well as I do that the nature of legislation has changed. I entered Parliament in 1974. At that time, there were just over 2,000 statutory instruments to be considered each year, of which about 700 were considered by the joint committees. That in itself was a substantial task. If your Lordships look at some of the papers produced at that time, you will find that even then Members of Parliament were questioning their ability to scrutinise that number, but because governments--all governments--have found the wonderful vehicle of enabling legislation, the number of statutory instruments and pieces of secondary legislation has increased dramatically. We now have well over 3,000 statutory instruments a year, of which well over 1,000 have to be considered by the joint committees. I do not believe that the honourable Members who attend those committees, diligent as they are, are able properly to scrutinise all that is before them. I submit that we need further reform in that area.
We as parliamentarians forget at our peril that it is Parliament's task, primarily through Members of Parliament, but with us as a revising Chamber, to report on how well, how competently, how efficiently and how honestly that power and authority are being used by the government of the day, whoever they may be.
Lord Watson of Invergowrie: My Lords, I begin with an apology. I hope that it is not taken as a discourtesy to your Lordships' House, but it has not been possible for me to be present throughout the debate. I have been present only intermittently and I may have to leave before the end, due to urgent personal business. I apologise for that.
I was, however, able to hear the opening speech from the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I was not surprised, but I was slightly disappointed, that the noble Viscount used his speech and this debate largely as a stick with which to beat the Government. Several other speeches have also been in that vein. There is rather more to this issue than that.
It is a pleasure, however, to follow the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, because I was present in another place on many occasions when he acted as Deputy Speaker. His knowledge of the other place is much greater than mine and I noticed that his remarks were much more measured and that he did not seek to secure party advantage.
I should like to make two basic points. First, it is unfair--indeed, it is inaccurate--to characterise this Government as one who have lessened the control of the Executive by both Houses of Parliament. It is true that there will be greater constitutional change in this Government's first Session than perhaps in any other, certainly in my lifetime. It is important for the constitution to be reinvigorated and updated. In a sense, this House has shown itself willing to participate in that process, with the recent agreement on the Ceremony of Introduction for Life Peers. That shows not only the importance of this House updating its procedures, but also that it can do so. The use of Grand Committees in the Moses Room--I was present during deliberations on the National Lottery Bill--is an important way of improving our ability to participate.
In the other place, the Government have established the first-ever Select Committee to consider modernisation. That must be welcomed. Many of the traditions of both Houses are as they have been for many years, but simply because they have always been so does not make them right as we approach the 21st century. I welcome the modernisation of our procedures.
The way in which the Executive is held to account is dependent not only on what happens in the two Houses of Parliament. It is also important that accountability is measured by the extent to which ordinary citizens of our country can participate in the process. That does not mean merely placing a cross on a ballot paper once every four or five years.
I welcome the number of referendums that have been held and the fact that there will be more. That is an important part of the process of linking the citizens of this country, or of the various countries which make up the United Kingdom, with the democratic process. There have already been such Bills on Scotland, Wales and London and we shall shortly have one on Northern Ireland.
Having been an elected Member of another place for eight years, I know that it is impossible for anybody to stand as a candidate in any election on a manifesto with which they entirely agree. The electorate is, however, offered the opportunity only to accept or reject a party's manifesto. It is all very well for a government to say, as this Government say, "We were elected on a mandate and this measure was part of the manifesto", but I remember a famous court case relating to the "fares fair" policy of the Greater London Council, as it then was, when the judge said that nobody really expects any government or any local authority to carry out what it said in its manifesto.
That approach is perhaps too cynical, but it is not possible for individuals to say, "I like this part of the party's policy, but on the other hand I am quite attracted by what another party is saying on a similar matter". It is important that on major issues, particularly constitutional issues, we have referendums to make it quite clear whether the Government have the support of the people for what may be fundamental changes. No change is more fundamental than that which was offered in my own country of Scotland, and the referendum gave it overwhelming backing.
The referendum has also invigorated the political process in Scotland. There has never been such a lively political debate in Scotland. That is largely the result of the legislation that is passing through the other place which will shortly arrive in your Lordships' House. That is an important part of it. But the very fact that the Scottish people believe that they will have a direct say in the running of their country for the first time in 300 years is also very important. A referendum enables people to participate directly in the debate in a way that they cannot do other than by sitting in the Gallery of your Lordships' House or another place. While that has importance, there is no means of participating directly in the discussion. It is for that reason that I welcome the referendums that have been conducted.
I do not believe that referendums undermine the role of elected Members or your Lordships; they are complementary and should be seen as such. I am sure that many of us become involved directly in referendums to ensure that we are in touch with what people think or say about very important matters.
In conclusion, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, made one comment which I found rather strange. She spoke of the likely intentions of the Government to remove voting rights from hereditary Peers as some kind of peace offering to Back-Benchers in another place. Surely, it is much more important than that. This has been the subject of discussion for a considerable time and is perfectly in tune with the comments of noble Lords that it must be subject to wide debate. I hope that various aspects of it will be open to debate and I believe that that will take place.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, also referred to the voting record of the Prime Minister. That is a strange way in which to measure the accountability of the Executive. The Prime Minister is now subject to questioning by a method that is every bit as rigorous as that which was applied to any of his predecessors. The timing may have changed but the method of questioning remains the same. There are often very good reasons why the Prime Minister is somewhere other than in another place listening to debates, in which he can in any event participate only rarely. I do not believe that that is a weakness of our democracy or the accountability of another place.
This debate has identified some very important areas in which accountability is moving on and is being modernised and improved. I do not believe that the doom and gloom that we have heard from the Benches opposite to a considerable extent bears close scrutiny.
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, having heard some of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Cranborne for giving me this chance to get a word in while I have the opportunity to do so.
It is clear that we live at a time when constitutional change is in the air. If from the perspective of history one looks back to the last third of the 20th century the two most significant changes are likely to be devolution and the development of the European Union. Although sometimes they are bracketed together as part of the process of erosion of the position and power of
I confine the remainder of my remarks to the relationship between the Government as member of the Council and Parliament through whom the Government's democratic legitimacy is derived. Perhaps the single biggest weakness in the EU system as it affects this country is the relative decoupling, and ensuing relative alienation, of Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Needless to say that in this context I welcome the protocol on national parliaments contained in the Treaty of Amsterdam.
In this House I speak on European Union matters with some trepidation because of the very considerable expertise among noble Lords. However, as I prepared my speech it occurred to me that in the past five years I have been a Member of the European Parliament; that in the previous government for a time I answered for the Government from the Dispatch Box on European Union matters in the absence of my noble friend Lady Chalker; that for nearly two years I attended the EU's Culture and Audio Visual Council; and that since the general election I have been a member of Sub-Committee F of the European Select Committee of your Lordships' House. Therefore, I have considered these matters from a number of different perspectives.
Many distinguished Members of this House denounce the fact that so much of our business is decided across the Channel. I understand it and emotionally I sympathise with it. I also respect that point of view. But to drink to the king across the water never brought him back. In their remarks I hear the tunes of Jacobitism. In a world of the mobility of people and goods, improved telecommunications and electronic commerce and service delivery governments can exercise sovereignty--by which I mean political control over the forces that affect our lives--only in concert with others. I believe that the big issue is how to do it.
Today in Western Europe we have two systems: for military and security purposes it is based on NATO and for most other purposes it is based on the European Union. I believe that if these systems change or collapse it will be because of internal problems or contradictions, not because of the leverage of external forces. The whole point about the European Union, beyond the fact that it exists, is that while it has good points it has also
Against such background, how does Parliament scrutinise the Government's activities in the Council? Arising from the Foster Report, the answer lies in the two systems of complementary Select Committees of the two Houses. Because the European Communities Act moved much law-making away from this country no doubt that process of scrutiny is legislation and topic-focused. Yet if that particular focus was applied to this Parliament it would not give the complete picture. I believe that legislation is the endgame of the political process where the stakes are highest. Negotiation is absolutely crucial to a successful outcome in the Council.
I do not believe that it is in this country's best interests to have the kind of Danish system of parliamentary mandate that is given by the Market Committee of the Folketing. That would mean that our players in the Council would play with their cards face up when all the other members would have their cards face down. I do not believe that that is a recipe for success.
Parliament's role is not merely legislative. It should debate, question, hold the Government to account and, if it is sufficiently dissatisfied with the Government's performance, it should express no confidence in it. If we look at those aspects in the context of European Union business we see that in the Statements made after significant meetings of European Council. Equally, there is frequent questioning of the Government in the run-up to, say, the IGCs. I recall receiving some robust questioning from the present Leader of the House.
It is fine as far as it goes. But as any reader of the Sunday Telegraph will know from reading Christopher Booker--it is a pity he napalms his subject matter with anti-European bile--it is often the apparently smaller issues (the decisions, which when they were taken may not have seemed to be important) which cause most angst, trouble and concern.
Perhaps your Lordships will forgive me for being anecdotal. When I was a member of the Council of Ministers, I dealt with a number of matters which in the overall scheme of things could be considered to be minor. But one was of genuine widespread significance; it was the revision of the Television Without Frontiers directive. I recall that the only account that I gave of what I was doing was to the Secretary of State in her private office. That was excellent for me as a member of the Council, but I do not believe that it was in the wider public interest, or in Parliament's interest, to be so little informed of what was happening. I believe that the Leader of the House will support the sentiment that there is a strong case for Ministers who regularly attend meetings of the Council of Ministers--say once every six months--to give committees of both Houses a general account of what is happening and how it is dealing with matters on the agenda. It is not a question of giving a factual report--that can be done by publishing a document--but they must convey a feeling for the context, resonance and politics of what is happening.
Recently, I was asked by an old friend and neighbour--an extremely distinguished Member of this House who has been unwell and unable to attend much recently--whether I would tell him the gossip. He realised that the gossip is at least as important as reading Hansard in understanding what is going on here. Without the gossip, or what we Cumbrians call "the crack", the picture is incomplete. When scrutinising our Ministers and what they are doing in the Council, we need that gossip in addition to dry, stand-alone facts. Its absence is a significant reason for the distance that has grown up between Parliament as a whole and the Council of Ministers. That chasm has damaged Parliament, our country and the European Union.
Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, here we are in 1998. In 1978, 20 years ago, the Spanish rewrote their constitution. In 1958, 40 years ago, the French rewrote theirs. The new French model was devised by a government working party with no MPs. Occupants of the overseas territories voted in the referendum. In mainland France, 85 per cent. of the electorate voted, 79 per cent. voting in favour. I am surprised that we change our constitution with just a simple majority, especially in the light of legislation coming forward for union representation for millions of workers requiring a 30 per cent.--probably a 40 per cent.--yes vote in order to change union law. Why is union law so much more important than constitutional law?
In France, there is a National Assembly and a Senate. The President appoints the Council of Ministers which forms the government. The President has enormous power, but if his supporters become a minority in the National Assembly he has to appoint a Prime Minister from the majority parties. The National Assembly is made up of deputies elected for five years in single member constituencies using a system where, if no one has an absolute majority in the first ballot, there is a run-off. In fact, they changed to PR for the 1986 elections, but after a taste of it they reverted in 1988. The Senate is elected for nine years by an electoral college made up largely of local councillors--roughly the equivalent of our county councillors.
In contrast, Spain has an affirmed monarch as head of state and the country's highest representative in international affairs. The Congress of Deputies represents 50 electoral districts and serves for four years. Voting is for parties, not for individual candidates. The Senate is the chamber of territorial representation.
I am sure that other noble Lords will cite other constitutions. Many systems are in operation and there are various routes for selecting the chosen one. However, the approach of many countries--France, Spain, the USA and Croatia to name but a few--has been overarching, cohesive and concentrated on finding a solution applicable to the country as a whole. I fear that that cannot be said of the UK. We have a Welsh assembly in discussion and a Scottish parliament in the making. There is speculation on regional assemblies in parts of England and there is the Northern Ireland position. What of the UK as a whole? Where are we
Voters need to feel that their elected representatives are accountable for their actions in an immediate rather than a remote sense. Abolishing the first-past-the-post system will not encourage the man or woman in the street to believe that they are.
It has been said of a certain TV personality, Joanna Lumley, that she is the thinking man's crumpet. Well, proportional representation is the ambitious politician's job ticket. It is questionable whether PR will benefit the person in the street. If any one of us here has a problem with a local authority, a hospital or an erstwhile public utility we can obtain almost immediate access to a responsible official because we know our way around and their officials and their secretaries know who we are. The ordinary citizen does not have our advantage. The ordinary citizen finds it hard to obtain a hearing. The ordinary citizen has to have recourse to a third person, often his MP. MPs are faced with surgery queues and huge weekly postbags because they "belong" to their constituencies. It is common for local people of all political persuasions to vote to keep their MP simply because he or she is doing a good job. Equally, supporters of a sitting MP will refuse to back him if it is felt that he has been less than able in the challenges facing him.
A constituency not far from my home suffered thus when the sitting MP, widely acknowledged to be first-class and with a solid majority, lost his seat because of the threatened closure of the local hospital. Under PR, ordinary citizens may well lose their ability to hold their MPs accountable. PR is an electoral system which may strike--
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