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Lord Hylton: My Lords, I am very grateful for that reply. Can the Minister put a date on when the national plan will emerge? Further, can he say whether the Government are yet able to draw conclusions from the pilot schemes in Wolverhampton and Nottingham where the police, voluntary organisations and others have been working together very closely?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the ministerial group which will deal with the national plan is to meet early next month. We expect therefore the document to be ready for consultation in early March. Very significantly, the pilot schemes have been effective in diverting children who are victims from being treated as though they are victims within the criminal justice system.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, a large number of organisations carefully monitor the web. As the noble Viscount implies, it is extremely difficult to deal with this particular abuse of children given the advancing technology. There are schemes in place and a co-operative approach between the Home Office and the Department of Trade and Industry in which I have myself taken part.
Lord Milverton: My Lords, is the Minister able to say at what age a child may be asked by the authorities, social workers or the police about this wretched subject of abuse? I ask that question for certain reasons. Does the noble Lord agree that sometimes it is wrong to say that a child should not be questioned below a certain age? I know of a police force where children are questioned by expert people not in uniform but in "civvies"; and they are able to "bring forth" from the child. What age must children be before those people are legally able to question them? It could perhaps be an earlier age than at present.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am not aware of any statutory regime or uniform police practice which states that a child is too young to be interviewed. One has to take expert advice and consider the circumstances of the individual child. Those circumstances do not always depend on chronological age.
A number of schemes, one run by the NSPCC-- I declare a past interest; I was a trustee--deal with those exact points. How does one interview a young child as part of the investigative process without further damaging that child?
Earl Russell: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the most practical forms of help to children who may be victims of abuse is the provision of refuges under Section 51 of the Children Act? Is the noble Lord aware that at present we have only three such refuges in the whole country which nowhere near meet the need?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, refuges under Section 51 of the Children Act are one possibility. They are not the only one. The voluntary organisations, not simply the NSPCC, also provide refuges for children in an informal, sometimes non-statutory, way. The answer is not always to take the child away from his family circumstances. That may be grievously damaging. The issue is to deal with every child complainant as an individual who is not simply a small adult but who needs to be dealt with in a tender and careful way.
Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I refer to the answer given by the Minister to my noble friend Lord Hylton. Will the noble Lord say that young girls aged 15 or 16 may be kept out of prison when they fall into prostitution and drug abuse, and have other treatment?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, no one wishes to see a child of 15 or 16 in custody for anything. However, in some circumstances our experience of life is such that some children, for their own protection as well as in the public interest, have to be taken into custody. However, we must ensure that the custodial circumstances--they would not of course be prison--need to be therapeutic and rehabilitative. In the not too distant future I hope to be able to make a more specific announcement, as I promised last year.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord is right. It is an international problem. The ramifications extend way beyond Europe. We are developing closer co-operation between police forces and our colleagues in Europe. It is a continuing process. I am heartened to be able to say that it is developing well. But we must not limit our horizons to Europe alone. Notoriously, there are countries where children are abused unfortunately by nationals of this country.
Does the noble Lord agree that charitable organisations should be given access to police checks in place of the VOCS? I declare an interest. I am privileged to be chairman of the Welsh Trust for the Prevention of Abuse.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, undoubtedly the noble Lord puts his finger on an important matter. It has been made quite plain that the Home Office is determined to disseminate information as widely as possible relating to those who may be a danger to children. As regards the investigation of these matters, I expect a report from the inspectorate of police to deal with these wider questions.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, will the Government urge, encourage and make it possible for local authorities to use their ample powers under the Children Act to prevent child prostitution and provide ways out of it for those who become so involved?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, yes. I think that we have given every such encouragement. The draft guidance on children involved in prostitution was sent out as recently as 29th December of last year. Every organisation which has any connection with children has an extremely important part to play. That consultative and co-operative approach is the way to protect children.
Lord Craigmyle: My Lords, I am pleased that the Government now accept that the best defence for children is to live in families within marriage. Will the Government make it possible in future for such families to be taxed at a rate which will not make it more attractive for the family to split up thereby exposing the children to greater risk?
The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a Statement about the White Paper the Government are publishing today about reform of your Lordships' House. Copies of the White Paper are now available in the Printed Paper Office, together with the Bill which my right honourable friend the President of the Council has presented in another place.
This White Paper marks another significant step in the Government's overall objective to improve the institutions of this country, so that they fulfil their functions in the new century with energy and effectiveness.
The reforms that the White Paper introduces will form a vital part of our constitutional reform programme. It makes clear how a revised second chamber could play an important role in the new constitutional settlement.
The outlines of the Government's proposals on reform of this House have long been familiar. They are threefold: the removal of the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House; reformed arrangements for nomination of life Peers; and the establishment of a Royal Commission to consider longer-term reform.
The White Paper confirms that all hereditary Peers will cease to have an automatic right to membership of the House. It also confirms that hereditary Peers will be given the right to vote in Parliamentary elections and to stand as candidates for election to the House of Commons without having to disclaim their peerages.
The White Paper also confirms that if, when the Bill reaches your Lordships' House, there is consensus in favour of an amendment to allow continued transitional membership of the House to some hereditary Peers, the Government are minded to support such an amendment. But I must make it clear that whether the Government are able to support such an amendment depends a great deal on the extent to which the normal conventions of this House about the Government's legislative programme in general are being observed. The Government have always made clear that we prefer to proceed by consensus. In this spirit we are prepared to accept this proposal if it indeed enables reform to proceed by consent. It is not a concession to be extracted by pitched battle. Indeed, pitched battle will jeopardise the proposal.
The White Paper proposes historic change--change which has been discussed throughout the 20th century. The Bill which my right honourable friend has presented in another place completes parliamentary reform first suggested in 1911. Today, the Bill to abolish the right of hereditary Peers to be Members of Parliament has finally been introduced by this Government. A fundamental anachronism can be removed as we reach the millennium.
The presence of the hereditary peerage has weakened the legitimacy and effectiveness of our second Chamber. It has weakened it for two main reasons: because the principle is wrong and because the results are unbalanced.
First, the principle. Nobody suggests we should today select Members of one House of Parliament, the House of Commons, as we did in the 18th century; why should we select the Members of the other as we did in the 15th century? Society, and politics, have moved on and your Lordships' House must, however reluctantly, move with them.
Secondly, the results. The hereditary peerage gives one of the two major political parties in this country a three-to-one built in majority in this House over the other. No votes by the electorate at a general election change this; the Conservative majority in this House continues untouched and untouchable.
The hereditary peerage, taken as a whole, is unrepresentative of today's Britain; unrepresentative economically, socially, by gender and ethnic origin. As a result, because of their predominance, the House suffers disproportionately from a political and social imbalance. This, too, is no longer acceptable.
There have been many wild and, frankly, ridiculous assertions about the character of the transition House. The most often reported is that the House will be one created exclusively by this Government and dependant on patronage by this Prime Minister.
I would remind your Lordships that approximately 500 life Peers will remain in the transitional House; life Peers appointed by eight successive Prime Ministers over the past 40 years. Even without a single hereditary Peer there would still be a Conservative majority over the Labour Party. Nonetheless, this Government and this Prime Minister intend to reduce the Prime Minister's powers of appointment. For the first time ever, the Prime Minister has publicly pledged himself not to interfere in the detail of nominations from other party leaders, provided that they have been given a clean bill of health on propriety grounds. And for the first time ever, the Prime Minister will relinquish, entirely, his power to make recommendations for Cross-Bench Peers. This will be passed to an independent appointments commission.
The appointments commission will be encouraged to seek nominations from many sources, including members of the public. It will extend the range of interests and types of people represented in the House. The appointments commission will consist of members of the three main political parties and independent members, who will form the majority and provide the chairman.
From before the election, the Government have always made clear the view that no political party should seek a majority in your Lordships' House. But on the basis of the manifesto, we would be entitled to seek numbers 40 per cent. in excess of those of the Conservative party. However, at present, we plan only to move towards broad parity with them. We shall also ensure a fair representation for all other parties and for the Cross-Benches. The Government intend that the principles of a broad parity and proportionate creations for the other political parties and the Cross-Benches should be maintained throughout the period of the transitional House.
I want, finally, to say a little more about the longer-term. The Government announced on 14th October that we would be establishing a Royal Commission to consider options for longer-term reform. I am now pleased to be able to tell the House that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, has accepted the Prime Minister's invitation to be the chairman of the commission. It is obviously important that there is senior representation on the Royal Commission from the House of Commons and I can tell the House that another senior Privy Counsellor, the right honourable Gerald Kaufman, has also agreed to serve on the commission. The remaining members will be announced shortly.
These terms of reference are deliberately non-prescriptive. They are intended to stimulate public debate as well as giving the Royal Commission its remit. The Government have not indicated their own preference in the White Paper. However, the two final chapters of the White Paper set out a number of issues which the Government think the Royal Commission will find it useful to address.
There are three issues which I want briefly to draw to your Lordships' attention in the Royal Commission's terms of reference. First, the terms of reference defeat the accusation that the Government's proposals for constitutional reform are piecemeal. The Royal Commission's work is explicitly set in the context of other constitutional developments, most notably the newly established devolved institutions.
Secondly, they ask the Royal Commission to consider the role and functions of the second Chamber as a preliminary to considering its composition. Contrary to common assertion, the Government have never maintained that wide-ranging reform of composition can be decided in isolation.
Thirdly, the Royal Commission has been given a demanding timetable. This is evidence of the Government's wish to maintain the momentum of reform of the second Chamber. We believe the timetable is achievable. After all, this debate has been taking place for most of this century. There is no need to undertake extensive gathering of evidence before any work can be done on the analysis of the issues. It is analysis and judgment which are most important.
The package of measures announced in the White Paper sets out the Government's approach to the radical and historic task of reforming this House. Although radical in its intentions and effect, it is a careful and considered approach. It starts with the most immediate and urgent reform of the rights of the hereditary peerage. It identifies the path to longer-term reform.
House of Lords reform is modernisation for a purpose. It is not just the historical objective of getting rid of hereditary Peers. It is not just a constitutionalist interest in improving the mechanics of government. It is about modernising government to get better government; because better government means better laws, and better laws mean a better Britain.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for making the Statement today. Will she accept that there is a deep sense of disquiet and regret in this House about what she has announced, not because we want always to be as we are and where we are--we do not--but because the role of this House has also been to ask of governments deep and detailed questions about Bills and policy? Time and again it has fallen to this House to press for precise answers on behalf of the people of this country. So is this ancient House not entitled to be treated with the same courtesy as we have asked for others? Are we not entitled to know where in the long run we are headed?
The most depressing aspect of the announcement today is that we have seen no clear vision of the future of this House of Parliament. To say that it is modernisation is simply not enough. I ask myself whether the Government are even remotely aware of the far reaching consequences of the course they have begun today. Today marks the beginning of the end of the delicate balance between the two Houses of Parliaments which has served this country well. It will do so in ways which will be entirely unpredictable, for one consequence of a genuinely reformed House of Lords will be a more powerful second Chamber, something which we on these Benches would support. What is the Government's thinking on this? This is not a complicated matter; it is a broad question of principle. Do they want to see a more powerful House or do they intend the reverse?
The Government's motives and intentions are negative and nothing that has been said today justifies the removal of the hereditary Peers before the Royal Commission reports. What are the Government so afraid of in the year ahead?
The Government owe it to this House and to the people of this country to make their policy clear. It is sheer constitutional vandalism to tear down a structure that is working well and to offer no ideas on what will be built in its place. That is not a responsible way forward. I trust that the noble Baroness will undertake, on behalf of the whole Government, to present evidence to the Royal Commission on the Government's preferred long-term proposals. Perhaps she can confirm that they will do so before the Bill is read a second time in this House.
We congratulate my noble friend Lord Wakeham on his appointment, although we regret that that appointment and other proposals were announced in the press before being reported to Parliament. However, a chairman does not make a commission; nor does an inquiry make policy. The Government have had 20 months in power and nearly 20 years in opposition to think about this policy. Will the noble Baroness tell the House when the other members of the commission will be named and how many there will be? Will she confirm that the Royal Commission will take evidence in public and from the public? The public have, as yet, been given no say in the future of their Parliament.
It is highly regrettable that a Royal Commission was not appointed last year. If it had been, perhaps today we could have been legislating on a genuine cross-party reform for a stronger and more independent second Chamber for this Parliament. If the Government are determined to plunge on with this half-baked, half-way House, will the noble Baroness say what consideration they have given to guarantees that there will be a stage two?
I turn to the appointments commission. We on this side of the House will want to examine the ideas carefully and sceptically. Will the noble Baroness confirm that under these proposals the Prime Minister will determine the precise party balance in this House and decide how many independent Cross-Benchers the commission will be able to appoint?
We on these Benches do not oppose reform but we oppose these half-baked and self-seeking proposals masquerading as reform. We will also question gimmicks masquerading as solutions. Of course, we will look at the idea of so-called "people's Peers", but real "people's
We have not had time to study the Bill formally read in another place and published a few minutes ago but it is clear that the proposals in the Bill would create an entirely nominated House of Parliament, something we would implacably oppose. Will the noble Baroness explain to the House why the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill--proposals that the Government support--are not in the Bill which means, therefore, that another place is denied the ability to debate them in Committee?
Why the threats? What are the normal conventions that the Government are so afraid might be broken? The Government say that they wish to see consensus. Do they feel that the Bill commands any form of consensus? If not--and I think there is none--why do they say that that is what they want? As for "pitched battles", how will we know when we have fallen into a pitched battle? Will the noble Baroness let us know?
The Statement says that the Bill completes parliamentary reform. I thought that it was the whole intention of the Government's proposal that this is a stage one leading to a stage two. I wonder whether the noble Baroness will clarify that.
I hope that the noble Baroness and, indeed, the whole House will understand that when we oppose the Bill, as we shall with vigour, we do so not only because of what is in it but because of what is not in it; that is, any coherent vision of the future of Parliament.
There will be difficult weeks and months ahead--difficulties unleashed by the reckless way in which the Government are dealing with the question of changing Parliament. I hope that in those months we may be spared trite and facile denigration of this House and its Members. I have always felt that abuse was the first refuge of those without an argument, just as the sound bite is the resort of those without a strategy.
This is a solemn occasion, the first step on an uncertain road that will take us we know not where. It will see the expulsion of Members of this House who have given great and selfless service to this country for little or no reward. The Government today are asserting their massive power; but in the manner of their doing so they will reveal the true balance between form and substance in their make-up--how much there is of opportunism and how little of statesmanship.
Will the noble Baroness understand that that is the test she and her Government will face over the coming months? Can she assure the House that she will be ready not only to listen but to take on board ideas that this House, in all its experience and wisdom, may propose for the better working of a free Parliament? Today is a sad day for Parliament. It is not a day for rejoicing.
Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I think I can be a little more generous to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House in so far as she has made the Statement first in your Lordships' House, a rare experience when most Statements are first made in
Beyond that I give the Statement, the White Paper and the prospect of the Bill a broad welcome, not least because much of what the White Paper and the Statement contain are thoughts first pioneered from these Benches. For those who dare to doubt that, I refer to a debate in your Lordships' House in July 1996. I remember on that occasion proposing an independent appointments commission. The then Leader of the House, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and the then Leader of the Opposition in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, looked at each other and shook their heads as if to say, "What a naive suggestion--only an indication of how far the Liberal Democrats are out of touch with the real world." Here it is, in the White Paper and in the Statement--thank you very much, indeed.
There are other respects in which we find echoes of what was said on that occasion. Certainly, it was argued then that there could be nothing that constrained the prerogative of the Prime Minister as exercised down the ages. I accept, subject to what I shall say further, that the White Paper and the Statement indicate constraint on the powers of the Prime Minister. I greatly welcome that.
I welcome the appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. He has not been known in recent years for pushing out the radical frontiers of politics, but he is well liked in this House and well known as a fixer. If he can fix this one, we shall all be surprised as well as delighted.
I believe that the Government were a little heavy-handed in their threat--and I would call it that although the noble Baroness will have to deny that it was any such thing--that the Weatherill proposals would succeed only if Peers behaved themselves. I am still a little uncertain about the Weatherill proposals and, in particular, one aspect of them. It would be helpful to know the method by which hereditary Peers are to be selected. Will they remain hereditary Peers during their remaining tenure in this House or will they become life Peers for that period? It would be helpful to know what the Government have in mind.
I should like to ask the noble Baroness three other questions. This is not the occasion on which either to repeat the debate which we had last October or to anticipate the Second Reading of the Bill which will come here after it has been to another place. The first is the reference to "proportionate new creations".
The noble Baroness will be familiar with a sentence which has occurred in documents to which the Government have previously given their assent. The sentence is that following their removal, we should move, over the course of the next Parliament, to a House of Lords where those Peers who take a party Whip more accurately reflect the proportion of votes received by each party in the previous general election. May I assume that still to be the policy of Her Majesty's Government?
The second point refers to the terms of reference of the Royal Commission. The terms of reference mention role and function, but they do not include powers. Am I to assume that "role and function" embraces the idea of powers or have the Government in mind in some way that the Royal Commission should be constrained in its considerations and recommendations by no change in the balance of power between the other place and the second Chamber? I express no view on the matter, but I should like to know what the Government have in mind.
My third point, which follows from the second, is that chapters 7 and 8 of the White Paper, to which the noble Baroness drew the attention of the House, seem slightly odd. The White Paper is otherwise fairly bland--I take no exception whatever to that--but in chapters 7 and 8, it seems to point the Royal Commission in one direction rather than another. Will the Leader of the House--because I am sure that that is what is in her mind and that of the Government--assure the House that chapters 7 and 8 should not be seen in any way to inhibit or constrain the Royal Commission within its terms of reference which, as I have already said, I assume to include the question of powers?
Finally, we should welcome the prospect that there will be a final settlement. Inevitably, that will be for the time being, but that time being may be a long period. We should all welcome the prospect that there will be a settlement within the next five years. That is the assumption I make on the basis of the Statement and the White Paper. Will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House confirm that she and the Government anticipate that the interim stage will be over, and the legislation to establish the new House will be through, within a period of five years? May we look that far ahead but no further for the new life which the second Chamber will eventually have?
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken for what the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, described as a broad welcome. However, I hope that I shall not be misunderstood when I say to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that although he says that neither he nor his Benchers are against reform, on the basis of what he said today, you could have fooled me.
However, let us turn to the details of some of the points which were raised by both noble Lords which were important and extremely relevant to how we proceed in relation to both the White Paper and the Bill. Both noble Lords raised legitimate questions about the functioning of the Royal Commission. I am glad that both noble Lords welcomed the appointment of the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. As I said in the Statement, the other appointments will be made very rapidly. I hope that they will meet with equal favour in your Lordships' House.
On the question of evidence and the mechanics of the Royal Commission, it will be for the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and his colleagues to establish the precise form that they take. But we have laid down the
The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, asked whether the terms of reference of the Royal Commission constrain it as regards the breadth of its inquiries; in particular, in relation to the powers of your Lordships' House. I am more familiar with the White Paper than anybody else in this House can be and I do not suggest for one moment that noble Lords who have spoken already need to be so familiar with it. However, a section in chapter 7 of the White Paper states that we feel that there are a number of fairly clearly delineated methods of establishing the role and functions of the second Chamber and the membership which is dependent on those roles and functions. Therefore, we prefer the Royal Commission to stick to that remit.
One reason that that has been made explicit in the White Paper is because your Lordships will know better than many others that one has only to pick up a daily newspaper nowadays to find yet another, what I would call, "free-flowing approach" to reform of your Lordships' House; for example, there have been suggestions that the membership of your Lordships' House could be arranged by methods equivalent to the jury system or something of that kind. Therefore, the chapters at the end of the White Paper have laid down fairly precise boundaries for those areas which we believe that the Royal Commission could most usefully explore in seeking to answer some of the questions which are raised.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked me about evidence. Although there is always a case for unique activity, the Government would not normally expect to give evidence. However, I imagine that the political parties will be expected to do so and will take every opportunity to make their positions widely known and understood.
The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, asked whether or not the terms of reference are to encompass powers as well as roles and functions. One reason that we were careful not to open up the rather difficult area of powers was because that may lead to precisely the free-flowing stream of consciousness discussion about the powers of Parliament which are not established anywhere in our unwritten constitution. One suggestion in the White Paper, for example, is that the Royal Commission might look at the possibility of codifying some of the conventions which are now established in relation to your Lordships' House and its relations with the House of Commons. That may be a possible area for useful exploration.
The Royal Commission was one area which both noble Lords wanted to pursue. Another was the nature and make-up of the transitional House. As regards the question of the appointments commission, there is no way that anybody reading the detail of the establishment of the appointments commission as an NDPB (a non-departmental public body), with all the restraints
The appointments commission will have total control, if that is the appropriate word, over the nomination of the Cross-Bench Peers, which is a very substantial and important part of our arrangements. It is suggested in the White Paper that that may be a way of looking in the long-term at the appointment of other life Peers.
I was about to return to the issue of numbers within the House and so I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for reminding me about that. That depends partly on the form of the stage 1 Bill which my right honourable friend the President of the Council has introduced in another place today. If an amendment such as that originally floated by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, is acceptable to your Lordships' House, and if the Government accept that amendment, the numbers will be rather different from what they would be were all hereditary Peers to leave immediately.
Both noble Lords suggested that I had been "threatening". I hope that my tone of voice was not threatening. I normally try to be conciliatory and proceed by consensus. But my noble friend the Chief Whip and other business managers--and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will have drawn from his experience in that role both in government and in opposition--will understand only too clearly what we mean by the passage of legislation through the "normal conventions of this House". I am sure that the noble Lord will be able to detect when we reach a state of "pitched battle", as I put it rather colloquially, or the usual friendly and very constructive relationships in the usual channels which normally exist in this House.
As to the passage of the Bill and whether or not the amendment suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, or some arrangement of that kind, should have been on the face of the Bill, and the reason that it is not, that can be precisely derived from what I have just said. If this Bill--and we have an example of this in the recent past--has to be subject to the enactment of the Parliament Acts, it would be fruitless for the Government initially to produce a Bill in the House of Commons which contained that specific provision.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was ominous in his concerns about the future of Parliament. Again, I can only say with the greatest possible courtesy that when he has had more time to read the detail of the White Paper, particularly the final chapters wherein many questions of broad, long-term constitutional concerns are addressed in a way that I hope he will find satisfactory, he will find that many of the issues of which the Government have been accused in the past few months--for instance, not thinking about the long term; not taking a view about the possibilities of reform--are answered in a way which makes a great deal of sense without in any way trying to undermine or prescribe the important work which will now be conducted by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and his colleagues in the Royal Commission.
Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, spoke about disquiet. I suspect he will find that most people feel that this kind of progression towards an appropriate parliamentary institution which deals properly, effectively and legitimately with the major issues which face this country, is something for which, at the turn of the millennium, this country will be grateful.
Lord Wakeham: My Lords, will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House accept from me that, in my view, the terms of reference of the Royal Commission are sufficiently wide to allow us to look at these issues in the round? It will certainly be my hope to seek to get as much consensus for them as I can.
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