Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt the noble Lord. I know how difficult it is when one is following a speech by listening and not by reading it in Hansard, but I think that the noble Lord has misrepresented entirely what I said in that respect.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I hope that by the time the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General responds to the debate he will be able to tell us the timetable for the second stage and whether it will happen before the general election; or, if the Labour Party wins the election, whether it will come in the first Session of the next Parliament.

These are the kinds of issues that not only people in this House and in another place want to know, but also the people of this country want to know what will happen within their Parliament. If I have misunderstood the noble Baroness, I am sure that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General will give the answer.

It falls to this House to build something anew, something better than we have lost. I believe that we stand at a cusp in the history of parliamentary democracy; we stand at a point where the changes forced on this House by the House of Lords Act 1999 enable this House to begin to rebuild a long-lost political authority to set alongside the moral authority it has always retained. That may not have been the Government's intention, but it will certainly be its effect.

The Leader of the House has argued as much in what I have called the "Jay Doctrine". She has said that the new House would be more legitimate, more effective, more authoritative and more influential on the Government. It is true that the Government have not always listened--as shown by the Home Secretary's deplorable attempts to revive his jury trial Bill--but more and more cross-party votes in this House will make them listen.

I believe that as this House rebuilds its authority it will help to rekindle a spirit of independence in another place. We may see the rebirth of a stronger Parliament, in which this House and the other place, in partnership, can check the overweening ambitions of the executive. A stronger Parliament is, and will remain, a central objective of my party's policy.

We on this side of the House do not fear a stronger Parliament. If a government carries confidence in a free, independent and respected Parliament--one not cowed by patronage or by party whips--then that government is the more authoritative and respected. What destroys respect for any government is backstairs' arm-twisting, trading of favours, a culture of cronyism, the bypassing of Parliament and the handing of power to unelected and unaccountable advisers.

7 Mar 2000 : Column 920

That is why I welcome the rejection by the Wakeham Commission of a central contention in the Labour Party's evidence to the Commission--namely, that the powers of your Lordships' House should be reduced. My party would be implacably opposed to a further reduction in the powers of any part of Parliament to control the executive. That is why I welcome the support given by the Wakeham Commission to our contention that use of the powers of patronage by a prime minister should be controlled by an appointments commission, backed by law. I very much welcome the statement given by the Leader of the House in this respect. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General will tell us when this appointments commission, backed by law, will be set up. I shall return to that matter in a few moments.

I said that the Wakeham Commission was right to return some questions to Parliament. How then are we to proceed to collect the wisdom of this House and of the other place on the best way of strengthening this House? So far the Government's handling of the issue has been a model of how not to proceed. They have been secretive, partisan, non-consensual and lacking in any long-term vision whatever. Now the noble Baroness asks for consensus.

Constitutional reform should be advanced openly, with cross-party agreement, full public debate and with clear, agreed aims in view. It is high time to bring consideration of the future of this House onto proper lines. The noble Baroness has spoken about talks between parties. I am not opposed to that. But, like the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, I am doubtful whether talks between the parties are the only way forward.

If there were any sense of urgency in the Government's thinking--if perhaps we had been told today when a Bill would be put before Parliament--then perhaps I could see a case to have only those talks. But that is not what we have heard. All that we have heard points towards a Bill in the next Parliament. On that timetable, what possible argument is there for dropping the Government's manifesto commitment to a Joint Committee of both Houses to look at possible ways forward? Is it not time to allow Parliament a say on Parliament's future? I think that it is. It is time for Parliament to enter the dialogue, and that is why we favour the creation of a Joint Committee with broad terms of reference. It would be a productive way to clear ground in a period when the Government do not plan to introduce a Bill. That is why we also reject the view that it should be limited to look only at the parliamentary aspects of implementing change.

We prefer the line in the Labour Party's manifesto--the "holy writ", perhaps penned by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor--that a Joint Committee should,

    "conduct a wide-ranging review of possible further change and then bring forward proposals for reform".

That is a sensible way forward, and a Joint Committee should have a wide remit. There is a good case for doing so. There are differences of opinion about how best to strengthen this House and they run across, and within, all parties, including my own. The Front

7 Mar 2000 : Column 921

Benches do not have a monopoly of wisdom; nor do we have a right to dictate to Parliament. A Joint Committee would give us the chance to draw out the thread of thinking within both Houses and explore the scope for common ground. It would also give everyone, including the Government, the opportunity to clarify their ideas. I very much hope that we can go down that route.

Perhaps I may refer to the specifics of our own thinking. We have said that we are opposed to a wholly appointed House. We have said that we are likely to want a larger elected element in a reformed House than was proposed by the commission. That would increase the authority of the House. We do not believe that there is anything to fear in election. We should also re-examine the option for a largely elected House put forward by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern in his authoritative report. His proposals deserve to be at the heart of any discussion about the future.

The way forward cannot be imposed by a Front-Bench deal. The experience of 1968 taught us that. It must be sought through parliamentary dialogue. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General will tell us where the Government's ideas now lie in regard to a Joint Committee of both Houses.

Perhaps I may make four positive suggestions on the way forward. There are certain ideas in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, that could be accepted. Many could be implemented now, with no need for any further delay. First, we could agree that there should be no reduction in the powers of this House vis-a-vis the other place, and no change in Parliament Act rules. We could also review the idea of entrenching the Acts for the future. Do the Government agree that the present power to reject a Bill should remain; and will they allow this House time to debate these important issues?

Secondly, we could agree the case for exploring a way in which this House could amend, as well as reject, secondary legislation. Noble Lords on all sides of the House agree that too much is now done by all governments under unamendable secondary legislation, and the recent battle on the orders for the London election indicated that. I agree with the wise words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who pointed out with some force yesterday that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was wrong to challenge the House's right to reject secondary legislation. I agree also with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who said that,

    "The power to reject statutory instruments is one that must be exercised ... cautiously, but there are times when it can and should be used".--[Official Report, 29/2/00; col. 483.]

A power to amend is a valuable safeguard. So will the Government unequivocally endorse the right of this House to reject regulation? Given their majority in another place, will they therefore also consider facilitating discussion on how powers to amend could be taken?

Thirdly, we could proceed to implement a constitutional committee in this House, without direct legislative power but with authority to summon

7 Mar 2000 : Column 922

Ministers, to inquire and to report. I sensed that the noble Baroness agreed with that proposal from the commission. As centrifugal forces in our constitution grow, surely a function of the Lords might be to hold some constitutional threads together. There is wide agreement that this House might emerge as a special constitutional authority. When I see noble Lords of the authority and experience of my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Dahrendorf, I have every confidence that a constitutional committee would soon acquire such authority. Let us consider the example set by the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee of this House. That Select Committee did not exist 10 years ago but it now holds an irreplaceable position in the scheme of things. So will the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General confirm that the Government agree to support the establishment of such a committee?

Fourthly, there is the question of a statutory appointments commission. Again, the noble Baroness indicated that it will happen. But we need to know when it will happen, and whether it is necessary to wait for the whole Bill to be introduced to bring in stage two.

In passing, perhaps I may say how delighted I am to read--also in the newspapers, so it may not be authoritative--that so many of our former hereditary friends and colleagues are apparently to be sent back to this place by the Prime Minister. I had thought that he considered hereditary Peers to be the lowest of the low. I now learn that, so short is New Labour of working Peers, that a group of former Members are being boomeranged back here for another spell of what the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General once acidly called,

    "sheltered employment for the undeserving classes".

If that is so, we look forward to those colleagues returning.

My noble friend Lord Kingsland recently published a Bill that would set up a statutory appointments commission. I very much hope that the Government will join with us in seeing that that provision is placed on the statute book.

Some people, including the Prime Minister, hoped that the 1999 Act would strengthen the grip of the executive over this House and weaken the House. They thought that they were clearing a few old leaves from the kitchen garden, and that they could then plant their own neatly clipped seedlings in their place. But nature and politics have a way of running out of control. The task of real reform of this House has not yet started. What we have seen is the political phase, the settling of old scores, the evening up of numbers, the unedifying campaign of scorn for the hereditary principle. All that is now done. We cannot, as some people in Millbank seem to hope, just "rev" it up and replay it, throwing out the elected 92 hereditaries and replacing them with a token elected element, chosen by means of closed lists.

7 Mar 2000 : Column 923

The time for playing politics with this House is now past. The crucial task ahead is much greater. It is about constitutional stability and parliamentary rights. It must encompass examination of the whole role, powers and composition of this House, not just a small part of it as did the 1999 Act. It must address the balance between the power of the executive and the power of Parliament in this country.

If the Government can agree to that as the start of a consensus, if the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General, when he comes to reply, will agree that a stronger Parliament is the aim of government policy too, then that will be much the most significant thing to come out of today's debate.

3.57 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, despite a speech of substance and interest from the Leader of the House--I must confess that she said more than I had expected in regard to the report and the Government's attitude to it--we are debating a report that is cautious rather than radical. Most of the arguments contained in it are familiar to this place; and some difficult decisions have plainly been ducked.

Despite its title, the report is not really a blueprint for the settled future of this House. In many respects, the House of Lords that it envisages would be quite like the House that we know today. The House would still be called the "House of Lords", although the link between this House and the peerage would be broken. In order to bring about change, we should have to evolve into something else; "evolve" is the word used by the commission. We should still be too large a Chamber, especially in the transition period. No doubt we should have "Weatherill Peers Mark 2", or perhaps "Craig of Radley Peers", in due course, to keep alive the hereditary principle after all. We should certainly have the Law Lords, although agreement on the separation of powers is held across all parties in this House. Powerful evidence was put to the commission, notably by the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon.

We should also have the Lords spiritual, even if the spirit is more ecumenical and extends to other religions. They would reside in what would be, to all intents and purposes, a temporal House. Above all, it is clear to all of us that this would be an overwhelmingly unelected Chamber, always capable of being diminished by the government of the day because we lacked accountability.

Most of this is cosy, comfortable and not unattractive to most of us here, including myself. I always enjoy hearing the Law Lords and greatly welcome the presence of the right reverend Prelates, particularly in good numbers. But many outside Parliament will see this as a sadly missed opportunity to reach a new constitutional settlement which would enable this Chamber to strengthen Parliament in its role as a check on the abuse of executive power.

7 Mar 2000 : Column 924

Whatever view we take, we should not deny that there is a difficult central dilemma. The terms of reference of the commission begin,

    "Having regard to the need to maintain the position of the House of Commons as the pre-eminent chamber of Parliament".

That preamble is indisputable--at least I have not heard it seriously disputed here. No government would want to take away the pre-eminence and primacy of the House of Commons, even if that Chamber would allow it; and no government like to be defeated here.

Until the reform of last year a Labour government, often with justification, would blame defeat on hereditary backwoodsmen. I was not alone in thinking that they would be slower to rush to judgment if they were defeated in a House that they had themselves created, Weatherill amendment and all, but not a bit of it. We know that when they were defeated on the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill on 20th January, the Leader of the House, without hesitation, said that the Bill would be reintroduced. There was no suggestion of deferring to this House or seriously considering whether the Bill should be dropped. It was quite like old times, although we were supposed to be living in a different kind of House. We have made some progress by agreement on the Representation of the People Bill and on the Greater London Authority orders, and that is very welcome. But it would be a great mistake to assume that the Government have had a change of heart and that we are now in a new era when the voice of this House is listened to on major issues as never before.

This is not distinctive behaviour. The present Government are no worse than any other, except that they now face a House of Lords that they have themselves reformed. But it follows that no government will ever listen to this House without impatience, believing it to be wrong, as long as it is overwhelmingly nominated. Only a predominantly elected second Chamber will be acknowledged as the wholly legitimate half of a bicameral system that carries the authority that the Government cannot diminish.

Does this mean that the Wakeham commission has been a pointless exercise because it has missed the big deal which is open to it? That is not my view. I cannot approach the report with the enthusiasm of the Leader of the House; there is no song in my heart. Nevertheless, the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and his colleagues have produced a report of substance and many of its separate recommendations merit serious attention. The fact that it is not the last word on reform of the Lords need not mean that it cannot help us forward.

We on these Benches strongly supported the Government when they called their 1998-99 Bill "stage one" because we believed that without stage one there would be no reform at all. I am open to persuasion that the Wakeham report could lead to a useful stage two as a further, but not final, step towards a more complete and satisfactory reform at a future date. In

7 Mar 2000 : Column 925

that sense, I believe that the expression "evolutionary", which was used by the Leader of the House, was appropriate.

There are 132 recommendations in the report and there is merit in a number of them. I take just a few at random: Recommendation 8 on the resolution of differences between the two Houses, and Recommendation 9 on pre-legislative scrutiny. As to Recommendation 21, I agree with the Leader of the House--the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, may have missed the point--that, if these Benches are included, there is unanimity in the belief that there is a role for a constitutional committee. I also believe that there is a role for a committee on human rights. There is an enlarged role for this House in a number of important respects. I also welcome Recommendations 46 and 47 (relating to what we now call the European Union Committee) where the commission supports the call for more resources. The argument throughout the report is for greater resources for the work of our Select Committees, which has been a very strongly expressed view in this House of late.

Your Lordships will be glad to know that I do not intend to go into all of the recommendations. Many of them deserve careful attention as they are sensible and do not depend on further legislation. I see no reason why they should not be considered by the House at an early date. I would expect support for them from all quarters. Let us get on with anything that the Wakeham report recommends which we can reasonably do without delay.

I deal next with the views of the Leader of the House on Chapter 6 which is concerned with,

    "Giving a voice to the nations and regions".

Whatever form that may take, and whether or not there is disagreement on the particular point, we on these Benches welcome the emphasis in the report. We are also in broad agreement with a number of the recommendations. I have said that any government will not listen seriously to this House, and will always resent its right to disagree, as long as it is nominated. To set that argument aside, as long as this remains a mainly nominated House there is much to be said for an independent appointments commission with wider powers than the commission shortly to be appointed under stage one reform. Perhaps I may claim some modest parentage for that idea which I first put to Her Majesty's Government four years ago, although it was laughed out of court by the Government and Opposition Front Benches at that time. Minds move, and I am always glad when they move in my direction.

Turning to the case for the appointments commission, it is intolerable, and quite contrary to any accepted constitutional principle, that the Prime Minister of the day should be able to determine as a result of patronage the political composition of this House. There is no point in saying that it was ever thus if we are considering what the role of this House should be in modern times and what it should be in future. During 18 years in government, after 1979 Conservative Prime Ministers used their patronage to put 173 Conservative Peers into a House that was

7 Mar 2000 : Column 926

already overwhelmingly Conservative. It was wholly out of line with the balance of opinion in the country. The under-represented opposition parties had 123 new Peers. During less than three years of Labour government, Tony Blair has put 83 new Labour Peers into the House, with 59 from the opposition parties.

I believe that the huge increase in Labour Peers in the past three years can at least be justified on the ground that in the Tory years Labour was starved of its entitlement. I have no complaint about that. The Government also adopted the reasonable aim of broad parity in numbers with Conservatives in the interim House, but the House will be aware that the Prime Minister has been selective in implementing his commitment to political balance. Virtually no progress has been made to achieve political balance in so far as it affects these Benches. As the price of fulfilling their own pledge on proportionality, the Government have asked for a pledge of good behaviour on our part in return. Some might render that as seats for votes, and part of good old-fashioned politics, particularly when it comes to squeezing a third party. But others might argue that it is a manipulation of the system inconsistent with respect for this House and for parliamentary government.

I welcome the proposal for an independent appointments commission charged, among other things, with ensuring the overall balance between political parties in this House by reference to votes cast for each party at the previous general election.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page