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House of Lords

Tuesday, 9th May 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells.

Baroness Billingham

Angela Theodora Billingham, having been created Baroness Billingham, of Banbury in the County of Oxfordshire, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Baroness Crawley and the Lord Bach.

Lord Turnberg

Sir Leslie Arnold Turnberg, Knight, having been created Baron Turnberg, of Cheadle in the County of Cheshire, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Walton of Detchant and the Lord Winston.

House of Lords and Devolution

2.49 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith asked the Leader of the House:

    Whether the House can exercise its responsibility towards the whole of the United Kingdom if it is unable to discuss matters for which responsibility is shared between the United Kingdom and a devolved body.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, the simple answer, which might not meet the complexity of the noble Lord's concerns, is that it is for this House to decide what it wishes to discuss, but Ministers can answer only on those matters for which they are responsible. This will include matters where responsibility is shared with one or other of the devolved administrations, but not where responsibility is wholly devolved.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal for that Answer. It helps us forward to some degree. The arrangements under which the devolved bodies were established are such that the finance for them comes almost exclusively from this Parliament. Does the noble Baroness agree that in those circumstances and where matters of relative performance are under examination, it is necessary that her colleagues as Ministers give clear answers to questions about where decisions are taken on such issues?

If we do not know for certain that a particular situation arises as a result of a decision taken by a devolved body, given that the availability of funding controls everything, people of a suspicious nature such

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as myself might be inclined to the view that the fault lies within this building. If that were unjust, that would be an unfortunate situation for us all.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, perhaps I may draw the attention of the noble Lord and the House to a helpful note recently produced by the Cabinet Office, Devolution Guidance Note 13, on the handling of parliamentary business in the House of Lords. It is publicly available and published on the Internet. The document is succinct and clear, but it is more than eight pages long so I shall not attempt to precis it in response to the Question.

It contains a number of hypothetical examples, one of which precisely addresses the point raised by the noble Lord. Example 1 in paragraph 3.6 is a question asked about the comparative performance in school examination results throughout the United Kingdom. A clear response is given. It is that although the matter is fully devolved as regards, for example, Scotland, and although the DfEE may have access to the information, the question is one for the national Parliament in Scotland.

Perhaps I may detain the House in order to repeat the hypothetical question and answer. The suggested appropriate answer is:

    "The Government expect to publish results for England in [month A]. The publication of school examination results for Wales & Scotland is a matter for the National Assembly and the Scottish Executive respectively. Results for 1998 for the whole of Great Britain are available in the Library in the name of the publication".

I believe that that precisely answers the point which the noble Lord made about comparative information.

Lord Elton: My Lords, is it not a matter of surprise that guidance as to what Parliament may inquire into originates from outside Parliament and the Cabinet Office and not from the resources of Parliament itself?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I believe that the Cabinet Office is trying to give expression to the legislation on devolution and, indeed, to the guidance which has been agreed and discussed in the Houses of Parliament along the lines that I have described. As I said, it is intended purely as an extremely helpful and practical guide to the ways in which legislation passed by this House and another place should be put into practice.

Lord Lang of Monkton: My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness to revise her initial Answer? Surely our constitutional arrangements do not exist for the convenience of government Ministers. If neither House of this United Kingdom Parliament can debate issues which affect the United Kingdom in the round and its constituent parts, does that not create a democratic deficit?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord must have misheard what I said in my initial response. I said that, indeed, it was for this

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House to decide what it wished to debate. Ministers can be accountable for and report responsibly to this House only on matters for which they are responsible.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, perhaps I may draw the attention of the noble Baroness to a statement contained in the Memorandum of Understanding issued last year by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. It states that:

    "The [United Kingdom] Parliament retains the absolute right to debate, inquire into or make representations about devolved matters".

If that is so, should Ministers not fully respond to such debates and inquiries about devolved matters rather than seek to brush them under the carpet?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I do not believe that anything that I said in response to the previous questions could possibly be described as an attempt to brush matters under the carpet. Again, perhaps I may refer to the very useful document which I mentioned previously. As I said in answer to the previous supplementary, the Cabinet Office guidance tries to give practical expression to the legislation. I believe that if the noble Lord looks, for example, at example 7 in that document, he will see that it is indeed legitimate for this House to have a Wednesday debate on a subject which would be regarded as being devolved. That is perfectly legitimate and obviously within the rules of procedure of this House. The question is: what degree of responsibility would be had by the Minister who responded to the debate for the specific policy areas which arose?

Lord Avebury: My Lords, perhaps I may make what I believe is a helpful suggestion. The example given by the noble Baroness related to comparative figures between England and Scotland. Those figures were available in tabulated form prior to 1998 but had to be obtained separately from then onwards because it became the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. Would it not be possible for those who design the web pages of the Scottish Parliament and, say, the DfEE to put hot links between the two so that if people wanted to compare the figures between England and Scotland or, for that matter, between England and Wales, they could do so very easily on the web?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, my common sense reaction to the noble Lord's question is that, indeed, he makes a sensible point. However, at least part of such a decision would have to be made by the Scottish Executive.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is it possible for Select Committees of the House of Commons or this House to summon Ministers from the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the Irish Assembly?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, that question would have to be discussed by a joint

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ministerial committee. I believe that it is more likely that in the instances where a Select Committee wanted to examine a devolved matter the relevant Secretary of State would be asked to appear. However, he would be unable to say anything which acknowledged executive responsibility for those matters.

Lord Clark of Kempston: My Lords, can the noble Baroness say whether the Government have any views as to the interpretation of the West Lothian question?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, we have discussed the West Lothian question in this House on many occasions, and I am sure that we could continue to do so. As I understand it, the West Lothian question relates to the concerns of Members of Parliament for English constituencies about their continuing involvement in Scottish affairs. I believe that the simple answer is that, where 80 per cent of Members of another place represent English constituencies, it is unlikely that their views and their opinions will be steamrollered.

Act of Union: Bicentenary

2.57 p.m.

Lord Laird asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will reconsider their decision not to mark the bicentenary in 2001 of the creation of the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, although we have no plans at present for a formal commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the 1801 Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland, we recognise the historic significance of that Act to the United Kingdom and, indeed, to the Republic of Ireland. Undoubtedly, we shall want to make reference to it during the course of next year. If there are proposals to mark the anniversary, we shall be interested to hear about them and shall consider whether it is appropriate to support them in any way.

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