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Lord Carter: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me notice of his intention to raise this matter. However, as soon as I saw the roadworks in place after the Easter Recess, I rather expected that the noble Lord would ask me about them. I wish only that I could state that they are now the responsibility of the Mayor of London rather than the Government Chief Whip.
The roadworks outside the Palace were planned for the week of the Easter Recess. That was announced on the Peers' Notice Board. On the sensible instructions of the police, the work was delayed to avoid the possibility of providing material for use in the demonstration which took place on Monday, 1st May. The work will now be completed by 13th or 14th May.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, my approach to today's debate will be a good deal less portentous than the wording of the Motion. I would be glad to think that what we suggest will last as much as a decade rather than a century. In addition, my concern is with practicalities. My main focus is on the question: what can your Lordships' House usefully do? Many of the suggestions that will be made, in my judgment, can be met without involving a committee of inquiry. But I accept that, for some proposals, further discussion by a committee may be necessary.
I start with the assumption that the House remains a balanced one with no party having a majority, but with the Government and principal Opposition being about the same size. I am not sure that it is fully appreciated how significant that is. I take it for granted that we continue to govern ourselves, preferably without a Speaker.
That leads me to the first possible controversial topic. We are not an elected Chamber, and even if the hybrid Chamber recommended by the Royal Commission were accepted--I have grave doubts about that--we would continue to be predominantly appointed. It follows that for the foreseeable future the Salisbury convention must hold. I interpret that to mean that legislation promised in the government party's manifesto must, in principle, be carried. I use the words, "in principle", advisedly. I do not take them to mean that such proposed legislation is not to be amended. Quite the contrary. A manifesto Bill is likely to be very important and therefore deserves extra scrutiny from your Lordships rather than less.
I offer two hypothetical examples. When the Tories decided to introduce a poll tax, it was not the job of your Lordships, whatever their views, to wreck such a proposal. But it was reasonable for Peers to seek to make the tax more sensitive; for example, to differences in income and wealth. Noble Lords will recall that Peers from all parties tried to do that, but failed. Such an attempt would not fall foul of the convention. Equally, we are about to examine a Freedom of Information Bill. The Government are entitled to have such a Bill passed. But in my judgment, the Government's definition of "freedom of information" is not ipso facto the only possibly valid one. Thus a Peer who sought to amend the Bill by saying this rather than that is the proper definition, is quite within his or her rights to do so.
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord so early in his remarks, but he said something rather important in relation to the Salisbury convention. Does it follow from what he said that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, believes that we would be within our rights, and within the convention as he understands it, to insist on the sort of changes to the principle and how it should be applied that he outlined, in any quarrel with another place?
Lord Peston: My Lords, the noble Viscount anticipates what I am going to say. The word "insist" appears in a moment and he will hear in a few minutes my view of it. I was discussing something slightly more general, but I am glad he raises the point.
If the Commons is pre-eminent and the Salisbury convention holds, it follows inexorably that we must regard ourselves as largely, but not entirely, a revising chamber. I believe that we can do that job on the basis of our experience, our knowledge and our expertise. Perhaps I may make an uncharacteristically acerbic comment here. One of the more fatuous recommendations of the Royal Commission is that we should be broadly representative of British society. My view is much more old-fashioned, and is precisely the opposite; namely, that our value derives from the fact that we are not representative, either as individuals or as a group. That is, of course, quite different from the need for our Chamber to be balanced.
We have a comparative advantage compared with the Commons and, for reasons which I do not understand, we also appear to have more time seriously to scrutinise Bills. We are useful when we are able to say, "That part of the Bill makes no sense"; or "That part of the Bill does not achieve what it sets out to do"; or "That part of the Bill has damaging side effects"; or, as happens quite frequently, "Would it not help if the Bill were amended to attend to this additional problem?". That is a way in which we can make a great contribution.
If scrutiny is our main task, there are certain procedural consequences, many of which are already built into our system. If I may don my old-fogy hat, in recent times we seem to have forgotten our own ways. One is that Second Reading speeches on broad matters of principle should be confined to Second Reading. I admit that I offend as often as others, but we should all behave ourselves better.
Next, I for one should like to see a more dispassionate approach to the Committee stage. That involves greater tolerance and a willingness to listen on all sides. Government briefs with the word "resist" typed all over them can no longer be the norm. I have always believed, and my experience of Whitehall stretches back to nearly four decades, that that is for the convenience of officials, not Ministers, and they sell it as a kind of macho principle. But if Ministers
Having said that, the Opposition must be reasonable too. Indeed, if we accept that the Government, having been elected by the people, are entitled to govern, then the Opposition have to show more tolerance. They cannot operate on the equally daft approach of "insist, insist, insist", let alone, "divide, divide, divide". I do not doubt that sometimes an amendment is seen by its proponents as so fundamental that they cannot compromise and must insist and must divide. And of course we are a political House and have our basic differences. But I have to say that we cannot die in the last ditch on everything; indeed, logically we can only die in the last ditch once. It follows that when either side can agree on an amendment after due reflection following the Committee stage, the Report stage is when we should divide. And I return to the consequence of such Divisions in a moment.
Let me now mention briefly Third Reading. When I first came to your Lordships' House I was told that Third Reading was for minor technical amendments and was a way of last minute tidying up. Over the past few years that has gone by default. We see substantive new amendments tabled by all and sundry, not least the Government. Sometimes we appear to get entirely new departures at Third Reading. I am convinced that that must stop, and the Government must take the lead. If the Bill is not broadly right by Third Reading then it really ought to go.
All governments have a rather inflated sense of the value of their legislation. I can only say that I can think of quite a few Acts of Parliament of which, quite independent of their political origins, it is difficult to say what net loss to national welfare would have occurred if they had been allowed quietly to die. To put it the other way round: if the Bills are that important, they ought to be drafted correctly to begin with.
Where there are Divisions, how is their outcome to be responded to? Let me start with a non-government amendment which is defeated. The practice has grown that if we are defeated once, we must try, try and try again; which means using the same speech over and over again. Again, ignoring the dying in the last ditch phenomenon, we ought largely to stop that.
More importantly, what of a non-government amendment, opposed by the Government, which is carried? It will go back to the Commons in the usual way and what is important is how the Government respond to it. Two changes in the method of response are required. They are both based on the assumption that what we have done is to ask the Government to think again. First, having put forward a reasoned case, even though the Minister in our House disagreed, there need be no loss of face on the part of the Government if they say that on further reflection that amendment, or something similar to it, is now acceptable.
I turn briefly to secondary legislation. Many of us expressed our views on that in the excellent debate opened by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, just a couple of weeks ago. All the contributions made that day were sensible and do not need repeating now, except to emphasise that we should, on occasion, vote on such matters as secondary legislation, obliging the Government to come back again, preferably with the order amended satisfactorily.
When I have discussed these points with other Peers throughout your Lordships' House they have objected that the approach of constructive engagement that I have outlined here holds the executive less to account than direct confrontation. Frankly, on the basis of my experience in your Lordships' House, I beg to differ. Speaking directly to the Opposition and also to some of my colleagues on the Back Benches, the best way to embarrass the executive is by informed exposure of their failings; not knockabout rough stuff, much as I enjoy that sort of thing.
Furthermore, what I propose is an implicit contract. If one side does not meet its part of the deal, the other side should feel no obligation to continue to do so. I am talking about a convention here, rather than something set in tablets of stone--that is to say, something that should really be dear to your Lordships' hearts.
There are a few other topics that I wish to mention before concluding. The specialist committees, including the European committee of your Lordships' House, have been most successful. They investigate topics of public importance, throwing light on them and often preparing the ground for future policy and legislation. In my judgment, we should have more of them. My own view is that we should not imitate the other place and track individual departments. Instead, our committees--our new committees, I hope--should be subject based; for example, I believe that we should have one based very broadly on international affairs, one on all aspects of social policy and one on constitutional questions. Indeed, there may be others that noble Lords will suggest. In addition, we should continue to have general debates in which we are able dispassionately to participate in the process of helping the public form opinions on matters of general importance.
We should not exaggerate how important we are. Sometimes I, and others, despair that we talk to no one but ourselves. I hope that that is not entirely true. Certainly, as long as we are privileged to be a central part of the parliamentary system, we have a duty to raise public awareness of difficult problems, not least
All this leads me to the questions of facilities and working hours. Perhaps I may be allowed one anecdote. When I first came to your Lordships' House, Lord Home sat next to me in the Bishops Bar and regaled me for a long time with marvellous stories of life when Baldwin was Prime Minister. He asked me what I thought of this House. I said, "Well, I actually love it"--it was only early days--"but the only thing that troubles me is the enormous length of the working day here". I cannot do an imitation of his marvellous voice, but he said, "Oh yes, dear boy, I fully understand that. When I first came we had difficulty in keeping the business going until tea time".
On the subject of resources and working hours perhaps I may say, first, that we have lived too long as church mice. It is high time that we had a substantial increase in resources, not equal to, but not far from what the Commons have. Secondly, our working hours are absurd. We really must take more seriously the possibility of at least one morning session. If committees can meet in the morning, surely some legislative business can take place then as it does on some Fridays. The obvious time to experiment with is Thursday morning. My general view is that if we ask industry, commerce and the public services to re-examine what they do and raise their productivity, why should we not do the same?
I have two concluding remarks to make. One is that we ought to discuss these subjects today independently of where we sit. The future is uncertain. Governments do change, as do oppositions. We do not know when, but we can be confident that some day all of us, for one reason or another, will be sitting or lying elsewhere. I hope, therefore, that this debate does not deteriorate into a party wrangle.
A leading Member on the Opposition Benches, a man I hold in the highest esteem, said to me, "The trouble with you, Maurice, is that you are hopelessly nai ve. You believe totally in reason and reasonableness". I pleaded guilty to him then and I plead guilty to the charge again today. It seems to me that we have a great opportunity to make this House very much more effective and able to fulfil a serious role in the constitution. I hope that we take the chance and do not walk away because of the risks involved. I beg to move for Papers.
The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my noble friend Lord Peston for giving us the opportunity to discuss a very important issue. My noble friend opened the debate this afternoon with characteristic individualism and panache. He focused attention on the primary task of how we scrutinise legislation. I know that other speakers will also concentrate on this procedure, but the agenda is very
Until last year, the ways by which people became Members of this House had been constant for 40 years. The volume of business had increased but not fundamentally changed in character; but the ways of doing business have changed considerably over that same period. For example, we now have the Grand Committee procedure on some Bills. The dinner hour is now used more productively, following the introduction of time-limited Unstarred Questions. We have established the authoritative Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee and now have two topical Questions each week. I am sure that noble Lords on all Benches will agree that these changes have improved the capacity of the House as a revising and debating chamber. I give these examples simply to illustrate that it is possible to pursue a practical agenda to make the House more effective, without embarking on fundamental constitutional reform.
As I say, I think that we have now a great opportunity. It is an opportunity where we could even lead the Westminster Parliament in bringing this House more obviously into line with some aspects of contemporary life. After all, in 1985 we were the first Chamber to introduce television coverage--four years before the other place followed suit. The House of Lords was rightly praised for its early recognition of future trends.
I do not need to remind your Lordships that, today, digital television and computer technology are revolutionising every part of our lives. They are revolutionising the way people work and the way they want to live. Achieving a good work:life balance has become a universal aim. I would suggest that it has particular resonance for those engaged in parliamentary life.
I turn to one fundamental issue to which my noble friend has already referred. I believe that we should examine our sitting hours and days. This House already sits longer than almost any other legislative
The need to balance sensible sitting hours with effective scrutiny is not a new problem. The other place has long made efforts to structure its workload in ways which reduce the need for that House to sit late, while retaining Members' ability to hold the Government to account. Under a previous administration, the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling--who I am pleased to see in his place--introduced a package of reforms, securing him a very important place in parliamentary history.
In this Parliament, the House of Commons has achieved an increase in debating time without an increase in sitting time by holding "parallel sittings" in Westminster Hall. Parliament's role is not reduced, but the time is used more efficiently.
In Canada and Australia, the second chambers have also similarly altered their patterns of sitting. I am not suggesting that the issues are identical for your Lordships' House, but I do think that we should look at these other chambers to see what we can learn from their working practices.
One special characteristic of your Lordships' House is that we take pride in being part time, and, in the best sense of the word, an amateur House. However, this has consequences. The first consequence is that many Members of the House want to play a full part here but also need to earn their living. Members of this House are typically juggling three competing priorities: their work here, their work outside, and their family responsibilities.
So we need seriously to ask whether the way we work here balances those competing priorities in the best way possible. My personal view is that the answer is "No". Our hours, like those of the other place, to some extent reflect the desire to juggle two careers: to earn a living in the mornings, and to be in the House later in the day.
But where does that leave family life, especially for those who do not live in central London? And, can anyone feel that they are performing adequately in their other roles if they have been in this House until 2 a.m., as they were this morning, fulfilling their duties as legislators?
One alternative would see the House working a more nine to five pattern, finishing at a time that allowed for some free evenings. But what would that mean for those who pursue a professional career outside the House, or indeed for those who may enjoy being here for social reasons because their families are far away?
I am not going to pretend that I, or the Government, have a blueprint for any such change. But I do believe that we should consider very carefully how we try to reconcile parliamentary and personal priorities in a 21st century context. From my experience as a Minister in this Government with responsibility for improving working lives across the public sector and as Minister for Women, I know that the issue of the work:life balance has become a top priority in today's society. This week is national Work:Life Balance Week and the House may have seen the research published to mark it--showing that half of this country's fathers spend fewer than five minutes a day with their children during the working week.
As my noble friend Lord Peston suggested, handling legislation is at the pivot of our improved effectiveness. But to the outsider, although I recognise not to the traditional parliamentarian, it seems common sense, for example, to try to reduce the number of occasions on which virtually every Member of the House has to be here in case there is a vote.
There are a variety of ways of achieving change. For example, do we need to take as much legislation on the Floor of the House? As my noble friend Lord Peston suggested, do we need to have a regular format for Divisions in Committee, or should we look more daringly at alternative procedures? Could we, for example, contemplate electronic methods of voting?
I am not going to canvass the full range of options this afternoon. I have no doubt that other noble Lords will have their favourites which they will urge on the House. I know that some noble Lords will suggest that the only thing we need to do is to reduce the amount of legislative and other business the House is asked to consider.
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