The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before public business begins, I take the opportunity to inform the House that I am to make an official visit to Portugal and Spain on 12th, 13th and 14th February, when the House will sit. I will be holding meetings with Members of the government and the judiciary in both countries and will be addressing the joint British Council/Spanish Bar Association human rights and law conference. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, I do not think that that would be appropriate. A Speaker's Conference traditionally consists only of Members of the other place. It would be wrong for it to examine the role and performance of your Lordships' House and its relationship with the other place. The Government continue to believe that the proper vehicle for this examination, which we agree is important, is a Joint Committee of both Houses, as we have already proposed.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I quite understand that the Government are well content with the domination they presently enjoy over both Houses of Parliament. However, in the long term, would it not be wise for the Government actively to seek ways in which public respect for Parliament might be restored? They could perhaps start by making it appear as though Parliament were not so much a part of their own far from infallible machine.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am not sure that your Lordships would agree that the Government have domination over this House. We hold Parliament in the greatest respect. We have taken steps to see what advances can be made, in particular the appointment of a Royal Commission. We hope that many matters of value to Parliament will be considered by the Joint Committee.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, are the Government really proposing to move to a stage two Bill on House of Lords reform without any form of parliamentary consultation, either through a Speaker's Conference or a Joint Committee of both Houses, on issues such as the composition of your Lordships' House?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, we set up a Royal Commission; the Royal Commission received evidence from a wide range of sources; there could be a public debate on the Royal Commission's findings. We have proposed a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider the parliamentary aspects, and we are discussing through the usual channels the detail of that Joint Committee.
Lord Marsh: My Lords, now that we have had the opportunity of experiencing the changes and of living with them for some time, would it not be sensible to have a serious debate on the various options in order that the views of the House can be made known to the Joint Committee when it is eventually set up?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, there should be a national debate in response to the Royal Commission. The Royal Commission aimed--in my view, correctly--to gather together a wide range of opinions and then express a conclusion in its report, which it did.
Lord Renton: My Lords, in considering this matter further, will the Government bear in mind that the major factor to be considered is the vast amount of legislation that there now is, and has been for some years, and that this House is so much better qualified in its expertise and experience than another place?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the issue of the scrutiny of legislation is incredibly important and needs to be looked at. It is an issue at which the Joint Committee which is being discussed through the usual channels could look in detail.
Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that another important piece of unfinished business is the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament and the Welsh Assembly? Does he not think that legislation could conveniently be hived off to the Welsh Assembly and that it is time for urgent consideration of the possibility of equating the Assembly's legislative powers to those of the Scottish Parliament?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: No, my Lords, I do not think that. We should see how the Welsh Assembly operates over a period of time. I do not think it is appropriate to consider any changes in relation to it at the moment.
Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, the Minister will be relieved to know that I agree with his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. However, does he not think it appropriate to examine the ways in which both
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, both Houses should consider the scrutiny of legislation, both primary and secondary. The Joint Committee will look at that issue. The noble Lord is right, the Welsh Assembly also looks at secondary legislation. It would plainly have an interest in seeing how it was done.
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, can the Minister be more precise about the timing of the announcement of the Joint Committee? When shall we know its membership and its programme? Will it be before May or after May?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, discussions are going on through the usual channels as to, for example, whether or not the Liberal Democrats agree to such a committee and what its composition should be. When those discussions are complete, obviously we can make an announcement. But I am not in a position to make an announcement as to timing at the moment.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am baffled by the Minister's answers. He has just said that it is up to the Liberal Democrats to decide whether there will be a Joint Committee. Surely that is for the Government to decide. Will the Minister answer the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart; namely, why do the Government wish to exclude Parliament from the consultative process of the Joint Committee in discussing the composition of this House? Should not Parliament be the primary place for Parliament itself to come to a conclusion about composition, and to place that conclusion before the Government? Secondly, can the Minister give a single example of how Parliament has been strengthened in the past three and a half years?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, as to the noble Lord's first point, discussions are going on about the form of the Joint Committee. It would be wrong to make any announcement before those discussions have been completed. It would also be wrong to suggest--as the noble Lord said I did--that the Liberal Democrats in any sense have a veto in relation to that process. The noble Lord's second point was whether Parliament will have an opportunity to discuss the composition of this House. Of course it
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, while we on these Benches certainly do not expect to have a veto, we do expect to have a voice. I should like to lend support to the proposal that there should be a full discussion in Parliament before draft legislation goes ahead. In my experience, once legislation is drafted it is always too late to make major changes.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I accept what the noble Baroness says about the Liberal Democrats not having a veto, but it is plainly right that they should have a voice in determining the terms of the Joint Committee. I hope that they accept that that is the process that is going on at present.
As regards the issue of second stage reform, there has been a Royal Commission; there will be a Joint Committee; then there should be a national debate; then, it seems to me, the next stage should be legislation.
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