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Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to make further provision in relation to the functions of the Historic Buildings and
Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.--(Baroness Anelay of St Johns.)
On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.
The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of the Baroness Williams of Crosby set down for today shall be limited to five hours.--(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Baroness Williams of Crosby rose to call attention to the case for making Parliament more effective in holding the executive to account, and therefore more relevant to voters; and to move for Papers.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying how grateful I am to colleagues in this House for having supported in such substantial numbers the debate that is about to take place. It indicates, I believe, that many Members of this House are profoundly concerned about the need for the reform of both Houses of Parliament--not only one, but both of them. I very much look forward to the speeches that are to be made which I believe will be of significance and importance.
I never quite understood the proper definition of the word "serendipity", but I have decided that it characterises the timing of this debate. As your Lordships will know, somewhat unexpectedly and all of a sudden on Monday, what one might describe as the "poodle" of Parliament turned round and bit its master on the executive. That gave me, for one, a very great sense of satisfaction. I hope that the opportunity it presents will now be seized. The former social security Minister in another place, Mr Frank Field, said that he believed that what had happened would be the "engine" for much wider reform. I very much hope that he is right. I also notice that Mr Graham Allen, a colleague of his and former Labour Whip, described the House of Commons as a "six-stone weakling". I might have used the term "a 12-stone weakling", but the message is quite clear.
Let us admit that there has been a loss of purpose in the other place. It flows from three factors, none wholly within its own control. It flows, in part, from devolution of power to Scotland and to Wales. One of the reasons why devolution is today a very substantial challenge to the House of Commons is precisely that the devolved assemblies have chosen working
The second reason for the loss of purpose is a subject that has often been debated in this House; namely, our membership of the European Union. This has led to a good deal of legislation being ultimately decided in Brussels. We all know about that. And, regardless of our own opinion one way or the other on such subjects as membership of the euro, we are all very much aware of the need to establish the best mechanisms we can to scrutinise European legislation.
The third area has been little discussed in this House, or, indeed, in the other place. I refer to the growing power and extension of international treaties over precisely what are the sovereign powers of national parliaments. We do not discuss the World Trade Organisation; we do not have the pleasure of looking at the agenda for the G8; and we do not have an opportunity to talk at great length about the global environment convention. However, we all recognise that those treaties are now shaping our world and producing decisions that affect our citizens, while we are virtually voiceless in them.
One of my great concerns is that two elements are now eroding the power and the influence of Parliament. The first is the loss of interest among our own electors: a 59 per cent turnout, dating from the last election, is an alarm call to all of us. Secondly, when young people believe that protest is the only effective way for them to express themselves--even peaceful non-violent protest, as distinct from lobbying Parliament--then, again, there is a very serious issue that we are obliged to address.
One of the reasons why Parliament has lost influence relates not only to the issues about which I have talked; namely, devolution, membership of the European Union, and the growing extent and power of treaties: we must also recognise that the extraordinary proliferation of quangos, regulators, commissioners, and the like, over the domestic field for which Parliament was once responsible has created a feeling of distance between the electors and Parliament which is also serious. I make no party point. However, whichever party we may belong to, the fact that 10,000 appointments a year are now made to quangos and regulatory bodies with virtually no scrutiny by either House of Parliament is a matter of considerable concern.
In a very distinguished study undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, for the Hansard Society, one of the most disturbing findings was Parliament's sense of its own impotence. The society's survey showed that Members of Parliament regarded virtually every one of their powers as now being ineffective. They said that parliamentary Questions were ineffective. The most famous day for parliamentary Questions--now Wednesday for Prime Minister's Questions--was, according to the study,
Indeed, the Hansard Society study went much further. Of all the mechanisms open to Parliament--parliamentary Questions, Private Notice Questions, parliamentary debates and Select Committees--one, and only one, was regarded by more than half of the Members of Parliament questioned as being effective to any substantial extent. It will not surprise noble Lords to learn that that mechanism was the Select Committee procedure: 54 per cent of MPs thought that they had some ability to scrutinise and control the executive, but virtually every other traditional method was seen by them not to work.
A study by the BBC conducted last year--a survey of the British people's attitude towards their institutions--showed that Parliament was tied third from the bottom. If noble Lords would like to know who was even further down the list than Parliament, which attracted the confidence of exactly 32 per cent of our fellow citizens, I can tell them that the two institutions that did even worse were political parties (not much divorced from Parliament in the public mind) and the press, which noble Lords will be pleased to hear was the lowest of all, with just 11 per cent support from the public.
In such a situation, where not only the public have lost a great deal of confidence in Parliament but also where Parliament--this is the crucial point--has lost confidence in itself, we must ask the question: what can be done about it? However, before I address that question, I should like to say a few words about the executive. The worry is not just that Parliament has effectively lost its power to scrutinise and to hold the executive to account. Developments within the executive must also be the cause of some concern.
Over the past 15 or 20 years there have been two steady developments. One of those has been the consistent weakening of the Cabinet. I do not point particularly at the current Prime Minister, or at one of his most distinguished predecessors, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher. But the truth of the matter is that except for a brief period under John Major, the Cabinet has become more and more a committee established to say yes to what the Prime Minister of the day wants it to do. Cabinet committees have been increasingly replaced by ad hoc committees, some of them comprising a small group of people called together for the purpose of agreeing a particular policy.
In addition, No. 10 has grown out of all proportion. Today there is something very close to a Prime Minister's office. That office is staffed by many young aides, undoubtedly brilliant young men and women, but--this is the key point--not accountable to Parliament. They are not accountable to the electorate; they are accountable only to their masters and mistresses who appoint them as aides. That causes us to be considerably concerned about growing prime ministerial power.
Ours is not a presidential system. I believe that it cannot be turned into a presidential system. At the conclusion of my remarks--I shall speak for less than the allotted time--I shall underline why I believe it is a dangerous illusion to suppose that Britain can turn its system into a presidential system, given the conditions that apply in other presidential systems that do not apply in this country.
Let me turn for a moment to what can be done. Obviously, one of the most important first steps, which could be taken soon--as the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and the excellent Conservative document, Strengthening Parliament, both point out--is effectively to exclude the Whips from the process of selecting members of Select Committees and their chairs.
If, in this House, someone proposed that a man or woman accused of some offence could select not only the jury but also the judge, we would find it laughable. But the truth of the matter is that when the Whips choose Select Committee members and their chairs, that is exactly the position in which we find ourselves. How can the scrutineers be chosen by the very people who are to be scrutinised? It is simply absurd. Frankly, if we were a little more blunt, we would laugh it out of court. I very much hope that another place does not "buy" the compromise now being suggested; that is, that senior Back-Benchers should join with the Whips to select members of Select Committees. It is absolutely critical that Select Committees are independent of the executive; after all, they do not, frankly, wield any great power.
The second thing that needs to be done--again I owe a great deal here to the two reports I have already mentioned--is to try to make sense of parliamentary Questions. In this respect I think that this House has a good deal to teach the other place. There should be room for topical questions every week and there should be a limited number of questions. Above all, duplicate questions should not be accepted. Prime Minister's Questions have become absurd because one open-ended question after the other is put down, the sole purpose of which is to enable people to join in a rugby scrum called parliamentary Questions. That does not commend Parliament to the electorate, who increasingly dislike yahoo politics and who could not have more clearly indicated that dislike than at the last election.
I shall briefly mention two other matters. One that I believe is important is to reconsider the significance of a committee on treaties, for which my noble friend Lord Lester has pressed time and again. It is crucial to start to scrutinise international treaties. We are not suggesting that the executive should give up its power to ratify them, but at least it should consider the views of Parliament before it does so. Our young people recognise the effects of these treaties and are outraged that there is no constitutional method of discussing their impact and their effect on us and on other citizens of the world.
Finally, on the reform front, let me take a leap into the radical cyber age. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who is very aware of the impact of
I turn to the issue of this House. I have already mentioned that in my view this House has some significant lessons to offer the other place. Sometimes I think we should be a little less humble about our role. Those lessons include what I have already said about parliamentary Questions, the timing of debates and the provision for topical debate, all of which are better at this end of the parliamentary corridor. But I would be irresponsible if I did not express my concern, the concern of these Benches, and not least of my noble friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats in this House, about the decision by the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House to state in a Written Answer--I regret that it was a Written Answer with no opportunity to question him further--that he saw no point in further consultation following the Wakeham report. I put it on the record that both of the major Opposition parties were under the impression that there would be another round of all-party consultation on those matters. We fully recognise the Government's right to say that there should not be prolonged delay. However, the matter could be dealt with by timetabled discussion. I register our concern, about which my noble friends Lord Dahrendorf and Lord Goodhart will have more to say.
I said at the beginning of my remarks that I was deeply concerned about the extent to which the executive is trying to become more and more presidential. Incidentally, it is greatly aided in that by the media--about which my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham will say something--in their insistence on concentrating on just one or two figures in each party to the exclusion of virtually everything and everyone else--not least, of course, to the exclusion of policy. Noble Lords will have noticed that Mr Gerald Kaufman's suit--I believe a copper and filigree suit--set off a degree of attention that policy has not attracted from the media for many months past. If I may say so, that is just a little daft.
In conclusion, the United States has a presidential system, a written constitution and a Supreme Court which is used to dealing with political questions. It also has an extraordinarily powerful legislature and a federal system in which the states hold much power. To try in any sense to graft a presidential system on to a unitary state with a weak legislature, a non-political judiciary and no, or very little, power for local and
Lord Haskel: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on moving the Motion. In doing so she has drawn our attention to a strange paradox; namely, that Parliament and society, which are so relevant to each other, are becoming more and more disengaged. You would have thought that their mutual dependence and relevance would have brought them closer together, but in fact the opposite is true. I am not surprised. I have come across this paradox elsewhere in the world of business and of science. I think that there are lessons to be learned.
Those of us running businesses in the 1970s and 1980s could not help but observe that macho management and personal greed were alienating and antagonising the public--the very people on whom our profits and growth depended. Concern about that made the more perceptive of us realise that the business of business is not to serve ourselves but society. Out of that came the philosophy of corporate social responsibility. Companies became good citizens by adapting society's best values. Social responsibility is not only how you treat your customers but also your suppliers, employees and neighbours--and having a dialogue with them.
At the same time, business changed its attitude towards branding. Brands were developed originally as a market tool: a way of keeping market share. However today brands--and for "brands" one can substitute political parties--are seen as a method of earning trust and respect for products and services. It is that trust and respect which delivers the sales and growth to business. In that way business set about resolving the paradox. I do not say that the relationship between business and society is perfect, but it is a great deal better than it was. I think that there is a parallel.
The second area in which I came across the same paradox is science. People know that science is crucial to many aspects of modern life. Indeed, there was a time when people hardly questioned science. However, cracks in that confidence began to appear with episodes such as Thalidomide through to BSE. Some thought that the way to repair those cracks was to increase the public understanding of science. If people understood more about science, then there would be more acceptance of it and its risks. Among others, in its paper, Science and Society, your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology pointed out that that attitude towards the public was not only condescending but did little to repair the breakdown in trust between science and the public. The committee pointed out that the business of science is to serve society and not science: that it was equally important for science to understand the public as for the public to understand science. As a result all kinds of avenues of
It is perhaps too early to say with certainty, but I have no doubt that all the effort at dialogue will reverse the trend of the public becoming disengaged and less trusting of science. Again, I believe that there is a parallel here with Parliament. What can we in Parliament learn from the experience of science and business, of trying to resolve the paradox of their relationship with society?
The Electoral Commission's survey conducted by MORI of the recent general election concluded that voter engagement is the issue rather than apathy. We must engage the public more, as science and business now seek to do. There are many indications that there is a wish to do so. The debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, on the public galleries produced some useful ideas about how we could make our sittings more user friendly. I think that those reforms should extend to the way in which the committees of the House work. Your Lordships' committees deal with matters of great interest to the general public ranging from the health of air travellers to the confidentiality and use of genetic data, and the work of the Monetary Policy Committee to animal testing. That work could be wasted unless it is combined with dialogue with the public.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. We should be more serious about consulting the public. I have said at the Dispatch Box that the Government are consulting the public knowing full well that the consultation consisted of inviting people and organisations to write in or answer a questionnaire. Consultation has to be a two-way affair. We could use telephone help lines or online consultation with chat rooms. Information about these consultations could be more widely advertised. Fortunately your Lordships' website is being restructured, modernised and made more user friendly. It will have the capacity for individual Peers to have their own website with which they can have a two-way dialogue with the public. Perhaps this will help consultation.
A couple of weeks ago we were debating our declaration of interests. Of course, we should declare our interests to counter the cynicism about parliamentarians being on the make. But what about a declaration of all the public services that we perform? What about a declaration of the huge number of voluntary activities we undertake? Looking about the Chamber I see many noble Lords who put a great deal more back into society than they take out.
We are an unelected Chamber and likely to remain so for some time. That means that we should be more accountable to the public, not less. If we do not adequately respond to their concerns their only course of action is disengagement. They cannot remove us as they can remove Members of another place; and so, also for the sake of democracy, we should undertake more active dialogue with the public. The business of Parliament is to serve society, not the Government.
Lord Fowler: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord with his experience and the noble Baroness with her exceptional knowledge of Government and Parliament. I congratulate her on initiating this debate.
I have read the notes for guidance for maiden speakers and would plan, as instructed, that my remarks should be short and non-controversial. The most deeply uncontroversial statement that I can make after 31 years' experience of another place is that not all wisdom resides in the House of Commons. That is not intended as an observation on my party's leadership election process--as a supporter of Ken Clarke, how could it be?--but as an indication that as the years have gone by the ability of the House of Commons, even its desire, to hold the executive to account has reduced.
On Monday we saw the Commons flexing its muscles with regard to Select Committees. We shall have to see whether that process continues and goes further, as the noble Baroness hopes. I have to say that so far the trend is not encouraging. Under both governments--I stress, both governments--the accountability of the executive has been reduced. Some of the traditional ways of checking the actions and policies of Ministers have been blunted.
On the face of it the clearest and best way of holding Ministers to account is during Oral Questions. As any Minister will testify sharp questions from in front--and even more from behind--are the most effective way of revealing weaknesses in policy. But things have changed, and let me give an example of how. When I was first elected to the Commons at the 1970 general election there was a terrible row some 12 months later involving that wonderful character, the late Julian Amery, Lord Amery of Lustleigh. He had been made (perhaps slightly surprisingly) Minister for Housing. His famous protestation that he lived in a terraced house like everybody else was perhaps only half convincing when it was discovered that the terraced house was in Eaton Square. At any rate in March 1971 Labour MPs noticed--they could hardly fail to do so--that no fewer than 24 Questions for Oral Answer appeared on the Order Paper tabled by Conservative Back-Benchers. They were all helpful, along the lines, "Wouldn't the Minister agree that the Government's housing policy is wonderful?" There was immediate outrage and accusations that the Questions had been prepared by civil servants and planted. There were Statements in the House. The whole issue was referred to a Select Committee. There was even speculation that the Minister might fall.
How things have changed. These days everybody does it. It does not cause a murmur. Questions are planted and helpful supplementaries are circulated. I suspect that they are prepared by special advisers, not civil servants, but the aim remains to give Ministers an easy ride. I describe the process because I am sure that such actions are entirely unknown in this House.
Some in the other place disguise the process much better than the Government Back-Bencher in the last Parliament who, having the rare opportunity to question the Prime Minister, simply rose and said rather sulkily that her question had already been asked, meaning that the suggested supplementary had mistakenly been given to a Member higher up the Order Paper.
My first point is that if we are to progress, Westminster must recover its independence and its pride . We must place more value on independent Back-Benchers. Governments--any government--must understand that the function of their Back-Benchers is not to give unqualified support on any policy or decision; the Government right or wrong.
I do not wish to overstate the case. There are occasions when Members of the other place show total independence. Most consistently, they reject the Government's proposals on pay and allowances for something more generous. Ministers protest, but often very softly. More constructively, they pursue regional interests entirely independently. As the Member of Parliament for Sutton Coldfield, I was a consistent opponent under governments of both parties of the Dome going to Greenwich, although perhaps in retrospect we in the West Midlands had a lucky escape. There is currently a rather better all-party campaign, which I strongly support, to bring the national football stadium to Birmingham. Ministers know the strength of feeling for having some of our national projects sited in the Midlands and the North.
The point remains that if Parliament is to recover its influence, it must exert its rights. Again I emphasise that it is not just one government who have been responsible for the erosion of those rights. In the last years of the Conservative Government, I confronted a senior Minister on the grounds that, rather than making a Statement on the Floor of the House, he had given an announcement as an exclusive story to a national newspaper. The journalist in me was offended because scoops used to be the stories that the Government did not want in the newspapers rather than the ones they had planted there. The parliamentarian in me was offended because, even a few years before, the rule had been that Parliament should always hear first of any significant new announcement.
The Minister's reply was frank. He did not attempt to deny the accusation. The newspaper in question supported his policies and he thought that it was sensible to give it preferential treatment. Ministers also know that such statements of policy are not subject to the same scrutiny as they otherwise might receive. The announcement is praised as an important development to justify the scoop.
In my view, the position has deteriorated even further since then. There is no answer but for Parliament to assert its own rights and not allow itself to be used or bypassed.
I have one last point, which has not yet been made. In holding the executive to account, we should be concerned not just about the announcement of new
All too often, at the crucial moment when, after long preparation, a Secretary of State finally gets his measures on to the statute book, he moves off to another department. The implementation of the measures is then left to his successor. Whether we like it or not, the political truth is that a Cabinet Minister does not normally reckon that he will make his reputation by successfully implementing the decisions of his predecessor. A new Minister means a new focus. The department is required to put its efforts into developing new policies. That is where the excitement is. The danger is that the implementation of existing policy goes down the league of importance.
I shall give one example from my experience about which I still feel strongly. In 1986, when I was Secretary of State for Social Services, we passed a long and complex Social Security Act. One of its proposals was to change widows' entitlement inside the state earnings-related pension scheme, but to give more than 12 years' notice of the change. In Committee, my then Minister of State, John Major, promised a publicity campaign to explain the change further. Following the election, John Major and I both left for other jobs. The result was that the departmental leaflet failed to mention the change and gave the wrong information. Had a committee been set up to monitor the post-legislative impact, the mistake would have been avoided.
One problem with debates about the accountability of the executive is that they so often seem automatically hostile to the Government. In fact, as my example shows, the process can be to the positive advantage of Ministers. Although we have our political differences, some of which run very deep, holding the executive to account is essentially about good government, better legislation and its better implementation. Surely all parties can unite on that.
Lord Weatherill: My Lords, it is a genuine pleasure to be able to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on his admirable maiden speech. In his memoirs, George Thomas recounts a moment when a former Cabinet Minister went past his chair and said, "May I have a word with you after the debate, Mr Speaker, as an old friend?", to which George replied, "Mr Speaker has no old friends". I had no old friends when I was the Speaker, but I am pleased to say that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and his wife have been friends of mine for many years. I hope that that will long continue.
When the noble Lord entered the House of Commons in 1970, I was already a Whip. I do not recollect him ever giving me any trouble. He quickly
I have a confession. When I looked at the list of speakers just before lunch, I was 13th in the line. I thought that I would come into the Chamber and make up my speech as we went along, picking the plums from other people. I have been caught red-handed by being put up to this position.
I wonder how many of your Lordships remember the days when we were all issued with old-style passes. In those days there was enormous cachet to being a Member of the House of Commons. I think that Members of the House of Lords had similar passes. They enabled us to park almost anywhere in our constituencies. I doubt that that would be wise today.
The truth is that Parliament has never been held in high repute. A man was whipped and pilloried and put in prison for life in the 15th century for "cursing Parliament and all its works". It is not new to hold Members of Parliament in doubt. However, the current situation is dangerous. I do not recollect a time when Members of the other place have been held in quite such low esteem. That is dangerous for democracy.
Part of the reason, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has said, is that the system of government these days is much more presidential than parliamentary--and without the checks and balances of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the United States of America. I should like to see a return to parliamentary government in which Her Majesty's Government are held to account in Parliament not only by the Loyal Opposition but by Back-Benchers on both sides of the House, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said.
I was a Whip for 12 years. To paraphrase Dunning's famous Motion, I believe that the power of the Whips has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. In my day, the Whips did not impose their wishes upon reluctant Members; rather, it was the other way round. It was our duty to ensure that the leadership knew the views of the Back-Benchers. If the news was good, of course the Chief Whip took it in; if it was not so good, that was my duty. The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, is not here today, but she will recollect that her traditional greeting to me was, "What is it now?". But it was essential that the leadership was told of the views of the Back-Benchers.
Mention has been made of Select Committees. When they were first introduced, I was somewhat dubious. I believe that at that time I was Chairman of Ways and Means, but I was concerned that the introduction of departmental Select Committees would tend to empty the Chamber. In that, I regret to say, I was correct. Latterly, when I was Speaker, I cannot begin to tell your Lordships how many times Members would come to me to ask, "Mr Speaker, Sir,
Members have no choice. They can either wait, hoping to catch the Speaker's eye and to be called, or go to a Select Committee. Of course, they go to the Select Committee. Therefore, I fear and regret that speeches in the Chamber are now pretty well irrelevant. Members speak to television cameras hoping to see themselves later in the evening on Tyne Tees or Border Television, or wherever their constituencies may be. I believe that it is through Select Committees that the Government effectively are held to account. In that, as has already been mentioned, lies the real importance of the revolt that occurred in the other place on Monday this week.
I turn to the subject of reform of procedure. There is insufficient time to deal with the matter in detail, but I am highly alarmed by the present practice in the other place of not taking votes after 10 o'clock at night; instead, debates are wrapped up and voted upon on a Wednesday. As one old friend on the government side of the House said to me the other day, "It's not right, mate, but it's done a power of good to my voting record". It is wrong in principle and I hope that something can be done about it.
I believe that we need to review our procedures not only in the other place but also in this House. I agree with what the noble Baroness said about Prime Minister's Questions. They are an absolute farce. They may make good television in the United States, but I believe that they have brought the House of Commons into grave disrepute. When I was Speaker, I tried to do something about it. I asked the then Prime Minister whether she could try to arrange for her Members to put down definitive Questions so that, if Members of Parliament strayed from them, I could bring them back to order. She replied in general terms that she did not use Prime Minister's Questions for that purpose; she used them to give a message to the nation. I believe that our present Prime Minister does much the same thing.
Finally, I turn to the subject of language. I believe that we must make our proceedings acceptable and understandable to those who elect us--I refer, of course, not to this House but to the other place. Far too many of our procedures and the language that we use are a mystery to those who turn on their television sets or listen to the radio, if they do so at all. Of course, I do not advocate a change to the traditional courtesies--indeed, in recent years those have tended to slip somewhat--nor am I against passion and anger. Both have a place in Parliament when they are necessary but not when they are unnecessary.
My time is up. Perhaps I may come to a close by recounting to your Lordships a story about language which I found in the parish magazine of my local church in Ide Hill. It was as follows:
Lord Clark of Windermere: My Lords, in preparing for my contribution this afternoon, I spent a little time looking at previous maiden speeches. Perhaps not surprisingly, I found that the word "trepidation" occurred regularly. I must say that, in feeling that, I am no exception.
I entered the other place 31 years ago with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. He and I must have spoken hundreds of times within the Palace of Westminster. But this is very different. This afternoon I am conscious that I am speaking in a House where every Member has reached success in his or her chosen career or profession. I am conscious that, no matter on which issue I speak, someone in this Chamber will know more about the subject than I do. I was tempted to say, "Except possibly on the subject of my beloved Carlisle United", but I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, may contest that.
Before I develop my thoughts, perhaps I may also place on record my sincere thanks to the Members and staff of this House who have been kind and thoughtful and have offered me much friendship over the past three weeks. It is much appreciated and has made my transition along the Corridor most enjoyable.
This afternoon I want to make some pragmatic, practical and selective points based on 18 years' experience on the Opposition Front Bench and on 18 months' running the Cabinet Office--one too long; one too short. Perhaps I should say that I could speak about the work of the Opposition Front-Bencher with great authority and perhaps without a great deal of challenge in this place. The point about the Cabinet Office was that one was, in a sense, trying to manage the machinery of government while, at the same time, holding responsibility for the senior Civil Service. When we consider the executive or the Government in a classical sense, we tend to think of Ministers; but we should also take on board the power, influence and role of the Civil Service.
Before I develop that subject, perhaps I may congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on her choice of subject for the debate. I believe that it is most apposite and timely. However, I want to follow up one point that she raised. When we talk about the executive and Parliament, we must talk about them in relation to our citizens.
On Saturday, I attended the Durham miners' gala--a large meeting which took place in the beautiful city of Durham. I watched the banners which were being carried through the city. A phrase on the banners which cropped up repeatedly was "Knowledge is power". I believe that that is very true. In the world of information technology it is even truer now than it has been. That is why I was so keen to develop a radical
I have already referred to the Civil Service; I add that it is absolutely brilliant. Of the incoming government in 1997 not a single member of the Cabinet had previously served in a Cabinet but there was a seamless transition. The Civil Service was simply brilliant. I doubt whether there is another civil service in the world that could have accomplished that. I start from that base.
However, I became rather concerned that there were institutional handicaps built into our constitutional framework, which meant that our civil servants rarely came into contact with legislators. In a career spanning perhaps 40 years, civil servants might never come into contact with a Member of Parliament unless they were attached to a government department that did a great deal of work in the Houses of Parliament. Indeed, the whole concept of ministerial responsibility meant that if they spoke to a Member of Parliament, they had to do so through a Minister. I suggest that that is wasteful and we should look at it further.
We initiated a scheme that is still continuing, although I hope that the Government will find more money for it. Under that scheme, which operated on a voluntary basis, civil servants who wanted to spend a week with a Member of Parliament in his or her constituency and in the House of Commons could do so. The arrangement was completely non-political--it was handled by the Industry and Parliament Trust--and civil servants to whom I have talked told me that they found it very useful indeed. It helped to build up a bond of trust and understanding between civil servants and the legislature. We should be trying to build on that sort of arrangement.
I want to touch on one or two other small points. A great success in the House of Commons is the Public Accounts Committee. It is the one committee that has achieved results; it is the one committee that saves money for our citizens and it is the one committee that makes senior civil servants shake at the knees at the thought of appearing before it. It is an effective committee and we should examine ways of extending it. It is successful because it has independent resources. A former chairman, my noble friend Lord Sheldon, knows much more about it than I do. The fact that the Comptroller and Auditor General is not appointed by government and the fact that public servants are appointed by Parliament mean that we are able to challenge the authority and actions of the executive in a meaningful manner. The excellent report by the Hansard Society, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, referred, made it clear that that society wants to build into the Select Committee system the same system that the PAC uses. That is the right approach. I take on board the idea of having a finance and audit sub-committee attached to every Select
While I am on that subject of Select Committees, whose membership I do not want to discuss, I want to make a pragmatic point. I could never understand why Select Committees did not call before them each year the appropriate Secretary of State to give an annual statement. I volunteered to do so--my civil servants thought that I was mad--and I found it a wonderful exercise. It concentrated my mind and that of my department and it gave me an opportunity to defend my department in front of parliamentarians, which is what we should be doing.
I should conclude my remarks, which I accept are practical--that is one of the roles that we can play in this House. I advance my proposals because I want to strengthen Parliament. By strengthening Parliament and by rigorously challenging it, I believe that we are strengthening our government and executive. By strengthening our government and executive, and by getting better decisions, I believe that we are strengthening something that I hold dearest of all, our democracy.
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, it gives me a special delight to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, on his telling maiden speech. His name in the North East is still held in great reverence because he is someone who can speak up for and participate in the politics of the North East. He is also revered as a person for his genuine care of and contact with people. I have walked the back streets of Jarrow with him, we were at the gala together on Saturday and I think that we have even shared terraces at the Stadium of Light--but not at Carlisle United.
The noble Lord's story about being too long on the Opposition Benches and too short in government reminded me of an encounter that I had recently with a young married clergyman, whom I was mildly reprimanding for wearing a blue clerical shirt. I said to him, "Did you know that in the early Church blue shirts were reserved for virgins and archdeacons?". "Ah, bishop", he replied straight away, "too late for one, too early for the next!". We hope that the noble Lord will enjoy his time in this Chamber and we look forward to his many contributions, which, as he ably illustrated today, will be of great benefit to this House. He can draw on his long and distinguished presence in the other place.
It is also my duty and pleasure to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important subject. She reminded us that this is one part--a pivotal part--of a whole range of constitutional issues that we are currently addressing. She picked out one or two of those issues about which I know very little. However, two issues with which I am very much concerned are the development of political regional devolution and the reform of this House. The noble Baroness's remarks on those matters must be linked with today's
Successive elections--parliamentary, European and local--repeated a message of the electorate's alienation and disengagement from the political process. Frustration arises because it can sometimes seem that acceptance of responsibility and admission of mistakes, especially in areas that directly affect people's lives, are in short supply. An example of that is the lack of accountability and acceptance of responsibility in response to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Initially there was an extremely slow response--there was a failure to use past experience--and there remains a lack of co-ordination among support services. There has certainly been poor communication with those who are directly affected. All of that has added to the burdens of farmers and the many others who have suffered at the hands of the epidemic. That crisis highlighted a lack of accountability beyond a single government department because the agricultural community and industry is affected by European policies, global trading conditions and long-term environmental issues.
That example illustrates the question of who is doing the joined-up thinking that will give the farmers some hope. Who is to ask that question and who will answer for the validity of the response?
Another example is the Ouseley report on Bradford. That issue ranges across many different governmental departments. Who, on behalf of the Government, is not only answerable but also accountable for those issues? For accountability procedures to be effective, it must be clear who is accountable to whom and for what, and what are the consequences of that accountability. In theory, the consequence of accountability is the giving or withholding of the confidence of Parliament, but in practice, it is unreal when a government hold a majority of any size, but especially one with a large majority. That leads to our system of accountability which provides no more than answerability.
The question arises about the difference between public and parliamentary accountability. Perhaps, as has been said already by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, we need to give more attention to direct forms of participation in the process of government. Devices such as referendums and citizens' juries are often suggested. Modern technology, such as the radio phone-in, e-mails and Internet chat rooms seem to offer other possibilities. For many people, John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman seem to be more effective at achieving public accountability than Back-Bench Members of Parliament and Opposition spokesmen. Our immediate concern is to make Parliament more transparently the body which holds the executive to account.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, referred to the Hansard Society's Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny. One of its principles is that Select
Your Lordships' House, of course, plays a vital complementary role in the scrutiny process. Listening to the debates in this Chamber, I am frequently struck by the high quality of the contributions. Our lack of true democratic accountability is more than compensated for by a greater measure of independence and a wider range of expertise. We are able to echo the needs and concerns of the communities that we know so well.
It is a pity that our debates are not always adequately brought to public attention. Perhaps we should consider how we can communicate with the public more effectively and exercise more responsibly our duty to bring to the Government our knowledge of public opinion and concerns, to which our involvement in regional public life gives us access.
Apart from the role of this House in the legislature, it would be good to have some confirmation of the extent to which the Government take note of the knowledge and expertise that is represented here.
In international terms, our accountability arrangements seem to be weak because of party discipline and the Whipping system. In spite of appearances our parliamentary parties are coherent. There is strength in that because it provides the Government with the confidence of a mandate. But even party cohesion must not be allowed to take precedence over truth and conscience. The appearance of party unity, short-term views with an eye to the next election, or keeping favour with the Whips for reasons of political ambition must never replace our primary duty to represent and speak for the common good of the nation and its people.
It would be arrogant to speak from the Bishops Benches without the discipline of party allegiance, proposing nai ve solutions. Nevertheless, we wish to play our part in seeking to make Parliament more accountable, more credible, more relevant and more transparent in the daily lives of ordinary people and the concerns that they have. Unless we can do that together, I fear that an accelerating apathy and a lessening of participation will threaten the vitality of the democratic process.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, the rules now say that only the immediately following speaker should congratulate noble Lords on their maiden speeches, but I want to take advantage of the fact that I am the first from these Benches to say that both the maiden speeches that we heard today were outstanding and every bit as good as one would hope, though not always expect, from former Cabinet Ministers. We hope to hear a lot more from both noble Lords.
I shall start by talking about holding the executive to account through the scrutiny of Bills--especially pre-legislation scrutiny. The scrutiny of Bills is one of the most important duties of a legislature. After all, what is it for if not to legislate? We have now drifted into a situation in which all too often Bills are driven through the other place by a majority, without proper debate. When these Bills reach Your Lordships' House, they have not been properly prepared and we are faced with hundreds of late government amendments, as happened far too many times during the previous Parliament.
Pre-legislation scrutiny of government Bills is of enormous value. I was involved in one of the outstanding examples of such scrutiny in recent years--the Freedom of Information Bill. The Select Committee on the draft Bill was very effective. The Bill had suffered severely as a result of its move from the responsibility of the noble Lord, Lord Clark, to his right honourable friend Mr Jack Straw. Thanks to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, who chaired the Select Committee, the Bill, as eventually introduced, although far from perfect, was much better than it would have been without that scrutiny. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House would agree because he gave evidence to us in his then capacity as a Home Office Minister.
The process of scrutiny enabled us to concentrate on issues within the Bill and to make more effective contributions at Committee and Report stages. Pre-legislation scrutiny is, of course, much more extensive than simply responding to a consultation paper. It gives the real possibility of an exchange of views, the chance to probe weaknesses in the Bill and the opportunity to call evidence on it. Pre-legislation scrutiny is especially valuable when examining difficult constitutional issues.
If ever a Bill called for such scrutiny, it is the prospective House of Lords Bill. It was made brutally clear on Tuesday last week that that is not what it will get. We were given the answer to a Written Question by the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House, as my noble friend Lady Williams has already said. That Written Answer states:
Yet that is a Bill of extreme constitutional importance. Indeed, it is much more important than stage 1 of House of Lords reform. Until complicated by the Cranborne-Irvine concordat, stage 1 was, in essence, a one-clause Bill removing what even most hereditary Peers recognised was an indefensible anachronism. But stage 2 is intended to create a second Chamber for the long term. Surely your Lordships' House, through a Joint Committee of both Houses or through a Select Committee of your Lordships' House alone, should have a collective role in the formulation of stage 2.
The Wakeham report contained some good proposals and some bad ones. I take a few examples of what is bad. Should your Lordships' House be deprived of the power to reject secondary legislation, or even to delay it for more than a few hours? Can we take seriously the proposal, as Wakeham option B proposes, that voters should have a right to vote for their regional representatives in the second Chamber once every 15 years? Do we really want to give an appointments commission of seven people, however independent, however distinguished, the power to appoint the great majority of Members of your Lordships' House, including most political appointments? Indeed, what is the point of having a token elected membership of your Lordships' House which may amount to only one in eight of the total membership? Those are vital questions.
I have no doubt that there will be much in this Bill with which we do not agree. There will be much with which the Conservatives do not agree. There will be much with which a number of Labour Back-Benchers do not agree. But there will be no proper forum for debating those issues before the Government commit themselves to the contents of that Bill. Even if there were such consultation, we might not be able to change the Government's mind--but, by God, we should at least be given a chance to try.
It is grotesque that the Government intend to bring forward half-baked proposals for fundamental changes in the composition and powers of your Lordships' House without having had proper consultation with this House. If the Government go ahead on the present basis, they will get no easy ride from us.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Baroness who introduced this Motion not only on the Motion but on the content of her speech and also, as she admitted herself, on a certain fortune in her timing. I add my congratulations also on the general tone of the debate which the Motion has produced. There have been no party polemics, no waste of time and the debate has been extremely welcome and timely. I, too, add some brief words of congratulations to both my noble friend, who is an old friend, and to the noble Lord opposite on two exceptionally welcome and good maiden speeches.
There can be absolutely no doubt that respect for Parliament has been on the ebb for many years now. There have been powerful contributors to that process--successive governments, the media, the political parties and certain well-publicised, but few in number, delinquents.
In blaming all those culprits, we should be wrong to excuse ourselves from blame. There are many in your Lordships' House who have either been in that strange place down the other end of the building or here in your Lordships' House for many years. We should not dodge the responsibility for what has manifestly gone wrong.
It seems to me that we have let slip from our minds Parliament's importance and that Parliament's importance attaches to and depends upon not its Members but its duties. It would not be out of place if, from time to time, we reminded ourselves of what those principal duties are: first, to uphold the liberties of the people; secondly, to ensure that the laws we pass are both fair and comprehensible; and, thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, to restrain the executive.
It is my belief that in all three we have failed quite seriously over many years. We have fallen short and allowed Parliament instead to become an arena for arid, irrelevant party manoeuvres and, worse still, a tool for the executive. We have permitted a huge, untidy, ill-managed mass of government to grow to a point at which it feels called upon to meddle, often without effect, in more or less every activity of which the human race knows.
Recently, there has been a dramatic instance of the growth in government which really almost comes under the heading of cannibalism. No. 10 has swallowed No. 12 without, so far as I know, leaving even the remnant of a Whip behind.
We have accepted almost without protest the Government's right to suffocate us in a flow of law and regulation which is ill conceived and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, made the same point--not thought through, inadequately debated and in constant need of attention and repair.
One result has been to leave people confused and obliged to rely upon professional advisers, whose services do not always come cheap, to guide them through the fungus of rules which grows monstrously in such fields as taxation and social legislation.
I turn for a moment to political parties. I have come to regard them as the only thoroughly nasty thing of which you need to have more than one. Long ago, they succeeded in squeezing out the independent Member, even though, in the last Parliament, under unusual circumstances, one did appear. Another one, happily, has appeared in this Parliament. A retired general practitioner, protesting against the closure of a hospital, has succeeded in making his opponents look silly and totally out of touch. In ordinary circumstances, no independent stands a chance against a candidate with the backing of a powerful party organisation.
In your Lordships' House--and I tender my admiration for them unsolicited--the Cross-Benchers survive to show the worth of people who do not suffer the shackles of party control. Two days ago, a new mood manifested itself in the House of Commons. A large slice of Government supporters moved, as they had not moved for half a century and more, against the bidding of the Government, to tell an over-weaning Administration that they had gone too far and they had better back off. With Gwyneth Dunwoody saying it, they had the good sense to do so. One must just cherish the hope that that vote was not a flash in the pan but a significant event which can and will be repeated.
I turn to those who own and control the media. They have the huge paraphernalia of modern communications at their disposal which gives them unrivalled influence over our affairs, so much so that one cannot imagine the possibility of any political party winning a general election without an element of support from the tabloid press.
That brings me face to face with Mr Murdoch. I have nothing to say about him as a man, but he is not bound to this country by any ties. He sees this country as a place in which to make money and to wield power. Bewildered by such a situation, in order to maintain appearances, and to suggest that someone is sitting near the controls, we have set up the Press Complaints Commission. Its mission is to control the uncontrollable. A report from my noble friend Lord Wakeham, who is its chairman, is a little like David facing Goliath, but bereft of the sling and the pebble with which David achieved such notable results.
This is not a disguised plea for censorship. It is more a lament that those who enjoy such unparalleled influence should see fit to deride or to ignore Parliament, the one institution on which they could rely for support if there is a serious challenge.
Under the bidding of Ministers, your Lordships' House is about to foist upon itself a body of rules already complex and certain to become more so. I remind your Lordships, with due delicacy--the noble and learned Lord has the right of reply to this debate, so I must speak with great caution--that the other day when explaining--mark the word "explaining"--the rules, the noble and learned Lord found himself saying these extraordinary words:
While the Government's proposals may appear to be commendable as an act of self-abasement, in my view they will do nothing to enhance respect for Parliament. I fear that the concept of integrity will get lost in the confusion and that the word will be drained of its meaning. The Motion has the merit of being a reminder that persons and institutions who surrender their liberties are unlikely to be respected by those who borrow or usurp them and even less by an astonished public.
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