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Speaker of the House of Lords

3.8 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall make a Statement concerning the Speakership of this House.

Last Thursday, the Government announced a package of proposals, including the following:

Let me put those words in the context of the package announced last week. Briefly, we propose to separate the powers which have until now been held together by the Lord Chancellor. Within the executive, we have created a Department for Constitutional Affairs. On the judicial side, we propose to create a Supreme Court and an independent Judicial Appointments Commission; and, within the legislature, we invite this House to choose its own Speaker rather than having one chosen for it and imposed by the Prime Minister.

I should make it clear at once that it is only this last part of the package which is the subject of this Statement. Noble Lords who use this occasion to make points about the wider package will take time from those who, rightly and prudently, wish to inquire only about the Speakership.

With regard to the Speakership, the situation today is unchanged. We have a Lord Chancellor, who is Speaker ex officio. He is bound by Standing Orders either to attend the House or to seek Leave of Absence. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor authorised me to say that although he is eager to proceed with reform of his office, he accepts that in respect of the Speakership he is subject to the wishes of this House.

However, we now have an opportunity. The Prime Minister has said to this House, in effect, "I no longer propose to insist on imposing on you, as an

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independent House of Parliament, the Speaker of my choice". I have the advantage of being able to hear many sotto voce comments, but I had better resist temptation. If you wish, my Lords, you may choose your own presiding officer.

Why are the Government doing this? There are two reasons. First, we wish to reform the office of Lord Chancellor, and that necessarily involves reforming the Speakership of this House. But there is a better reason than that mere necessity. We believe that it is right that this House should choose its own presiding officer.

It is in our view not appropriate for a government Minister to be the Speaker of an independent legislative chamber. If he has powers, there is a conflict of interest, real or apparent, every time he exercises them. If he has no powers, in this age it is a curious use of his time.

Most assemblies choose who is to preside over their deliberations. The devolved assemblies created by Acts of this Parliament, including, of course, this Chamber, have that privilege, and I propose to your Lordships that we should think very carefully about whether we should also have that privilege.

As the Leader, I hope to see this as a step in the continuing renewal and invigoration of this House, alongside the code of conduct, alongside our new working practices and the increased resources for Opposition parties and the Cross-Bench Peers.

I have tried to explain why we invite the House to take this power to choose its own presiding officer, and now that I have done that, I turn to the process of consultation. For the whole of this coming week when the House is sitting, my door will be open to any of your Lordships who wish to see me. I welcome views in writing. I will hear, of course, with every appropriate care, whatever noble Lords have to say. I shall also consult the usual channels, as I always do.

Stripped of all the hyperbole, the main question is: should we take this opportunity to set up a mechanism to appoint our own presiding officer, whatever the name of that person may be? By the end of this week, I hope that we shall know if there is any degree of consensus at all. I am conscious of the fact that so many of your Lordships have attended this afternoon, desiring to find consensus.

Next week, with your Lordships' leave, and if circumstances allow—I underline that parenthesis—I shall make a further Statement, probably on Wednesday 25th June.

At the appropriate point, I hope to be able to put proposals to the Procedure Committee for changes to Standing Orders. The Procedure Committee, after deliberation, would report to the House. If the report were favourable, and if your Lordships agreed to it, I would then move the changes to Standing Orders.

I said "at the appropriate point". What that point is will depend on the soundings I am able to take, as widely as possible. If the mood of the House is to move

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swiftly, we are prepared to move swiftly. If the mood of the House is to move more slowly, we shall have to move more slowly.

I cannot emphasise too strongly the words,

    "subject to the wishes of the House".

If I put proposals to the Procedure Committee, it is not bound to commend them to your Lordships. If it does, the House may amend or reject them, as it has in the past. If, in the end, the House chooses to say to a Prime Minister with a very substantial majority in the House of Commons—

Noble Lords: Oh.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, this is not a threat—it is an observation of fact. It is useful to hear the rest of the sentence before premature ejaculation. If, in the end, the House says to a Prime Minister with a very large majority in the Commons—and this is an important aspect of where we are at the moment—"Please continue to choose a Speaker for us", I am sure the Prime Minister will oblige.

3.13 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his Statement this afternoon. May I be the first in this House to congratulate him on his promotion from Lord Privy Seal to Lord President of the Council? We wish him well in performing his new and, no doubt, onerous duties.

The Statement we heard this afternoon was a typically artful performance that blithely ignored the vast bulk of the massively controversial changes affecting this House. I have to tell the noble and learned Lord that the more he tried to claim it was all part of a smooth and carefully planned exercise and not a by-product of the most shambolic and botched reshuffle in living memory, the more I saw, in the mind's eye, the grin of Comical Ali, claiming every Iraqi defeat as a glorious victory. Was there a word of apology in this Statement? My Lords, there was none.

The announcements last Thursday affect the privileges, composition, operation and authority of this House in innumerable ways. Every one of us in this House is potentially affected. I have a view that doubtless seems old-fashioned in No. 10, but in my book, Members of a House of Parliament should never, in any circumstances, have to find out about plans to turn their House upside down by scrabbling after an Alastair Campbell press release.

Peers on all sides have said to me they felt it a grotesque discourtesy to this House—the very thing the House is entitled to look to its Leader to protect it from.

Last Thursday, the No. 10 press secretary told us we would be having a new Speaker. Now, today, the Leader of the House tell us we cannot discuss anything other than the narrow point of a Speaker. So perhaps the noble and learned Lord can say when this House

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will have a chance to express a view on what he calls the wider package, and a proper debate on the future of the Lord Chancellor and his department.

With the Prime Minister, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is the architect of the plans. His career gets the biggest boost from it all. When will the noble and learned Lord make a statement to this House, and will we therefore have a full debate on those plans before the recess?

The Leader of the House can spend his time consulting over the next few weeks on a problem that never needed to exist and does not yet need to be solved—the Speakership. Or he can uphold this House's rights to be informed and to be heard on sweeping changes affecting us all. May I suggest that he might give more attention to the bigger and more urgent job? We, for our part, will co-operate with his micro-consultation on the Speakership only when we have seen the macro-picture and debated the full plans. I see no attraction in piecemeal and precipitate reform.

The noble and learned Lord placed great stress on the House not being presided over by a Minister. But by the very nature of the office, the Lord Chancellor is not a career-hungry politician, on the make for political gain. The noble and learned Lord's case was overstrained. When I look at the likes of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, I do not see political careerism on the Woolsack as the greatest danger that has faced this House in the past.

The noble and learned Lord had another line. Your Lordships, he said, are somehow less than other assemblies because we do not choose our presiding officer. Once again, with the advocate's practised skill, he slides over the main point. Other assemblies, including another place, are disciplined by their presiding officers. We are not—we are, uniquely, a self-regulating House; and in my view, we should remain a self-regulating House. Not even the most powerful government Minister can dictate to this House on how we should run our affairs. So I am less worried by that than by the baggage that might come with the creation of a powerful new Lord Speaker the noble and learned Lord suggests.

When this Prime Minister offers gifts, I long ago learned to look inside the horse. In any case, if we are in the game of constitutional upheaval, does the Lord Chancellor need to be chosen by the Prime Minister at all? Many take the view that it lent much to the dignity of this House that its presiding officer was the holder of the highest secular office under the Crown.

It would be right for me, and easy, to pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, whom I see in his place. When I read of the brutal end to his long and faithful service to his master, was I alone in murmuring the name "Wolsey"? I had many disagreements with the noble and learned Lord, but he was a remarkable Lord Chancellor and he never shirked his duty to preside in this House. It is good to hear that his successor is prepared to do the same, and how splendidly he sits on the Woolsack this afternoon. That announcement removes any urgency to address this question in isolation before broader issues are resolved.

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Last Thursday's proclamation unleashed huge issues. Many seem obscure, but they involve everyone in Britain. When will the Government understand that lasting constitutional change must be rooted in consent and cross-party agreement; and, if I may be bold enough to add, far-reaching legal change that, understandably, seems good to many lawyers, must also carry the consent of those of us who are not lawyers? It is not clear that a new Supreme Court necessarily will.

Our country has enjoyed 350 years of stability since a great civil war decided the primacy of Parliament in our land. In those long years, we have enjoyed a freedom, peace and security at home that no other nation on earth has known; a judiciary free from the temptation or taint of politics; a parliamentary system able to sustain tumultuous change, resting on the flexibility of an unwritten constitution. Now, all of a sudden, the Prime Minister and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor say that well tried practice has no place in a modern world, and they will not permit that to last. Are they so sure that they are right and that the long years of constitutional experience are wrong? If so, they are bold men. During the next two years, we shall no doubt have the opportunity not afforded to us today to test the mettle of those ideas.

3.20 p.m.

Lord McNally: My Lords, it would be desirable to have consensus on constitutional proposals. However, it is worth reflecting that probably the greatest constitutional change that this House ever passed—the Reform Act 1832—was carried by a single vote. The greatest constitutional reform of the 20th century, the Liberal government's reform of this place, was carried under the threat of the creation of 1,000 Peers. Consensus on such matters is not always possible, although I share the belief of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that "shambles" and "dog's breakfast" are the words that come to mind when considering this latest surge in constitutional reform.

However, we must not allow criticism of the proposals to prevent us welcoming the opportunity now on offer to the House to elect its own presiding officer. Is the Lord President of the Council aware that noble Lords on these Benches welcome the Statement, and that we shall do what we can to expedite the creation of the new office? We shall resist the temptation either to bounce the House or to drive through the proposals without full and inclusive consultation.

Regarding the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, can the noble and learned Lord tell the House whether the proposals mean the end of self-regulation in terms of the choice of Speakers and good order, which has been one of the more civilised aspects of this House? Does he agree that the system works at least as effectively as the discipline by the Speaker in another place?

If the Minster is to carry the confidence of the House in taking the matter forward, would it not be useful after the period of consultation—and his

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promised Statement on the 25th June—to set up a small ad hoc Select Committee of this House with a mandate to report by the return of Parliament after the party conferences in October? That would produce the necessary momentum to have the new presiding officer in place by the November State Opening of Parliament.

The Statement is not helped in terms of confidence or trust by the statement made by the new Leader of the Commons, Peter Hain, about the Government having "unfinished business" with the House of Lords, and his groundless accusations about our filibustering on legislation. Would the Lord President of the Council agree that what is needed is an early statement of intent by the Government on the next stages of House of Lords reform? In the meantime, does the Lord President of the Council agree that one role of a presiding officer directly elected by the whole House would be to defend the House of Lords, its rights and responsibilities, against government Ministers like Mr Hain, whose real complaint against the Lords is that we are a check against the abuse of executive power? Does the Minster agree that a reformed House of Lords should be more effective and powerful in that role?

It is clear that there is much fine tuning to be done, from the relationship of the new presiding officer to the Chairman of Committees, to what he should actually be called, and so on. However, we believe that this is an offer that we should not refuse. We should act with careful consideration but not interminable delay.

Like the advice given to the Irish traveller—we would not have started from here. But as we are here, we should act decisively to put in place a new office that will help to modernise the workings of the House and strengthen its role both in relation to another place and to the Government. These Benches will co-operate with the Government to that end.

3.25 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I wonder whether it would be unduly disagreeable to attend to the principle of what is being proposed. I am grateful for the robust remarks of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, not all of which were uncritical but the thrust of which was helpful. He spoke, rightly, about the possible abuse of executive power, to which I tried to allude earlier. As I have said to your Lordships before, and I believe it profoundly, it is a matter of perfect indifference to me whether there is a Conservative Government or a Labour Government with a large majority in the House of Commons. Our constitutional arrangements and our society require a degree of check and balance. It should not be overlooked that when Mrs Thatcher had a large majority in the House of Commons there were about 500 to 600 Conservative Peers in this Chamber, and I think—although it all seems so long ago—about 100 Labour Peers. We did not hear many complaints from the Conservative Opposition about abuse of executive power. However, I might have been asleep, and missed them.

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The comments of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, bear mute testimony to the suggestion put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, that the rank of Queen's Counsel ought not to be abolished. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, demonstrated every conceivable subtlety, skill and sullen art of the Queen's Counsel, in that he addressed points that I had never made and declined to deal with any that I had made. I say to the noble Lord, "Welcome to the club".

He said that I proposed a powerful Speaker. Nothing of the sort was said by me. The matter that needs to be decided is twofold. First, should we have the power, which I believe we should, to elect our own presiding officer? Secondly, what should the functions of such an officer be? Some of the functions of a quasi-Speaker are exercised by me on your Lordships' behalf at the moment. For example, at Question Time I have the duty always to favour the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, and the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil.

On behalf of the House, I can decide whether or not to accept Private Notice Questions. The point that I wish to make is serious: should a Minister of the Government have that power? I do my best to exercise it fairly. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will agree that sometimes I have permitted Questions to be heard—Questions that he was surprised I had allowed. That is not the principle. The principle is this: if your Lordships felt that a particular topic ought to be discussed, should a government Minister decide on the issue?

Those questions are not cosmetic. They are matters of great importance. If one looks around at other assemblies—the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly—they all elect their presiding officers. The United States House of Representatives does the same—as do the Australian House of Representatives, the Australian Senate, and the German Bundestag and Bundesrat. Your Lordships will be pleased to hear that they are joined in that category of freedom and independence by the Russian Federation Council—the upper chamber—and the Russian State Duma. If the opportunity is offered for us to assert our independence by choosing our own presider and then deciding on the functions that she or he might exercise, it strikes many of us as being strange that the matter should be regarded as a Government plot.

There are three aspects to the proposals. First, that there should be a wholly and clearly independent supreme court in which no Minister sits. I shall take as an example the text of the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, who I am glad to see is in his place. If I had returned from Zimbabwe, or shown the keen interest that the noble Lord has shown in the affairs of that country, and told your Lordships that President Mugabe had one of his ministers in the Supreme Court and that he had appointed and anointed the speaker of the upper house, I think that noble Lords would have said that that was inappropriate.

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The Prime Minster is saying, "Please consider, my Lords, whether you wish to elect your own Speaker. When the executive and the judiciary sometimes clash, should not the judiciary be appointed by a wholly independent judicial appointments commission?" If anyone can fairly, reasonably, rationally or sanely say that that is a gross abuse of executive power, I beg to part company with the misuse and the abuse of the English language.

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