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Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, another important debate is waiting in the wings. I simply thank all noble Lords who have taken part in such a high-calibre and inspiring debate, not forgetting the mention of my fellow Nottinghamian, Jesse Boot. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, it was a great honour to have been asked to chair the Working Group of Labour Peers and to open this debate today. I begin by paying tribute to the members of the working group, its advisers and secretariat, who did such a wonderful, hard-working job and supported me throughout the preparation and publication of the report.
I am delighted that so many distinguished Members of your Lordships' House are taking part in the debate. It has one clear aim: to discuss how we can improve the contribution of this House to the nation's Parliament. In seven years' membership of your Lordships' House, both as a Minister and as a Back-Bencher, I have seen at first hand the work of this House in complementing the House of Commons in holding individual Ministers to account and in improving legislationeven some of my own.
I have no doubt about the value of this place as a revising Chamber. Nor do I doubt the contribution made by so many Members of this House to public life in this country. But we cannot be complacent. Not all our work is of the highest quality and our reliance on voluntary constraints and informal and ever-moveable limits on the use of our powers is surely unsustainable.
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This is not the first report that has ever been written on Lords reform and I suspect that it will not be the last. Indeed, one of the most pleasant of the working group's tasks was to plough through some of the many reports written on Lords reform over a century or so. We started with the Bryce conference of 1918. Viscount Bryce and his 31 fellow parliamentarians did not get as far as they would have liked, but I am sure that if he were here today, he would recognise many of the arguments that will be deployed in our debate.
Moving on 50 years, the 1968 White Paper was a remarkable piece of work and supported by many Members of your Lordships' House. Indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who I see is in his place, spoke in the debate on the 1968 White Paper proposals and broadly supported them. Alas, the unholy alliance between Enoch Powell and Michael Foot did for the legislation.
Thirty years on, we had the Royal Commission on Lords reform. That report was the most substantive ever written on the subject and it is a delight to see the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, speaking in our debate today. Despite his efforts and those of many other would-be reformers in the past 100 years, progress can at best be described as "steady as you go".
We have of course seen some changes. The absolute veto has been replaced by delaying powers; life Peers have been introduced; women Members have been introduced; and the right of most hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House has been removed. But more, much more, remains to be done.
Inevitably, much of the current debate on membership has been about composition and whether Members should be elected. Consensus on that remains as elusive as ever. This is hardly surprising given the likely impact that significant changes to the composition of the House is likely to have on the position of the House of Commons. It certainly suggests to meand, I think, to the working groupthat decisions on composition are best made when there is clarity about the role and functions of the second Chamber.
I make no apology for the terms of reference, which are quite intentionally focused on powers, conventions and procedures. Our report is not the longest that has ever been written on Lords reform, but it covers a great deal of ground and I shall be able to concentrate on only one or two aspects.
Two key themes run through the report. For many years the Lords has recognised the pre-eminence of the Commons and relied upon informal constraints to govern its relationship with the elected Chamber. But this is a voluntary decision. Conventions are not coded in legislation or standing orders; they can be ignored at any time the House decidesand in recent years the House has so decided. It has pushed at the limits of the convention that it must consider the Government's business without unreasonable delay; it has broken new ground in annulling statutory instruments; it has
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resurrected a method of challenging the Government unknown for nearly a century; and the House has seen threats to the legislative programme.
No doubt some noble Lords will argue the merits of each of those individual actions today. That is fair enoughbut can noble Lords deny that they are illustrative of a more assertive House? As my noble friend Lord Carter has written:
"the House can operate only if all its members observe the conventions . . . The delivery of the government's programme of legislation in a House where the government are in a minority depends entirely upon the co-operation of the opposition parties and the observance of the conventions of the House by all its members".
The working group concluded that the second Chamber needs to operate within clear and transparent rules, achieved through a combination of statutory changes, agreement between this House and the Commons and procedural decisions of this House. Far from undermining the role of this place, we believe that the House is likely to have greater influence and satisfaction if it is confident in the use of its powers and procedures.
So we make a series of recommendations: an overall time limit for legislation to go through Parliament; a time limit for the second Chamber to consider a Bill; reaffirmation of the importance of the current delaying power; reconciliation machinery to try to resolve disagreements between the Lords and the Commons; the absolute power on secondary legislation to be replaced by a delaying power; and that Bills starting in the Lords should be subject to the Parliament Acts.
Let me expand on one or two of those points. We propose a time limit for the second Chamber to consider a Bill. There is no question that we should have enough time to consider a Bill properly, but it is equally wrong that a Bill or a legislative programme can potentially be in jeopardy because some Peers, within the rules of the House, can threaten to spend endless time debating a particular Bill. Our aim would be to set a reasonable time limit which reflects current experience with Bills in the Lords. If it was an exceptionally long Bill, or if the Government brought forward many amendments at a late stage, the limit could be extended.
A time limit would impose a discipline on all sides, including the Governmentlet me stress thatto deal with legislation efficiently. I would not care to be in the shoes of a Minister coming to the Floor of the House to ask for an extension of the time limit because 200 extra amendments had been put down at a late stage in a Bill's proceedings.
I turn now to the issue of Parliament Act delays. The ability to delay legislation is the key power of the House of Lords. I believe that the central purpose of those Acts remains as valid as ever. Herbert Morrison, the Leader of the Commons, at Second Reading of the Parliament Bill of 1947, said:
"if the position were that the Lords sent their Amendments to the Commons, but the Commons could indifferently ignore them and pass the Bill into law without further ado, then the Lords would be entitled to say that there was no guarantee that any serious consideration would be given to their Amendments, and that we might as well resort to single-chamber Government".[Official Report, Commons, 10/11/47; col. 38.]
But anyone reading the Parliament Acts would, I think, agree that the delaying powers are fairly dense, complex and difficult to understand. We believe that a new Act would enable a much clearer understanding of the provisions while maintaining an appropriate period of delay.
Alongside the Parliament Acts, we think it is important to codify the conventions. Of course, the most important of these is Salisbury/Addison. Its practical effect is that the Lords will not assert its right to vote against a manifesto Bill at Second or Third Reading or pass a wrecking amendment. This convention is so important that there ought to be no doubt or ambiguity about its application in all circumstances, and we make proposals for codification of the conventions. We would prefer an agreement between the major parties in the House rather than legislation, but legislation must be kept as an option in reserve.
Getting the Parliament Acts and the conventions sorted is, of course, important, but so, too, is the scrutiny of legislation, which, after all, goes to the heart of what this Chamber is all about. We do a fairly good job, but we could do better. Some of the debates that we have on legislation are riveting and attract a large number of speakers and attendance, but we spend too much time discussing minor amendments to elicit factual and technical information from Ministers. There is an awful lot of repetition. Amendments to Bills introduced in the Lords in Committee will often be repeated on Report and even Third Reading. The speeches can be strikingly similar as well.
Of course, some of this repetition is in order to allow the Government an opportunity to reconsider a point or to place something on the record, but much is self-indulgent. Not surprisingly attendance at many debates on Bills is disappointing. We are rather full tonightwe are debating ourselvesbut look into the House at seven o'clock on most nights and you will find it can be fairly empty.
So, without going into the details, we make suggestions for changing the way in which we deal with legislation, essentially to get much of the technical information out of the way and on the record, so that when a Bill comes to the full Chamber of the House the debates will go to the core of the principles of the Bill and will be given much stronger scrutiny than occurs at the moment.
We also consider in the report how the House conducts itself. We have discussed the principle of self-regulation on many occasions and I do not intend to
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go over the ground very much today. But self-regulation will work only if individual Members observe that principle. Too many do not, and we list some examples.
We are not an amateur House; we are a serious part of the legislature. The House is entitled to have its affairs conducted in an orderly manner, with Members observing the spirit of standing orders. I believe that a Speaker would help.
We also make practical suggestions to make the Lords work better. I will mention two. We think that Back Benchers ought to be provided with some help to do their job. When it comes to legislation, too much reliance is placed on outside pressure groups for help with research, amendments and speaking notes. We are not full-time politicians; we do not have huge offices staffed with researchers and associates, nor would I want that to happen. But we must ensure that Back-Benchers have sufficient help, when taking part in legislation, to do a decent job.
I also want to help the Opposition Front Benches. At present, I think that only the Leader of the Conservative Party and the Chief Whip are entitled to draw a salary. I know, as a former Minister, how hard-working Opposition spokespeople are and how much time they have to give. I think that it is in the public interest, and the interest of this House, that people who take senior positions on the Opposition Front Benches are given the support that is necessary. I hope that that recommendation will be seen as a visible indication of our good faith in wanting a second Chamber to be as purposeful as possible.
This report has been produced by a group of Labour Peers, but I hope that its message and contents will commend it to many other Members of your Lordships' House. We are in no doubt about the value of this House in complementing the House of Commons, nor are we in any doubt about the contribution of this House to the scrutiny of legislation. But neither do we doubt the need for reform and improvement in what we do. That reform will best be undertaken if the House is clear about the appropriate use of its powers.
A modern second Chamber, able to exercise such powers with confidence, can undoubtedly add value to the deliberations of Parliament. This report points a way ahead to do just that. I commend the report to the House. I beg to move for Papers.
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