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Lord Wakeham: My Lords, I think that the authors of this report are to be thanked for their efforts. The noble Lord and his team are to be congratulated on what I think is a substantial piece of work. That said, I am afraid that there is a lot in their paper with which I do not agree. My first point is that their paper would not have been written in this way except by supporters of the governing party. Its major fault as a programme for action is that it does not take an all-party approach, which is essential if progress is to be made.
I feel I know what I am talking about, having spent the great bulk of my political career managing government business. Business managers want predictability and
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order, and the report goes a long way towards giving them just that. Oppositions need an opportunity every now and again to let off steam, to be really angry and, bluntly, to cause a certain amount of mayhem.
Sensible business managers on both sides know this. They need a degree of flexibility to resolve these matters on an ad hoc basis so that everyone feels they have had a fair crack of the whip. There are two fundamental principles in the way in which we conduct our business. First, a government who command a majority in the Commons are entitled to get their business. And an Opposition who accept that principle are entitled to their rights, and their rights, frankly, are to be very difficult from time to time. The real test of an opposition's conduct is whether they would object to something if they were the government. So detailed and prescriptive rules are counterproductive from everyone's, including the government's, point of view.
I cannot deal, in a short speech, with all the points noble Lords made in their report, but let me deal with one or two. I am grateful to them for supporting a number of the recommendations that we made in the report of the Royal Commission, of which I had the honour to be the chairman. I point out that the Royal Commission included a number of very experienced members of the Labour Party, and was a unanimous report.
Let me take some of the Labour Peers' Working Group's key conclusions. I willingly concede that all the points they make are serious and need careful consideration. One of the principal reasons why we did not recommend that Bills starting in the Lords should be subject to the Parliament Act was because it limited, to some extent, the amount of legislation that a government could force through Parliament in any one Session. We felt that that was good for democracy. But there were many other reasons, which we set out in our report. In particular, if a Bill started in the Lords but was then heavily amended by the Commons, this House would not, as a revising Chamber, have any opportunity to do its work properly.
We gave a lot of thought in our report to whether formal reconciliation machinery for disputes between the Houses should be set up, and I think that a good case can be made for it. But such a body would have to consist of senior figures on both sides, and there would have to be a genuine attempt at a compromise. I would not object to an experiment to see whether that was useful. It would try to resolve matters which ought to be, and usually are, resolved by the usual channels. The House will not be surprised to hear me say that I believe that quiet diplomacy behind the scenes is the way to resolve these difficult matters. It usually entails finding some concession for the opposition that gives them something to crow about but lets the Government get their business.
The report makes a powerful case for codifying the key conventions, but, on balance, it is not, in my view, the right thing to do. It would encourage oppositions to stick to the letter of the rules and in practice I suspect that that would lead to more delay, not less. The House of Lords has a high reputation for working
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things out pragmatically, and a degree of flexibility is required from everyone's point of view, including the Government's.
My last point, but one of the most important, is whether we should have a Speaker with powers. I cannot think of anything more likely to damage the nature of our debates and to cause endless delays. Any House that can contain the late, much-lamented, Lord Hatch, can prosper under self-regulation. Any Speaker, even one given the lightest of rules, has to be in charge, and he will be forced to make judgments, if only to maintain his self-respect.
In a democracy, these rulings will lead to questions, not of disagreement but of eliciting explanations. Points of order will follow, as night follows day, and will have the effect of prolonging debate and increasing troublemaking.
Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I welcome the debate as I welcomed the interesting report of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, when it was published. The report is a very useful agenda to which members of all parties, and of none, can decide whether it is time to make some changes.
Of the seven authors of the report, a majority have experienced life in the House only when sitting on the Government Benchesinevitably a one-sided perspective. Two others have been Ministers, one of them new in the House in 1997, and one a Whip. And the noble Lord, Lord Carter, although a veteran of 10 years in Opposition, was an admirable Chief Whip for a whole Parliament and beyond.
I make no criticism of the membership of the working groupit would be inappropriatebut the analysis and conclusions of the report have inevitably the flavour of the objectives, problems and frustrations of life on the government side. In that respect, I entirely share the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham.
Ministers often find the ways of the House time-consuming and repetitive when they want to get on with their departmental work or pass legislation quickly through. Back-Benchers can be bored stiff and restless when they are required to stay late with nothing much to do. But that is the price and privilege of sharing in Parliament.
Since the general election of 1997, there has been an unprecedented surge of new Members300 in eight years. Some existing Members feared that the quality of the House would be diluted. Experience has shown something very different. The House now has a wider range of talent than ever before: this includes a higher, though very modest, proportion of women. As for political balance, we now have 203 Labour Peers and 202 Conservatives. Although the promise of "proportionate creations" for Liberal Democratsthe words in the 1999 White Paperstill falls far short, I hope that that failure will soon be remedied.
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These developments are a sufficient reason why the House should undertake a thorough review of its role, performance and methods. But if the House is to consider any of the changes suggested by the report of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, some principles must guide the outcome. First, the report is too heavy when it refers to ever-deteriorating behaviour in the Chamber. I agree that there are some rough edges in self-regulation, but the party leaders, especially the Leader of the House, can do much to ease the problem. We should have a sense of proportion, taking one Parliament with another.
Secondly, even if the conventions between the House and the House of Commons, which is usually a euphemism for the Government, have recently been tested as the Government claim, it is far too soon to conclude that existing understandings are fatally fractured. In that respect, the report leans the wrong way. Thirdly, and following on from that, we should not rush into a new Parliament Act unless the shortcomings cannot be remedied by agreement. I would be particularly alarmed if the Government were to take unilateral decisions in advance of any cross-party discussions.
Fourthly, nothing should be done to enhance the formal role of the parties and diminish the role of the individual Member. We should not make the House a three-day week for the convenience of Ministers, or to justify turning it into a family-friendly House, especially when four out of five Members are over the age of 60. Members have chosen to serve in a working Chamber, and their obligations to Parliament should not be diminished.
The report says that the House should add value to and supplement the work of the House of Commons. At a time when the Commons is seen to be in decline, we should not prejudice the independence of this House until its composition is finally resolved.
Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, for this debate I have regained my freedom; I do speak not as Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers, but for myself. I am thus in a similar position to the authors of the report, who, I understand, speak not for all their colleagues but for their working group.
The report gives us a good opportunity to explore some of the issues which, so far, the House has not been very willing to open up. I welcome that. There are four sets of important proposals in the report: there is a radical change in the handling of legislation, notably the present Second Reading and Committee stages, and the proposal for time limits on all Bills. There is the new Parliament Act, the codification of the current conventions, notably the Salisbury/Addison convention, and there are other provisions on self-regulation, which is apparently to be improved and partially changed.
I take those matters in the order in which they appear in the report, starting with the Parliament Act. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, I agree with
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the proposal that all Bills, whether they start in this House or the other place, other than any Bill to extend the life of the Parliament, should be subject to the Parliament Act. The Parliament Acts are a key assertion of the primacy of the first elected Chamber, and that is why I take that view. I am in favour of a fairly wide use of the carry-over provisions, and I could look favourably on a procedure for conciliation meetings between the two Houses in the event of serious disagreements likely to trigger the application of the Parliament Act. In another Parliament, I have experienced those conciliation meetings, and they are sometimes quite useful.
On the question of what the report describes as time limits for each Bill in Parliament, I understand the motivation but believe that the report goes too far. If in due course some changes are to be made in the present system of considering Bills in Committee, there would in any event be some speeding up of the passage of Bills in this House. Of course a programme on which a Government have been elected must go forward at a reasonable pace in Parliament, but getting it through must also involve getting it right.
On the second point raised, on the codification of conventions, I would myself find no difficulty in embedding the Salisbury/Addison convention by including it in an agreement of all major groups to be approved by resolution. That is, not legislation but a resolution. I would not find great difficulty with that.
On the third point, which is the handling of legislation, I would not favour the loss of a Second Reading, which would fall under the proposals in this document. But I believe that some of the repetition at Committee stage and the tabling of many amendments which are withdrawn could be reduced. Some form of deliberative stage could be introduced which would make some difference, and pre-legislative scrutiny would help.
On the fourth point, which is self-regulation and the Speakership, I am in favour of self-regulation and not in favour of a Speaker. But I would not find it difficult to give the noble Lord on the Woolsack a limited role at Question Time in avoiding discord about who is to ask the next supplementary question or in asking noble Lords not to ask too many questions or make too many speeches in the guise of a single supplementary question. That would go a little beyond what the Chief Whip does now, but would not change the basic structure; we would not have a Speaker; we would have someone who would make the point, but not necessarily as we do it now.
Finally, on a Cross-Bencher's conception of the role of the House, I see the role of the two Houses as equal, subject of course to the power of initiative of the House of Commons, the right of the House of Commons always to overrule us if it thinks it necessary, and the control by the House of Commons of the money supply. But in the scrutiny and, I hope, improvement of legislation, and in the drawing of the public's attention to major pointswe had a marvellous example today in the debate secured by the noble Baroness, Lady WhitakerI see the role of the two Houses as equal.
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It is most important that we do not take the view that we are simply a subsidiary House, which we are inclined to do from time to time. At the next election, we shall probably have a turnout of about 54 per cent of the electorate, whereas for the whole period from 1947 up to 1997, we had an average of 76 per cent. Why is that? Because peoplevery notably the youngfeel themselves detached from the political process. People blame the Government, but I do not: I blame Parliament to a considerable degree for that situation, and it is extremely important as we make changes in our procedures or in the relations between the two Houses that we do not inadvertently make that situation worse.
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