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Lord Carter: My Lords, it was a privilege to serve on the Labour Peers' Working Group under the expert chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. After 10 years on the opposition Front Bench and five years as Chief Whip, I believe that the central point is actually quite simple. What combination of powers, procedures and conventions will help to strike the crucial balance between the undoubted right of the elected government to obtain their programme of legislation without unreasonable delay, and the right of the House of Lords to scrutinise, revise and if necessary delay, with the overlaying consideration that whatever the composition of the House the government of the day will always be in a minority?
As a former business manager, I am naturally concerned with the effective and efficient progress of business which should be the central consideration of any Chamber of any Parliament; but by that I do not mean giving the government of the day an easier ride or increasing the load of legislation. The key consideration in the management of parliamentary business is time, and the effective and efficient use of the time of the House will help the Opposition as much as the Government.
One of the key changes in recent Sessionsintroduced by Motions of both Houses, not by legislationis the use of carry-over. I have long supported the principle of carry-over. If a Bill is ready, why should it not be introduced instead of having to wait for arbitrary sessional dates, with the inevitable pile-up of business at the end of each Session? Parliamentary logjams do not make for the proper consideration of well drafted Bills. But if carry-over becomes the norm, there will have to be agreement on the total amount of time allowed between introduction in the first House and completion in the second House. Currently, one Session is allowed. With carry-over as the norm, each Bill should have effectively its own mini-Session of, say, 12 months, with a suitable division of the time in each House. The group has suggested 60 parliamentary days as the possible time in the Lords, which would be approaching 50 per cent of the normal Session of 140 to 150 days.
If there were a clear agreement in and between both Houses and both Houses had agreed to suitable
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changes in their Standing Orders, it is a moot point whether such a change would necessitate legislation. A problem arises when a Bill does not complete its passage within its agreed time limit of, say, 12 months. How would the Parliament Act then work? I am not sure that it is clear how well the current Parliament Act applies to Bills that are carried over. If there were to be the change I have described whereby each Bill had its own mini-Session, the Parliament Act would need to be amended to accommodate that.
In any reconsideration of the Parliament Act, there are three crucial elements. How long should a Bill be in Parliament the first time round? Currently it is one Session; but, as I say, it could be 12 months from its first introduction. If it falls the first time round, how soon could it be reintroduced, and how long should it have the second time round before the Parliament Act applies? That is obviously too complicated to deal with in detail now, but the principles are clear. I would argue that all Bills should be eligible for carry-over. There should be an agreed total time limit on each BillI have suggested 12 monthsand an agreed time limit in each House.
In conclusion, perhaps I may deal with two arguments that we have heard alreadythat all these changes will give the Government the chance to steamroller through more legislation, and that the Opposition will lose their powers of delay.
The first proposition is incorrect. There are only so many parliamentary days in the year. So the same number of Bills would be introduced, but they would be spread much more evenly through the life of the Parliament, and the workload of both Houses would be more evenly spreadand that is both in each House and between the Houses.
The Opposition will have exactly the same power; in fact, they will have more power. The power that they have now is exercisable at the end of the Session on the Bills that have not completed their progresswhat we call the "wash up" at the end of each Session. The Opposition will have that power at the end of each mini-Session on each Bill. I can see the Chief Whip really blanching when he reads that in Hansard.
The Opposition would have the power at the end of each Bill to exercise the negotiating skills that they have now. Also, as carry-over does not apply at the end of a Parliament, the Opposition will be just as powerful as they are now as we approach the end of a Parliament.
There is one final and very important point. It has been argued that any attempt to amend the Parliament Acts would allow the tabling of amendments that deal with composition. I understandand I have discussed itthat if the amendments deal strictly with time limits only, then amendments that deal with composition will be outside the scope of the Bill. In other words, if the amendment were to replace the two Sessions currently
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provided in the Parliament Act with, say, two periods of 12 months, such an amendment would not open the door to amendments on composition.
I have spoken on only one important aspect of a very important report. I hope that our recommendations will be taken forward for constructive dialogue within Government, with the Opposition and between both Houses.
Lord Renton: My Lords, I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, with much interest, especially when he expressed some doubts about the feasibility of some of the Labour Peers' proposals for reform of your Lordships' House. Although I agree with some of them, I cannot accept the need for all the legislation proposed. In particular, I strongly disagree with the suggestions in paragraphs 3 to 7 that even our internal powers of procedure should become statutory. I say that because it really is necessary that we should continue to be flexible in the conduct of our own procedures.
Of course, the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 could, and in my opinion should, be brought up to date and made more clearly workable, while ensuring, however, that your Lordships' policies and powers are not entirely ignored. I say that because, during my 59 years in Parliament, there have been vast constitutional changes caused not merely by changing legislation, but in the composition and experience of Members of both Houses.
During my 24 years in the Commons, there was a vast amount of varied expertise and experience among the elected Members, including Members of every profession, businessmen, trades unionists, farmers, miners and others. Now, Members of Parliament are mostly less experienced. Among your Lordships, however, there is wide experience and expertise. Perhaps I may give one example. We used to have 20 or 30 Queen's Counsel in the Commons; now there are only 10, of whom eight are Conservatives. But here in your Lordships' House, we have 34 QCs spread across the parties and, of course, the Cross Benches.
As to legislation, it has in my opinion become over the years too detailed and covers ever more of our national life. It might help the Government and Members of both Houses to have a look at a report published in 1975 on the preparation of legislation by an official committee of which I was the chairman, but with much more eminent members on it than I was. We made 121 proposals, of which the most important were numbers 13 and 15, recommending that in legislation we should make use of statements of principle and purpose instead of enacting masses of hypothetical detail, which had been the practice for too long.
Those are the things that I needed to say, but I should also say this: because of the current experience and expertise in your Lordships' House, we should no longer be regarded merely as a Chamber for consultation. I really do think that when the Parliament Acts are renewed, as I hope they will be, the greater expertise and experience to be found in your Lordships' House will be acknowledged.
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Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, it is a privilege, as always, to follow the noble Lord, Lord Renton. He referred to the number of QCs in the House. I think I am right in saying that he is by far the most senior of those QCs; I think he has been in silk for 50 years or even more. He is certainly, as far as I am concerned, the most respected.
I welcome this report. That does not mean that I agree with every word, but I agree with a great deal of it. I should like, however, to concentrate on a single point, the one which the group makes at the bottom of page 12 under the heading "Legislative Process Within the House of Lords". It is an important point which was touched on by my noble friend Lord Williamson of Horton.
The problem as I see it is not so much with our legislative processthe fault does not lie there; it has served us well over the years. However, our process was designed for a more leisurely age than that in which we now live. The real problem we face is the remorseless pressure of endless legislation with which we have to deal. Departments seem to vie with each other to get a place in the Queen's Speech. All governments want to fill the Queen's Speech to overflowing in case it be said that they are running out of steam.
There is nothing that we in this House can do to reduce the pressure of legislation, though I wish there were. So it seems to me that instead we must do something to adapt our processes so that we can deal with this new situation. That is what, among other things, the committee under the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has bravely undertaken.
It is not only the quantity of legislation that is the problem, but also the way in which legislation is put togethertake the Constitutional Reform Bill by way of example. I mention it by way of example because it is the Bill with which I am most familiar although other Bills could no doubt have been mentioned. That Bill contains three major issues of principle: the abolition of the Lord Chancellor; the creation of a new Supreme Court; and the creation of a Judicial Appointments Commission. Each of those issues was worthy of a full Second Reading debate. When we came to the Second Reading, a fourth issue was added; namely, whether the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee. So many noble Lords wanted to speak on those issues that, if my memory is right, we had six, seven or perhaps even fewer minutes to deal with four major issues, which amounts to less than two minutes each.
It was inevitable in those circumstances that the points of principle for which there was not time on Second Reading spilt over into the Committee Stage where they inevitably became mixed up with true Committee points. The usual objection was made, as always, that one was making a Second Reading point rather than a Committee point.
As regards these important Bills, I do not believe that we have the balance right between time spent on Second Reading and time spent in Committee. It seems to me that the solutionthis is what I think the
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report is aiming at in paragraph nineis to find some way in which we can make better use of the limited time which is available to us. That to my mind means more time on Second Reading issues and less time on Committee issues.
I may have misunderstood but I think that is what the committee is aiming at when it refers to the decision stage. That is the important stage. I am not sure that my noble friend Lord Williamsonto whom I always deferwas quite right about that. I think the report basically favours a longer Second Reading stage and a shorter Committee stage. That is certainly what I would favour. The proposal looks revolutionary but in that respect the committee is very much on the right lines. I hope that it will not be necessary to indulge in too many discussions with the House of Commons on that pointwhich it seems to anticipateas we could deal with it ourselves. I believe that we should deal with it urgently.
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