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Lord Gordon of Strathblane: My Lords, like others, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hunt on his report. I know that the members of his group have widely disparate views, but those views have been harmonised into a coherent package which has merited the serious consideration given to it by your Lordships this evening.
At this point, if it is not premature, perhaps I may say that I believe the tone of tonight's debate reflects very well on the House as a whole. Noble Lords are not fulminating about people trying to railroad government legislation; we are trying to tweak what has been suggested and make it better. I very much echo the views of the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that this is the start of the debate and not the end of it.
The noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, struck a responsive chord with everyone in this House by arguing for flexibility. We all love flexibility; we do not like statutory provisions which lawyers will limbo-dance under. But there is a difference between flexibility and lack of clarity. When the validity of the Parliament Act 1949 is a matter to go before the courts, as is the case at present, and some doubt has been expressed by no less eminent a person than the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, I think that that is taking flexibility a little too far. We need some clarity.
In any event, the Parliament Acts date from 1911 and 1949 and so arguably revision is long overdue. The powers of the House could be considered without seriously impairing our work as a revising Chamber. As has already been suggested, this House's main value is to force the Government to think again. In my view, a reversal forces reconsideration not necessarily by the Government but by individual MPs. That is because the Lords have shone the spotlight of publicity on something which has been totally overlooked by the Commons. The Commons then realise that the public support the Lords' viewpoint and the Government have to change their mind. So it is that spotlight of publicity, rather than the length of any delay, which makes the difference. For that reason, I am quite flexible about the length of the delay.
My main enthusiasm for the report centres on pages 12, 13 and 14, where a new and different way of dealing with legislation is considered. As a Peer who entered the House at the same time as my noble friend Lord Hunt, it seems to me absolutely amazing that we get any legislation through Parliament at all, with one end hardly talking to the other and the two seldom working together.
There has been a general welcome for pre-legislative scrutiny, and I would love that to be conducted by a Joint Committee of both Houses. It would harmonise the skills of both Chambers with a much better result. It is to be hoped that that might be a precursor to both Houses
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working together more closely as complementary parts of the one Parliament. I do not see much sense in a Bill going through all its stages in one House and then doing the same in the other. We could interleave the process. The report of my noble friend Lord Hunt is the start of a debate on this matter, but let us look more sensibly at how we can best improve the legislation that comes before us.
I have no objection to moving to one continuous Session of Parliament that starts immediately after a general election and ends with prorogation before the next general election. I also would not object, or think it very iconoclastic, if we moved the State Opening of Parliament from this House to Westminster Hall, arguably the oldest part of Westminster. That might remove much of the tension between the Lords and the Commons.
I disagree with the little dig of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, about this place working a three-day week. If one wants the House of Lords to go the same way as the House of Commons, one can maintain the present working hours and end up with no one with current experience of what is going on. At the moment, if we are to demand four days a week from everyone, how can anyone be a Member of the House of Lords unless one is fully retired, independently wealthy or living and working within the M25? My reason for arguing for three consecutive legislative days is precisely to retain the current experience and expertise held by Members of your Lordships' House. I hope that the proposal will commend itself to the Procedure Committee when it comes to consider the matter.
Lord Jopling: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has done the House a service in introducing this debate. I hope he will forgive me if I gently tease him. On page 79, the report complains of constant breaches of the guidance on the length of speeches. The Chief Whip told us at the beginning of the proceedings that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was allocated 15 minutes and if the clock says "15 minutes" and he is still talking, he has been talking for too long. I noticed, with some amusement, that the clock said "16 minutes" when he sat down.
I have three issues to raise. First, as a general rule on the reform of parliamentary proceedings, I have a theory, which is an old one, that "if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it". Of course, Parliament is a living institution. Every now and again, it is necessary to reform the procedures, but when that happens it is essential that there is broad consent across the parties.
My colleagues may recall that in another place in 1991 I chaired a Select Committee on reforming the procedures of another place. We had a unanimous report, but because we could not get all-party agreement until 1995 or 1996, the government of the day did not seek to implement the recommendations. I know that the Government could have driven the matter through, but did not because it was essential to achieve all-party agreement. That has not been a feature of this Government's behaviour on procedure over the past eight years.
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My second point concerns the report. As, I believe, the third of four former Chief Whips speaking tonight, I hear familiar echoes in the report of government Back-Benchers' restlessness due to the long hours of tedious waiting for a Division that often does not happen. The report is full of ways to make it easier for government to achieve their business, or of making it easier for government Back-Benchers to perform their duties. Quite frankly, a great deal of the report is a government Chief Whips' and government Back-Benchers' wish list. Let us not get away from that.
I could quote many examples of that: voting only between three o'clock and seven o'clock, which I regard as an abomination; taking Second Reading and Committee stages off the Floor of the House, which is implied on page 13; and, if you please, officials answering questions in those proceedings. In the early days of a Parliament with a mass of highly contentious legislation coming through, a time limit of 60 days on all Bills would mean a greatly reduced opportunity to consider Bills properly. Finally, the extension of the carry-over between Sessions, or even the abolition of Sessions altogether, I would regard as a business manager's dream.
My third point is that the general tone of the paper is of impatience that the House in recent years allegedly has become more assertive. I believe that that is inevitable, as most of the hereditaries have left and the House is now dominated much more by those of us who have experience in another place.
One statement that I underline most strongly and applaud is that the government of the day must be allowed to get their business. Considering the examples of the greater robustness, which appear on page 5 of the report, I hardly believe that there is very much evidence of it leading to the Government failing to get their business outside the normal setbacks and amendments which governments have to put up with and which are the standing hallmarks of that awkwardness and cussedness that we call parliamentary democracy.
But all this is putting the cart before the horse. The report omits any reference to the future composition of the House, and I understand why. The House will become infinitely more assertive, robust and cussed if we have either a large or a small influx of elected members. I believe that we ought to consider reform of the procedures once we have decided what the composition of the House should be, because whether it is all elected or part elected or all appointed, it will make a great deal of difference in the future to the way the House behaves.
Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, this very interesting report contains a large number of specific recommendations. If one looks at them individually, one can find some with which one agrees, others with which one disagrees, and yet others which would provide a helpful introduction to further considerationfor example, the rolling programme of legislation.
However, I would emphasise that if any further work is to be done to move forward these recommendations, it is a matter for the Procedure
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Committee or for a sub-committee set up by it, and not for an ad hoc working group, brought into being by the Leader, outside our organisational structure, and, as in the past, dominated by party leaders and whips, to the virtual exclusion of Back-Bench interests.
In the very short time available I wish to adopt the invitation of the group and to look not at individual proposals, but at the proposals as a cohesive package designed as a contribution to the overall question of the functions, powers and composition of the House.
For that purpose I pose two related questions: first, would the procedural changes recommended in this report, seen as a package, enable the House to perform its proper tasks better; and, secondly, if these changes were introduced, would a second Chamber conducted on these lines be more likely to attract the kind of members which it will need to enable it to perform those functions to best advantage?
Having considered my two questions, on balance there is no real doubt. I am convinced that the answer to each of them is a resounding "no". I believe that the changes would reduce the efficacy of this House as a real force in the legislature, and would deter rather than attract the calibre of person which the House needs.
The underlying reason for this rather depressing conclusion is not hard to find. The report approaches the legislative processes of the House almost entirely from the position of a government who wish to get through their business and of the loyal supporters of such a government, who have to be available to vote for that business. That is hardly surprising when one takes the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, about the composition of the body.
Nothing in that does anything to encourage or help Back-Benchers or indeed any Members of the House who wish to take an independent line and seems to treat all debate as a formal preliminary to the votes which are to pass the Government's business. Therefore, I do not think its recommendations will achieve the purposes that should be in mind.
The report also reveals, but does not address, a basic dichotomy. The conventions of this House arose because the House in the past recognised that it lacked democratic legitimacy, being dominated by one party. That lack has been reduced, and presumably will be reduced yet further in future changes. So as that lack is reduced, so is the justification and need for the
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conventions. It is strange that the group should wish to cast those conventions in legislative stone shortly before their justification will have evaporated, or largely gone.
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