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Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, is not the essence of the noble Lord's case based on the fact that the Liberals have immense power in the House of Lords? They hold the balance of power in a way that is totally disproportionate to their membership numbers in the House of Lords.
Lord McNally: No, my Lords. My case is based on a belief and a love of Parliament and parliamentary democracy. If the noble Lord really believes that a government in the other place with a three-figure majority based on 20 per cent of the popular vote will not undermine the credibility of our Parliament, he disappoints me greatly.
I can think of nothing worse than further rules and conventions on our behaviour. This House self-regulates itself well, and the odd eruption is the sign of life. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, was right to say that we should look at other examples. An eminent Canadian told me recently that the Canadian House of Commons had so hobbled itself with rules of procedure and time limits on speeches, it had virtually driven all life and serious debate from its Chamber.
I shall close on a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral. If you ask for a memorable moment in this Chamber, for me it was listening to a mortally ill Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, speaking about the threat to civil liberties posed by a Bill proposed by the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard. The Labour Benches cheered him that night. But this House has to be a House for all seasonsfor government and for opposition. This paper is too biased towards the interests of government.
In the right spirit and in the right context, many of the ideas in the report could and should be considered. But the spirit has to be that of a genuine search for cross-party consensus, and the context must be that of a real and urgent modernisation of our political and parliamentary system, to re-link it to the political process of the people whom we serve.
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Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, that speech certainly stirred up this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for initiating the debate. Like many noble Lords, I enjoyed reading the report, perhaps at no point more than when I got to the second page and it talked about this new House testing the boundaries of some of the conventions.
It is hardly surprising, as has been said many times during this debate, that there has been uncertainty surrounding the future of this House over the past few years. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, a former Leader of the House, said in 1999, when the hereditary Peers were expelled, that this House would have a new legitimacyand as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, observed, a massive influx of new Peers have come in. My noble friend Lord Onslow referred to the "stroppiness" of the House. All such matters are true and not surprising: there is an air of uncertainty due to what happened in 1999.
I, too, join those who have said that it is right to put an examination of powers and, to some extent, procedure, before looking at composition. I am sorry that I disagree with my noble friend Lord Jopling on that. I remember saying as much in 1998; namely, that we should find out what this House is for and what we want it to do before we look at who should sit in it. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, on Monday there was the strongest possible signal in the newspapers that the Government were beginning to feel the same way. That is an interesting change and, perhaps, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will comment on that. I look forward to his speech. The noble and learned Lord has obviously thought carefully about this paper and I hope that he will tell the House specifically which of these recommendations he favours and which he does not.
I cannot give this report the warm reception that, no doubt, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and his noble friends would have liked. One reason for that is that I do not detect anything in it that would strengthen the House. That was a missed opportunity. I know that perhaps the intention was to try to do that, but that has not happened in practice.
The group was highly experienceda total of 28 years on the Front Bench, 50 years in the House of Commons, although just 34 on the Back Benches here. But it had one major weakness. As my noble friends Lord Wakeham and Lord Trefgarne said, the group's members were all from one partythe party of the Government. That may be why so many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord McNally, have found that its ideas smacked too much of the convenience of government. I agree.
For my part, change of that type in this House, or any other, should be made on the basis of cross-party consensus. The noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, agreed with that, but gave the impression that there had been little change in the past few years. When we looked at procedure under our previous Leader of the House, Gareth Williams, and in the recent review, ably led by the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, the Leader of the
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House, we agreed to change on a cross-party basis. Frankly, that is the only way to proceed; it is the way that has led to massive changes.
My noble friend Lord Lucas did not recognise that almost every year we experiment in changing our procedures. I take as an example the simple issue of Grand Committeesalthough I could have chosen the example, so ably given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, about advisory time limits on Second Readings. His example showed how those limits were not helping scrutiny. Grand Committees are pretty unpopular on our side of the House, but they give noble Lords on the Government side what they wantnot having, in the immortal phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Warner,
So in a spirit of co-operation we have agreed to many changes. In the first three Sessions after 1997, 20 Bills went to Grand Committee, taking 79.5 hours over 28 days. In the past three Sessions, 34 Bills have gone to Grand Committee, taking 487 hours over 134 days. That is a six-fold increase in time and a major change in our procedures.
After those changes, the Labour Party is back for more. They seek to reduce votes at Third Reading, to restrict timing of votes, and even to adopt the Commons procedure of deferred votes. But what are the facts? In the past two full Sessions before the experiment with wider use of Grand Committees, 22 per cent of Divisions were at Third Reading. In the three Sessions since the experiment, 23 per cent of Divisions have been at Third Reading. I sense no abuse there. Of course, if the House cannot vote in Committee, there will, in time, be strain on later stages. The proportion of all Divisions in Committee dropped from 30 per cent to 20 per cent. I would oppose a ban on votes in Committee, deliberative stages or a limit on times when Divisions could take place.
As my noble friend Lord Onslow said, it is not the job of this House to be convenient to governments or to government Peers. It is the job of this House to test, challenge, scrutinise and, if necessary, to ask the government to think again. If we never did that, we would really have no purpose. No government like it. I did not like it when I sat where the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, sits, but the paradox is that governments are often the better for it.
Many of us may wish that we had listened to this House more about, for example, the way in which the community charge was introduced. Many noble Lords opposite may wish that the Government had listened to the concerns of this House on 24-hour drinking in the legislation that we passed a couple of Sessions ago.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, that there is far too much legislation. No one out there understands itthe people who are most affected by it do not understand itand how can they possibly keep up with this massive amount of new legislation?
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The report referred to deteriorating behaviour, abuses and the need for order as justifying a Speaker to foster discipline. I cannot help thinking that if the first Martian were to arrive on this planet and look at this House and the House of Commons he would not have very much difficulty in deciding which House has more abuse and disorder. We have to get this in proportion.
Anyway, I do not think that a Speaker sitting on the Woolsack would use the powers necessarily better than the Leader of the House. In any case, they are the House's powers vested in the Leader: they are not the Leader's powers. But I say to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell- Savours, that we should improve the enforcement rather than change the enforcer.
The report states that we should lose the power to annul a statutory instrument, because we used it in 2000. That was part of stretching the boundaries of the conventions for the reasons that I have given. However, in 1994, this House formally resolved that it should retain the unfettered right to reject regulations. The Conservative government at the time did not immediately move to abolish that right.
Incidentally, I am not convinced that that convention is a convention of the House. I think that it is a convention between the two main parties. I do not think that it has ever been agreed to by the Liberal Democrats, and it could not be agreed to by the Cross Benches. It has been surprisingly robust over the decades. If it is used, that power should be used most sparingly. When we now have legislation such as the Civil Contingencies Act on the statute book, it is important for this House to preserve at least the possibility of using that power.
Many noble Lords have mentioned the experience of the Constitutional Reform Bill; that sending it to a Select Committee was the right thing to do, as none other than the noble and learned Lord has accepted. He said that it was wise and the right thing to do. Of course, I agree with him.
I am instinctively against codification and firm rules. Had we had such rules, the Government would have lost the planning Act last Session that the usual channels agreed to save by using an exceptional and unprecedented Motion. We should remember that another place has plenty of codes, but it has precious few freedoms from government control.
Our flexible approach to Grand Committees proves that we on this side of the House do not oppose change. But I urge the House, with all seriousness, to hold to the free procedures and powers that we have, which have enabled us to become the most successful revising Chamber that I very much believe we are.
Perhaps I may finish with a warning that is really an echo of what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said a few moments ago. We should resist uncompromisingly any attempt to increase the scope or bite of the Parliament Acts or to introduce in this place the kind of time limits and guillotine Motions that have been the ruin of another place.
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If we are to change our procedures, it should be done as we have always done it: by consultation and discussion cross-party and not on the basis of a single-party proposal. I trust that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will agree at least to that.
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