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The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, I start by saying a few words in tribute to Lord Aberdare, who passed away on Sunday. Lord Aberdare had a long and proud record of service. He served in the Welsh Guards throughout the Second World War and later had a distinguished parliamentary career. He entered this House in 1957 and served as Chairman of Committees, Minister of State in the Department of Health and as Deputy Speaker. Indeed, I am sure that Lord Aberdare would have welcomed this debate, having himself chaired a group which looked at how to improve the conduct of business in the House. His dedication to public service was matched only by his enthusiasm for tennis and his support of the Tennis and Racquets Association. Along with all noble Lords, I feel his loss deeply. On behalf of the whole House, I should like to pass on our condolences.
This has been a quite remarkable debate. Among other things, it has been marked by the quality of the debate. We have had the benefit of hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. I agree with my noble friend Lord Hunt that the noble Lord produced what was one of the finest Royal Commission reports on what to do with the House of Lords. We heard the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, whose contribution to public life has been huge. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, who is a former Chief Whip in another place, made a significant contribution. The noble Lord, Lord Biffen, was Leader of the House in another place. He delivered an absolutely excellent speech. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, who has experience of other forms of parliamentI say that advisedly because I recognise that it is a rather sensitive issue. My noble friend Lord Carter was the Chief Whip in this place and has unrivalled experience. Finally, I turn to my noble friend Lord Hunt, who made such a valuable contribution to our debate.
Only three speeches were political in tone. I turn first to that of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. He indulged in a vicious attack on his own party, by which we were deeply and profoundly surprised. I have always thought of them as a bit of a cabal, but I was very glad to hear that confirmed by the noble Lord.
Some may remember that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was formerly an apparatchik of the first water for my noble friend Lord Callaghan when he was Prime Minister from 1978 to 1979. I do not remember the noble Lord, Lord McNally, saying at the time how much he admired the Lords for knocking back bits of the legislation of the Labour government of the day. Can you imagine the noble Lord, Lord McNally, delivering that impassioned plea if there had not been such a terrible misunderstanding in 1983 with the electorate in Stockport? If the people of Stockport had maintained their faithwhich I agree would have been difficult for
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themthe noble Lord, Lord McNally, would be railing not on behalf of the interests of the Lords but on behalf of the interests of the Commons. So I would take what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, says with a pinch of salt.
However, the noble Lord made one important point that is very significant to our debate. He appeared to be saying that the Liberal Democrats intend to abrogate the Salisbury convention. That is what I thought he said. I thought that that was his suggestion, although I may have misunderstood him. I hope that that is the case.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, all I want to say to the noble and learned Lord is this. Has he not heard of the sinner that repenteth, and that there is more room? Is it not lovely to see someone like the noble Lord, Lord McNally, behaving like a parliamentarian and not as an apparatchik? Well done him.
Lord McNally: My Lords, perhaps I may say to all noble Lords that the road to Damascus is a very pleasant journey. On the Salisbury convention, perhaps I may give a little warning to the Government Front Bench because I can see how their minds are working. I do not think that I was wrong in my interpretation. The Salisbury convention was for a different House of Lords at a different time. We may well have to examine the convention, but if this Government think that on 20 per cent of the popular vote and a couple of lines in a manifesto they can emasculate this House of Lords, that is a matter that we would take to the hustings.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, if the noble Lord takes it to the hustings, I hope that he will abide by them. If the hustings say they want it, I would have thought it right not for the Lords to stop it, but to give effect to the House of Commons. I do not understand why the noble Lord, Lord McNally, says that he would take it to the hustings and then ignore the result. With the greatest respect, his position has no logic to it whatever.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I think I must get on. Like everyone else, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hunt on procuring the debate. I also congratulate him on the quality of his contribution to
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it and to the report of the committee he chaired. Everyone is right to say that a group of Labour Back Benchers produced it, but the right thing to do is to look at it on its merits and deal with each individual case. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, rightly dealt with the issue of whether it was too government-minded not on the basis of simply addressing those who had produced it but by going through the detail. That is a fair way, rather than the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who looked as though he was going to say something detailed on it and then, sadly, never did.
It is important to emphasise that the Hunt report is about the functions, powers, procedures and conventions of the House and not its composition. Although there are plainly relationships between composition and powers, it was right that our debate primarily focused on that.
The starting points on which most of us, though not all because of the position expressed by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, are agreed are, first, that a credible and effective second Chamber is vital to the health of our democracy. Secondly, the cornerstone of our democracy, pace the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is the primacy of the elected House of Commons. Thirdly, the second Chamber should complement, not rival or undermine, the House of Commons. Fourthly, its main functions should be detailed examination of legislation and holding the Government to account. The ability effectively to hold the Government to account and to examine legislation involves the power to propose amendments to the Commons and to delay legislation to ensure the proper consideration of its proposed amendments and the holding of Ministers to account. We all agree that that is one of its prime purposes.
Fifthly, over many years the House of Lords has by convention exercised restraint on the use of its nominal powers. These conventions, alongside the Parliament Act, have guided and determined its relationship with the Commons. Sixthly, the Lords must have some degree of flexibility, but without ultimately challenging the primacy of the Commons. I agree with my noble friend Lord Hunt's proposition that uncertainty about the functions, powers and procedures of the House are ultimately bad for the House and bad for the good functioning of our parliamentary democracy. But I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, that there needs to be flexibility.
In my view, the noble Lord's speech indicated the tension: the Government are entitled to have their business; the Opposition are entitled to make as much fuss as they can. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and most people who have been involved with this House for some time will agree, there must be some limits within which anarchy in the UK as the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, would propose, is to be conducted. If you do not have some limits, you are not able to deliver the first proposition of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, that ultimately the Government are entitled to have their business.
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The public should know what the powers of the second Chamber are. The composition of this House has changed fundamentally over the past 60 years. We have seen the change from a House dominated by hereditary Peers to one where almost all Members of the House are life Peers. We have also seen the change of the House from one traditionally dominated by one party to one in which the parties are more evenly balanced. Even after the last two elections, this Government still have only 29 per cent of the Members of this House. The balance in the membership of the House is likely to be a permanent feature. It means that the role of the House in the passage of legislation is now much more significant and it will continue to be so.
We should recognise that this is the House where there is real leverage in relation to legislationapart from the Government. In so far as people are talking about the House being more assertive and having more power, it already has it. We must realise that we are in a totally new situation; not one that changed because of 1999 and the removal of the hereditaries, although that had an accelerating effect, but it has been happening since 1958. We should recognise that we are in a new place and that there needs to be a look at the powers and functions of the House in that context alone, quite separately from any other compositional changes there might be.
The effect of the change in the composition of the House makes it all the more important that the House should have clarity about its functions and transparency about its powers so that it can use those powers with confidence. I do not think it is right to talk about reducing those powers but rather about ensuring that what we all conceive as the role of the House is reflected properly in the way that it operates.
We should also take note of two particular comments made earlier in the debate. First, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said that this is a serious House and wants its affairs conducted in an orderly way. That does not mean that it has to be a House that is very pro-government but that it is a House where the people who work here as Members of the House believe that there is some degree of sense and order about the way in which it conducts its affairs.
The second point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, who drew our attention to the reduction in the number of people voting in general elections. All of usnot only Members of this House but all of those involved in the parliamentary systemhave an obligation to retain the confidence of the public. The more confidence they have in us, the more they will be prepared to vote in those elections.
Perhaps I may now turn to the detail of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. I am not about to announce that the Government propose to adopt allor, indeed, anyof the proposals in the paper. We said that we would return to the question of reform of your Lordships' House in the context of our manifesto, and I do not intend to trail any of our ideas today.
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The Government agree with the report's premise that, in looking at the contribution which your Lordships' House makes to the legislative process, it is important to look at that process as a whole. The House is part of a bicameral Parliament. It will work best if it is consciously complementary to the work of the House of Commons. It does not seem to be unreasonable to suggest, as the report does, that changes to the rules under which the House operates might be in order even if a major part of the end result is to improve the efficiency with which the other place can operate.
So, for example, the proposal that the Parliament Acts should be applied to Bills which start in this House should not be dismissed out of hand as a sinister attempt to curtail the rights of this House. We should rather look at what it might imply for the management of business through both Houses over the course of a whole Session.
The realistic prospect that the Parliament Acts might need to be invoked on a Bill arises in most cases only right at the end of its parliamentary passage, when the issues on which the two Houses cannot agree are narrowed down to a few contentious issues. At that point, how much difference does it make in which House the Bill started?
As the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, once again rightly identified at the beginning of the debate, what it does make a difference to, however, is the House of introduction. We are all familiar with the pattern of a Session, where this House is short of business at the beginning of a Session and desperately busy at the end, while the House of Commons faces precisely the opposite problem. It has serious bunching of Bills queuing up for their Second Reading at the beginning of a Session, and comparatively little business, particularly for the Floor of the House, towards the end. The report argues that applying the Parliament Acts to Bills started in the Lords could provide a remedy to that situation by removing an artificial constraint on the distribution of Bills between the two Houses.
The same motivation lies behind the proposal of the working group of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that we should replace annual Sessions with a time limit for all Bills or, alternatively or additionally, allow automatic carry-over. I recognise that the discipline of the Session is something to which many, both within government and outside, attach importance, but the proposals from the group would not undermine that discipline. There would still be limits on the time available to process each individual Bill but, the report argues, the time of each House could be better used and the workload spread more evenly throughout the year if one of these approaches were adopted. I think we would all agree that that is a motive worth pursuing. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, pointed out, the commission on strengthening Parliament, which he chaired in 2000, made very similar recommendations. The precise solutions the report proposes may not turn out to be right, but the group's structures are plainly right, and the quality of the proposal at least deserves a response.
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The proposal that a Bill should be limited in the length of time it may remain before this House also needs serious consideration. It must be constructed to ensure that it cannot curtail either debate or scrutiny. But if its effect is to allow proper scrutiny and ensure that a Bill does not get lost because some Peers can put a Bill in jeopardy by endless debate, it will improve scrutiny and ensure that the respective parts of the Bill receive the appropriate level of attention. It should help the House in planning its own use of its time.
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