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House of Lords

Tuesday, 28 March 2006.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: the LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.

Lord Davidson of Glen Clova

Neil Forbes Davidson, Esquire, QC, having been created Baron Davidson of Glen Clova, of Glen Clova in Angus, for life—Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Elder and the Baroness Goudie.

Parliament: Relationship with Government

2.43 pm

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will set up an independent inquiry into the workings of Parliament, and, in particular, the relationship between government and Parliament.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, the Government have no plans to establish such an inquiry. The relationship between Parliament and the Government is under constant scrutiny through the work of both Houses and their Select Committees and of outside organisations.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I don't think that does anything to cheer me up. If, as I very much hope, the Government share the widespread anxiety that now exists about the diminishing respect for Parliament, they might do something to lessen the degree of subordination that they impose on Parliament. They might, for instance, recall that Parliament has other duties besides being the legislative treadmill of the Government. Lastly, perhaps I may suggest to the noble Baroness, without wishing to be in any way impertinent to her, that if their devotion to democracy was as genuine as they would have us believe, perhaps they will allow both Houses of Parliament to elect their own Leader instead of having Cabinet Ministers imposed on them by the Prime Minister.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I have to say that I find the noble Lord's final comment incredibly interesting, particularly as this House took a very long time to agree that it would have its own independent speaker, rather than one appointed by the Prime Minister. I cannot agree with the tenor of the noble Lord's questions. If he looks at the Government's record on devolution and reform of this House and the fact that this Labour Prime Minister has put himself up for additional scrutiny by the House of Commons by
 
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appearing before the Liaison Committee, for example, and given up powers of patronage to the Appointments Commission, he will see that our devotion to democracy is very strong indeed.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the balance between the executive and the legislature has changed and moved in favour of the executive? Does she further agree that the role of this House has increased with the removal of most of the hereditary Peers? Because of those two factors, is it not clear that this House must play a rather more important role than it has in the past?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I think that the House continues to play an important role. It is a role that, I think, Members of this House value and that those outside the House also value. I do not agree that the balance has moved in favour of the executive. There are always these discussions. The proposals that we have put in place have added to the nature of our democracy rather than taken away from it.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that it was exactly 30 years ago, in 1976, in his Dimbleby lecture, that the late Lord Hailsham described our constitutional arrangements as—what was it?

Noble Lords: An elective dictatorship.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: I was just checking. He described it as an elective dictatorship. Does the noble Baroness agree that in the intervening years—despite, as she rightly said, a flurry of constitutional reform in the first years of this Government—on the whole, the power of the Executive has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished? Finally, does she agree that, given the plethora of outside reports—this makes me sceptical of the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, for an independent inquiry—including two from the Hansard Society and one from your Lordships' Constitution Committee, the need is probably less for an independent inquiry and more for an exercise of political will not just on the part of government but on the part of Parliament itself?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I have a certain sympathy with the noble Lord, because I had forgotten the quotation myself. A Government who have introduced a Human Rights Act, a Freedom of Information Act and a Constitutional Reform Act cannot be accused of having moved the balance of power in favour of the executive. With respect to some of the reports that have been prepared about the role of Parliament, I have seen myself that any number of Members of this House will stand up to talk about the importance of the role of Parliament and of Parliament liaising with the public. Those are things for which Parliament and this House should take responsibility, not look to the Government to deliver.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, is not my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil entirely correct to raise the issue
 
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at this time, although he could have raised it at any time during the past eight years, because we have seen such an erosion of Parliament's powers against those of the executive? The noble Baroness came out with a long list of what the Government had done. We are soon to debate the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. If the noble Baroness clings so much to the power of Parliament, will she give her party a free vote when we deal with the clauses that affect the balance and relationship between the executive and Parliament?

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in his initial references, was going to talk about the 18 years of Conservative government, rather than starting in 1997. He will know that the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is designed to reduce burdens on business. Some concerns have been expressed, and my honourable friend the Minister at the Cabinet Office is meeting the chairmen of the Select Committees to discuss several points that have been made. There are proposals to put some amendments to another place before Report, and we will, of course, consider the Bill in our own time.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, has not the litany of moans been the same for 300 years, since Sir Robert Walpole was Prime Minister, that the government manipulate the patronage system and the press and bully Parliament, while MPs are useless and on the make? Surely the performance of Parliament depends now, as it always has done, on the ability, the diligence and the sturdiness of its Members. And if those qualities are currently somewhat lacking on the Conservative Benches—in the lower House only, of course—surely the remedy lies there rather than in some independent inquiry.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, as I said earlier, this House and its Members play a valuable role, but we must also think about what my noble friend has said. The responsibility for dealing with some of the queries that have been consistently raised on the issue lies within us.

Minch Strait

2.51 pm

Lord MacKenzie of Culkein asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why the Minch strait has not been designated a marine environmental high-risk area.

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, the criteria for identifying marine environmental high-risk areas, known as MEHRAs, were set out in the late Lord Donaldson's report, Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas. Although they are environmentally sensitive, the Minches did not meet those criteria because of the volume and type of shipping in the area and the protective measures that are already in place.
 
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However, in the light of more recent data, the UK will propose new protective routing measures for the Minches to the International Maritime Organisation this July.

Lord MacKenzie of Culkein: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is she aware of the disbelief in the Hebrides and the north-west Highlands at the Government's failure to designate the Minches as a marine environmental high-risk area? There is no question that the Government acknowledge the sensitivity of the Minches, and the late Lord Donaldson recommended that the Minches should be a MEHRA. It would have been a sensible belt-and-braces policy for the Government to designate the Minches as a MEHRA in addition to the protective measures already in place. There are huge environmental sensitivities in that area. Thousands of ships transit it with pretty awful cargos, including the MV "Jambo", which sank a couple of years ago, spilling huge amounts of zinc oxide into the sea. If the current environmental measures, which are almost all voluntary, do not prove to be effective, will the Government consider imposing further restrictive management measures, including giving the Minches an area-to-be-avoided status?


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