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In addition, the Government set out an analysis of the previous reports on this issue. They even go so far as to quote by name some of the members on the committee of the report being debated who appeared on a previous committee. They imply, I think, that somehow those members were wrong to change their minds, which I found a rather surprising response. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, would appear to think so too. But, as one of the sponsors of the reply is himself alleged to have changed his view on the composition issue from when he last voted, it is perhaps not terribly appropriate that the Government should pursue this line of argument. Overall, this issue is very important.

One further point is worth taking up. In the response the Government refer to a remark made by Mr Jack Straw in a previous debate—they refer to a debate on 10 May 2005, which ought to be 2006—about whether the role of this House and the other House is a zero-sum game. Mr Straw asserts rightly, in the speech to which the Government refer, that it is not a zero-sum game; this House, together with the Commons, adds value. If we were to take an even more active role than we do now, the value would be increased, so that is not a zero-sum game. In the context of this debate, what seems to be a zero-sum game is whether we have a democratic system in this country.

At the moment we have a 100 per cent democratic system. The House of Commons is elected and exercises a predominant role in the way which we have discussed. As a result of that, we have a wholly democratic system. It does not seem to me that there would be any increase in overall democracy if we were to have elected Members of this Chamber. You cannot have a system which is more than 100 per cent democratic, but you could have one where the total ability of Parliament to scrutinise and hold the Executive to account is increased.

As the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has rightly said, this is a very important report. I believe that it sets the scene for further discussions which are to take place. But, for the reasons which the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, set out so clearly, with which I wholeheartedly agree, I do not doubt that while the conventions are as they are now but are still

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flexible and unenforceable, if there is any change in composition it is likely that they would have to be significantly increased, which is an important point. I can understand why the Government, or any Government, in an overall situation would find it unhelpful to have even tighter scrutiny. There may also be some tactical consideration to the effect that an elected Chamber would also change the whole balance between the two Houses. I am grateful for this opportunity to speak. I believe that it is a good report. Once again, I congratulate the noble Lord on his chairmanship.

3.54 pm

Lord McNally: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for his kind words. It was almost as reassuring as the resolution from my own Benches wishing me to get well soon. That was very reassuring, although I was worried about the narrowness of the majority. I, of course, associate myself with the words about Denis Carter. For me, the voice of John Peyton also is missing today. The last time we discussed the composition of this committee, Lord Peyton moved an amendment to strike my name from the list. We had a full and jolly debate about what the committee would do. I left and heard a plummy voice behind me saying, “Nothing personal, old boy; just a way of getting the debate”. I know we would have had his contribution today.

I am happy to be back and to speak in this debate because, as indicated by the Lord Chancellor in introducing it, this report is a piece of work that all who were associated with it can be proud of. It provides a template for relations between the two Houses of Parliament and between Parliament and the Government. That it has been both unanimous and constructive owes no small debt to the skill, patience and good humour of our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham. I am afraid that no longer will he be known as “the enforcer”, so affable and coaxing was he in his ways. While pressing plaudits, only those who served on the committee will know what a debt we owe to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, who was assiduous in putting forward those probing amendments that allow for very thorough debate.

I hope not to jar too much all this consensus, but it is important that we put on the record that this report is a resounding “not guilty” verdict on the criticisms made on a regular basis from the government Benches that their business in the Lords is somehow dealt with more harshly than was that of their predecessors. It is therefore important to put this report into context. The committee was established against a background of complaints that this Labour Government had been dealt with more harshly than their Conservative predecessors. As has been said, we had a report from a group of Labour Peers under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, which proposed various restrictions on the power of the Lords, and those proposals found their way into the last Labour Party manifesto. Parallel to that exercise was one of those infamous No. 10 briefings which informed us that the Prime Minister was determined to clip the wings of the House of Lords.



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All this was accompanied by a renewed awareness of and fondness for the Salisbury convention, which I had not detected hitherto among Labour Ministers. Against that background, and with the support of the then Liberal Democrat leader in the Commons, Charles Kennedy, I made it clear that Members on these Benches did not feel bound by the Salisbury convention. It did not seem to me that a convention which had been arrived at 60 years ago between the Labour and Conservative parties alone, and was about how government business should be treated in a wholly hereditary House with a large built-in Conservative majority, could apply in the new circumstances of a partially reformed House where no party had an overall majority. I also made it clear that Members on these Benches were not prepared to participate in a committee looking at conventions unless and until there was parallel movement on Lords reform. I believe we were justified and vindicated in the stand we took.

Let me be frank: when the Prime Minister announced that he was asking the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, to chair the committee on conventions and Mr Jack Straw to consult on a White Paper on Lords reform, I thought that that was like asking Burke and Hare to look after a funeral parlour, but I could not have been more wrong. I have said how constructive the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, has been in getting this report out and I am already on record as saying that Mr Straw has brought forward the most imaginative agenda on Lords reform that we have seen since Labour came into office. I have noticed a few speakers tip-toeing into Lords reform today, but I will not do so. I am sure we will have ample opportunities to discuss it when Mr Straw publishes his Lords reform White Paper shortly. But what has come out of the report is that I agree with the Government that the outcome of our work will provide an essential point of reference in the months to come as we look at Lords reform itself.

I am sometimes asked how my acceptance of the report squares with my earlier refusal to abide by the Salisbury/Addison convention. As I have already explained, and as my noble friend Lord Wallace said in giving evidence to the committee,

But I have never questioned the right of the House of Commons and a Government who commanded the confidence of it to have their business dealt with constructively by this House. What is and always has been important to me is to retain the right of the House of Lords to say no. That is the importance of all these conventions being flexible and unenforceable. As has been emphasised, we have got to retain that right. In extreme and exceptional circumstances, there may come a time when the House of Lords says no.

That is an important factor in a range of relationships. First, ping-pong would be meaningless if there was a system of “three strikes and you’re out”. The Government would just bide their time and then take their business. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, put it to me most eloquently: he said that unless we retain the right to say no we will have a

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decision-making body at one end and a debating Chamber at this end. Therefore it is important when reading the report to note—this is what made some of the earlier criticisms so fatuous—that there is no evidence that the Government have not had their business. Of course they complain, moan and, once in a blue moon, have an all-night sitting, but the Government get their business and this place works on a system of compromise. To have taken away from it the right to say no would be a very damaging blow to this House.

The significance of the report and the Government’s response to it is that it accepts that, in exceptional and extreme circumstances, this House can say no. Furthermore, there is to be no wing-clipping, no timetabling, no “three strikes and you’re out” and all the other merry wheezes which the Hunt report suggested to enable the Government Chief Whip to sleep easy in his bed. In my view, Government Chief Whips should never sleep easy in their beds. If they do, we are not doing our job.

We welcome the recognition by the Government in their response that this House has not abused its powers. Of course, the conventions we spell out carry great weight and should not be ignored lightly.

As has been referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Cunningham and Lord Higgins, the Government’s response goes further than the committee in one important respect: it suggests that,

I make no secret of the fact that I would have liked to have seen some such conclusion in our report. I had anticipated some objections to that. Indeed, I look forward to the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, who has made herself a kind of Madame Defarge in reverse in defending the aristos against reform. I accept that there is a genuine difference of opinion and my noble friend Lord Roper has already indicated that he may speak on the matter. I remain convinced that this issue has been raised as an attempt to frighten the horses at the other end of the Corridor.

I think that is a misjudgment for two reasons. First, it misjudges how settled opinion in the other place now is about introducing an elected element into this House, so scaremongering will not work. Secondly, I agree with the Government that:

Of course, an elected element in this Chamber will bring new voices and priorities, but there is no reason why it inevitably means a clash and a demand by that reformed Chamber to challenge the supremacy of the Commons. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, about the new Chamber as it becomes reformed. If reform proposals go ahead, it looks likely that we will accept one of the recommendations of the Wakeham report—too hastily rejected, in my opinion, including by me—which is that the glide path of the reform should be fairly gentle. We will not be rushing these reforms through. The report and the conventions it

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sets out give a reformed House time in which to look at those relationships. We gave an example, by the way we worked, of how those discussions could progress.

There is no evidence that such a reformed House would challenge the basic supremacy of the House of Commons over supply, or over making and unmaking Government and all the other powers that make it the supreme body. I would like to believe that even in a reformed House, others would join me, if I were still around, in defending the supremacy of the other place rather than believing that reform would inevitably produce a challenge, as has been suggested by the scaremongers.

I believe that the Cunningham conventions will greatly assist good governance and parliamentary accountability for many years to come. As well as party affiliations and Cross-Bench responsibilities, we all sit in this House as parliamentarians. As such, we should welcome an opportunity to increase the effectiveness of both Houses of Parliament. In that respect, and with all due deference, we wish the Modernisation Committee in the other place success in its work as well.

I congratulate the Government on their mature and considered response to the report. It is impossible not to see the report in the context of the next stage of reform, but I hope that the House will also judge it on its merits as an important document defining the powers and responsibilities of this House in a healthy and constructive way. In this, it should be a flexible friend for good governance.

4.08 pm

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I, too, welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue. The conventions which regulate in some part the relations between the two Houses of the UK Parliament, if they work well, are an element of stability and mutual confidence in our parliamentary system, which is clearly very good for the nation. The fact that the Joint Committee, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, which the two Houses set up in May last, has now carefully examined these conventions and come to unanimous conclusions is greatly to be welcomed. Like all previous speakers, I think that that unanimity is worth an enormous amount. The committee and its chairman are to be congratulated on steering through shark-infested waters so that swimming ahead will now be very much easier.

It is clear to me, as their Convenor, that satisfaction with this report is shared by the Cross-Bench Peers, who now number more than 200, and have a significant, although non-political, role in the House and a strong interest in its effective and efficient working. I gave oral evidence to the committee, which is printed with the report—that is the heavy part of the document, but it is all there and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to do that.

It is also welcome to see that the Government’s response is quite specific; they state that they accept the Joint Committee’s analysis of the effect of all the conventions as well as its recommendations and conclusions. We really do have common ground here.

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In this climate of good will, I shall none the less make some comments on the specific issues which the committee was asked to examine. The first is the Salisbury/Addison convention, which both the committee and the Government in their response recognise has changed since 1945 and particularly since 1999. Like the Liberal Democrats, the Cross-Bench Peers were not parties to the original convention, which was created by the Labour and Conservative Front Benches, but, with the passage of time, they have gone along with it. Now that we have the clear conclusions of the Joint Committee, it would seem reasonable to decide as a whole whether we are satisfied with the elements of the convention, as set out in the Joint Committee’s report, and, if so, to consider it as applying to the whole House. That is a decision that we should take. The passage of time has created it and I think that we can now decide it to be correct.

Those elements are, of course, that a manifesto Bill, in whichever House it begins its progress, is given a Second Reading, is not subject to wrecking amendments and is sent or returned to the House of Commons in reasonable time for the consideration of the Lords amendments, if any. This last point is an assurance of value to both Houses.

I was one of those who in the potential re-examination of the convention seriously considered whether to define a manifesto Bill. Although the voters know, often better than the political parties, the main elements of the programmes of the political parties, they do not normally read the small print of the manifestos. This is particularly true since some manifestos have grown towards the size of an Argos catalogue.

However, I have been convinced by the conclusion of the Joint Committee, which does not recommend any attempt to define a manifesto Bill and bases that recommendation on the argument that, without such a definition, the convention or any resolution containing it would be flexible and unenforceable. As parliamentary business has benefited greatly in recent years from this flexibility, I go along with this argument. I have no difficulty with the Government’s suggestion that the convention might in future be the Cunningham convention, both because I am sitting alongside the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, and because it would be recognition of this approach. That is what I like about it: it is recognition of this approach.

There is a convention that we in this House consider government business in reasonable time and, expressed in that form, it should be supported. The Joint Committee considers succinctly and rightly that there is no conventional definition of “reasonable” and that one should not be invented. I say “bravo” to that. Experience shows that some flexibility is valuable for a number of reasons. We have had a back-breaking succession of important Bills in recent Sessions. Some of them are long and technically complicated; for example, the Act which deals with company law reform is often quoted in that respect. None the less, the pace of progress has been good and I have not seen any evidence of ill will. Moreover, there are Bills which are truly non-political, but which, because of their importance to the public, call for particularly careful examination and possibly

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amendment. A good example is the Mental Health Bill, which is in Committee this week, to which, unusually, I have proposed a number of amendments—I believe that I was speaking to them at 11 pm yesterday. So we are making progress.

I have no difficulty with the suggestion that the Order Paper should indicate whether a Bill has spent 80 or more sitting days in the House—that is useful for the House to know—but such cases will be very rare. Recent changes such as more pre-legislative scrutiny and the greater use of Grand Committees in the Moses Room have clearly helped programming. It is worth recording that, as a revising Chamber, we do our job well. In a recent Session 9,437 amendments were tabled in this House and 3,257 were accepted. So it is a big business and it takes a bit of time, but I do not believe that we really breach in any way the idea of a reasonable time in which to respond to the Government’s proposals.

The two remaining points in the remit of the Joint Committee were the exchange of amendments between the two Houses—ping-pong—and the rejection of secondary legislation, which is a very rare occurrence indeed. On ping-pong, the Joint Committee rightly points out that it is not a convention but an integral part of the legislative process and a framework for negotiation between the two Houses, it being clearly understood that the House of Commons has primacy. The Government have expressed some concern that a continued increase in the amount of ping-pong could disrupt the legislative programme that is in the documentation. I do not consider the last few years typical, however, since the anti-terrorism legislation aroused very strong views on security and human rights which considerably affected the number of amendments subject to more than one round of ping-pong.

On secondary legislation, it was the Cross-Bench Peer, the late Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who most strongly asserted the right of this House to debate and, if necessary, reject secondary legislation. The conclusions of the Joint Committee on that point were right: neither House of Parliament regularly rejects secondary legislation but, in exceptional circumstances, it may be appropriate for either House to do so. The list of circumstances in which it might be right for this House to threaten to defeat a statutory instrument, set out in paragraph 17 of the summary of conclusions of the Joint Committee and repeated in the Government’s response, is very useful, as is the consideration of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland of a different arrangement for scrutinising Northern Ireland legislation if devolution is not soon achieved.

Finally, on codification, there is common ground between the Joint Committee and the Government that the current understanding is that conventions are and should remain flexible and unenforceable. But what will be the situation if a reformed House of Lords requires an electoral mandate? It seems right, as other noble Lords have said today, that in those circumstances we may find Members of an elected House champing at the bit to see whether there are other possibilities for the use of their electoral mandate.

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That is quite possible. But I do not necessarily say that that would require changes in the specific conventions that we are discussing now. It is not quite the same proposition.

We should be grateful for the endorsement of our current practices in our relations with the other House. We should not speculate now whether these conventions, being flexible, will still serve well for any reformed House. My principle is that “sufficient unto the day is the good thereof”.

I have spoken a little longer than is my custom but I had to keep in mind the final 10 words of the Government’s response, in which they recognise that,

4.18 pm

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, as someone who has not always seen fully eye to eye with my Government on some of their proposals, as they have emerged, on House of Lords reform, can I say what an enormous pleasure it is today to agree so wholeheartedly with my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer? I agree totally with what he said about the role of our chairman, who started off with a disparate group of people and, as the conductor of the orchestra, melded them into a fairly coherent group, which has produced a coherent report. His role was vital to the success of the committee. I also agree with my noble and learned friend on the debt of gratitude that we owe to the quality of the services that we got from the staff of this House and another place. Both the speed and quality of their work were quite exceptional. I agree particularly with his remarks on the very special role that was played on the committee by our late friend and colleague, Denis Carter. He played an important role, drawing on the depth of his experience, as he did so often.


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