13 Jun 2007 : Column 1697

House of Lords

Wednesday, 13 June 2007.

The House met at three o'clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Chester): the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

House of Lords: Right to Vote

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, the Government have no plans to do so.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, does my noble friend accept the principle of no taxation without representation and will she perhaps join me in a little tea party to discuss this further? Will she also confirm that the basis for Members of this House being denied the right to vote in general elections stems not from statute but from a resolution passed by the House of Commons in 1699?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I can think of nothing nicer than a tea party with my noble friend, and I accept immediately that invitation. I would not try to second-guess his knowledge of the history of the resolution of 1699, but I would just say that the White Paper on House of Lords reform recommended that Members of the reformed House of Lords should be able to vote in all elections.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, surely Members of this House are their own representatives in Parliament, so why would they want to vote for a representative in Parliament?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord goes to the nub of the debate that has been going on since 1699.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, Members of the House may not be aware that those on the Bishops’ Benches can vote in general elections. We are here only in a spiritual capacity; that is why we retire. However, the last known instance of a Bishop voting was when Archbishop Runcie could not resist the opportunity to vote against Mrs Thatcher. He was found out and apologised thereafter. Does the Minister agree that the fact that we have exercised this restraint over the years indicates that to have the vote might in its own way undermine the authority of the House?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate raises an important point. However, as part of the package of measures that noble Lords are deliberating on both in the committee that is meeting my right honourable friend the Leader of the House of Commons and in other ways, it is something that we should debate and seriously consider.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, while many of us might be glad to be able to vote like our fellow citizens in elections to the House of Commons, many of us would not wish to vote in another general election to the second Chamber because we take the view that it would not be in the interests of democracy and good governance that there should be an elected second Chamber in this country. Will the Government take full account of this view, which is widely held on all sides of this House as well as among growing numbers of people in the House of Commons and in the country?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the vote in the other place demonstrated that the views of the other place were firmly either for 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected. Noble Lords need no reminding of the measure of that vote or indeed, as my noble friend said, of the vote in your Lordships’ House. The next stage is for us to consider the implications of these votes and reach, if we possibly can, consensus between the two Houses.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, as the Government are anxious to maintain the primacy of another place, does the noble Baroness not see that there is an argument that as citizens we should have some right to influence the composition of the Chamber that has primacy?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an extremely good point, and I pay tribute to the work that he has done over many years on constitutional reform. Indeed, many noble Lords personally and privately feel very strongly that it is important to be able to exercise rights as citizens.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, which is likely to come first: votes for convicted prisoners or votes for Members of this House?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as my noble friend will know, the Government have been consulting on the first stage of a consultation process to deal with the question of allowing convicted prisoners to vote. The case of Hirst v UK was heard in the European Court. Noble Lords will shortly see the results of that first consultation and at that point will be able to gauge whether my noble friend is right.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is no connection whatever between the question of the composition of this House, which is an important issue, and whether Members of the second Chamber should be able to vote in elections for the first Chamber? Can she name any other democracy, regardless of the composition of its upper Chamber—whether elected, as in many, or appointed, as in Canada—where the Members cannot vote in elections for the first Chamber?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I know of no other jurisdiction. That does not mean that none exists. I have looked at something like 60 or 70 other jurisdictions—out of personal interest, sadly—to see what happens in second Chambers. I agree that they are separate issues, but noble Lords will accept that whenever we have debated the separate issues of the role and membership of your Lordships’ House, we quickly get into broader issues of composition, powers, conventions and so on.

The Earl of Erroll: My Lords, would the problem of being taxed without representation be solved by the Lords being given powers properly to scrutinise and vote on money Bills? They are extremely complex and could well be improved by proper scrutiny in the second Chamber.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, whether it is appropriate for the second Chamber to do so, and, if so, in what way, has been discussed and debated in the committee. We will await those deliberations.

Lord Paul: My Lords, one problem today is that a number of eligible voters are not voting. Could the Minister not suggest that the Peers who want to vote request that those people vote and canvass for that?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, it is important that those who are part of our democracy exercise their right to democracy. We have debated this question many times in your Lordships’ House and are all in agreement that voting is important.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, the Minister mentioned that the House of Commons and some Members of this House have voted for a 100 per cent elected second Chamber. In that case, would she not agree that, in matters of finance and taxation, the House of Commons would find it necessary to share power with the second Chamber, which of course it does not at the moment?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, this is all part of the broader debate about the role of the second Chamber, the role of your Lordships’ House, the relationship between the House of Commons and your Lordships’ House, and so on. They are important deliberations to have, but we must do so on the basis of the committee’s work and the statements that will come from my right honourable friend.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the argument for dealing with our right to vote should be dealt with separately from the main legislation? That stems from the fact, if I am right in my historical assessment, that it does not require legislation to give us a vote, but a simple resolution of the House of Commons.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am not taking issue with my noble friend’s analysis, but with the fact that in any of the debates in which I have participated in your Lordships’ House on any aspect of the relationship between your Lordships’ House, another place, the country and the democracy, one quickly finds oneself in a debate on broader issues. Trying to think more constructively and strategically about those issues eventually takes us to a better place.

Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee

3.08 pm

Lord McNally asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, all government departments are aware of the valuable work done by the Merits Committee. They take its recommendations seriously and, faced with a critical report, will consider all options, including the possible amendment or withdrawal of the instrument.

Lord McNally: My Lords, does the Minister recall that when this issue was last raised, both the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, got the vapours about the fact that Liberal Democrats had opposed three out of more than 3,000 statutory instruments? The problem remains that we have only a nuclear option against statutory instruments. Both the Cunningham committee and the Merits Committee have drawn attention to that. We now have an excellent committee. Is it not time to give it just a few teeth?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am not sure that my noble and learned friend got the vapours. However, the committee is indeed excellent, and I have responsibility for liaising between it and government departments. As Governments increasingly and rightly use secondary legislation to ensure the flexibility that we need in developing policy, it is important that we are able to ensure that the role and work of the committee are recognised and valued. To that end, I am in discussion with government departments.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the noble Baroness said that the committee does vital work and the Government listen carefully to it, but I do not think that that is true at all. Time and again, the Merits Committee has advised the Government to take a different course of action and has been ignored, most recently on housing information packs, which we now hear are to be reintroduced. Could the noble Baroness not rethink her Answer? If she means that the Government are going to listen, should they not take forward the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, which seems the right way forward?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I had a personal bet on how long it would be before home improvement packs were mentioned, and I think I win. I do not agree with the noble Lord’s analysis about the number of times that issues raised by the committee have been ignored by the Government or have not received a positive response from them. The committee’s analysis demonstrates that it provides excellent work to your Lordships’ House. It does ask the Government to think again, but its remit to look at legal, policy and political issues means that, in turn, the Government must respond, and they do. They recognise what the committee has said, but also put arguments forward for why they should not make the changes the committee recommends.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, as an ex-Chief Whip, I want to make certain that the convention of not voting against statutory instruments is continued. However, if the Government are not going to listen to the Merits Committee, more fatal Motions will be put down against statutory instruments in this House, and the convention will be blown.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I hope that the convention is not blown. It is important that in discussions on primary legislation, we have the opportunity to consider the value and role of statutory instruments. The Delegated Powers Committee, too, plays a vital role in your Lordships’ House in putting forward proposals and suggestions on what is appropriately done within statutory instruments that the Government take forward. None the less, it is important that the Government look at the work of the Merits Committee. As I indicated, I am in dialogue with the committee and government departments to make sure that that happens properly, but it does not necessarily mean that the Government should change their view.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, does the Minister accept that secondary legislation is the wrong place to develop policy; that this Government have been adept at producing framework Bills in which the policy is developed through statutory instruments; and that that is the wrong way to proceed?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, this is a fundamental debate about the role of primary and secondary legislation. It is clear that the secondary legislation option gives us the flexibility to review how legislation is working effectively, to make changes in the light of experience, which noble Lords would want, and not to have to wait for primary legislation. The critical issue is how well, in our debates on primary legislation, we understand what the secondary legislation will do so that when faced with the proposition that comes forward, noble Lords can make the decision yes or no.

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that if her praise for the value of the Merits Committee’s reports is anything other than lip service, the following must happen? If the committee produces a critical report, either the instrument has to be withdrawn and relaid, or the Government must publish publicly their reasons for going ahead notwithstanding the Merits Committee’s report, and that has to be debated so that the House can decide whether it believes the Government or the Merits Committee.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, there are many ways in which government departments can respond. The Merits Committee has just published correspondence and will be formally responding to me on it by the autumn, I gather. I have asked departments to consider three things in particular: making a member of top management responsible for the effectiveness and efficiency of preparing statutory instruments; their scope for producing detailed management plans for secondary legislation; and their scope for more informal consolidations or better guidance to help those affected by it. Those practical suggestions that I have made to government departments will enhance the opportunities for statutory instruments.

Lord McNally: My Lords, do the Government not frequently place this House in a Catch-22 situation? During the passage of primary legislation, Ministers often get a proposal through by saying that the Government will only bring it forward in secondary legislation that must pass through both Houses, but when one House exercises its right not to pass it, particularly this House, the Government then cry “foul” or “constitutional outrage”, among other things. Would it not be more honest to say that secondary legislation need go only through the Commons, or to accept that occasionally this House has the right to say no?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I read with great interest the speech made by the noble Lord at the end of the debate on casinos, when he talked about the role of the Whips. From his time as an adviser in government, he well remembers the regrouping process that takes place when the Government are defeated. I am not going to take any lessons on that, nor shall I give the noble Lord any. I do not believe that this House is in a Catch-22 position. As a Minister who has taken quite a large number of Bills through your Lordships’ House, I am mindful of what I say about secondary legislation. I have always been held to account on what it might cover, and I believe that I and all my noble colleagues have brought forward precisely what we have said we will bring forward. It is for this House to make its decisions.

Crime: Rape

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