Fast-track Legislation: Constitutional Implications and Safeguards - Constitution Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360 - 379)


Baroness Royall of Blaisdon and Chris Bryant MP

  Q360  Lord Rowlands: I am sure it was. I am as bad as you: my memory is pretty poor too.

  Chris Bryant: Well, my history is pretty poor.

  Q361  Lord Morris of Aberavon: As business managers what would you characterise as the difficulties of fast-tracking legislation? Looking back, are there any bills, now acts, which it might not have been necessary, with hindsight, to be fast-tracked?

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I would say that there two major categories of difficulties, one of course being the lack of parliamentary scrutiny and the very difficult balance that there is to arrive at between the time scale which is necessary, the speed of the legislation, and the need for parliamentary scrutiny. The other thing is the difficulties in relation to the outside world. As a Parliament, we have a duty to the outside world and we need to ensure that what we are doing inside Parliament is understood and open and transparent, and I think that is much more difficult with an expedited process. I think the outside world cannot be as involved as I would wish it to be in legislation when there is an expedited process.

  Q362  Lord Morris of Aberavon: On the second question which I put, are there any which, with hindsight, it might not have been necessary to put through the fast-tracking process? Are there any?

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Certainly not the bills that I am aware of or that I have been involved with. But perhaps post-legislative scrutiny will show that maybe some were not necessary. In my view, as I say, they have been necessary but perhaps post-legislative scrutiny will tell a different story.

  Q363  Lord Morris of Aberavon: It is a subjective view as to whether it is necessary.

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Yes.

  Chris Bryant: There is a particular irony sometimes that when you limit the amount of time available to people, it ends up taking longer than if you had not limited the time. Nonetheless, I think sometimes it is necessary to limit the time. I have noticed that a three-minute speech from Chris Bryant is normally better than a 58-minute speech from Chris Bryant.

  Q364  Lord Lyell of Markyate: Her Majesty's Stationery Office having been breaking the law for 30 years, as they discovered, it might be arguable as to whether it was an emergency matter to put it right. On the other hand, since nobody is going to object, it seemed rather sensible.

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Yes.

  Chris Bryant: Touché.

  Q365  Chairman: Lord President, you said in your submission that "good scrutiny is an essential part of making good law" and that "the Government will seek to make as much time as possible available for scrutiny subject to the need to achieve Royal Assent by a given date." First, do you think that that aspiration has always been achieved in the past? Second, if the Government deems expedited passage to be necessary, in what ways do you think it can be ensured that a bill still receives the level of scrutiny that it deserves?

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: That is a difficult one. Good scrutiny. In the House of Lords, each of the bills with which I have been well acquainted have been, in my view, properly and well scrutinised. In view of the time scale, because our debates are not limited in time terms, I have never felt that there was undue pressure. For example, the last bill in which we were all involved was the Northern Ireland Act 2009, and as I took that through there were many complaints about the expedited nature of the bill of which I was well aware, but, having said that, I was never aware that anybody felt under pressure in debate. The noble Lords were able to raise whatever concerns they had and the Government were willing and able to respond, so I did not feel that scrutiny was jeopardised in any way.

  Chris Bryant: My own feeling is the quality of scrutiny is what matters as much as anything else. One of the ways that we ensure that there is a high quality of scrutiny is by having two Houses, where there is a very different style of scrutiny that happens in both Houses, where there is a different whipping arrangement. There is independence in both Houses but it expresses itself in very different ways in the two Houses. Beyond that, the issue is, as I said earlier, balancing the need for action with the need for dotting every `i' and crossing every `t'. I sometimes get a little frustrated when it feels as if, in either House, it is not just that everything has not yet been said but that it has not yet been said by everybody, because I do not know that that necessarily increases the quality of the scrutiny, though it may increase the level of press releases.

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am very proud of the scrutiny that we have in the House of Lords because of the expertise which we have available. Therefore, I have great confidence in the scrutiny which we undertake, even when it is expedited scrutiny.

  Chris Bryant: And, My Lords, I am very proud of the level of expertise that we have in the House of Commons. I am sorry, that sounds a snide point, but there is an important point, which is that it is a different style of expertise.

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Yes, that is true.

  Chris Bryant: Sometimes it brings a rapier where a blunderbuss is necessary and sometimes it is a blunderbuss when a rapier is necessary.

  Chairman: I share both your prides.

  Q366  Lord Pannick: Would you accept that effective scrutiny does not just depend on all of us doing our jobs; it depends on people outside having the time to inform us of points of view, of information, so that we can do our jobs properly. Surely there is a danger with emergency legislation that that time is not available.

  Chris Bryant: Absolutely. I think that is one of the reasons why, for instance, with the most recent Northern Ireland Act we were very keen to have first reading as early as we could so that the bill was out there and people could refer to it and there could be proper public discussion, because that often happens long before second reading. For myself, I have always been rather critical of those who have condemned lobbyists in the generality. For instance when I sat on the Mental Health Bill as a backbench MP, it was all the organisations from the mental health charities and all the rest who came to me and informed me and made sure that I was making a proper and useful contribution in committee, so I think that point is a very well made one.

  Q367  Lord Woolf: Because of the point you have just been dealing with, I understand it is not possible to say that you identify criteria which have to be fulfilled for a bill to be dealt with under emergency legislation. What worries me is the broadness of the certification as emergency. Should there not be conventions which say, for example, that if it is going to get emergency treatment the issues that are going to be dealt with by the bill should be confined to those which are urgent? Have I made myself clear?

  Chris Bryant: Very. Indeed, in the Commons that is very much the debate that happens on the allocation of time motion. People will say, "Most of this bill I can see why it is necessary, but I don't see why this other bit is" or whatever, and that is part of the discussions which will happen before anything is presented. That is very much part of that process. There is another thing that can happen, which is that when an ordinary bill is going through its processes, at a late moment a department will have an emergency that it needs to meet with a legislative solution. As a government we are very keen not to proceed in that direction and the business managers try to prevent as much as possible that from happening, but there are some very exceptional moments when that does happen.

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, as business managers within government, when our colleagues speak to us about the necessity of a piece of expedited legislation, we very strongly make the argument that every part of the bill should be, of necessity, expedited. As business managers, whilst recognising the need for expedited legislation from time to time, it makes our life difficult, quite frankly, as those of you around this table who have been involved with government will know. It is a great headache to have a piece of legislation which we were not expecting which suddenly we have to slot into a very crowded programme, so, My Lords, you can be sure that we are arguing vociferously with our colleagues to ensure that the piece of legislation itself is absolutely necessary and that every part of that legislation is necessary.

  Q368  Lord Rowlands: Perhaps we could turn specifically to Northern Ireland. Since 1985 there have been 11 Northern Ireland bills and two Home Office bills, all of which were expedited. Lord President, you have said that this exercise we are undertaking should be a kind of stock-taking exercise. Let us take stock and say to ourselves: with hindsight, can we really now justify the fast-tracking of all these bills?

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Most of those bills have come about as a consequence of the Peace Process or as a result of violence and terrorism in Northern Ireland. Following the Omagh bombing, I think there was a piece of Home Office legislation and one would understand absolutely why that was necessary. There are other pieces of legislation which were a result of the political process, and some people might question whether or not those pieces of legislation needed to be expedited but I would say, My Lords, that they did in order to maintain the momentum of the Peace Process. I think that where we are politically now in respect of Northern Ireland demonstrates that those pieces of legislation were necessary and it was necessary to expedite them.

  Q369  Lord Rowlands: This is what I think. We reviewed them, and I accept that reply. That is why I thought the last Act, the Northern Ireland Act 2009, stood out as a rather curious exception to it on two grounds. First, there was no consensus at all on the expedited nature of it, as I understand. The Conservatives voted against the allocation and most of the Northern Ireland parties spoke out against it. How can you justify that? I listened to you Lord President and I was not wholly convinced when I heard you on the second reading.

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: I am terribly sorry about that, My Lord. Certainly at the beginning of that bill, notwithstanding the vote in the House of Commons, there was consensus amongst all the parties here and the cross-benchers that this should be an expedited piece of legislation. At the beginning of the bill people did express deep concerns and reservations about the expedited nature, but I think at the end of the bill, perhaps because of the political moment through which we were living, with the deaths of soldiers and with the death of a policeman, it was recognised in fact that this was a piece of legislation that was necessarily expedited.

  Q370  Lord Rowlands: I understand how the events coloured the debate—they clearly did—but it did not have any relevance to the actual events.

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: No, they did not have relevance to the events per se, but it demonstrated the need to maintain the momentum and to enable the people of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly to devolve policing and justice and to keep the whole thing going.

  Chris Bryant: One of the other elements in this is that the act was a permissive one—and I do not mean in the 1960s sense, I mean in the sense of allowing something to happen. Without that piece of legislation it would have been impossible for the Northern Ireland Assembly to move forward. There were three other stages that had to happen before full implementation could come about, so I think that in part explains why we felt it was important nonetheless to proceed.

  Q371  Lord Rowlands: I wonder whether we might not sense from the backbenchers' point of view a growing impatience on the argument. One backbencher in your House said that surely a part of returning Northern Ireland to normalcy would be saying, "Let's treat Northern Ireland legislation normally."

  Chris Bryant: That is very much our ambition—very much our ambition. That is where we would like to end up. I do not think it is quite where we have got to yet. It is Andrew Mackinlay, I think you are referring to.

  Q372  Lord Rowlands: I do not have the name.

  Chris Bryant: I am pretty certain it is Andrew Mackinlay.

  Q373  Lord Morris of Aberavon: Is Northern Ireland a special case? If the label "Northern Ireland" is put on a bill, then does it almost automatically get the status of emergency legislation?

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: In the past, My Lords, certainly over the past 15 years or so, it probably has been a special case, but I think that is no longer the case. The last piece of legislation was, I would hope, the last piece in the emergency jigsaw in relation to Northern Ireland. I cannot be absolutely confident but I would hope that that is the case.

  Chris Bryant: It is worth saying that the vast majority of legislation that affects Northern Ireland goes through in whole UK bills, not in specific Northern Ireland bills.

  Q374  Lord Morris of Aberavon: On the need to have the statutory assent and in order to preserve or certainly not shackle the political momentum, one is aware that there are certain limitations about certain government announcements that can be made in the immediate vicinity of a general election. Is there such a thing as a purdah where European elections are involved which limits, constrains the bringing or pursuing of legislation?

  Chris Bryant: It does not restrict the bringing forward of legislation but it does restrict what the Civil Service can do. It might be that a government might choose not to bring forward a piece of legislation during purdah for the simple reason that the civil servants would not be able to publicise it.

  Q375  Lord Morris of Aberavon: Is it a recognised thing, so far as government is concerned, of not being able to pursue various stages of legislation during European elections or is that something novel?

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the legislative process is continuing as normal throughout the election process.

  Q376  Lord Morris of Aberavon: One of the arguments put by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland includes a purdah period during the European elections. I have never heard of that.

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I have to confess I have never heard of that either.

  Q377  Lord Morris of Aberavon: I thought it was novel too.

  Chris Bryant: Purdah expressly excludes parliamentary proceedings. It would be rather bizarre to take politics out of Parliament.

  Lord Morris of Aberavon: It was new to me and I am glad to hear it is new to you as well.

  Q378  Lord Peston: May I turn our attention to the order making powers in part 2 of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. Would I be right in saying that those powers have never been used?

  Chris Bryant: Yes, you would—unless somebody is going to contradict me suddenly.

  Q379  Lord Peston: No, I think that is right. That was just to get it started.

  Chris Bryant: I am glad we agree.

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