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House of Lords

Thursday, 7 January 2010.

11 am

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

House of Lords: Secretaries of State

Question

11.06 am

Asked By Baroness Boothroyd

    To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have proposals to enable Secretaries of State in the House of Lords to appear in the House of Commons chamber to answer questions from Members of the Commons.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, all Secretaries of State should be fully accountable to Parliament. In principle, we see no reason why Secretaries of State in the Lords should not appear before the House of Commons, if that were the will of the two Houses.

Baroness Boothroyd: I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for her response. Does she agree that any proposals to make Secretaries of State in this House answerable to the House of Commons at its Dispatch Box introduce an entirely new principle into our bicameral Parliament? Do the Government propose that Secretaries of State who sit in the Commons will equally be answerable to this House at the Dispatch Box? Will the Government therefore publish the Prime Minister's letter to Mr Speaker Bercow, reported in the press on 25 October, and give an assurance that the Lord Speaker and this House will be fully consulted before any constitutional changes of this nature are contemplated?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, it is my understanding that Peers can already appear before the Commons as witnesses if this House gives them leave to do so and they themselves consent or think fit. However, that is a power that has lain dormant for some time. If Members of this House or anyone else were to envisage Secretaries of State from this House answering questions at the Dispatch Box in the other place, there would have to be a change in the procedures of that House, and it would require the consent of both Houses. It is precisely a matter for both Houses, not for the Government-that is an important point.

I am aware of the Prime Minister's letter. I will seek authorisation vis-à-vis its publication.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, does the noble Baroness the Leader of the House agree with me that, whatever arrangements are made in another place to scrutinise government Ministers, Ministers in this House owe their primary responsibility to this House, and it is to

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this House that they should answer questions? Will she therefore join me in welcoming the new arrangements made by the Procedure Committee to give specific questions to Secretaries of State who are Members of the House of Lords, and in wishing this experiment well?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I completely concur with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. It is an interesting innovation, which I look forward to. I am sure that it is going to be a great success, and it will enhance the accountability of our Secretaries of State in this House.

Lord McNally: My Lords, I endorse the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I hope, and I hope that the noble Baroness agrees, that all Members of this House will make a real success of the innovation of questions to Secretaries of State sitting in this House.

I approached this Question with some trepidation because I thought I was going to have to disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, but hers is a timely warning. The Cunningham committee, which I sat on, reported that the strength of both Houses was their differences in procedures and practices. We should be careful before we start blurring the edges.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. It is for this House to make a success of this new opportunity for questioning Secretaries of State. It is important that we have procedures at this end which are different and distinct from those in the other place. The questions that we will be putting to the Secretaries of State from next week onwards constitute a very different procedure from the procedure in the House of Commons, and I welcome that difference.

Lord Peston: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the best definition of conservatism is that we should never do anything for the first time? Many of us would welcome major changes in the way that Secretaries of State are scrutinised in both this House and the other House, and clearly we agree that both Houses should take the decision. However, the idea that it would be totally out of the question for us to make any changes is certainly not acceptable to me and, I imagine, not acceptable to most of our colleagues.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I think that there is agreement around this Chamber that everybody welcomes the innovation of having Secretaries of State answer more questions in this House, thus enhancing their accountability. I completely agree that change is a good thing, but I also detect an appetite on all Benches, including the Conservative Benches, for the sort of change that we will be having next week in this House.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, will the noble Baroness bear in mind that a good many years ago, when the Department of Energy was first set up, my noble friend Lord Carrington was appointed Secretary of State in this House? It was my honour to be the

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Minister of State in another place. Will she also bear in mind that since then we have had the first stage of the reform of the composition of this House, which Ministers have repeatedly said makes this House more legitimate? Is it not strange that we are having this pressure now to enhance the powers of another place by giving Ministers the opportunity, as some are suggesting-not the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd; I agree entirely with what she said-to go along there to answer questions instead of, as we are now proposing, and as my noble friend has rightly pointed out, a new procedure for them to be answerable to this House? Is not that the point that she needs to bear in mind?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, it is absolutely right and proper that Secretaries of State sitting in this House should have more opportunities to answer questions in this House. What happens in the other place is largely a matter for the other place; but whatever decisions are taken in the other place, we will have to agree those procedures if they have an impact on the Members of this place. However, what we are doing is a good innovation. It is good for this place and good for democracy.

Lord Boston of Faversham: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness the Leader of the House whether, if ever Secretaries of State in another place were to answer questions in your Lordships' House, they would not bring with them the raucousness which sometimes emanates from another place? I ask that question not in any way criticising another place, just to draw attention to the differences.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: I am grateful to the noble Lord for drawing the attention of the whole House to the differences and distinctions between this House and the other place.

Lord Campbell-Savours: Would not one of the benefits of our Secretaries of State appearing in the Commons be that there would be more Secretaries of State appointed from this House?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, that may well be a benefit, but I think that we would have to look to the future for that.

House of Lords: Procedures

Question

11.15 am

Asked By Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

    To ask the Leader of the House what proposals she is considering for reforming the procedures of the House of Lords.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, it is up to the House itself as a self-regulating body to determine any changes

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that it wishes to see to the procedures under which it operates. I have recently put proposals to the Procedure Committee relating to Oral Questions to Secretaries of State, the tabling of Written and Oral Questions, and procedures for operating the new powers conferred on Parliament by the Lisbon treaty and the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: I am grateful to my noble friend the Leader for the work that she has done on that and for the work that she has been doing so admirably on the code of conduct and on our expenses and allowances-I understand why those have been taking priority. She has mentioned previously in responding to debates that she is aware that there is a good deal of feeling in all quarters of the House that it is now time that we had a comprehensive review of the way in which our practices and procedures operate. It is nearly eight years since this House last had a look at its procedures and I believe that it is now high time, given the pressures coming from different quarters, for us to look for a degree of change to improve our efficiency and effectiveness. In the best spirit, I congratulate her on the work that she is doing, but I hope that she will return to the Procedure Committee and press through the usual channels for the establishment of a Leader's Group with the following terms of reference: to consider how the procedures of the House can be improved, to increase its effectiveness and efficiency and to make recommendations to the House in due course.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, we all want an efficient and effective House. The noble Lord points to the fact that we have not had a review of our procedures for eight years. It may well be that a review should take place, if that is the will of the House, but we should not forget that there have been profound changes over the last eight years-relating to the Lord Chancellor and to the establishment of the Supreme Court and the post of the Lord Speaker-all of which have led to procedural changes. Then we have our expenses and code of conduct. We have made fantastic progress, but those issues have not yet been completed. I made it clear at the Procedure Committee in December that, in view of the recent report from the Wright committee and suggestions from many Members, I was conscious of the desire in many parts of the House for a review of Lords procedure. I look forward to hearing the views of the committee on that issue and then perhaps we will take it further.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, given that the noble Baroness is a senior Cabinet Minister, can she tell us whether any of her colleagues have complained that your Lordships' House is not effective enough? Can she give us any examples in recent years of where she believes the House could have been more effective?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: No, my Lords, I have had absolutely no complaints from my Cabinet colleagues, all of whom think that we in this House are doing an excellent job. However, we should all be vigilant-every

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Chamber and authority and all elected and unelected representatives should have a view to efficiency and effectiveness. That is our duty as public servants.

Lord McNally: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, reminds us, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is a senior Cabinet Minister, yet she has been on her feet now for 11 minutes without expressing undying support for the Prime Minister. Is this an oversight?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the whole House will know of my admiration and full support for the Prime Minister of this country.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, in looking at ways of strengthening the procedures and using the expertise in your Lordships' House, does the Leader of the House recall the question that I put to her recently about the desirability of creating a foreign affairs Select Committee, which would be able to harness the considerable expertise and experience available in your Lordships' House? Will she tell your Lordships whether she has been able to make any progress on that stand-alone proposal?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, at the time I said that that was an interesting and rather good idea. However, it is not for me to take that proposal forward. The noble Lord needs to take it forward to a committee of the House-forgive my ignorance, but I will speak to the noble Lord after this Question Time and we will find a way of taking the suggestion forward.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, would my noble friend accept that there is a need to amend paragraph 5.07 of the Companion, which deals with Members' supplementaries on ministerial Statements? On a recent occasion a Member of the House took five minutes of the total of 20 minutes in asking a supplementary question on such a Statement. Are not such Members making a mockery of self-regulation? If we cannot make self-regulation work in that area because Members are not prepared to respect the request made from the government Front Bench, then surely we should transfer that responsibility to the Lord Speaker.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, on the whole, self-regulation works extremely well in this House. However, in order to ensure that it functions properly, all Members of the House, including members of the Government, have a duty to ensure that the procedures are properly applied and to show self-restraint in relation to speaking times.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, is the Minister aware that this House greatly admires the way in which she answers questions only with relevant considerations, as she showed on this occasion, until she was misled by the leader of the Liberal Democrats?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I confess that I am easily led astray.



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Alternative Medicine: Astrologers

Question

11.21 am

Asked By Lord Taverne

    To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, following their proposals to regulate practitioners of alternative medicine, they plan to regulate astrologers.

Baroness Thornton: No, my Lords, the Government have no plans to regulate astrologers.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the charity Sense About Science. The forms of alternative medicine which the Government propose to regulate have as much scientific basis as astrology. As official regulation is likely to give such practices a spurious scientific reliability and respectability, is it not unfair to leave out astrologers? More seriously, will the Government note that august bodies of proper scientists-the Medical Research Council, the Royal College of Pathologists, the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges and other eminent professional bodies-strongly oppose the proposed regulation? Will the Government ignore the assiduous lobbying for pseudoscience from Clarence House?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I am aware that the noble Lord is making a wider and serious point about alternative therapies. At present there is no statutory regulatory system in the United Kingdom to govern the practice of complementary and alternative medicine, with the exception of chiropractitioners and osteopaths, who are regulated by statute. We are undertaking a consultation exercise to determine whether and, if so, how to regulate the practitioners of acupuncture, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. The Science and Technology Committee of this House suggested that we should address that issue. No other complementary therapies, including medical astrology, are within the scope of this consultation and we have no proposals to regulate in any of these other groups.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence. I remind the House and the noble Lord who asked the Question that the purpose of regulation is to protect the public, and that is what we try to do. However, in order to help me do my job better, can my noble friend give me a definition of medical astrology?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, medical astrology is traditionally known as iatromathematics and is an ancient medical system associated with various parts of the body, diseases and drugs and the influence of the sun, moon, planets and the 12 astrological signs. For example-I did the research on this issue myself-the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and I share the same birth sign, Libra, which apparently rules excretory functions through the kidneys and skin. I could go on about lumbar regions but noble Lords will get the picture. I am happy to say that the underlying basis for medical

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astrology is considered to be a pseudoscience and superstition as there is no scientific basis for its core beliefs. The Government remain neutral on this issue.

Earl Howe: My Lords, does the Minister share my view that this is an uncharacteristically flippant Question from the noble Lord, Lord Taverne? Does she accept that statutory regulation is not a badge of rank but exists, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, has just said, to safeguard the public? The key regulatory bodies-the Health Professions Council and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency-have both concluded that acupuncture and herbal medicine practitioners should be subject to statutory regulation.

Baroness Thornton: The noble Earl is quite correct and I concur with him that this is a very serious matter. Although we do not specifically promote or endorse the use of complementary or alternative medicine, we have to appreciate that a high proportion of the population actually uses these medicines, and our concern, as my noble friend said, is to protect patients. Responsible complementary practitioners adhere to codes of ethics, know the limits of their competence and make appropriate referral of patients to orthodox practitioners where there is potential risk to their health and well-being. However, the noble Earl is completely correct-we have to look to how best to safeguard patients in respect of those complementary medicines such as acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicines that have the potential to cause harm. Therefore we need to take serious action to make sure they are regulated in the correct fashion.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, I confess to being an Aquarian, and share my birth date with Copernicus and my Auntie Ivy, although I have to say that my Auntie Ivy had much more influence on me than my birth sign. However, on a more serious note, does the Minister agree that the popularity of mumbo-jumbo such as astrology and many forms of alternative medicine is due to the fact that people have very little scientific education at school? Will she say what this Government, in their 10 years in power, have done to further education in science and mathematics?

Baroness Thornton: We have done a great deal for further education in science and mathematics, although that is not exactly what this Question was about. I agree with the noble Baroness that of course people often turn to things like medical astrology because they do not understand the basis of whatever ailment it is they are looking at, and that can be a risky thing to do. However, I simply do not accept this Government have not put a significant amount of investment into mathematics and science in our schools.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords-

Lord Rees of Ludlow: My Lords-

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, we have not heard from the Cross Benches yet.


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