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I agree on pre-legislative scrutiny. I do not think that we are well enough informed. I have introduced enough Bills in this House, and there was one in particular that I much regret piloting through this House. In fact, I blew hot and cold as to whether I was in favour of it or not while it was going through the
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I realise that the process in this place is slightly different because of Third Reading but, if we are to keep the current set-up of First Reading, Second Reading and Committee stage, I question whether we need amendments at Third Reading on a Bill that has started in this place. If we are to have that final longstop, which I know parliamentary counsel finds useful, we should see it is a longstop for the Bill, not for the House. The House where the Bill ends up is the place to have a facility for amendments at Third Reading to deal with the things that have been spotted at the last minute. This is a minor thing, but to me it seems a waste of time to have amendments at Third Reading on a Bill that starts in this place, given that after that the Bill goes to the other place, where there is a Committee stage and a Report stage, then there is a big argument between the two Houses on the changes. If only the House where the Bill ended up had the facility to spot these things at Third Reading, that would save a lot of time and repetitious debate.
As others have said in the past, the Committee stage should as a norm be taken off the Floor of the House. It should be done in a Room rather than in the Chamber. As a Minister, I used to prefer having the Committee stage in Committee Rooms 3 and 4 rather than in the Room across the Corridor, but that is what we have. The atmosphere in those Rooms is more conducive to getting the business done. It is an obvious thing in a way. It is not just the atmosphere but the practicalities. The Clerk and the Chair sit alongside each other, which helps-the set-up in the Chamber is a real problem on many occasions. Also, the Ministers and the opposition spokespeople are closer to their advisers. The atmosphere that is generated in a Room rather than the Chamber at Committee stage ought to be the norm. We should more often send Bills off the Floor of the House, or at least think about splitting them.
I want to make a point about post-legislative scrutiny. I remember, although I am prepared to stand corrected on this, the 1972 review of the redundancy payments legislation. I was a student of engineering at the time but got sidetracked into other studies. That was the first time that Parliament had ever reviewed a piece of legislation and asked, "Does it do what it says on the tin?". The Redundancy Payments Act of 1968, I think, had not worked quite as the Labour Government had expected it to work and major modifications were required. It was said at the time that Parliament ought
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My final point is about Select Committees. I spent an hour and a half this morning sitting in the public part of the Health Select Committee, which was dealing with meaty issues such as smoking, alcohol and obesity. At other times, the committee deals with hospitals, doctors and nurses. Such committees do not have the time or the capacity to do post-legislative scrutiny or to scrutinise regulators as a norm. Those areas are ideally suited to the work of this House. The main public policy issues of the day are rightly for the departmental committees of the other place, but it is no good our simply saying that we should leave them to do it all, because they will not do it. Therefore, huge areas of public policy are not scrutinised and not debated. Frankly, we should pick this up. It is within our power to do it. It would be of benefit to the House, to the public and, as I said as my first point, to Parliament. Because it benefits Parliament, it benefits whoever are the Government of the day. That is the central point. I will be waiting with bated breath, although I hope that I will still be breathing, for the three leaders' speeches to commit to taking some of the nuggets from today's debate and the previous debate and to putting them before the House to decide on before dissolution ahead of the general election.
Baroness Shephard of Northwold: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing the debate and on bringing to it his customary deep knowledge and expertise. Speaking as an ex-Member of another place, I have on a number of occasions with other noble Lords drawn attention to the effectiveness of the work of this Chamber. This House sits for more hours of the day and more days of the year and it scrutinises more legislation than any other second Chamber in the world. Because we are a largely appointed House, we bring to our work a unique combination of talent, experience and knowledge, which in my view could certainly not be replicated in any kind of elected House. I just thought that I would get that in.
The Constitution Unit of UCL produced research that shows that in four cases out of 10 the Government have accepted amendments after defeats in the Lords. And, of course, more changes are achieved although you cannot quantify them-when amendments are accepted without a vote, by negotiation and through the work of Lords committees, debates and questions.
I believe that we are an effective House. The question posed by my noble friend is whether, with some procedural-and, perhaps, other-reforms, we could be a more effective, or a much more effective, House. Certainly we could be but, equally certainly, reform is not just a matter for this House-it must be undertaken across Parliament as a whole. My noble friend stressed that the need is urgent, and the report of the Public Administration Committee in another place and last month's Good Government report from the Better Government Initiative remind us that Parliament's reputation and, with it, that of the whole democratic process-that is the point-is at a dangerously low
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What should be done? My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, have given valuable suggestions. For me-this is really the remit of government-the most important thing is to reduce the volume of legislation. The Good Government report, which I have already cited, points out that the volume of legislation and regulation has more than doubled since the mid-1960s. The Good Government report says that the objective should be to,
As a junior Minister, I worked in the Department of Social Security and at the Treasury. These are both departments in which annual or even more frequent legislation was the norm and in which the word was that, if we got it wrong, we could get it right next year. When I entered the Cabinet, I was amazed to find that many colleagues regarded having a Bill to put through Parliament as a badge of honour rather than as an absolute necessity. Sadly, Governments of all colours find it difficult to resist proving their strength, responsiveness, difference from their predecessors or, dare I say, their virility by producing yet more legislation. We will see whether there is a change after the election and whether a new Government can resist that lure. I hope that they might realise that a pledge to keep new legislation to the bare minimum, and keeping to that pledge, would be wildly popular with the public.
There are changes that could be proposed by Parliament and embraced by government that would improve scrutiny, and thus help enhance the reputation of legislators and restore some trust in the process-a number have been mentioned by my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I flag up the easy thing that we could do; that is, to flag up straight away those parts of a Bill that reach this House without having had any scrutiny whatever in another place. I believe that that would cause public outrage-and it should-but it would at least enhance the reputation of one part of Parliament, and maybe cause a change of behaviour in the other part, which would also be a very good thing.
Where Bills start in this House, rigorous pre-legislative scrutiny could be the norm. Noble Lords, because of their expertise, are very skilful at questioning Ministers on the practical application of legislation. That practical application is exactly what is needed in relation to pre-legislative scrutiny. There are those who say-I am sure that it will be said in this debate-that some of the proposals put forward by my noble friend would slow the legislative process. How good would that be if it meant that there was less of it?
I also think that it is this House, rather than the other place, which is very well suited to undertaking post-legislative review, as my noble friend pointed out.
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Lord Marlesford: My noble friend mentioned a very interesting point about flagging up legislation that the House of Commons has not looked at; the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, made the same point. Surely, the flagging-up should be done by the House of Commons with an explanation of why it has not considered it.
Baroness Shephard of Northwold: My Lords, that is also a valuable suggestion. I do not care where it is done as long as the public know that a Bill passing through another place has not been looked at.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, I, too, express my appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for securing this debate. It eases the task of those who follow him that he made such practical and concise suggestions. I hope that the Government will act upon them and indicate today how they propose to proceed on those precise points. Perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not focus on the legislative part of his Motion but rather turn to the scrutiny of policy. It is, in some ways, more difficult to come up with practical recommendations there, but the importance of this House's oversight of policy is made no less by the complexity of what we have to face.
I was very struck by the reference that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, made to obesity as something that might be appropriate for this House to focus on. In 2006, as it happens, the House of Commons itself drew attention to the fact that there were 26 different public agencies involved in dealing with the delivery of a national policy for obesity. No single Select Committee, pursuing the issues of one department alone, is going to be able to tackle such an issue. It seems to me that the matrix of accountability is now so complex in this country-an inevitable aspect of modern living and the expectations of government-that it will not do simply to set up bodies individually to take account of the work of each individual non-departmental body. We have many. Probably the only body in Parliament that attempts to deal with the full matrix is the Public Accounts Committee, on which I served for 17 years. That is backed by the National Audit Office, which spends about £80 million a year on scrutiny. One could not hope to replicate that, or even to contemplate replicating it.
However, that does result in what one commentator, Mr Koppell, in his interesting piece on the pathologies of accountability, has called the "multiple accountabilities disorder". I believe that this House is capable of bringing order where the public may, perhaps, perceive disorder. If we are to do that, we definitely ought to have something in the nature of a mission statement
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The great advantage of this House, as it stands, is that it is less dependent on the Executive. It has some independence of mind and brings to its deliberations and scrutiny the resources of experience and, I dare say, wisdom in some cases, which ought to give it a reputation. When one considers-and in other debates we shall-how the composition of the House needs to be altered to give it greater legitimacy, we must not overlook those qualities, such as objectivity, which it has and that we would wish to build in to any second Chamber. In parenthesis, to achieve at least some of that, I would definitely wish to see, in a reformed Chamber, the removal of all Ministers from the House, but with the understanding that all Ministers are to be called before the House when there is a matter for which they are responsible, be that legislation or a general area of policy.
The trouble at the moment in this country is that in shying away from overregulation and relying, as the Conservative Party did to some extent in the 1980s, on output-based accountability, we do not satisfy the broader sectoral interests in these problems. Setting up new bodies with specific responsibility does not necessarily meet the public perception that governance is not as it should be. We are within 24 hours of the publicity attached to the Stafford hospital report. There too multiple agencies are involved, which have clearly been derelict in their duty. The task of oversight will not necessarily be handled altogether effectively by departmental committee. I hope it will be recognised that this House, with its very broad basis, can do the job not just of fire-fighting but of raising policy issues as a response to the public's concerns.
The other place has made great strides in the last few years. If the recommendations of the Wright committee are implemented, they will go even further towards enhancing its role, and its role independent of government. However, the Commons employs 15 people in its scrutiny unit. That is an extraordinarily small number to cover all the Select Committees. In itself this would be reason enough to fear that the resources are not adequate. I have not suggested that we should take the route of the Public Accounts Committee, but let no one believe that we can do an effective job without strong support in this place.
Lord Butler of Brockwell: My Lords, I join in congratulating the nob1e Lord, Lord Norton, on securing this debate and giving the House another chance to discuss a subject which has become as topical as it is important. Like the noble Lord, Lord Norton, I believe that your Lordships' House does an excellent job in scrutinising legislation but that it would be a mistake to be complacent. If one looks back there is a continuous process of change and improvement in the proceedings of this House-evolution, not revolution-and I think that most Members of this House would agree that this should continue.
I welcome the statement by the Leader of the House that if, following the election, she is returned to her present post, which she occupies so effectively, she
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Let me offer your Lordships a few tasters of the sort of thing I have in mind. I have been a member of the Better Government initiative, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, referred. That group recently published a report about ways in which government policy and legislation could be improved, including ways in which Parliament can contribute to that. Anyone who has spent a career in the Civil Service, as I have, is aware of how the Executive can become slack if Parliament does not keep it up to the mark. If the Executive does not know that it will have to justify its proposals in the face of rigorous scrutiny by Parliament, its preparation becomes perfunctory, and ill-thought-out proposals are more likely to be produced for political or cosmetic reasons.
I should like to see Parliament pass a resolution in both Houses, setting out the standards of preparation which it expects legislation brought before it to satisfy. Such standards should include a proper explanation-not soundbites-of the reasons for the legislation; what it is intended to achieve; what its costs are; and what consultation has taken place about it. To back up such a resolution, I should like to see a Select Committee on standards of legislation-preferably a Joint Committee of both Houses-which would report to Parliament as the Lords Constitution Committee and the Committee on Statutory Instruments do now; and advise Parliament if, in its opinion, these standards have not been met. I can assure your Lordships that if any Minister supposed that either House would refer back, and refuse to give a Second Reading to, a Bill which had not met the minimum standards, the quality of preparation would improve dramatically. I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that this is not just in the interests of Parliament; this is in the interests of government, and in the electoral interests of government.
I should also like to see some improvements in the use of time to help us maintain our civilised practice of enabling any Member of this House to move amendments without being prevented by formal timetables or guillotines. With this in mind, we might conduct-as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has suggested-more Committee stages in Grand Committee, where probing amendments can be discussed before Report stages, which should be held in this Chamber. We might hold more Statements in Grand Committee, rather than in prime time in this Chamber. We might have at least one slot in the week for a one-hour debate on a topical subject, just as we now have provision for topical
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This is just a sample of suggestions which might be considered; there will be others. To those who are inclined to resist any change, I remind them of the words of a former civil servant, Sir Matthew Stevenson, who said,
Lord Grenfell: My Lords, I, too, greatly welcome the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and agree with just about everything he said. Therefore, my remarks will be mainly a form of endorsement of his proposals. I also welcome very much the strong statement from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that the time has now come to act. However, when we say that we want to act on these proposals, we have to ask ourselves the question which we tend to avoid-although the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, did not avoid it-which is, are we giving ourselves the time to do what we can do, what we want to do and what we are asked to do? Time is an important issue and I shall certainly refer to it again. I begin by endorsing strongly the point already made that high-quality scrutiny of legislation and public policy takes time. If we are not prepared to find that time, we must accept that as a revising Chamber we will normally fall short of achieving our potential and fulfilling our mandate.
When Labour came to power in 1997, the Government promised to bring forward more Bills in draft. The numbers went up for a while and the Modernisation Committee in another place stressed in 2002 that publication of Bills in draft should become the norm. In 2004, your Lordships' Constitution Committee made a strong case for more Bills to be published in draft and subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny. The problem is that the increasing flow of legislative proposals-which worries me as much as I think it worries the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard-has not been matched by an increase in Bills published in draft. In fact, as has already been noted, there has been a decline both in the absolute number and in the proportion of Bills published in draft in each Session. This is highly regrettable. To make matters worse, the few published in draft are often published leaving far too little time for meaningful scrutiny. A minimum of 12 weeks or more should be allowed, which is the principle set out in the Cabinet Office guidelines. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, told the Wright committee, the Government appear to favour the use of draft Bills in principle but in practice cannot persuade Ministers to utilise the procedure on a more systematic basis.
My enthusiasm for pre-legislative scrutiny is fuelled by three desires: to have better legislation; to save, one hopes, some time during the later stages of Bills; and-very important in my view-to see more public input into our legislative process. Scrutiny cannot be truly effective where the legislative proposals are not
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"Scrutiny should not take place in a parliamentary vacuum. Parliamentarians need to have access to expert opinion to know if there are potential flaws in a bill. They need to be aware of any views strongly held by citizens".
It follows therefore to my mind that every Bill should be subject to some detailed scrutiny, with the taking of evidence from informed and interested bodies, including online consultation, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, knows, we do rather well here. Such scrutiny should take place at the pre-legislative stage. Governments must accept that every Bill should be published in draft form unless there are compelling reasons for not doing so, and that much more legislation should be made subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. I am only quoting what the Government themselves have said more than once in the not-so-distant past. But that, of course, means that we have to ensure adequate time for Members to absorb, analyse and discuss the evidence they have read and heard. Look at the experience in the other place following the very welcome introduction of evidence-taking Public Bill Committees, to which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, referred. As he noted in his memorandum to the Wright committee, these committees are generally given too little time to assemble a good range of witnesses and too little time for Members to digest the evidence and apply it to the probing and amending process.
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