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What are we to do about time constraints? The use of Grand Committee these past five years as a virtual parallel Chamber has undoubtedly reduced the pressure, but not enough. I thus fully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that we need greater use of carryover and a 14-month, instead of a 12-month, cut-off point from First Reading if we are to relieve the pressure and weaken the lack of time argument deployed by Governments in defending the failure to publish more Bills in draft and accept more pre-legislative scrutiny. A more systematic resort to carryover is one obvious way of partly resolving the time problem. I add another, at the risk of drawing the scorn of many, if not all, noble Lords present. We really need to sit for two weeks in September. I know this is not popular but I know of no other Parliament in Europe-I have been to just about all of them-which grants its Members so long a summer break. If we cannot bring ourselves to do that, at least we should consider a later Summer Recess start or an earlier return. I have heard it argued in the other place that by the time the Summer Recess starts, most controversial legislation has moved from the House of Commons to the House of Lords, so why interfere with the recess? But that is precisely the point: the burden passes to us and the pressure builds up. The other place should be understanding of that, but we cannot go on complaining that we have too little time for proper scrutiny unless we grasp that particular nettle.
Finally, no matter how much you change or refine procedures to enhance our scrutiny role, the quality of that scrutiny still depends heavily on the expertise applied to it. I wonder what will happen if and when
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Let us ponder deeply-the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, and others present have obviously done so-on the consequences for scrutiny of abandoning the appointed House model. If we abandon it, the House will need to draw on more expertise and experience outside the House to help it maintain a proper level of scrutiny of legislation and public policy, and that will demand still wider use of evidence-based committees. The supporters of an elected Chamber must accept the resource implications of that and the need for more time to do the work properly. Rigorous, high-quality scrutiny is a constitutional imperative. I would rather we did not imperil the precious capability we now have, which is the envy of Parliaments around the world.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the final point of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. I also join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on initiating this debate. As has been pointed out, there have been a number of debates on this subject, most notably in the Queen's Speech debate on 23 November.
A number of the usual suspects are again gathered. Given that the speeches were so good on that previous occasion, there might almost be a temptation simply to read out the same speeches, but in the event I think that the debate has moved on. We have increasingly refined our views and increasingly a consensus has emerged that this matter is coming to the point where action must be taken. I very much welcome the fact that the leaders of each of the parties are to speak in the debate today. This gives us hope that action will be taken.
I remain of the view that the most important change which can be made and implemented without legislation, and immediately, concerns the stopping forthwith of the automatic programming of legislation in another place. I could not be more delighted if the Leader of the House were to stand up and say that that were so. I would be equally delighted if my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition were to stand up and say that an incoming Conservative Government would certainly drop that practice, although I appreciate how tempting it is for any Government to continue with it. New Governments are particularly tempted to rush through legislation and automatic programming is a good way of doing it, but it has effectively emasculated the role of the House of Commons as regards legislation. Together with scrutiny of the Executive, legislation is its most important role. This has put a huge burden on this House, which it has carried admirably.
Perhaps I may make a suggestion. I do not mind whether the noble Baroness, my noble friend or both take it up. The next manifestos of both parties should
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I turn secondly to the issue of the Speakership. I was on the committee concerned with the way in which the Speakership should develop following the removal of the Lord Chancellor. Everyone on that committee was determined that we should not have a House of Commons-type Speaker, and the House endorsed that view. I said in the previous debate that there was a growing feeling-which has grown since-that the present arrangement at Question Time does not operate as well as it might. I do not impugn the way in which the Front Bench decides if necessary who should ask a question, but the system does not work as well as it might. Perhaps we could adopt a position whereby the Lord Speaker could simply say from which part of the House the next question should be asked, but not in any way name an individual Member. It should be left to that part of the House to decide who should give way in the traditional way. Perhaps this is something on which we could take action now, ahead of any change at the election when there will be a large number of new Members. Regrettably, we have reached a stage whereby some change of that sort is necessary.
While I am on the subject of Question Time, whether or not Members receiving Answers thank the Minister depends on the content of the Answer. I do not object to that. However, it is a terrible waste of time when, time and again, Ministers thank Members for asking the question. Some Ministers do that in every answer. Perhaps the Chief Whip may issue a directive to Ministers on the Government Front Bench not to thank Members in the way that I have described.
Finally, I am concerned about some of the proposals that have been made-for example, taking Committee stages in Grand Committee in the Moses Room rather than on the Floor of the House. If any change of that kind is introduced it is important that Back-Bench Members on both sides should have an effective power to prevent it if they think that the proceedings should take place on the Floor of the House. I am concerned that although we debate legislation in this Chamber, the number of opportunities to vote and win is very limited. During my 10 years on the Front Bench, one could have hoped for at most only six occasions when one had a chance of winning on particular amendments, because it is very difficult to get a good vote after the dinner hour. When I was on the Front Bench there was Committee stage, Report stage and Third Reading. Since then there has been some erosion as regards obtaining votes at each stage in the way that one would like, given the way in which the debates have developed. Therefore, we should consider very carefully whether the ability of the House to take a decision is
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Lord Alderdice: My Lords, I add my appreciation in respect of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, not only on having achieved this debate but because he has steadily worked away at the issue by writing about it, obtaining debates and discussing these matters with others. What is particularly encouraging about this debate, as the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Butler of Brockwell, have pointed out, is that it is not isolated, but has come off the foot of a number of debates and formal and informal discussions outside your Lordships' Chamber. The possibilities of moving forward are therefore more substantial.
We should not imagine that the majority of our population's first thought when they wake up in the morning is about politics in general, never mind the proceedings of your Lordships' House. However, a number of groups of people should be thinking about these matters-if not first thing in the morning, then certainly during the working day. They include Members of Parliament, because we are Members of a Parliament of two Chambers, those in the machinery of government, Members of devolved Administrations and the European Parliament, as well as interest groups. All of us in our various ways need to work together to ensure good governance of our country and good legislative procedure.
In institutional terms, I have always seen the other place as representing trust in the people, but your Lordships' Chamber as representing prudence. One of our difficulties as regards those outside appreciating the valuable work that is done and the development of what could be done is that we tend to work rather unto ourselves. First, in relation to Members of another place, we have a marvellous opportunity-or at least some of us think we do-in the upcoming election as a result of an enormous change involving possibly the greatest turnover of MPs since the election at the end of the Second World War. This will be a chance not only to have some kind of relatively didactic short orientation for new MPs coming into the other place, but the possibility of building up proper working relationships with them and understanding much better what we are doing together. We could do that at the start of the new Parliament and then in liaison. A number of different devices have been suggested-some of which are excellent-whereby we would co-operate in ensuring that there was good legislation at the pre-legislative stage. There are things that we could do together-I shall return to that issue. Where work is
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Secondly, there is the suggestion of liaising and ensuring that if, due to procedural or other reasons, parts of Bills are not considered in the other place, that situation could be flagged up so that Members of your Lordships' House would be particularly concerned to ensure that they were properly scrutinised. There is also the idea of having a Joint Committee on parliamentary standards which would look at legislation coming forward and indicate whether or not it has properly and fully been considered. By working together in liaison, informally, and in Joint Committees, we are trying as a Parliament of two Chambers to produce good legislation. We should be much more up-front about the way that we work together. If that happened, I have no doubt that it would mean that Members of another place would be more appreciative and understanding of the good work that is done in your Lordships' House. Perhaps we would continually keep in mind the difficulties for some who work at the other end of the building.
It is not just the Members of another place. The devolved Parliaments and Assemblies in the United Kingdom also play an important role. We could learn from them. When it comes to legislation in Scotland, Executive Bills must be accompanied not just by Explanatory Notes-we have those-but by a policy memorandum that says why legislation is the right way to move forward and what other things have been tried. There are also memorandums on finance and delegated legislation. These ensure that the Scottish Parliament is informed about the legislation, and that the Scottish Executive bring forward material that has been much better thought through. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Speaker decides whether any Bill accommodates itself to the European Convention on Human Rights. At Westminster, it is Ministers: but what Minister will stand up and say, "I do not believe that this Bill conforms to the European Convention on Human Rights"? It was not a power that I had to exercise often as Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but it did happen and it ensured that the Minister looked carefully at whether his Bill did what he was suggesting.
There are ways in which we can learn from each other. If there was a little more liaison, perhaps the devolved institutions might be able to learn from us. I found my experience in your Lordships' House extremely helpful in trying to ensure that those who would otherwise not be entirely respectful of each other behaved in a more appropriate parliamentary fashion. There is much that we can learn from each other, but only if we take the trouble to meet. I refer not just to Members of the Houses. Because we now have a number of Parliaments and Assemblies, there is a much better opportunity for those who serve us as Clerks, or who work for Hansard or in other positions, to have a career structure that takes them through a number of parliamentary Chambers, enabling them not only to develop themselves, but also to help us to understand these things and to learn from each other.
What I have said about devolved institutions applies also to Members of the European Parliament. Much of the legislation that governs our country is made in the European Parliament, not by ourselves, and your Lordships' House does excellent work in scrutinising what comes forward: but again, more two-way liaison would add a great deal to the work that we are doing. The business of opening up to others can only be of benefit not only to the quality of our work, but also to the degree of appreciation, in the other place and in the community at large, of the good work that your Lordships' House does.
Lord Filkin: Like others, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, initiated this debate. It is always a pleasure to debate and work with him on these issues. The benefit of speaking down the order is that many things have already been covered, so I will focus on points that have not been.
The noble Lord, Lord Butler, and others covered well the importance of Parliament being able to understand a Government's policy objectives, how they seek to implement them and what role legislation plays in that. This House is better at scrutinising the detail of legislation than looking at the bigger picture of what the policy is for, whether the legislation will achieve that and whether the other elements of delivery are in place to do so. Our Second Reading debates can be somewhat thin, because the Government have not deposited sufficient documents beforehand. That would not be a major change for the Government, but it is overdue. It will mean work for civil servants to get documents in place so that we are better placed to understand.
Secondly, Grand Committees have been a success. I take note of the point of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, about not wanting to reduce the opportunity for Divisions. Therefore, if we make Grand Committees our default, as I believe we should, there are two other issues that we should bear in mind. First, if the House decides to make Grand Committees its default, it must have the freedom to decide not to do so if it believes that the House does not wish that; or to split elements of a Bill and decide that certain clauses are so crucial that they should be considered in the Chamber, while the rest can be dealt with in Grand Committee. The consequence of Grand Committee being the default, and more often if not always used, is that it reduces the opportunity for Divisions. Therefore, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, I think that the House would find it uncomfortable not to be able to have Divisions at Third Reading if Grand Committees were used on this basis. The consequence of using Grand Committees more will be that we will get better scrutiny. There are considerable benefits to the Government of using Grand Committees, because it avoids the logjam of this Chamber.
I will talk briefly about evidence-taking sessions. A number of noble Lords have spoken on this. Fewer than 10 Bills a year start in this Chamber. It is an anomaly that there is no process for taking evidence from the public or interest groups. We look slightly out of kilter. It is relatively simple to change this, but we should be careful not to cause wreckage. If we have
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I turn next to an issue that we have not talked much about, namely the public's understanding and ability to get involved in what we are doing. This matters to our reputation and to the confidence of the public that Parliament is doing its job and is their servant, rather than considering that it has a God-given right to exist for its own sake. The changes that we can make, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, wisely advised, should be cautious and incremental rather than revolutionary. Simple things can be done that would move in the direction of making what we do more understandable to the public-and, I dare say, to some of our own Members.
First, a deposition on a website of the documents that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, referred to is a simple technical matter. Each government Bill should have a place on a website where the Government's narrative about the Bill is easily accessible to the public and to any Member of the House. Any report from a legislative scrutiny committee should also be accessible there, so one can instantly see what has been said about the Bill.
Next, there should be an explanation of where the Bill has got to in procedural terms, what the subsequent procedures are and what they mean, so that people are aware of what is going on. That is work for technicians rather than politicians, but it would help the public to be aware of what we are doing. It will also help some Members of this House. Here I put my hand up: sometimes one takes part in Divisions when one is not always aware of exactly what one is voting for. Nobody else would make a confession like that. A simple website would allow one to get the bottom line and make that sin less frequently committed. The only worry is that the Chief Whips would not like it. Their view is that one is better doing what one is told rather than understanding what one is doing-but I tease them on that point.
Finally, I will touch on something that we should be concerned about, namely whether good scrutiny and strong and firm government are our intention. All of us in this place recognise that the Government are entitled to their manifesto and to their legislative programme. Therefore we must look at any changes with an open mind-not just from the point of view of scrutinising purists, but asking ourselves whether a fair balance is being struck between scrutiny and the Government getting their work done. The duty of this place is to make the issues explicit to ourselves, to the Government, to the wider public and, through whatever
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Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, by way of introduction, I should like to refer back to every thought and word in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, because my speech is focused on pre-legislative scrutiny, as spoken to by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth on 28 January and again today.
My speech is concerned with the pre-legislative scrutiny of draft constitutional Bills-that is, the Bills that reflect government policy at the inception of the conversion of policy into law. As an available means of enhancement, perhaps consideration could be given to the retrieval of the constitutional entitlement of the Lord Chancellor, which has been slighted into imposed abeyance, having been exercised since the reign of George I until about three years ago. It has evolved over and over again but the substance has never changed, and the proposal is that it should work in harness with the new regime. This is the first step towards establishing a new regime, and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. However, having taken this first step, one has to think a little about implementation, and that would be of great help to the committee of the new regime considering this question.
The difficulty-although it is not really a difficulty-is that the entitlement of the Lord Chancellor to tender disinterested, independent advice to the Cabinet and the Secretary of State as to the withdrawal or abandonment of a Bill because it fails to conform with constitutional principle or the rule of law could now be extended to advising the committee to be set up under the new regime. I cannot go into detail as there is no time but that could be arranged. The late Lord Kingsland, on 18 November 2008, said that among other things it was the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor to ensure that the structures and processes were in place to guarantee such conformity.
The entitlement cannot be retrieved in any form until the combined appointment of Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice has been segregated by decree or, if so ordained, by statute or as ordained by the Supreme Court. It was slighted into imposed abeyance in 2007 by prime ministerial decree without consultation with Parliament or the judiciary, and, by appointment, was set up at the same time as the newly established Ministry of Justice. That was done to cover up the botched attempt to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor in 2005 with the stroke of a pen that ran out of ink.
The substance of the case for segregation, as spoken to by Lord Kingsland on 18 November, can be put quite simply. It is a constitutionally untenable and undesirable amalgamation, because the acknowledged role of the Lord Chancellor and the obligations of the Secretary of State for Justice as a policy-maker are in
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I think that my time is up but, if I may, I shall add that if the constitutional entitlement of the Lord Chancellor were restored, the administration, by virtue of retaining the Great Seal, would be undertaken by the Crown Office, together with many other constitutional duties of the Lord Chancellor which exist today. The precedence of the Lord Chancellor, who is holder of the Great Seal on the command of Her Majesty, would remain and, as such, he could be of considerable practical value to the new regime.
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