Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Before going any further, I declare an interest as a paid non-executive director of the National Archives. I followed the progress of the review of the 30-year rule and the Government's response to it with interest. This will be the main focus of my speech. I wholeheartedly

24 Mar 2010 : Column 1013

support the reduction of the 30-year rule, whereby departmental records are handed over to the National Archives after that period, to a 20-year rule. I give the Government credit for instituting a wide-ranging review of the rule. I also pay tribute to the work of all the members of the review team, chaired by Paul Dacre, and to the officials from the Ministry of Justice, the Cabinet Office and the National Archives.

Both the Freedom of Information Act and the Public Records Act attempt to strike a difficult balance. On one hand, we have the right of citizens to understand how and why decisions are taken by those whom they have elected and, on the other, we have the need for government to function effectively and maintain a degree of confidentiality. The decision to lower the transfer rule from 30 to 20 years means that how government collects, manages and uses their information is now increasingly aligned with the expectations of their citizens and the demands of our information society. I also commend the government decision to simultaneously lower to 20 years, with immediate effect, the time at which historical exemptions cease to apply to freedom of information requests.

Our citizens have a right to know precisely how well, or not, they are governed and have been governed. It is the right decision and I support it. Within the Bill, it is proposed that the Lord Chancellor be given an order-making power to ensure that the transition is properly implemented across Whitehall. It is vital that this does not become an opportunity for every department to plead its case for special treatment or for exemptions. A consistent approach across all departments will be vital if this process is not to unravel in its first year. I urge the Government to limit the scope of any order to only that which is absolutely necessary to ensure compliance with the new transfer rule.

It is estimated that there are around 2 million paper records aged between 20 and 30 years old that must be dealt with. This is a huge task, which will require careful preparation and implementation. I welcome the proposal that the National Archives will oversee this transition and report back annually to Ministers on progress by departments. Work is already under way at the National Archives to ensure that it is ready to advise and support departments during the transitional period and beyond. It will be vital, however, that departments recognise the scale of the task facing them and that each prepares an implementation plan in consultation with the National Archives, setting out how the work will be carried out across the full 10 years. Does the Minister agree that this would not only be a sensible course of action but one that every Permanent Secretary should agree to, so that Ministers have a full appreciation of the risks and costs involved?

7.24 pm

Lord Gordon of Strathblane: My Lords, I hope to get the support of your Lordships' House by undershooting my time by at least a third. As the Minister said in opening the debate, this is a major Bill. As has been instanced in every speech so far, there is a great deal that most people would support in almost every clause, but I am afraid that I must side with the general view of

24 Mar 2010 : Column 1014

the House that it is simply not right to bring a Bill such as this to Second Reading with only a few days left in the legislative programme. Government managers must recognise that, when they introduced quite so much legislation in the Queen's Speech, with only half a Session to debate it, they were tempting providence. Frankly, to do it with a constitutional measure of this significance is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, said, treating Parliament with contempt.

I am worried about wash-ups becoming stitch-ups. It is not that I do not trust the government Front Benches, although we all know what happened in the case of House of Lords reform, when Mr Straw managed to get the agreement of the Front Benches to a lot of what he was doing; it was only when, I am glad to say, the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, broke ranks and indicated that there was not a consensus that that collapsed. The fact is that Front Benches, with the best will in the world, do not have a monopoly on wisdom. I have only to think back to the Digital Economy Bill, in which I played a bit part. A lot of the best contributions to that debate came from the Back Benches. I think, particularly, of the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. A lot of the information that they brought forward led the Government to introduce amendments quite fundamentally changing parts of the Bill. The right way to deal with this is for the Government to say, "How much legislative time do we have and what can we reasonably get through?", relying on the good will of the House to perhaps put things through with a degree of urgency and then tailoring the Bill to that amount of time. The rest of it is too important to be rushed.

I will concentrate on one other item: the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on the statutory Appointments Commission. He rehearsed the number of times that the Labour Party has pledged itself to this in election manifestos, so one simply asks: why is it not in the Bill? The answer, I am afraid, without being unduly cynical, is quite clear, certainly to me. It simply does not sit well with the Government, in the form of Mr Straw, producing in the next few days, we are assured, his recipe for an elected senate of 300 seats or so. It would look as though the Government did not really believe in it. So, once again, the possibility of incremental improvement in the workings of Parliament has been sacrificed for gestural politics that, frankly, will not come to reality in any foreseeable timescale, I am glad to say.

As some noble Lords may know, in all debates I have supported a wholly appointed House of Lords, which I regard as a legitimate second stage of reform. For that reason, I do not agree with the points made by various hereditary Peers that it would be a breach of the undertakings given by my noble and learned friend Lord Irvine. That stance can be taken by people who support an appointed House. It is less easy for Mr Straw to justify it, because if he regards reform only as requiring an elected House-I have never equated reform with election-arguably his expulsion of the hereditaries, or allowing them to wither on the vine, should wait for that as well.

I have three observations on the possibility of this becoming an elected House, which affects the statutory Appointments Commission. First, I hope that the

24 Mar 2010 : Column 1015

House authorities will ignore it. We should bear in mind the fact that planning for office accommodation for us is a long-term business. If they take their foot off the pedal and start saying that they need not worry about any more offices for Peers because there will be only 300 of them in a month or so, we will face a major problem.

Secondly, it should not be forgotten that when the House of Commons debated this in 2007, at the height of the cash for peerages scandal, there was none the less still a majority of Labour and Conservative MPs voting against the proposal for 80 per cent election. I confidently predict that, when Mr Straw publishes his draft clauses for election, that majority will increase when people realise the systems that may be proposed. Surely any electoral system that he proposes will be an improvement on the present and, if it is an improvement, an elected senate will be superior to the House of Commons because it will be elected on a superior system.

Finally, if the Government include this in their manifesto and win an election convincingly, they will claim an electoral mandate for it and use the Parliament Act to force it through in the next Parliament. I hope that they will recognise that the converse should also be true: if there is a swing against the Government, they should equally accept that mandate from the electorate and drop the proposal.

7.31 pm

Lord Cobbold: My Lords, I will confine my remarks to Part 5 and begin by stating my strong support for the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. I reluctantly accept the proposed ending of by-elections for hereditary Peers. As one of the 92, I consider myself to have been extremely lucky to be able to retain a seat in your Lordships' House but, looked at dispassionately, it is very hard to justify heredity by itself as a qualification for membership of the upper House. However, there should be nothing to stop an hereditary Peer applying to the Appointments Commission based on personal merit.

The other issue I wish to raise is the size of the House. As has been said, the House is already the second largest upper House in the world; with life membership, and a population living longer, it can only grow larger-unless there are to be no further admissions, which is clearly not an option. Clause 56 allows a Peer to resign from the House and while this is a reasonable step, there seems to be no incentive to resign or retire when, as at present, Members can simply not attend or seek leave of absence. It does not seem to me that it will solve the numbers problem. I believe that the only way to address that problem is to introduce a limit of parliamentary service of, say, 20 years. This could be achieved over a transitional period of, say, five years to avoid a mass exodus. We can, I hope, discuss these issues further at the Committee stage if, indeed, there is to be one.

Finally, it is most important that this House should remain fully appointed and not be replaced by an elected senate. In the next Parliament, we must stand together and resist this threat to the future of our House and the valuable service that it performs.

24 Mar 2010 : Column 1016

7.33 pm

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I shall speak about a slightly different subject from those raised so far by noble Lords in this very interesting debate. It is dealt with in a nicely hidden clause in Part 12-Clause 86-and Schedule 15. Paragraph 3 of the schedule would insert in Section 37(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 further limitation on FoI requests about the Royal Family. It provides an absolute exemption from such requirements to the heir of the throne, a person who might be heir in the future, other members of the Royal Family and the Royal Household.

In his opening remarks, the Minister referred to this clause and said that its purpose is to protect the constitutional conventions surrounding the monarchy. My comment would be, "Yes, perhaps so". There is nothing wrong with that, but some activities undertaken by the Royal Family in recent years have, I suggest, strayed some way from anything relating to a constitutional convention. It applies both to the number of Royal Family members receiving travel and security expenses or support and the activities that they pursue, which often appear to be a long way from that.

My interest in this stems from the annual royal transport report. I am not commenting on or criticising in any way the travel costs or arrangements of Her Majesty or Prince Philip. They do a great job and seek the most cost-effective means of travel where possible. That was well exemplified by a picture that appeared before Christmas in the Evening Standard of Her Majesty getting on to an ordinary train at Kings Cross going to Sandringham. I thought that if she can do that, perhaps some of her family should be able to as well, rather than going in helicopters all the time, as I shall explain.

There are, I believe, 12 members of the Royal Family who receive government-funded travel. Prince Charles once took a helicopter from Highgrove to Gloucester, which must be all of 12 miles. I think he has one or two cars, and could probably have gone by car. Prince William, as we all know, took a helicopter, which I think he flew himself, to the Isle of Wight to go to a party.

Sadly, the report's usefulness has been reduced because the Royal Household argued two or three years ago that it was too much effort to list individual journeys valued at £3,000 or less and that the lower limit should be increased to £10,000. So we do not know how many trips cost between £3,000 and £10,000. A helicopter trip seems to cost somewhere between £3,000 and £10,000, which is rather more than you would pay to go by car or train.

I notice from the latest report that some helicopter trips in this country taken by the Duke of York, the Princess Royal and others, are knocking on between £12,000 and £15,000 just to get from the London area to Scotland. An awful lot of them could have gone first-class on the train for that amount of money. The Earl of Wessex, too, spent £10,000 on one trip. It is reasonable for taxpayers to know the cost and the purpose of taxpayer-funded trips made in helicopters, for instance, when used by minor royals.

24 Mar 2010 : Column 1017

On security, we read in the press-I do not know whether it was because of a Freedom of Information request-that Princess Beatrice, who I do not think is first in line to the throne, had four security officers permanently with her on her gap year in the Far East and now has two with her while she is at university in this country. Again, I think that we should know.

Prince Charles has also been dabbling in a little bit of business by allowing one of his Duchy of Cornwall tenants to cultivate non-native Pacific oysters in the lower Fal estuary and the Helford river. He seems to have encouraged his tenant to get £230,000 of European Union aid, but they seem to have failed to apply for permission from the Marine and Fisheries Agency. I received a Written Answer on this, HL 2342, which showed that not only did they fail to seek permission but they failed to do an environmental impact assessment. I find that rather surprising. The consequence is rather sad-not only have all those oysters died, they have killed all the others in the estuary. However, that is beside the point. For somebody who has so much concern about the environment, it seems a slight omission not to do an environmental study on something so critical.

Security will always be used as an excuse to use helicopters and for other protection costs, but where does it end? Clearly, some members of the Royal Family need security protection, but do all 12 of them really need it, and at such a high level?

My main concern about this section of the Bill is that the Duchy of Cornwall is a business, as we all know. It should be considered a public sector business and therefore be subject to the Freedom of Information provision, because it has nothing at all to do with the constitution. Schedule 15 could prevent the release of information on all those issues and many more; so rather than having less transparency-I am afraid that the travel report produces less than it used to-there should be more.

The Royal Family should not be above the law when they dabble in oysters, or other businesses, or in the design of buildings, or in whatever we might want to exemplify. I believe that this clause has very little to do with the main purpose of the Bill. It has crept in there because it is a nice way of stopping people from doing too much work but, if and when we get to the wash-up, I hope that it will be removed and, if necessary, brought back and given proper scrutiny.

7.41 pm

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, I have three brief points to make on this Bill. The fact that the first two are words of welcome does not in any way contradict my strong support for those who have said that this is no way to undertake the task of constitutional reform. I add one further point. As the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, has pointed out, the process of the wash-up, which has been widely criticised this afternoon, excludes altogether any input from the Cross Benches-now the second largest group in this House.

Having said that, first, I welcome the proposal to put the Civil Service and the Diplomatic Service on a statutory footing. It may not go as far as some would

24 Mar 2010 : Column 1018

want but it is nevertheless very welcome, if long overdue. Perhaps I may correct my friend and former colleague, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who is not in his place; it is in fact 156 years late. Secondly, I welcome the attempt to clarify and limit the status and responsibilities of special advisers-if not their numbers, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, pointed out. I also welcome the emphasis on the political objectivity and impartiality of the public service.

Thirdly, does the reference in Clause 10(3)(a) to persons selected other than by promotion on merit reflect any intention on the part of the Government to increase the number of political appointments at ambassador or high commissioner level? I doubt whether during my 36 years in the Diplomatic Service, or subsequently, there have ever been more than two political appointees abroad at any one time. Although I pay tribute to several past appointees in this House-most recently, the noble Lord who is the chairman of the Constitution Committee-I hope we can be given an assurance that the Government have no intention of following the example of the United States, where frequent political appointments have sometimes been blatantly inappropriate, a system which, in my view, would have a most undesirable effect on the morale and efficiency of Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service.

To add a postscript, I support strongly the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, on the need to identify the resource implications which departments like the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and others, will face in implementing the reduction of the 30-year rule.

7.44 pm

Lord Borrie: My Lords, I very much agree with the points that have by now been made again and again from all sides of the House; that the process in the Bill for the considerable degree of change in the constitution, which has been embarked upon at the fag end of this Parliament, is quite wrong. Inadequate scrutiny is bad for any Bill but it is, surely, particularly bad for a Bill of constitutional significance. I felt that the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, spoke for-I had better not say all-a great many of us on all sides of the House when she expressed herself in very clear, forthright and condemnatory terms about what is happening.

To quote the noble Lord, Lord Henley-the beginning of the debate is now some time ago, so perhaps he will forgive me if I have not quite got it right-some parts of the Bill may not be objectionable but they still need scrutiny. That is a good general point. I would apply it to the only part of the Bill I shall speak on, which is Part 5 on the House of Lords. Despite the words of the noble Lord, Lord Denham, who is not now in his place, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, there surely must be very wide agreement on the principle embodied in the Bill for ending the arrangements, in operation since 1999, for by-elections to fill vacancies for hereditary Peers when one of them dies. It was notable for me that the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, himself an hereditary Peer, took the same view. There is no merit in continuing with these by-elections.

I can agree with the Lord Chancellor, Mr Jack Straw, who said at Second Reading in the other place that the arrangements were "utterly risible", particularly

24 Mar 2010 : Column 1019

when there were sometimes more candidates in those by-elections than there are electors. I can also agree with the Conservative spokesman, Mr Dominic Grieve, who, speaking in a very measured way as he normally does, said that the present arrangement for elections of hereditary Peers was a "peculiar anomaly".

As the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and others have said, nobody anticipated 10 or 11 years ago that these arrangements would still continue. They can be got rid of only by legislation, so here is legislation. It cannot be done by mutual agreement or something of that sort. Of course, it may take a few decades for all current hereditary Peers literally to die off, but so what? The principle that being in this House is a result of heredity will have been banished. That will gradually take effect and-as I think that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said earlier-it is indeed a more civilised way if it is done by the Grim Reaper than by some other method.

There seemed to my mind to be a certain amount of general agreement that people who are guilty of serious criminal offences should not be Members of this House and that there should be expulsion as well as suspension powers for this House when Peers bring it into disrepute in some way; that is in Clauses 54 and 55. On the first part of that, I will express some doubt. I suppose there is a certain logic that a legislative body whose Members help to make laws should not itself include anyone who has committed a serious breach of the law. Yet the House could lose something by the very absolute nature of Clause 54, which is not discretionary.

I recall that, in the 1980s, the late Lord Spens was convicted of a serious offence and on completing his sentence was of course able to return to this House, where it so happened that there was an interesting debate about prisons. He took an impressive part in that debate. He spoke from rather more experience than most other Peers attending on that day, and his speech was obviously enhanced by that experience. I also note that if only as a result of pressure from the European Court of Human Rights, plus the pressure from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, it may be that the UK will be obliged in the near future to allow all convicted persons to exercise the right to vote for the other place.

If persons convicted of a serious offence, and even those still serving a prison sentence, can take part in the electoral process, it seems to me that the case for automatically depriving convicted Peers of a right to return to the House after they have served their sentence-a right enjoyed for hundreds of years-is reduced. Clause 55 is a discretionary clause to expel people who bring the House into disrepute, but surely that could be used because of the offence of which they have been convicted.

The only point of talking about such things in a Second Reading debate is to put down a marker for the Committee stage. I am afraid we all know that there will not be a Committee stage, and I fully understand the Cross Bench irritation, expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, that the Cross Benches do not have a role.

24 Mar 2010 : Column 1020

Lord Henley: Even under the wash-up process, I understand that there will still be a Committee stage, so it will be open to noble Lords to table amendments. Whether they are discussed will be a matter for the House, but the noble Lord is free to table amendments in due course.

Lord Borrie: I am grateful to be corrected by the noble Lord. If he is right it will be of tremendous interest to many people, not only those here now but others who have ideas for amendments. I say good luck to them and I thank the noble Lord for that comment.

7.52 pm

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, when we receive a Bill containing a part specifically entitled, "The House of Lords", we might expect a slight shiver to run through the calm environment of your Lordships' House. Having sat here for many hours since the debate began I think that I will withdraw the word "shiver" and insert "a deep frost" in this case-at least in relation to the Government's presentation, handling, timing and treatment of the Bill at the final stage of its arrival in this House. The Minister will be glad to hear that I shall not go over that ground again. He can hardly fail to have noticed the comments not only from the Constitution Committee but from all around the House.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page