Conventions: Joint Committee
Baroness Amos (President of the Council, Privy Council Office; Labour)
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. It proposes, accepting the primacy of the other place, the creation of a Joint Committee of Lords and MPs to consider the practicality of codifying the key conventions on the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament which affect the consideration of legislation.
The Motion refers in particular to four key conventions: the Salisbury/Addison convention; conventions on secondary legislation; the convention that government business should be considered in reasonable time; and conventions governing the exchange of amendments between the two Houses. The Joint Committee will, of course, be free to consider other conventions which it thinks fall within its terms of reference.
This Motion reflects the Government's manifesto commitment to,
"a review conducted by a committee of both Houses . . . [to] . . . seek agreement on codifying the key conventions of the Lords".
If the House agrees to the Motion today, the other place will be invited to agree these terms of reference and appoint its Members. This House will then be invited to appoint its own Members, following recommendations by the Committee of Selection. As is usual, the method of working would be entirely up to the Committee. The committee would be expected to complete its work by
Moved, That, accepting the primacy of the House of Commons, it is expedient that a Joint Committee of the Lords and Commons be appointed to consider the practicality of codifying the key conventions on the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament which affect the consideration of legislation, in particular:
(A) the Salisbury/Addison convention that the Lords does not vote against measures included in the governing party's manifesto;
(B) conventions on secondary legislation;
(C) the convention that government business in the Lords should be considered in reasonable time;
(D) conventions governing the exchange of amendments to legislation between the two Houses;
and that the committee should report by
Lord Cope of Berkeley (Chief Whip, Whips; Conservative)
My Lords, as this proposal was in the Labour manifesto, there have been discussions on the terms of reference between the parties and we accept the terms set out in the resolution. However, the Members of the Joint Committee will have an important and tricky task. Apparently, some people see this operation as one to limit the powers of this House. They read codification of the conventions as some kind of code for restricting the powers. I point out that the terms of reference do not ask the new committee to consider or to propose any revision or modification of the conventions, only to consider the practicality of codifying the existing conventions. Some may, of course, be best left to conventions, which is a method that has served the British constitution well over many years. We see no case for restricting the powers of the present House. The argument about the powers of either House of the legislature is not that they are too strong, but they are too weak relative to the Executive, the Government.
In any case, as far as the committee is concerned, the first difficulty is what sort of codification. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath—during his career break—chaired a group of Labour Peers who reported, among other things, that statutory codification would present drafting difficulties. They also realised that if that were the route chosen, future arguments about, for example, the interpretation of manifestos, would have to be fought out in the courts. Incidentally, if there were to be a hung House of Commons, which manifesto would the courts look at? Before Easter, we were engaged in ping-pong over the Identity Cards Bill. Part of the argument turned on the interpretation of the Labour manifesto. Without going back over those arguments, I do not think it would have been regarded as satisfactory for the process of law-making to have been held up while we went to court to argue that part of the case. Nor do I think it would be satisfactory for a judge to have to decide the meaning of the manifesto in those circumstances, and so settle what could become law. Instead of the statutory route, the conventions could be set out in the Standing Orders of both Houses and in the Companion to the Standing Orders of this House. In fact, the conventions on secondary legislation—(B) in the Motion—and for ping-pong—(D) in the Motion—are currently set out to a great degree in Standing Orders and in the Companion.
But as well as the problems of practicality and the desirability of codifying the conventions, the new Joint Committee will have to try to decide what exactly it thinks the current conventions are. That is not a wholly straightforward matter. Anyone who thinks that Salisbury/Addison is a clear, well understood and established convention that can be stated in a sentence or two simply has not looked into the matter. In the 1945 Parliament, a new formulation was evolved between the leaders of the Labour and Conservative Parties, but the Liberal Party of the day and the Cross-Benchers were not involved, and the convention, whatever it is, did not extend to them. In any case, we now live in a different era with a different House of Lords. There has been plenty of argument about how the convention applies now, if at all. The House then had a built-in Conservative majority; now no party has a majority. It was then entirely hereditary, but since then life Peers have been introduced by the Conservatives and most of the hereditaries have been kicked out by Labour. It was then entirely male, but the Conservatives introduced female Peers, both hereditary and for life.
Lord Cope of Berkeley (Chief Whip, Whips; Conservative)
Very good too! When Salisbury/Addison has been debated in recent years, there has not been unanimity about its relevance or applicability today.
On the convention that government legislation should be considered in reasonable time—(C) in the Motion—the problem is to define "reasonable". We have had this problem in other contexts in this House. Some Bills need to be passed quickly: the Northern Ireland Bill that we are about to consider is one example. Others can be taken more slowly. In the present Session, the Violent Crime Reduction Bill waited 60 days between First Reading and Second Reading. That was because the Government, particularly the Home Office, had a lot of other legislation at the same time and gave priority to other Bills. I do not complain about that; it is the fact of the matter. To have a rigid limit of, for example, 60 days in total for the consideration of Bills in the Lords would make life much more difficult for government business managers, as well as for the rest of the House.
In the current Session, 13 Bills have taken longer than 60 days in the Lords and the average of all Bills so far this Session has been 61.3 days. Those that have taken longer have not in general been the controversial Bills but often the lesser Bills which have not had priority. For example, the Consumer Credit Bill was before the Lords for 89 days in total. It was discussed for three days (or part of days) on the Floor and for two days in Grand Committee. The Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Bill was here for 99 days: three days (or parts of days) on the Floor and three in Grand Committee. The Fraud Bill was before the House for a total of 122 days. It was delayed in the middle of its passage by discussions on policy decisions; and there is a similar delay now on the Electoral Administration Bill where new matter about loans is to be inserted by the Government—new matter which, so far as I know, will be well received in all parts of the House.
I do not think that there has been any claim that we have unreasonably delayed any government Bill and I do not see what the problem is over it. It may be that Ministers want to legislate more: to cram more Bills into a single Session. If that is the case, I dislike it. But in one respect, the easiest group of the conventions to codify should be those on ping-pong because the procedure is already fully documented and that has to be close to codification. The procedures are not so much conventions as rules.
The Joint Committee is not being asked to propose alterations to the conventions, only to consider the practicability of codifying them. But the Commons have recently varied the way the rules work by the introduction and development of packaging, as it is called, of Lords amendments which is in danger of weakening the leverage of your Lordships' House in such situations. This is a complex field. I have had a certain amount to do with it while on the Front Benches and in the Whips Offices at both ends of the corridor, in Government and in Opposition. It is my opinion that with the caveat on packaging just mentioned the rules work pretty well. Effectively, they oblige the two Houses to come closer together with successive compromises until agreement is reached. Sometimes it takes a few days but it works.
The other conventions mentioned in the Motion concern secondary legislation. Many colleagues think that with the increased use now being made of statutory instruments the power to amend them should be allowed. That would be more than simply codifying them. The committee will not consider that, therefore, but it might be looked at in a different form.
All in all, the committee has a difficult but limited job. Some press leaks suggest that the codification of the conventions would provide a basis for the future if changes were to be made in the composition of the House. I do not believe that. If there were to be a change to a fully or substantially elected House, the conventions we are talking about would change too, whether or not they have been codified. Perhaps the new House would start with the same rules as at present but it would not last. The first time that the elected Members have to go back to their constituents with the excuse, "We couldn't do anything to stop it"—whatever was being disagreed with—"because the old House of Lords couldn't do anything", the conventions will be mortally wounded. The fact that someone else was also representing the same constituents at the other end of the building would not be a sufficient excuse for the most loyal of colleagues, let alone for someone from another party. Political pressure for greater power would mount until it was impossible to resist.
If there are any who think that the present convention would survive in such circumstances, let them look at the arguments on ping-pong, for example, recently with regard to the Identity Cards Bill. The Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, did a sterling job, and, as happens on such occasions, the principal argument to which she came back time and again was that the views of the elected House should prevail because it is an elected House and we are not. The same argument was much used in another place in the same context. If the second Chamber were elected, that argument would vanish; indeed, it would work in the opposite direction and the conventions of which we speak would be on the slide. So, whatever the Joint Committee proposes will not last beyond the present composition of the House.
The final point I want to make concerns the timetable. The Motion requires the committee to report by
Lord McNally (Leader, House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, perhaps as an example to any who may care to follow, I do not propose to go into the same detail in responding to this Motion as the Official Opposition Chief Whip, although I think that he has done a service to the House in posing some of the difficulties that will be faced by the committee.
It is known, certainly on my Benches, that when this committee was first proposed I was very reluctant for the Liberal Democrats to participate in it; not least because I thought it simply gave momentum to what was at that stage one of those famous Downing Street briefings—that the Prime Minister was determined to clip the wings of the House of Lords. It came not long after the Labour Party group report of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, already referred to, which exposed one of the problems we face—that that group seemed to set as its objective how best and how smoothly to get government business through the House of Lords. I see that the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, is shaking her head as well. Listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, on the ID cards, that again seemed to be the main thrust of her argument, coupled with threats, which I think she will come to regret, to the Cross Benches, and, indeed, to anyone else who dared to stand in the way of the Government's tanks.
While we are at it, since the noble Lord, Lord Richard, is also speaking from a sedentary position, during the same period we had a contribution from him which was again extremely useful if you were a government trustee. The noble Lord made his reputation down the road defending the indefensible, and in his speech on ID cards that is what he was doing that night.
We must split off our task as parliamentarians to be a Parliament that can keep an over-powerful executive in their place and the desire of some on those Benches to make life easy for the government Chief Whip of the day. I have been willing to go along with this group because parallel with it is an initiative by the Lord Chancellor that will look at reform and composition, and I do not think that you can separate composition and powers in the way the Government are trying to do. I do think that the useful analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, has already established that the group will have some difficult tasks to perform. The House of Lords, by one of those paradoxes of history, now has a higher reputation than perhaps at any time in the recent past, partly because it uses its limited powers prudently but constructively, and I am determined that it should still retain the right to say no. Unless it retains that right, we are on our way to a unicameral Parliament, with a debating Chamber at this end, and with that would come all threats of the elective dictatorship which Lord Hailsham warned us about 30 years ago.
We are entering very deep water and some very complex subjects, which the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, has laid out effectively for the House. Anyone who volunteers for the committee would do well to read the noble Lord's speech, because it will face some hard work. We on these Benches will enter into these discussions with good will, generosity of spirit and a determination to succeed. I hope that the same will be true of those on the government Benches because, if it is and if they think not only of the government of the day but of this Parliament and this House, we have a chance of succeeding.
Lord Williamson of Horton (Crossbench)
My Lords, I thought I should make the preliminary point that I recall being pleased by the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, but never threatened.
Although the Motion is a procedural one about the appointment of a Joint Committee of both Houses, it opens up issues, as both speakers have already made clear, which are extremely important for our relations and the operation of Parliament as a whole. For that reason, I want to make some comments before the Joint Committee is set up, and to do so now because the Motion has come upon us rather speedily and it is obvious from the date of
My first point is that it would be a mistake to assume that there is something wrong in the current relations between the Houses and their respective powers, although other aspects of the House of Lords, such as the presence of hereditary Peers or the question whether there should be an elected element, are, as we all know, the subject of much debate and disagreement but are not the subject matter of this Joint Committee. On the subject matter of the Motion, I do not detect any sign of public dissatisfaction; indeed, I believe that the public are generally very satisfied with the performance of the House of Lords, and particularly with the way in which we scrutinise and amend legislation and give careful attention to the interests and the liberty of our citizens. For that reason, I join others in hoping that the Joint Committee will stay strictly within the proposed mandate to examine the practicality of codifying certain conventions and not change their substance.
My second point relates to the conventions—I shall be fairly brief, but these matters are important—the first of which is the Salisbury/Addison convention. Of course I, like others, cannot forebear to mention that the Cross-Bench Peers were not party to the creation of the convention, although, like good soldiers, we have respected it. I recognise without reservation the force of the convention—namely, that the House of Lords should not reject a manifesto Bill of the democratically elected government, nor should it amend it in a way that would destroy or completely alter the measure. But it can, of course, in its normal revising role make working amendments which do not breach that principle.
However, if there is to be any further codification, it would be desirable to identify more clearly what constitutes the core programme of the Government and to indicate the manifesto Bills in that programme. In that way, both Houses of Parliament would know clearly where they stand. Point (B) in the proposed mandate of the Joint Committee relates to secondary legislation, which I am slightly surprised to see here. I do not see any particular problem relating to this House. For many years, I have been an unremitting opponent of the volume of secondary legislation deriving from the European Union. Since I have been in this House I have added some secondary legislation of national origin to my hate list. But the control of secondary legislation goes much wider than the activities of this House. Our committees do excellent work indicating problems with secondary legislation, which the Government often follow. We do not normally—or very seldom do we—reject secondary legislation, although we did affirm a resolution some years ago that we had unfettered freedom to vote on any subordinate legislation.
Point (C) relates to the consideration of government business in the House in reasonable time, which I think was covered in the report of the group chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and elsewhere. In my period in the House, which now seems rather long, I have not noted any significant time wasting. We have to bear in mind that this House is the principal revising and amending Chamber—that is a reality—on legislation. Frequently, the Government correct their legislation by amendments which are tabled and adopted in this House. That is happening. The scale of our legislative work is not always appreciated or understood. In the last typical, completed full Session—2003–04—9,604 amendments were tabled in this House, of which 3,044 were adopted. We have an important role. We must not prejudice our capacity to improve legislation to a large degree on lines which the Government approve.
Point (D) of the draft Motion refers to the exchange of amendments to legislation between the two Houses—"ping-pong" in Lordship-speak. My initial comments about distinguishing between codification and substantive change apply with even more force to that. In addition, as has been indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, the rules of ping-pong are codified, or at least documented, thoroughly already.
Finally, I want to make a point on a matter which is not directly a concern of the Joint Committee, but to which reference has already been made, and is the backdrop to its considerations. If in due course a decision is made to make this House a largely elected Chamber, the primacy of the other House will remain. But its result would evidently be that the public would attribute to their Member of the House of Lords the same legitimacy in his or her parliamentary functions as they would attribute to a Member of the other House. To that extent the bicameral nature of our parliamentary system would perhaps be even more evident and worthy of protection than it is now.
Lord Denham (Conservative)
My Lords, how and by whom is the list of conventions of your Lordships' House that the Joint Committee is to discuss to be drawn up? I ask this because, apart from the handful that are named in the Motion, the Joint Committee should also be in a position to consider those conventions that have already been broken by Her Majesty's Government throughout the years since 1997: the convention, for instance, that no change in the constitution should be imposed unilaterally without having at least made an effort to achieve an agreed solution with Her Majesty's Opposition; the Leader's Committee of a few years ago, set up without the authority of this House and treated thereafter, with a Clerk of the House assigned to it, as though it had that authority, its main legacy being a virtually empty Chamber every Thursday from the end of Question Time in the morning until the rise of the House in the late afternoon; the whole catalogue of events that had their origin on the afternoon of
Viscount Bledisloe (Crossbench)
My Lords, I wish to inquire about the timetable. The idea of the Joint Committee was mooted 12 months ago. It has taken the Government 12 months to come up with a single sentence containing the terms of reference. They then apparently expect the committee to report within a maximum of two and a half months. I say a "maximum" because even now we are not ready to go forward. As the noble Baroness made plain, the matter has to go to another place. It has to come back here, names have to be nominated, and then presumably the committee has to be set up, and dates found convenient for the sizeable number of members to gather together. I would be grateful if the noble Baroness the Lord President would indicate what realistically she thinks is the first date on which the committee will meet.
Having taken 12 months to set the thing up, it seems nothing short of ridiculous to expect the committee to report within two months as it will. I had been minded to table a Motion to set a later date by way of amendment. I was persuaded not to only by the assurance that it was fully open to the committee to put in an interim report by
Lord Waddington (Conservative)
My Lords, I do not believe that I can be alone in feeling that this is an extraordinary time to be debating a Motion in these terms. I am somewhat surprised that my noble friend, who gave a most admirable speech, should have accepted so readily that we debate this matter today. The Government wish to see the composition of this place changed. The Prime Minister has made that absolutely plain in the past few weeks. There is much debate on what powers a reformed House should have. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor advanced recently the crazy argument that the more legitimate this House is made the more it can command the respect of and reflect the views of the people, and the fewer powers it should have. I suspect that he now wishes that a veil would be drawn over those absurd remarks; otherwise the men in white coats will be waiting in the wings.
Surely we can all agree that the way this place is composed and the powers it is given must have a great bearing on the relevance and appropriateness of our conventions. Already there are differences of view and debate about the relevance of the Salisbury convention, now the House is no longer in any way like the House that existed when the convention came into existence. When the composition of this place is changed again, it will be appropriate to examine the Salisbury convention—not now, when the future is quite uncertain. We are wasting our time debating this matter today.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury (Spokesperson in the Lords (Id Cards & Charities Bill), Home Affairs; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, when the noble Baroness the Leader of the House sums up this debate, will she agree—and thus agree that the Joint Committee should consider carefully the fact—that, with regard to paragraph (A) of the Motion, which relates to the Lords not voting against measures included in the governing party's manifesto, manifestos are growing like Topsy? The last Labour Party manifesto was more than 100 pages long. To try to fix the Salisbury convention on every single statement made within a massive manifesto is to dishonour the circumstances in which that convention was brought forward. It would be an extremely difficult issue for the Joint Committee to address in a manner that would lead to codification.
I support strongly both the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, and the noble Lord who spoke previously, who suggested that the date of
Lord Lea of Crondall (Labour)
My Lords, is it not at least as plausible to conclude that, far from the Motion unduly accelerating the debate on composition, the converse is true? This Motion puts the horse before the cart and not the other way round. That is why it should be supported.
Lord Renton (Conservative)
My Lords, I have served in Parliament for the past 60 years—34 years in the other place and 26 years in your Lordships' House. Of course, there have been tremendous changes in that time. These conventions for consideration are based on what was, not what is or what should be. For example, the Salisbury/Addison convention was formulated when your Lordships' House consisted entirely of the Bishops and hereditary Peers. Three hereditary Peers still attend the House, but they have never served in the other place. As has been said, in considering our future and that of the House of Commons it is necessary for us to change these conventions. We must change them fundamentally. I ask your Lordships to bear in mind that, although in 1945, when these matters were first considered, and when I was a Member of the other place, there was anxiety because of the hereditary nature of the membership of your Lordships' House, they acted quite rightly at the time. But, because of the changes that have taken place, we really must reconsider the whole matter and the suggestion made by one of my noble friends that we are perhaps asking too much for independent views to be put before us by the end of July. This is a fundamental matter which must be thoroughly considered.
I conclude by saying this: the House of Commons is democratically elected, as it always was, and as I so well remember. It has resulted in a bunch of splendid people but they do not have the experience that there used to be. I will cite just one example. Sir Winston Churchill, although he had not been knighted by then, was a prominent Member of the House of Commons in those days. Indeed, my conscience was badly affected because I was running late for a Division in October 1945 and I collided with Sir Winston, who had already voted. I apologised and he said, "That's all right, I saw that you were travelling pretty fast. Go and vote". Now we have a House of Lords which is not democratically elected but highly representative. We have—and I think it is an advantage—95 hereditary Peers, well chosen out of 950. We have life Peers from numerous walks of life, many of them with valuable experience. To let the people of both Houses, who will reconsider the matter, merely to try to support the existing conventions would be a very serious mistake.
Lady Saltoun of Abernethy (Crossbench)
My Lords, if the remit of this proposed committee is only to codify existing conventions and not to change them, and if, as the noble Lord, Lord Cope, has indicated, codifying some of them would be nearly impossible, it seems to me that this committee will be a complete waste of time and money. I will not divide the House on that but if any other noble Lord has in mind to do so I should be very happy to support him.
Lord Crickhowell (Conservative)
My Lords, I join those who think that the timetable for this Motion is little short of ludicrous but I want to make what I think is a more important point. It has been made by a number of noble Lords, who suggested that to codify the existing conventions might be a profound mistake, whether or not there are to be changes in the constitution of this House. We have been told by my noble friend the Chief Whip that we are not altering the conventions. We are certainly not restricting the power of the House of Lords. But the other side of the argument is that we cannot extend the conventions or amend them in any way.
There are quite good reasons, as my noble friend suggested, for reconsidering conventions such as Salisbury/Addison. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, suggested that it would be absurd that every tiny reference made somewhere in a vast manifesto should necessarily bind us and prevent us voting on an important issue. That applies particularly to constitutional and electoral matters. To give an example of my concern, I refer to a Bill presently before the House. The Government of Wales Bill contains some very important changes that the Government intend to make to the electoral arrangements. They also intend to use Orders in Council as a method of conducting primary legislation. Both those issues are of profound interest, and this House, above all others, as the defender of constitutional propriety, should be able to take a view. The fact that somewhere in the Welsh manifesto a few sentences have been inserted which enable Ministers to say that it is a government manifesto commitment and that this House therefore cannot stand in the way is very dangerous indeed.
It would be a profound mistake if, as proposed in this Motion, we codified existing conventions without considering their possibly very damaging impact. So when the committee comes to consider its interim report, if it can reach that point by
Lord Bridges (Crossbench)
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, has raised a point to which I attach great importance. It emerged during the debate on the Salisbury/Addison convention which was touched on last week during our consideration of the Government of Wales Bill. It concerned the effect of a commitment made in the Labour Party manifesto for the Welsh Assembly elections. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, said in terms on
Lord Richard (Labour)
My Lords, I listened closely to what the noble Lord who has just sat down said. As I understand the position, a commitment made in the Labour Party manifesto in relation to the Welsh Bill was not in respect of an Assembly election in Wales, but was in the Welsh manifesto issued at the time of the general election. That puts the matter in an entirely different context from that expressed by the noble Lord. The fact is that all parties do this. There is a national manifesto, a Welsh manifesto, a Scottish manifesto and, I suspect, one for Northern Ireland, although I confess that I have not looked into that for many years. In those circumstances, it is impossible to argue that the matter was not a manifesto commitment. If it was such a manifesto commitment, the question this House has to ask itself is what effect that would have.
I am not against setting up this committee, but I am not sure I entirely share the optimism floating back from the Government Front Bench on this, for
One accepts that these problems exist; but if one wants the committee established I suggest that we do not go on making major speeches—in effect, Second Reading speeches—on what is not legislation but a suggestion for a committee. Frankly, I hope that the House could now move to accept it or to divide on it, if people want that, because this debate is not getting very far.
Lord McNally (Leader, House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I know from the noble Lord's previous speeches that he is an expert on the Salisbury convention. Is he now saying that that convention applies to these sub-manifestos as well? As he knows, there is always a Greater London manifesto and, often, regional manifestos. The legitimacy of the Salisbury convention is that a proposition has been put to the general electorate, so the electorate in County Durham has, in some ways, supported that proposition. But should the elector in County Durham be careful to ensure that there is nothing in the Welsh manifesto to which he or she objects? If so, we are getting into a real mess.
Lord Richard (Labour)
My Lords, with great respect to the noble Lord, it is extraordinary to propose that the population of Durham should have the final say on something that affects only Wales and the Assembly elections there. If the Welsh people have shown, by the election results, that they have appreciated the importance of a manifesto commitment then, under the terms of the Salisbury convention, this House should accept that.
Lord Tebbit (Conservative)
My Lords, the situation is much simpler than the noble Lord, Lord Richard, believes. The Government do not take point (A) at all seriously. Yesterday in Grand Committee, in fact, the noble Lord, Lord Warner, recommended that we should not pursue the arguments that private clubs should be exempt from the anti-smoking provisions of the Health Bill. Yet that was what the Labour Party said in its manifesto. So, when that Bill comes back here on Report, I will vote, on that issue, for the Labour Party manifesto and I hope that the noble Lord will as well.
Lord Tyler (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, was seeking to clarify the situation, but I fear that he has made it even more complicated for me. For example, if the people of Wales had supported something yet had not been lucky enough to have created the government of the day—which could easily happen—whose manifesto is then relevant to Wales?
I would take this point a step further; I have a specific question for the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. It is implicit that the committee we are seeking to constitute this afternoon can go no further than the existing conventions. It cannot, for example, take a partial view of them nor take half a convention, or what is still relevant of it, and codify that. I hope that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House can say whether this is all or nothing. That is of critical importance. As a number of your Lordships have already said, the Salisbury/Addison convention has strict limitations. Not only was it a deal between two parties—rather than all parties and the Cross Benches—but, strictly speaking, it is a time-limited anachronism. Let me just illustrate that to your Lordships. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, referred to the possibility of a hung Parliament. What is equally possible under our present electoral system is that the government of the day—the governing party—could easily find themselves in office without the biggest single portion of the votes. Our present system easily lends itself to that. That is already the case in England.
Lord Tyler (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, if the noble Lord and I were in a coalition, it would be some coalition.
Your Lordships' House has to think very carefully about the terms of this Motion. If this new Joint Committee is to find itself hide bound by the terms of the remit we vote for this afternoon, it will be in an extraordinarily difficult position. The date is irrelevant. If the measure comes back to us on
I hope that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will clarify whether the committee is stuck with this remit to such an extent that it cannot even review the existing conventions. If that is the case, we do a disservice not just to ourselves but to the relationship with the other House as well.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil (Conservative)
My Lords, I am always surprised by the importance some people attach to party manifestos, even when time has passed and they ought long ago to have been accorded a decent burial. I should like briefly to refer to the speech made by my noble friend the Chief Whip. He said—and, I think, very rightly because the point has been largely ignored—that the House of Lords that we are dealing with now is much changed from the one which we started with some years back. I agreed with his questions but I was disappointed by his apparent readiness to assent to this Motion, which makes me very anxious and very nervous. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, on this.
I thought that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, nailed the point absolutely when he said that we must preserve the right to say no. He then—characteristically, if I may say so—offered to go ahead with good will. I wonder whether he really has any grounds to be satisfied that the Government will reciprocate his goodwill.
I shall not detain your Lordships long. My chief anxiety about this measure is that it is my underlying belief that the Government find not just the House of Lords but, from time to time, the other place a source of serious inconvenience. To remove or to weaken Parliament would be a useful step forward in facilitating progress by the Government. Your Lordships face, any moment now, the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. If ever a measure presented to Parliament was calculated to fan the anxieties that I seek to express—that the Government lose no opportunity to rob Parliament of its rights and opportunities to perform its duties—that is it.
I have raised my next point before. The decline of respect for Parliament as a whole is very largely due to the way it has allowed itself to become the washpot of the Government. If there is a vote on the Motion, I shall unhesitatingly join the Not-Contents Lobby. This matter is much too serious to be satisfied just by giving the nod to such a Motion. I believe if we pass it, we shall be enticed further down a road that I do not want to go down.
Lord Davies of Coity (Labour)
My Lords, I remind the House that the terms of the proposition are not to consider the codifying of key conventions but,
"to consider the practicality of codifying the key conventions".
It was not my intention to intervene in this debate, but listening to many noble Lords who are much more familiar with the conventions of the House than I am, I have learnt one or two things. First, I recognise that if the Joint Committee is set up, as so many noble Lords have said, there will be a lot of difficulties and problems to deal with. I also recognise that in giving consideration to this proposition we will have another problem, of what exactly will be achieved if the conventions that are already understood need to be codified. I would like my noble friend to give me that answer.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Conservative)
My Lords, I do not want to detain the House, but I have some questions for the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. I know that this is a polite House, but I think that the way that the Government treat this House is quite contemptible. I read in the newspapers over the weekend that the Government plan to bring in a Bill to change the composition of the House in the Queen's Speech. Being a suspicious kind of lad, I look at this Motion and I cannot for the life of me—having served on the Joint Committee of both Houses that looked at composition, and knowing how long we spent debating really complex issues—imagine how this timetable could have been reached.
At first, I thought that there was a misprint and it must be meant to read July 2007, but it is obviously 2006. If the Government were planning to bring in a Bill in the Queen's Speech to change the composition, I could understand why they would want to get this, which they have done nothing about for a year, out of the way for
I also say to the Leader of the House that one of the conventions that the Government seem to have forgotten is that the Leader of the House, like the Leader of the House of Commons, had a role that was beyond being a member of the government; it was about protecting and championing the interests of the House. I read in another newspaper in Scotland an interview given by the Leader of the House, in which she expressed the view that this House should consist of 300 elected Members. I do not know whether she was speaking for the Government, whether that is the plan, or whether that will be in the manifesto. But to come to this House with a Motion such as this on these important matters that are about our democratic checks and balances is quite contemptible.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart (Spokesperson in the Lords, Scotland; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I suggest to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House that experience might have recommended to her and her colleagues a somewhat different way of approaching what is clearly a sensitive and important matter of constitutional reform. It is not so long—it is within the memory of almost everyone here—since the Prime Minister sought to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor, and he did so without proper consideration of the consequences.
None the less, this House played a significant part in rebalancing those proposals in a way that made them ultimately more acceptable and capable of being implemented, but it did not do so with a pistol at its head. It did so as a result of setting up a committee of this House under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, which took its time and looked around the issue in a much more considered way than was the case with the original announcement by the Prime Minister.
Significant issues are raised in this proposal, but it is not sensible to seek to define them in the way in which this Motion does. There are a number of important issues affecting the relationship between the two Houses that are not even alluded to, such as the conventions and practices governing the introduction of a Bill in this House or in the other place, and whether it is appropriate to have different procedures. It may be that the burden of legislation, which has grown so much over the years, ought to be shared very differently. Those matters could be discussed fruitfully and creatively if the deliberation were sufficiently considered, and not treated as though it were potentially an adversarial issue between the two Houses.
The dark shadow shining through this form of words is not about an issue between the two Houses, but about the Executive's concern not to be effectively checked. Frankly, that is not something that should or can be effectively resolved by bouncing either House. I plead with the Leader of the House because she has a constitutional role, which is more than that of a member of the Executive, to recognise that the balance between Parliament and the Executive is the most critical part of our constitution. It is not protected by codification, and less still by any form of written constitution. She has a particular capability of protecting these delicate relationships to ensure that the constitution is admired and works in the interests of our citizens.
I hope that the noble Baroness will reconsider and indicate that she understands that, to do proper justice to the issues, only some of which have been raised—I acknowledge that the words of the Motion refer to key conventions in particular, not excluding other considerations, some of which are raised—if the committee wishes to take its time, it will not be considered to have failed in its task if it does not report by the date proposed.
Lord Campbell of Alloway (Conservative)
My Lords, I have only one question; I shall not make a speech. What is the object in setting up the committee until the question of composition has been decided? This is a premature exercise. The issue of composition, which has been referred to by more than one noble Lord, is fundamental to dealing with the essence of the question, never mind the frills of it. For reasons that have been given by other noble Lords, if anyone were to oppose the Motion—I do not have the authority to do it—I would go into the Lobby with him.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes (Conservative)
My Lords, various speakers have made the point that the Motion describes the key conventions, but it does not elaborate on what they are. We have regularly complained in this House about the appalling treatment of Private Members' Bills—I declare that I have been involved with several of them—when they go to the House of Commons.
The conventions set out seem very one-sided. All that will be considered is how this House will be affected and what adverse changes will be made to this House. People have asked why we are not looking at secondary legislation and the right to amend it. Will we be able to look at that? Will we be able to do something to encourage the other place to give our Private Members' Bills a fair hearing in the way in which we always do for theirs? Why should all the conventions be one-sided by regarding this House only? I do not like that, but the shortage of time means that none of those other important considerations will be taken into account.
Baroness Amos (President of the Council, Privy Council Office; Labour)
My Lords, if this afternoon's discussion is anything to go by, the discussions in the Joint Committee will be extremely lively and challenging. I am sure that Members of the House who have expressed their views this afternoon will ensure that the Joint Committee is made aware of those views by sending in evidence.
I begin by repeating that the Joint Committee is being asked to consider the practicality of codifying the key conventions. In the Motion, a number of conventions have been established. This is the Government's way of trying to indicate the areas that we think it would be helpful for the Joint Committee to look at. What the conventions are will be for the committee to establish. The proposed terms of reference are intended to give the committee the maximum freedom to decide on the best course of action. The intention is not to tie the committee down to any particular approach. One thing that the committee might well wish to take as its starting point is the report published by the royal commission chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, which looked at some of these issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Denham, was concerned that the notice had gone down on the Order Paper late. The notice went down last Wednesday, and I am sorry if he did not see it until two days ago. The Motion was published on the morning of
Baroness Amos (President of the Council, Privy Council Office; Labour)
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that clarification.
A number of noble Lords raised consultation and timing. We have been consulting the other parties on this matter for over six months. We agree that it would have been better to have set up this committee earlier, but these discussions have been punctuated by two leadership elections, hence the delay. The Government started these consultations some time ago. The terms of reference being imposed have been agreed between the parties, and there have also been discussions with the noble Lord the Convenor of the Cross Benches. The committee will meet as soon as the approval Motions have been agreed in both Houses.
It might help if I say something about the process that we envisage, which is no different from the process envisaged last year when the Government set this out in their manifesto. The Government committed to establishing a Joint Committee looking at the conventions, and this is the Joint Committee that we are discussing now. The Government made it clear then that they were committed to a further free vote on composition. We would like that free vote to be informed by whatever comes out of the Joint Committee. That was always the intention, and it remains so. A number of speakers in the House this afternoon have indicated that they think the issue of composition comes before a discussion of what this House is here for. I do not agree with that; it is important that we are clear about what we are here for and to do, which will then inform the issue of composition. Clearly there are two different views around the House.
Since the Government's commitment to the Joint Committee and to the free vote on composition, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has begun a process of consultation with the parties, looking at the issue of composition to see if there is consensus which could inform that free vote. Those discussions are at an early stage.
The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, raised the issue of my responsibilities as Leader of the House. I am well aware of my responsibilities. If he chose to speak to the journalist who interviewed me, if they were honest, they would say that the majority of that lengthy interview was about the role and work of this House. That was not what was reported. At the end of the interview, I was asked my personal view of what the House of Lords should look like. I repeated a long-held, personal view of what this House should look like, which I have previously expressed on many occasions.
Noble Lords will know that my party has given a free vote on the issue of the composition of this House. I am on record as having voted for every single Motion with an element of election. That has been my position since I came into this House, and I have not changed my view. I do not see any contradiction in making my personal view absolutely clear and talking to journalists about the important work of this House. I gave a number of good examples of the important role of this House in that interview.
It is not for us to go into the detail this afternoon of the issues which we want the Joint Committee to consider; we have had a pretty good go at identifying a number of them. Having listened to the views around the House, I think that we need this Joint Committee more than ever. The date of the Joint Committee reporting has been agreed—
Lord Barnett (Labour)
My Lords, before my noble friend gets to that point, does she accept that this resolution is somewhat premature in the sense that, if there were to be an elected second Chamber—this House—there would need to be changes in the conventions?
Baroness Amos (President of the Council, Privy Council Office; Labour)
My Lords, conventions, by their very nature, are ongoing and dynamic. That is precisely why this Motion is worded as it is. It is clear that the committee will look at the practicality of codifying the conventions. We are in no way pretending that this task will be easy. Around this Chamber, we all know that House of Lords reform has been on the agenda for many years. It was on the agenda long before I was born, and I have no doubt that it will be there long after I am gone.
Baroness Amos (President of the Council, Privy Council Office; Labour)
My Lords, my apologies. It would be up to the committee—having met and decided what it is going to look at—to come back to both Houses to seek an extension if it thinks the timescale is too short. I commend the Motion to the House.