House of Lords Reform

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:42 pm on 9th January 2002.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 3:42 pm, 9th January 2002

My Lords, I begin on a consensual note by saying that I strongly agree with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor on two points. The first is that at the end of the day there will have to be a compromise. Perhaps I might be forgiven for saying that there are bad compromises and good compromises. Secondly, I very much agree with his comments on the lack of justification for the way in which the House of Lords, as an unreformed House, used to operate. No one can argue that the House of Lords of the last century was a model for any kind of democratic upper Chamber.

I also strongly agree with the point made by the Leader of the Opposition, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde; namely, that at the end of the day there will have to be some attempt at a meeting of minds between both Houses and all parties in the two Chambers.

We on these Benches perhaps see the problem in a slightly different way from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition. We believe that in this country we are facing a considerable crisis of confidence in the parliamentary system. We are deeply troubled by growing evidence of a lack of interest among the public and a sense that the parliamentary system is no longer very relevant to their lives. However painful it may be, we need to address the findings of, for example, the BBC study that showed that among the civic institutions of the United Kingdom, Parliament rated third from the bottom, with only 32 per cent of the public expressing confidence in it.

Even more disturbing in some ways is the lack of confidence among Members of Parliament in their own Chamber. That was expressed in their responses to the Hansard Society study that asked them what they thought were the effective instruments the legislature had vis-a-vis the executive. The reply—this involved a majority of Members of Parliament and their belief about being effective in controlling, supervising and scrutinising the executive—was that there was not a single such instrument, with one exception: Select Committee hearings. That finding came shortly before the crisis that blew up over who appointed members of Select Committees and the way in which chairmen were chosen. Incidentally, the House of Commons, thank goodness, won that battle itself. That was the first example for quite a long time of it standing up for itself.

I do not make a party point. There have been different governments in this country, which have been powerful and which have come from different parties. Consistently, however, the story has been the same: that we in the United Kingdom have one of the most powerful executives of any democracy in the world and that that executive is less effectively scrutinised and checked than virtually any other legislature in the democratic world. That is at the centre of the point from which reform should start.

We on these Benches are concerned about the consistent attempt to reform the House of Lords not as part of Parliament but on its own. We must recognise that reform of Parliament as a whole is needed if we are not to short-change our citizens.

It will not do for the Government to argue continually that the battle between the House of Commons and the House of Lords is about the pre-eminence of the House of Commons. I know no sensible person who would ever argue that the House of Commons was not pre-eminent within our Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, is the distinguished chairman of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and one of the most respected Members of this House. In his speech to the Constitutional Unit a few weeks ago, he said that the House of Lords was—I use his phrase—"necessarily subordinate". All of us accept that.

A great many, but not all, upper Houses in other countries are effective. I refer to the Indian, French, German, Scandinavian and Dutch upper Houses. They do not challenge the lower House—they live with it. They complement it and attempt to support it. That should be the case in this country as well.

We who seek to reform the House of Lords most want greater strength in the House of Commons, not less. We should complement what it does, and help and support it in scrutinising legislation in the most effective way. We on these Benches specifically want greater strength for Select Committees in the other place and more free votes for Members of the other place. We want those in another place to choose their own members of Select Committees, and not be under the influence of the Whips. Does that challenge the pre-eminence of the Commons? No, my Lords, it does not. It suggests that the Commons should be stronger and that there is no battle between us in the attempt to scrutinise adequately legislation that is presented to us.

The approach to reform should be holistic, not split into little pieces. I strongly endorse the plea of the Leader of the Opposition that there should be at least some meeting of minds between the leaders of parties in both Houses in order finally to try to get straight what the relationship should be. We should make our Parliament, with its long and marvellous traditions, as effective in the future as it was in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Since then, the executive has increasingly grown in strength. The late lamented Lord Hailsham said that we in Britain had an elected dictatorship—those are his words, not mine. I fear that for many of us that frightening phrase echoes with growing validity as we perceive what has happened to our Parliament.

What, then, is the role of the House of Lords? It is to be an effective, scrutinising body. That matters all the more as those of us in this House who were involved, for example, in the counter-terrorism Bill know very well. Quite straightforwardly, the House of Commons is no longer able totally to discharge its duty of scrutiny. That is not because it does not want to do so but because the growing demands of constituency work combined with the very proper growing demand of Select Committees, many of them excellent, make it difficult for Members in another place to discharge that duty fully. As many of us know, the counter-terrorism Bill was debated for only two days in the House of Commons. An issue as major as that of detention without trial was discussed for just two-and-a-half hours in that place. Had there not been eight hours of scrutiny in this House, I believe that the ultimate Act would have been much more troubling that it turned out to be.

This House repeatedly proposes amendments to legislation and many of them are in the name of the Government. But all of us in this House who have been engaged in major Bills know that many of those amendments are inspired by sensible and intelligent criticism of legislation and by proposals for improving the drafting. But, more than that, they are often inspired by suggestions to the Government that quite simply what they propose is wrong. Why is it that time and again in this House we see coming back from the House of Commons Bills which merely reiterate what they stated two or three years previously? That applies to Bill after Bill on education, police powers, prisons, criminal justice and health. They reiterate what was debated previously because, in the end, the Bills were not considered adequately before being passed into law.

Therefore, in order to be an effective, scrutinising Chamber we believe that we need to introduce much more pre-legislative scrutiny of major Bills. No major Bill should go ahead without pre-legislative scrutiny, enabling our fellow citizens to make their contribution. In this day and age it is not so radical to suggest that the introduction of information technology to our children means that they, too, as young citizens, could be encouraged to suggest their own ideas about Bills and even to propose their own suggestions for amendments. That is what happens now in the United States and there is no reason why it should not happen here.

Secondly, with regard to scrutiny, it is crucial that the Lords maintain their powers over secondary legislation, of which there is more and more with less and less being scrutinised. Here, I agree strongly with the Leader of the Opposition that we cannot accept the proposal for delaying legislation as an alternative to the proposal to retain the ultimate veto. Incidentally, that veto is used very rarely because, as we know, if the parties in the Commons agree, our delay can be swept away within a matter of days. Far from that, it seems to me that we require a new Select Committee on statutory instruments. Such a committee would be able to consider the substance and not only the vires of those instruments and to recommend to the House those that should be more fully debated. Dare I say that perhaps those that are entitled to be more fully debated might conceivably be amendable as well?

With regard to the powers of the House, of course we on these Benches do not believe that there should be a major increase in our powers but neither do we believe that there should be a diminution in them. In that context, we should like to see the House of Lords take on some responsibility for the large areas of legislation and government policy that are simply not scrutinised by anyone. I refer here not only to a matter for which we have pressed for a long time—a joint committee on treaties—but also to the whole issue of international agencies and government agencies, which go virtually unscrutinised by anyone.

When we look at young people clenching their fists in the protests against the World Trade Organisation, we might spend a moment considering the fact that at present there is no legitimate parliamentary way in which they can make their feelings known. The WTO and treaties do not come before any House of Parliament to be debated or considered or for their reports to be deliberated upon.

I want to raise two other issues. The first is crucial: it is composition. We agree with what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said. It is very difficult to suggest that some other body should make political appointments. In that sense, we understand why the Government decided to disregard that element of the Wakeham commission report. But let us be fair to the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and his colleagues. They were trying to grapple with the issue of patronage and political appointment. If we do not like the way that they did it, we need to come up with something more convincing, and on these Benches we are clear about what that is.

The House of Lords should be substantially elected and there should be only a proportion of independent people to maintain the rich tradition of expertise in this House. But, in the end, there is no escaping what almost every other elected upper House in the democratic world has long since embraced—the concept of elected Members to this House. We believe that they should be elected in a much larger proportion than 120; we believe that such elections should take place over a period of time; we believe that they should be associated with the timetable of the European parliamentary elections; and we believe that they should be linked to the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. One day, when we see more effective regional government, that role will be even more important than it is today. But even today, given devolution, it is important that Scotland and Wales are clearly seen to be associated with some Members of this House.

Finally, I turn to the issue raised by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor concerning the size of the House. Let us confront that directly. The proposal to remove the Weatherill Peers—perhaps I may say on behalf of these Benches that we greatly respect much of the work done by them—would take from this House some 92 Members. In addition, over a five-year period some 90 Members will be carried away by retirement or by the inevitability for all of us of moving to another world. That means that over a period of five years approximately 180 people will leave this House. We on these Benches believe that if one offers adequate retirement assistance for those who wish to retire voluntarily from this House because it has become difficult for them to maintain their work here, combined with a tranche of elected Members who come in over a 10 or 15-year period, the problems raised by the noble and learned Lord will simply disappear. We shall show him the reasons for saying that.

Before I sit down I simply want to say that we on these Benches have a clear and positive alternative route for this House. We believe it to be democratic and legitimate. Frankly, given the crisis of confidence in our parliamentary system, we believe that the time has come to address that crisis and to address it radically, thoughtfully and with truly imaginative proposals. The White Paper falls very far short of that.