House of Lords Reform

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:36 pm on 10th January 2002.

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Photo of Lord Prys-Davies Lord Prys-Davies Labour 3:36 pm, 10th January 2002

My Lords, I am conscious that there is a long list of speakers today, the second day of our debate. I assure the House that I shall try to be as brief as possible.

Yesterday's debate seemed to centre substantially on the strength of the elected element in the new second Chamber. I must say, on that key issue, that my background has conditioned me to be in favour of a substantial elected element in the reformed Chamber. I am also very conscious that very little has been said about the role of the directly elected regional Members, or whether the reformed second Chamber should be related statutorily or informally to the devolved Assemblies. I shall focus my brief comments on those issues.

One of the Royal Commission's main recommendations is set out at paragraph 3.30, which states that the reformed Chamber,

"should give the United Kingdom's constituent nations and regions, for the first time, a formally constituted voice in the Westminster Parliament."

I have to admit that that vision gave me considerable pleasure as it seemed to be taking us in the right direction. I regret that, later in the report, it becomes clear that the new Chamber will not exercise a distinctive regional role, although it is acknowledged that such a role might well develop over time. As for the present, however, the proposal that there be directly elected regional Members means no more and no less than that every area of the United Kingdom is guaranteed representation in the second Chamber, just as every area is guaranteed representation in the House of Commons.

It is a fact that, currently, there are no regional democratic institutions in England apart from the Greater London Assembly. I am bound to accept that regional consciousness within England seems to be weak. But it seems likely that the setting up of the Scottish Parliament and the devolved Assemblies in Wales, Northern Ireland and London, may lead to important alterations in public attitudes in England. Meanwhile, I accept there is much force in the argument which has been voiced in your Lordships' House that we should not look to a reformed second Chamber on its own to provide an English dimension in the devolutionary arrangements.

If we accept that point, as I do, I trust that it will not be suggested that the reformed second Chamber should have no special role to play in relation to the devolved Assemblies which are in being, or which may emerge in the future. Indeed, your Lordships will recall that the Royal Commission was required to take particular account of the new devolved institutions. With the devolution settlement in mind, the commission recommended that the second Chamber should consider establishing a committee to provide a focus for consideration of the issues raised by the devolution settlement. For my part, I wish the Royal Commission had been bolder on that issue. But I am gratified that the House set up the new Select Committee on the constitution, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth.

In addition to an issue which was raised during Question Time today, two other issues of considerable importance are already emerging in relation to legislation passed by Parliament affecting the functions and powers devolved, or to be devolved, to the Welsh Assembly. In paragraph 6.21 of its report, the commission foresaw one of the issues:

"There could well be circumstances in which the National Assembly for Wales would like to promote Westminster legislation on matters outside its competence. It might be helpful to have people in the second chamber who could speak in support of such a Bill".

I want to mention a second issue of importance to the Welsh Assembly which has emerged, and of which the Constitution Committee is already aware. When the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon—the distinguished chairman of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee—gave oral evidence to the Constitution Committee on 28th February last, he drew attention to the fact that a general problem in drawing the balance of primary and secondary legislation was of particular importance to the Welsh Assembly because it does not have primary legislative powers. The noble Lord said:

"Wales may have a real interest in wide enabling powers, thus enhancing its secondary legislative powers but, on other grounds, it may not be appropriate to have such wide powers".

The noble Lord, Lord Alexander, then asked this pertinent question:

"How does one resolve that tension?".

That question cannot be abolished or, in my view, ignored for long. The problem identified by the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, will almost certainly become more pronounced than it is today as the National Assembly for Wales finds its feet and becomes more confident, and it could certainly become more serious between a Conservative United Kingdom government and a Labour, Liberal or Plaid Cymru administration in Cardiff.

That links up with a fundamental point with which many noble Lords, and many who spoke in yesterday's debate, will have sympathy: how to achieve the right balance between primary and delegated legislation. According to my rough estimate, since the setting up of the Welsh National Assembly, over 40 Acts of Parliament have been passed which affect the subjects devolved to the Assembly. I believe that the smooth running of devolution in Wales and the well-being of the United Kingdom should lead to a new function in Westminster of scrutinising all primary legislation in the devolved subjects with the object of confining it to broad and major questions of policy, thus ensuring that the functions of the Assembly are not unnecessarily limited.

It occurs to me that one possible way forward would be to build a new Select Committee, or possibly a Sub-Committee of the Constitution Committee but drawing 50 per cent of its membership from Welsh Members, to introduce such a procedure into the procedures of this House. That will enable the committee to scrutinise and report to the House on Bills affecting the devolved subjects. There might even be a provision that a Welsh Assembly Minister should be entitled to attend a meeting of such a Select Committee to give evidence as to how the Bill affects the Assembly and to suggest or advise on what changes are needed to meet the reasonable needs and aspirations of the Assembly. That would be a great improvement on the current situation.

I wish, in conclusion, to ask my noble and learned friend the Leader of the House whether the Government have any comment on the general point that I have raised: that is, how the proposed reform of the House will give the United Kingdom's constituent nations a formally constituted voice in the Westminster Parliament.