Parliament: Communication with the Public — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:59 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Marlesford Lord Marlesford Conservative 3:59 pm, 18th December 2008

My Lords, I want to talk about the relationship between Parliament and the Government, because that is what the public, on the whole, most observe. There is bound to be tension between Parliament and the Executive. That is why Parliament was invented: to act as a limit and control over the behaviour of the Executive. That tension can and should be a focus of public interest in Parliament. It is where the public should find most relevance to the whole concept of representative government, which is of course distinct in certain respects from democracy.

That Ministers and civil servants should find Parliament an inconvenient intrusion into their operations is inevitable. Civil servants have to fight on two fronts, as the immortal—and I mean immortal—"Yes Minister" series described. Much damage has been done to Parliament over the past decade. I start with the guillotine. When I was a Lobby correspondent, the prospect of a guillotine was worthy of comment. It meant either that the government business managers had got into a muddle or that the Bill was so controversial that agreement could not be reached within a reasonable time—or, sometimes, that there was a deliberate attempt to filibuster the Bill.

Now that a timetable is introduced for every Bill, few pieces of legislation get proper discussion in the other place. As we all know, Bills come to us from the Commons with whole sections undebated. The absence of the guillotine in the House of Lords is one of our most valuable assets and, therefore, a great asset to the country. I hope that those who speak outside the House of Lords about what we do will emphasise that point.

Secondly, there is far too much legislation, which is often poorly prepared. The Home Office is especially at fault on both points. It is a department notorious for its lack of either imagination or lateral thought and, most of all, for resistance to change or any outside views. We get from the Home Office Bill after Bill, year after year—usually two or three in a year—which all matter a great deal to the public. I fear that the Home Office has not even started to earn remission from the findings of the right honourable Member for Airdrie and Shotts, Dr John Reid, when he was Home Secretary: that it was "not fit for purpose".

Thirdly, much legislation is so complicated, with the desire for certainty overcoming the need for clarity, that it is incomprehensible to the legislators. Explanatory Notes are a useful innovation, but I fear that pre-legislative scrutiny is not really working. If it were, the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 would not have had to have been repealed by the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 because it proved virtually useless in reducing red tape. The fact remains that much legislation, especially that by order, has to be read and applied by outsiders. When they find it unclear, they blame Parliament, which is not good for our reputation.

Fourthly, far too many shortcuts are now being used in the legislative process. They are normally proposed as being in the urgent national interest and, on occasion, they are, but often that is quite bogus. A most deplorable example occurred last month, when the Government added 23 pages of complicated financial regulations to the Terrorism Bill and rushed it through both Houses in a few hours.

Fifthly, new Labour, using the usual Whips tincture of charm and patronage, to, in my view, an excessive degree, has sought to control the behaviour of its MPs. Some noble Lords may remember the story of the Labour MP who, in 1997, insisted on wearing his ear phones while his hair was being cut. Eventually, he was persuaded to take them off. Suddenly, the barber realised that the MP had stopped breathing. The barber seized the ear phones, held it to his ear and heard the reassuring voice of Peter Mandelson saying, "Breathe in; breathe out".

Finally—and, I admit, controversially across all three parties—I turn to House of Lords reform. I supported the cull of 750 hereditaries, but what has emerged has been outstandingly successful, especially with the erosion of the influence of the Commons. This House should now be left well alone. This Government, and their successor, will have much bigger fish to fry.

There is in your Lordships' House an astonishing collection of talent, experience and wisdom, especially among those described as the great and the good. They have been put here for what they have achieved. The rest of us are here not for anything that we have done but in the hope and expectation of some modest contribution to the everyday work of this place. Of the 740 Members, there are no fewer than 200 privy counsellors—and you do not get that for nothing. There are also a number of fellows of the Royal Society, who, like the judges and the law officers, should also be called noble and learned. Then there are the top military, with half a dozen former Chiefs of the Defence Staff. They are called noble and gallant, but any noble Lord who has been decorated for bravery, such as the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, who has both the DSO and the DFC, should also be called noble and gallant. Add to that the other distinguished academics in so many fields, including my noble friend Lord Norton, who has done so much for Parliament and for the constitution and to whom we owe this useful debate this afternoon. This House has many other examples of expertise.

I make just one small specific suggestion: that the Information Office be tasked with providing, and then updating, a profile of the achievements, skills and qualifications of the Members of this House, and that this summary should appear in all our publications. I think that the public would be really impressed if they saw the sort of wisdom that there is here and which is available and at the service of the country. For this purpose, the Information Office would have to have access to an IT database, designed by the Journal Office and Information Office and supported by PICT. They must be given the resources to do this. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Renton is here, because I hope that he may remember this suggestion.

My conclusion is simple: if Parliament were to assert itself so that it played its proper role in legislation and in holding the Executive to account, people would take more notice of it. If we go on as we are, people will become increasingly cynical and disillusioned. If they feel that they cannot rely on Parliament to safeguard their interests, they will take to the streets whenever they have big grievances, as they do in France.