Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:20 pm on 23rd November 2009.

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Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench 5:20 pm, 23rd November 2009

My Lords, I shall follow the road down which the House has been led by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Tyler, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon. The consensus is remarkable.

On 10 June, at the height of the uproar about expenses in another place, the Prime Minister announced his support for the proposal by Dr Tony Wright, chairman of the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, to set up a new committee to consider the reform of the procedures of the House of Commons. The avowed purpose was to achieve the stronger accountability of the Government to Parliament through a larger role for Back-Benchers and for the wider public.

The relationship of this issue to the expenses scandal is obvious. The public not only responded angrily to what they saw as the abuse of the expenses system but needed persuasion that parliamentarians were doing the job that they expected them to do in holding the Government to account. There is a widespread view among the public that Parliament should do more to represent their voice in resisting so much ill prepared and ineffective legislation to which they have been subjected and to which, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has said, they are about to be subjected again. That feeling is clearly reflected in another place. It took from 10 June to 20 July, the night on which the House rose for the Summer Recess, for the Government to come forward with a Motion to implement the Prime Minister's announcement. The Motion was moved in another place at 10 pm and debate was limited to one and a half hours. Nevertheless, 250 Members of the other place were present and would have carried on the debate if the Government had not applied the guillotine.

Dr Wright's Select Committee report is to be published tomorrow. It is rumoured that the committee will recommend the election by secret ballot of the chairmen and members of Select Committees in another place, a more open system for scheduling business and more opportunity for issues of current public concern to be debated. If the rumours are correct, these are genuine advances, although they do not go nearly far enough. Two task forces that I have advised-the Better Government Initiative, in which members of all political parties, including many distinguished Members of your Lordships' House, have participated, and the Conservative Party's Democracy Task Force-have proposed further practicable measures to reinforce Parliament's powers to insist on well prepared legislation while, importantly, preserving the Executive's power to get its business through. The two are reconcilable.

If I were a Member of another place, I would feel ashamed of the inadequate way in which that place peruses legislation-and I know that many Members of the other place do feel ashamed. I do not believe that Members of this House have a similar need to feel shame. This House does a good job in scrutinising the Government's legislation and in holding them to account generally and the nation has every reason to be grateful for that.

However, in one respect the other place has got ahead of us. It has at least set up a committee to propose reforms in the two limited areas covered by its terms of reference. We have to assume, and to hope, that in the remainder of this Parliament those reforms will be carried through. While I believe that your Lordships' House does a far better job in scrutinising legislation-I think that that is undeniable-none of us is so complacent as to say that our own procedures are incapable of further improvement. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has made a number of positive, helpful and persuasive suggestions about that. Reforms have taken place in this House. In due course the Government will review the role of the Lord Speaker, but that is not to be immediate.

I should like to ask the Minister what plans the Government have to consider this House's procedures and whether we can learn anything about them from the recommendations of the Wright committee. I echo the request made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that this House in the remainder of this Parliament should be given a chance to debate the implications of that report and to discuss in the light of it ways in which our procedures might be made even more effective. I particularly hope that the Government will take account of what I regard to be the remarkable degree of unanimity in the succession of the last few speeches.