My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to introduce this debate. The subject is central to the health of our political system. Parliament is witnessing a period of crisis and it is important that we address that as a matter of urgency. There is clearly a crisis of confidence in the political class. That, to some degree, is being addressed. We also need to review how Parliament itself operates.
Parliament is the buckle that links government and people. As such, there are two fundamental relationships-that between Parliament and government and that between Parliament and the people. It is important that we address both and equally important to recognise that the two are not mutually exclusive. Parliament needs to be effective in calling government to account and in ensuring that there is rigorous scrutiny of legislation and public policy. It is crucial that it is seen to be doing so. However, the role of the public should not be passive, merely observing what we do. We need to bolster our relationship with the public by ensuring not only that we are open in our activities, but that we seek to engage with the public and draw on those who wish to have some input into our deliberations.
I refer to Parliament. It is important to recognise that the two Chambers are not in an adversarial relationship, but rather complement one another. In fulfilling our roles, we can learn from one another and enhance efficiency by not duplicating what the other does. This House can and does add value, and I believe it is considerable value. In my view, we fulfil well our core roles of scrutinising legislation and public policy. The House has attributes that distinguish it from the other place and which allow it to fulfil especially well those functions. There is, of course, always room for improvement. It is a case of enhancing what we already do; in effect, building on strength. How, then, can we enhance our capacity to scrutinise legislation and public policy? How can we engage with the public in order to fulfil these functions?
I begin with legislation. When I chaired the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House, we published our report, Parliament and the Legislative Process. We looked at the legislative process holistically, addressing pre-legislative scrutiny, legislative scrutiny and post-legislative scrutiny.
Several Bills each Session are now subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, though there is a clear case for the number to be greater. When a Bill is submitted for pre-legislative scrutiny, it is normally sent to the relevant departmental Select Committee in the other place. However, Select Committees have busy schedules and may not always have time to examine a draft Bill. Joint committees have been used for some Bills-on the whole, very successfully-and we should be open to making greater use of such committees for pre-legislative scrutiny; indeed, we should make it clear that we welcome such a development. We should also explore in conjunction with the other place how Parliament can have a greater say over precisely which Bills are submitted for pre-legislative scrutiny and, indeed, press the Government to accept that pre-legislative scrutiny should be the norm and not the exception.
However, it is the legislative and the post-legislative processes on which I wish to focus. We are able to engage in detailed scrutiny of a Bill, not least because we do not have guillotine or programme Motions. We also consider all amendments that are tabled and can take amendments on Third Reading. We thus have attributes not enjoyed by the other place. However, the other place now has a feature that we lack: Standing Committees in the Commons have been succeeded by Public Bill Committees. In most cases, they are evidence-taking committees. They are thus able to ensure greater links with people outside the House and benefit from their input.
In Parliament and the Legislative Process, the Constitution Committee recommended that every government Bill should at some stage during its passage be subject to examination by an evidence-taking committee. Given that, and in the light of developments in the other place, it should be the norm for a government Bill introduced in your Lordships' House to be referred to an evidence-taking committee prior to the normal Committee stage. It could be a Special Public Bill Committee or a temporary Select Committee. A Special Public Bill Committee under our rules has to complete its evidence-taking within 28 days, but there is no time limit for subsequent proceedings. It should thus be possible to have time to take account of the evidence, avoiding a problem encountered in the other place.
The value of this change would be that our consideration of a Bill would be informed by engagement with experts and others who have knowledge relevant to its provisions. The evidence would be on the public record and it would be possible to probe it. It would also demonstrate to those outside the House the value of what the House is doing.
I turn to post-legislative scrutiny. Regular post-legislative review, checking to ensure that an Act of Parliament has fulfilled its intended purpose, was until recently not a feature of our parliamentary system. As the Constitution Committee noted in its 2004 report:
"Post-legislative scrutiny appears to be similar to motherhood and apple pie in that everyone appears to be in favour of it. However, unlike motherhood and apple pie, it is not much in evidence".
The committee recommended that Acts should normally be subject to review within three years of commencement or six years following their enactment. The Government referred the matter to the Law Commission, which recommended that there should be regular reviews by departments, with the reviews submitted to the relevant departmental Select Committees. It also endorsed the recommendation that there should be a Joint Committee on post-legislative scrutiny.
In their response to the Law Commission report, the Government accepted the case for regular reviews. Most Acts, within three to five years of enactment, are to be reviewed. The first such reviews have already been undertaken and published as Command Papers. Other Acts are shortly to be reviewed, including, I understand, the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. I very much welcome this development, but it is two cheers rather than three: the Government have not accepted the case for a Joint Committee.
To my mind, the case for a Joint Committee is compelling. Departmental Select Committees in the other place, as I have mentioned, already carry a heavy workload; they are unlikely to have time to examine in any depth post-legislative reviews except on an exceptional basis. There is a case for a Joint Committee, drawing on the expertise of Members of both Chambers, to act as a longstop to ensure that no significant review is overlooked. Equally important, it can observe and disseminate cases of best practice, ensuring that departments are rigorous and consistent in their reviews. As the Study of Parliament Group noted in its evidence to the Law Commission, the primary purpose of post-legislative review should be to identify good practice, both in terms of process and the substantive content of legislation. A Joint Committee would thus be an important, standard-setting body. It would also help to concentrate the minds of Ministers and officials when considering legislation. The ideal is a Joint Committee, but if the other place is not interested in participating, we should consider setting up a Committee of this House.
Post-legislative review also has the benefit of requiring government to clarify the purpose of a Bill when it is introduced. There needs to be a clear statement of what a Bill is intended to achieve and the criteria by which it can be assessed to have fulfilled its purpose, criteria that will then form the basis of post-legislative review.
There is also a case for such a committee to examine post-implementation reviews of secondary legislation. The case for greater rigour by government in reviewing the impact of secondary legislation has been put forcefully by the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee. In Grand Committee yesterday, the idea of a Joint Committee on post-legislative scrutiny encompassing post-implementation reviews of statutory instruments received cross-party support. I was gratified that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Abersoch, said that the proposal for a Joint Committee was,
"a very good idea that is worth considering".-[Official Report, 24/2/10; col. GC 313.]
I turn now to the other part of the Motion, the case for enhancing our capacity to scrutinise public policy. The committee work of this House has been a real success story. The sessional Select Committees have been successful, largely because of the commitment, expertise and thoroughness of their members in producing authoritative and influential reports, valuable in themselves as educative works as well as important means of shaping debate. The committees have already proved highly efficient bodies, producing high-quality reports at relatively little cost. They have also avoided duplicating the work of the other place, complementing departmental Select Committees of the Commons by addressing cross-cutting issues. It has been a case of the House playing to its strength. We can and should build on that strength.
There is a case for looking at our committees holistically. The Liaison Committee operates largely in reactive mode, recommending the appointment of a committee on the basis of a particular proposal put to it. We should examine our committee structure in a more proactive and rounded manner, looking to see whether there are any gaps in cross-cutting subjects that could be fruitfully covered by a Committee of this House.
On my theme of engaging with the public, existing Select Committees should be encouraged to do what many already do-that is, to get out and about to different parts of the United Kingdom in the course of taking evidence and to utilise moderated e-consultation as a way of encouraging evidence, especially from people who may otherwise be reluctant or not able to submit evidence in the normal way. There have been some examples where such online consultation has notably proved its worth. The Information Committee, in its excellent report entitled, Are the Lords Listening?, has drawn attention to the value of such exercises, not least in the context of draft legislation. The Constitution Committee also recommended that the committee should consider commissioning public opinion polls where it believed it useful to have awareness of public opinion on a particular issue. The committee also recommended looking at the communication strategies of other legislatures, including the Scottish Parliament, which devotes proportionately more of its resources to such activity than the Westminster Parliament. We tend to make a virtue of our frugality, but we should not let the need for economy prevent us doing a more effective job, especially not when engaging with the public, or engaged publics, is concerned. The House benefits from such engagement; the public benefit from such engagement.
I have not sought to provide a comprehensive list of what we could to do to strengthen our capacity to scrutinise legislation and public policy. I have no doubt that we will hear other proposals during the course of this debate. I have sought to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. My essential point is that we already do a good job but we should never be complacent. We can build on strength. The House has a good track record of examining and implementing new procedures. We have made some valuable changes in recent years. I believe we should, and can, move forward in order to strengthen our role as part of that essential buckle between government and people in the United Kingdom. I beg to move.
My Lords, I should say at the outset that I agree with every word that the noble Lord has just spoken. I make three preliminary points. First, this is the third or fourth debate in this Session of Parliament relating to how your Lordships' House conducts business. That ought to ring some bells somewhere. Secondly, a minority on the list of speakers are ex-Members of the other place. I am conscious that when I first arrived in 2001 and uttered the odd idea for possible change, I was told, "We don't want to make this place like the other place". I certainly do not. The majority of speakers this morning are not ex-Members of the other place, which is the second signal that should ring some bells.
Thirdly, I am really pleased that the three party leaders will wind up the debate. Having had three or four debates on this issue-other issues will come up today-it is time for some action. We do not need any more Motions; we need Motions to make a decision to go forward. There is urgency in this, and it benefits the Government-I see the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, laughing, but it does not matter which party is in government-to strengthen Parliament, particularly through some of the modest suggestions mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and previously by other noble Lords, which we will hear again today. That is a good thing for government. We should have the possibility of making some changes before the general election.
I agree on pre-legislative scrutiny. I do not think that we are well enough informed. I have introduced enough Bills in this House, and there was one in particular that I much regret piloting through this House. In fact, I blew hot and cold as to whether I was in favour of it or not while it was going through the House, and the Chief Whip and I were at loggerheads in the department on that matter. The House is not well enough informed, and there should be pre-legislative scrutiny. Of course, we do not get any of that with Bills that start in this place. As long as we keep the process up of Bills starting in what is a revising Chamber, we need some extra information. We are a revising Chamber, and I deplore the amount of repetition that takes place in this House, because it is not productive. But when the Commons has done no work on a Bill or part of a Bill, we are actually doing both jobs. Hence, I repeat the point that I made during the Queen's Speech debate about flagging up clauses that have not been debated in Bills from the other place-with no reasons given; I am not being accusatory here. That would give us a chance to prioritise the work that we do.
I realise that the process in this place is slightly different because of Third Reading but, if we are to keep the current set-up of First Reading, Second Reading and Committee stage, I question whether we need amendments at Third Reading on a Bill that has started in this place. If we are to have that final longstop, which I know parliamentary counsel finds useful, we should see it is a longstop for the Bill, not for the House. The House where the Bill ends up is the place to have a facility for amendments at Third Reading to deal with the things that have been spotted at the last minute. This is a minor thing, but to me it seems a waste of time to have amendments at Third Reading on a Bill that starts in this place, given that after that the Bill goes to the other place, where there is a Committee stage and a Report stage, then there is a big argument between the two Houses on the changes. If only the House where the Bill ended up had the facility to spot these things at Third Reading, that would save a lot of time and repetitious debate.
As others have said in the past, the Committee stage should as a norm be taken off the Floor of the House. It should be done in a Room rather than in the Chamber. As a Minister, I used to prefer having the Committee stage in Committee Rooms 3 and 4 rather than in the Room across the Corridor, but that is what we have. The atmosphere in those Rooms is more conducive to getting the business done. It is an obvious thing in a way. It is not just the atmosphere but the practicalities. The Clerk and the Chair sit alongside each other, which helps-the set-up in the Chamber is a real problem on many occasions. Also, the Ministers and the opposition spokespeople are closer to their advisers. The atmosphere that is generated in a Room rather than the Chamber at Committee stage ought to be the norm. We should more often send Bills off the Floor of the House, or at least think about splitting them.
I want to make a point about post-legislative scrutiny. I remember, although I am prepared to stand corrected on this, the 1972 review of the redundancy payments legislation. I was a student of engineering at the time, but got sidetracked into other studies. That was the first time that Parliament had ever reviewed a piece of legislation and asked, "Does it do what it says on the tin?". The Redundancy Payments Act of 1968, I think, had not worked quite as the Labour Government had expected it to work and major modifications were required. It was said at the time that Parliament ought to do more post-legislative scrutiny. Well, we have done some, but we have a long way to go, bearing in mind that we started at that time.
My final point is about Select Committees. I spent an hour and a half this morning sitting in the public part of the Health Select Committee, which was dealing with meaty issues such as smoking, alcohol and obesity. At other times, the committee deals with hospitals, doctors and nurses. Such committees do not have the time or the capacity to do post-legislative scrutiny or to scrutinise regulators as a norm. Those areas are ideally suited to the work of this House. The main public policy issues of the day are rightly for the departmental committees of the other place, but it is no good our simply saying that we should leave them to do it all, because they will not do it. Therefore, huge areas of public policy are not scrutinised and not debated. Frankly, we should pick this up. It is within our power to do it. It would be of benefit to the House, to the public and, as I said as my first point, to Parliament. Because it benefits Parliament, it benefits whoever are the Government of the day. That is the central point. I will be waiting with bated breath, although I hope that I will still be breathing, for the three leaders' speeches to commit to taking some of the nuggets from today's debate and the previous debate and to putting them before the House to decide on before dissolution ahead of the general election.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing the debate and on bringing to it his customary deep knowledge and expertise. Speaking as an ex-Member of another place, I have on a number of occasions with other noble Lords drawn attention to the effectiveness of the work of this Chamber. This House sits for more hours of the day and more days of the year and it scrutinises more legislation than any other second Chamber in the world. Because we are a largely appointed House, we bring to our work a unique combination of talent, experience and knowledge, which in my view could certainly not be replicated in any kind of elected House. I just thought that I would get that in.
The Constitution Unit of UCL produced research that shows that in four cases out of 10, the Government have accepted amendments after defeats in the Lords. And, of course, more changes are achieved although you cannot quantify them-when amendments are accepted without a vote, by negotiation and through the work of Lords committees, debates and questions.
I believe that we are an effective House. The question posed by my noble friend is whether, with some procedural-and, perhaps, other-reforms, we could be a more effective, or a much more effective, House. Certainly we could be but, equally certainly, reform is not just a matter for this House-it must be undertaken across Parliament as a whole. My noble friend stressed that the need is urgent, and the report of the Public Administration Committee in another place and last month's Good Government report from the Better Government Initiative remind us that Parliament's reputation and, with it, that of the whole democratic process-that is the point-is at a dangerously low ebb. At the same time, there are new challenges for our parliamentary process. I instance global and instant media coverage 24/7. I find difficulties with the increase in cross-cutting issues, such as security and extreme social issues-they mean that our existing government machinery may be unwieldy or even inappropriate for today's circumstances.
What should be done? My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, have given valuable suggestions. For me-this is really the remit of government-the most important thing is to reduce the volume of legislation. The Good Government report, from which I have already quoted, points out that the volume of legislation and regulation has more than doubled since the mid-1960s. The Good Government report says that the objective should be to,
"do less through legislation but do it better".
Parliament's reputation is not enhanced by the passage through it of ill-thought-out legislation such as the social care Bill, with which we are grappling at present.
As a junior Minister, I worked in the Department of Social Security and at the Treasury. These are both departments in which annual or even more frequent legislation was the norm and in which the word was that, if we got it wrong, we could get it right next year. When I entered the Cabinet, I was amazed to find that many colleagues regarded having a Bill to put through Parliament as a badge of honour rather than as an absolute necessity. Sadly, Governments of all colours find it difficult to resist proving their strength, responsiveness, difference from their predecessors or, dare I say, their virility by producing yet more legislation. We will see whether there is a change after the election and whether a new Government can resist that lure. I hope that they might realise that a pledge to keep new legislation to the bare minimum, and keeping to that pledge, would be wildly popular with the public.
There are changes that could be proposed by Parliament and embraced by government that would improve scrutiny, and thus help enhance the reputation of legislators and restore some trust in the process-a number have been mentioned by my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I flag up the easy thing that we could do; that is, to flag up straight away those parts of a Bill that reach this House without having had any scrutiny whatever in another place. I believe that that would cause public outrage-and it should-but it would at least enhance the reputation of one part of Parliament, and maybe cause a change of behaviour in the other part, which would also be a very good thing.
Where Bills start in this House, rigorous pre-legislative scrutiny could be the norm. Noble Lords, because of their expertise, are very skilful at questioning Ministers on the practical application of legislation. That practical application is exactly what is needed in relation to pre-legislative scrutiny. There are those who say-I am sure that it will be said in this debate-that some of the proposals put forward by my noble friend would slow the legislative process. How good would that be, if it meant that there was less of it?
I also think that it is this House, rather than the other place, which is very well suited to undertaking post-legislative review, as my noble friend pointed out. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, explained vividly why the Select Committees in another place absolutely do not have the time to undertake that task, although it is supposed to be theirs to do. I believe that it would be an appropriate function for this House. My noble friend is to be congratulated on bringing before the House such a well argued case for reforms which, if adopted appropriately and over time, could certainly help to improve the rather tarnished reputation that, sadly, the democratic process currently has. That process is in need of that help.
My Lords, I, too, express my appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for securing this debate. It eases the task of those who follow him that he made such practical and concise suggestions. I hope that the Government will act upon them and indicate today how they propose to proceed on those precise points. Perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not focus on the legislative part of his Motion but rather turn to the scrutiny of policy. It is, in some ways, more difficult to come up with practical recommendations there, but the importance of this House's oversight of policy is made no less by the complexity of what we have to face.
I was very struck by the reference that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, made to obesity as something that might be appropriate for this House to focus on. In 2006, as it happens, the House of Commons itself drew attention to the fact that there were 26 different public agencies involved in dealing with the delivery of a national policy for obesity. No single Select Committee, pursuing the issues of one department alone, is going to be able to tackle such an issue. It seems to me that the matrix of accountability is now so complex in this country-an inevitable aspect of modern living and the expectations of government-that it will not do simply to set up bodies individually to take account of the work of each individual non-departmental body. We have many. Probably the only body in Parliament that attempts to deal with the full matrix is the Public Accounts Committee, on which I served for 17 years. That is backed by the National Audit Office, which spends about £80 million a year on scrutiny. One could not hope to replicate that, or even to contemplate replicating it.
However, that does result in what one commentator, Mr Koppell, in his interesting piece on the pathologies of accountability, has called the "multiple accountabilities disorder". I believe that this House is capable of bringing order where the public may, perhaps, perceive disorder. If we are to do that we definitely ought to have something in the nature of a mission statement or vision statement that indicates the role of this House in scrutinising, in an overarching way, the policies of government.
The great advantage of this House, as it stands, is that it is less dependent on the Executive. It has some independence of mind and brings to its deliberations and scrutiny the resources of experience and, I dare say, wisdom in some cases, which ought to give it a reputation. When one considers-and in other debates we shall-how the composition of the House needs to be altered to give it greater legitimacy, we must not overlook those qualities, such as objectivity, which it has and that we would wish to build in to any second Chamber. In parenthesis, to achieve at least some of that, I would definitely wish to see, in a reformed Chamber, the removal of all Ministers from the House, but with the understanding that all Ministers are to be called before the House when there is a matter for which they are responsible, be that legislation or a general area of policy.
The trouble at the moment in this country is that in shying away from overregulation and relying, as the Conservative Party did to some extent in the 1980s, on output-based accountability, we do not satisfy the broader sectoral interests in these problems. Setting up new bodies with specific responsibility does not necessarily meet the public perception that governance is not as it should be. We are within 24 hours of the publicity attached to the Stafford hospital report. There too multiple agencies are involved, which have clearly been derelict in their duty. The task of oversight will not necessarily be handled altogether effectively by departmental committee. I hope it will be recognised that this House, with its very broad basis, can do the job not just of fire-fighting but of raising policy issues as a response to the public's concerns.
The other place has made great strides in the last few years. If the recommendations of the Wright committee are implemented, they will go even further towards enhancing its role, and its role independent of government. However, the Commons employs 15 people in its scrutiny unit. That is an extraordinarily small number to cover all the Select Committees. In itself this would be reason enough to fear that the resources are not adequate. I have not suggested that we should take the route of the Public Accounts Committee, but let no one believe that we can do an effective job without strong support in this place.
My Lords, I join in congratulating the nob1e Lord, Lord Norton, on securing this debate and giving the House another chance to discuss a subject which has become as topical as it is important. Like the noble Lord, Lord Norton, I believe that your Lordships' House does an excellent job in scrutinising legislation but that it would be a mistake to be complacent. If one looks back there is a continuous process of change and improvement in the proceedings of this House-evolution, not revolution-and I think that most Members of this House would agree that this should continue.
I welcome the statement by the Leader of the House that if, following the election, she is returned to her present post, which she occupies so effectively, she would propose a Leader's conference to consider further improvements in our procedure. I do not need to ask her to give an assurance to that effect when she replies to the debate, but I ask the Opposition Leader to say whether, if he succeeds to the role, he would propose a similar conference. In the hope that such a development would occur, I have been working with other noble Lords in an entirely informal group to draw up a shopping list of ideas which such a conference might consider. Our motive in doing so is entirely one of respect and support for the House and its present essential characteristics. That work is not finished, nor does it yet need to be. Although I applaud the hope of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that something would happen before the general election, I rather doubt that it will.
Let me offer your Lordships a few tasters of the sort of thing I have in mind. I have been a member of the Better Government initiative, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, referred. That group recently published a report about ways in which government policy and legislation could be improved, including ways in which Parliament can contribute to that. Anyone who has spent a career in the Civil Service, as I have, is aware of how the Executive can become slack if Parliament does not keep it up to the mark. If the Executive does not know that it will have to justify its proposals in the face of rigorous scrutiny by Parliament, its preparation becomes perfunctory, and ill-thought-out proposals are more likely to be produced for political or cosmetic reasons.
I should like to see Parliament pass a resolution in both Houses, setting out the standards of preparation which it expects legislation brought before it to satisfy. Such standards should include a proper explanation-not soundbites-of the reasons for the legislation; what it is intended to achieve; what its costs are; and what consultation has taken place about it. To back up such a resolution, I should like to see a Select Committee on standards of legislation-preferably a Joint Committee of both Houses-which would report to Parliament as the Lords Constitution Committee and the Committee on Statutory Instruments do now; and advise Parliament if, in its opinion, these standards have not been met. I can assure your Lordships that if any Minister supposed that either House would refer back, and refuse to give a Second Reading to, a Bill which had not met the minimum standards, the quality of preparation would improve dramatically. I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that this is not just in the interests of Parliament; this is in the interests of government, and in the electoral interests of government.
I should also like to see some improvements in the use of time to help us maintain our civilised practice of enabling any Member of this House to move amendments without being prevented by formal timetables or guillotines. With this in mind, we might conduct-as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has suggested-more Committee stages in Grand Committee, where probing amendments can be discussed before Report stages, which should be held in this Chamber. We might hold more Statements in Grand Committee, rather than in prime time in this Chamber. We might have at least one slot in the week for a one-hour debate on a topical subject, just as we now have provision for topical Questions. We might also allow five-minute trailers for the chairmen of Select Committees to draw attention to the publication of significant reports in your Lordships' House.
This is just a sample of suggestions which might be considered; there will be others. To those who are inclined to resist any change, I remind them of the words of a former civil servant, Sir Matthew Stevenson, who said,
"you know, we have to accept that life does change. That's what distinguishes it from death".
My Lords, I, too, greatly welcome the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and agree with just about everything he said. Therefore, my remarks will be mainly a form of endorsement of his proposals. I also welcome very much the strong statement from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that the time has now come to act. However, when we say that we want to act on these proposals, we have to ask ourselves the question which we tend to avoid-although the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, did not avoid it-which is, are we giving ourselves the time to do what we can do, what we want to do and what we are asked to do? Time is an important issue and I shall certainly refer to it again. I begin by endorsing strongly the point already made that high-quality scrutiny of legislation and public policy takes time. If we are not prepared to find that time, we must accept that as a revising Chamber we will normally fall short of achieving our potential and fulfilling our mandate.
When Labour came to power in 1997, the Government promised to bring forward more Bills in draft. The numbers went up for a while and the Modernisation Committee in another place stressed in 2002 that publication of Bills in draft should become the norm. In 2004, your Lordships' Constitution Committee made a strong case for more Bills to be published in draft and subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny. The problem is that the increasing flow of legislative proposals-which worries me as much as I think it worries the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard-has not been matched by an increase in Bills published in draft. In fact, as has already been noted, there has been a decline both in the absolute number and in the proportion of Bills published in draft in each Session. This is highly regrettable. To make matters worse, the few published in draft are often published leaving far too little time for meaningful scrutiny. A minimum of 12 weeks or more should be allowed, which is the principle set out in the Cabinet Office guidelines. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, told the Wright Committee, the Government appear to favour the use of draft Bills in principle but in practice cannot persuade Ministers to utilise the procedure on a more systematic basis.
My enthusiasm for pre-legislative scrutiny is fuelled by three desires: to have better legislation; to save, one hopes, some time during the later stages of Bills; and-very important in my view-to see more public input into our legislative process. Scrutiny cannot be truly effective where the legislative proposals are not considered in evidence-taking committees, but how often do we refer Bills to a Special Public Bill Committee or to a Select Committee here? That happens pretty rarely. I most strongly endorse what our Constitution Committee wrote in its 2004 report. It stated:
"Scrutiny should not take place in a parliamentary vacuum. Parliamentarians need to have access to expert opinion to know if there are potential flaws in a bill. They need to be aware of any views strongly held by citizens".
It follows therefore to my mind that every Bill should be subject to some detailed scrutiny, with the taking of evidence from informed and interested bodies, including online consultation, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, knows, we do rather well here. Such scrutiny should take place at the pre-legislative stage. Governments must accept that every Bill should be published in draft form unless there are compelling reasons for not doing so, and that much more legislation should be made subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. I am only quoting what the Government themselves have said more than once in the not-so-distant past. But that, of course, means that we have to ensure adequate time for Members to absorb, analyse and discuss the evidence they have read and heard. Look at the experience in the other place following the very welcome introduction of evidence-taking Public Bill Committees, to which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, referred. As he noted in his memorandum to the Wright Committee, these committees are generally given too little time to assemble a good range of witnesses and too little time for Members to digest the evidence and apply it to the probing and amending process.
What are we to do about time constraints? The use of Grand Committee these past five years as a virtual parallel Chamber has undoubtedly reduced the pressure, but not enough. I thus fully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that we need greater use of carryover and a 14-month, instead of a 12-month, cut-off point from First Reading if we are to relieve the pressure and weaken the lack of time argument deployed by Governments in defending the failure to publish more Bills in draft and accept more pre-legislative scrutiny. A more systematic resort to carryover is one obvious way of partly resolving the time problem. I add another, at the risk of drawing the scorn of many, if not all, noble Lords present. We really need to sit for two weeks in September. I know this is not popular but I know of no other Parliament in Europe-I have been to just about all of them-which grants its Members so long a summer break. If we cannot bring ourselves to do that, at least we should consider a later Summer Recess start or an earlier return. I have heard it argued in the other place that by the time the Summer Recess starts, most controversial legislation has moved from the House of Commons to the House of Lords, so why interfere with the recess? But that is precisely the point: the burden passes to us and the pressure builds up. The other place should be understanding of that, but we cannot go on complaining that we have too little time for proper scrutiny unless we grasp that particular nettle.
Finally, no matter how much you change or refine procedures to enhance our scrutiny role, the quality of that scrutiny still depends heavily on the expertise applied to it. I wonder what will happen if and when this Chamber is converted into a wholly or largely elected body. Nothing made my job as chairman of your Lordships' European Union Select Committee easier than the knowledge that the Select Committee and its seven sub-committees were drawing on a pool of experience and expertise unrivalled in any other legislative body in Europe, and that, of course, applies to the totality of our work here in the House.
Let us ponder deeply-the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, and others present have obviously done so-on the consequences for scrutiny of abandoning the appointed House model. If we abandon it, the House will need to draw on more expertise and experience outside the House to help it maintain a proper level of scrutiny of legislation and public policy, and that will demand still wider use of evidence-based committees. The supporters of an elected Chamber must accept the resource implications of that and the need for more time to do the work properly. Rigorous, high-quality scrutiny is a constitutional imperative. I would rather we did not imperil the precious capability we now have, which is the envy of Parliaments around the world.
My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the final point of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. I also join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on initiating this debate. As has been pointed out, there have been a number of debates on this subject, most notably in the Queen's Speech debate on
A number of the usual suspects are again gathered. Given that the speeches were so good on that previous occasion, there might almost be a temptation simply to read out the same speeches, but in the event I think that the debate has moved on. We have increasingly refined our views and increasingly a consensus has emerged that this matter is coming to the point where action must be taken. I very much welcome the fact that the leaders of each of the parties are to speak in the debate today. This gives us hope that action will be taken.
I remain of the view that the most important change which can be made and implemented without legislation, and immediately, concerns the stopping forthwith of the automatic programming of legislation in another place. I could not be more delighted if the Leader of the House were to stand up and say that that were so. I would be equally delighted if my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition were to stand up and say that an incoming Conservative Government would certainly drop that practice, although I appreciate how tempting it is for any Government to continue with it. New Governments are particularly tempted to rush through legislation and automatic programming is a good way of doing it, but it has effectively emasculated the role of the House of Commons as regards legislation. Together with scrutiny of the Executive, legislation is its most important role. This has put a huge burden on this House, which it has carried admirably.
Perhaps I may make a suggestion. I do not mind whether the noble Baroness, my noble friend or both take it up. The next manifestos of both parties should say that we will stop the practice of the past 10 years of automatically programming legislation, which has prevented the House of Commons fulfilling its rightful role and has meant the House of Lords dealing with legislation in the way that it has. The manifestos should say that we will revert to the traditional system whereby, if it is necessary to guillotine legislation because there has been a filibuster or something that is desperately urgent, one justifies that by a half-day debate and a vote at the end. We need to return to a more rational system, rather than an automatic one. I commend to my noble friend and the other side that such a manifesto commitment should be made.
I turn secondly to the issue of the Speakership. I was on the committee concerned with the way in which the Speakership should develop following the removal of the Lord Chancellor. Everyone on that committee was determined that we should not have a House of Commons-type Speaker, and the House endorsed that view. I said in the previous debate that there was a growing feeling-which has grown since-that the present arrangement at Question Time does not operate as well as it might. I do not impugn the way in which the Front Bench decides if necessary who should ask a question, but the system does not work as well as it might. Perhaps we could adopt a position whereby the Lord Speaker could simply say from which part of the House the next question should be asked, but not in any way name an individual Member. It should be left to that part of the House to decide who should give way in the traditional way. Perhaps this is something on which we could take action now, ahead of any change at the election when there will be a large number of new Members. Regrettably, we have reached a stage whereby some change of that sort is necessary.
While I am on the subject of Question Time, whether or not Members receiving Answers thank the Minister depends on the content of the Answer. I do not object to that. However, it is a terrible waste of time when, time and again, Ministers thank Members for asking the question. Some Ministers do that in every answer. Perhaps the Chief Whip may issue a directive to Ministers on the Government Front Bench not to thank Members in the way that I have described.
Finally, I am concerned about some of the proposals that have been made-for example, taking Committee stages in Grand Committee in the Moses Room rather than on the Floor of the House. If any change of that kind is introduced it is important that Back-Bench Members on both sides should have an effective power to prevent it if they think that the proceedings should take place on the Floor of the House. I am concerned that although we debate legislation in this Chamber, the number of opportunities to vote and win is very limited. During my 10 years on the Front Bench, one could have hoped for at most only six occasions when one had a chance of winning on particular amendments, because it is very difficult to get a good vote after the dinner hour. When I was on the Front Bench there was Committee stage, Report stage and Third Reading. Since then there has been some erosion as regards obtaining votes at each stage in the way that one would like, given the way in which the debates have developed. Therefore, we should consider very carefully whether the ability of the House to take a decision is in fact limited by the proposals-which are in some ways admirable in themselves-to take business off the Floor of the House or restrict the way in which one can vote at different stages of a Bill. I disagree with what the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said about votes at Third Reading.
Overall, we are in a position to make reasonable progress. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, made a number of other suggestions. I hope that we will get a suitable response from the Front Benches.
My Lords, I add my appreciation in respect of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, not only on having achieved this debate but because he has steadily worked away at the issue by writing about it, obtaining debates and discussing these matters with others. What is particularly encouraging about this debate, as the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Butler of Brockwell, have pointed out, is that it is not isolated, but has come off the foot of a number of debates and formal and informal discussions outside your Lordships' Chamber. The possibilities of moving forward are therefore more substantial.
We should not imagine that the majority of our population's first thought when they wake up in the morning is about politics in general, never mind the proceedings of your Lordships' House. However, a number of groups of people should be thinking about these matters-if not first thing in the morning, then certainly during the working day. They include Members of Parliament, because we are Members of a Parliament of two Chambers, those in the machinery of government, Members of devolved Administrations and the European Parliament, as well as interest groups. All of us in our various ways need to work together to ensure good governance of our country and good legislative procedure.
I have always subscribed to William Ewart Gladstone's understanding of liberalism, which is,
"trust in the people, only qualified by prudence".
In institutional terms, I have always seen the other place as representing trust in the people, but your Lordships' Chamber as representing prudence. One of our difficulties as regards those outside appreciating the valuable work that is done and the development of what could be done is that we tend to work rather unto ourselves. First, in relation to Members of another place, we have a marvellous opportunity-or at least some of us think we do-in the upcoming election as a result of an enormous change involving possibly the greatest turnover of MPs since the election at the end of the Second World War. This will be a chance not only to have some kind of relatively didactic short orientation for new MPs coming into the other place, but the possibility of building up proper working relationships with them and understanding much better what we are doing together. We could do that at the start of the new Parliament and then in liaison. A number of different devices have been suggested-some of which are excellent-whereby we would co-operate in ensuring that there was good legislation at the pre-legislative stage. There are things that we could do together-I shall return to that issue. Where work is done on Bills that start in your Lordships' House, we should be able to have evidence-taking sessions, and all the Bills that proceed through Parliament, whether in one direction or another, should have a similar opportunity for evidence taking and public involvement.
Secondly, there is the suggestion of liaising and ensuring that if, due to procedural or other reasons, parts of Bills are not considered in the other place, that situation could be flagged up so that Members of your Lordships' House would be particularly concerned to ensure that they were properly scrutinised. There is also the idea of having a Joint Committee on parliamentary standards which would look at legislation coming forward and indicate whether or not it has properly and fully been considered. By working together in liaison, informally, and in Joint Committees, we are trying as a Parliament of two Chambers to produce good legislation. We should be much more up-front about the way that we work together. If that happened, I have no doubt that it would mean that Members of another place would be more appreciative and understanding of the good work that is done in your Lordships' House. Perhaps we would continually keep in mind the difficulties for some who work at the other end of the building.
It is not just the Members of another place. The devolved Parliaments and Assemblies in the United Kingdom also play an important role. We could learn from them. When it comes to legislation in Scotland, executive Bills must be accompanied not just by Explanatory Notes-we have those-but by a policy memorandum that says why legislation is the right way to move forward and what other things have been tried. There are also memorandums on finance and delegated legislation. These ensure that the Scottish Parliament is informed about the legislation, and that the Scottish Executive bring forward material that has been much better thought through. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Speaker decides whether any Bill accommodates itself to the European Convention on Human Rights. At Westminster, it is Ministers: but what Minister will stand up and say, "I do not believe that this Bill conforms to the European Convention on Human Rights"? It was not a power that I had to exercise often as Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but it did happen and it ensured that the Minister looked carefully at whether his Bill did what he was suggesting.
There are ways in which we can learn from each other. If there was a little more liaison, perhaps the devolved institutions might be able to learn from us. I found my experience in your Lordships' House extremely helpful in trying to ensure that those who would otherwise not be entirely respectful of each other behaved in a more appropriate parliamentary fashion. There is much that we can learn from each other, but only if we take the trouble to meet. I refer not just to Members of the Houses. Because we now have a number of Parliaments and Assemblies, there is a much better opportunity for those who serve us as Clerks, or who work for Hansard or in other positions, to have a career structure that takes them through a number of parliamentary Chambers, enabling them not only to develop themselves, but also to help us to understand these things and to learn from each other.
What I have said about devolved institutions applies also to Members of the European Parliament. Much of the legislation that governs our country is made in the European Parliament, not by ourselves, and your Lordships' House does excellent work in scrutinising what comes forward: but again, more two-way liaison would add a great deal to the work that we are doing. The business of opening up to others can only be of benefit not only to the quality of our work, but also to the degree of appreciation, in the other place and in the community at large, of the good work that your Lordships' House does.
Like others, I am delighted that Lord Norton initiated this debate. It is always a pleasure to debate and work with him on these issues. The benefit of speaking down the order is that many things have already been covered, so I will focus on points that have not been.
The noble Lord, Lord Butler, and others covered well the importance of Parliament being able to understand a Government's policy objectives, how they seek to implement them and what role legislation plays in that. This House is better at scrutinising the detail of legislation than looking at the bigger picture of what the policy is for, whether the legislation will achieve that and whether the other elements of delivery are in place to do so. Our Second Reading debates can be somewhat thin, because the Government have not deposited sufficient documents beforehand. That would not be a major change for the Government, but it is overdue. It will mean work for civil servants to get documents in place so that we are better placed to understand.
Secondly, Grand Committees have been a success. I take note of the point of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, about not wanting to reduce the opportunity for Divisions. Therefore, if we make Grand Committees our default, as I believe we should, there are two other issues that we should bear in mind. First, if the House decides to make Grand Committees its default, it must have the freedom to decide not to do so if it believes that the House does not wish that; or to split elements of a Bill and decide that certain clauses are so crucial that they should be considered in the Chamber, while the rest can be dealt with in Grand Committee. The consequence of Grand Committee being the default, and more often if not always used, is that it reduces the opportunity for Divisions. Therefore, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, I think that the House would find it uncomfortable not to be able to have Divisions at Third Reading if Grand Committees were used on this basis. The consequence of using Grand Committees more will be that we will get better scrutiny. There are considerable benefits to the Government of using Grand Committees, because it avoids the logjam of this Chamber.
I will talk briefly about evidence-taking sessions. A number of noble Lords have spoken on this. Fewer than 10 Bills a year start in this Chamber. It is an anomaly that there is no process for taking evidence from the public or interest groups. We look slightly out of kilter. It is relatively simple to change this, but we should be careful not to cause wreckage. If we have a Select Committee to take evidence, it should not be able to recommend that the Bill should not proceed: that is outwith its powers. It should not be able to amend the Bill. Its duty would be merely to report to the House on the evidence that it has received from interested people. The consequence of an evidence-taking session is undoubtedly added time. It would be unlikely to take less than another eight weeks. Therefore we must weigh the cost of that added time. Eight or so Bills would have a slower passage, but there would be a benefit to the Government, because most if not all Bills would be in Grand Committee. Therefore, it is inconceivable that the overall governmental legislative programme would be threatened as a consequence.
I turn next to an issue that we have not talked much about, namely the public's understanding and ability to get involved in what we are doing. This matters to our reputation and to the confidence of the public that Parliament is doing its job and is their servant, rather than considering that it has a God-given right to exist for its own sake. The changes that we can make, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, wisely advised, should be cautious and incremental rather than revolutionary. Simple things can be done that would move in the direction of making what we do more understandable to the public-and, I dare say, to some of our own Members.
First, a deposition on a website of the documents that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, referred to is a simple technical matter. Each government Bill should have a place on a website where the Government's narrative about the Bill is easily accessible to the public and to any Member of the House. Any report from a legislative scrutiny committee should also be accessible there, so one can instantly see what has been said about the Bill.
Next, there should be an explanation of where the Bill has got to in procedural terms, what the subsequent procedures are and what they mean, so that people are aware of what is going on. That is work for technicians rather than politicians, but it would help the public to be aware of what we are doing. It will also help some Members of this House. Here I put my hand up: sometimes one takes part in Divisions when one is not always aware of exactly what one is voting for. Nobody else would make a confession like that. A simple website would allow one to get the bottom line and make that sin less frequently committed. The only worry is that the Chief Whips would not like it. Their view is that one is better doing what one is told rather than understanding what one is doing-but I tease them on that point.
Finally, I will touch on something that we should be concerned about, namely whether good scrutiny and strong and firm government are our intention. All of us in this place recognise that the Government are entitled to their manifesto and to their legislative programme. Therefore we must look at any changes with an open mind-not just from the point of view of scrutinising purists, but asking ourselves whether a fair balance is being struck between scrutiny and the Government getting their work done. The duty of this place is to make the issues explicit to ourselves, to the Government, to the wider public and, through whatever process, to the other Chamber. If we have done that, we have done our job, and it is not usually our duty to go further. However, making changes of the type on which we are beginning to develop a consensus would make that possible, and would allow the Government to proceed with what I hope will be good legislation-less of it, but at the same time better.
My Lords, by way of introduction, I should like to refer back to every thought and word in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, because my speech is focused on pre-legislative scrutiny, as spoken to by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth on
My speech is concerned with the pre-legislative scrutiny of draft constitutional Bills-that is, the Bills that reflect government policy at the inception of the conversion of policy into law. As an available means of enhancement, perhaps consideration could be given to the retrieval of the constitutional entitlement of the Lord Chancellor, which has being slighted into imposed abeyance, having been exercised since the reign of George I until about three years ago. It has evolved over and over again but the substance has never changed, and the proposal is that it should work in harness with the new regime. This is the first step towards establishing a new regime, and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. However, having taken this first step, one has to think a little about implementation, and that would be of great help to the committee of the new regime considering this question.
The difficulty-although it is not really a difficulty-is that the entitlement of the Lord Chancellor to tender disinterested, independent advice to the Cabinet and the Secretary of State as to the withdrawal or abandonment of a Bill because it fails to conform with constitutional principle or the rule of law could now be extended to advising the committee to be set up under the new regime. I cannot go into detail as there is no time but that could be arranged. The late Lord Kingsland, on
The entitlement cannot be retrieved in any form until the combined appointment of Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice has been segregated by decree or, if so ordained, by statute or as ordained by the Supreme Court. It was slighted into imposed abeyance in 2007 by prime ministerial decree without consultation with Parliament or the judiciary, and, by appointment, was set up at the same time as the newly established Ministry of Justice. That was done to cover up the botched attempt to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor in 2005 with the stroke of a pen that ran out of ink.
The substance of the case for segregation, as spoken to by Lord Kingsland on
I think that my time is up but, if I may, I shall add that if the constitutional entitlement of the Lord Chancellor were restored, the administration, by virtue of retaining the Great Seal, would be undertaken by the Crown Office, together with many other constitutional duties of the Lord Chancellor which exist today. The precedence of the Lord Chancellor, who is holder of the Great Seal on the command of Her Majesty, would remain and, as such, he could be of considerable practical value to the new regime.
My Lords, in common with other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for making what I thought to be an unarguable case. I very much hope that, in their responses, all three Front Benches will accept that this is a debate about governance and not government, between which there is far more than a semantic difference. To me, the essence of good governance is public trust. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is seeking a balloted debate on this subject and I very much hope that he achieves it.
As I see it, our job-and certainly my job as a Back-Bencher-is consistently to seek means by which public trust can be enhanced and justified. Current and, I think, fair criticisms are that there is too much legislation-the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, made exactly that point earlier-unused or inappropriate legislation, and well meant but outdated legislation. Like the noble Lord, Lord Norton, I am an enthusiast for both pre and post-legislative scrutiny, and I do not think that there is a lot to add to the case so marvellously set out earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell. However, I am very fortunate: I am probably the only person in this Chamber who has had the privilege of chairing two pre-legislative scrutiny processes, and I do not think that I fully appreciated how valuable they were until I recently went through the agonies of the Digital Economy Bill. If ever a Bill required pre-legislative scrutiny, that was it. Many hours have been spent in this Chamber-I would say many of them wasted hours-going through things which a good and effective pre-legislative process could have dealt with very easily. A lot of bouncing around between the various sides of the House on very small issues could have been avoided because many of the arguments were based on an extraordinary amount of misinformation and even disinformation. I shall return to that in a moment. So it is the absence of pre-legislative scrutiny that has led me fully to understand its value.
The passage of the Digital Economy Bill is a perfect example of what can go wrong. All of us engaged in that Bill have been subjected to a deluge of lobbying, some of it informed and intelligent and some of it pretty daft. However, we have had no ability to sort the wheat from the chaff; no ability properly to interrogate the lobbyists; and no ability seriously to look at which of their arguments stand up and which of them collapses under interrogation. That was an error, because that was the only time when this Bill could have received proper scrutiny, given the present parliamentary timetable. No doubt, whatever leaves this House will be swept down to the other end of the building and I am afraid that we shall end up with a limp and lame Bill on what is in reality a very important subject.
Another point is that we live in an era of ever-more professional politics and politicians. The outside world has to be given a voice and has to come into this building to make its voice heard, be scrutinised and feel that it has had a say. I repeat that not being able to sort out and identify the legitimate and factual lobbying has been a major problem in trying to get this piece of legislation through.
The most important point about pre-legislative scrutiny is that the members of the committee form a hard core of informed cross-party expertise when the Bill comes before the House. You have an informed group of people who have been through the arguments and can cut through an enormous amount of waffle and nonsense. Not having that is a great mistake.
We also have an obligation to look at what is happening elsewhere, good and bad. In the time left to me, I would like to draw the attention of the House to a very good article of
"We've always known that America's reign as the world's greatest nation would eventually end. But most of us imagined that our downfall, when it came, would be something grand and tragic. What we're getting instead is less a tragedy than a deadly farce. Instead of fraying under the strain of imperial overstretch, we're paralyzed by procedure ... Much of the Senate's business relies on unanimous consent: it's difficult to get anything done unless everyone agrees on procedure. And a tradition has grown up under which senators, in return for not gumming up everything, get the right to block [what] they don't like".
"The truth is that ... the way the Senate works is no longer consistent with a functioning government ... America is not yet lost. But the Senate is working on it".
I would be very distressed if at any point anyone was able to say that our parliamentary system and our procedures were effectively making good legislation and good governance impossible.
I shall finish with two short points. On
Finally, to paraphrase Nikolaus Pevsner, the British have a genius for spending large sums of money, seeking candle-end savings. The most distressing thing I have watched in the past few months, particularly as a result of the expenses drama which has engulfed both Houses, has been the argument advanced that somehow or other a cheaper democracy might possibly be a better democracy. Everyone in the Chamber knows that to be ridiculous. Somehow or other we have been dragged into a debate which has given credibility to the idea that saving money will result in better governance. I have said before in this House that cut-price democracy is not a bargain that any sane person should contemplate. We have to make that case over and over again and stop pretending that somehow, by saving money here and there, we are offering the public something better when we all know that we shall be offering the public something potentially far worse.
My Lords, like others I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on having initiated this debate on the central issues of our effectiveness as a parliamentary Chamber. Much of our legislation and policy is now made or initiated at a European level. Whether or not one thinks that is good, clearly it is important that there should be effective parliamentary scrutiny of European affairs. Therefore, I would like to concentrate on that in my remarks.
Scrutiny of European Union work has been a major strand of the scrutiny activity of this House for 36 years-since 1974. I acknowledge that those in the past would have made a very important contribution-in particular the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who not only played a part on the sub-committee but has written rather importantly on the subject; and, of course, my predecessor as chairman of the European Union Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell.
In all, 85 Members of your Lordships' House are involved in the work of the European Union Committee and its several sub-committees, supported by a very effective staff. In the past Session, we considered 800 European Union documents and accompanying Explanatory Memorandums which were submitted to us, and almost half of those were considered in detail by the committee or one of its seven sub-committees. Many of those cases would lead to correspondence with Ministers for answers to questions on issues which we did not feel had been properly explained. We made 25 reports to the House, nine of which were debated. We have been able to identify a number of occasions when our scrutiny has affected the outcome of a European Union proposal, either in terms of the British Government's attitude or sometimes, indirectly, by our reports being read by Members of the European Parliament which has led to them being incorporated in resolutions and amendments put forward in the European Parliament.
In addition, I want to touch on the point made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Butler. The process of scrutiny is worth while, in that the requirement that Ministers should explain their policy on every European Union document to Parliament in an Explanatory Memorandum, and through Parliament to the public, is of constitutional importance and keeps Whitehall on its toes.
In view of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, I should say that another important way in which our committee works is to have links with the committees dealing with European matters in the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments. That is of particular importance as we are now considering in much more detail issues of subsidiarity, particularly for matters which have been devolved to those Assemblies. My committee has said that it will notify the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments if, before coming to an opinion, we ever see issues of subsidiarity on which we would like their views.
I was very glad to see that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, in his 2005 book, Parliament in British Politics, wrote that the committee has,
"established a formidable reputation for its work".
In his recent book, the New British Constitution, Vernon Bogdanor is equally generous to us as he writes:
"The scrutiny provided in the House of Lords European Union Select Committee ... has proved to be perhaps the most effective in the European Union".
My experience of meeting colleagues from other member states suggests that your Lordships' House, together with our colleagues in the Commons, has the most comprehensive system of scrutiny anywhere in the European Union. The committee's responsibilities and Parliament's opportunity to intervene have been enhanced by the Lisbon treaty. The second report of the Procedure Committee, which is awaiting consideration in the House, sets out the procedural implications for this House on the basis of a most helpful memorandum from the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, the Leader of the House, on the implementation of the new powers and scrutiny arrangements, with particular reference to subsidiarity and the UK's right to opt in to measures in the area of freedom, security and justice.
The other recent change arising from the Lisbon treaty is widening the range of issues subject to what is now referred to as the ordinary legislative procedure, whereby the European Parliament co-legislates with the Council of Ministers. That was debated in your Lordships' House on
In its third report of Session 2005-06, the Liaison Committee sets out the case for a review of the policy Select Committees at the beginning of every Parliament. I look forward to the review, and note that in its decision, which was approved by the House, although in general the Motions for reappointing the existing committees will be delayed until the review has been completed, there is an exception for the European Union Committee. The report states:
"In conducting such a review, the special position of the European Union Committee as a committee of scrutiny of EU draft legislation will be recognised and the committee's appointment will not be delayed".
I am sure that those who will be appointed to the committee in the next Parliament will maintain the high level of scrutiny of European Union matters that has been provided for the past 36 years.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on securing this debate. I am so pleased that Lady Luck was with him in the ballot, because it has given us an opportunity to move the subject further forward. Also, like other noble Lords, I am very pleased to see that the leaders of each of the parties are present today, and we have the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, from the Cross Benches.
In particular, I am heartened to see the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, with us, given that he has a long record of being associated with major changes in procedures and practices in the House. I recall first working with him way back in 2002 and 2003 on the committee on which the noble Lord, Lord Roper, also served, when we were working with the late and lamented noble and learned Lord Williams of Mostyn-Gareth. We had not only an intensive but an entertaining exercise that produced some major changes for the House, which in the main have been well placed.
At that time, I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was very radical-but not radical enough, I regret, to embrace the then Leader's recommendation that we should have a Leader's session periodically in the House so that the Leader could account to the House for his or her performance. It is interesting that we now have Secretaries of State with sessions devoted to their areas of activity-we had one this morning-but we still do not have a Leader's session in this House. I hope that that item will be on the agenda as we move further forward. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will reflect on his position and that we can introduce a Leader's session.
I have had some conversations with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, about the slow progress we have been making in trying to establish a Leader's group. I know that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will give full support for it; I know that the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, is in favour of a Leader's review of our procedures; but I understand my from conversations with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that there is hesitancy on his part. I await with interest his response to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, to see whether there are any remaining obstacles.
When I talked to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, he felt that the agenda was not sufficiently strong for action to be taken. I hope that, in the light of our debate in the past few months-and, in particular, today, with some extraordinary and outstanding contributions, which are to be followed up by papers to be submitted to the next meeting of the Procedure Committee-all the leaders of parties in the House are now of the view that we can move forward. I hope that the papers will be before the Procedure Committee in the first week in March; I hope that there will be a unanimous view on them; and, like my noble friend Lord Rooker, I hope that we will not have to wait until the new Parliament is formed before we start to see some movement. If we do, I suspect that the Procedure Committee will not look at this until some time in June or even into July. Then, before we know where we are, we are into the Recess, we disappear for two months and the process will not be under way until the autumn of 2010 and, I suspect, we will not have a report completed by the end of the year. We will be into 2011. If we can huff and puff, as some people can in some committees, we might even run this through until the Olympics in 2012.
Having teased the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, a bit, I now have some firm questions for my noble friend the Leader of the House, whom I know has been doing her utmost to move this forward. Will she be raising the issue at the forthcoming Procedure Committee? Will she give a firm recommendation that we should establish either a Leader's group or a Leader's conference? Although there may be problems in getting the formalities moving before we prorogue, does the committee agree in principle, at the beginning of March, to establish a conference or a Leader's group, of whichever party is in power, to continue that work? Will it open invitations for evidence to be submitted? Will she also extend an invitation to all the officials and staff of the House who, from my experience, have some very good ideas about changes that they would be willing to embrace and which we should consider? They should be included in such an event.
We need to get that process well under way so that we can look forward to changes that will be about effectiveness and efficiency-not, as I hope that people will now be convinced having listened to so many contributions, about or against the interests of the Government, but about the interests of the House and the nature of our relationship with the public, which we are trying to rebuild.
I take up two final points, while leaving those questions for my noble friend, whom I am sure will do the utmost to answer them today so that we have that firm commitment and know that, even if we cannot get all the details finalised, we have a date in the new Parliament by which the review will get under way.
I served, 12 months or so ago, under the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, who is in his place, for six months on the hybrid committee, the Crossrail Select Committee. People said, "You must be crazy going on that". It was an extraordinary experience, quite different from anything else that I have done. I have been on pre-legislative scrutiny committees that have taken evidence, but in that instance we took petitions from the public; we worked our way through them all. To pick up on a point previously made in speeches by the Lord Speaker, I would like the noble Lord, Lord Norton, to think about our running an experiment whereby we could combine petitions with a post or pre-legislative draft scrutiny exercise. We found that many members of the public participated. Probably about 20 per cent of them went away having secured what they came to us to petition for, but I would guess that 80 per cent or 85 per cent of them went away satisfied that they had been heard by Parliament in a way that they had probably never believed would happen before they came. In the time that I have been in this Chamber, that is one of the most satisfying experiences that I have had.
I also have views on European Union legislation, but I am conscious of the time and will come back to them later. We do great work on it, but it is important that we maintain standards. The Lisbon changes present us with some big challenges to ensure that we continue to do the work to the same level as we have done it in the past, but I hope we can find ways in which we, perhaps working on a joint basis with the Commons, might do it even better in future.
My Lords, I compliment the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on obtaining this debate, but the greatest tribute paid to him is the quality of the speakers who he has attracted. I fully endorse the campaign waged by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and I should give him a belated apology. A few weeks ago, he had a Question, and I promised my full support. As the Question unfolded, I had the choice between giving him statesmanlike support and making a cheap political point. I am afraid noble Lords know the outcome.
I am rather shocked by a number of noble Lords, not least the noble Lord, Lord Butler, posing questions to the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition about what happens after the general election. I commend to all Members of the House the poem that ends:
"But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet".
Neither have the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and, until they do, those Benches would be wise not to count any chickens.
We know that in 31 years Labour and the Conservatives have missed opportunities to give impetus to parliamentary reform. It is no use ignoring the elephant in the room, which is reform of this House. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, and the noble Lords, Lord Higgins and Lord Grenfell, that that matter will be taken to the hustings where all three parties will make clear their attitudes to reform of this House. In the mean time, I can say very clearly that a vote for the Liberal Democrats in the general election will be a vote for Lords reform and voting reform. I give the noble Lord, Lord Butler, the assurance that he did not ask for: these Benches will press forward with the procedural reforms that he spoke about.
It has already been demonstrated that there are many good ideas about. I praise the initiative of the Lord Speaker in initiating a seminar last October, which spun off three committees that have been looking at various matters. The noble Lords, Lord Brooke and Lord Roper, are right that progress can be made now. We will all be back after the general election-that is one of the things that makes this place so attractive in looking dispassionately at the general election to come-so why can we not establish a Leader's Group now, either by the usual channels or, as was suggested during a Question by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, by election by the whole House? It could sit in public and take external evidence. There is an opportunity to do this. I say to the Leader of the House that she should not let the dead hand of Strathclyde stop her taking action. I like the idea of the dead hand of Strathclyde. It is like a 1930s black-and-white thriller, but make no mistake, it is present, and the House should not allow it to stop us moving ahead.
Neither do I think we should stop looking at the situation of the Lord Speaker. It is time that some noble Lords, particularly on the Conservative Benches, stopped being like Jacobites dreaming of the king across the water and assuming that somehow, at some stage, they can restore the Lord Chancellor to the Woolsack. That time has gone, and whatever happens in this House, they will not find a majority for that course of action. It is time to look at the role of the Lord Speaker in the light of experience. Much as I love the Chairman of Committees as he sits on the Woolsack, we must look at the overlap in the roles of the Lord Speaker, the Chairman of Committees and other key committee chairmen.
Taking up the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Filkin and Lord Puttnam, we have to look at how we can involve the public better. I welcome the BBC's new website on Parliament, which was launched last September. It should be given wider publicity. It is a gateway into a lot of the activities, often live, of the committees and the Chambers, not only of this Parliament, but of the devolved Assemblies. I am a long-time fan of BBC Parliament. It is still too much of a hidden gem. I would like to see much clearer scheduling, so that people know what to find and where to find it, and more cross-promotion, which would draw people into the Parliament channel. The excellent "The Record", the television equivalent of "Today in Parliament", could quite easily be shown on BBC2 after "Newsnight". That would be a way of messing in to what we have been talking about today to get a better understanding and awareness of what is going on in Parliament because, apart from the sketch writers, the print media have now abandoned the field completely in terms of trying to report accurately what goes on in Parliament, and that is a disgrace.
I, too, am in favour of post-legislative scrutiny. I had the honour of serving on the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, on the Communications Bill, and I still count it as one of the best parliamentary experiences that I have had-that was pre-legislative scrutiny. On post-legislative scrutiny, the Gambling Act and the Licensing Act are worth having a look at in the light of experience of how they have impacted on our society.
Like my noble friend Lord Alderdice, I deplore the lack of communication and links between the two Houses. An idea off the top of my head is that as well as the joint meeting of both Houses presided over by Her Majesty at the State Opening, what about a joint meeting of both Houses at the beginning of a Parliament, perhaps held in the Royal Gallery or Westminster Hall, and jointly chaired by the Speaker and the Lord Speaker? It would at least be a symbolic gesture that we are in the same business and are complementary in the work that we do. That is just a passing thought.
I pay tribute to the noble Lords, Lord Butler and Lord Filkin, and the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, who have been doing this ad hoc work following the Lord Speaker's seminar. The fact that those ad hoc committees have worked and produced some interesting thoughts that they will publish shortly means that a lot of the groundwork has been done.
I hope that the lesson that we take from this debate is that there are lots of good ideas about, there is certainly enough of an agenda-if that is what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is worrying about-to get a Joint Committee, however it is formed or elected, to work now. I ask the Leader of the House to send this debate to the Prime Minister in the hope that he will send back a famous directive from a non-bullying Prime Minister: action this day.
My Lords, it is a rare pleasure, which is too often denied to me, to speak after the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I must tell him that whenever I see the Liberal Democrats I am reminded of another great black and white film called "Up the Creek". I join all others who have congratulated my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth on securing a place in the ballot for this interesting and extremely useful debate. I can assure noble Lords that not only shall I have listened carefully to all who spoke, I will also read the many distinguished contributions with equal care.
Perhaps I may start on a slightly sour note: it is better to get these things out of the way at the beginning. I was struck by the number of Peers who spoke about public involvement in the scrutiny of legislation. Yet when this House was asked, only four of those who spoke today supported the idea that the British people should have a say in agreeing the Lisbon treaty. That is a stain on this Parliament, which will not be removed, particularly because the three parties gave a promise in their manifestoes. The 2005 Labour Party manifesto-the most recent-said:
"We will legislate to place reasonable limits on the time bills spend in the second chamber-no longer than 60 sitting days for most bills".
I take it that the Government have changed their mind on that objective. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to tell us when and why they changed their mind, and that it will not reappear ever again in a Labour Party manifesto.
When I read the terms of the Motion, to enhance,
"the means available to the House ... to scrutinise legislation and public policy", it struck me that this went to the heart of what this House and Parliament have been about since the earliest days. Issues of how to contain the Executive and to hold the King's Ministers to account were exercising Members of this place in the 13th and 14th centuries. Some of their statues are above us as we speak. It is thankfully a lot less bloody these days, but, sadly, it is also a lot less effective. We are all agreed on the need to expose those in power to more effective scrutiny, but as a small-part player in the events of recent years, I have to say that we should not be too downhearted.
This House has had a significant impact in the past 13 years. It has protected the right to trial by jury; limited the most draconian emergency powers to terrorist-related crimes; prevented the imposition of compulsory ID cards; upheld the right of every election candidate to send a free election address; defended controls on night flights to airports; blocked super-casinos; and prevented 90-day detention without trial. That is just part of the record, which is not bad for a House regarded, whether we like it or not, as far less legitimate than the other place.
But our weakness has meant that while we were right on 24-hour drinking, regional assemblies, home improvement packs, the risks of electoral fraud and, I would contend, the use of closed lists in elections, we had to give way on all those occasions. The issue was not one of deficiency of scrutiny-your Lordships filleted all those propositions-it was a deficiency of authority. However we react to the issues raised in this debate, that deficiency cannot be mended by changes in our practices or Standing Orders. Some confuse bad strategic decisions by government with less-good scrutiny. We exist very often to make bad Bills a little better. It should be the job of government to make sure that we get better Bills, which is why I very much commend the work done by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, and his group in the Better Government Initiative.
Parliamentary reform-by which I mean strengthening the authority of Parliament vis-à-vis the Executive-has to involve both places. We are part of a process that will change. The use of guillotines in another place has been monstrous as regards the number of Bills that arrive in this House not having been debated. I totally agree with what noble Lords have said on this and with the proposition that we should find a way of flagging up those areas that have not been debated.
Since 1997, we have seen huge changes in procedure in this place. I have been a willing participant in that. After the reforms that followed the discussions initiated by the late Lord Williams of Mostyn, we agreed on a cross-party basis a range of changes. That was in about 2000-01. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, sat on that group as well. I must say that I had no idea of how growingly irritated he has become, so that in these dying days of the Labour Government, he at last erupts and says that everything that has gone before was quite wrong and that now we must go for change.
The important changes we made included much greater use of Grand Committees. On the whole, these have worked well. However, I note that there is still some disagreement between the views of the noble Lords, Lord Filkin and Lord Rooker, and my noble friend Lord Higgins about whether they should become the default mechanism. I note a lessening of the use of Grand Committees for legislation and a greater use of them for other business. This is ripe for review and could include, perhaps, the suggestion that Grand Committees should have the ability and power to sit in the mornings. Equally, another effect of the Williams reforms was to bring in tighter rules on procedure at Third Reading, which, too, should be revised. I very much welcomed what the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said about that.
There are advantages and disadvantages in all changes, but I refute the claim that we on this side have been resistant to it. We, for example, proposed and would maintain the Delegated Powers Committee, the Constitution Committee and the Economic Affairs Committee. But, given the limited resources of the House, we may wish to look again at the distribution of resources between the committees of the House, especially if we do more pre- and post-legislative scrutiny. No one could help but notice the enormous share of resources that is taken by the European Affairs Committee family overall. I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Roper, is bidding the other way on that to make sure that there should be enhanced resources.
My Lords, I will come to that in a moment, but this is a time-limited debate and I am not allowed any extra time. I always hold to one principle; namely, that this House should not be the same as another place. I do not accept the argument that we need to become more like the other place, sit on the same days or run our internal arrangements in the same way. I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, said about September Sittings, which may be a way that we should move.
There will be an election in a few weeks' time, after which there will be enormous change. There will be a new House of Commons. Some of the Wright committee proposals no doubt will have been taken up. Because we are part of a process, we should react to those changes and those, if any, that are taken up by the Better Government Initiative. Of course, there is a need for the House to respect the right of the Queen's Government to get their business. We have respected that right these past 13 years. I hope that if the Labour Party finds itself in opposition, it will do the same and, likewise, on the Salisbury doctrine, as was upheld in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling. I am sure that the Liberal Democrats will sign up to that, too.
The glory and strength of this House, which I have no desire to see changed, is the right, not given to Members in another place, to table an amendment or a Motion, and to have it heard and replied to by a Minister. Few other legislative bodies have that right-there may be none for all that I know. My noble friend Lord Norton put it very well and he will know the answer to that. But it is an extraordinary freedom that we should maintain.
Many excellent arguments have been put forward in this debate, especially that of using technology better, which we should do. I assure the House that having spent 13 years upholding and defending the rights of the Opposition with, perhaps I may say, a very fair hearing from most Leaders of the House with whom I have dealt, I will not change my tune simply because I may change my seat. That would equally be true for any other Leader of the Conservative Party who became Leader of the House. So long as this House continues in the performance of the constitutional role it staked out for itself after 1911, it need fear nothing from any Conservative Government.
I have said that the next Parliament will be different. Whoever wins, we will see a very large change in the House of Commons and have an influx of new Members into this House. And whoever becomes the next Leader of this House should take this debate very seriously, and in my view should meet very early on in the next Parliament to decide how to take forward in a positive manner some of the suggestions that have been made so that we keep our processes up to date and improve the work of scrutiny and of holding the Government to account. That is in the interests not just of this House but also of the Government and, in the long term, the people of this country.
My Lords, this has been a stimulating debate that was much needed in many ways. I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for calling attention to the case for enhancing the means available to the House for scrutinising legislation and public policy. As Leader of the House, it is my duty and my privilege to assist the House in such endeavours, and in a moment I will respond in detail to some of the suggestions put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and of course by other speakers in the debate.
I often wish I was a student again, and in difficult days I can see that Hull University is becoming a more alluring place. The noble Lord was right to say that the issues being discussed are essential elements of a healthy political system that links Parliament's relationship with the Government to Parliament's relationship with the people, and I would also agree with my noble friend Lord Puttnam that today we are talking about matters of good governance-not so much good government, but good governance.
Before I turn to the suggestions made in the debate, I should like to take the opportunity to dwell for a moment on the considerable contribution that this House makes at present to the scrutiny of legislation and public policy, and on the ways in which we have been able to enhance that contribution over recent years. All of us here present have witnessed the painstaking work done both in this Chamber and in Grand Committee to examine and improve legislation, and to air issues of public policy, although of course much more needs to be done. Noble Lords might recall, for example, the 11 days that the House spent in Committee on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill during the last Session, after pre-legislative scrutiny, or the prolonged and authoritative debate over the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, to the Coroners and Justice Bill last autumn. Thankfully, not all our scrutiny is quite on that epic scale, but those episodes should remind us of the quality and magnitude of the contribution made by this House to the crafting of legislation and public policy.
Nor should we overlook the work done outside the Chamber and the Moses Room, although of course there is much more potential to be grasped. I am taken by the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that we should use Grand Committee in the mornings. That is a simple change which would be welcomed by many people, but I shall come back to those issues in due course.
I hardly need to highlight to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, as a former chairman of the Constitution Committee, or to my noble friends Lord Filkin and Lord Grenville, and the noble Lord, Lord Roper, just how vital a role is played by our Select Committees in examining draft legislation and public policy, and indeed in equipping the House with the information we need to perform our scrutiny function effectively. Many of our Select Committees have built up formidable reputations for themselves in this respect, and produce authoritative work. My noble friend Lord Grenfell reminded us that if the membership of this House is to be changed, which under my party would happen, we have to give careful consideration to the impact on scrutiny, which benefits greatly from the expertise of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, reminded us that the qualities of this House must not be lost in any reformed Chamber.
I make remarks about our Select Committees not in a spirit of complacency, but because I believe that in what has been a difficult year for the House and for Parliament as a whole, it is important that we should not lose sight of our strengths and achievements, and indeed redouble our efforts to raise awareness of them outside. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, rightly reminded us of the power of this House. So although we have dwelt in the debate on the ways in which we might enhance the contribution that this House makes to our system of governance, let no one be in any doubt that our present contribution is considerable and that we can take pride in it. However, I think it was my noble friend Lord Rooker who said that the bells should be ringing. The bells certainly are ringing. Indeed, one might even detect a note of admiration in the Wright committee report, which surprisingly no noble Lord cited in their speeches. Paragraph 104 of that report noted this House's,
"commitment to fixed intervals between stages of Bills, the absence of time limitations on debates in the Lords on legislation, and the detailed scrutiny of much legislation taking place on the floor of the Lords Chamber rather than in committees as in the Commons".
Indeed, I read through the committee's report and felt that it thought we are doing quite a good job in many ways. But that is not to say that we should rest on our laurels, nor have we been in danger of doing so. Many reforms have been suggested during the debate, and I would remind noble Lords that reform is a process, not an event. This House is engaged in such a process. Looking back over only the past year, we have made advances in our ability to scrutinise legislation and public policy in a number of areas. Evolution and not revolution, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, put it.
Earlier this month, we passed the Terrorist Asset-Freezing (Temporary Provisions) Bill, which was subject to the fast-track procedure. In doing so, for the second time we followed a new set of arrangements based on the recommendations of the Constitution Committee which are intended to ensure that the House has at its disposal the information it needs to give proper consideration to such Bills, and to the case for fast-tracking the legislation. During this week, the first of a series of national policy statements, the policy statement on energy, was considered in Grand Committee. That arrangement is another innovation intended to enhance the House's ability to scrutinise government policy formulated under the Planning Act. And earlier today we continued our experiment with Question Time for Secretaries of State based in this House, which I think has been a success and provides a new opportunity for Members to air issues of public policy. I could go on, notably to speak of the new powers that the House has with respect to European Union policy and legislation as a result of the Lisbon treaty and the adoption of the European Union (Amendment) Act. These examples should serve to dispel any notion that we have been standing still. In spite of the challenges we have faced on other fronts over the past year, we continue to find new ways of improving our performance as a legislative Chamber. But, of course, that process must continue.
There is a wide spectrum of opinion among your Lordships on reform of the House: on reform of its composition and means of entry, on the proper role and function of the House, and indeed on reform of our practices and procedures. Focusing as we are today on our practices and procedures, I am conscious that there is an equally wide range of views on the way forward. However, I acknowledge what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. We are moving towards a consensus on many of these issues and I welcome this.
I have said before in response to an Oral Question from my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours that I believe that a Leaders' group should be set up to examine some of the issues raised by noble Lords today. Although I believe that it would make sense to do this in a new Parliament in order to ensure that the momentum behind such a project is not sapped by a dissolution, I have heard the calls for action now. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was being practical in many ways. We have four and a half weeks before-well, I don't know.
We have four and a half weeks before the Easter Recess, and that is not very long. However, I will say to my noble friend Lord Brooke that I again undertake to raise the issue at the next meeting of the Procedure Committee. I believe that a Leaders' group could usefully look at how Members are appointed to Select Committees, how we can avoid duplication with the other place when we repeat ministerial Statements and Urgent Questions, and how we might ensure that in scrutinising Bills that have arrived from the Commons, we focus on the provisions that receive the least attention in the other place. These any many other issues raised today, such as Grand Committees, the use of carryover and so forth, should be considered by such a group. Moreover, it could certainly consult widely, including with the staff of the House.
There is also room to examine how we can ensure that our procedures are more transparent and accessible to Back-Benchers on all sides of the House. Although individual Back-Bench Members can exercise great influence in this House, it often requires close familiarity with our practices and ways of doing things, which can put those who have only recently joined the House, or who attend less frequently, at a real disadvantage.
I should also say a word about the role of the Lord Speaker, who provides an excellent service to this House. I have said previously in response to a Question that my personal view is that, at some point after any new post has been created, there should be a review, but such a review should be conducted separately rather than forming part of the remit of a Leader's group. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, mentioned the role of the Lord Speaker at Question Time. That should be looked at in the review of the Lord Speaker's role.
My noble friend Lord Filkin spoke of the better use of technology, through having Bills on the internet, with explanations of where a Bill has got to in its legislative process. That is a fantastic idea, but much of the information is already available on the Parliament website in the form suggested by him. Moreover, the National Archives are redeveloping their online legislation service to replace the two existing websites and bring together the revised, as-enacted versions of legislation for the first time. The service will also integrate supporting documents such as Explanatory Notes and impact assessments. My noble friend was perhaps speaking of others things that should be on such a website. If there should be, we must put them there, because it is mad not to make proper use of all the technology available to us.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, made a strong case for Joint Committees on pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny. I naturally agree with the views expressed by my noble friend Lord Davies of Abersoch in Grand Committee yesterday. We should certainly consider these issues further, but the noble Lord was right that both Houses would have to agree. There are also resource implications. While I accept that frugality should not impede us in doing a better job and do not think that democracy should come on the cheap, we have to think of resources.
The noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, suggested a Joint Committee to look at the quality of legislation, which is another interesting suggestion. However, we have already discussed today three new Joint Committees; we are having a plethora of new Joint Committees. That may not be a bad thing, but these matters need proper consideration. I have carefully read the document on good government to which the noble Lord contributed. There are some excellent suggestions in it, and I look forward to receiving the report from the group that he chairs. Various noble Lords mentioned carry-over, whose greater use in this House we very much welcome.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, spoke also of committees in this House. As has been mentioned, the Liaison Committee will undertake a comprehensive review of the House's Select Committee activity early in the new Parliament. That would be the most appropriate forum in which to consider many of the suggestions made today.
My noble friend Lord Rooker and the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, quite rightly said that there are many areas of public policy which are not properly scrutinised-obesity, for example, was mentioned-and that there should be a greater role for committees in this House. We should perhaps ask the Liaison Committee to look positively at that.
Many noble Lords understandably spoke of pre-legislative scrutiny, the benefits of which are clear: the delivery of better legislation and its more efficient passage through Parliament. I agree with noble Lords that more pre-legislative scrutiny assists in the development of strong and effective legislation. Wherever appropriate and practicable, it should be the norm. The Government currently has six draft Bills published, and we remain committed to publishing as many draft Bills as possible. While pre-legislative scrutiny is not appropriate for all Bills, alternative forms of consultation should ensure that policies are robust and well considered. My noble friend Lord Puttnam made a very persuasive and practical argument in favour of pre-legislative scrutiny, saying how we as legislators and the legislation suffer if there is a lack of it. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, made a very interesting contribution. There have been notable successes with draft Bills that have been scrutinised by Joint Committees of this House and the other place. I would cite the Bribery Bill, which recently completed its passage through this House, and the draft Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which was of immense assistance to me and my colleagues in government when I took it through the House.
We have no objection to making better use of the Special Public Bill Committee procedure, which we have recently used successfully for the Committee stage of the Third Parties (Rights against Insurers) Bill, which is a Law Commission Bill. It is essentially a very good idea. There are one or two drawbacks; for example, proceedings in Select Committees are less accessible to Members of the House, as only Peers nominated to the committee can participate fully in the proceedings. My noble friend Lord Grenfell spoke powerfully of the need to use Public Bill Committees better to engage with the public, with which I agree. My noble friend Lord Filkin spoke of the time implications of more use of this procedure, which should be taken into consideration.
My noble friend Lord Brooke mentioned petitions and online consultation, which should also be further considered. While I do not say that it is a bad thing, I was interested to read in evidence given to the Wright committee a comment that the public's desire is for influence rather than for participation. I make no judgment; I just reflect that comment.
On public engagement, the Information Committee has produced an excellent report. We briefly debated it ahead of its publication, and I hope that there will be opportunities for a longer debate. I, too, welcome the Lord Speaker's work in outreach.
In the debate on the Loyal Address, my noble friend Lord Rooker said that Bills coming to this House should have an accompanying note stating which amendments had been debated. That is a fabulous idea; I want to take it forward; I have mentioned it to the Procedure Committee. However, in looking at the proposal more closely, it has become clear to us that producing this type of document would be far from straightforward. It is not clear how one might impartially determine which provisions of a Bill have received an appropriate level of scrutiny in the other place, and there are some problems of methodology. That is not to say that we should not try to do it-we shall try, but it is not as easy as it might at first look.
Should Committee stages be taken off the Floor of the House? There has been an interesting debate today, and we will look at the idea further. The noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, said that the world is changing and that we must change with it by looking at cross-cutting issues, in relation, for example, to security. I wholeheartedly agree with that. Many would agree that we need less and better legislation, but I have to tell her that badges are still worn with pride, as they would be in any Government. However, I take issue with her views on the Personal Care at Home Bill, because that will have a profound effect on people's lives.
All regulatory policy is open to scrutiny by the Regulatory Policy Committee, an independent body, through published impact assessment. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, was right that the new Parliament will be a great opportunity for both Houses together to improve the ways in which we work. I hope that we will all seize on that. There is much that we can learn from colleagues in other legislatures, but there is also much that we can learn from each other in both Houses of Parliament, which we should do more of.
It was agreed in another place on Monday night that the question of sitting in September should be reconsidered in the next Parliament following a recommendation from the Wright Committee-but, of course, we are not bound by the decisions of the Commons on that.
This has been a healthy and timely debate as we come to the end of this Parliament. Over recent months, we have put in place a number of new arrangements designed to enhance the House's ability to scrutinise legislation, air issues of public interest and hold the Government to account. Like my noble friend, I believe that strengthening Parliament is good not only for Parliament but for government as well. It is right and proper that we should continue to look for new ways of adjusting and improving our practices and procedures to ensure that they are fit for purpose.
Today we have evidence of many potential new improvements. We must not be paralysed by either procedures or processes; we seek improvements because we understand the importance of good governance. Today's debate has helped to move us forward. I have said that I hope the process will culminate in the establishment of a Leader's group to conduct a systematic review of some of the issues raised today and on previous occasions by Members of the House.
I conclude by thanking all noble Lords who have participated in the debate today, which I am sure will be a huge catalyst for the process of change.
Four-and-a-half weeks is a very precise timetable which, on my calculation, takes us to
My Lords, my four-and-a-half weeks of legislative time led me to the Wednesday before Maundy Thursday. I believe the House will wish to break for an Easter Recess irrespective of what happens about the election.
My Lords, this has been a superb debate. The contributions have been notable not only for their number but for their quality. I am grateful to everyone who has taken part, not least the three party Leaders, and I am grateful for the response of the Leader of the House; I know how seriously she takes her responsibility in that capacity. She will be most welcome to enrol at the University of Hull-perhaps following my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon, who has just graduated from the university with an MA in legislative studies
There has been a clear theme throughout this debate-that we do a very good job but that we can and should build on that, not least to enhance our links with the public. There have been some excellent proposals and, as my noble friend Lord Higgins and the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, said, a consensus appears to be emerging. Like the Leader, I reiterate the words of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker: good government benefits from a strong Parliament; a confident Government should welcome changes designed to strengthen Parliament.
Like the Leader, I trust today's debate will constitute but one part of a process of ensuring that this House enhances its role as a crucial part of our political system. I look forward to moving ahead on the proposals that have been put forward. We have the political will; we now need to exploit it. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.