Legislation and Public Policy — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:11 pm on 25th February 2010.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 12:11 pm, 25th February 2010

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.