Legislation and Public Policy — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:18 pm on 25th February 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Shephard of Northwold Baroness Shephard of Northwold Conservative 12:18 pm, 25th February 2010

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.