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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:03 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Labour 1:03 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, it is a delight to welcome an old colleague and friend, the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, to our deliberations. I am sure that I speak for the whole Chamber when I say that we have already seen in the quality of his maiden speech what we had expected and what we have to look forward to in terms of clarity, forthrightness and content. In addition, I am sure that the House will increasingly see that he has been, and will be, a brave public servant, wise in his actions, tough and able to carry through difficult change when necessary. He will be an asset indeed.

The noble Lord has hinted already at the richness of his public service life, which is why he will give such value. He has been a chief executive of local authorities, some of which were extremely difficult at times; he has been a Permanent Secretary with-how shall I put it?-ambitious politicians; and he has been called in to sort out difficult issues such as the Soham inquiry and the Legal Services Commission's problems, thankless tasks where so much could have gone wrong.

The noble Lord also understands policy. You would expect a Permanent Secretary to do so, but he has demonstrated it by the remarkable way in which the Institute for Government has filled an aching void in our public debate over the past few years. We cannot imagine what we would have done without it. It has been brilliantly led by him and his able staff.

Most important, the noble Lord understands delivery and he understands real life. Many people can make policy or give speeches, but the ability to turn policy and ideas into action on the ground is fundamental. I suspect that this is partly because he has been rooted in the reality of running public services and is still rooted in civil society in rich ways. As well as being a director of the University of the Arts and chairman of the Design Council in past functions, he is currently either a board member or a trustee of bodies concerned with management, education and the arts and of a wide range of charitable bodies. I have demonstrated the richness of his experience, but it causes me a slight worry: I do not want him to spend so much time on those bodies that he does not bring the benefit of his wisdom to our deliberations. I urge him to spend time in this Chamber.

I turn to more difficult issues. It has been a dreadful 18 months for this House. We collectively know that we have been vilified, belittled and damaged. This matters to us personally-many of us feel that we have been belittled as a consequence-but, more than that, it matters because we are not a club but a part of the constitution. Therefore, the public regard for whether we do our constitutional job well, with integrity and effectiveness, matters not only to us in a self-regarding way but to society more widely. Rebuilding the trust and confidence of the public and civil society and convincing them that this Chamber is capable of fulfilling its constitutional role matter enormously.

In that spirit, the Lord Speaker invited a number of eminent external people to talk informally to Peers and to give their perspective on where we sat last October. To correct the record, she did not initiate the three working groups; she was aware that that happened on the back of the seminar, with the chairmanships emerging, in the dreadful way that the House knows they do, through a mixture of persuasion, cajoling and bullying.

The Deputy Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to the three working groups in his speech. They essentially looked at three issues: how the House scrutinises legislation; how it governs itself; and how its procedures support those two other functions. Each working group had three fundamental principles. First, it had to be utterly cross-party and non-aligned, with a membership drawn from people who were known and, I hope, respected in all parts of the House. Secondly, it had to respect and not seek to change the constitutional settlement; in no way should there be any hint of trying to use this as a wedge to upset or tilt the balance. Thirdly, we recognised-although we stand by our recommendations-that its contribution was to promote debate rather than to pretend that this was the alpha and omega of these issues; we would not be so hubristic.

Let me, in my limited time, give your Lordships a quick taster of some of those points. First, the role of scrutinising legislation is fundamental. It is what the public think we exist for, so how we do it matters greatly. Five points were made by the group that I had the privilege of chairing. The first was the need to scrutinise if legislation is fit and ready to come into the House-there have been times, I regret, when I have been guilty of not always carrying that standard as a Minister or as a member of the Government. The second point was to spend more skill and time scrutinising the policy behind the legislation. Too often we dive like eager lawyers for detail and lose sight of what the legislation is meant to achieve, what success would look like and whether the legislation looks likely to achieve it.

Next, we recognised the need to involve the public in our processes. Your Lordships should not faint; it already happens in the Commons. For all Bills that start there, there is a public Bill process whereby the views of the public are listened to and representations made. We should have a similar system for those few Bills that start in the Lords. It is normal, good practice. To cheer the Leader of the House, we say that we should make greater use of Grand Committee-we shall explain why in the report. It is beneficial now. We should not always use it, but it should be the default rather than the exception. Lastly, we should stop talking about post-legislative scrutiny and start doing it.

I shall not talk about the procedures of the House, because there is not time. I shall say a few words instead about governance of the House. It is clear that the failures of the past 18 months are failures of individuals, but they are also failures of governance. We have to face up to that fact. It was we who made the system that allowed things to go wrong and the public hold us collectively to account for that. It is a particular duty of bodies that are still self-governing-there are not many of them left-to have proper processes for periodically reviewing their governance. Otherwise, who is to do it to us? I am not aware-I stand to be corrected-that this House has ever had a formal, let alone an independent, review of the quality of its governance and of whether it meets current good practice standards. Such standards are known and most public bodies would now expect to have to meet them. This House has not reviewed its governance, let alone asked anybody to give a view of it. That is needed; we are not a club.

Our governance is a mystery to many of us. It is not clear who is responsible for what or who is responsible for putting things right or taking a systematic view of whether the governance arrangements are appropriate to each task. I ask your Lordships to read the one quotation about how the usual channels dominate internal governance. However, their role is nowhere made explicit and it is more focused on the interests of the Government and of the political parties than those of the House or of the public.

The failures of governance are failures not of individuals but of us collectively to review our processes. I was therefore delighted that both the Leader of the House yesterday-I take his words at face value-and the Deputy Leader of the House signalled their willingness to open discussion on these issues with me, the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, my co-chairs of these three contributions to the debate.