Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee - Membership Motion – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 31st January 2023.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts:
Moved by Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts
At end insert “but that this House, whilst recognising the qualities of the proposed new members of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and whilst entirely supporting the need for appropriate rotation of members, deplores the decision to rotate off at the same time seven out of 11 members of the Committee, including the chair, now and every three years hereafter; believes that this will undermine the quality of service the Committee gives to the House; and therefore calls on the Committee of Selection (1) to ensure that future rotations should be as close as possible to one third of the total membership of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and (2) to report to the House before the House rises for the summer recess setting out how this will be achieved”.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker for his explanation of what has gone before and I want to place on record from the beginning his courtesy to me and his openness, for which I am extremely grateful. I had hoped to be able to table this amendment in the name of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee as a whole, but that is not permissible under the rules of your Lordships’ House, so it is in my name as chairman. However, I want the House to be aware that it is a unanimous request from every member of the committee. Seven of them are listed in the paper before noble Lords, and the four who are not listed are the noble Lord, Lord Powell, from the Cross Benches, the noble Lords, Lord Rowlands and Lord Hutton, from the Opposition, and the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, from the Government Benches.
I emphasise that because I want the House to understand that we are not revolutionaries; we are not here to try to overthrow all the procedures of the House. But, as a group, we believe very strongly that your Lordships’ role in scrutinising and holding the Government of the day to account is critical to the performance of our House. I am afraid that we on the SLSC believe, with due respect to the Committee of Selection, that on this occasion process, the administrative operation of the House, has trumped purpose, the effective operation of our committee. We believe that this is the wrong way round. Purpose and performance should come before process.
Before I explain that in a little more detail, I want to make it clear what this amendment is not about. First, we do not argue that we are uniquely qualified to sit on the SLSC—far from it. We have no doubt about the estimable qualities of those are going to take our place. Speaking personally, I have no doubt that my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral, who is proposed as my successor as chairman, will carry out the role of committee chair every bit as well as, and better than, I have.
Secondly, this amendment is not an attack on the principle of rotation. All committees need regular injections of new blood to keep their thinking and their approach fresh and up to date. Thirdly, this amendment is not an attack on the decision of the House to change the measurement of time served by an individual on the committee from parliamentary Sessions to calendar years. That must have been a good decision, because calendar years are fixed and parliamentary Sessions are not. But the switch from one method to the other has had a series of dreaded “unforeseen consequences”, with which all Members of your Lordships’ House are familiar, as regards the rotation of committee membership.
I know we are not alone in our concerns. Other committee chairs may wish to add their perspectives. But the impact on the SLSC is particularly challenging. Today, the House will rotate off seven of the 11 members of the committee—two-thirds, including the chairman. This time next year, the House will rotate off one—just one. Two years from now, the House will rotate off the remaining three, and the following year, we will go back to seven again, this time including my noble friend Lord Hunt, whose term of office will have come to an end. Our committee respectfully suggests to the House that a “seven, one, three” rotation pattern is unlikely to enhance the effectiveness of our committee’s operation.
As the Senior Deputy Speaker said, we were in touch with him well in advance, because we saw this problem coming down the road. We met on
The Committee of Selection did not feel able to accept this solution. I ask myself why. I understand that the committee feels bound to implement the decision taken by the House to change the basis of management, whatever the result. It was put to me that this House would be angry if the Committee of Selection flouted its decision. Of course, the House did decide this course of action, but I doubt that any Member of your Lordships’ House had any idea of what the practical consequences would be for the rotation of the membership of the SLSC, and indeed other committees, when they decided to approve it. Indeed, if your Lordships had understood all the consequences of the decision, someone would have stood up and said words to the effect of, “Hang on, this is a bit drastic. I think we need to find a way to smooth the transition between the two systems”.
Importantly, the Liaison Committee of the House clearly even then thought there might be problems and difficulties with the transition shift. The fourth report from the Procedure and Privilege Committee, which recommended the changes in the rotation rule, states:
“There could be a case for providing a degree of flexibility in the three-year rotation rule when its rigid application would result in a large number of members of a committee being ‘rotated off’ simultaneously”.
I also note that the Companion at paragraph 11.14 states:
“The Committee of Selection may consider making ad hoc adjustments to the application of the rotation rule when needed.”
So, there are what could be described as escape hatches for the Committee of Selection if it wanted to use them.
I have two further points. The Committee of Selection was kind enough to write to me, to all members of our committee and now, I think, to all Members of the House, explaining the background to its decision. It said that
“six Committees are due to see at least 50% of their Lords members rotate off this January”.
I recognise the issue of fairness, which the Senior Deputy Speaker has raised. But I have to say I regard this statement as actually increasing my concerns about the way the committee rotations take place. I may be naive but, in all my career, I have never come across an organisation where it is argued that a 50% annual staff turnover will lead to a smoother and more effective operation of the organisation.
Finally, I will say a word on the particular position of the SLSC. The House knows that it is not the role of the committee to comment on the wisdom of any policy. That is for the Government of the day to justify, in due time, at the Dispatch Box. The committee’s job is to examine the way a policy has been implemented and to highlight points that the committee feels that the House or the wider public would be interested in. Many policy decisions result in not one but a series of regulations—for example, photo ID at the ballot box or changes to the student loans scheme. Knowledge of what has gone before is very important in improving the quality of scrutiny, as it is in our work to keep an eye on government departments when their performance, as regards regulation, has repeatedly fallen short of their statutory obligations.
To do all this, we need what is best called institutional memory: a clear recollection, among a sufficient number of members of the committee, of what has gone before. Institutional memory is not a static concept. That is why a proper degree of rotation is needed. It is also why new members of the committee, however experienced, can be compared with new batsmen coming to the crease: they need some time to play themselves in.
One person from the Committee of Selection suggested to me that this institutional memory resides not with the Members of your Lordships’ House on the committee but with the committee’s staff. I yield to no one in my admiration for the work of the staff of our House, but their job is to provide the facts. It is up to the committee to interpret what has been put before it.
We on the SLSC may be disappointed, but I hope we are realistic. The Committee of Selection has heard our representations and has rejected them, as it is perfectly entitled to do. It has made its choice of new members of the committee known and those individuals have been told. There is no way back from that. To propose a complete reversal would be both organisationally shambolic and personally insulting to a number of Members of your Lordships’ House. That ship has sailed, but we have a chance to reflect on what has happened. I cannot believe that anyone would wish to argue that we now find ourselves in a satisfactory, let alone ideal, situation.
This amendment accepts the status quo but asks the House to endorse a request to the Committee of Selection possibly to think again, in the light of the real- life outcomes of the present procedure of our committee and, perhaps, of other committees, with the view to have a target rotation of one-third of committee members every year; and to come back to the House with its views before the Summer Recess.
At the heart of this issue is whether purpose or performance—the work of the House—is more important than its process or administration. If your Lordships agree that the former is more important, you may be inclined to support the SLSC; if you do not, you will not. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will not detain the House for long, but it would be useful to put some comments on the record. I fully endorse the comments made by the Senior Deputy Speaker and if the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, divides the House, I will vote against him.
I agree with the Senior Deputy Speaker that the new members of this committee are of the highest quality and expertise. They do an excellent job on behalf of the House. The noble Lord outlined the work of the committee he saw when he was a Minister, and I invite noble Lords to look at the names that the Senior Deputy Speaker has proposed. I am sure all will agree that these Members will discharge their duties diligently and effectively.
The Senior Deputy Speaker has outlined a way forward for the House, which I support. I hope the House will agree that, as Opposition Chief Whip, I am not in the business of trying to undermine or damage the House’s effectiveness in holding the Government to account. I hope that this is the way forward.
I am sure noble Lords will recognise that, when the Opposition table amendments, we often use the reports of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which outline deficiencies in the legislation proposed by the Government. We regularly put those forward. We often rely on the committee’s work. We know that it is important and does effective work. I believe that the noble Lord’s amendment is not needed: a way forward has been outlined. I invite the House not to agree with the amendment.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. I am about to be rotated off of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, having done my three years. This is the correct process for me. This is not a party-political issue, nor a personal one, nor about the quality of the members about to be appointed. My comments do not relate to the SLSC in particular but to all committees where members have been rotated off before they have completed three years. I question the wisdom of such a churn of membership, all at the same time.
In the great scheme of things, this is a very minor matter. Most committees’ memberships are 11 or 12 strong. It seems to me that the most sensible way to rotate members is that three or four members, having completed three years, should be rotated off once every year. This would ensure a fresh intake of members but leave a core membership of those who have some experience of the work of the committee. I am afraid that to change the membership of committees on a wholesale scale, as is currently happening, just does not seem sensible to me.
I have enjoyed my time on the SLSC, and the excellent and even-handed approach of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. To be rotating off seven of the 11 members seems excessive. There are other committees, where nearly half of the members are being rotated off, which have a similar feeling that this is not the wisest way to run the system. However, I cannot speak for them. Before the next churn of committee memberships, perhaps a more equitable system can be implemented, which employs some flexibility.
My Lords, I confess that, when I was chair of the Economic Affairs Committee, I complained about this rotation. I see that the number of members coming off that committee is the same. I put that down to a failure by me as chairman. As my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker said, the remedy lies with the committees themselves. I hope that I am not landing my successor with a difficulty.
The late Queen’s question is pertinent here: why did no one see this coming? If they are faced with this, it is surely up to the chairman and committees themselves to say that perhaps some of us may leave a little early and, if people are not willing to, have a ballot so that you get that one-third rotation. There is an argument that some people would then get only two years. We have set up very difficult committees on very difficult subjects where the committee’s lifespan is only one year.
My noble friend has been put in a very difficult position, as have the usual channels, because the House voted for this matter. The answer is for the chairmen of committees who feel this way to discuss with their members how they can get a more even rotation in future and not leave it up to the House to sort out.
My Lords, I will interpolate a few comments in support of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. This amendment is not, as some are still supposing, a plea to prolong the tenure of some of the existing members of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Rather, it is an attempt to draw attention to the dysfunctional aspects of the existing arrangements affecting Standing Committees, and a plea for some reforms.
I intend to make some brief comments under two headings. The first concerns the logistics affecting the scrutiny of secondary legislation, and the second concerns the nature of the legislation and the kind of scrutiny it requires. It is clear to all who have had experience of these matters that a committee of 11 members that meets once a week is incapable of dealing adequately with the plethora of secondary legislation that comes its way. Its recourse is to pay attention only to the most outstanding issues. The secretariat of the committee sifts the material and, given that in the process every instrument must be studied, this is an extraordinary labour, undertaken by only a handful of people. In short, the secretariat is understaffed.
In 2018, in order to cope with the demands of the secondary legislation arising from the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee was split into two and its membership doubled. The existing members were divided between the two sub-committees. I believe that the same is bound to happen again in consequence of the phenomenal number of statutory instruments arising from the intended abolition of retained European Union legislation. In that case, the four surviving members of the committee will be divided between the two sub-committees that will contain 18 newly appointed members, of whom few will have had previous experience of these matters. This will be far from ideal.
The other matter on which I wish to comment is the nature of the scrutiny and the recommendations the committee is empowered to make. The committee labours under the injunction that it cannot call into question matters of policy that supposedly would have been established in primary legislation. In fact, much of what transpires in secondary legislation is the exercise of new policy initiatives. The committee cannot propose amendments to the legislation, and it is even doubtful whether it is empowered to ask the Government to think again. The effect is that we are now suffering from government by diktat.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for raising this issue because it applies also to committees beyond his own. I am chair of the Environment and Climate Change Committee, and we look forward to welcoming the four new members who are joining us tomorrow. However, the Senior Deputy Speaker said that at some point in 2020, there was an agreement that Peers would serve on a committee for three years. The four people who are being rotated off my committee tomorrow have not served even two years, so clearly, the Committee of Selection can choose to have some flexibility when it suits it. We need to return to this issue.
Next year, my committee will rotate off seven members, including the chair, which is more than 50%. That means there will be nobody on that committee sitting on a committee that was formed less than three years ago. This House has many experts, and I absolutely take the Senior Deputy Speaker’s point that we can survive with the excellent staff we have. We do not want old duffers sitting there for ever, but the House needs to think about the suggestion of a more softly, softly rotation of one-third, one-third, one-third, rather than this up and down. Even though we will not be taking any action on this rotation—and, as I said, I welcome the new members joining my committee tomorrow—I hope that the Committee of Selection will reflect upon this issue.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, in moving his Motion so ably, has spoken for all of us on the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and I hope for many other Members of this House. As the noble Lord said, we all support the premise behind the rules on rotation of membership of our Select Committees. It is a good and sensible procedure for all the reasons he set out, as did the Chairman of the Committee of Selection. However, it is perfectly right and proper that this House must and should continually remind itself of the basic premise and purpose behind this three-year rotation rule. If we find—as in fact I think we do—that it is working in a way not envisaged when it was formulated, we should be prepared to revisit it and correct any perverse impacts.
I am sorry to say that this is what is happening today. The rule is not promoting sensible rotation; it is promoting upheaval, which is a different thing altogether. If we do nothing today, we are locking ourselves into an unhealthy pattern of future appointments to our Select Committees. I do not think we should do that, and nor do I think this is what lay behind the original purpose of the three-year limit on committee membership. As the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has pointed out in relation to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, this locks us into a pattern of “seven, one, three” which would repeat itself indefinitely.
We have today appointed people for three years. There is the possibility of casual vacancies—we all understand that—but we cannot plan on that basis. That is not the basis on which we should decide committee membership. With the greatest of respect to the Chairman of the Committee of Selection and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, whom I hold in the very highest regard, nor can we say that this is a problem for the committees themselves to sort out.
The House is appointing people today for three-year terms, so we are locking ourselves into a pattern of seven, one, three for this committee. I defy anyone listening to this debate to justify that pattern of rotation—but that is what we are contemplating. It might turn slightly differently, but as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, himself pointed out, it is entirely reasonable to remind ourselves of the fourth report of the Procedure and Privileges Committee, which spotted this as a potential problem years ago.
All the noble Lord’s amendment asks the House to do is invite the Committee of Selection to have another look at this pattern of rotational movement of members off our Select Committees. This is not how the rule was intended to operate. As the noble Lord said, this is not a revolutionary moment for your Lordships’ House. It just invites people to think again about the practical impact of this rule and see if there is a better way of avoiding disruption to the work of the Select Committees, because that is what we are talking about.
My Lords, I sense the mood of the House that we ought to move forward. There may be other noble Lords from the committee who endorse this, but I want to say that I have listened and, obviously, I take on board the comments made by people I respect. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has said something that I think the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, found difficult, but the truth is that there is precedent for committees to consider these matters. The Conduct Committee, for instance, decided of its own volition that it needed to establish a rotation. Therefore, lots were drawn and some members served two years and others served three.
On the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, transitions are where difficulties arise regarding how long a member may stay. For instance, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, will have served a gallant three and a half years; others, including I think the noble Lord, Lord German, will have served less, but that is what was agreed by the House in moving from three Sessions to three calendar years. It was only in October 2020 that the House took this view.
The guiding principle is that we all have a lot to contribute to the work of the committees of the House, and we wanted to ensure that as many noble Lords as possible have that opportunity. As we know, there are many applications to serve on the committees. I, the Chief Whip, the Convenor and others can confirm that often, there are more applications than vacancies, so we do need to find a way forward.
I sincerely hope I am being helpful to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, in saying that in my view, it is open for chairs and committees to decide the best way forward, as it always has been. There are other examples of staggered rotations precisely to accommodate these matters, and there is no difficult with that. The Committee of Selection always keeps these matters under consideration, but it has been helpful to hear a number of points being made.
I was really quite stung by the idea that somehow in 2019 the six new members placed that committee in jeopardy and difficulties by their lack of experience. My experience of 2019-20 was of a very strong and robust committee. I am confident because of the names that have been put forward, which the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, referred to. Those seven Members are of very strong standing and are worthy of your Lordships’ support.
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt. I have been listening to the debate with ever-increasing bemusement. Why on earth do we not appoint by thirds? That would deal with the whole problem. We might have to start with some members serving for just one year, some for two and some for three, but at a stroke it would deal with the issue. I do not see why we have this convoluted system of seven, one and then two. It seems bizarre.
The noble Lord makes an important point, but with regard to this committee I am saying that there is a solution, which is that the committee and its chair, as has been done with other committees, decide that some will serve for three years while some remaining members may serve for two years rather than three. It is in the hands of the committees that feel very strongly about this. I have to say that I communicated with some other committees where there was going to be a considerable change, and it was the view that that would not be taken forward. I think we should have confidence in the fact that we have seven excellent members to replace seven excellent members.
To conclude, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, that I think there is a remedy and a solution. By the summer, I simply do not know who may be the casual vacancies. Casual vacancies have a bearing on the issue of the rotation; we see all the time that there are casual vacancies. I understand the points that have been made, and I am happy for the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, and his committee to bear in mind what has happened today and that there can be solutions to the key points.
Obviously I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, will feel that what I have said, and the solution that I believe there is, will enable him not to press his amendment. I could not support it because I cannot identify with the suggestion that the quality of service would be put in jeopardy, particularly given the seven members who we have put forward to take on the great work of those who are rotating off. I am in the hands of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, but that is why I sincerely could not support his amendment.
I am grateful to everyone who has participated and made their views known. I am grateful to the members of the committee who have spoken out, to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, from another committee, and to the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, for his powerful analysis of the situation that we now find ourselves in.
I have to say to my noble friend Lord Forsyth—he was combative as ever and I would expect no less—that, with great respect, the treadmill nature of the work of the SLSC actually puts it in a different category from many of the committees that he was talking about. He talked about finding ways to fill casual vacancies but we are not trying to find a few; we are having seven out of 11 every third year. This is not a casual exercise but a complete bouleversement every third year, including the chairman. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, pointed out, there is a perfectly sensible way forward, which we have tried to explain in our amendment.
Again, if I may shoot this fox, we are saying nothing about the people who are coming forward. I do not want the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, or the Senior Deputy Speaker, to get away with the idea that we are trying to undermine the quality of the people who are coming in. I want to be clear about that.
Before I close, I want to ask the Senior Deputy Speaker a question. Next week, my noble friend Lord Hunt could come along and say, “We have sorted it out; two people who will be appointed today are going to leave in a year from now”. Could he do that, and could we be certain that the Committee of Selection would allow it? It seems to be a cockeyed system, but it would provide a partial answer to the point we are making.
If members of the committee decided they wished to retire early, that would be entirely a matter for them. That is how casual vacancies occur. Picking up the noble Lord’s point, I would have hoped and thought that this is exactly what I and the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, were alluding to. There is a way forward. It is not as if this is static. The chair and the committee, perhaps hearing what has been raised today, can draw some conclusions.
I am grateful for that comment. We either have a system where we do one-third, one-third and one-third, or a system organised by the committee chairman—maybe now or maybe not—and different committees then have different amounts. That is a much less clear system for dealing with the rotation on committees than having a one-third rotation each time, which is what our amendment proposed.
We have hacked this issue to death. Clearly the usual channels and the Committee of Selection have made their decision. I do not believe in gesture Divisions. Therefore, although I greatly regret the position we find ourselves in, for the effective operation of the House I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.