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Leader of the House

Volume 447: debated on Monday 12 June 2006

The Leader of the House was asked—

House of Lords Reform

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Joint Committee on Conventions has now been set up and is receiving evidence. Tomorrow, my ministerial colleagues in the House of Lords and I will appear before it. I am also arranging to bring forward an order to extend its deadline from the end of July to the end of this Session. An order to that effect has already been laid in House of Lords and will come before this House, assuming that it is passed, as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I will hold informal consultations with the other parties, Cross Benchers and bishops. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am meeting him and other members of the cross-party group to discuss the way forward next week.

I am grateful for that answer, but I seek clarification of what now appears to be the timetable. The Joint Committee is likely to work until the autumn and then report. Should there be a chance for the cross-party discussions to take that advice, information and recommendations into account? Should the House of Commons then be able to deliberate and then the Government formulate their views, hopefully before next year and on a consensus basis, before putting them to both Houses of Parliament?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we all hope and pray to find a consensus on this matter, but we never know. It is the failure to find such a consensus in the past that has left us with a less than satisfactory status quo. As to the time scale, we will have lost some months by extending the deadline for the Joint Committee. My intention is to run the all-party discussions, including within the group, in parallel with the Joint Committee’s sittings, but not in a way that pre-empts the conclusions. We should gain a fairly clear idea about the direction in which it is moving towards October and November, and I hope that we can try to bring all these issues together either this side of the turn of the year or just the other side of it.

My friend will have read early-day motion 2307, on the reform of the Canadian Senate. Does he expect the Joint Committee to look at what is happening now in Ottawa to see whether that gives us any way to move forward in reforming the House of Lords?

The Wakeham commission took at lot of evidence about parallels with other second chambers, and I may tell my hon. Friend that the manner in which other second chambers operate, the balance of power between them and the first chamber and their systems of election and appointment are all the experiences that we need to look at very carefully before making our own decisions.

In thanking the Leader of the House for his over-modest extension of the deadline, may I ask him to confirm that he will meet that very large informal all-party group from both Houses, which includes a former leader of the Liberal party and a former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, and that he will listen very carefully to the unanimous view of that group, which does not believe in electing any Member of the upper House?

Arrangements are in hand to see the hon. Gentleman, who is a leading member of that group, but the passion with which he puts an otherwise prosaic point simply about holding a meeting illustrates the difficulty of trying to find a consensus on this issue.

Petitions Committee

Like all hon. Members, the Leader of the House and I are keen to encourage greater public participation in our democracy. The Power report, “Parliament First” and the Modernisation Committee have made positive suggestions about making better use of public petitions. I am grateful to the Procedure Committee for devoting time and resources to the issue, and we look forward to being able to act on its findings.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He obviously agrees with me that the Petitions Committee that has been set up in the Scottish Parliament has been shown to be in touch with the people, groups and professionals with petitions, which are vital to people. Will he continue to go down that road and ensure that he and the Leader of the House consider a petitions committee to try to engage the general public more in politics and the House?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend—the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee has been widely praised by people from all parties and those of no party. We recently made a change—some saw it as a landmark change—whereby petitions no longer need to be hand written but will be accepted in hard copy. I think that we can go a lot further than that.

I rather hope that we might. Certainly, the Public Petitions Committee in Scotland has been judged a great success—indeed, I believe that it is being emulated by the German Bundestag—so it is something that we should seriously consider. However, is there not a disjunction between what people are thinking at a certain time and want to put before Parliament, what Members want to put before Parliament, and what gets on to the Order Paper? Is there not a case not only for a petitions committee, but for finding a proper way to consider early day-motions signed by a great number of Members? For instance, early-day motion 1531 on Post Office accounts has been signed, as he knows, by more than half the membership of the House. Is there not a good case for putting that before the House in the form of a debate?

I certainly have no doubt that there is a disjuncture between what Liberal Democrat MPs may be doing and what the public think, and we are keen to find a mechanism that takes account of the public filling in petitions. I am keen to look at solutions to the issues that have been raised by us and in some of the reports that I have mentioned, such as the increased volume of petitions, as compared with those in the devolved Parliament in Scotland, and so on. I am sure that those obstacles can be overcome and I believe that we are at least united in wanting to ensure that the public have a better mechanism for being able to participate in discussions in the House. That is a way forward, and I look forward to the Procedure Committee coming up with some very solid recommendations that have all-party support.

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for the helpful tone in which he is responding on this issue. Although I never thought that I would stand here and say it, I think that we can learn something from the Scottish Parliament in relation to a petitions committee. However, there is a real difference between what the many thousands of people, who often sign petitions and who work hard to get signatures on petitions, feel will happen as a result of bringing their views to the House and to the Government, and the way in which those petitions are handled. We need to find a way in which people’s views are taken more seriously by the Government and the House when they have gone to all that effort.

On a technical point, may we please—I know that the Procedure Committee is looking into the petitions issue—find a way to accept petitions by e-mail? Many people find it so strange that they cannot e-mail signatures on petitions.

I agree with the right hon. Member and I thank her for her constructive support for the proposals.