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Lords Chamber

Volume 622: debated on Wednesday 14 February 2001

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House Of Lords

Wednesday, 14th February 2001.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.

Nhs: Violence Against Staff

What steps they plan to take in response to rising violence against National Health Service staff.

My Lords, the Government are determined to ensure that NHS staff, who spend their lives caring for others, do not suffer from intimidation and violence. That is why the NHS zero tolerance campaign was launched in October 1999. As part of the campaign, staff working in the NHS are expected to report all incidents of violence and employers are required to implement strategies for reducing such incidents.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will be aware that four-fifths of the NHS trusts surveyed were doubtful whether the 2001 target of a reduction of 20 per cent in violent incidents would be met by this April. Two-thirds were doubtful whether the 2003 target of a reduction of 30 per cent in violent incidents would be met. What does the Department of Health plan to do to make the zero tolerance campaign more effective?

My Lords, it was an interesting survey but there was confusion about the target. The baseline set is based on 2000–01 so the targets start from 1st April 2001. I believe that overall the effect of the Government's programme—it is to ensure that NHS trusts are wholly aware of the need to have proper strategies in place—is beginning to bear fruit. The survey found that there had been an increase in the number of violent incidents reported by staff over the past year. Somewhat perversely, I think that that can be seen as positive: it suggests that staff now feel better able to report such incidents. The more information we have about violent incidents the more we can focus on dealing with them.

My Lords, clearly the Government are taking the matter seriously. Is it now normal practice for those responsible for violence—I refer in particular to drunken violent hooligans late at night—to be prosecuted? Have people been prosecuted for such offences in recent months in order to gain publicity to deter further practices?

My Lords, these are matters for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. We do not have figures centrally for specific prosecutions in relation to violent attacks against NHS staff. I agree with my noble friend that it is important, as part of a deterrent effect, that the public know that if they indulge in violent attacks on staff the NHS will have proper systems in place to respond immediately, and that when it is appropriate prosecutions will take place.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is the President of the Magistrates' Association. He has made it clear that it is entirely legitimate for magistrates to respond decisively to a particular form of criminal behaviour such as assaults on NHS staff and to impose a sentence which has a deterrent component.

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that not only are trusts at risk but also primary care services, and general practitioners in particular? Was the noble Lord present in the Chamber when a similar inquiry was made about violence in courts? The reply was that one should have a panic button. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, said that that is all very well but someone must be available to answer the panic button. Is advice given to general practitioners about not being in a surgery alone with a patient without another member of staff being present to help?

My Lords, I accept the noble Baroness's point. General practitioners, community staff and ambulance staff are vulnerable. The survey by the department in September 1998 found that, while there were three reported incidents per 1,000 staff per month in acute trusts, there were seven reported incidents in ambulance trusts, 14 in community trusts and 24 in mental health and learning disability trusts.

Panic buttons have their place. Equally, it is important that a proper training programme offers advice to all staff on how they should behave, with back-up so that staff who feel threatened can call upon other staff to help them. I believe that we are getting into a more robust situation than in the past. I recall some years ago that staff affected found that they were not receiving support from management. I believe that that has changed.

My Lords, today being St Valentine's Day, would the Minister agree that all noble Lords in this House would like to send Valentine messages to all nurses and doctors working in the National Health Service?

My Lords, I think that that is a really splendid suggestion. It would do wonders for the morale of staff in the health service.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that this problem relates not only to the National Health Service but also to the public service generally. For example, 11 per cent of those convicted of assaults on police were given custodial sentences. Until custodial sentences are the rule rather than the exception for assaults on public servants, I am afraid that there will not be a deterrent.

My Lords, as I intimated, I believe that there must be a deterrent effect and that members of the public who carry out violent attacks must expect the full force of the law to come down on them. We shall do everything we can to encourage NHS authorities to report such actions to the police.

There has been close liaison between some trusts and the police forces. There are some very good practice initiatives taking place, including sub-police stations being centred within NHS hospitals. I am sure that my noble friend is right: it is tragic that members of staff—I think in particular of ambulance staff who have to deal with difficult, stressful situations—now have also to pay attention to potential violence against them by members of the public. I think that that is disgraceful.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a decade or more ago, people would have found it unbelievable that attacks would be made on nurses in hospitals? The situation that he has disclosed is very disturbing. Is he aware that, as a result of Mrs Bottomley's ill-advised decision to close the accident and emergency department at Bart's, the Royal London accident department has become grossly overcrowded? That makes it difficult to manage, particularly when there is violence in the department.

My Lords, I agree that accident and emergency departments are particularly difficult. They are often vulnerable areas of NHS hospitals. There are a number of points to make. First, the expansion in A&E services and facilities over the past year or two will have a positive effect. While there can never be any excuse for physical or verbal violence, there is no doubt that a better environment can help to calm some people down. Secondly, liaison with the police has been very helpful. One trust that I visited earlier this week has an arrangement whereby special constables are present in the A&E department on Friday and Saturday nights. That is an excellent scheme and we wish to encourage similar ones.

Nhs: Euro Preparations

2.44 p.m.

Whether certain teaching hospitals have been instructed to spend some £250,000 each of National Health Service money in preparing for the United Kingdom's adoption of the euro.

My Lords, no NHS body has been instructed to spend any money on euro preparations. They have undertaken a measure of pre-planning for possible UK entry to the single currency. That was a limited management exercise carried out from within agreed running costs. Resources have not been diverted from patient care.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that on 29th November last year, in answer to a Question from me on the subject, he claimed no fewer than six times that the amount being spent was either limited or very limited? As there is now considerable doubt about the sums being expended, will he clear up the mystery by telling the House how much is being spent? If it is taxpayers' money, surely Parliament has a right to know about it—or perhaps the money has been donated, as in the case of the Dome, by people who wish to become Labour Peers.

My Lords, that was rather unworthy. The answer that I gave six times in November is unchanged. NHS trusts were asked to undertake a pre-planning exercise—that is, they were asked to look at the impact on the National Health Service if this country decided to join the euro. That was an administrative task undertaken by current staff within NHS trusts. NHS organisations spent virtually no additional money on seeking out the implications.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it would be an act of the grossest irresponsibility for an organisation as large and internationally dependent as the NHS not to make the necessary contingent planning for the possibility of the British people voting in a referendum to join the euro?

My Lords, my noble friend has put the issue very well. Noble Lords frequently point out that the NHS should engage in long-term planning. The health service has simply undertaken an exercise to look at its current financial systems to see what impact a possible decision by this country to join the euro would have on it. Surely that is prudent. That foresight has not cost the National Health Service additional money.

My Lords, in the wider context of possible British membership of the euro raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, is the Minister aware that the Irish economy has seldom, if ever, been in better shape? What is the Government's view of the reprimand recently issued by the Commission and endorsed by the Council of Ministers for the recent Irish Budget?

My Lords, the noble Lord may be surprised to know that the Department of Health does not discuss that matter on a daily basis.

My Lords, is it not the responsibility of the NHS to prepare regardless of whether Britain goes into the euro? Access to the single European market of health services and goods will provide an opportunity for savings on bureaucracy to provide money that could be used better elsewhere in the National Health Service.

My Lords, we clearly want an efficient and effective National Health Service. The benefit of the pre-planning exercise is that it has looked at the status of current NHS financial systems. That has been helpful in enabling trusts to work out what changes might need to be made in the future, not just in respect of the possibility of this country going into the euro but in ensuring that we have the most up-to-date financial systems possible.

My Lords, assuming that we are generous enough to let the Minister off the second aspect of the question asked by my noble friend Lady Knight about whether anybody contributed to the exercise in pursuit of a peerage, will he be good enough to tell the House how much has been spent by the National Health Service on those preparations? I am not sure that we have heard a figure.

My Lords, this is the ninth time that I shall give the same answer. This is a pre-planning exercise undertaken by existing staff in NHS trusts. No additional costs have been incurred. Noble Lords opposite ask how much money is involved. No doubt they would like me to issue a questionnaire to every single trust in the country asking staff to detail how much time each of them spent on this pre-planning exercise. Only a few weeks ago the noble Earl, Lord Howe, the Opposition spokesman for the Conservative Party, attacked the Government for making too many bureaucratic demands on the health service. No doubt noble Lords will now change their minds about that.

My Lords, if, as the noble Lord said, this is a limited pre-planning exercise, why did the Director of Finance, Procurement and Information at Salisbury Healthcare NHS Trust say that the changeover plan is bringing,

"a huge amount of work and substantial costs without any known source of funds at present"?
He went on to say:
"The plans will require substantial extra work from staff at a time when we are facing disintegration through the loss of mental health services, community hospitals and community services".
Can the Minister comment on that?

My Lords, that matter was raised on the previous occasion when this Question was asked in your Lordships' House. The Director of Finance at the Salisbury NHS Trust was confused about the circular that had been sent. No other trust in the country suffered that confusion. They were able to undertake the pre-planning exercise without undue bureaucracy or undue pressure. Overall, it has been a most helpful exercise in determining what steps the NHS would have to take if the country decided to enter the euro.

Millennium Dome: Legacy Bid

2.52 p.m.

What is the current status of Legacy's bid for the Millennium Dome.

My Lords, the preferred bidder letter gave Legacy preferred bidder status until today. The Government are now considering Legacy's detailed proposals on an exclusive basis.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that Answer. Does he agree that not setting a deadline initially for the exchange of contracts when giving preferred bidder status and then setting a deadline and letting it go by, which I take to be the burden of his Answer, were irresponsible acts and unlikely to achieve value for money for the taxpayer in relation to the sale of the Dome?

My Lords, a deadline was set in the preferred bidder letter.

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord say what has been the cost, on a care and maintenance basis, of maintaining the Dome since it closed at the end of last year?

My Lords, the costs are well in excess of £1 million a month for maintaining the Dome. However, those costs will decrease as the numbers of staff involved reduce.

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend join me in expressing pleasure at the way in which regeneration is continuing on the Greenwich peninsula, thanks, of course, to the building of the Dome in that area, and in particular in relation to the new Millennium school and the new medical centre, which are due to be opened shortly? As many people in Greenwich are obviously interested in the future of the Dome, especially those who lost their jobs when the Dome closed, can my noble and learned friend assure the House that employment is on the agenda in the negotiations which are taking place?

My Lords, I join the noble Baroness in welcoming the regeneration which has taken place on the north Greenwich peninsula. A school and a medical centre have just opened. A Millennium village is in the process of being built, and I and a number of my colleagues were present when the first tenants moved into the houses that were built there. It is a very impressive development.

As regards the second part of the question, I agree with my noble friend that jobs will be import ant when deciding the future of the Millennium Dome.

My Lords, today the Minister has told the House that a deadline was imposed. However, yesterday the Prime Minister said that it was a guideline, a schedule or something else. Therefore, can the Minister tell the House on what legal basis the Government have decided to pursue their sole negotiations with Legacy? Although that deadline has passed, what is now to stop the Government opening up the bidding process to a wider group of people who perhaps will be able to provide a much better deal for the public than Legacy seems able to do?

My Lords, the preferred bidder letter specified precisely how long Legacy would be the preferred bidder. As one would expect in negotiations of this kind, once the deadline is reached, it is a matter for the Government to decide, in accordance with the process that they have set up, what is in the best public interest. They have freedom to manoeuvre in the matter.

My Lords, can my noble and learned friend tell us what the problem is with the Legacy bid? Does a draft contract exist between the two sides? If not, what is causing the serious problem in relation to the bid? How much is involved, is a deposit required, and is there to be deferred payment? Surely my noble and learned friend should tell us something about the bid.

My Lords, it would be entirely wrong for me to negotiate these questions in the House of Lords. We are in the process of seeking to sell in the best public interest an asset which the Government own. The right way to do that is by the negotiation process.

Prison Conditions

2.56 p.m.

What their response is to the criticisms of prison conditions made at the weekend by HM Inspector of Prisons.

My Lords, the Government acknowledge that the Prison Service faces a difficult challenge in improving conditions across the estate. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons is concerned that prisoners receive appropriate attention to tackle their offending behaviour, address their health problems and increase their levels of literacy and numeracy. The service is making progress in those areas. The challenge, as ever, is to drive up the level and consistency of performance across all prisons. The Government believe that there is ample evidence from recent HMCIP reports to suggest that the performance of other prisons can be turned round.

My Lords, will the Minister congratulate Sir David Ramsbotham on his forthright comments about prison conditions? Will he accept the comments made by Martin Narey, the Director-General of the Prison Service, who stated that he was not prepared to apologise for failing prison after failing prison and that he had had enough of trying to explain the immorality of the treatment of some prisoners and the degradation of some establishments? Will he consider those comments in the light of the fact that Sir David said that consistency is the responsibility of the Minister? When can we expect Ministers to live up to their responsibilities for our prison establishments?

My Lords, of course we take careful note of Sir David Ramsbotham's reports and, in particular, of those provided for the Home Office by the inspectorate, which does an excellent job. On many occasions the noble Lord will have heard me giving great praise to the robustness of the reports. They are invaluable and we greatly value their independence.

I, too, read Martin Narey's speech to the conference the other week and I agree with its contents. It was most encouraging. It reported to the Prison Service that great progress has been made in a number of fields. The speech was a further encouragement to achieve yet more within the service.

Of course, the Government accept their responsibility for the Prison Service and did so when they came to power. Despite the many improvements across the service as a whole and in many individual establishments, there is still much to be done. However, we had to tackle a legacy. We have started to tackle it and have made major improvements. We wish to continue making those improvements. I am sure that the noble Lord will support us in that good work.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the most important aspects of the problem is to establish clear objectives for the Prison Service? Although punishment is of course important and necessary, surely the biggest challenge is rehabilitation. Is there not a cultural problem within the Prison Service on that score? Could we hear more from the Government about what is being done to enable all those serving in that service to understand the objective of rehabilitation and to identify with it?

My Lords, I am sure that it will come as no great shock to the noble Lord to hear that we believe the rehabilitation of offenders to be central to the performance of the Prison Service. Of course, we expect our staff within the Prison Service to understand that, too, as they do. I believe that the service is improving its performance and some key indicators show that that is the case.

On the security side, there are far fewer escapes now than there were four years ago, the rate of positive drug testing has halved in that time and more offending behaviour programmes are in place. There has been an increase of 240 per cent in the number of such programmes since 1996–97. Last year, 60,000 educational certificates were achieved by prisoners, and 32,000 full qualifications have been achieved in prisons since April 2000. The number of teaching hours delivered in prisons increased by 10 per cent between 1999–2000 and the current date. There is now a major welfare-to-work programme in prisons.

All the major indicators suggest that we have good programmes in place, that we are focusing on rehabilitation and that our evidence-based approach will inevitably lead to lower recidivism rates. That is what we all want; the Prison Service is proud to have such an objective and Martin Narey is deeply committed to such an aim.

My Lords, given that education is of supreme importance in that rehabilitation process to which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred, and that Sir David Ramsbotham has this very month said that educational provision continues to be "appallingly low", especially for those in the 18 to 21 age group, what improvements does the noble Lord the Minister expect in the Prison Service, when educational provision is taken over by the DfEE at, I believe, the beginning of April?

My Lords, today we have launched a partnership between the Prison Service and the DfEE. That will build on achievements in recent years, and it will give prisoners, perhaps for the first time, the skills they need to compete in the jobs market. I have said on a number of occasions at this Dispatch Box, and I continue to maintain, that education and learning and the acquisition of skills will enable people who come out of prisons to go straight and to lead a better and more fulfilling life. Sir David Ramsbotham is right to draw attention to current deficiencies. However, I have made it plain this afternoon that we are making improvements and providing more teaching hours. I hope that all noble Lords support that.

My Lords, is it not inevitable that prison conditions will get worse while we try to put more prisoners into prisons than those prisons can accommodate? Is not the Home Secretary following the example of his predecessor, Mr Michael Howard, by going down what might be described as the American road on penal policy? Is the noble Lord aware that, as I speak, nearly 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States? That is roughly one in every 145 residents of the United States. Would it not be preferable to look for better examples in some of our fellow members of the European Community and some Commonwealth countries which can point to the fact that they have more enlightened and effective penal policies than this country has?

My Lords, there is, one might say, enlightenment and enlightenment. We need to provide decent, good-quality prisons that are supported by a service that has integrity and commitment to the job in hand. I and other Ministers have made it plain that we believe that we need to improve skills, training and educational opportunities. Whether we like it or not, there will always be people who, frankly, have to be in prison because of the nature of the offences that they committed. The prison population may have to increase for a short time while we begin to get more of a grip on driving crime down. Our commitment is to ensure that prisons are decent, that the opportunities that prisoners have to improve themselves are ample and that people come out of prison better citizens than they were when they went in.

My Lords, in connection with leaving prison, the Minister did not include re-offending rates in his list of major indicators. Will he say more on that?

My Lords, we believe that the regimes that we are putting into place in prisons will enable people to acquire the education and training skills to which I have already referred. As a consequence, getting people into work when they come out of prison will reduce re-offending rates. Some early and emerging evidence suggests that we are having some success in that regard, which is an important gain. I suspect that the major parties are probably in agreement on that.

My Lords. does my noble friend agree that, while there are of course some people who need to be in prison because of the nature of their offences, there are far too many non-violent offenders in prison and that there are much better ways of dealing with their offence in the community? Does he also agree that not merely is the cost of community service much lower but that recidivism is reduced? If we are going to stuff our overcrowded prisons with people who should not be there and create far too many prisoners, it is inevitable that prison conditions will continue to deteriorate, regardless of the excellent work of the Government and the prison authorities.

My Lords, my noble friend is right to draw attention to the excellent work that is being done. Recidivism rates for those serving sentences in the community and in prisons are, as it happens, very similar. Our intention is to extend the range of community sentences that are available. To that end and for that purpose, we piloted through Parliament during the previous Session the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, which extends the range of community sentences that are available. The fact that the Probation Service will consequently offer improved backup, monitoring and supervision in the community means that we can increasingly rely on community-based sentences.

Capital Allowances Bill

3.5 p.m.

Brought from the Commons, endorsed with the certificate of the Speaker that the Bill is a Money Bill, and read a first time.

Tobacco Advertising And Promotion Bill

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and to be printed.

Business Of The House: Debates This Day

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend the Leader of the House, I beg to move the first Motion standing in her name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debates on the Motions in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, and Lord Norton of Louth, set down for today shall each be limited to two-and-a-half hours.—( Lord Carter.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Business Of The House: Standing Order 40

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend the Leader of the House, I beg to move the second Motion standing in her name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That Standing Order 40 ( Arrangement of the Order Paper) be dispensed with to enable the Parliamentary Referendum Bill to be taken before the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry.— (Lord Carter.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Commonhold And Leasehold Reform Bill Hl

My Lords, on behalf of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it be an instruction to the Grand Committee to whom the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill [H.L.] has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:

  • Clauses 1 and 2,
  • Schedule 1,
  • Clauses 3 and 4,
  • Schedule 2,
  • Clauses 5 to 33,
  • Schedule 3,
  • Clauses 34 to 56,
  • Schedule 4,
  • Clauses 57 to 65,
  • Schedule 5,
  • Clauses 66 to 69,
  • Schedule 6,
  • Clauses 70 to 99,
  • Schedule 7,
  • Clauses 100 to 120,
  • Schedule 8,
  • Clauses 121 to 138,
  • Schedule 9,
  • Clauses 139 to 141,
  • Schedule 10,
  • Clauses 142 to 148,
  • Schedule 11,
  • Clauses 149 and 150,
  • Schedule 12,
  • Clauses 151 to 154,
  • Schedule 13,
  • Clauses 155 to 157.—(Lord Carter.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Parliamentary Referendum Bill Hl

My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved, That the order of commitment be discharged.—( Lord Campbell of Alloway.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Asylum Seekers

3.10 p.m.

rose to call attention to the increase in the number of asylum seekers; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: This is a timely moment for your Lordships to consider the worrying increase in the number of asylum seekers. The Home Secretary made a speech last week to the Institute of Public Policy in which he said, among much else, that he thought that the 1951 convention on refugees, which is the tablet of stone from which all discussions and negotiations have subsequently proceeded, was no longer working as its framers had intended. Last night, a headline in the Evening Standard stated:

"Scandal of Reject Asylum Seekers who Stay Here".

It continued:

"Just a dozen people deported every month against their will".

That story was picked up this morning by the Sun, which stated, in a typical headline, "Lunatic Asylum".Such headlines are not calculated to help racial understanding in this country.

Last night I took the trouble to look up Article 33 in the convention, which deals with prohibition of expulsion or return. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of what it says:

"No Contracting State shall expel or return …a refugee in any mariner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion".

That is a broad definition. Why did I look it up? Why did I initiate this debate? It was partly because for two-and-a-half years I was an immigration minister, serving under my noble friend Lord Hurd. That was a searing experience. I remember only one moment of humour, which was when the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, introduced—and I followed him—putting those seeking decision on their cases on to a ship in Harwich Harbour. That caused a certain amount of stir.

The ship was called "The Earl William". I remember that Diane Abbott regularly referred to it as "The Prison Ship" or "Prison Hulk". It was a modern, rather comfortable car ferry. I decided that I should visit it. I went with my immigration officials to Harwich. It was a lovely, sunny morning. They were a little worried about our visit. I think they thought that I might be hit on the head. As I walked up the gangplank I was delighted to hear a rousing cheer. It was only when I reached the deck, feeling rather pleased with myself, perhaps, that I realised that everyone on board was sitting in the sun watching the test match. An important English wicket had just fallen to the Pakistani bowlers. For the rest it was a hard grind.

Perhaps I may return to the convention. Your Lordships will know that the 1951 convention was originally written only for those who had been refugees before 1951. The 1967 protocol applied it to all refugees and that remains its present status. The UK was one of the first countries to sign it. We actively promoted it. I believe that 137 countries are now signatories. We must remember that it applies to refugees and displaced people all over the world. Only 20 per cent of the world's refugees are either in or will try to come to Europe.

Some of your Lordships may have listened to a television programme last night about Rwanda, in which it was mentioned that 1 million people will either be killed or will be attempting to cross the borders as a result of the civil war. Against that background one has to say that our problems pale into insignificance. That said, it is sensible to try to modernise the convention. That will not be easy. It was written for the 1930s, when people fled in front of German armies, for example, across borders. The idea was that they would apply for asylum in the next country they reached. The convention does not take account of mass travel, long-distance flight or lorries moving across Europe.

It will be hard to realise any change. It would be wrong to hold that out in any sense as a panacea to ourselves or other European countries which have genuine problems as something which will bring immediate relief. I say "Europe" advisedly. This is a European problem. We are only sixth in the league of European countries in terms of asylum applications per head of domestic population. Belgium, for example, has three times our number per head of domestic population. It is a European problem not least because of the question of transit through so many countries. Kurds fleeing from either southern Turkey or northern Iraq will be likely to progress somehow to Albania. From Albania they will go to Italy, then perhaps to the Netherlands and France and then over here by lorry or Eurostar.

The principle of the "first safe country", established by the 1951 convention, that you sought and were given asylum if you established your position as a refugee in the first safe country you reached, is simply not being honoured at present. Nor does the Dublin Convention appear to have made it any better. If anything, it seems to have made the position more complicated. It is clear that asylum seekers should not be allowed to shop around in Europe for a particular country. That position must be clarified at a European Council meeting so that all European Union countries, all of which are regarded as safe havens, will meet their obligations.

That leads me to our domestic problems, which are worrying. I would be the last to think otherwise. In my last year as a Minister at the Home Office there were 7,000 refugee applicants. That number had risen from 4,000. We are told that in the past 12 months there were 76,000 applicants. The graph seems firmly upwards. In my judgment, there are two principles clearly at stake. The first is that unfounded asylum applications, to use the technical term, should be treated and dealt with as quickly as possible within the context of a reasonable and fair hearing. If the unfounded asylum seeker does not succeed, he should be returned to his country of origin as soon as possible. The second, and perhaps even overriding, principle must be to find the genuine refugees, the victims of persecution, those in terrible trouble in their own home, and offer them protection.

Obviously, the larger the number applying, the harder it will be to find the genuine person. I remember that it was difficult enough with 7,000. It must be almost impossible with 76,000. I well remember looking at the files of applicants. I remember looking at photographs of legs that had been smashed and knees that were scarred and twisted, and being told that that was evidence of torture of the applicant in his own country. As a Minister I had to make the terrible decision as to whether such scars were genuine or self-inflicted. At times, that was an enormously difficult, heart-rending job.

So, what do we do about it? Over the past year or two the Government have taken many initiatives. I am sure that in winding up the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, will tell us about them, so I shall not try to do so. However, one that stands out is the starting up of a detention centre at Oakington, the old RAF camp outside Cambridge. I believe that the intention is to deal with 1,000 applications per month. A worrying point is that the costs are £800 per head per week, as stated in a recent Answer in the other place. The Dutch found this to be an extremely expensive way to deal with the problem. I fear that if we go down that route entirely, we too shall find it extraordinarily expensive.

I should like to refer to one or two problems which have been mentioned to me by the Immigration Advisory Service and ask the Minister to reply. First, as the IAS point out, once an applicant is dispersed from Oakington, the IAS find it difficult to keep in contact because the National Asylum Support Service does not supply follow-up addresses. In consequence, the applicant does not turn up at the IAS local office for instructions as to what he should do. From there, he does not turn up when his appeal is being heard. If an appellant does not turn up, his application is automatically dismissed. Can the Minister tell us how many appeals have recently been dismissed because the applicants did not turn up, and what measures he proposes to take to deal with that matter?

My other concern of detail rests with the question of full asylum interviews being conducted at airports. In the old days, when someone arrived at an airport and applied for asylum, he was usually given admittance on a temporary basis for 10 days and told to turn up then with a document which explained his whole position, often known as a statement of evidence. I understand that now, because of the greater number of immigration officials at airports, which is a good thing, many full asylum interviews are being conducted the moment someone gets off the aeroplane, perhaps after a 12-hour flight.

That is not humane. It is not tolerable for someone on arrival at an airport to be put through a three-hour interview on which his or her future life may depend and in which he or she is asked to describe the murder of children at home, rape or other kind of horrible crime. There should be a delay and I hope that where there is none the Minister will agree to its introduction.

As regards statements of evidence, I understand that guidance notes in the language of the applicant are often not available. Unless a statement is completed within 10 days the application is automatically dismissed. That situation also needs examination, and flexibility is required.

The most controversial of my points is concerned with economic migrants. Demographic surveys show us the changing nature of our population. We are told that soon 25 per cent of the population will be over 65, and I declare a personal interest in that. Whichever Government win the next election, there is a case for studying the immigration rules in order to ascertain whether it would be sensible to allow some people to apply for visas to enter this country as immigrant workers. They would apply on the principle that once here they would get a job. They would be allowed to stay for perhaps three years, at the end of which they would be checked out. If they had good references and a continuing job, they would be allowed to stay. Perhaps at the end of the day they might be given indefinite leave to remain. If they did not have a job or satisfactory references, they would be returned to their country of origin. I do not propose that the Government should announce a quota, but they would judge the correct figure on a variable basis.

That would have definite advantages. The negative one is that the economic migrants—those who had declared themselves as such on their visa application—could not have the protection of the 1951 convention. Even more positively, such people could add force to our economy as and where labour shortage becomes apparent, both skilled and semi-skilled. Furthermore, that approach would put out of business the crooks and the Mafia who are making a profitable living by taking savings from and ferrying across the world those whom they fool into believing that they can obtain for them a permanent place here in Britain. As we know from newspaper headlines, some die en route on the Eurostar or in lorries. However, my proposal would remove much of such business from many crooks.

I accept that the suggestion is controversial but it could be the most productive way of allowing economic migrants to apply honestly and openly for jobs in Britain and thus make it easier to distinguish the genuine refugees.

A few days ago, I listened to a Kosovar refugee talking on a BBC programme called "Taking a Stand". She described herself and those like her as both victims and survivors. They are victims, obviously, but as survivors they fought using their ingenuity to travel to a country where they could have a future. Such people are likely to have something to contribute to that country. It was often said that the growth of the USA began on Ellis Island. Refugees need to help themselves and they may well help us, too. That, together with our humanitarian instincts, should be at the forefront of our thinking as regards this difficult problem. I beg to move for Papers.

3.24 p.m.

My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for initiating a debate on this topical subject in order to shed light on it. It is an honour to follow him. I am grateful for the opportunity to set the scene on what kind of people asylum seekers and refugees are. I declare an interest as a former member of the Immigration Complaints Audit Committee, so I have come across some of the background.

Home Office research in The Settlement of Refugees in Britain says that over a third have university degrees; two-thirds were in employment in their home country; and those who had not been in employment were either students or people, mainly women, caring for a home and family. Of the jobs which those in employment had held, 30 per cent were professional; 10 per cent were managers or employers; 20 per cent were skilled; and only 5 per cent unskilled. Over 90 per cent could speak at least one other language besides their own.

By any standards these are capable people, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, who can contribute to the society to which they are driven to flee. Many have capabilities that are extremely useful to the UK. Among those asking for advice at the Refugee Council's training and employment section recently were 216 fully trained teachers, 120 doctors and 39 accountants. It averages £3,500 to carry out the conversion training for a refugee doctor to practise in the UK, as Redbridge and Waltham Forest Health Authority has shown, as opposed to the £200,000 that the Audit Commission estimates as the cost of a full seven-year training course to train a doctor from scratch.

Some noble Lords may have read in the Guardian Yesterday about Professor Abdul Lalzad, a refugee from Afghanistan, who is an authority on the use of solar power to desalinate water, one of many helped by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics.

The Council for Assisting Refugee Academics has an honourable tradition originating in the persecution of Jews in Germany. I pay tribute to the contribution refugees have made to this country over not just the last two centuries but, in fact, since the origins of settlement in these islands.

It is hardly surprising that refugees tend to be an asset to the receiving country. Many are refugees because they have risked their safety in defending political freedom in an undemocratic country. Such people are likely to have democratic principles of the kind that our society values. The majority are educated young men, so they are potentially net payers into the national revenue. I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister what efforts the Government are making to help such people integrate into employment in this country.

However, whatever the benefits to this country of absorbing refugees, in the end to receive the victims of torture and persecution is not an economic question but a moral one. The economic consequences happen not to be dire and disastrous, as some ill-informed newspapers would have it; and the numbers even of those claiming asylum are a very small fraction of the world total, a small proportion, pro rata, of the European total, and a small increase on previous years. But the reason why democratic countries cannot abandon the victims of tyranny is precisely because of their—our—democratic values: a commitment to universal human rights, underpinned by most of the major religious faiths and by the simple decency of many ordinary people.

3.30 p.m.

My Lords, when I saw this Motion on the Order Paper I was rather nervous about the tone that might be adopted in the debate, but I was fully reassured by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, and agreed with a good deal of what he said. I should like to pick up one particular point; namely, his condemnation of the trafficking in people and his appeal to the Home Office to expend more resources to deal with that aspect of the problem. In a study by some academics at the University of North London published by the Home Office it is estimated that as many as 1,400 women may be trafficked into prostitution in this country every year. When the people guilty of these frightful crimes come before the courts the sentences imposed on them are very light because the case of R v Ferrugia, decided a few years ago, provides a limit of two years' imprisonment in the absence of proof of coercion, which is almost impossible to obtain because the women concerned are generally too frightened to give evidence. I hope that the Home Office will look at the recommendations of that university study and some useful remarks by the Home Affairs Committee of another place about trafficking in people in general, although the committee did not look specifically at prostitution.

I also agree with the noble Lord in suggesting that we look at the causes of refugee flows into the United Kingdom and the conflicts in many parts of the world, such as Kosovo, East Timor, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Eritrea. The noble Lord added a couple of countries to my list: Rwanda and eastern Turkey, from which a large number of Kurdish refugees come to this country for asylum. The number of asylum seekers is not a dependent variable that can be influenced by government policies but an independent variable with which we must deal as we find it. That is quite clear from the report of the High Commissioner for Refugees published on the 50th anniversary of the UNHCR in which she draws attention to these major problems.

If one looks at our own figures, the originating states are all scenes of internal conflict or severe repression. In Iraq, which consistently heads the list month after month, there is a vicious dictator who executes people without trial and ethnically cleanses the marsh Arabs and the Kurdish population of the Kirkuk area. In the 12 months to June 2000 by far the largest number of applicants came from Kosovo, as one would expect. Certainly, it cannot be said that we are making it so attractive for people to come here that Britain is a magnet for asylum seekers from all over the world. They come into Europe generally and Great Britain in particular, and we must deal with the problem as we find it.

In my remaining two minutes I should like to concentrate on one extremely worrying aspect of the problem: the intention of the Home Office to cram an additional 500 asylum seekers into our already overcrowded prison system. At Question Time today my noble friend Lord Dholakia called attention to the observations of the Director-General and Chief Inspector of Prisons about the serious crisis in our prisons. Can one imagine anything more foolish and irresponsible than to cram another 500 asylum seekers into our prisons which are already finding it so difficult to cope? The Minister, Barbara Roche, has explained that this was a necessary short-term measure which would apply only until October 2001 when additional capacity will become available, we hope, in purpose-built detention centres at Yarl's Wood near Bedford, Harmondsworth and Dungavel in Scotland to accommodate almost 1,500 detainees.

At the end of last year there were 1,195 immigration Act detainees in prisons and detention centres, and that number had risen steadily from fewer than 1,000 in March last year. The reason for the increase given by the Minister, and the planned further rise, is to enable the UK to speed up removals from 8,000 in 1999–2000 to 12,000 in this financial year and 30,000 in the year 2000–01.

If one imagines that every detainee subject to removal will spend as long as two weeks in custody—one hopes that that is a considerable over-estimate—one calculates that 690 places will be required, whereas by October there will be twice that number. Can the Minister say whether, after the new premises are fully operational, the IND will cease to use prisons to detain asylum seekers except in emergencies, when it would be for no more than, say, 72 hours? If not, how do the Government reconcile that with their acceptance of the chief inspector's repeated criticisms of the practice?

Undoubtedly, there are problems to be addressed if we are to achieve the aims of the White Paper and have an asylum policy that is firmer, fairer and faster. I believe that the way forward is not to put up even more barriers which stop qualified refugees, as well as those who flee destitution, starvation and conflict. If the Government go down the road of amending the 1951 convention, as the Home Secretary appeared to suggest and the Select Committee in another place explicitly recommended—here I depart from the noble Lord, Lord Renton—we must beg to disagree.

The UNHCR's Three Circles consultations now being undertaken presuppose that states reaffirm their lawful commitment as signatories to the convention, while attempting to reach agreement on new phenomena that have developed since 1951, such as the militarisation of refugee camps. But to pretend that refugees do not exist by keeping them out of Europe, or making conditions as harsh as possible for those who do get here, is not honourable or humane.

3.37 p.m.

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for introducing the debate and for the tone which he set. He recalled his two years at the Home Office where as a Minister he dealt with many of these matters. As a constituency MP at the time, I regularly took cases to him. He always showed great fairness, objectivity and impartiality in the way that he dealt with these matters, and that has been characterised by his speech today.

If ever there was an issue that cried out for a bipartisan approach it is this. It is always tempting to turn asylum seekers and refugees into another partisan question and suggest that one party or another is a soft touch, less competent or more callous than the others. The tone which the noble Lord set today helps us to avoid that trap. The impression that this issue is just another political punch-bag is too frequently reinforced by emotive and histrionic assertions and headlines which are sometimes used against asylum seekers. We should never forget that although asylum seekers present us with a problem we host less than 1 per cent of the world's refugees and should, therefore, have some kind of perspective on this issue.

Before the previous general election I served on the Standing Committee in another place which considered what became the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. Two years later I participated in the debates in your Lordships' House on the present Government's legislation. The White Paper Fairer, Faster and Firmer correctly identified delays in processing claims as being the crux of the problem in the asylum system. At paragraph 3.3 it said:
"Delays and backlogs on this scale lie at the heart of the problem. They put unnecessary pressure on the staff who have to operate the system. They are not fair to genuine applicants who face long periods of uncertainty about the outcome of their applications".
Since the publication of the White Paper there has been a continued increase in the number of asylum seekers: 71,000 in 1999 to 76,000 last year, which compares with just 4,000 in 1988. Meanwhile, the backlog has risen from some 50,000 in 1997 to 66,000 according to an Answer provided by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, on 25th January of this year. Against those trends, I welcome the Government's decision to put more caseworkers on to processing applications. That has led to about 9,000 decisions per month compared with 7,000 new applications per month. Eventually, that will have some effect. But even those figures may be misleading, depending on the number of cases still to be released to the immigration appellate authority. That points perhaps to the need for further personnel, thus enabling cases to be turned around more rapidly. If, as the Immigration Service Union alleged yesterday, only about 12 people per month are removed against their wishes, it does not suggest that we have yet designed an appropriate processing system.

During earlier debates I suggested that vouchers and dispersal were distractions which would devour resources and energy. Vouchers require hundreds of people to administer them. Two years ago, in the debates on the previous legislation, the Minister estimated that about 300 people would be needed. Those hundreds of people could be properly examining and processing applications. Vouchers were never going to deter people from coming here, and they have not. Experience over the past 10 months shows that vouchers are a bureaucratic nightmare; one which humiliates and stigmatises asylum seekers and flatly contradicts other policies, such as those targeting child poverty and social exclusion. Of the 50 organisations surveyed for the report Token Gestures, 49 stated that the voucher scheme is creating serious difficulties.

In our debate in October 1999 (at col. 1144 of the Official Report on 20th October) I asked the Government about potential stigmatisation and discrimination of voucher users and also about the inability of people using vouchers to receive change when they redeemed their vouchers. I pointed to the inevitable consequences of not being able to shop in places where people on low incomes make ends meet. Of the 50 organisations in Token Gestures, 41 now confirm that asylum seekers are not able to buy enough food, and what they are able to buy is unhealthy and unbalanced. Of the 50 organisations, 42 say that they have seen cases of asylum seekers who have lost some of the value of their vouchers through not receiving change.

Therefore, vouchers have not been a deterrent, as many of us said at the time. Indeed, asylum applications rose by 7 per cent in the year after their introduction.

Scrapping vouchers could release hundreds of people to deal with the current backlog. The knowledge that a false application will be efficiently and expeditiously processed, and ill founded applicants quickly returned, would send a far more effective signal than what has proved to be an ill conceived scheme.

But, if vouchers do not work, nor does the policy of dispersal. Sending two bus loads of refugees to Glasgow each day—1,720 per month—is not a solution. Perhaps the Minister can tell the House how many asylum seekers are refusing offers of accommodation, and what is known about their subsequent propensity to migrate back to the South East of England once they have been settled somewhere else.

As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, implied in his remarks, it would represent a far more honest approach if we allowed economic migrants to come here for short-term labour instead of donning the false clothes of asylum seekers. If they could find regulated gainful employment for short periods, then they could make a useful and honest contribution to our economy. A regulatory approach might also stop their exploitation.

To sum up, an alternative approach might involve five steps: accepting the humanitarian obligation to provide refuge for those who are genuinely at risk; allowing a fixed number of short-term workers to work here legally; abandoning vouchers and dispersal; ensuring a fair system of legal representation and expeditious handling of applications; and, finally, we must construct a more bipartisan approach, as well as fostering the welcome recognition by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, of the international dimension in addressing the reasons why people try to escape and flee from their countries of origin in the first place.

3.43 p.m.

My Lords, it was quite clear from the style and content of the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that he spoke from the heart and with a great deal of knowledge. All of us, I hope, are grateful to him for that introduction and for giving us the opportunity to express both our concern and responsibility for some of the world's uprooted people. The problem is global. I shall refer to that in a moment. But first I want to bring to your Lordships' attention the situation as it is experienced in one region of the country. I hope to demonstrate in that the importance of our local communities in the whole process of absorbing asylum seekers and then refugees into our midst, perhaps in preference to the institutionalisation of them.

In the North East we have experienced the arrival of about 2,500 asylum seekers in the past year. A consortium, led by the local authorities, but with the essential partnership of many voluntary bodies, has vigorously tried to provide housing, friendship and learning opportunities for those who arrive with few possessions and their human dignity under threat. The consortium has so far worked with minimal resources, against the background of difficulties in the dispersal system and sometimes with the threat of racial attacks with limited support for its victims.

Nevertheless, the North East sees many positive opportunities to welcome asylum seekers as people who can make a contribution to the local economy, both in filling and in creating employment opportunities. They create new social and cultural initiatives to support the developing multi-cultural society of the North East and they raise awareness of the world's political and social changes.

North East charitable trusts are very active in supporting the voluntary sector. Health services are putting effort into facilitating medical professionals among the asylum seekers being able to contribute to the health needs of the region. Among them six doctors are practising and continuing their placements in local hospitals. Others are seeking to enhance their qualifications so that they may practice here. Some of the refugees have started their own businesses and are beginning to employ local people. National and local politicians are active in co-ordinating much effort by the churches, other religious groups and community associations, in order to make welcome and useful the skills which many asylum seekers bring. A new project, Genesis 2000, is researching the needs of professionally qualified refugees, not least in language learning opportunities. This research is seen as crucial to providing a long-term future for refugees and asylum seekers.

Through the Legal Services Commission, a number of solicitors in the North East have successfully met the standards set for them and are now able to offer legal advice on a comprehensive basis. I cannot stress too highly the importance of the contribution of many voluntary agencies. Tenants' associations and local churches have created drop-in centres, activity groups, language classes, reception centres and people have provided much personal hospitality in their homes for asylum seekers. These are examples from one region but I dare say that such initiatives are happening in many parts of the country. They should counteract inappropriate and alarmist attitudes which we sometimes hear.

Nevertheless, these local efforts and successes should not hide the size of the national and global problem. Local initiatives are motivated by a desire to offer shelter to uprooted people; to extend sanctuary to people in danger; to ensure protection of uprooted women and girls against all forms of violence; to advocate full legal protection for uprooted children and children in areas of armed conflict; and to challenge government policies which seek to limit protection of uprooted people.

It is important that we understand, and are sympathetic to, the political, economic, social and environmental reasons for uprooting; that we listen to the stories of asylum seekers about the reasons they left their homeland and their hopes for return; and that we examine the role of governments in creating situations which uproot people.

While the debate will serve to draw attention to increasing numbers of asylum seekers, I trust that it will not encourage those who would advocate draconian measures for control. In this country, we are seeing but a small part of a huge global problem which is causing human suffering on a vast scale.

The Government should be urged to participate vigorously in the ratification and implementation of the UN convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees. They should go on and support the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and their families. We should encourage the Government to utilise the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in the help and advocacy that we afford to uprooted children. The international community should further develop mechanisms to protect refugees and those who are internally displaced, or who cannot be voluntarily repatriated.

In these ways at local, national and international levels, we need to demonstrate a civilised world when, for many people, civilisation seems to be breaking up. We can accompany people in decisions to remain, to leave or to return. We can provide services to respond to material, social and spiritual needs. We can support the initiatives of asylum seekers themselves. We can further engage in the enrichment which living in a diversity of cultures affords. Above all, we must avoid the proliferation of prejudiced, knee-jerk and alarmist reactions to a crisis for humanity and the selfish or parochial rejection of foreigners in need.

Of course, there needs to be some measure of discernment but I hope that this will not be at the expense of natural justice and respect for the dignity of fellow human beings.

3.50 p.m.

My Lords, I should perhaps begin my remarks by saying to your Lordships that I have not changed my territorial designation to "early pls", as set out on the speakers' list. It is just that when I put down my name to speak I had planned to be going abroad later this afternoon—not, I hasten to say, as an asylum seeker but more as an economic migrant of the kind mentioned by my noble friend Lord Renton.

I join those who have already spoken in thanking my noble friend for the way he introduced the debate. It is right that the starting point should be the UN Convention on Human Rights. We need to have a care, all of us, not to politicise these matters and certainly not to turn them into party political issues. Britain has a good record in this matter. In responding in the way they have, all political parties are responding to the best instincts of the British people. I hope I may be allowed from these Benches to recall that it was when my noble friend Lord Carr was Home Secretary that my party was the recipient, so to speak, on behalf of this country, of what may be the largest single influx of immigrants we have ever known.

The Minister of State at the Home Office, speaking in another place, was also right to say that since that time conditions have changed dramatically. My noble friend made that point in introducing the debate. International travel and the way in which conflicts now seem to be springing up in the four corners of the Earth have meant that we are now facing problems of a different dimension to those which the framers of the convention could have envisaged—criminality, the exploitation of women and the exploitation of children. It is a problem of a different dimension.

I commend two steps which the Government have taken in their approach to the problem. First, when they introduced the Immigration and Asylum Bill, I was pleased that it was considered by a Special Standing Committee in another place. My party was criticised for not being robust in that committee, but that was simply a reflection of the wish from the Conservative side of the House that the Bill be given a fair wind. Secondly, the introduction of civil penalties has been successful in deterring and in relieving a good deal of the pressure on our ports, although there are a number of matters which the Road Haulage Association would like to see refined.

However, the two cornerstones of the Immigration and Asylum Act have not been successful. First, the dispersal system—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to it in his remarks: I shall not add to what he said—has been an instigator of racial harassment in a number of instances. It means that the people who are dispersed do not have access to the kind of services that they need and require and it frequently means that they live in extremely squalid conditions. Dispersal has not been a successful policy.

Secondly, the voucher system—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to that as well—has been a spectacular failure. To be fair to the Government, they have, under pressure from organisations such as Oxfam, which produced a report, responded to many of the criticisms. But, suffice it to say, all 50 organisations that were contacted agreed that since the introduction of the voucher scheme there has been an increase in the number of asylum seekers experiencing problems. The report lists a whole range of problems that have been experienced by these people. Therefore, I think that it would not be unfair and, I hope, too partisan to say that the two cornerstones of that piece of legislation have not been an outstanding success. It is no good the Government saying in the other place that it is all the fault of the shambles left by the previous Conservative government. We have all noticed that we have had a Labour Government now for four years and so that argument wears very thin indeed.

I turn to constructive proposals—and although I worked very closely at some stages in my life with my noble friend Lord Renton, there has been no connivance in this area. One of the proposals that I was going to put forward was that genuine economic migrants should be given a status in this country. They would have a contribution to make—rather along the lines of the guest workers in Germany. That would relieve a good deal of pressure from the system and, at a time when our age profile is changing, they would have a serious contribution to make.

I very much support the proposal made in another place by my party for secure reception centres. The principal criticism levelled against them from the Government Benches is one of cost. It is hardly for this Chancellor, who is about to embark on the biggest spending binge that we in this country have ever seen, which has been rightly criticised by the European Commission, to complain about the cost of what is a serious problem and one with which we are not dealing properly.

In conclusion, I would say that, introduced with the best intentions, the two cornerstones of the Immigration and Asylum Act have not been fairer, have not been faster and have not been firmer. I very much hope that the Government will address these problems and that they will address in particular the suggestion made by my noble friend in the spirit in which it was put forward.

3.57 p.m.

My Lords, we have the impression in this country that we are a generous nation, with a long tradition of hospitality. Like all noble Lords, I am proud of that tradition and I hope that we continue it in so far as we can. I do not believe that this Government are a "soft touch" when it comes to asylum seekers; nor do I believe that this country should open its doors to newcomers without proper scrutiny of the motives for which they come. But this impression of generosity bears closer examination.

If, for example, we measure the number of refugees per 1,000 of our population, we find that in 1999 we were 49th on the list of 150 countries with refugees. Even in terms of absolute numbers, according to the UN, we are 23rd on the list. Europe as a whole has 3.1 million refugees, and last year we ranked 10 out of 25 in terms of applicants per head. So the impression given in all the media that asylum seekers are pouring into the country and causing concern because of their increasing numbers is somewhat wide of the truth. We are not as generous as we should like to appear and sections of the press certainly confirm that impression when they play up prejudices.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that because of persecution around the world applications have gone up from places like the former Yugoslavia and Iraq. Last year the Home Office recorded 76,000 applications. Taking December alone, the main groups were Iraq, Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Turkey and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. All these countries are abusing human rights or torturing their political opponents, or worse. For comparison, asylum seekers in Germany and the Netherlands were also principally from those countries.

One reliable witness is the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. It confirms that an unprecedented number of people sought its help last year. It received 4,957 referrals—1,500 more than in any other year. The countries included Turkey, Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq and Kosovo. I have a list of the leading groups of asylum seekers in the UK last year: Iraqis, 7,080; Yugoslavians, 5,695. Surely no one can be in doubt that these people are genuinely seeking asylum; indeed 31 per cent of new applicants were accepted last year, and that figure is rising.

Unfortunately, however, the Government's figures have been distorted by the backlog of 66,000 and the now famous "black hole" in the statistics which falls somewhere between initial decisions and final appeals. Initial refusals made on the grounds of noncompliance, or on the fact that forms have not been filled in, are sometimes withdrawn. Similarly, initial appeal decisions may subsequently be altered at a second hearing. In both cases, the statistics are not recorded.

The Immigration Service Union rightly complained this week that too few asylum seekers are being removed. Fewer than 9,000 were expelled last year. Can the Minister say how many more officials are being recruited and how the Government can make up for the acute shortage of legal advisers? This latter point was made earlier in the debate.

While the backlog is being cleared and the statistics revised, it would be premature for us to leap to conclusions about the actual numbers. What we can be sure of, however, is that the evidence confirms that there is a much higher proportion of genuine applicants than was previously assumed. I welcome the Home Secretary's latest commitment to the principles of the convention, to the need for the UN global consultation and, above all, to agree an EU common asylum policy.

I hope that we shall have an opportunity to discuss the wider issues of migration. A moral question arises here. Are we shedding our responsibilities by passing the buck over to countries further away which do not have the means to support asylum seekers? Look at the results in Lebanon today, to take only one example. We see the failure of the UN system and the cruelty shown to second and third-generation Palestinians. I have seen the same resentment in Sudan, Thailand and elsewhere. Over the past few days, we have even seen it outside Calais.

The expanded use of resettlement procedures outside Europe is attractive only if sufficient resources are made available. Macedonia and Kosovo were rare examples. Care must be taken not to bring regular migration criteria into a process designed to help genuine, urgent cases of protection.

The Home Secretary mentioned an "intermediate" category of potential asylum seekers held outside the UK while their applications are processed. Perhaps the Minister could explain this idea. The latest agreement on Eurostar is one specific suggestion, but I have misgivings about a policy designed for the UK and individual states, involving offshore reception centres which could become huge permanent enclaves of stateless populations with no destination at all. At the very least, such a policy should be brought firmly within the EU common framework and widely understood by the public. There is a risk that asylum and migration will become more confused if we tighten the rules to catch would-be illegal immigrants and thereby alter the basic instruments of refugee protection.

Is it not a little premature to propose any international solutions before we have even embarked on a common asylum policy in Europe? Our attitude as Europeans should be one of the basic determining characteristics of our European identity, yet we have given it the lowest priority.

Finally, I am sorry that the Home Secretary has again brought up the concept of safe countries. We went through this during the passage of the 1996 Bill when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had a fast-track "white list". All the specialised agencies commented on how unworkable it was because a genuine fear of persecution exists in every country.

4.3 p.m.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, pointed out in his commendably thoughtful speech—the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and others made the same point—it is essential to keep a sense of proportion. Of the total number of refugees in the world, the European Union hosts less than 5 per cent, and Britain less than 1 per cent. The overwhelming majority are in the third world. Tanzania, one of the poorer countries of the world, alone hosts 413,000. Last year, Tanzania received only 46 per cent of the humanitarian aid for which the UN appealed.

The Home Secretary referred to generous international aid for Kosovo refugees in Albania and Macedonia in 1999. That may be true, but no other area of the world with refugees has received that level of aid.

Having spent most of my life outside Westminster working for humanitarian agencies, I constantly find myself despairing at our failure to focus on the conditions which lead people to migrate. In recent years, escalating violence and cruel persecution across the globe have increasingly compelled people to flee their homes, often at enormous risk to themselves and their families. The majority of refugees coming to the UK to seek asylum in recent years have come from the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Colombia, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. All of these, without exception, are countries where there has been serious conflict or where grave human rights abuses are common, or both.

Yes, the figures for asylum seekers are rising, but it is obvious that there are connections between those and the increases in human rights abuses and persecution. Despite the increase in the number of asylum seekers, it remains true, as has already been emphasised in this debate, that relative to our size of population, last year, Britain was still well down the list of European countries taking such seekers.

It has been suggested that asylum seekers should remain in the first country to which they flee. If that was applied across the globe, it would place an even greater burden on some of the world's poorest countries, which already host a disproportionately high number of refugees. In our own continent, it would accentuate the burden on frontline states where surely, if European co-operation is about anything, it should be about sharing in our response to humanitarian challenges.

It has also been suggested that we should consider revising the international laws and conventions covering the rights of refugees. But surely the period of the immediate run-up to a general election, with all its inevitable heat and hype, is precisely the time not to question such fundamental rights. Already there has been altogether too much emotion, sensationalism, exaggeration and prejudice. I fear that it would get worse. If changed circumstances in the world do demand a reconsideration of the rules, as laid down by great statesmen of vision in the aftermath of the Second World War, this should be done carefully, dispassionately, rationally and in the context of a determination to uphold the rights and protections of those at risk, not as part of a competition to win the prize for macho negativism.

By the same token, we should be wary of restrictions on the nations from which the European Union states are prepared to accept applications for asylum. After all, the former so-called "white list system" has been discredited. The core principle must remain that asylum seekers are assessed as individuals and not as mere national categories.

Trafficking in human misery is an evil business. Those responsible must be dealt with severely. There can be no doubt about that whatever. But we shall all be judged harshly by history if we use the existence of such wickedness as a cover for our own retreat from humanitarian commitments. Too often, economic refugees—which undoubtedly many asylum seekers really are—are spoken of with disdain. They are called "opportunist fraudsters". But in our own society here in Britain, those who, when they are faced with economic or industrial decline, "get on their bikes"—as it has been described—and go and look elsewhere for work and a secure future for their families, are regarded as model citizens. In our globalised existence, where is the dividing line in principle between the opportunist and the model citizen? We worship the free global market, but it is a free market only for the movement of capital and goods. It is not a free market for the movement of labour. This represents a gigantic distortion of free market principles and we are now faced with the consequences.

Migration will not go away. Global warming and climate change may yet make what we face today seem like child's play by comparison. The whole vexed question is a vivid example of how the market alone will never be an adequate tool for the management of human affairs. We urgently need to get our act together with our partners in Europe and beyond on development aid, world trade, conflict resolution, human rights and environmental policy. Persecution and conflict feed the flow, but perhaps even more important, it is rampant injustice and huge differentials between the rich of the world and the poor of the world which lie at the root of it. Strategic, lasting solutions will be found only by facing up to this. All else is temporary tinkering.

As we come up to the general election, do we want the debate to turn on how we can become an effective, caring, humanitarian nation, facing up to the challenges of human society as a whole, and of which we are inextricably a part? The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, set the tone remarkably well for such a debate in what he said today. Alternatively, do we want to accelerate the slide into becoming a neurotic, selfish, mean and xenophobic offshore island people seemingly intent on betraying our young by pretending that they can have a viable future without belonging to the world?

4.10 p.m.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for the way in which he has introduced this debate. I believe that the question of how asylum seekers are to be handled is one of the most difficult and delicate questions that can confront any government. I am not at all surprised that in a recent debate in another place the Home Secretary said that the issue caused him more trouble than any other. Surely, that statement speaks volumes. I often think that any Home Secretary must reflect on the words of Hamlet:

"The time is out of joint; O cursèd spite, That ever I was born to set it right!"
I do not believe that any party recently or currently in government has handled the issue particularly gloriously.

It is perhaps helpful to have a slightly historical perspective. Your Lordships may be astonished to learn that I cannot remember the days in the 1930s when we experienced the influx of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. However, my reading and general understanding leads me to believe that there was no general concern about either the number of those refugees or about the integrity and efficiency of the arrangements made for processing and resettling them in our society.

In the more recent case of the Ugandan refugees, to which reference has already been made, I do not think that there was a general lack of confidence in the arrangements, although in some quarters some concern—mercifully overcome—was expressed about numbers. In both those instances, the arrival and resettlement of those refugees, supported in the main by the public, immeasurably redounded to the advantage of our country and totally conformed with our national reputation for hospitality in such circumstances.

In the case of asylum seekers from a much wider sector of the world—the problem that we currently face—the contrast is very stark. Today there is a very widespread perception that the system, if not out of control, closely borders upon being out of control, and that to an increasing and alarming extent it is influenced, if not dominated, by criminal racketeers. I use the word "perception" in the context that anyone with experience of Northern Ireland might expect. In Northern Ireland one is taught, if one has not already learned it, that perception is almost as important as fact when people's fears are aroused.

Without duplicating what has ably been said by many noble Lords—especially by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, most of whose speech I warmly adopt—I should like to make the point that any society must have restrictive criteria governing the influx of people into its society—those who claim asylum, those who claim to work here. To avoid the kind of alarming and damaging perceptions that I have endeavoured to describe in this particularly delicate field, whatever system any government put in place has to be seen to work. The present system is not working. It is not working in relation to the control that the Government are able to exercise; it is not working in relation to contact with people whose applications have failed; and, considering the other side of the coin, it is not working with regard to the conditions to which people within our shores are subjected in those circumstances.

Reference was made by my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry to what was said yesterday on a BBC radio programme by representatives of the union for immigration officers. That report seemed to indicate that those representatives spoke almost with despair of the failure to ensure the departure from this country of those who do not meet the criteria I believe that they also spoke about the criminal influences to which I have already referred.

In August last year The Times published a report of a Home Office official suggesting that there are living and working in this country hundreds of thousands of people with whom the Home Office has lost touch. I do not know how much reliability can be placed on that report. However, in his reply, I hope that the Minister will be able to say to what extent the Home Office is in touch with those whose applications have failed and what steps are being taken to ensure that a higher proportion leave this country when their applications, having been adjudicated upon, finally fail. Perhaps the Minister will also confirm that more than two-thirds of applicants fall into that category.

I turn briefly to the other side of the coin. It is a national disgrace that we still impose the voucher system on asylum seekers. Not only is the remedy that they receive extremely mean, but the abominable system by which they can use their vouchers to buy only essentials, from which they cannot obtain change if the sum does not add up, almost beggars description.

I truly question whether, under the European Convention on Human Rights, it is lawful to deprive people of their money in that way.

In conclusion—I had hoped to deal with the question of housing, in respect of which many adverse comments have been made—I urge the Minister to consider the proposition that the rules we impose are not being seen to work; that blatant breaches of them and their obvious ineffectiveness fuel the most damaging perceptions, not least in those parts of the country where reception takes place; and that we neglect at our peril the urgent need to ensure that public support is regained.

4.17 p.m.

My Lords, before turning to the question of numbers, I should first like to mention some ways in which the asylum system could be made more user-friendly. When consulted, all the NGOs said that the voucher system is so fundamentally flawed that it cannot be reformed. Will the Minister say when the Government intend to respond to that consultation? Meanwhile, will he confirm that change will always be given when vouchers are presented as payment? In that regard, I could not agree more with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew.

I turn, secondly, to the matter of long-distance travel to interviews, which I raised at Question Time in this House on 25th January. At that time the Minister was unable to reply positively to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, who very reasonably suggested that interviewers should visit applicants, not vice versa. Has further consideration been given to this point? Can I expect a favourable reply to my subsequent letter to Mrs Roche at the Home Office?

Thirdly, I deal with the perennial question of detention. When will the automatic bail provisions of the 1999 Act be brought into effect? In my view, they are long overdue. I believe that if full use were made of the good offices of NGOs and churches, detention for reasons other than deportation could be greatly reduced. As has been mentioned, it is a disgrace that parts of our already overcrowded prisons should be occupied by asylum seekers who have committed no offence in this country.

My fourth point concerns appeals. Will the Minister say how many appeals are dismissed in the absence of applicants? When that happens, are applicants always represented? Is there a lack of natural justice, which may increase the number of cases presented for judicial review? I should be grateful if the Minister would provide figures relating to those points.

Fifthly, I deal with the question of deportation. The present and previous governments must share the blame for failing to deport asylum seekers who have exhausted all procedures without getting any form of leave to remain. Why do we have the elaborate procedures if those whose applications fail can remain?

Will the Home Office consult the Department for Education and Employment to see whether any of our current shortages of teachers, doctors, police officers and computer operators—here I follow on from the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, and the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker—could be directly relieved by asylum seekers? At a less skilled level, it is quite possible that government offices here in London—and even the Palace of Westminster—might not get cleaned if it were not for the presence of many failed asylum seekers. These may play an important part—I suspect that they do—in the labour market at a time of low unemployment and low inflation.

I return now to a point that I have previously raised. Many thousands of people have leave to remain, but they are not British citizens and often do not have any valid passport should they wish to travel. I therefore ask whether they can please be treated at least as well as those who are technically stateless. Will they be provided with travel documents acceptable, for a start, throughout the European Union, and, if possible, more widely?

I conclude by mentioning numbers. The recent large number of applicants has little to do with welfare benefits. It has much to do with the widespread use of English as a second language, with Commonwealth links and with the existence of settled communities in Britain of people who have, over the years, come here from overseas. In addition, this country has a reputation as a fair and just society. I trust that neither the tabloid press nor Her Majesty's Government will take away from this good reputation by adopting unnecessary, macho postures.

4.22 p.m.

My Lords, one of the problems of being number 11 on the list of speakers in a debate such as this is that many of the points I was going to make have been made by previous speakers. I decided that I would jot down three points to contribute to your Lordships' debate. The first point has been completely covered by a number of speakers—particularly by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich—and the second point has been covered, almost word for word, by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who spoke much more eloquently than I would have been able to.

I am therefore left with my third point, which I make with a deep sense of anger—although, in the wonderful spirit in which this debate has been conducted, I shall attempt to turn that anger into sorrow.

A Motion was carried in the other place on 1st February when the Home Secretary moved that the House,
"reaffirms the obligations of the United Kingdom under the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees to provide asylum for those fleeing from a well-founded fear of persecution".—[Official Report, Commons, 1/2/02; col. 477.]
In my view, this country at the moment just about complies with its international obligations. What really concerns me is that it is the intention of the Government to stop complying with those obligations in a number of ways in future.

If we look beyond these noble and decorated portals to what is happening outside the House, we shall find, particularly in parts of the national press, that there is a very dangerous Dutch auction taking place between the two main parties in this country over the question of asylum. It is no coincidence that there is a general election on the horizon.

Everyone says that they want to honour the obligations set out in the Home Secretary's Motion; and everyone talks about doing the right thing by genuine refugees. The problem is, however, that the powers that be are turning the screw on asylum seekers who reach this country and ratcheting up the political hysteria. Hardly a day goes by without some new story in the press—whether splashed in the tabloids or reported in a more responsible way—about new tough measures to deal with the problem. I ask the House to consider the effect that this has on asylum seekers who have come here because they were enduring intolerable conditions at home and believed that this country was a fair and just place for them.

Almost all the legal means of getting into Britain from these countries have been stopped. People cannot get visas. When people started coming across in lorries and then on the trains, that was stopped. All kinds of modern technology are now being used, possibly rightly, to stop people coming across in the backs of lorries.

It is clear that there is now a developing new trade in small boats. If people want to cross the Mediterranean or the Adriatic to get into the European Union, most of them cross in small boats. It is very dangerous; there are a lot of deaths and many people suffer injuries. There is now an increasing traffic in small boats across the Channel and the North Sea and, in my view, it will not be long before we hear horrific stories about people being drowned.

These measures were found not to be working and so we have a new policy of sending these people back. Perhaps the Prime Minister will stand on the quay at Dover to turn people away; to put them back on the boat and return them straight to France.

At the same time, we had the suggestion from the Home Secretary that people should not come to this country but should go to the nearest safe country next door. But many of those countries are not safe and, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, many of them are being destablised and are taking a far greater share of the burden than they can possibly handle given their circumstances.

I have a friend seeking asylum here who I believe has been tortured. I shall not go into details because his case is still being examined. He escaped to this country having spent almost four weeks in the back of one of these lorries—almost four weeks—and yet people say that he is here for an easy life because we are a soft option. His friend merely escaped out of Iran into Turkey. He was chased by Iranian security forces into Turkey and captured in Turkey; he was taken back to Iran and has now disappeared.

Finally, we are told, the answer is to deport lots of people. If the system had been working better, we would not have got into this situation.

I am ashamed of the fact that political debate in this country is dominated so much at the moment by this issue. It is a question of humanity, human rights, our international obligations—and it is about individual people, who, in many, many genuine cases, have come here to escape from suffering. The noble Lord quoted from "Hamlet"; I shall give a different quotation from "Hamlet":
"It is not, nor it cannot come to good".
What is happening in this country is a disgrace that involves the national media and national politicians. I urge all politicians to stop ratcheting up this issue; to take it off the burner; and to go away and fight the general election on more honourable issues.

4.28 p.m.

My Lords, like all noble Lords who have spoken, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has delivered a high-minded speech, with much of which I sympathise. But scarcely any of those speeches—except for that of my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden—considered the effect upon our own people of being so generous in accepting so many people from abroad. That is a matter which we have a duty also to consider.

Never in our long history have we had such a large invasion of genuine and bogus asylum seekers as we have had in the past few years. In the past year there has been an increase of 76,000, which is almost the size of a new constituency. My noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry was right to raise this matter.

Perhaps I may dare to do what my noble and learned friend, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, started to do, which was to put the matter into its historical and indeed geographical perspective, especially as regards England. I do so because, 20 years before my noble friend, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, did so, from October 1959 for 3½ years I was responsible at the Home Office for controlling the immigration of foreigners, as it was called then. We had no control over the immigration of British subjects from the Commonwealth because they were entitled to come here. They came in enormous numbers. About 150,000 each year were coming here. They came as refugees, but for economic reasons.

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that the migration was based partly on the settlement for the independence of Commonwealth countries? Commonwealth citizens were given rights as British subjects, which they exercised.

My Lords, that is history. Perhaps I may move to the present. We had to introduce the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 which limited the right of Commonwealth citizens to settle here. The Labour Party voted against it on more than 40 occasions and threatened to repeal it when they came to power. However, the Labour Government did not repeal it but strengthened it, and quite rightly so.

According to the 1961 census, which was then the relevant figure, the population of the United Kingdom was 51,284,000. Thirty years later, according to the 1991 census, the figure was 54,192,000, which is an increase of nearly 3 million in 30 years, which was not too bad. But now the figure is nearly 60 million, which is an increase of about 6 million in 10 years. That is a very big burden for the people of our country to bear.

Of course, England is much more heavily populated than other parts of the United Kingdom. Therefore it is in England more than elsewhere that immigrants have caused unemployment, housing congestion, hospital, health and education problems. They contribute towards urban congestion in our large towns and cities.

Although the number of asylum seekers has greatly increased in the past few years, it is fair to point out that the problem had already become serious when the present Government came to power in 1997. It is now worse. We must give the Home Secretary, Mr Straw, the fullest support in such attempts as he has been able to make so far to deal with the problem. I need not repeat the arguments which have already been used about the need to strengthen controls in various ways. As I say, I believe that they should be strengthened, which is what the great mass of our native people expect the Government to do.

4.34 p.m.

My Lords, when I arrived in England as an asylum seeker about 35 years ago it was with an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude to be in a free and tolerant country where human rights were respected and those fleeing from persecution were welcomed. When I was granted British citizenship five years' later I felt immeasurable pride to be a citizen of such a country. But today, when I read the newspapers demonising immigrants and recklessly stirring up hatred of them, with many politicians competing with each other in proposing ever more draconian measures to prevent immigrants entering this land, I hardly recognise this country as one of which, above all others, I had aspired to become a citizen. Having now listened to the speeches in your Lordships' House today, I am greatly encouraged that I made the right decision.

It is almost inconceivable that, on the one hand, the Government are set on depriving poor countries of the nurses, teachers, information technology specialists and other professionals, which these poor countries so desperately need, and on the other hand, the Government are erecting almost insuperable barriers for many political refugees and economic migrants. Surely, that does not accord with the principles of justice and fairness for which this country once had a fine reputation.

The starting point for an examination of the issues must surely be the reasons for some of these barriers. Are they myths or realities? Some noble Lords who have spoken today have exposed some of them as myths. I chair Oxfam. It has produced a briefing paper examining the major arguments used by the media for their attacks on immigrants. If I had the time I could take noble Lords through it. It covers issues such as Britain being a soft touch, taking more than its share of refugees. It also deals with council taxes being increased to fund asylum seekers. It either rebuts many of these myths, putting them in the dustbin, or places them in their correct context. Having read and studied them all, one really wonders what is the media's motive in raising the issues in the way that they do and ignoring the impact that their actions have on refugees both in and outside this country.

In practice, the Government have erected barriers to the admission of all immigrants. There are two distinct categories of immigrants; one is asylum seekers who are entitled to entry and the other is economic migrants who, as a rule, are not so entitled. To the extent that the barriers created discourage or deprive genuine asylum seekers from entry, the Government must surely be in breach of their obligations under the United Nations Convention on Refugees to which they have subscribed.

There are positive steps that the Government could take to assist genuine asylum seekers. Perhaps they already exist and the Minister may refer to them in his reply. Surely, it would be possible to fast-track the applications of asylum seekers who have a strong case and to avoid sending them to detention centres.

Turning to the second category, economic migrants, there is a powerful case for a coherent policy which would enable an appropriate number of them into the United Kingdom each year. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, has made the case far more eloquently than I could. I would add one caveat. It cannot be right to cherry-pick and limit entry into the UK in order to allow in only professionals which the country needs. Surely, it must be the case that if we are to deprive poor countries of the skilled resources which they desperately need, we must be willing to accept as future citizens an appropriate number of less skilled, and even unskilled, immigrants.

I make one final point regarding refugees seeking political asylum being restricted more or less to the countries closest to where they are being persecuted. The argument raised by the United Kingdom Government seems somewhat self-serving. Because Britain is an island bordered by the European Union, the number of asylum seekers who would enter Britain as the "first safe country" would be very small.

4.40 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for bringing this subject to your Lordships' attention, and for his well-balanced remarks in opening the debate. There is little doubt that serious problems exist in our immigration and asylum policy and it is alarming to hear from the Immigration Service Union that the asylum system is nearly out of control and that there is no satisfactory system for returning bogus asylum seekers.

However, I wish to be clear from the start that I really do believe in giving asylum to those who are found to be genuine asylum cases. The problem is that there are too many bogus asylum seekers and far too many illegal immigrants. It is to these people that my remarks apply, not to the genuine cases. I support the view expressed by my noble friend Lord Renton.

There has been a staggering increase in asylum applications in the United Kingdom. Applications rose from 26,000 in 1990 to just over 76,000 last year. This country now ranks second after Germany for the total number of entrants. This begs the question as to why so many asylum seekers and illegal immigrants attempt to come to the United Kingdom and how we can stem the flow to ensure that genuine asylum seekers are dealt with in an efficient and speedy manner.

Some of the reasons why asylum seekers come to this country have been given by the Home Affairs Commons Select Committee. There is scope for them to live here without any official documentation; there is a generous interpretation of asylum law. An excessively slow decision-making process allows them to live here for years while their cases are reviewed. Benefits are readily available, and there is a good chance of a job. There is a hopelessly inefficient system for removing them if and when they are told to go, and they have access to public services such as health, education and housing. In fact, it has been said that the UK is known as a "soft touch".

Another reason that makes it easier for asylum seekers to come to the United Kingdom is that, once they have crossed into one European country, there are no border controls until they attempt to cross the Channel to come here. There is no doubt that the majority of applicants have been in a democratic country—frequently referred to as a "safe country"—before reaching the United Kingdom. But more alarming is the fact that two-thirds of all asylum applicants are already inside the country.

Under the outdated 1951 UN convention, we are still obliged to consider requests for asylum. The convention clearly needs revising. However, it would be a huge and time-consuming task. The Government do not believe that this would be the most efficient way to progress. However, under the convention it seems open to a country to return an asylum seeker to a safe country through which he or she has travelled. The convention protects them from prosecution for illegal entry only if they have come directly from their country of origin. Illegal entry from a safe country is not protected. Clearly and logically, the requirement is for asylum applications to be made in the first EU country reached. Any subsequent country to which the applicant travels should have the right to insist that the application for asylum be made in the previous country.

It is clear that some other countries operate their border policy in a different way to that of the United Kingdom. But we are fortunate still to have border controls. We had the good sense not to sign up to the Schengen agreement; otherwise, the flood gates would really be open. We are fortunate that Britain is an island, with identified ports of entry, be they by rail, sea or air.

It is interesting to note how other countries deal with this problem. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of their book. Illegal immigrants entering Germany from the Czech Republic and Poland are returned to those countries immediately without the issue of asylum being raised, as it is deemed that they have come from a safe country and so have no need to seek asylum in Germany.

It is clear that our measures to deter and detect illegal entry into the UK are not effective. It beggars belief that the Home Office is not aware of the number of failed asylum seekers who leave of their own accord and, consequently, it does not know how many failed asylum seekers remain as illegal immigrants. There is no system for monitoring departure and, because the Government do not know whether visitors, students and failed asylum seekers have left the country, they cannot tell how many people have remained beyond the time permitted. This in itself must make the UK very attractive to illegal immigrants and bogus asylum seekers. It is important to note that the Home Affairs Select Committee has recorded the Home Office as being dilatory in enforcing the removal of people whose asylum claims have been refused and those who have gained illegal entry into the UK. This in itself has attracted more people to this country.

In conclusion, how can some of these factors be counteracted in the immediate future? We should search all lorries while in transit on ferries. A card should be issued for entitlement to benefits. That would have the effect of helping to deter and detect illegal immigrants; it would certainly help to address benefit fraud. Employers should face substantial fines if they are found to be employing and exploiting illegal immigrants. We should provide the necessary resources and up-to-date technology to ensure that the Immigration Service can do its job efficiently and properly. Finally, we should ensure that asylum applications are made in the first EU country reached.

4.46 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for providing us with the opportunity to debate this matter. I should like to join the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, in concentrating on the public perception of asylum seekers.

In November last year, a group of young asylum seekers addressed the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children. Among them were two Kosovan young men, one of whom was head boy at his new school, a young Eritrean man, a young woman from Afghanistan and a young Nigerian woman. The last of these was incensed. She could not tell schoolmates she was an asylum seeker. She felt that, if they knew, they would shun her. Several of the young people expressed their gratitude at being given refuge in Britain. However, the mood of the meeting was one of outrage at the portrayal of asylum seekers.

It is wholely unacceptable that children who have experienced persecution in one country should face further aggression where they should expect protection. Your Lordships are doubtless aware of the hardships experienced by refugees. These have been highlighted in this debate. Their tales of liquidation, destruction and family loss are familiar to Members of this House, if not so much to members of the general public.

Perhaps I may give my own illustration. Last spring, I became acquainted with a young Somali man who had spent three weeks sleeping on the streets of King's Cross before finding a bed at Centrepoint's shelter in Soho. His village had been razed and his parents had been killed. He did not know what had become of his brothers. A foreign traveller offered to help him leave the country. He entered Britain, somehow missing the normal authorities and was taken into the home of a Somali woman. Eventually, she was no longer prepared to house him. As he had missed the normal immigration procedure when he first entered Britain, he was not eligible for benefit. So he found shelter in an arcade in King's Cross. He appeared to me to be a gentle and well brought-up young man of intelligence, exhausted after his ordeal.

I am sure that your Lordships will agree with me that in our anxiety to control the flow of economic migrants we should not wish to, albeit inadvertently, perpetuate the hardship of refugees in this country. A small number of asylum seekers have been placed in detention camps. Most are not allowed to work in their first six months here and are given vouchers to buy their food and other essentials. The Government may or may not be justified in such measures. However, the consequence of these measures is that asylum seekers are made to seem like criminals, outcasts and layabouts. The effect is to degrade asylum seekers in their own eyes and in the eyes of the public—as Mustapha, a contributor to the Prince's Trust research into the needs of disadvantaged young people put it to me this morning.

I am encouraged by the news from the Refugee Council that local authority consortia in the dispersal areas are making good progress in their health, education, housing and media plans for asylum seekers. Can the Minister assure the House that those media plans will be well resourced and robust? Can the Minister say what else is being done to ensure that the public are aware of the circumstances of refugees? The warm reception of Kosovars in 1999 demonstrates that if politicians and the media communicate those circumstances the public can be overwhelmingly sympathetic. What steps are being taken to make all students aware of why people become refugees? I recognise that this is an issue for which the Government are castigated perhaps more by their own Back-Benchers than by the Opposition.

The fact that the Home Office is beginning to reduce the backlog of asylum applications is most welcome. The fact that removals and voluntary departures of asylum seekers increased by 8 per cent last year is some encouragement although it must be qualified by the comments that other noble Lords have made this afternoon. If the Government were to achieve their goal of a four month turn around for asylum seekers, that would dramatically improve the way asylum seekers are perceived by the public. However, currently, many of the British public appear fearful at what they see as rising numbers of asylum seekers. There is a possibility of their assuaging that fear by attacking asylum seekers or supporting attacks in the media. The current situation is grave.

4.51 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for initiating the debate. The noble Lord was at one time a Member of Parliament for mid-Sussex where I live. Of course he did not expect me to vote for him, but I have listened to him with great care. His contribution today is an example of how we can debate such issues without giving rise to saloon bar politics.

Immigration and asylum issues are fairly emotive. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Greaves highlighted what could happen if such issues are raised in an emotive way during a general election campaign. In the past we have seen such issues exploited. I suspect that with the proximity of the general election in a couple of months, the same pattern may again emerge. My appeal to politicians is to take great care in the way such issues are debated. I hope that they will follow the example of the noble Lords, Lord Renton of Mount Harry and Lord Garel-Jones, and others in the way they debated the issue. I was disappointed at the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Renton. I listened to him with great care. In one clean swipe he has destroyed my hope of ever being classified as a native person of this country. However, I shall, of course, forgive him for that.

Rational debate is part of our political process but that carries with it a responsibility to ensure that it has no damaging effect on those who need our protection. There is evidence that emotive debates have resulted in violence and harassment, as has been repeatedly pointed out today. It would be a shame if, in the country to which asylum seekers have turned for protection from persecution, they were to find themselves victims of harassment based on xenophobia.

Britain has a rich history based on a nation of migrants. They have made a unique contribution to the prosperity of our nation. In arts, science, technology and politics they have made important contributions. Let us consider the last major intake of refugees in the 70s. The noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, mentioned that. In that case a Conservative government accepted over 28,000 Ugandan Asians. No one would dispute the fact that they have made a great contribution to our economy. We are indeed grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, who was Home Secretary at that time, for the way he handled that issue. To this day many east African Asians worship him for the action he took. It was a courageous political decision and a lesson for successive Home Secretaries to follow.

We are now seeing major political parties competing with each other in their readiness to curtail the arrival of newcomers. Of course, every country has a right to determine its immigration policy and must take into account the national interest. With the increasing development of a global economy, the pressure to migrate is immense. There is no doubt that the distinction between economic migrants and those in fear of persecution is often blurred.

Equally, western nations require the skills now available in many parts of the world. The drop in the birth rate signals a dilemma for countries such as Germany and Britain. In a declining working population, who will pay for welfare and pensions? It is here that we need to balance the rhetoric with reality. We shall have to look at immigration and the arrival of newcomers as an ongoing process. No longer can we slam the door in the face of those who can make a substantial contribution to the prosperity of our nation.

However tight the controls, we know that they do not always work. The Runnymede Trust report on the future of multi-ethnic Britain states in relation to the control mechanism:
"There are three problems with this approach. First the sense of panic the issue instils and the subjectivity with which it is discussed lead to bad law, giving rise to challenges both in the UK courts and among international human rights bodies.
Second, it prevents or obstructs an objective and forward looking examination of the need for, and benefits of, immigration.
Third, it undermines Britain's development as a cohesive but diverse society, for it implies or indicates that politicians are not genuinely committed to addressing all forms of racism".
Those are hard words but politicians have themselves to blame for the present situation. The way we have dealt with asylum issues must bring shame to those who are responsible for the legislative framework we have established. What is the reality: three major Acts of Parliament over six years and press campaigns that smack of xenophobia?

The situation facing us today is of our own making. The previous administration happily allowed cutbacks in immigration staff to a level which seriously affected the ability to handle the backlog of applications. The present Government did little to recruit additional staff until the backlog reached crisis point. That situation should never have been allowed to happen and the Government should bear full responsibility for it. As my honourable friend Jackie Ballard said in the other place,
"If people in other countries know of a backlog of applications in the United Kingdom, how long it takes to process the applications and the inadequacy of the system to monitor the departure of failed asylum seekers then that in itself is a pull factor that draws them here".
We need to separate economic migrants from those who are genuinely in fear of their lives or who are persecuted in their homeland. What we have done over a period of time is to close all doors so that there is no way in which a genuine asylum seeker can enter the country legally. That is why we see massive exploitation of human cargo and why we see people suffocate in container vans. Those who are responsible for such exploitation are never brought to justice. All of us must condemn such practices.

Let us consider those who arrive on our shores. Have they broken any laws? The law provides for them to claim asylum, which many do. It is the system and the weakness in the decision-making process that create the backlog. If the Government cannot reach a decision on time, they must accept the blame. To make asylum seekers scapegoats is unacceptable.

In May 1997, the average intake per month was 2,590. In December 2000, it was 5,820. The total in that year was 76,040. Today the figure stands at 71,160 or thereabouts—a slowly declining number. As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, pointed out, in terms of asylum applications, the UK ranks 10th out of 25 in Europe. As has been said, this year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the refugee convention relating to the status of refugees. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes a right to seek political asylum. The convention on refugees gave that right legal expression. We have a long history of offering refuge to those who flee persecution. We must maintain our obligations. It is still a reality that the vast majority of refugees remain in the developing world. Many of those countries do not receive sufficient international aid to cope with that influx. We have seen the rise in violence, war and persecution in many parts of the world which has contributed 'to the growing number of asylum seekers.

The Government were ill advised when they made earlier pronouncements about bogus asylum seekers and beggars only to retreat when public opinion condemned such volatile expressions. We support the proposals for common EU asylum procedures, but we are concerned that refugees seeking asylum should remain in the first country to which they flee.

The proposal is flawed. It would place an even greater responsibility on some of the world's poorest countries which already host an unfair proportion of the world's refugees. Of course we need to distinguish between illegal immigration and asylum seekers. We need to separate economic migrants from those who are victims of persecution. We need to co-operate with other EU countries to fight organised crimes relating to trafficking in human cargoes.

But we must never lose sight of the contribution that refugees have made to this country. They have brought economic benefits to this country. Those communities have gone through all the disadvantages and yet come up with success stories. We should welcome them. In generations to come, we shall value their contribution because that will determine the prosperity of our nation.

5.1 p.m.

My Lords, all noble Lords appreciate the initiative of my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry in securing the debate and his introduction of it. The result has been a calm and constructive debate about what we all agree is an extremely difficult and potentially emotive subject. We can also agree that it is both an economic and moral question, as the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, said. We have long accepted our obligations to genuine refugees.

However, there was also considerable concern during the debate, as there is outside the House, that the Government's policy is not working satisfactorily. It is working neither efficiently nor humanely. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 was supposed to deter unfounded applications. Statistics demonstrate that it has not done so. The dispersal and support system was supposed to spread asylum applicants across the country to be looked after. That is not succeeding.

The statistics are clear. The number of applications was 76,000. That does not include dependants. The figure is 100,000 including dependants. Of those applications, half or so are eventually refused but, according to the Home Office, only about 9,000 actually leave. The union tell us that about 12 a month are removed forcibly. About 1,200 a year leave with financial assistance; and others leave voluntarily. The Government's new system is not deterring applications. Neither does it prevent those who are not refugees from staying more or less permanently

Those figures demonstrate that it is not solely a question of perception. People need the reassurance that there is a fair but efficient system which looks after people who come as potential refugees. If they have that reassurance everything else becomes much easier. When the dispersal and voucher arrangements were being discussed during the Bill, there was a great deal of scepticism and foreboding throughout the House. Many of those warnings have proved right.

A most interesting Answer to a Written Question by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on 6th February stated that there are 534 staff employed by the National Asylum Support Service of whom 523 work in head office and one in each of 11 regions. So whoever else has been dispersed, it is not the support system. Its motto seems to be, "Go where we say", not, "Come with us". That issue may need to be considered.

Reference has been made about the review of the voucher system. On 27th November the Home Office asked for responses by 22nd December. If the Home Office could respond to those submissions with the same speed with which they expected other organisations to submit their view on this difficult subject, we should have had the result of the voucher review in mid-January, even allowing for Christmas; I do not tie the Home Office down to a precise number of days. When shall we see the results of the voucher review?

Several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry, referred to the need for guest workers. We need some immigrants for economic reasons which I understand. But a separate system of work permits addresses that question. It works reasonably smoothly and allows temporary and often permanent immigration into this country in the national interest. That is the system which should be addressed with regard to that question; it is not the subject of today's debate.

The underlying, long-term problem which is the subject of today's debate is clear. We live in a crowded island. We have debates on the shortage of housing and land, in particular in the South East, the Midlands, the west of England, the London area, and so on. I think that we have been tolerant of foreigners throughout most of our history. Many Members of your Lordships' House—we have heard from the noble Lord who spoke recently—are descended from immigrants and many holders of ancient peerages have a lot of overseas blood. We have a long tradition of accepting refugees. There is no doubt that we have benefited from that.

Despite some of the newspaper headlines, I believe that there remains in this country a great reservoir of caring towards those who come to our country in this way. It was illustrated magnificently in the debate, notably by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham who spoke about what was being done to look after refugees in the North East. Over many years, we have accepted economic migrants and sympathise with their reasons for coming.

However, the world is much smaller. Travel is much easier than it used to be. Information travels more easily. More people know about the conditions in other countries. Reference has also been made to the fact that there is fighting in many parts of the world. Civil war and repression give rise to huge movements of refugees. I believe that we cannot take all who would like to come. We have an obligation but we need a humane and efficient policy to deal with it if we are to reassure our people. I am sorry to say that I do not think that the present system is working humanely or efficiently.

This country has made a considerable contribution to development aid and conflict resolution. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, spoke about them. They play a huge part. But criminal gangs have given rise to increased problems with asylum seekers. I hope that the Minister will find a minute or two to tell us more about what is being done to combat criminal gangs, because we all hate that phenomenon and want it to be dealt with as severely as possible. In particular, we want an assurance that the organisers of the gangs who profit from the practice are at least in danger of being locked up.

The debate has also raised other questions. My noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to appeals dismissed in the absence of the applicant. That is a result of dispersal and of the difficulties in making contact with legal representatives in time.

There has also been confusion in the past few days about the costs of current asylum policy. The Minister in the Commons, Mrs Roche, said that the cost was £600 million, but the Home Office letter to No. 10 Downing Street in the Sunday Times said that it was £834 million this year. There seems to be some confusion. It would be helpful if that was cleared up.

The Home Secretary has started talking about revising the 1951 convention and about EU co-operation. That is useful, but it is for the long term. The daily problems need to be dealt with. That is why my right honourable friend Ann Widdecombe has suggested secure reception centres for asylum seekers. That is a humane contribution to the problem, not an inhumane one. We can look after people better in reception centres, where interpreters, social workers, lawyers, medical services and immigration officials can attend to them. Of course, the change cannot be made overnight, but it can be given priority, particularly as the Ministry of Defence is shedding barracks and camps. This seems a good time to start. We have done it in the past in special cases, and it must be at least part of the future of this very difficult subject.

5.12 p.m.

My Lords, I join in the general congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for initiating the debate. More than that, this afternoon he has begun to lead us in a more constructive direction in the character and content of the debate. In one sense, his speech might be seen as a fightback from the liberal wing of the Conservative Party. I read it that way. His plea for decency and fact to lead this important debate should be welcomed throughout the House. I was pleased that noble Lords welcomed the way in which his speech was delivered. I found much to agree with in the content of the noble Lord's speech but—then, I found much to agree with in the content of many of the contributions to this stimulating debate, which I hope that people will take careful note of.

The issue of asylum is frequently the subject of public and media discussion, as many noble Lords have said. However, its complexities are rarely well understood. The front page of this morning's Sun newspaper gave an ample example of that. An abuse of statistics is an understated way to describe that front page. It ignored the facts. Last year—it is important to say this for the record—there were more than 9,000 removals of asylum seekers, not the 12 that the front page tended to suggest. That exceeded a previous record of 7,600 in 1999. That compares with 4,840 in 1996. There were also more than 28,000 non-asylum removals last year. The number of cases in which there has to be an escort to a point of destination is 30 per month. I do not understand where the statistics that the Sun decided to alight on came from, but they are misleading. Such misleading statistics and facts have been all too common throughout the debate on a subject that should be dealt with dispassionately, decently and with integrity, because it is a sensitive subject.

At the risk of adding to the welter of statistics that have already been bandied around your Lordships' House this afternoon, it is right to try to put the asylum pressures in context. The total number of applications last year was 76,000. That was an increase of nearly 7 per cent compared with 1999, but it was smaller than the increases in the preceding two years. There was no increase in the period from April to December 2000 compared with the similar period in 1999.

As many noble Lords have said, it is vital to recognise the European and international context of the figures. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, made that point. In comparison with the zero increase here that I have mentioned, other European countries have had increases: the numbers for Sweden increased by 53 per cent, for Denmark by 42 per cent, for Ireland by 18 per cent, for Belgium by 16 per cent, for France by 14 per cent and for the Netherlands by 6 per cent. The figure for the EU, excluding Italy, was 1 per cent. As the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, said, we remain in the middle of the European league for the number of applications received per head of population.

The number of asylum seekers applying in the United Kingdom, as well as in other European countries, is largely a result of political instability in other parts of the world. It can be little accident that the top four countries are Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia. In contrast, we have successfully reduced numbers from countries to which removal is more straightforward. From April to December last year, applications from eastern Europe were at 3,295—almost half the number for the same period in the preceding year.

Asylum is a complex issue for any Government. Many noble Lords have made that sensible point. There are no easy solutions or quick fixes. We are committed by the convention to provide genuine refugees with protection from persecution. We shall do so with pride. However, there can be no doubt that asylum is being used by traffickers, who profit by exploiting illegal immigration. We must take firm action at national and international level to deal with that criminal activity. We must also take action at international level to deal with some of the factors that create asylum pressures for the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, who made that point, arguing for conflict resolution and aid as possible means of solving some of the problems.

On the domestic front, we have embarked on the most comprehensive programme of reform for decades. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, was right to call for investment. We have invested. In contrast with the under-investment in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate under the previous Government, we are investing to create a modern and efficient system. We have recruited more than 3,000 extra staff, including about 500 asylum decision-makers. As a result, a record 110,000 initial decisions were made last year. I pay tribute to the hard work of all IND staff, which has contributed to the tremendous achievement that those figures represent. The backlog of initial asylum applications has fallen by a third, to 66,000, as at the end of last year.

Faster decisions do not mean lower-quality decisions. We have invested heavily in providing high-quality training to our case workers, who also have support from a team ofbarristers working alongside them. As a result, adjudicators upheld decisions in eight out of 10 appeals last year.

The Immigration and Nationality Directorate and the Lord Chancellor's Department are working together to deliver a faster appeal system. The Lord Chancellor has trebled the courtroom capacity, doubled the number of interpreters and appointed an extra 150 adjudicators. The average time that it takes to hear an appeal has halved over the past 12 months. Almost two thirds of appeals are dealt with in four months.

For those who are allowed to stay at the end of the process, we are working to ensure speedy and effective integration into society. My noble friend Lady Whitaker made a plea for that, and that is exactly what we are doing. Over the centuries, refugees have enriched our society. Last year, we launched a national strategy to co-ordinate the efforts of central and local government and the voluntary sector to ensure that we achieve that integration.

Again, I want to echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, in complimenting the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, on the work that he undertook when he faced similar problems in the early 1970s. I believe that his work provided an example and a beacon which future governments must live up to. We certainly intend to play our part in doing exactly that.

In the interests of genuine refugees, we must also face up to the need to remove those who make unfounded claims. That is perhaps more straightforward in relation to some countries than it is to others, but it is always extremely resource-intensive. We are providing substantial additional resources to support asylum removals.

Next year we intend to return 30,000 failed asylum seekers. That is a bold claim and it will certainly be a tough target for us to meet. We are recruiting additional immigration staff and expanding detention capacity. The development of three sites which will provide 1,700 extra beds is under way. With the International Organization for Migration, we are developing a voluntary return programme. However, no one should underestimate the difficulties of that task. In the case of many countries, achieving the return of unfounded applicants is extremely difficult. Those difficulties are shared by all European countries.

In parallel with the additional resources, the 1999 Act represents the most comprehensive overhaul of immigration legislation for three decades. Two key provisions were rolled out from April last year. The new National Asylum Support Service began on 3rd April. I would argue that it has established a coherent, national system of support to replace the shambles created by the legislation of the previous government. That left local authorities in London and the South East with an intolerable burden. The new scheme has been phased in very carefully.

I believe that those who, for example, criticise the dispersal arrangements must remember that it was pressure from many Conservative authorities which led to the introduction of that scheme by our Government. Those authorities have welcomed that approach. I accept that, as with any new system, there will be operational difficulties and pressures. However, the system is working better than many people predicted. As it beds down, the distribution of responsibility for supporting asylum seekers will be much better and fairer.

During the course of the debate this afternoon we heard praise indeed for the extension of the civil penalty scheme, which deals with those who bring in to this country clandestine entrants by road, through the Channel Tunnel, by ferry, and so on. As we made clear, the purpose of that measure was to encourage hauliers and others to improve security and thus prevent their vehicles being used and abused by the facilitators who organise clandestine and illegal entry for their own profit.

We are now seeing the benefits of the scheme. The civil penalty has created strong commercial pressures on hauliers and ferry operators to introduce better security systems. In early December, P&O Stena Line introduced carbon dioxide checks on vehicles which use their ferries at Calais. As a result, so far almost 1,400 persons have been found and handed over to the French authorities. Compared with the four weeks before the checks were introduced, in the four weeks from 6th December there was a 41 per cent reduction in undocumented passengers and clandestines dealt with at Dover.

Other measures in the 1999 Act are also helping. Wider powers to fingerprint applications are helping us to tackle fraud and abuse by deterring multiple applications. In December, a new electronic fingerprint system was introduced at the Asylum Screening Unit in Croydon. It will be extended to the major ports soon. More than 100 fingerprint matches have already been identified from new applicants at Croydon. Thirty-two applicants have been arrested. Of those, 11 have been charged with various offences, including making false statements and obtaining leave to remain by deception. Four have been convicted, with two receiving sentences of imprisonment for three months. We are also now extending civil penalties to freight trains.

The Act has been implemented in a planned, phased way. We are yet to see the full effect of its provisions and of other measures that we have introduced. In particular, we have still to see the full effect of faster decision-making and appeals, extending the civil penalty to rail freight, and increased removals. However, there are good signs that our strategies are having an impact on unfounded claims from Eastern Europe.

I want to turn to the need for effective international action—

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. If he is passing from his rosy account of the 1999 Act, is it only by inadvertence that he has, I believe, failed to mention the disgraceful voucher system and the statutory theft of asylum seekers' money which it perpetrates? Will he deal with that matter because I did raise it?

My Lords, I was hoping to come to that in my later comments. However, the noble and learned Lord has raised the issue. Of course, we recognise that problems exist in relation to the voucher system and, for that reason, we set up the review. We are satisfied that it is consistent with our obligations under the Human Rights Act. The review is considering evidence and allegations that have been made about the voucher scheme—for example, that it is stigmatising and humiliating. Obviously, if problems exist, we shall seek to tackle them. Undoubtedly the review will be thorough. We are most grateful for the contributions made by Members of your Lordships' House and others and by organisations which, quite rightly, represent the interests of refugees and refugee communities.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for making that point. I am most grateful to him. Can he tell us what is being done in relation to the matter of change, which several of us asked about?

My Lords, undoubtedly that is one issue on which the review will pass an opinion. I shall not pre-judge the outcome of the review. It would be quite wrong for me to do so, and I am sure that the noble Lord would not expect that.

In a debate in this House on 1st March last year on the subject of asylum, I believe that it was the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who said:
"It is for consideration whether we should now consult other countries, especially Germany, which has absorbed even more immigrants, as to whether the Geneva Convention should be modified".—[Official Report, 1/3/00; col. 579.]
Perhaps I may re-emphasise that we are committed to meeting our obligations under that convention. However, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has begun a debate within the EU and beyond about how we can develop a more rational and effective international protection regime—one that enables us to devote less time and effort to dealing with unfounded claims for asylum. As several noble Lords, and notably the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, said, the convention was conceived in different times. There is an urgent need to develop an international protection regime which is better suited to this new and different age. I am glad to say that that is being recognised by the UNHCR.

In the meantime, we must work closely with our partners in Europe to develop practical solutions. We are working closely with the French Government. Security at Calais has been tightened. We have agreed on the introduction of juxtaposed controls for Eurostar passengers. Juxtaposed controls will enable UK officers to operate our immigration control at stations in France which serve the Eurostar.

In addition, at the Franco-British Summit last Friday in Cahors, we reached agreement to extend those controls to all passengers using Eurostar, whether they intend to travel to the UK or only to Calais. That is a significant improvement in our security, given that in January alone 458 inadequately documented passengers arrived here, having boarded the Eurostar with a ticket for Calais.

The French Government intend to have those measures ready for implementation by June this year. I believe that that demonstrates their understanding of the great concern which the abuse of this route causes to the United Kingdom Government and our citizens. We have also agreed to work together closely in developing a replacement to the Dublin Convention in a way that operates more effectively than the current convention, which does nothing to discourage asylum shopping.

We are also working with other countries to tackle the organised criminals who control the traffic of human beings, particularly through the Balkans. We are extending the immigration liaison officer network in the western Balkans and other countries. Officers will be sent to Zagreb, Budapest, Vienna and Rome as soon as possible. We are working with the Italian Government and other EU member states to provide hands-on assistance, advice and training to help the authorities in that part of the Balkans.

As a follow-up to the discussions at the informal Justice and Home Affairs Council on 9th February, the United Kingdom hosted a meeting of officials on 12th February to take that work further forward. In accordance with the conclusions of the Nice European Council, we are looking for early agreement on measures to impose tough penalties on traffickers across the EU.

We have a comprehensive strategy to deal with asylum. We are investing substantial additional resources. We are streamlining procedures to deal fairly but more quickly with asylum claims. We are putting in place new measures, such as the civil penalty and new fingerprinting systems, to tackle illegal immigration and to deal with those who abuse the system. Those are tough measures. During the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Act, the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said,
"indeed, it is tougher in some important respects than the approach of the previous government".—[Official Report, 29/6/99; col. 183.]
We are also taking action at the international level to deal with asylum pressures, which affect the whole of Europe.

Only a few minutes remain in this debate, and I am aware that many questions were raised on which I have not touched. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, asked how many appeals were dismissed because appellants could not turn up at an appeal hearing. Statistics on appeal outcomes are the responsibility of the Immigration Appellate Authority. Although about 80 per cent of appeals are dismissed, I understand that figures for those dismissed because the appellant did not attend are not available.

The noble Lord said that interviewing asylum seekers immediately on arrival was unfair. It is our objective, as it was of the previous government, of whom the noble Lord was a member, to interview asylum seekers as soon as possible after they make their claim. That is part of our effort to speed up the process, and it is an effective approach.

The noble Lord also questioned the arrangements for statement of evidence forms to be returned. We will soon ensure that guidance about the completion of those forms is available in the 60 languages that are most commonly spoken by asylum seekers. We believe that the time limit for completing the forms, which represents about one quarter of the two-month period for making the initial decision, is fair. About three quarters of applicants complete the form on time.

The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, asked about the measures that we are taking to integrate graduates and skilled workers. We are committed to ensuring that refugees should have every opportunity to rebuild their lives in the community for their benefit and that of their families. Last November, I believe, we launched the full and equal citizens initiative, which examines the ways in which government and the wider community can do more to help with integration.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about the number of asylum seekers who did not want accommodation but did want vouchers. As of 29th January, 33,300 applications for support had been received, and 9,100 were for subsistence support vouchers only.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked whether the Immigration and Nationality Directorate would cease to use prisons for the detention of asylum seekers. Some 500 prison places are provided for detention of asylum seekers. That is only a temporary arrangement, which will last for roughly 12 months. It is not desirable for that part of the prison system to be used in that way.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked when we would announce the conclusions of our consultation process. I have dealt with that point. There have been many useful representations. Earlier this year, we said that they would be drawn together and that is still our intention. I shall of course ensure that the correspondence to which the noble Lord referred is chased up. It is important for Members of your Lordships' House to have a timely response to the important questions that they ask.

The noble Lord also asked whether case workers could go to asylum applicants to interview, rather than vice versa. That matter was raised in the noble Lord's correspondence. Without pre-empting that matter, I doubt whether such an arrangement would in all events be practicable. The conduct of an interview requires suitable premises and often an interpretation facility. It is essential to use our operational capacity to best effect. However, we are increasing capacity in Liverpool and Leeds to enable additional interviewing in the regions.

I have tried to answer as many questions as I could during the debate.

My Lords, I asked a question to which the noble Lord did not respond; namely, about the costs of the process. The suggestion was that it was £600 million, but a letter from the Home Office in The Sunday Times said that it was £834 million.

My Lords, I willingly confess that I struggled to find the figures in my briefing notes. I shall endeavour to correspond with the noble Lord—I always do, and find it very amenable. He will be provided with those figures.

This has been a useful, valuable and stimulating discussion. We have moved the debate on. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, is to be congratulated on that achievement this afternoon. We have had a civilised debate—such debates should be conducted in that way—and the noble Lord will help us along that important path.

5.35 p.m.

My Lords, this has been a moving debate on an important subject and I thank all those on all sides of your Lordships' House who took part in it. The debate has been singularly free of political cant, as several noble Lords said, and it explored several issues that are of continuing importance in this context.

Several noble Lords referred to the failure of the voucher system. In response to the winding-up speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, I have to say that the matter will not rest there. Those who are in receipt of a voucher may find that deeply unsatisfactory, for all of the reasons that were mentioned. It is no good to be told, "It will all be sorted out one day". Recipients need to know when that will be done. Those noble Lords who raised the matter will doubtless return to that matter.

I suspect that the same is true of the question of dispersal, which is of great importance. My point about the long interviews conducted at airports of people who had just arrived after a difficult 12-hour journey from another part of the world needs further investigation, as does the time for filling in statement of evidence forms. We also need to ensure that notes are available in the right language for those who fill in those forms.

The debate has moved this difficult issue forward. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and my noble friend Lord Garel-Jones for supporting my suggestion that we should find a place in the immigration statistics and rules for details about economic migrants. Such migrants might, in due course, be able to come to this country for some years as guest workers.

Finally, I was struck by the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. He referred to charities in the North East that helped refugees and illegal immigrants, and said that that demonstrated a civilised world to those who had lost touch with civilisation. I hope that our debate this afternoon will be seen by the outside world as a step in the same direction. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Parliament And Government

5.38 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth rose to draw attention to the case for strengthening the role of Parliament in calling government to account; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am delighted to raise this matter this afternoon. The Motion raises a topic that is crucial to the health of our political system.

I have previously argued in the House that the constitution that evolved at the end of the 19th century, which has been termed the Westminster model of government, has served this country well. The system of government that emerged was not perfect, but it has attributes that in combination render it preferable to the other systems that are on offer.

A core, but not the only, attribute of the Westminster model is that of accountability. We have one body, the party in government, that is responsible for public policy. That body is chosen through elect ions to the House of Commons. It is answerable to electors in a general election. If the voters do not like what the party in government has done, they can sweep it out. Between elections, that body is answerable to the electors through Parliament. Parliament is the authoritative institution—the only one—that between elections can call government to account.

Parliament is thus central to our body politic. It is not itself a body of government. The government must govern. But government are elected through Parliament and their political authority rests on that fact. Undermine Parliament and in the long term we undermine the authority of government. Undermine the authority of government and ultimately we undermine the effectiveness of government. Consent and effectiveness are the basic underpinnings of political stability. To maintain both, we need a Parliament that can call government to account. In short, good government needs an effective Parliament.

Calling government to account constitutes, therefore, an essential role of Parliament. It is not the only one that it fulfils. Calling government to account encompasses a number of tasks. It includes ensuring that the measures and actions of government are subject to scrutiny on behalf of citizens and that the government answer for their actions. It includes ensuring a structured and effective opposition; that the voices of citizens, individually and collectively, are heard by government and that, where necessary, a redress of grievance is achieved.

Parliament fulfils well many of its tasks. However, when it comes to calling government to account, my argument—the basis of this debate—is that it is not as effective as it should be. Parliament can and should be more effective in calling government to account.

In July 1999 I was invited by the Leader of the Opposition, William Hague, to chair a commission to strengthen Parliament. The membership included my noble friends Lord Waldegrave and Lord Forsyth. The commission operated independently of the Conservative Party, taking evidence from people drawn from all parties and from none. Various Members of your Lordships' House gave evidence. The commission reported in July last year.

The commission was clear as to the purpose of parliamentary reform. Reform can be carried out for a number of purposes. It may be carried out t o enable the government to get their business more expeditiously. It may be carried out for the convenience of Members. It may be carried out to get rid of archaic and unnecessary procedures. It may he carried out to strengthen Parliament in calling government to account.

Recent changes have been unfocused, having been carried out for different purposes and invariably subsumed under the heading "modernisation'', a term that covers everything and therefore means nothing. We were clear as to the purpose of reform. We wanted to strengthen Parliament in calling government to account. That must have priority. That was the focus of our report.

In undertaking our analysis we proceeded on the basis of four well-founded assumptions. The first was that there was no "golden age" of Parliament. We focused on what we believed the relationship between Parliament and government should be, and not on some romanticised perception of what it used to be. The second assumption was that changes in powers, structures and procedures are not by themselves sufficient to strengthen Parliament as a scrutinising body.

Introducing new powers and procedures will help Parliament only if Members are prepared to use them. There has to be a change in parliamentary culture if behaviour is to change and Members are to make effective use of the tools at their disposal. The third assumption was that procedures are none the less important. Procedure is an important constraint on government. The fourth assumption was that Parliament is not, in its relationship with the executive, a monolithic entity. Parliament is the sum of many parts. There are not just two Chambers; there are different configurations within each Chamber. To strengthen Parliament one has to look at the several parts and undertake changes that are specific to those parts.

We also recognised that to some degree recommendations for change require the support of government. That entails government recognising that they too will be the beneficiaries of an effective Parliament. A government, confident in the rightness of their policies, should welcome questioning and scrutiny. Effective reform, though, requires also the support and sustenance of Members. Changes to procedure have, in effect, to be the property of each House. Members not only have to want change; they also have to be willing to sustain it. That is not something that parliamentarians can look to others to do. They have to do it themselves.

In our commission inquiry we looked at the reasons why Parliament was not as effective as it should be in calling government to account. We identified several developments that, in combination, have undermined Parliament as an effective body of scrutiny and influence.

Government has grown and the volume of public business is now enormous. Bills are not only longer than they used to be, but also more complex. Political parties are essential to our political system, but the partisanship that is now apparent, at least in the other place, militates against an effective dialogue between the parties. Parliament, primarily the other place, is increasingly denuded of people with experience and expertise that enables Members to question government effectively. Power within the political system is fragmenting, with some passing upwards to the institutions of the European Union, some flowing to the centre—that is, Downing Street—and some to the courts. Parliament is also threatened by what we term depoliticisation; that is, by decision-making power being hived off to a range of unelected bodies and, more corrosively, by the growth of direct-action pressure groups. Such groups believe that they have a monopoly of wisdom and are not prepared to engage in reasoned debate. They undermine the basis of a deliberative—that is, a parliamentary political process. In all those developments, Parliament is getting left behind as the media rush to cover what they believe to be the real centre of power and of political action.

What emerges from that is that there is no single explanation for the present imbalance in the relationship between Parliament and the executive and that the problem that confronts us is a serious one. The scale of the problem requires a serious and radical response. Changes are needed that are substantial and, in some cases, innovative.

In our report we went for what we termed a "big bang" approach. By that we meant not one single, over-arching reform, but rather a number of substantial and, we believe, achievable reforms that could be implemented in the lifetime of a Parliament. The combined effect of the changes, we believe, would be to strengthen Parliament enormously in fulfilling its roles in calling government to account.

In the time available, perhaps I may briefly mention the headings under which we proposed reform. We made recommendations directed at strengthening the other place in respect of the Chamber, committees, the Opposition, parliamentary parties and the individual Member of Parliament. We made especially extensive recommendations for strengthening Select Committees and for strengthening the individual Member, not least through the introduction of incentives for parliamentary scrutiny. We made recommendations to strengthen your Lordships' House, primarily in respect of committee work. We believed that reinforcing this House in its committee work would enable it to play to its undoubted strengths. We recommended referring Bills for Select Committee scrutiny prior to the normal Committee stage on the Floor of the House. We also favoured making more use of sessional committees for post-legislative scrutiny.

We made recommendations for strengthening Parliament in undertaking legislative scrutiny. We wanted to see more effective scrutiny of primary, delegated and European legislation and we offered proposals in respect of each. We were keen to see steps taken, for example, to prevent the so-called "gold plating" of European directives.

We made recommendations to strengthen Parliament in undertaking financial scrutiny. Our recommendations under that heading were commended not only by my noble friend Lord Saatchi but also by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, who I am delighted to see in his place, during the debate at Second Reading of the Finance Bill last July.

Furthermore, we made recommendations to limit government. Government are too large, pervasive and unconstrained in their conduct of public business. We wanted to constrain government in order to strengthen Parliament. We recommended, among other changes, a reduction in the number of Ministers and parliamentary private secretaries and a fixed parliamentary year. We believe that that would serve as an important discipline in relation to government.

We recommended changes to deal with constitutional change. These included a reform of the process for dealing with Bills relating exclusively to English, or English and Welsh matters.

We also recommended changes to provide for greater access to Parliament. We wanted to strengthen the link between citizen and Parliament. We therefore favoured harnessing new technology to the benefit of Parliament, the creation of a petitions committee, as well as opening up the institution much more to the media.

Those changes, we believed, would, in combination, help to transform the relationship between Parliament and government, ensuring that the relationship is what we want it to be. In the longer term, we suggested reviewing the size of the House of Commons and even considering whether or not Bills should be sent to Committee prior to being considered on the Floor of the House.

The proposals we put forward are extensive, quantitatively and qualitatively, and ambitions. But they are none the less achievable—or rather, they are achievable if the political will is there to achieve them. For Parliament to be strengthened in calling government to account, parliamentarians have to want to call government to account. They have to want to fulfil that core fundamental task of Parliament. It is not a task that can be hived off to others.

When the Commission to Strengthen Parliament was appointed, one political correspondent asked how we could ensure that our recommendations were implemented. My reply was that we, as a commission, could not ensure that they were implemented; we could only make recommendations. The ultimate responsibility for change rests, as it must, with Members of the two Houses. This is not an issue which can be resolved by anyone else. Members of the two Houses of Parliament are responsible for calling government to account. It is responsibility that cannot and must not be shirked. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.53 p.m.

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to thank the noble Lord for introducing this important and interesting debate. I shall concentrate my remarks on your Lordships' House but I must say a few words about its relationship with the other place.

I begin by reminding your Lordships that our skills are different from Members in the other place. On average, we are older. I have no hesitation in saying that we are far more expert, but we are mostly part-time and have other jobs. Indeed, it is a paradox that although we are part-time and unpaid, we seem to have more willingness and capacity to examine Bills in detail than do Members of the House of Commons. That has always puzzled me.

The essential point, which we must not ignore, is that we are not elected. It may be that in due course there will be some elected Peers but I retain my doubts about that and do not see it as adding to the legitimacy of your Lordships' House. However, I believe that the 1999 Act made us much more legitimate, gave us the potential to strengthen our role in the process of accountability, and enabled us to be more effective.

Scrutiny and accountability go hand in hand. Our role is to question, to look for logical flaws in legislation and to ask whether any particular piece of legislation effectively does what it is supposed to do. We may well also query the purposes of a Bill or an order but in my judgment purpose is a matter for the executive and for the other place. The role of the executive is to listen and to demonstrate that it is doing so. Its response to sensible questions must be sensible answers. Its response to reasoned argument must be reasoned argument

However, accountability does not mean that the executive is run by, let alone replaced by, the legislature. A fortiori, it does not mean that the executive should be run by or replaced by your Lordships' House. I believe, as I hope we all do, that in the final analysis the executive, based on a democratically elected majority in the House of Commons, must get its own way. That does not imply that they are right but they have the absolute right to be wrong—just as we have the absolute right to say, "We told you so".

That leads to what I believe is a weakness in our existing system. I refer to what I call "retrospective scrutiny". We set up committees to examine matters as they go along. Your Lordships' House specialises in committees which typically examine general topics rather than specific decisions. Rightly, we certainly do not shadow individual government departments; we leave that to the other place. But we have a role which I do not see us playing as well as we ought. We should ask more often, "What is the evidence to show that a particular Act of Parliament or a specific executive action has achieved what it set out to do?" Related to that matter is a question which the great philosopher, Karl Popper, taught us in his great work, The Urban Society: we must always look for the unforeseen side effects of actions, especially those which are adverse.

The subject arouses political sensitivities. No government like exposure such as, "You [the Government] said this would happen but it has not"; or, "You said that this would do good and by your own criteria it has done harm". But I am convinced that parliamentary democracy requires precisely that form of exposure. Perhaps I may go into my normal mode of tartness and say that I am extremely interested in the fact that the Opposition are most keen on such accountability. During my years here when they were in government they showed not the slightest interest in accountability or scrutiny of any form. They were very keen on their massive majority.

However, that does not mean that their new view is wrong and it does not mean that I would advise my right honourable and noble friends to take that view. I believe that accountability is most important and that governments should be taking the lead in seeing that we have it. But I can never resist the kind of acid comment in which I specialise.

Furthermore, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Norton, closely because I believe that accountability is a matter for Parliament rather than for committees of inquiry and investigations by senior lawyers, so beloved of recent governments of all kinds.

Finally, I believe that slowly and surely we in your Lordships' House are making progress. We are using Committee stages much more for careful scrutiny and we are postponing most votes until subsequent stages. That is a good thing. We are also groping, albeit rather slowly, towards a more suitable way of scrutinising statutory instruments and I should like to see more of that. And we have some new committees. In my own field, with any luck and any day now, we shall have our economics affairs committee. Having achieved that, I believe that we could strengthen our scrutiny powers with one or two other committees. I should like to see one on social affairs and another on the arts generally. There are other areas in which we can make a contribution.

In conclusion, I make another "economics" point. Several noble Lords from all sides of the House agree that in terms of accountability we can, without offending the Parliament Acts, find a way to become more involved in a constructive analysis of tax reform.

6 p.m.

My Lords, your Lordships will have noticed that there has been a plethora of short debates on constitutional and allied matters in the past few weeks. I do not believe that we should make any apology for that. It is a thoroughly good thing. One reason is that the usual suspects are trotted out in the process. For me, it means that more than once I have had the pleasure of following the noble Lord, Lord Peston, with whom on this subject in matters of substance I am more frequently in agreement than disagreement. We should do well to follow the noble Lord's advice on retrospective scrutiny, particularly in the Constitution Committee whose first meeting took place this afternoon. The debate is also very good for all the reasons so eloquently put forward this afternoon by my noble friend Lord Norton, to whom we are once again indebted.

I merely observe that there are at least two pieces of common ground that appear to unite most participants in our debates on these matters. First, there has been almost—I emphasise that word—universal consensus that Parliament, particularly vis à vis its relationship with the executive, is weaker than it was and that that is bad in every respect. Secondly, there is almost complete consensus on another matter that my noble friend rightly emphasised which perhaps flows from the first; namely, if Parliament is to be strengthened your Lordships' House should have a part to play in it.

Perhaps rather impertinently, it may be that I have bored your Lordships endlessly with my contention that the central purpose of a properly reformed upper House is to make sure that another place does its job better than it does now. It is self-evident that a more powerful—because it is more authoritative—and influential upper House would increase its standing, of course at the expense of another place. That standing cannot be increased from anywhere else. Paradoxically, by using its greater influence it can become a more effective check on another place, and, in so doing, the lower House will become more effective and in consequence its own standing will increase.

Beyond those two emerging pieces of consensus, in most parts of your Lordships' House there is very little agreement as to the means by which those basic contentions can be put into effect. Those who have taken part in these debates are well aware that my list includes a large number of matters, most of which are extremely carefully set out in the commission's report to which my noble friend alluded. I believe that a proper stage 2 reform of your Lordships' House, which is rather more carefully thought out than the Government's apparent, but unspoken, adherence to what has come to be known in the trade as "Wakeham B", is a much better way to deal with it, particularly if we proceed by means of an attempt to build consensus among parties which are already riven on the subject of reform.

We would also be wise to think of a trigger mechanism for post-legislative referendums on big and, by their nature, irreversible issues along the lines frequently proposed by my noble friends Lord Campbell of Alloway and Lord Dean of Harptree. I also suspect that there is now emerging a convention that the Government accept the strictures of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation. Again, I pay tribute to this Government's performance in that respect.

There are a number of other proposals about the way in which the other place should reform its procedures which perhaps it is impertinent of me to suggest, and certainly there is no time to do that this evening. Above all, both the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and my noble friend Lord Norton are absolutely right to say that endless commissions have sat on the question of how Parliament should reform itself. I refer not only to my noble friend's commission but also to the Hansard Society's commission under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Newton. In the end, Parliament alone can reform itself. In order to ensure that it performs its job properly, all it must do is exercise its will to do so. If it wants to do it, it will; if it does not, it will not. In the end the muscles that it possesses will atrophy.

In view of the consensus to which I have alluded, noble Lords might have thought that there would be no impediment to doing just that. However, the important exception to that consensus is Her Majesty's Government. With the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, this debate provides her with an opportunity to say this afternoon that she joins that consensus. I hope that she will answer the unspoken question raised by all speakers so far: whether the noble Baroness and her colleagues believe that Parliament needs to be strengthened vis à vis the executive. If not, why not? If she does believe it, what are the Government's proposals to ensure that something is done about it?

6.6 p.m.

My Lords, in thinking about the contribution that I might usefully make to the important debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, it occurred to me that, rather than just agree with him or the noble Lord, Lord Peston, I should introduce one or two comparative observations. Earlier speakers, notably the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said that Parliament had become weaker or was not as effective as it should be. I am bound to say that if I compare my knowledge of this Parliament with the parliaments of other European countries, Westminster is still vastly preferable to other systems on offer.

Some time ago I had the opportunity to talk to the Prime Minister of a major European country. He is no longer in office; otherwise, I would not tell the story. We were admiring aspects of the palatial mansion in which he resided and worked. I pointed out that it had one disadvantage; namely, that it was rather far away from the parliament. He replied that he went to the parliament once or twice a year and if he wanted to see members of parliament he asked them to visit him. In another parliament which I know quite well, where there is some semblance of Prime Minister's and Ministers' Question Time—it has been adapted rather than adopted—questions are asked at eight o'clock on the morning and answered by very junior Ministers. I do not believe that any Cabinet Minister has ever answered a question in that other parliament. I make what may appear to be a facetious point but for me it is a serious one. Those questions are answered from a location that is way above where Members of Parliament sit. Indeed, the Government Front Bench would have to answer from the Throne, if not a more elevated position, to copy the practice to be found in other places.

When I escort foreign visitors around Westminster, often they are struck by the fact that, first, government and opposition are so close that they can see each other directly, and, secondly, they are on the same level. I could go on but I shall not do so. However, in this country Parliament has more opportunity to hold government to account than any of the larger countries of Europe. It is for that reason that I agree wholeheartedly with the demand of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, that it is for Parliament to make sure that the opportunities that it has are fully used and extended.

Sticking to comparisons for a moment, there is one striking exception to the point that I made. It is the Budget. We all enjoy the wonderful scene of the Chancellor of the Exchequer outside No. 11 holding up the red box, the contents of which have only just become known to quite a few members of the Cabinet. He then springs his surprises on Parliament. After that, and on the one hand, the Resolution is passed before Back-Benchers have a chance to have their essentially desultory debate about it and, on the other hand, the price of petrol at the pumps goes up within a matter of hours. Indeed, one of my first traumatic memories of this country was friends telling me, when I became engaged almost 50 years ago, "You had better buy the ring before the Budget because the Chancellor may put up the luxury tax", or whatever it was called at the time.

That is an interesting weakness of Parliament in holding government to account. If there is one point that disappointed me about the Norton committee report, it was the mildness of the recommendations on the way in which Parliament should deal with the Budget. Perhaps the committee was unduly impressed by the important evidence given to it by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, who will, I am delighted to see, speak in the debate.

Perhaps I may add as a footnote that I think it is part of the strength that we have, although not exercised enough, that we can actually debate the Finance Bill and the Budget in this House. We can even make amendments. Finance Bills do not come under the Parliament Act, so we could. Perhaps this is one area in which we could go further than we have done.

My time is up. I would have gone on to say a little about committees. I shall confine myself to making one point. I believe that our committees have had a good start. I have been a member of the European Union Committee and of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is chairing the Constitution Committee. Yesterday, I was very sorry to hear that we cannot yet find the instruments for looking at treaties. That seems to me one important issue where government have to be held to account. However, I conclude as I began; basically, I am firmly convinced that our Parliament is still preferable to other systems on offer in Europe.

6.13 p.m.

My Lords, I certainly do not differ from what the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, has just said about the value, quality and importance of our Parliament. Nor do I differ from him and other noble Lords who have spoken in extending my thanks to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for introducing the debate and for the formidable quality of his commission's report. I do not differ on the emphasis that has been laid on the need for both Houses of Parliament to be ready to assert themselves if the changes that are necessary are to be made.

However, I have to utter a warning note. A s our constitution is at present constructed, the relationship between governments and their legislative supporters somehow give governments a formidable power to prevent Parliament achieving the necessary result.

One needs to look at that in relation to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. He was rather mocking those on this side of the House for suddenly being on the side of reform as we are in opposition. That is a characteristic of the system. One finds that oppositions are always anxious to achieve reforms of this kind. The result when oppositions become governments differ from time to time. When the present Government came into power, most of their changes seem to have been to scatter and diffuse the powers of the executive to other places in ways that noble Lords have described—I make no criticism of that, I note it as a fact—but not to give greater power to Parliament to oversee the executive. That is what the debate is about.

I would say that the arrival of the Thatcher administration in 1979 was different in that respect, at least for a time. Governments tend to develop habits after a time. One of the achievements of the Thatcher administration was the introduction of an effective Select Committee system in the House of Commons. It is one of the most important advances made in asserting parliamentary control in both Houses. A further step needs to be taken in the other place—the power to compose Select Committees should be removed from the administration and placed in the hands of the legislature. That is the administration to which the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, referred with such courtesy and tact.

It is quite right that the powers of the administration over our budgetary and fiscal arrangements are grotesquely untarnished by parliamentary intervention. I have to confess that there is no moment when I have ever felt more powerful than when standing at the Dispatch Box making my Budget speech and saying: "These increases will take effect at the pumps at 6 p.m. tonight". Never does one come closer to having a semi-divine status than when one says that.

A particular illustration of that is relevant to my main point. Parliament needs to acquire much greater control over legislation as such, and, above all, over fiscal legislation. The volume of fiscal legislation is intolerable. That makes the quality of it intolerable.

That is one of the features to which our Tax Law Rewrite Project is addressing itself. I am grateful to this House for supporting it on our first Bill.

But merely rewriting the existing law is not enough. We have to find ways of stopping the torrent at its source. So far on the Tax Law Rewrite Project we have produced one Bill of about 300 pages. That is after three or four years' work. Last year, the Chancellor produced one Finance Bill of more than 600 pages. Our task is like that of painting Brighton Pier with some character called the Chancellor anxious to see it arrive at the French coast. That is not a tolerable way of proceeding. The mischief in this respect lies with the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968. It was first enacted in 1913 in response to Lloyd George's understandable attempt to prevent this House stopping the Budget altogether. But it was designed for a very narrow purpose. It was designed simply so that, whatever the argument about structural or tax reform, the basic taxes and the basic changes in rates could in fact be enacted by an automatic and self-imposed guillotine.

Somehow the habit has developed whereby Chancellors have been allowed to introduce Finance Bills, the whole of which become subject to that automatic privilege. Mr Andrew Tyrie, an honourable Member in the other House, said that Finance Bills have thus become "unstoppable juggernauts". We need in some way to amend the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act so that it applies only for its originally intended purpose—for the continuance of income tax and the imposition or alteration of any duties necessary for adjusting the revenue.

The remaining technical measures should be separated off into a separate taxes management Bill. My noble friend Lord Norton recommends that in his report. I was advocating that even before I became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Somehow I never got around to doing it—while I was in that office.

We have to make a change of that kind. We need to address also the futile hopelessness of the Standing Committee on the Finance Bill in the other House, which noble Lords know very well achieves almost nothing.

This is the final point I have time to make. It is rather a sad reflection that this House makes more effective amendments to legislation than the other place because its Standing Committee system, for reasons traced by my noble friend Lord Norton, has become a sham. If this House were allowed to take part in the amendment of Finance Bills they would be substantially better. We have made one advance by establishing the Joint Committee of both Houses currently considering the Tax Law Rewrite Bill. We need to develop that procedure and put in place a more powerful organisation for making proposals not just on tax law rewriting but on tax policy simplification to be achieved under greater parliamentary control.

I do not have time to make any other points. But if we achieve what I have said in the past few minutes we shall be doing a great deal better than I did when in government.

6.20 p.m.

My Lords, Parliament, says my noble friend's report on the strengthening of Parliament, is the crucial link between the citizen and government and its actions should be at the very centre of the nation's affairs. But there are some very uncomfortable facts to be faced.

The media, apart from the gossip columnists, pay scant attention to Parliament, not out of malice but because they do not think that Parliament is the place where things happen; and, generally speaking, they are right. Government policy is announced at press conferences rather than in the House of Commons; White Papers, like yesterday's White Paper on competitiveness, are leaked to the media before they are formally published; and the Prime Minister reveals his thoughts in chat shows rather than on the Floor of the House of Commons. In fact, the Prime Minister rarely goes near the place, just like the European premier to whom the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, referred. Perhaps he is preparing himself for a role in Europe.

The uncomfortable facts have to be faced. He spoke in only three debates in his first two years as premier; in 1998, he voted in exactly 14 Divisions out of 328; and the public, seeing on their televisions that the Chamber is empty for most of the week, probably think that, as the Prime Minister does not go there, no one else goes there either. The public did not just see an empty Chamber at the time of the fuel protests last October; they saw a locked Chamber; a place firmly shut; lights out. At a time of crisis, the representatives of the people were not there to express the nation's concerns.

Mr Tony Benn, who is one of our great parliamentarians, clearly does not think that Parliament is where things happen. Not so long ago he was moved in some exasperation to say that the Commons was dying on its feet. Mr Tam Dalyell spoke in like vein. He said:
"The Commons is atrophying. In 36 years I have never known membership of the Commons to be so marginalised".
He went on to describe how on 16th December 1998 he was struggling to try to force a Division on Iraq and being prevented from doing so by the Government. Mr Blair was not in the House of Commons telling people what was happening in the skies above Iraq; he was announcing government policy in Downing Street. Mr Robin Oakley, who is as knowledgeable about parliamentary affairs as most, said recently in the House Magazine:
"The Executive cares little for Parliament … unless the Government begins to respect the Commons more, will anyone else begin to do so?"
It is a sad fact that the Government's response to all the concerns expressed has not been to introduce measures to meet those concerns; on the contrary, they have introduced the time-tabling of all Bills and an end to votes after 10 p.m. to make life easier for Members, but also to make life very much easier for government.

It is a depressing scene, but comfort can be found in the fact that others are looking at ways of strengthening Parliament. I believe that the report produced by my noble friend Lord Norton is a treasure store of ideas. His ideas for Prime Minister's Question Time are admirable. Two Prime Minister's Question Times a week would mean that Thursday would once again become a proper parliamentary day. Tabling four or five Questions on specific subjects would make Prime Minister's Question Time far more useful than it now is. In fact it would be a very good idea if the questioning of other Ministers proceeded in a similar way.

No one watching Parliament on television can fail to be struck by the poor attendance in the Chamber. If Members do not feel that what is going on is of any real interest, why should the public? Of course, attendance has been declining for some time and there are a number of reasons for it. The setting up of the Select Committees had an effect on attendance in the Chamber, but no one is suggesting that that worthwhile change should be reversed. The provision of offices and secretaries has had some effect on attendance in the Chamber. Real efforts have to be made to lure Members back to the Chamber by making the parliamentary agenda more meaningful, attractive and stimulating.

It would certainly help if the ministerial code was amended to require Ministers to make the most important announcements to Parliament rather than elsewhere. It would also help if there were more short debates on matters of current concern and on Select Committee reports, with speeches time limited. And there is surely an overwhelming case for relaxing the criteria to allow the Speaker to grant more emergency debates at the start of business.

Altogether, more important things have to be found for Members to do. It really is worth looking seriously into the idea of providing a career structure for Members who do not particularly want, or perhaps are not qualified, to climb the ministerial ladder. The paying of Select Committee chairmen would cost a little, but, as my noble friend said, the cost could be offset by a reduction in burgeoning government. The number of Ministers has gone up and up—and not only under this administration. The number of PPSs has gone up; tying them to the Government without paying them and preventing them from doing worthwhile work in the way of scrutinising government.

At the end of the day we have to ensure that all Members of Parliament realise that they have a worthwhile role to perform questioning government and that that, is just as important a role as serving in government.

6.27 p.m.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for giving us the opportunity once again to debate Dunning's famous Motion. I shall address my brief remarks to my experience in the House of Commons rather more than to that in your Lordships' House.

As the House may know, I was a Whip for some 12 years, and subsequent to that, Speaker of the House of Commons. The Speaker is the traditional guardian of the rights and privileges of Parliament. It is the Speaker's duty to give Back-Benchers an opportunity to question the Government and to hold them to account. I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said about Standing Order 20 debates, as they used to be called. I recollect that I was not all that popular when he was the Chief Whip in granting so many of them. They are an opportunity for Back-Benchers, rather than Front-Benchers, to lead a debate.

In my time as a Whip it was our responsibility to ensure that the views of Back-Benchers were made known to the Front Bench—both in government and, mostly in my time, in opposition. Increasingly, the Whips today in the other place have far too much influence and power in being able to impose the wishes of the government of the day on their Back-Benchers. In my day, the position was very much the reverse. I have recounted to your Lordships on other occasions the words attributed to Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman, "I am their leader. I think I must follow them". That was certainly the truth in my experience as a Whip. It was no use leaders leading their troops in the wrong direction. They had to take account of what Members were prepared to take.

The noble Lords, Lord Waddington and Lord Norton, have drawn attention to the empty Commons Chamber. I agree. I am appalled when I turn on the television or occasionally pay a visit down there to find how few Members are in the Chamber. These days, the Chamber is full only for Prime Minister's Questions. Sadly, in my judgment, that gladiatorial contest which takes place once a week brings no credit to the other place, however popular it may be on television in the United States of America.

Originally, I had my doubts about departmental committees for the reason that I judged that they would tend to encourage Members to spend more time serving on committees and less time on the Floor of the House of Commons. So it has turned out because, as noble Lords will know—in particular those who have served in the other place—the Speaker can call a Member to speak in a major debate only around four times a year. If the choice is between speaking in a debate or participating in a Select Committee, there is no choice: the Member must go to the Select Committee. I am therefore in favour of the committees. It is an area where government certainly are held to account.

Is there a solution to the problem of how to bring Members back into the Chamber? I believe that there may be one, which I shall mention rather more in hope than in anticipation. This morning I checked once again with the Postmaster as regards the volume of post received into the Palace of Westminster. He told me that the Palace receives, on average, around 50,000 letters a day. That is a vast postbag. Much of it is generated as a result of the now well established practice of holding constituency surgeries at the weekend. Noble Lords who have served in the other place will know that at least two-thirds of the problems brought before Members in their constituencies concern local government. Those problems have nothing to do with Parliament.

If some way could be found of returning to local government the powers that have been taken from it over recent years while at the same time making it more accountable by allowing local authorities to raise more of their own revenue than is the case at present, we would go some way towards redressing the balance. At a stroke it would free up Back-Bench Members of Parliament to spend more time on the Floor of the House rather than working in their offices answering vast numbers of letters.

In our defence, I should say that there is no country in the world where the electorate is more personally represented than is the case here, but too many problems are dealt with in Parliament rather than by local politicians.

My time is nearly up. As I have said, I should like to see the powers of the Whips decreased. Like the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, I am deeply concerned about the extraordinary decision to wrap up votes on a Wednesday afternoon. I spoke recently to an old friend from the government side of the House of Commons about this matter. He told me that he, too, was concerned about it, but that it had, "Done a power of good for my Division record". We all know that Parliament is not a family-friendly place. The work is there and has to be done. To a large extent, that work is done here in your Lordships' House, but not to the extent that it should be in the other place.

I understand also that a guillotine has been introduced for debates on Second Reading. The other day, the guillotine fell on a debate on Northern Ireland, which meant that David Trimble was unable to speak at all. I would submit that that is not Parliament as it should be, but is rather more akin to a dictatorship.

I conclude simply by repeating what I said earlier: the influence of government has increased, is increasing and certainly should be diminished.

6.34 p.m.

My Lords, along with other speakers, I should like to start by thanking my noble friend Lord Norton for his extraordinarily important report on the constitution. It is valuable not only for its detailed and well thought-through analysis of the difficulties we face today, but also for the detailed and well thought-through solutions that are offered.

There are a number of points that I wish to make. I hope very much that, when they come to consider these matters, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and other members of the Government will consider seriously all the points that have been raised in this debate. We have seen a great deal of constitutional change over the past four years. Unhappily, very little of it has been effected on a cross-party basis. Constitutional issues are extremely important. I believe that such changes work much better when a measure of agreement is secured, not only as regards the problems which ought to be sorted out, but also about their solutions. This afternoon's debate is valuable because a great measure of cross-party concern has been expressed about the role of Parliament.

In that connection, before the debate began, I read through the extremely interesting report of the Liaison Committee of the House of Commons entitled Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive published last year. The report contained a great many recommendations which were considered by the Government, nearly all of which were turned down. In its final report back to the Government, the committee stated that:
"We believe that in its Reply the Government has missed an opportunity of reforms which would have been greatly to its credit".
It went on to say that,
"any real modernisation of Parliament must provide better accountability and tougher scrutiny of the Government of the day".
Those words reflect exactly the sentiments which are being expressed this afternoon and are a measure of cross-party recognition in both Houses and throughout Parliament.

Chapter 2 of my noble friend's report examines what he calls the "decline of Parliament" and looks at pressure groups. I think that nothing is more alarming than the effect of organisations such as some of those involved with animal rights. It also considers more powerful political parties, the concentration of power in Downing Street, along with a number of other issues. As one reads the report, one is aware of the effects of these matters not only on Parliament, but also the effects outside. We can see today two very disturbing elements.

The first element is that young people, in particular those attending university, appear to find politics to be a complete turn-off. When I ceased to be Chancellor of Greenwich University, I was astonished when a senior academic said to me: "It is amazing. There is really no debate about politics at all". When I consider the amount of time spent in my youth on political argument, I am astonished that it now seems to be by-passed.

The second element is the recent extremely low polls at elections. Not only was the turn-out for the European parliamentary elections disgraceful—perhaps due in part to the extremely complicated electoral system—but also that for local government. Furthermore, many are predicting a low poll for the forthcoming general election. This too reflects a lack of understanding and knowledge of or interest in what Parliament does. I believe this to be a profoundly serious development.

I have never been a Member of the House of Commons, so I hesitate to embark on any comments on reform of that House, save for one which I shall come to shortly. However, so far as concerns the House of Lords, I think that, whatever happens in the future, the powers of the House of Lords must not be diminished. This is an important point on which I hope that we can all agree. I know that there has been debate—the noble Lord, Lord Peston, referred to the matter—about changing around the business taken on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Some of us see the danger of introducing a three-day Parliament. Furthermore, there is a danger—again hinted at by the noble Lord, Lord Peston—that we shall not have votes during the Committee stage of Bills. Although such changes may be seen as only small, in fact they can have a profound effect.

For those reasons, I am glad that my noble friend Lord Norton has suggested playing to the strengths of the House of Lords. I am delighted about the establishment of the Constitution Committee, along with one to examine economic affairs. I would personally support other general committees of that kind, which would be valuable and would make good use of the expertise that this House is able to offer. These are valuable suggestions and we need to look at them closely.

On a personal note, I should like to point out that I much regret the workings of the Parliament Act over the issue of the age of consent. That issue was a matter of conscience and never completed its parliamentary procedures because the Parliament Act was applied. I did not think that that was helpful.

Finally, I should like to make a brief comment on the role of Parliament and how it might be strengthened. One of these great questions is the effect of devolution. I have for the first time detected many people in England beginning to talk about the English dimension; that is just bubbling along. I do not believe that the West Lothian question can be left on one side. I believe that it needs to be addressed before it becomes really serious. It is a matter for the decision of Parliament, particularly another place—for Members of the House of Commons representing English and Welsh constituencies. It also affects us in this House. I believe that there is agreement that we wish to see a United Kingdom. We should not do anything to encourage the break up of that union because of a feeling that one part of the country is not being represented as fully and fairly as it should be.

6.41 p.m.

My Lords, it seems to me that there are in our constitution four checks and balances particularly relevant to this debate. First, all governments, if they can get away with it, are authoritarian. They are more likely to get away with it if they have substantial majorities in another place. Secondly, Parliament is not the government. It is the job of Parliament to control the government, not to attempt to be the government. Thirdly, the government are entitled to get their business after due debate, as long as they can command a majority. Fourthly, the House of Commons—in reality, the government—can override your Lordships' House by the use of the Parliament Act, thus ensuring the primacy of the elected House.

One of the most important characteristics of your Lordships' House is its independence. The Back Bench element of your Lordships' House is of vital importance. Of course, there is also dependence among the political parties because the party battle is not so intense. Unhappily, that has disappeared from another place during our lifetime.

In 1964, when I was first elected to another place, knights of the shires sat on the Tory Benches. They did not want office. On the whole, they were loyal to their party. However, if they felt that their party was wrong, they said so by voting to that effect. Exactly the same occurred on the Labour Benches. There were people on the Labour Benches who worked in industry and in trade unions. They did not want to take office either. For the most part, they were loyal to their party. However, if they disagreed, they, too, voted to that effect. Alas, that has disappeared. Now most MPs want to be Ministers. Although there is nothing wrong with that ambition, it weakens the independence of the individuals concerned and greatly strengthens the power of the Whips.

I therefore suggest that it is very important to maintain and strengthen the independent elements of your Lordships' House. I do not believe that we need new powers. We need more effectively to use our existing powers.

One of the main functions of your Lordships' House is the revision of legislation. I am very glad that we debate all stages of most Bills on the Floor of the House. There is no selection of amendments, although not all are moved. There is no guillotine or curtailment of debate. If they wish, all noble Lords can speak, although in practice those who specialise in the subject of the debate make the greatest contribution to it. I believe that that is essential to prevent our procedures for examining Bills being diluted, which is sometimes suggested in certain quarters. That is all the more important as the so-called modernisation in the House of Commons during this Parliament has weakened the power of that House and strengthened the power of the Government.

I am delighted that, to their credit, the present Government are introducing an increasing number of draft Bills. That is good progress. It greatly assists in relation to the scrutiny of Bills before they become set in concrete. It allows for discussion to take place, both in Parliament and outside, which means that more minds are applied to the draft of a Bill before it is tabled. That, in turn, results in better legislation. I hope, too, that that example will be followed in the case of the more important statutory instruments. It would greatly assist the House to see those in draft form.

Another strong element of your Lordships' House is the Select Committees. Those committees produce high quality reports, which can and do influence government policy. I am delighted that we now have two new Select Committees—the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I hope will help to prevent clashes between the courts and Parliament, and the Constitution Committee, of which my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth is chairman and to which I referred in my Unstarred Question on Monday. In view of the constitutional revolution that we have experienced in this Parliament, there is no doubt that the latter will have much work to do. We therefore have a formidable range of committees with great knowledge and experience. The real question is whether the Government will listen to them.

My final point concerns statutory instruments. I am very glad that during this Parliament the House has asserted its right to vote down statutory instruments. They are now of great importance in our personal and business lives. It is important that, when appropriate, that right should be exercised. It is not a question of veto. It is a question of telling the government of the day, "We think that your statutory instrument is wrong. Will you reconsider it?" If, having done so, they decide that they are right, they can again table it for debate. However, one hopes that, if convinced by your Lordships' arguments, they will table amended statutory instruments.

In conclusion, I suggest that we have adequate powers and a wealth of knowledge and experience with which to call government to account. But those powers will be rendered null and void unless the government of the day are prepared to show due respect for Parliament.

6.47 p.m.

My Lords, I venture to suggest that, in considering the question of the executive becoming more accountable, we are concerned not only with the legislation that it introduces to Parliament, whether by way of a Bill or otherwise; we are also concerned with the Government's actions abroad, particularly in Europe. Some kind of control should be exercised over what the Government agree to in Brussels, or elsewhere, on behalf of this country and Parliament. In that respect, we are at present singularly deficient. That is partly due to a decline of political interest in what happens in the European Community. I can remember the time when debates were held in the other place on the European budget, to which we contribute £2.5 billion per year. Those have now fallen into disuse.

It is assumed that the Select Committees of this House, especially those concerned with EC matters, and the Standing Committee on European matters in another place, provide a partial safeguard for the ordinary Member of Parliament. I venture to remind your Lordships that the various Select Committees are responsible to their own Houses. They are not in any way responsible to the Government, nor are the Government in any way responsible for them. The decision whether or not to follow a Select Committee's recommendation is a matter entirely for the Government.

The Select Committees—and I single out for special mention the Select Committees of your Lordships' House—are responsible for informing your Lordships after due inquiry. Some of their inquiries are very extensive and most of them result in very good reports, which are highly informative to the House. But, of course, the Government are not bound to follow their recommendations.

The recommendations usually take the form—do they not?—of, "The Committee recommends this report for debate"; or, alternatively, "It is recommended for attention and information". Surely we ought to be able to take some action to enable Members of Parliament to have some influence on the actions of the executive. I put it no higher than that at the moment.

We get no reports whatever on the activities of the representatives of Her Majesty's Government in Europe, except by way of an occasional presidential communiqué, which is drafted by the president and which, very often, does not bear much relationship to what occurred. We have seen the documents ourselves. We have to do something about this situation.

This is an important problem. Its extent can be gathered by examining the proceedings of the European Scrutiny Select Committee in the House of Commons. The number of documents considered by that Select Committee on which further information is required from the Government numbered no fewer than 98 on 8th February, of which 33 questions go back to the year 1994. The Government have not even bothered to reply to those questions. As far as concerns documents not yet considered by the Committee, they number no fewer than 149. I do not know whether any of your Lordships have been along the path that I have very often trodden during my time here of examining Community documents, but to suggest that anyone could even read that number of documents in the time allowed is stretching one's belief to a point of incredulity.

The same thing applies to the Select Committee on the European Union in the House of Lords. It will be noted that many items are referred to the Select Committee itself or to its sub-committees, of which there are six—A to E. Those items receive good consideration and the reports are normally very adequate. However, on 16th and 23rd January, no fewer than 53 communications from the EC were considered and passed by the chairman of the Select Committee.

We have to devise a way in which Parliament can be adequately informed as to exactly what is being done and what is projected to be done in our name. I make no arguments about it merits or demerits, but we should know what is being done. It is up to us to see that we know. As one who has been in Parliament since 1945—with odd absences every now and again—I sincerely congratulate the noble Lord who introduced the debate on his speech. As a democrat, it made me, for once, both cheerful and proud.

6.54 p.m.

My Lords, I listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, and particularly to what he said about the necessity for better scrutiny of matters European in this House. I used to listen to him speaking forthrightly about these matters in another place when we were both there.

I have listened to a number of important contributions, some of which I shall attempt to debate in my speech in the short time that I am allowed.

However, at this stage, I cannot let pass without comment the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, in which he claimed that Whips these days have got far too much power and are far too much in control of matters. As a member of the entry of 1979, I remember that there was nothing more terrifying than a summons to go to see the Deputy Chief Whip, and the threats of condign and savage punishments that would rain down on us. I remember them well—and, yes, they may well find a place in any memoirs that are written of that period.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth on what he has done. In that respect, I can do no better than echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. Compliments fly as thick and fast in this House as insults fly thick and fast in another place. One should be as restrained in compliments as one should be in insults, but I think that I see the mantle of m y noble friend Lord Blake beginning to slip elegantly around the constitutional shoulders of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. We should be grateful to him for what he is doing on behalf of the whole House because so much is being done in a bipartisan spirit.

That is enough of compliments, except to mention one other point. I have a personal reason for being indebted to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. Some years ago I looked for, and was lucky enough to have, a special adviser par excellence, Mr Clifford Grantham—-why should not these people's praises be sung; why should they be wholly unsung?—who came from my noble friend's excellent stable at Hull University.

The first of the two or three detailed points that I wish to make—unlike the necessarily broad-brush points made by my noble friends, by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and by other noble Lords opposite—is that I believe that special advisers are necessary in government. They are not a necessary evil; they are necessary. I know that there are noble Lords on both sides of the Chamber who have been special advisers the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for example, on the government Benches, and my noble friend Lord Taylor of Warwick on our Benches—and who have performed the task of advising at the interface between the Minister and the private office or the Civil Service about what 'the Minister feels and what the Minister does. They have helped with the drafting of White Papers and, yes, from time to time, they have actually talked to the press on behalf of their Minister. I believe that that is all perfectly proper.

However, the situation in regard to special advisers has got absolutely, completely and utterly out of control. There are far too many of these sub-teenage apprentice spin doctors in government now. They do nothing for the body politic and bring discredit on the Whitehall system. We need a cap on their numbers and a cap on the expenditure on special advisers who play such a notable part—so my friends in the press tell me—in the internecine warfare that characterises so much of Whitehall these days.

I suggest to your Lordships that there should be a committee of both Houses of Parliament to carry out a very important role; that is, to look, first, at the numbers of special advisers and their expense; and, in a one-off exercise, to do exactly the same in relation to the numbers of Ministers who serve in the Government. It is my belief that there are far too many Ministers, particularly at the Parliamentary Under-Secretary level. I sometimes question the very purpose of some ministries. I do not know—and never have known—what the Department of Trade and Industry actually does, let alone the number of Ministers who inhabit it. On the other hand, there are some very busy and important ministries which need all the ministerial help they can get. I think that probably the numbers in the Home Office and the Treasury are about right.

Both Houses of Parliament should step hack, in as bipartisan way as we can manage, and look at the number of special advisers and the number of government Ministers. Like an NHS consultant. each government Minister leads to a trail of public expenditure running into millions of pounds—not only for private offices and cars, but for the whole apparatus of government. Both this House and the other place have a number of such people of all parties who could carry out that task. We have a cabal of ex-Cabinet Secretaries in this House who could help to advise on the correct size of government and thereafter filter any applications for increases in the numbers of special advisers and, much more importantly, of Ministers, because I believe we have far too many.

In conclusion, I follow exactly the point which my noble friend Lady Young raised about the English question. I believe that all of us in this Chamber and in the other place are looking at a locomotive coming rapidly down the track towards us. There is not just the English question as set out by my noble friend Lady Young but, for example, the question of what is to happen to Bills that refer to and concern only England but on which those from another country, from Scotland, whom I greatly respect, can vote and substantially influence what happens in that legislation affecting only England. I believe that people in this country will find that unfair. Fairness is critical to a democracy run on the basis of consent. This and the other place will have to get to grips quickly with this matter in the new Parliament otherwise we shall find ourselves in fearful trouble.

7 p.m.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth has rendered signal service in moving this debate and for the manner in which he did so. It has produced a variety of speeches and with none of them could I find any point with which I disagreed. It is really a remarkable occasion because of the diversity of the contributions. I agree with my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth that there must be substantive and innovative reform. Government has become so extraordinarily complex. Members of both Houses are overburdened with primary and secondary legislation, European legislation, the law on human rights and with mountains of correspondence. The concept that Members of another place discharge their function as representatives of the people must remain of general application, but it has suffered a sea change since the days of Burke.

How can the role of parliament be strengthened to call the government to account on behalf of the people? It is on their behalf that this question arises. As my noble friend Lord Cranborne put it, how can we close what is presently an unclosed circle between Parliament and the electorate? In that single sentence perhaps all is said.

It may be that our powers are adequate as my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree said. But should not each House conduct an urgent re-appraisal of its procedures to ensure adequate scrutiny by a Select Committee before debate and to ensure time for meaningful debate? Should not Parliament, on Bills whose provisions substantially affect the constitution, be able to resolve, if it so wishes, that a referendum should be called to settle the form of question and the general conduct of the referendum?

As my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth knows, I do not for one moment accept that a referendum called by Parliament can in any way undermine it. There are circumstances in which there is no other reasonable way to close the unclosed circle.

Should not a new practical working relationship be established between the two Houses by a new convention which reflects the new balance of authority between the Houses on the re-appraisal of the mandate doctrine? That should be by consensus. As I said before on one occasion, it should be carried out in the spirit of the Cranborne/Addison doctrine. That would strengthen the role of Parliament and would, indeed, tend to close the unclosed circle.

The weaker the power of another place under its procedures to control the executive, the greater the burden that rests on your Lordships' House in the due discharge of our functions exercised in accordance with the provisions of the Parliament Acts. I believe it was my noble friend Lady Young who said that the power of this House must not be diminished. I agree without reservation that Parliament alone can reform itself and must do so. I hope that that is a proposition which attracts the agreement of the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. Only by self-denying ordinance should resort be had to the Parliament Acts, the rejection of government Bills and the exercise of your Lordships' right to insist. That should be devised by consensus and assuredly not by amendment to the Parliament Acts, or imposed statutory reform such as being expressly rejected by the commission.

Until some new convention has been established the strengthening of the role of Parliament to call the government to account shall remain in limbo. It is a matter which requires the urgent attention of both Houses. I hope that it will be possible to devise some way in which that may be achieved by consensus.

7.7 p.m.

My Lords, as others have said, the ability of Parliament to hold governments to account is a function of our own authority, confidence and will. I shall speak briefly about where we obtain those characteristics. Other speakers, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Young, have touched on that. Our ability depends on the degree to which the public give us their confidence and the authority to do that which we need to do. John Pym, the great parliamentarian of the 1640s, summed up the relationship between the public and Parliament in the vivid phrase regarding the vigour and cheerfulness of allegiance which ordinary citizens have towards their Parliament.

As has been pointed out, there is little vigour and cheerfulness of allegiance to Parliament now. I would like briefly to look at why that might be. I entirely concur with the anecdote given by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, as regards her position as a university chancellor. I was recently involved in interviewing 36 brilliant young graduates whom I believe most of us would describe as the crème de la crème. One of the questions I asked each of them was whether they were interested in politics. The answer was infinitely depressing. Most said that they were. In answer to the question as to what they were interested in and whether they were involved in politics, in two out of three cases they said that in truth they had no engagement with politics either directly or indirectly. One bright young woman from a north-western comprehensive school who went to Nottingham University and gained a First in law, said that it was an interesting question but that when she looked back at her time at university she had not had a single conversation about politics in her three years there. I asked whether she meant that she did not go to a lecture on politics or hear a politician speak. She said that she had never had a discussion about politics. I asked if she had not had such a discussion in a bar, in a club, in her hall of residence or anywhere. She replied, "Nowhere". That may be an extreme case, but I suggest that it is not and that the state of affairs is worse than we would like to admit.

One comment I shall be bold enough to make, after only two and a half years in this place, is that there is a temptation for us to lead a somewhat cloistered existence. Those outside these walls might say that we are somewhat deaf to the concerns and interests of the public. I believe that we could, and should, reach out to the public a great deal more than we do.

For example, it is a source of wonderment to me that we have only three or four servants of the House who are responsible for public relations, education and the press when any small to medium-sized business would have at least that number trying to sell its wares. I find inadequate the attitude that "people can find information on the website and read the broadsheets". I urge Members of this House and those who have responsibility for these affairs to take a proactive view in terms of trying to interest the public, particularly younger members, and to be imaginative in finding ways of letting them know about our debates and our concerns; and to invite them to get in touch with us, however inconvenient that may be in terms of the postal load. Unless we do that, we shall get nowhere.

Other speakers referred to the complexity and volume of legislation. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that a formal impact assessment of legislation which directly affects the public should take place two or three years downstream from the time it conies into force. I think we should get a real shock at the gulf that exists between the intentions of the legislature and the achievement on the ground. I should be ruthless about repealing legislation that was not doing the work consigned to it.

We all k now about the complexity of legislation. But the number of noble Lords attending debates at Committee stage and at subsequent stages of complex Bills is tiny. I do not say that as a form of criticism; it is an observation. If we, as sophisticated legislators, are unable—as I believe is truthfully the case—to grapple with so much legislation, what hope is there for the public?

We must bear in mind that the public need to identify with what we do. They need to have a sense of ownership of us and of the work we do. It is easy to use those words but very difficult in the modern age to make a reality of them. The fact that we are not doing so is manifest in the grotesquely inadequate turn-outs at elections. The turn-out in the under-25 age group is frightening: it has been calculated that only 15 per cent of under-25s voted in the European elections—the very group that should be most engaged, stimulated and excited by Europe.

Having made those remarks, I shall hold my peace, except to make one further, and rather different, point. Secondary legislation is being pumped through this House in unbelievable volumes: 3,000 instruments a year. It is a sheer Alice in Wonderland pretence for us to be content with the scrutiny that we give that legislation, given that the only opportunity we have to amend it is to throw out the whole instrument. Our inability to amend statutory instruments needs careful and urgent reconsideration.

7.14 p.m.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, was right about Oppositions liking to call governments to account more than governments like them to do. I note that five-and-a-half speakers in this debate are non-Conservatives—I refer to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, as the "half", as he is, at least for once, a conservative Whip.

Gone are the days when Pitt could lose the first Reform Bill—a government measure—by one vote and not resign. Gone are the days when Gladstone could walk to the House of Commons, make a speech and chuck out Disraeli's government, because the House of Commons would listen to him. Surely we must realise that the House of Commons is the place where the government get their power. The House of Commons has the power—the only power—to tax. The House of Lords, in a fit of cowardice in 1348, I believe, said, "No, no, we do not want to offend our tenants. They ought to do it down there-. That is where power comes from. It has been very distressing how this Government have appeared to treat the House of Commons with a certain amount of disdain.

That has happened not only under this Government; it has been a trend for some time. It is illustrated by the dreadful "creep" questions that are asked at Question Time: "Isn't my right honourable friend the Prime Minister the greatest political genius since Marcus Aurelius?"—"Rah, rah, rah", go Members on one side. "Isn't Michael Howard the greatest law-giver since Justinian" "Rah, rah, rah" go the other side. "Doesn't Robin Cook make Talleyrand look like a club-footed ape in foreign affairs?"—"Rah, rah, rah", go the Government. It is this form of ghastly creep question that brings the House of Commons into disrepute.

During the passage of the House of Lords Bill, we teased the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, by "banging on" about "Tony's cronies". It was peculiarly effective, and slightly unfair. It is to the credit of a large number of new Members on the Labour Benches in this House that they are not Tony's cronies. If I wanted to make a "crony" attack, it would be against the Liberals—who are like Lloyd George's poodles. When they are told, they vote like soldier rats—which is immensely amusing. There are certainly signs that there are independent-minded people on the Labour Benches who are quite happy to argue with the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. That is both good for her soul and good for Parliament.

It is essential that the Government should bear in mind my other criticism. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, talked about wanting, to do something before he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and wanting to do something after he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, but forgetting to do it while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is perfectly understandable. Ministers are busy people. However, I hope that when my noble friend Lord Strathclyde winds up for this side, he will say that in the probable, possible, or impossible—use which adjective you like—event of a Conservative government coming to power after the next election, they will give an undertaking that they really will give power back to Parliament and take account of what Parliament says.

We have got into a certain habit: when a piece of legislation goes through—for example, on the Scunthorpe by-pass—no matter which government is in office, if anyone on the government side says that they have got the Scunthorpe by-pass order wrong, the Whips then squeak that the whole of the government's authority is going to collapse because the government are paying no attention to that Back-Bencher. If the government do pay attention to that Back-Bencher, the media refer to them as being split and say that they are weak. We saw that when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, when some of the Labour Left were kicking up rough; and we saw it under the previous government, when some of the Tory Euro-sceptics were kicking up rough. Any Back-Bencher who shows disrespect for the government is accused of rocking the boat, and the government are accused of being weak.

I believe that to be the duty of all Back-Benchers, if possible, because I am by nature a disrespecting soul. The media then say that the Government are over-arrogant in not paying attention to their Back-Benchers. They cannot have it both ways.

A further point was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. It has been worked out that 80 per cent of our laws are now passed in Brussels. Not only are they passed in Brussels; they are also gold-plated here. Ministers say, "We could not get the piece of legislation that we wanted through in the ordinary amount of time, but we shall tack it on to a European statutory instrument and it will go through under the European Communities Act". That is a bad habit, and we ought not to let it continue.

I accept that, as Arthur Bryant says, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars foreign countries found it odd that English liberties—let us remember that the House of Commons is the fountain of our liberties—were guaranteed by gentlemen making speeches to themselves in an odd-shaped Chamber.

I have not had time to talk about the horrendous possibility at the next election of a Tory England, a Labour UK, a Labour Minister of education and health and devolved powers which are unique to England being imposed by a Labour UK on Scotsmen and on Welshmen. That is a serious matter. We sit in a Parliament that has continued at least since the reign of Edward I. It is a wonderful organisation. It has saved the liberties of the world so many times. It invented modern taxation and representative government. It invented the freedoms that we all hold dear. For Heaven's sake, let us all make sure that it works. I have spoken for a minute too long.

7.21 p.m.

My Lords, during the course of this debate, which has in itself been an example of Parliament holding government to account, there has been a universal acceptance of the concept that a strong Parliament benefits all. It benefits the country and it even benefits the Government, although in the short term it can make life difficult.

I am quite sure that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will not say that she believes in a weak Parliament. None the less, I believe that we have to look at the evidence of what the Government have done and the actions they have taken as regards Parliament since they took office. Encroachments on the authority and standing of Parliament have ranged from outright legislative change, through amendments to procedures, to the actions of Ministers in making announcements, as we have heard, and, indeed, their observations concerning the role of the legislature, particularly this House, especially when this House takes a contrary view to that of the Government.

I do not believe that any noble Lord who has spoken this evening has suggested that the House of Commons is now an effective forum for the detailed scrutiny of legislation. Indeed, your Lordships' House has shown itself as the place which is relied upon to provide that role. One example of that was the passage of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill last year. On the face of it that was a modest measure, but when the detail was considered it was discovered to be a dangerous piece of legislation. Before the Bill went to the House of Commons for scrutiny, Ministers in another place thought that it was wonderful. When it emerged from scrutiny in another place, largely unchanged, they still thought that it was wonderful. However, when the Bill came to this House it was extensively rewritten by your Lordships. The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, felt that the Bill emerged from this House considerably better than when it arrived here. This House performed a real service, not only to those who were to be regulated by the Bill but also in preventing serious embarrassment to the Government.

It is universally accepted that constitutional change should, wherever possible, be undertaken on the basis of consensus. Yet, with the reform of your Lordships' House, the opposite approach was taken. I suggest that that measure was driven through in as confrontational a manner as possible which gave the Government a fight when they could have had a constructive debate. To do that without informing Parliament, and via Parliament the country, of the eventual measures which would take the place of the previous arrangements must be considered a considerable arrogance.

The Government have had their will and have imposed constitutional change, particularly with regard to this House. But what has happened to the Jay doctrine of a more legitimate House? Before major issues have even been debated here we have been told what the consequences of our rejecting a major piece of government legislation would be. We have, in effect, been threatened with the use of the Parliament Act. When this House has taken a contrary view to that of the Government, Ministers have fallen over themselves to attack this House in the media as being unrepresentative and, indeed, to state what is factual; namely, that the House is unelected. Why will they not recognise that this Administration put through a Bill to create this House in its present form? Any criticisms of the legitimacy of this House fall squarely upon their own shoulders.

The Parliament Act is the ultimate nuclear sanction. It should be used only in the most dire circumstances. However, it has already been used and we have been given clear indications that the Government see it more as a standard tool of government than as something to be reserved for the most dire circumstances.

Another illustration of the Government's cavalier attitude towards parliamentary procedures is to be found within the Regulatory Reform Bill which your Lordships are currently considering. As your Lordships know, that Bill will allow primary legislation to be amended by order in the widest of circumstances. We have been assured by Ministers that there will be considerable restraints on the use of those powers. However, that is not to be found within the Bill. The restraints lie in ministerial assurances which we know cannot be binding on successor governments.

Without even going into the problems which Scottish and Welsh devolution have thrown up, it is clear that Parliament has been considerably weakened, although I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, that in comparison with many other legislatures it is still strong. With the current Administration's declared intention to pursue further political integration within the European Union, Parliament is certainly heading in a dangerous direction.

I note that the Leader of the Opposition, Mr William Hague, welcomed forcefully my noble friend's thorough report. He accepted certain specific proposals immediately and committed to providing consideration of all of the others as a matter of priority. All eyes will now be on the Government to see whether they share our determination to see Parliament strengthened.

7.27 p.m.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, brings great independence of mind and originality to this House. We always look forward to any debate that he initiates. This debate has not fallen short in that respect. I am grateful for what he said about a report with which I was not previously familiar and to which I should perhaps pay attention.

However, I end the debate feeling not a little depressed. I agree with my noble friend Lord Dahrendorf that both Houses of Parliament should be given high marks in terms of the comparative performance of democratic institutions. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that good government needs an effective Parliament. But where I part company with him—although I am not sure whether I part company with many noble Lords, or at least with what they feel in their hearts—is in a genuine belief that Parliament will be strengthened, certainly within my lifetime. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said that confident government should welcome a strengthened Parliament. I cannot disagree with that. It is a worthy sentiment. But the reality, as I think we all know, is that confident governments have done little indeed to strengthen Parliament. I say that of governments of all political colours.

If I think that I detect a tone with which I most agree it would be that of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill. I look back over 20 years in the other place and over 10 as a Minister. I must not misrepresent him but I believe that beneath his remarks there was the thought that for all that the parties have tried over the years and for all the debates in this House and elsewhere there has been an incremental movement towards Parliament being less able than at one time to exercise control over the executive. I remember reading a book by Herbert Morrison entitled Government and Parliament nearly 50 years ago. It was the first insider's view of how the system worked. In his book, he said that oppositions can be right and governments can be wrong. He referred to what he called the delicate balance of power between the Cabinet and the House of Commons. But Herbert Morrison was a great, tough party manager and when he had to find a way of demonstrating the alternatives he referred to democratic strengths on the one hand and wobble and weakness on the other. He came out in favour of democratic strength.

We all want democratic strength. But I do not believe that the choice is quite as vivid as that. We can retain effective government while at the same time giving Parliament a better opportunity to play its part. There has been an erosion in the role of Parliament over many years. My remarks today are not critical of this Government but are made through an awareness that it is endemic that governments want to get on with the job and do not much like the trouble that Parliament occasionally believes right.

I believed in this Government's good intentions in 1997. They have honoured their constitutional commitments in respect of Scotland, Wales and London and a number of important respects. But there is no evidence that they are less executive-minded than their predecessors. Other noble Lords have referred to the Prime Minister's one day a week Questions. They have referred to the fact that the Commons is now a three-day-a-week Chamber. There is iron discipline. We all know the historic reasons for it. But, like the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, I believe that it has gone too far. What I most regret, and did not believe would occur in quite this way, is that the House has become more gladiatorial and adversarial than it was. I had assumed that under this Government they might move in a different direction. However, the truth is that except in minor ways governments are, on the whole, unwilling to surrender power and only if Parliament actually takes it back with the voters behind it shall we see any meaningful change.

In a lecture given by the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, in June of last year he referred to the good track record of the Lords in committee work. I agree with the sentiments expressed today to that effect. But the committee work of this House does not call Government to account. Although we may not like it, I find it difficult to point to one major government change of direction which has been the result of our own committee work. That does not mean that governments are indifferent to our non-controversial recommendations. They take account of them. They may make changes. But on major issues of policy that is not so.

With regard to Select Committees of another place, I pay tribute not only to the Conservative government of 1979 when the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, was responsible for the setting up of departmental committees, but also to the late Willie Whitelaw, when in 1970–71 the estimates committee was succeeded by the expenditure committee which had six semi-autonomous sub-committees. I was the chairman of one of them. Although in those days chairmen were often successful in getting unanimous reports from the committees, irrespective of party, I much regret that in recent years committees have been in the habit of producing minority reports and dividing on party lines. Their reports, therefore, have been ignored frequently by government or government have outwitted them while seeming to pay lip service to what they have done. I do not believe that there is nearly as much comfort as we might like in the Select Committee system, certainly of another place.

It is true that we now have a more pluralist, political system. I make two remarks about that. First, there is much to be said for it. I do not object to the role of pressure groups and to any campaigning organisations making their views known. I do not object to the development of Green Papers, which allows a wider debate, or the extent to which we have begun to have pre-legislative discussions. Even if I did, I believe that it is an irreversible change. I agree with Peter Riddell that Parliament should remain the core of the system. But Parliament will remain the core of a more pluralist system if it becomes more pluralist itself.

On this occasion I shall not embark on the case for proportional representation. The House might begin to show a degree of boredom. But I put it seriously to the House that, setting aside the traditional arguments about fairness, there is much to be said for proportional representation in so far as it would produce a more pluralist House of Commons; and a more pluralist House of Commons would be more likely to be a restraint on the executive than present Parliaments have been.

I turn to the role of this House in calling governments to account. Perhaps I may make one final remark about the position of my party in recent and future discussions. The formal position of my party has been and remains that we prefer a predominantly elected House. But we are open to argument, and the composition of this House should be part of the terms of reference of the Joint Committee when it is set up. This is particularly so because the Joint Committee would be concerned equally with our exercise of powers and our relationship with the House of Commons and the two cannot be separated.

I also believe that in so far as it proves possible—I put it no higher than that—there is everything to be said for seeking to move towards a consensus even if it takes somewhat more time. Since last summer my party has had amiable but rather fruitless discussions with the Government on these matters. I make no complaint. I am glad that the Government have accepted our proposal that there should be no further discussion and no appointment of the Joint Committee until we have a new Parliament. That will be the time to pick up the matter again; and it will be in time for legislation in the second Session of a new Parliament.

There is one outstanding question. I hope that the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal may feel able to give a satisfactory reply. The noble Baroness will recall the debate on 24th January initiated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. On that occasion we discussed the doctrine of the mandate, the role of the election manifesto and the Salisbury convention. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to say that the Labour Party will not include in its manifesto any details of the next stage of Lords reform which would effectively exclude meaningful discussion, compromise and the search for agreement afterwards. If that sentiment were to be endorsed, we could see your Lordships' House playing an increasing role in ensuring that our governments, of whatever colour, are properly accountable.

7.38 p.m.

My Lords, this has been an excellent debate and I thank my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for initiating it. My noble friend has come to be associated very much with this theme and it gives me great pleasure to respond to him.

Let me state unequivocally that we on this side of the House want a stronger Parliament. Perhaps I may answer head on the question of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. When we return to office we shall take immediate steps to increase the ability of Parliament to scrutinise the executive. My right honourable friend William Hague has made that utterly clear in another place; and I gladly do so here.

Perhaps once it could have been said that the Conservative Party was somewhat immobile on the constitution. But if the Conservative Party were ever guilty of immobilism—and let us remember there would be neither Law Lords, life Peers, nor women Peers in this House if it had not been for reforms by Conservative governments—then that is certainly not true today.

By commissioning the distinguished reports of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, William Hague has pointed the way to a raft of reforms that would truly strengthen Parliament. It is the Conservative Party that wants a Joint Committee of both Houses to find a way towards genuine reform of your Lordships' House, so allowing Parliament's voice be heard. The Government have set their teeth against cross-party talks. It is the Conservative Party that has opened its mind to new thinking on the Parliament Acts and the Salisbury doctrine, while the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, grits his teeth, like Lord Eldon of old, and says that nothing has changed and nothing must change.

It is the Conservative Party that initiated debates on the principle and fought for the fair referendum rules, as originally proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, while the Government used the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to fiddle the rules to suit the executive. It is the Conservative Party that yesterday in another place called for an end to the appointment of Select Committee chairmen by party Whips, while the Leader of the House, Mrs Beckett, set her teeth so firmly against that Back-Bench freedom that the Liberal Democrat spokesman said that the stand she had taken in an attempt to control the House displayed the worst centralism.

It is the Conservative Party leader who has pledged himself to two 20-minute Question Times a week, while the Prime Minister has the worst voting record of any Prime Minister, has initiated fewer debates than any Prime Minister and chose as his first act in office a cut in Prime Minister's Question Time to once a week. Finally, it is the Conservative Party that asks the English question and dares to provide an answer, while the Government, in the memorable phrase of the Lord Chancellor, say that it is a question better not asked.

Our party is not afraid of a stronger Parliament. As my noble friend Lord Cranborne argued, we believe that a stronger Parliament makes for a more authoritative and respected government. As my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth said today, strong governments need strong Parliaments.

I wonder how the Government will respond tonight. Will we be told that Ministers recoil in horror when Mr Alastair Campbell says that a policy would be better leaked to the Guardian than announced in Parliament; that Mr Blair has a secret plan to restore Prime Minister's Questions to two days a week so that he can be better held to account; or that the Foreign Secretary is telephoning his counterparts in Europe to tell them that he will surrender no further powers from Westminster to Brussels? I should be surprised to hear any of that and I hardly think that we shall receive those answers.

Hansard could not show it, but the anguished face of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, spoke volumes last week. Asked to give one example of a way in which this Government had strengthened Parliament, he finally hit on the limp answer that they had expelled hereditary Peers. What a historic victory for parliamentary freedom that was. No doubt in centuries to come the Blair Bill will be spoken of in the same breath as the tales of Simon de Montfort, John Pym and the authors of the Bill of Rights. Perhaps that is how the Government genuinely believe it to be, but I do not. No doubt, as he clutched for a straw, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, had in mind the famous promise of a stronger Parliament set out in what is now widely recognised as the Jay doctrine—the pledge that the new House will be more legitimate and able to speak with more authority and that its decisions will carry more weight.

If only it were so. We tried. We tried to show the same touching faith in the noble Baroness' words as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, has shown and as the noble Lord, Lord Peston, showed this afternoon. The new House has tried to build its authority and assert its freedom and has tried to make its voice heard even more. But do the Government listen any more now than they did before? Sadly, they do not. Were cross-party objections to the restriction of jury trial heeded? Sadly, they were not. They were simply swatted aside.

So I offer the Falconer challenge this evening. Can the noble Baroness give us even three instances of the Government agreeing to think again after a defeat in your Lordships' House? Even on non-manifesto issues, the Parliament Acts have been brandished with all the instinctive caution and hesitation with which a member of the French riot police reaches for his truncheon.

When I am asked whether this Government have strengthened Parliament, the words that ring in my ears are those of the noble Baroness that your Lordships' House is a "subordinate" House. My fear is that not only is this House seen as subordinate to another place, but that Parliament as a whole is seen as subordinate to the will of the executive. I venture to say that no government since the 1650s have done more to weaken the Westminster Parliament than this one.

In the eyes of No. 10, Parliament is there to do what it is told. As my noble friend Lord Waddington said, the Prime Minister does not respect Parliament; he does not listen to Parliament; and he does not go to Parliament. In his view, when it comes to taking the decisions that shape people's lives, anything is better than Parliament. Devolved bodies are better, regional offices are better, unelected judges, whether domestic or European, are better, and, God forbid, even focus groups are better. He prefers anyone and anything to the Westminster Parliament. Against the track record of this Government, I would take a deal of convincing that they saw Parliament for a split second as the first place to make announcements or to reconcile differences of opinion among the people of this country.

Let me illustrate that by reference to one event this week. We heard two days ago that the Government have abandoned their manifesto pledge—-a pledge repeated by the Leader of the House last summer and by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, last week—to set up a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider reform of your Lordships' House. Where did we hear that announcement, which is of such direct concern to the future of this House? It was not in a Statement to the House, but in a private briefing given to Mr Patrick Wintour of the Guardian. Has there been a Statement to the House since? Was there a willingness to answer the Private Notice Question that I asked on the issue? Sadly not.

No Government that believed in a strong Parliament would refuse to trust Parliament to discuss Parliament's own future. It may be a small issue in the great scheme of things, but am I alone in thinking that it matters? I think that I can answer my own question, having sat through the debate. It matters. These things are important. Private briefing is no substitute for coming to Parliament and holding oneself to account.

That is why I very much thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for coming to answer the debate this evening. It is also why, in thanking once again my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for giving us the opportunity to have the debate, I urge the noble Baroness to use the first minutes of her reply, before she moves on to her substantive speech, to explain to the House the exact position on a Joint Committee, how she plans to build cross-party consensus and how the Government now intend to consult Parliament on future reform.

7.48 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for his customary authoritative and, if I may say so, very clear introduction to the debate. I found it particularly helpful to hear him highlight again the main points of his report produced last summer, which adds enormously to all our discussions on the issue. As I was not present for the debate earlier this week and it has not been mentioned this evening, I congratulate him also on his new position as chairman of the Constitution Committee. The debate on that committee earlier this week showed that there are many relevant and serious issues for it to consider. Some of them were touched on today. We all look forward very much to the noble Lord's involvement in that and his leadership of a discussion that will inform many of our debates.

I think that I can call this an enjoyable debate, although I can say with my hand on my heart that I have not heard anything very new. No doubt noble Lords will say the same about my contribution this evening, and I shall simply respond by saying that that demonstrates the consistency of the Government's position on many of these issues. But then, as the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, would say, I am one of the usual suspects in that respect. As various noble Lords have pointed out, this is our fifth debate on the general issue of the constitution and Parliament since Christmas.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, demonstrates with enormous vigour his new-found enthusiasm for constitutional reform—something which, I must say, was not apparent during the many years in which I was in opposition in this House. The noble Lord was in government when that enthusiasm seemed to be somewhat muted.

I am always fascinated by the fact that, although Members of this House, and particularly noble Lords on the Conservative Benches, are enthusiastic when in opposition about regularly discussing what I believe one could rightly call the theory and mechanisms of executive and parliamentary powers, they show less interest in holding government to account by debating the practical policies of the government. Those are matters which, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, rightly said, are of great interest to the population beyond the Westminster village.

Although in the past few weeks we have had five debates on these broad issues of accountability, we have had none since the Queen's Speech before Christmas on employment, the National Health Service or schools, except in response to government Statements. I suggest that those are the practical policies on which this Government—indeed, any government—should certainly be held to account. Perhaps noble Lords opposite take the view that on these policies the Government's record is not to be criticised.

However, the fact is that with regard to the general constitutional issue, as my noble and learned friends Lord Williams of Mostyn and Lord Falconer have both said in reply to similar debates in the past month, the Government respect profoundly the right of Parliament to criticise and hold them to account. As the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said in a very eloquent address on this matter in which I agreed with his points if not necessarily with his conclusions, the ability to command the support of the House of Commons is and must remain the sole source of the Government's legitimacy between elections.

I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, that where we have introduced reforms, such as in relation to devolution and the Human Rights Act, which, I suggest, have taken government closer to the people or given the people rights which they can exercise directly against the Government, those have not diminished but rather have strengthened parliamentary practice. We do not apologise for that; nor do we believe that they amount to shaking the balance of power.

A constant consideration in our programme of constitutional reform has been the wish to preserve the position of the Westminster Parliament. That is why, for example, we have very much supported and developed a system of devolution as against any suggestion of federalism. Indeed, that is why, following the implementation of the Human Rights Act, the courts may only make a declaration of incompatibility against primary legislation and not remotely set it aside.

I believe that all those changes have strengthened the reality of today's parliamentary democracy in which the Westminster Parliament remains supreme. As I have already said, within Parliament the elected House is in turn supreme and will always remain so. In a debate on 19th January, my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General described that as the respectful balance between the two Houses. I believe that that is the settled position and that at least it answers the rhetorical point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne.

I hope that I shall not irritate my noble friend Lord Peston if I say that in my view he put the Government's position very succinctly—I know that that is not something which he always intends but I believe that on this occasion he has certainly helped. We respect the right of this House to question the Government, to probe their legislation and their activities, and to ask the other place to think again. We are convinced that, in order to make Parliament effective as a whole, both Houses of Parliament need to work together and to work as closely as possible in scrutinising the Government and holding it in general to account.

We continue to believe that the best form of Parliament for the United Kingdom is a bicameral one in which the second Chamber has a distinctive contribution to make. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that that distinctive contribution is based on the authoritative contributions made by virtue of the quality of the Members of that House.

I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, that, for example, your Lordships' Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee is now immensely authoritative, precisely because of the authority of its contributions. That is not simply because it is a committee of your Lordships' House, but because of the nature, function and particular recommendations that it makes. I believe that we all agree that it fulfils a particular function in the legislative process and fulfils it very well. We have already referred to the potential role of the Constitution Committee. I hope that over time it may achieve a similar status.

There have been some suggestions, perhaps best exemplified by what the noble Lords, Lord Rodgers and Lord Strathclyde, said, that one of the objectives of reform of your Lordships' House has been to produce a body which, in a sense, is important and easy for the Government to control, as, at the moment, they control another place because of the size of the Government's parliamentary majority. However, I believe that that does not stand up to examination.

As I have said on numerous occasions since the House of Lords Act was passed and since we debated the House of Lords report by the Royal Commission under the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, we want to create a House which can deliver on parliamentary scrutiny and on revising the legislative function, which complements the other place but which does not, ultimately, defy it or try to supersede it. I believe that that is an example of what we have said consistently. It was said again this evening by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree. It is one of the reasons why we have argued consistently for the value of the significant, non-party element in any further reform, and why, equally consistently, we have said that we do not believe that any political party should have a majority in your Lordships' House.

It always seems to me to defy common sense, as well as any kind of parliamentary calculation, that a House in which the government of the day have no majority can be described as one which they control and press through executive power. To that extent, I believe that this House will always have the strength of its own position.

I am sure that your Lordships acknowledge—indeed, this point was made by several speakers—that ultimately it is the other place where the Government must stand or fall and that the Government are entitled to get their legislation passed. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has made that point on several public occasions and it was reinforced tonight by the noble Lord. Lord Dean of Harptree.

After reading the report of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and hearing him speak on this matter in several forums, in general I believe that he shares the vision of the proper balance between the two Houses and of where true accountability lies—in the House of Commons. Therefore, I do not believe that he wants to extend the powers of this House at the expense of those of another place. He may well want to extend the powers of this House in addition to those of another place, but that is a different matter.

However, after listening to some of the contributions this evening and to the debate in general, I am not sure that that is true of everyone who spoke. I detected an element of the view that the other place can no longer be trusted to do its job properly and that, therefore, additional functions should perhaps fall to this House. Although in debate and, indeed, in conversation we are sometimes critical of the activities of another place, it is important that we should not believe our own propaganda about its work. We should respect the work carried out by the Select Committees. Since the advent of the Westminster Hall system, which I am sure your Lordships have witnessed, Select Committee reports have been debated in much greater number than ever before. I can assure noble Lords that the Government take seriously both the reports and the debates which have been extended through that additional scrutiny system.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, made some trenchant criticisms of the quality of the work that is sometimes carried out by the Finance Standing Committee. However, I believe that in general noble Lords would agree that Standing Committees on Bills, where MPs have a chance to become expert on a subject and to devote a considerable amount of time to consideration of an issue, can be properly described as an effective method of scrutiny. I believe that your Lordships will agree that we often benefit—or perhaps the word is "suffer"—from that scrutiny when government amendments are moved in this House in response to issues which have been raised in the other place through that system.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, in particular, together with the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, made some detailed criticisms of changes in the way in which procedure operated in the other place. Perhaps noble Lords will forgive me, but I am not sure whether it would be proper for the Government to comment in detail on some of those points.

However, I shall refer to two points which were raised because they were mentioned by several noble Lords. One is the question relating to the Prime Minister and his accountability. That question, which has been raised and, I should have thought, has been answered substantially on several occasions, suggests that somehow having one 30-minute session at Question Time reduces the accountability of the Question period. It seems odd to suggest that two 15-minute periods of Questions is better than one 30-minute period. For example, when Mr Major was Prime Minister, he missed more Question Times simply because he was drawn into other parts of government business to a greater extent than the present Prime Minister has been. It is easier for my right honourable friend effectively to organise his diary to attend Question Time for one 30-minute session each week.

The figures show that Mr Major missed 49 out of 399 Question Times over a Parliament because of the demands of other government business. That is an average of 12.3 per cent. My right honourable friend has missed only six out of 118 Question Times, an average of 5.1 per cent. I am not sure how important those statistics are, but they are relevant to the broad criticism that the present Prime Minister has reduced his accountability by reducing the time that is available at Question Time. Another statistic, which may or may not be important, shows that during the previous Parliament Mr John Major made 28 Statements, but the present Prime Minister has made 32. The reiteration of the mantra that the Prime Minister pays no attention to Parliament should be defeated by these arcane but none the less relevant statistics.

I enjoyed the exchange between the noble Lords, Lord Patten and Lord Weatherill, about the relative discipline of the Whipping system under previous administrations. Noble Lords also discussed whether the other place is increasingly dominated by the Whips. I was interested in the comment only two nights ago by the deputy Leader of the other place, Mr Paddy Tipping, who pointed out an obviously salient truth about the operation of the other place. He said that there had to be two-way traffic between Back-Benchers and the Whips. He also said that, to be blunt, any Whips' Office that forgets the nature of this relationship is in for a terrible shock.

Several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, touched on the question of our powers over secondary legislation. The suggestion was that during this Parliament the transitionary nature of this House meant that it should be more acceptable for this House to challenge and vote against secondary legislation. I am not sure why a transitionary House should have that effect. Many of the proposals that have been advanced in that context bear consideration, including super-affirmative instruments and the many other points raised in the report by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, by the Royal Commission chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and by the Procedure Committee in another place. Many of those proposals bear proper examination, but none of them leads to the conclusion that it is sensible for the House routinely to deny government an instrument that they need to be able to govern. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, the same points apply in that regard as apply with regard to primary legislation.

I was interested in the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Rodgers and Lord Strathclyde, about the importance of bipartisan co-operation and consensus in relation to further reforms and further constitutional changes that the Government may envisage. I was somewhat surprised by the argument of the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen. He seemed to assert that any criticism of the nature of the transitionary House, especially with regard to the points that I made about the ability to vote down secondary legislation, boomeranged on the Government because we alone created this House in a single-handed and rather arrogant stroke. If the noble Viscount looks back—I am glad that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, are in their places to attest to this—he will see that the House of Lords Act 1999, which produced the present transitionary House, was created by cross-party consensus on the way to move forward. It was the result of the sort of collaboration that the noble Viscount appeared to deny had taken place.

On the present position of the Joint Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, rather jumped the gun. As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, all that happened this week was that Mr Robin Cook and Mr Robert Maclennan, as the joint leaders, as it were, of the Liberal Democrats and the Government in relation to the discussions on the Joint Committee, agreed not to have further talks. There was no formal abandonment of the Joint Committee proposal and there were no developments that would have needed a substantive and formal procedure. As the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said, it is true—this was confirmed by my right honourable friend Mr Robin Cook—that the Government and the Liberal Democrats agreed that they have taken their discussions on reform of the second Chamber as far as they presently go. That much is fairly clear.

The Government do not feel that they have to answer any accusations about dragging their feet over seeking to find consensus. We have been struggling—I believe that that is the right word—since last summer to find a way in which to have a sensible bipartisan or tripartisan suggestion about how the Joint Committee could consider further the Royal Commission report on further reform of your Lordships' Chamber. We have made it clear that we are not in favour of any Joint Committee considering composition, although that would be a matter for your Lordships and Parliament to discuss when legislation was produced. All Members of both Houses would have an opportunity to contribute to the many debates that there would be on that matter. Looking back at the debates on the more simplified version of the original House of Lords Act 1999 suggests that those further debates would be very lengthy.

In conclusion, I reiterate the fact that the Government are not remotely afraid of parliamentary scrutiny. We are quite happy to be held to account by Parliament, particularly by the other place and on the specifics of our practical policies. We have introduced a number of changes to the way in which the other place operates, which are designed to make it work more effectively and efficiently. It is wrong to assume, as some noble Lords who spoke in this debate seem to have done, that the intention is to reduce parliamentary scrutiny. Time does not necessarily equal effectiveness. I do not like the word "presenteeism", but it is used in industry to describe that function by which people are present in their place of work but not necessarily performing a particular function—the virtue is simply to be there. Presenteeism can afflict Parliament, as it may afflict other walks of life.

The Government are clear about the fact that the House of Commons must be the primary source of accountability, and that it will become even better equipped to deliver that accountability. The role of your Lordships' House will always be to complement that process. We look to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, to take the lead in our efforts to be imaginative when devising methods to improve that function.

8.8 p.m.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all those who participated in this debate. I suspect that I have about 30 seconds to make my remarks so I shall be very brief.

We have had an excellent debate, which was marked by the substantial number of speakers and by the quality of their speeches. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, who said that we have a system that is absolutely preferable to others. We need to defend it and strengthen it. I welcome the recommendations that noble Lords made in this debate about strengthening Parliament. Some excellent proposals and significant statements were made and important questions were asked.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, said that oppositions tend to favour the strengthening of Parliament. I stress that I have been calling for a strengthening of Parliament for the past 20 years. That leads me to my final point. My Motion calls for Papers. Plenty of papers are available; I have contributed to the amount of paperwork. I do not want more papers; I want parliamentarians to read the papers that exist and to act on them. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at nine minutes past eight o'clock.