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Conventions: Joint Committee Report

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 25 April 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they have assessed the extent to which the report and recommendations by the Joint Committee on Conventions, Conventions of the United Kingdom Parliament (HL Paper 265, Session 2005-06), endorsed by both Houses of Parliament, are being observed.

My Lords, the Government welcomed the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions when it was published in October last year. Both Houses approved the report unanimously in January. The Government believe that it is too soon after the publication of the report to make any full assessment of the operation of the conventions.

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend reflect on why, having voted for the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions and then for an all-appointed second Chamber, your Lordships’ House should be regarded by others as reliable, given that it in quick succession rejected a government Bill at Second Reading and opposed a statutory instrument? Is your Lordships’ House not playing with fire to the potential detriment of its role, as described by the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions?

My Lords, naturally, I reflected on the fraud Bill. I looked at the Joint Committee’s report, which said:

“In addition the evidence points to the emergence in recent years of a practice that the House of Lords will usually give a Second Reading to any government Bill, whether based on the manifesto or not. We offer no definition of situations in which an attempt to defeat a Bill at Second Reading might be appropriate”.

So it might be regarded as unusual. I also reflected on the casino order. The report concluded, on the basis of the evidence, that:

“The House of Lords should not regularly reject statutory instruments, but in exceptional circumstances it may be appropriate for it to do so”.

One of the exceptional circumstances is when special attention is drawn to an instrument by the Lords Select Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments, so it might be okay. However, I am worried that there was a fatal Motion supported by the Liberal Democrats on 11 December 2006, another one on 9 January 2007, another one on 21 January 2007, another one on 27 March 2007 and another one on 28 March 2007. It is quite difficult to see that as being exceptional. The Liberal Democrats continue to exercise power without responsibility in this House—the prerogative of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, throughout the ages.

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that this House should reject a Bill at Second Reading only in the most unusual circumstances and only after a great deal of reflection? Can he confirm that what happened with the jury trials Bill did not break the Salisbury convention in any way and that the excellent Cunningham report did not say that a Second Reading should be given every time a Bill is presented to the House? Furthermore, on the casino vote, was it not the case that the business management between the House of Commons and the House of Lords was not done as wisely as it could have been, with the vote in this House coming before that in another place? Is it not also true that the majority of three would have been reversed if all Members of the government Front Bench had voted?

My Lords, on the first point, I agree on the excellence of the Cunningham committee’s report. I am sorry that my noble friend is not in his place today to be congratulated on it yet again. Secondly, I agree, as I said, that the conventions report allows, in exceptional cases, for there to be a defeat at Second Reading. Whether a defeat is exceptional, in relation to Bills and to statutory instruments, cannot be looked at in isolation; it has to be looked at over a long period. That is why I draw attention to the number of fatal Motions that are currently being proposed. Finally, it could not be said that anyone was acting irresponsibly not to vote at all, let alone not to vote for a fatal Motion, which appeared to be the implication of the noble Lord’s last question.

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor not find it faintly sad that so distinguished a parliamentarian as the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, should in the autumn of his years see it as his job to play nightclub bouncer to this authoritarian Government? Does the noble and learned Lord not recall that one of the Cunningham report’s key recommendations, without which I would not have signed the report, was that the House of Lords should retain the right to say no? Is he aware that we on these Benches will exercise that right every time civil liberties or good governance are in question?

My Lords, I would regard the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, as being not in the autumn of his years but in the spring of his years. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, had signed up to a report that said that there were certain exceptional circumstances at Second Reading and with statutory instruments where it was quite legitimate for this House to say no. I completely agree with that. As I understand it, every time the Liberal Democrats disagree with something on civil liberties grounds, they will regard that—despite what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, signed up to—as a legitimate reason to say no. The critical aspect of the Cunningham report on conventions is that disagreement in this House is not of itself sufficient reason to say no. I am worried about what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is prepared to sign up to, when he then does something different.

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord recognise that the report says that neither House should regularly reject secondary legislation but that it may be appropriate to do so in exceptional circumstances? Surely the test is how often the House has rejected secondary legislation, not how often the Liberal Democrats have put down Motions. We all know that most Liberal Democrat Motions stand no chance of getting passed anyhow.

My Lords, I have always understood that Motions are rejected or not by people either voting against them or in favour of them. The critical step in rejecting things is people voting against them. You cannot distinguish, as the noble Viscount seeks to do, between people voting against a Motion and the Motion being defeated.

My Lords, if it is anticipated that the second Chamber is to be elected in the future, is it not unsurprising that it starts to flex its muscles? On the other hand, if we were to be assured that the second Chamber will be appointed in the future, would it not be more likely to resume its habit of deferring to the authority of the democratically elected House of Commons?

My Lords, that is for others to judge. All that I thought we had agreed to in January was to comply with what was said by the conventions committee of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham. The House made that commitment in January. I make it clear that I am not saying that the House has broken that—we must look at it over time—but it must be clear that we stand by our commitments.