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Liaison Committee

Volume 703: debated on Wednesday 16 July 2008

The report can be found at http://www.publications

rose to move, That the 2nd Report from the Select Committee (HL Paper 142) be agreed to.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the report relates to a proposal for a new, one-off, ad hoc committee on the Barnett formula, a proposal for the continuation for a further Session of the existing ad hoc committee on intergovernmental organisations, and a proposal that the Liaison Committee’s advice restricting the size of sub-committees of the European Union Committee to 11 be withdrawn. We also report to the House the fact that the House of Commons is not in favour of establishing a Joint Committee on the UK Statistics Authority, a proposal which we supported in our previous report.

The House will recall that the committee has previously not supported the case for a committee on the Barnett formula for reasons we set out in our report. The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, accordingly came back to us with a revised proposal, narrowing the orders of reference for such a committee and excluding the consideration of political aspects of the devolution settlements or the application of public expenditure within different regions of the United Kingdom. We think that this revised proposal now meets our concerns and we accordingly recommend that an ad hoc committee on the Barnett formula be set up in the new Session with the orders of reference set out in our report. As we suggest in our report, we think that such an inquiry could be relatively short and we suggest that the committee could report by the 2009 Summer Recess.

We also considered a proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, that the ad hoc committee on intergovernmental organisations, which the House established at the beginning of this Session, be continued for a further Session. We did not support this suggestion, for two reasons, as set out in the report. First, we consider it very important to uphold the principle that ad hoc committees are appointed for a specific purpose and for a specific and finite length of time. The appointment of an ad hoc committee on an open-ended basis goes against this principle. Secondly, we are not convinced that the mechanism of an ad hoc committee with the terms of reference of the intergovernmental organisations committee is the right way to address the sorts of issue which the noble Lord, Lord Soley, has suggested as potential future subjects of inquiry. If the noble Lord wishes to pursue this, we suggest that he might reconsider how best to achieve it.

I should mention two other matters. The House will recall that in our previous report we gave our support in principle to the establishment of a Joint Committee on what is now the UK Statistics Authority. We noted that the Leader of the House had agreed to relay our views to the Leader of the House of Commons. The Leader of the House has now reported back to us that she has not been able to persuade her colleagues in the Commons of the merits of this idea. Given this, we do not see any practical way to pursue the suggestion further.

Finally, we endorse the principle that the maximum number of members of a sub-committee of the European Union Committee should be raised to 12—the same as that of other sub-committees. I beg to move.

Moved, That the 2nd Report from the Select Committee (HL Paper 142) be agreed to.—(The Chairman of Committees.)

My Lords, I offer my thanks to the Lord Chairman and members of the Liaison Committee for agreeing to my request that there should be an ad hoc committee to review the Barnett formula. It will be known that I have been pursuing this for quite a long time so I am naturally rather pleased at the decision. I am confident that the Select Committee will in due course provide a historic report of enormous value in making a sensible decision in this case and help prevent the break up of the United Kingdom, which I assume none of us wants to see but which was a danger without some review of this formula.

Obviously, I could not be a member of a committee to review my own formula. I wish the committee well—unless it is thought that I should be a member. I should be happy to be but it would be wrong to review my own formula. That should be done by others and I am happy to leave it in their most capable hands. I strongly support the recommendation of the Liaison Committee and recommend it to the House.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and the Liaison Committee for their helpful comments over the past year or two, and the members of the Clerks’ Department on the Intergovernmental Organisations Select Committee—the ad hoc committee referred to by the noble Lord. I place on record that I of course originally asked for a sessional committee. I share the Liaison Committee’s view that an intergovernmental organisations select committee should not be ad hoc but sessional. All members of the committee and other Members of this House who have discussed this with me believe there is a need for such a sessional committee. We will return to the Liaison Committee with such an application.

I have a couple of other points in relation to this. First, it would have helped if the report that will come out next Monday on the control of globally transmitted infectious diseases had been before the committee in time. It was not because—as I know the noble Lord fully accepts—the two Ministers could not give evidence on the date originally agreed at the beginning of June and had to delay until the end of June. It would have been wrong to produce the report without having the Ministers’ comments before the committee. The report will now be out next Monday.

When the noble Lord looks at the report—I hope that other Members of this House will do so—he will find that it meets the aims discussed at the last Liaison Committee and published in House of Lords Paper 118, which suggested a more thematic approach to this. By addressing the profoundly important question of infectious diseases we were able to focus not on the governance of intergovernmental organisations—I have always been clear that a committee of this or any House should not do that—but on the way British taxpayers’ money is used and how government departments focus on and use the decisions and functions of intergovernmental organisations.

The report on infectious diseases makes important recommendations. I make this point as clearly as I can. Members will see when they look at the report the welcome response we got from those who gave evidence to us; it came not only from people in this country—the British Government welcomed it—but also from the World Health Organisation and a number of other organisations. In view of the first Question this afternoon, I emphasise we had to go abroad only twice: once to Geneva and once to Paris. We took the rest of the evidence through video links. I hope to use the Skype system should we be able to continue our work in future.

In doing that, I again emphasise that many of the intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations involved in the spread of infective diseases told us how important this was and that they wished other Parliaments were doing it. Indeed, in the case of the United States, we not only took evidence via a video link but two people from separate organisations came over to see us, one of whom came entirely at the expense of the institution for which he worked. That is an indication of the seriousness and importance of the issue.

I share the view that it should not be an ad hoc committee. I say that again because that was my original application. However, the importance of the intergovernmental organisations is enormous, not only in what is happening in global governance but in terms of the money that goes in from the British taxpayer. For example, the committee was concerned about the proposal by one of our members to look at a peacekeeping operation. Regardless of whether or not the British are involved in a peacekeeping operation, we have to pay between 5 or 6 per cent of it. That is an important matter for the taxpayer and I ask the chairman of the committee to consider this when we come back to him in the next Session.

My Lords, very briefly, I am sad that another place has declined to accept the unanimous view of the Liaison Committee of this House that the Statistics Authority should be monitored by a Joint Committee of both Houses. I am grateful to the Leader of the House, who sought to persuade her opposite number in another place that this was a good idea, and I regret that she was unable to prevail. The fact that it has taken nearly six months between the decision of the Liaison Committee and the communication she reported to it last week is not, I hope, a reflection of the attitude of another place towards this House. It is a sad moment but we will hear more of this because my right honourable friends in another place have said that they support us and I hope the Houses may be able to revisit the issue in a couple of years’ time.

My Lords, I welcome the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. It may not appear from the rather polite minute just how much indignation there was in the committee at the actions of the other place in refusing to set up a Joint Committee. I remember that when the Bill went through this House much of the support for the concept of a scrutiny committee was on the basis that in this House there was particular and specific expertise. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, who is in his place, is one example of those who would have contributed to the work of such a Joint Committee.

I hope the other place will think again about this issue, otherwise my solution—having learnt the hard way about how the other place will deal with it—is that we write more specifically into such Bills an insistence that when we are talking about parliamentary scrutiny the other place cannot then redefine that as House of Commons scrutiny. I was very clear when this Bill went through this House that when we talked about parliamentary scrutiny we meant scrutiny by experts in both Houses.

My Lords, I speak as a member of the Liaison Committee. I was very pleased that when the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, first made the proposal it was approved by the Committee, as has been noted, and was then passed by the whole House some months ago. I also express my appreciation to the Leader for her efforts in getting this through.

I shall explain why I regard it as a serious setback for the Government’s intentions behind this legislation. From the beginning it was made clear that the new Statistics Authority—it was then called a “board”—would have Parliament as its ultimate master, rather than Ministers. That was the whole point that led the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to suggest this. Ministers would be replaced in this crucial authority by Parliament. That meant much more than occasional questions or reports; it meant that there would be serious parliamentary monitoring, year after year, of what the authority did. That has now been rejected by the authorities in the other place, for what I regard as rather pathetic reasons—at least, the reasons that I have been told. It is a setback, first, for the Government in their original intentions; secondly, for the working of the new authority; and, thirdly, for government statistics generally. It is a serious matter in all those respects.

My Lords, is the Chairman of Committees aware that the problem of the other place regarding scrutiny by it as being scrutiny by Parliament is replicated in a very major way in the Planning Bill, which is currently going through this House? Will he therefore bend some efforts towards trying to resolve this conundrum in favour of “Parliament” meaning “both Houses”?

My Lords, it is now 30 years since my noble friend introduced the idea of having a Barnett formula. It was expected to last only one, two or maybe three years. The situation has changed but the formula has lasted 30 years, which was quite unexpected. We need to examine this properly, and I am glad to see that the committee has been set up.

My Lords, I welcome the decision by the Liaison Committee to set up an ad hoc committee on the Barnett formula, particularly with the provisos that have been included to take some of the politics out of it. It is a sensitive subject.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, on the persistence with which he has gone about this. I suspect that it is a bit like the Schleswig-Holstein question, but in this case the noble Lord is very much alive and understands it. Not many people, especially those who pontificate on it in the press and elsewhere, understand it, but it is vital. I have no idea how these things are done, but I suggest that the noble Lord should not be allowed to be a First World War general and say, “Over the top, lads! By God, I wish I was going with you”, but should be very much a part of the ad hoc committee, if for no other reason than that he understands it and its implications.

This is a sensible decision. The committee has important work to do in ensuring fairness and equity throughout the whole of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I shall say something about the statistics committee, which I have thus far—I use the words advisedly—failed to achieve. The reason that the time lag was so long was that I consulted way beyond my opposite number in order to try to put the case. Indeed, I have said to the noble Lords, Lord Moser and Lord Jenkin, that the game is not over yet, if I can put it like that. We should continue to raise the points, specifically because it is true that, whenever we use the word “Parliament”, it is my view that we should be clear that it means both Houses of Parliament—appropriately, which may mean that on occasion we decide that we do not wish to be part of something, or it is inappropriate for various reasons. In this instance, that is not the case. We should continue to pursue it, and perhaps we will have more to say about it by the time of the next Liaison Committee.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken on this report. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House has dealt with the matter of the statistics committee. Unfortunately, as she has said, it is not possible to form a Joint Committee if the other half does not want to know about it.

With regard to the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, and his formula, I thank him for his kind words and I am grateful for the words of support for them from the noble Lords, Lord Sheldon and Lord Forsyth. Membership of the committee will be a matter for the Committee of Selection, but it will have heard what has been said in this debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Soley, is welcome to come back to the committee on a future occasion and we will look at the proposal on its merits. Regarding the fact that the report of the noble Lord’s committee was not available at the time of the deliberation of this Liaison Committee, I would just say that it always meets at this time of year to consider what is going to be done in the next Session.

However, the fact that the report was not available is a slightly two-edged sword. The Liaison Committee’s report deals with the matter on completely separate grounds to whatever the report might or might not have said. It is probably a good thing that the report was not available. Although I am sure it will be admirable, we would not want our decision to have been influenced by whether we thought the report was good or bad.

On Question, Motion agreed to.