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House of Lords: Secretaries of State

Volume 716: debated on Thursday 7 January 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have proposals to enable Secretaries of State in the House of Lords to appear in the House of Commons chamber to answer questions from Members of the Commons.

My Lords, all Secretaries of State should be fully accountable to Parliament. In principle, we see no reason why Secretaries of State in the Lords should not appear before the House of Commons, if that were the will of the two Houses.

I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for her response. Does she agree that any proposals to make Secretaries of State in this House answerable to the House of Commons at its Dispatch Box introduce an entirely new principle into our bicameral Parliament? Do the Government propose that Secretaries of State who sit in the Commons will equally be answerable to this House at the Dispatch Box? Will the Government therefore publish the Prime Minister’s letter to Mr Speaker Bercow, reported in the press on 25 October, and give an assurance that the Lord Speaker and this House will be fully consulted before any constitutional changes of this nature are contemplated?

My Lords, it is my understanding that Peers can already appear before the Commons as witnesses if this House gives them leave to do so and they themselves consent or think fit. However, that is a power that has lain dormant for some time. If Members of this House or anyone else were to envisage Secretaries of State from this House answering questions at the Dispatch Box in the other place, there would have to be a change in the procedures of that House, and it would require the consent of both Houses. It is precisely a matter for both Houses, not for the Government—that is an important point.

I am aware of the Prime Minister’s letter. I will seek authorisation vis-à-vis its publication.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness the Leader of the House agree with me that, whatever arrangements are made in another place to scrutinise government Ministers, Ministers in this House owe their primary responsibility to this House, and it is to this House that they should answer questions? Will she therefore join me in welcoming the new arrangements made by the Procedure Committee to give specific questions to Secretaries of State who are Members of the House of Lords, and in wishing this experiment well?

My Lords, I completely concur with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. It is an interesting innovation, which I look forward to. I am sure that it is going to be a great success, and it will enhance the accountability of our Secretaries of State in this House.

My Lords, I endorse the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I hope, and I hope that the noble Baroness agrees, that all Members of this House will make a real success of the innovation of questions to Secretaries of State sitting in this House.

I approached this Question with some trepidation because I thought I was going to have to disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, but hers is a timely warning. The Cunningham committee, which I sat on, reported that the strength of both Houses was their differences in procedures and practices. We should be careful before we start blurring the edges.

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. It is for this House to make a success of this new opportunity for questioning Secretaries of State. It is important that we have procedures at this end which are different and distinct from those in the other place. The questions that we will be putting to the Secretaries of State from next week onwards constitute a very different procedure from the procedure in the House of Commons, and I welcome that difference.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the best definition of conservatism is that we should never do anything for the first time? Many of us would welcome major changes in the way that Secretaries of State are scrutinised in both this House and the other House, and clearly we agree that both Houses should take the decision. However, the idea that it would be totally out of the question for us to make any changes is certainly not acceptable to me and, I imagine, not acceptable to most of our colleagues.

My Lords, I think that there is agreement around this Chamber that everybody welcomes the innovation of having Secretaries of State answer more questions in this House, thus enhancing their accountability. I completely agree that change is a good thing, but I also detect an appetite on all Benches, including the Conservative Benches, for the sort of change that we will be having next week in this House.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness bear in mind that a good many years ago, when the Department of Energy was first set up, my noble friend Lord Carrington was appointed Secretary of State in this House? It was my honour to be the Minister of State in another place. Will she also bear in mind that since then we have had the first stage of the reform of the composition of this House, which Ministers have repeatedly said makes this House more legitimate? Is it not strange that we are having this pressure now to enhance the powers of another place by giving Ministers the opportunity, as some are suggesting—not the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd; I agree entirely with what she said—to go along there to answer questions instead of, as we are now proposing, and as my noble friend has rightly pointed out, a new procedure for them to be answerable to this House? Is not that the point that she needs to bear in mind?

My Lords, it is absolutely right and proper that Secretaries of State sitting in this House should have more opportunities to answer questions in this House. What happens in the other place is largely a matter for the other place; but whatever decisions are taken in the other place, we will have to agree those procedures if they have an impact on the Members of this place. However, what we are doing is a good innovation. It is good for this place and good for democracy.

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness the Leader of the House whether, if ever Secretaries of State in another place were to answer questions in your Lordships’ House, they would not bring with them the raucousness which sometimes emanates from another place? I ask that question not in any way criticising another place, just to draw attention to the differences.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for drawing the attention of the whole House to the differences and distinctions between this House and the other place.

Would not one of the benefits of our Secretaries of State appearing in the Commons be that there would be more Secretaries of State appointed from this House?