Motion to Take Note
My Lords, we have a fine number of speakers on the speakers’ list this afternoon, and I welcome the opportunity of hearing the views of the many noble Lords who have set their names down for this debate. Others who have not will, no doubt, make their views known over the next few months.
A number among us think it may be time to review our working practices and, at the outset of a new Parliament, I share that view, which is why I proposed that this debate should be arranged. It is my intention that this debate should pave the way for a systematic review of our working practices to be conducted by a Leader’s Group that I will appoint before the House rises for the summer. I will ask the group to investigate what improvements could be made to our working practices to allow us to carry out our work effectively, while maintaining our efficiency in terms of the timeframes within which legislation is taken through the House.
That does not mean that I believe there are fundamental problems with procedure in your Lordships' House. Indeed, in the years I have been here, there have been times when I have contemplated ill digested legislation coming from the other place and reflected how much better the other place might operate if it introduced some of our own procedures. The privileges enjoyed by every noble Lord, the ability to table an amendment and have it answered, the wide freedom to speak and to question Ministers, the lack of restraint from the chair and other freedoms are immensely valuable to the House, and they are not shared by Members in another place. These open procedures enabled the House to carve out, after 1911, a role as the pre-eminent revising Chamber. Consider, for example, that over the last two full-length Sessions of the previous Parliament—2007-08 and 2008-09—we made on average over 80 amendments to each government Bill passed by this House.
As Leader of the House, I see it as my duty to defend that role and those freedoms. The essential self-regulating character of the House—rare in any legislative body—is something that I believe that noble Lords on all sides greatly value. Nothing this Government would suggest would set that at risk. I have never set my face against change; indeed, I was the other half of the conversation that led to the initiatives of my predecessor, the late Lord Williams of Mostyn, which resulted in some significant changes in the modern House, including the wider use of Grand Committees and the introduction of carry-over Bills. Furthermore, the House has regularly reviewed these matters—I need only mention the group set up by the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, in 2004, Lord Williams’s review or the Jellicoe committee of 1992—so it is time to look again at our working practices and consider ways we might refresh and improve the way we go about things.
However, we should not forget that one of the advantages of this House is that self-regulation allows us to adapt and change as we go along. Take, for example, the way we revise legislation in Grand Committees, which many of your Lordships rightly favour. After the Williams review, the number of Bills sent to Grand Committee, with full co-operation from the Opposition, rose from five in 2001-02, to 11 in 2002-03 and 18 in 2003-04. In 2005-06 there were 23, but since then their use has fallen away. In the past two Sessions, only six Bills have gone to Grand Committee, the same as in the last years of the old House in 1997-99. In 2003-04 and 2004-05, more than half the hours that your Lordships spent in Committee were spent in Grand Committee. In every year but one since 2003, the proportion of Committee time in Grand Committee has fallen from more than 50 per cent in 2003 to under a third in 2008-09 and less than 30 per cent in the previous Session. Yet the total number of hours spent in Committees of both types in our previous two full Sessions was more than 813, against 744 in the last two years of the old House and 404 hours in 1994-96. We are definitely talking more.
I use these statistics to show that our procedures are constantly evolving. It may well be that we should renew greater use of Grand Committees. The usual channels routinely consider whether the Committee stage of Bills could take place in Grand Committee, but the Leader’s Group could investigate whether morning sittings in the Moses Room might be introduced on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, for Bills or for other types of business. Then again, we already have procedures to send Bills for evidence-taking to Special Public Bill Committees or to Select Committees but, save for famous examples such as the Constitutional Reform Act, we have been sparing in our use of them. A Leader’s Group might consider whether that is right.
In the case of the Constitutional Reform Act, some who were most angered by the use of the Select Committee procedure, including the then Lord Chancellor himself, came to acknowledge its value. Indeed, our Select Committees have played a vital role in examining draft legislation, including secondary legislation, and scrutinising public policy. They have provided us with the authoritative analysis and advice that enables us to perform our scrutiny function effectively. On the other hand, wider use of these procedures would detract from the important principle that every Peer can contribute to revision and amendment at every part of every stage of a Bill.
In seeking to review how we scrutinise legislation, the Leader’s Group might also consider whether we could make better use of the minimum interval between the First and Second Readings of Bills. That interval could be used to invite evidence on Bills ahead of Second Reading, as some noble Lords have proposed, without prolonging the overall timetable for the passage of the Bill. The group may even wish to look at whether the case for minimum intervals of the length we currently observe is as compelling today as when they were introduced in 1977. The House has changed markedly since then, as have the technologies used to reprint Bills and Marshalled Lists of amendments.
Having re-examined its own practices, the other place is implementing many of the recommendations put forward by the Wright committee. Over time, they too might have an impact on this House, not least if legislation is more thoroughly scrutinised by the time it reaches us, so it is a timely moment for us to look at our own ways. In addition to some ideas that I have already mentioned, the group may wish to explore how we could ensure that, when scrutinising Bills that have arrived from the Commons, we focus on the provisions that received least attention in the other place. Some noble Lords have called for the provision of information on which clauses of Bills arriving from another place have not been subject to debate. I understand that this would not be as straightforward an exercise as it sounds, although I favour the idea behind it, but it merits further investigation.
There is much that a group might consider without extending the time that a Bill spends in this House. The Leader’s Group might wish to look at other areas of the House’s activity. It could, for example, examine how we might avoid duplication with another place when we repeat Ministerial Statements and Urgent Questions and consider whether the Moses Room would be a better venue for such matters. It may also wish to explore how we could ensure that our procedures are more transparent and accessible to Back-Benchers on all sides of the House, including those who have joined only recently or attend less frequently. This might, for instance, mean taking another look at how Private Members’ Bills are introduced and how Questions for Short Debate are tabled, with a view to widening the range of Back-Bench Members who successfully use these vehicles to raise matters of interest.
The overriding principle of self-regulation underpins all our work. The self-restraint that characterises this House has ensured that we have never needed to resort to selection of amendments, enforced groupings, programme Motions or guillotines. I sincerely hope that we never shall. We equally need to recognise that that would change if the freedoms that we have were unnecessarily abused. I am glad that they never have been, and long may that continue.
The usual channels are essential to this alchemy. They are a conduit for the different interests in the House and a vital lubricant in the conduct of business in a self-regulating House with no overall majority. I am conscious that there are some in the House who wish to see a greater role for the chair, notably at Question Time. My view is that our existing practice, whereby it is the responsibility of the whole House—of all the Members present—to draw attention to breaches of order or failures to observe custom, continues to serve us well. The government Benches of course have a special responsibility for assessing the mood of the House and intervening accordingly, and I take my responsibilities in this matter most seriously, as I know that former Leaders have done as well. It is not as easy as it looks perhaps and sometimes there are complaints of unfairness or favouritism to certain Benches. All I can say is that, on the anecdotal evidence, the party of the Opposition is hugely favoured in Question Time, but we are looking for the scientific proof to demonstrate whether that is the case.
This does not amount to a power of direction, and nor should it. Such powers, whether exercised from the—
My Lords, let me make it clear: I believe that it should consider that. It should be a widely drawn committee on working practices and not simply on the procedures of the House, so that it can examine all sorts of matters which are not strictly speaking procedural; that should, of course, include the role of the chair in the House.
As regards appointments to Select Committees—an aspect of the reforms in the other place which a number of noble Lords are keen to emulate—there is nothing to stop individual groups or political parties in this House from introducing elections for particular positions. Some have already done so, and I believe that it very much suits those groups.
I trust that this brief tour d’horizon has made clear that the Leader’s Group will have a wide-ranging remit. It will also have plenty of time in which to conduct its work, which I hope will culminate in a major piece of work that sets us on the right course for the years ahead. I hope that today’s debate will lend momentum to that process and serve as a reference point for the group in conducting its review.
There are many speakers and the debate will be wound up by my noble friend the Deputy Leader, who will also speak in his capacity as leader of the Liberal Democrat party in this House. All contributions are important in this discussion, including those from Members who will not speak today; I am sure that they will be invited to put evidence forward to the Leader’s Group. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is an important debate for this House and for the Members of this House. It is, too, I believe, an important debate beyond this House, because how this House works and how it does its job, helps to set how the House carries out its important role in our politics, in our legislative process and in our constitutional arrangements. So this is a very welcome debate. I welcome as well the announcement by the Leader of the House to set up a Leader’s Group to review the working practices of the House. That is absolutely the right thing to do, although, like the noble Lord, I recognise that our procedures have evolved over the past few years.
To some, a review of working practices might sound rather dry and boring. But this is not just about more efficient and effective practices. It is about the health of our political system. It is about good governance. It is about our working relationship with the other place and our ability better to engage with the public. It is about building on the value of our House.
I believe that the review has assumed greater importance since the formation of the coalition Government. Why is that? It is because the fundamental role of this House as a revising Chamber has been changed by the new arithmetic. Evidence from the Constitution Unit at University College London in a paper by Meg Russell and Maria Sciara entitled, The Policy Impact of Defeats in the House of Lords, shows that,
“many Lords defeats are substantially accepted”,
“furthermore, many of these are on key policy issues”.
They show that in four cases out of 10, Lords amendments were accepted after defeats in the Lobbies and, of course, many more were accepted without a vote. The Leader of the House informed us that more than 80 amendments were carried in the previous two Sessions of Parliament. That was right and proper, although sometimes painful for the Government. With the coalition Government, this situation is bound to change, and I think it has changed already, with a profound impact on the constitutional role of this House. The new voting pattern in this House of the new politics is putting into question the traditional role of this House as a revising Chamber. If the Government have a permanent inbuilt majority, the prospects of this House being able to carry out that role are limited. This is not sour grapes. We know we lost the election and we know that that had consequences, but it is the new reality of the House. I hope that the Leader’s Group will keep this in mind as it reviews our procedures.
I pay tribute to the staff in the Library for their excellent notes for today’s debate. I pay tribute as well to all those who have doggedly pursued these issues over many years, and especially to those who have been members of the various more recent groups, including the group of Labour Members chaired by my noble friend Lord Grocott.
My contribution today will be brief. There are so many suggestions on the table for the Leader’s Group to consider. I hope that, in its work, the group will be able to take soundings from all Members of this House who wish to make their views known. In debates such as these it tends to be the aficionados who speak and make very fine contributions to the debate, but there are many others who have clear views on these issues. In our debate in February on the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, noted that we have increasingly refined our views and increasingly a consensus has emerged that this matter is coming to a point where action must be taken. I agree with the noble Lord, but for real ownership of any changes—which of course must be agreed by the whole House—all those Members who wish to make their views known should be able to do so. To be clear, I want to see change, but I also subscribe to the process of evolution, not revolution.
It is clear that one of the recurrent themes since the Leader’s Group established in 2001 by the late Lord Williams of Mostyn is the desire for pre-legislative scrutiny. That group suggested that virtually all Bills should be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, but it was later agreed that while the growth in pre-legislative scrutiny was welcome, the aspiration that it should include virtually all Bills was unrealistic. That is obviously a matter for the new Leader’s Group, not for debate today, but I would suggest that we have not quite got the balance right. Pre-legislative scrutiny is an opportunity to improve draft legislation, to ensure that it better meets the needs for which it was designed, and to engage with experts and members of the public who are interested in the subject in question. There was more and more pre-legislative scrutiny under the previous Government, but the demands of government often meant that not enough time was built into the legislative timetable. We need to do better. All Governments should be in favour of enhanced pre-legislative scrutiny. It is one small but very important way of rebuilding trust in our political system.
In a similar vein, there have been demands over the past years for post-legislative scrutiny. Like many other noble Lords who have spoken on this in the past, I believe that the House is particularly well suited to this scrutiny. We have the expertise, we have the time, and it would be an opportunity to identify good practice in terms of process and content. One suggestion that has been made by my noble friend Lord Puttnam is that the recent Digital Economy Act 2010 should, in due course, be subject to post-legislative scrutiny. I believe that that is an excellent suggestion.
Should pre- and post-legislative scrutiny be undertaken only by Joint Committees of both Houses or is it something that on occasion the Lords could do alone? Again, that is a matter for the new group. However, having noted in the previous debates the demand for a plethora of Joint Committees, I suspect that in practical terms we might have to consider some Lords committees. We certainly have capacity in terms of members with our ever-growing numbers, but I recognise that it would mean extra demands on the Clerks and on financial and spatial resources. At a time of financial constraint, it is not easy to make a case for extra resources, but we are talking about enhancing our democracy.
Pre-legislative scrutiny takes time and, having recently had the privilege of both leading your Lordships’ House and being a Member of the Government, I am acutely aware of the need to take the timing of business into account. Some new procedures would take preparation time but would not require additional time on the Floor of the House; for example, the flagging of clauses when a Bill passes from the Commons to the Lords in order to identify clauses not already debated. I know this is more complex than at first it would seem, but it is the right way forward if possible. Other new procedures could save time in the Chamber, as the noble Lord said, by dealing with Statements so that we are not merely repeating what has been said in the other place.
In the previous debate, several noble Lords raised the issue of cross-cutting areas of public policy which are never properly addressed or scrutinised because the government machinery does not exist. This may well be something that we in the Lords should do through the adaptation of our committee system. I realise that the House has recently agreed the proposals of the Liaison Committee in relation to committees during this Parliament, but I suggest that, following the decisions taken on the basis of the recommendations of the Leader’s Group, the Liaison Committee might re-convene with new criteria.
The Leader’s Group is also a timely initiative because it will enable us to respond to the impact of changes made in the other place as a result of the Wright Committee. The way in which one House considers legislation and wider issues is bound to have an impact on the other. It is important that we work together as an effective Parliament but we should also maintain the differences and distinctions of our House—not for the sake of difference but because the two Houses should complement, not replicate, each other.
There is much more that I could say but now that we have a process with the establishment of the Leader’s Group, I think it more appropriate that I make my views known to that group. I do not envy the group in its task of prioritisation but, undoubtedly, it has an important task before it. This House has made great strides forward over the recent period, with a new code of conduct, a standards commissioner and, I hope shortly, new arrangements for the financial support of Members of your Lordships’ House. The work of the group announced today will add to that progress. I look forward to that work starting and producing proposals for this House to consider.
My Lords, I can say one thing without doubt: the first real improvement in working practice is that today I am privileged to be the first to be called on the Back Benches. I hope that that tradition continues indefinitely.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for convening the debate and for adopting a positive attitude towards the question of working practices in this House. I welcome, too, the fact that he is setting up the Leader’s Group to study these matters. I speak as someone who has been a member of one of the three committees—which has been working under the title of Strengthening Parliament—and it is from that experience that I wish to contribute a few views. However, I do not think it would be right to do so without putting into context my view on the broader picture of the Government’s proposals for reform of the Lords.
I start from the concept stated by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the powers and role of the House of Lords is likely to remain the same. That puts a heavy onus on the Government and the committee under the Deputy Prime Minister to convince us that an elected or partially elected House will lead to improvements—I use the word “improvements”—in the capacity of the House to revise, scrutinise and persuade the other place to think again. At present, I think that the views put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for improvements and modernisation of an appointed House are the right way forward. The present policy of the Government looks like a form of populism in order to appease an electorate who are genuinely dissatisfied with Parliament. The Deputy Prime Minister’s description of this House as “an affront to democracy” illustrates this point. What are most needed are hard-headed, practical, unexciting adjustments to improve the performance of this House on behalf of the public. We in this country tend to be better at the rolling, pragmatic, incremental and more coherent evolution of the way in which we operate. In the past decade or two, we have fallen short of that. Our approach has often been shoddy and incoherent. I go along with the view of Edmund Burke, that we should have a,
“disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve”.
I cannot resist reminding the House of the vicar father and his English son travelling through Nebraska. The son said to his father, “You know, Dad, you can fit the United Kingdom into Nebraska”, to which his father said, “To what end, dear boy?” That is the question that we have to ask on every aspect of reform that we consider. We cannot, of course, afford to be complacent; we cannot afford to be self-satisfied in our procedures at any time and we have a duty to the public. But we should acknowledge that there have been many adjustments, in the past decade for example, to the working practices of this House.
The cross-party groups which have been looking at working practices have produced a wide range of ideas, some of which will be acceptable to the House, some of which will not. They are all worth examining as a way to improve the performance of this House. They range from recommendations to improve the scrutiny of primary legislation to ideas for strengthening the means of challenging the Executive more effectively and improving our internal governance and accountability. Many of these thoughts need looking at seriously by the Leader’s Groups.
Without examining all the proposals, which I have no intention of doing, I shall make one or two reflections on them. First, there is a continuing tendency on the part of successive Governments to produce too much legislation. Often, that legislation is badly thought out. It has become too much of a virility symbol for Ministers that they must produce a Bill. But when you look at the quality of the Bill, you really should question it. One of the proposals to come out of the committees’ work is that Bills should be much more fully justified before they are brought before Parliament for examination.
Secondly, there continues to be—it was the case in my day when I was a Member of the other place—a complete lack of contact and understanding between the two Houses. I hardly ever came to this Chamber in 21 years in the other place. But if we are discussing these reforms, including overall reform, there needs to be a much better mutual understanding of how we work. Therefore, I welcome the fact that the working groups recommended a more bicameral approach to many of the issues that we are tackling. I acknowledge that the coalition Government will follow up with a Joint Committee to look at the overall proposals for reform of the House.
The third factor is to redress the balance between the Executive and the legislature. Here, although our procedures are different, we should seek encouragement and learn from the work of the Wright committee in the other House in the previous Parliament. There are certain ideas there from which we, too, can benefit. We had only to see how refreshing, for example, were the recent cross-party elections to the Treasury Select Committee. The proposals of that committee to have more say on the part of the Back Benches in business management of that House are also relevant to this House. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the usual channels are an essential lubricant to business, but I also think that Peers on the Back Benches need to have more influence on the management of the House.
My fourth point is that public ignorance of the Lords is profound. Here, we need to seek ways in which we can involve the public more effectively in the affairs of the House. Again, in these working groups there is a recommendation that we should produce proposals for public evidence hearings on some kinds of legislation; there will be other ways to pursue this matter.
Fifthly, the time is coming—I am glad that this has been acknowledged—when the Lord Speaker’s powers should be looked at. There are arguments for extending the powers of the Lord Speaker, perhaps in certain, somewhat limited ways. I will come to the governance point which refers to the Lord Speaker in a moment, but here I come to something which I realise is controversial in this Chamber and where a lot of people, who have had far more experience, would not agree with me. However, for my part I find Question Time pretty undignified. Possibly it is because the attendance in the Chamber has got much bigger and it is much more difficult to handle self-regulation in that way. While I am totally in favour of self-regulation, for my part it makes much more sense for the Lord Speaker of the day to have the say, as opposed to a partial part of the House—even though the Government are totally trustworthy—deciding which group should be called upon next. That might help a bit to get rid of the slightly undignified aspect where sometimes the person who shouts the loudest is the one who gets in.
On the question of non-legislative matters, I would ask the House not to underestimate the value of topical debates. I have been very fortunate to have had two topical debates in the past two years, which I think have brought some influence to bear on government decision-making. The proposal in the working groups that topical debates should be part of a regular weekly one-hour procedure, at whatever time of the week is agreed as being the most suitable, should be adopted. We should have a more coherent system for that.
I come to the question of governance and accountability, which is my last point. I do not know whether I share this with very many other noble Peers, but my ignorance of the governance of the House was almost total until I joined the committee chaired by my noble friend Lady Murphy. I say without hesitation that this House is certainly very lucky to have the present incumbents who look after its governance, led by the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, and his team of colleagues. However, we need to be not only a self-regulating House but one with a credible system of self-governance which will command public confidence and meet acceptable standards in today’s age. I, for example, do not feel that I can criticise the Press Complaints Commission as much as I could if I am not quite confident that we have the right self-governing system.
The Institute of Government has produced proposals —I think it was last week—for the governance of the other place: for the commission and the Board of Management to be more open and transparent; for a role for non-executives and for the national audit committee; and for occasional external reviews or financial health checks. It would do us no harm to look at those kinds of things to see whether it would strengthen our own systems of governance. At the same time, there is a case for looking at our lines of accountability. I ask myself what would have happened had there been a police raid on one of my noble friends in this House, as opposed to the other place. Would we have had clear lines of accountability and responsibility for dealing with that? I am not absolutely convinced that we would.
There is a strong case, as we recommend, for the Lord Speaker to provide leadership for the strategic governance of the House and to chair the House Committee with an open election system for that committee and the ability occasionally to co-opt if it needs outsiders to help it in that work. At least we should undertake an independent review of our governance system. I for my part welcome most warmly the leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in setting up the Leader’s Group.
My Lords, it is for me personally a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Luce, in this debate. We have been in partnership together more than once; he was for a long time my parliamentary private secretary and a ministerial colleague. His own career has been so diverse and distinguished that he is in himself one of the best advertisements for this House. He served in the colonial service for some years and resigned from that on a point of principle. He also had the privilege of serving alongside my noble friend Lord Carrington and, for different reasons, resigned from that, too. He then came back to a second career as a Foreign Office Minister and then, when that came to an end, became a Minister for arts. When that came to an end—I think that I have this sequence correctly—he became vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, governor of Gibraltar and Lord Chamberlain. There are not many legislators in many legislatures in the world who can match that kind of career, and we welcome him most warmly. I agree with almost everything that he had to say in his speech.
I have only a very modest point to make in this debate, not addressing a number of the issues already raised but addressing the simple question of whether we will make the best of the resources in this House that can serve us in so many different ways. I set the context with a rather unusual quote from the San Diego Law Review, from tax law professor, Alice Abreu:
“If taxes had existed in the Garden of Eden, the Serpent wouldn't have needed an apple; the promise of a simpler tax system alone would have seduced Eve”.
That could be said again and again. We are always looking for a simpler tax system or a way of delivering such a thing. A lot depends on the perceived scale and nature of the taxes themselves, the objectives and the philosophy. A great deal depends on the mechanism for making, scrutinising and enacting the law, changing monetary objectives into intelligible legislation.
This is clearly an area where Parliament as a whole has a very important part to play. Every professional and business institution has offered some prescriptions as to how we might improve it. Two basic prescriptions have emerged—first, that there should some kind of agency at least semi-detached from government to keep in mind the objective of tax simplification, to prevent Chancellors letting their imagination run away with them or inspectors of taxation achieving the same effect and producing great complexity. That is one need on which there is agreement. Secondly, we should have the right parliamentary institutions for tackling the enactment of legislation. There have been a number of recent commissions and bodies that have made recommendations about those things. My noble friend Lord Forsyth presided not long ago over a Tax Reform Commission, whose report was entitled Tax Matters. I was invited to undertake a much humbler organisation, a working party to study the methods for making tax simpler. We both agreed with the prescription that has generally commended itself to many other people. The Government have now announced that we need something like an office for tax simplification, an independent body to focus on that all the time.
The second conclusion reached by all these bodies is the necessity for a Joint Committee of Parliament on tax legislation. I emphasise the word “joint”. That is almost universally supported by all the organisations outside the Government that have considered this: the CBI wants such a Joint Committee, as do the Chartered Institute of Taxation and the Institute for Financial Studies. The reason for that, I am sad to say, was set out some years ago by Sir Alan Budd in one of the earlier studies as long ago as 2003. He and his colleagues had this to say:
“The truth of the matter is that the House of Commons has neither the time nor the expertise nor, apparently, the inclination to undertake any systematic or effective examination of whatever tax rules the government of the day places before it for its approval. The irony of the Commons’ failure is that, because current constitutional arrangements allow the House of Lords no participatory role in the scrutiny of tax legislation, taxation legislation receives less Parliamentary scrutiny than other legislation. The criticism of Parliament implicit in this statement is not new. Parliament has rarely attracted praise for its role in enacting tax legislation. The longevity of this problem, however, is no reason for the continuing failure to address it”.
As I say, there has been very little dissent and disagreement about the general nature of what needs to be done. A few weeks ago we had a response to that set of specifications from Her Majesty’s Government in the document produced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Tax Policy Making, where the Government propose, among other things, two things. The first is, in order to promote simplicity, to create an independent office for tax simplification, with further details to be announced shortly. I say hurrah to that. The second proposal, in order to provide for greater scrutiny, is for the Government to publish more tax legislation in draft to allow for pre-legislative scrutiny. That is all right. Then, hesitatingly:
“The Government will welcome any consideration by the Treasury Committee”—
that is, the Treasury Committee of the other place—to review how to strengthen the role of Parliament in scrutinising tax legislation. The point that I make today so clearly is that that consideration by the policy committee in the other place must, if it is to be effective, be to the conclusion that all others have reached. We need a Joint Committee of both Houses because thereby we shall be able to mobilise alongside what is, alas, a relatively slender body of people with qualifications in the other place. Professional politicians have increasingly dominated it, and it is a far less well informed place on tax policy than it was 20 or 30 years ago in the days when it was almost fun to join the Finance Bill Standing Committee, with a range of experts doing combat against, for example, the capital transfer tax.
If my noble friend will forgive me, I am just making a point. I may find a slot where I can make way for him.
The point that I am making is that it is important to have both Houses represented in this joint parliamentary body if we are to make the Lords’ talent as available as it should be, and if we are to encourage the Commons’ talent to work together.
I have one last point but I am curious to know what provokes my noble friend.
My Lords, for those of us who are less expert in these matters than my noble and learned friend, will he tell us whether the legislation he is speaking of would have no financial content? I assume that tax legislation always has numbers in it. If that is the case, would it not always be subject to a Speaker’s certificate as being a finance Bill? In that case, how does my noble friend see the other place reacting to his proposals?
I am not quite sure that I follow the nature of my noble friend’s question, to be honest. It must be either so penetrating that I am overwhelmed or so obscure that I am completely innocent.
Let me come to my final point. The anxiety of the other place at seeing us becoming involved in the joint study of this question is that that would in some way encroach on its legitimate and important financial privileges. That is fundamental; indeed, it may be the point about which my noble friend was asking me.
I am delighted that I have inadvertently answered my noble friend’s question as well as asserted my principles.
Great care has been taken to prevent such fear of encroachment. Some years ago, this House established a Finance Bill Sub-Committee of its Economic Affairs Committee. There was anxiety in the other place then that the fact that this House was studying finance at all, even with an attached condition, would risk encroachment. When this House decided to establish that sub-committee, there was an accompanying prohibition. The House decided,
“to prohibit the sub-committee from investigating the incidence or rates of tax and to allow it only to address technical issues of tax administration, clarification or simplification”.
That was designed to address the concern on the part of the other place. The Cunningham committee—the Joint Committee on Conventions of the UK Parliament —concluded:
“The Lords committee should continue to respect the boundary between tax administration and tax policy, to refrain from investigating the incidence or rates of tax and to address only technical issues of tax administration, clarification and simplification. Provided it does so, we believe there is no infringement of Commons financial privilege”.
Since then, our Finance Bill Sub-Committee has gained a good track record of scrutinising separate and important aspects of the past five or six Finance Bills. It has published its reports in time for consideration at Report stage in the Commons. Both in and out of Parliament, the reaction to its participation has been distinctly positive.
The case that I am making, lest it be at all obscure to my noble friend the Leader of the House and, indeed, to the House as a whole, is that here is an opportunity for the House to enlarge its role and to take part in the Joint Committee of Parliament that the Forsyth commission recommended and which everyone else would like. It is another opportunity for us to exploit our ability in an effective way. I hope that this idea will be accepted with good will in the other place as well as here. That ends my, I hope, tolerably clear presentation of what I was trying to say.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for facilitating this debate and very much welcome the tone in which he set out the issues and raised the prospect of real reform.
I am contributing to this discussion conscious that I am still, relatively speaking, a new girl, having joined your Lordships’ House only four years ago. I am also very much aware that greater minds than mine, many of whom are speaking today, were working away on these issues for a considerable period prior to my arrival. Nevertheless, in the hope that I could at least bring something of a fresh perspective, I agreed to join the small working group on procedural reform established by the Labour Peers and chaired most ably by my noble friend Lord Grocott. Our discussions ranged widely but ultimately focused narrowly on some practical recommendations for reform that could complement the incremental changes that have already been made and which could be introduced quickly. I commend the recommendations to your Lordships.
It seems to me that any procedural reforms should meet two key criteria. First, they should enable wider participation in the work of this House to take maximum advantage of the wealth of wisdom and experience that undoubtedly exists here. Secondly, they should help the outside world better to understand our processes so that we become more accountable, more accessible and more transparent.
In that respect, I have to confess to having been mystified and occasionally alienated by some of the more arcane procedures with which I had to come to terms when I first joined this House. Since then I have become quite affectionate towards some of the rituals and ceremony that distinguish our work. I suppose some might say I have gone native. A key objective should still be to deliver proper respect for our history and traditions, but not when they get in the way of effective participation and scrutiny. In this context, I highlight the following recommendations from our report.
First, it is true that Question Time is, in many ways, very popular and it is certainly well attended. However, it is far from inclusive and sometimes downright scary. It has the capacity to hold Ministers to account, yet many of the noble Peers best able to do so would not dream of participating in what sometimes degenerates into an undignified shouting match. I am grateful for the research provided by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, which unearthed that in the previous Session, of the 3,039 supplementary questions asked, almost half were asked by the same 57 Peers. There appears to be no tradition of giving way to those who speak less often and, as a result, questions can be repetitive and predictable. At the same time, as the Leader of the House acknowledged, there is inevitable pressure on the Front-Benchers responsible for order to demonstrate that they are not being partisan—which, frankly, some achieve better than others—while, at the same time, they have their back to half the Chamber.
Part of the solution to this problem requires a change in culture rather than procedure. Perhaps, for example, if we issued a questionnaire to those in the Visitors’ Gallery, asking what they thought of the spectacle, the outcome might shock us into a change of behaviour. In the mean time, I hope noble Lords will take on board the more practical solution in the Grocott report—to take advantage of the Lord Speaker’s undoubted authority by transferring responsibility for order and conduct to that position for a trial period. This has the added advantage that the outside world already believes that this is the Lord Speaker’s role.
Secondly, there is an urgent need to streamline the Committee stages of Bills. As a relative newcomer it has been a struggle for me to distinguish on occasion between the Committee and Report stages, with their endless opportunities for repetitiveness and near identical speeches, whereas the legislative stages in the other place appear much more transparent. This repetition is most marked when both the Committee and Report stages take place in the main Chamber. As our report pointed out, there are physical and deliberative reasons why the Committee stages of a Bill are better suited to debate in Grand Committee. The layout allows better communication and is less partisan, and the slightly more informal style allows Ministers and participants to get to the heart of the issue and work through solutions.
As the Leader of the House recognised, it has previously been recommended that all but the most important government Bills should be dealt with in Grand Committee and I very much endorse this view. I also endorse the view that using rooms other than the Moses Room for Committee stages of a Bill—and even allowing morning sittings—should be considered. Interestingly, one of the facts that came to light as we were debating these issues was that the Commons currently spend up to a third more time scrutinising and revising individual Bills than we do. If we are to justify the added value of a second, revising Chamber, we have to set aside the necessary amount of time to deliver effective scrutiny, use the right facilities and use that time wisely.
Finally, I add my voice to the campaign for the Lords to carry out post-legislative scrutiny. There is currently no authoritative process for reviewing the effectiveness of legislation. Did it achieve what we had intended? Were there any unforeseen consequences? Did those at whom it was aimed really understand what was required of them? Were the resources made available for the legislation to be properly enacted? I could go on, but I am sure noble Lords will have their own list of questions they would like to be probed in a follow-up to legislation being passed. One small example quoted in our discussions is that we always seem to require new bodies which we set up to produce an annual report as a way of holding them to account. What is the cost of those reports? Are they actually produced and, if so, who reads them?
The point is that we are too quick to pile on new layers of legislation without taking stock and learning the lessons from the Bills which have already been passed. I know that some will point the finger at the previous Government as a sinner in this regard, but we were not the only culprits. You have only to look at the forthcoming Bills listed in the Queen’s Speech to realise that nothing much has changed.
Your Lordships' House is ideally placed to carry out a post-legislative function with the aim of improving the quality of legislation in the future. Obviously, this would need to be taken up proportionately; for example, it would not be possible to subject all Acts of Parliament to this process. But a suitable process of scrutiny by a post-legislative committee could provide real learning benefits for both Houses. I hope that it will be given serious consideration.
These are relatively modest but practical examples of the changes that could help to modernise our procedures and, in so doing, make us more relevant and effective. As I said at the outset, we should measure reform against the need to widen the participation of Peers and increase public understanding. I believe that these proposals, as well as those contained in the report of my noble friend Lord Filkin, would achieve this.
From the debate so far, there appears to be a growing consensus for reform. I hope therefore that the outcome of this debate will be more than congratulatory words and that, in summing up, the Minister will be able to set out a precise route map, with timescales, for taking these issues forward.