Motion to Refer to Second Reading Committee
My Lords, I have to admit that this is a trifle contrived, because it relates to a future Bill, rather than the Bill in question. However, noble Lords will be aware that it has been announced that the Joint Committee report on Lords Reform will be published on 23 April. Will the Leader of the House join me in deploring the leaks, of which there have already been two in the past three days? I will be writing to the noble Lord the Leader of the House today to request that a Statement be made on the Joint Committee report on 23 April, and to suggest that we have a debate on the joint report, preferably before Prorogation.
My Lords, contrived or not, I know that this is an issue of great interest to the House. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, who is chairman of the Joint Committee of both Houses, is in his place today. Whether or not there have been leaks—inspired or not—I deplore all leaks, by the Government or anyone else. However, it is a matter for the chairman and the committee itself; it is not a matter for me. I do not know whether it is true—I am sure that it is—that, as the noble Baroness said, it will be published on 23 April. The original date for the committee to finish its work was yesterday and I hope it might be able to publish a little sooner than 23 April, but maybe that will be subject to confirmation. I look forward to receiving a letter from the noble Baroness. I must say—I am speaking without any particular brief on this—it is hard to see how we can have a government Statement on the same day as the publication of a great report that has been nine months in gestation and on which 26 Members of Parliament and of this House, including Cross-Benchers and a bishop, sat, but I will see what can be done over the next couple of weeks.
The original date of publication was to be 16 April. That is what the committee accepted, and that was my view. I took the view very strongly that the report should not be published unless and until this House was sitting. It would be quite wrong to publish the report when the House of Commons was sitting and the House of Lords was not. The Government then chose to change the date from 16 April, so that we have an extra week’s holiday and come back on 23 April. In those circumstances, the committee decided, and I totally agreed with it, that the publication date should be 23 April not 16 April.
My Lords, I appreciate that this is not a matter for the Leader of the House directly, but the report on the BBC this morning of the leak suggesting that 12 bishops will be retained also contained the information that the Government would be content to accept that. That suggests that people in the Government are talking about the report, which would be very damaging because it gives the impression that the Government and the committee are working hand-in-hand when, of course, the committee is completely independent. If my noble friend is saying that we cannot have a Statement because the Government could not respond, surely it is inappropriate for people to be briefing the BBC in these terms.
My Lords, nobody could doubt the integrity of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, but it would reassure the House if he were able to indicate that no copies of this report will be distributed to anyone before the embargo date and that no member of the committee will be in possession of the report. As a former chairman of a Select Committee, I know that that is not normal practice, and I hope it will be the case here. I think everybody in this House will applaud the decision made by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, about 23 April and will endorse the Leader of the Opposition’s request that this report be debated as soon as is reasonably possible, ideally before Prorogation.
I press a question that I should have thought was the most reasonable and fair question that could ever be put to a Leader who is answerable to the whole House and not just for the Government. The debate must surely take place before the Queen’s Speech. I cannot understand why the Deputy Leader seems to think it is quite out of order. This House of Lords, faced with a Bill and a report on a Bill that is essentially about the abolition of this institution, is unable even to discuss it before it is finalised. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, has stronger views on this than the Leader. Perhaps he can answer for himself rather than simply parroting Mr Clegg’s Bill to the House. I cannot think of any other institution—a university, a factory or a school—where, if it were being closed, the people who work day in, day out in that organisation would be told by the management, “Sorry folks, you can’t discuss it”.
My Lords, I think that a number of the matters that were raised are not matters for me but for the committee. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, has explained what he is doing and has answered my noble friend Lord Cormack. As for my noble friend Lord Forsyth, I heard the same BBC report, but I assumed that the BBC had read the White Paper and the draft Bill in which it is suggested as one of the options that there should be 12 bishops. They were published last July, so the BBC has taken a bit of time to catch up. As far as I am aware, there is no collusion between the Government, civil servants and the committee, which is why I dare say that I was surprised that the date of publication would not be until 23 April.
When the report is published, I hope that we will be given some time to read it. I think the committee would be surprised. On past occasions the Government have been accused of moving with haste by deciding to have a debate within days and not giving the House an opportunity to read a report. I think we should read the report.
A final point before the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, leaps to her feet, which I can see she is keen to do, and I say this as a government Minister: I do not think there is any doubt in the Government or anywhere else about what the views of this House are on a potential Bill on reform of this House. I do not think there is any doubt here or in another place. It is utterly clear to me and, indeed, to my noble friend Lord McNally and, for the avoidance of doubt, there is not a cigarette paper of difference between me and my noble friend the Deputy Leader of the House of Lords.
My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the House misunderstood what was said on the BBC this morning. It was said that the Joint Committee of both Houses is recommending and that the Government accept the recommendation. Given the huge amount of work that the Joint Committee has done, surely it would be logical for the Leader of the House to agree that there should be time to consider the recommendations before the publication of a Bill, which may be amended because of the recommendations, is announced in the Queen’s Speech. That leads inexorably to a view that the report ought to be debated widely prior to Prorogation.
My Lords, if the report is to be published on 23 April and the Leader of the House tells us that we should have time to read and consider it, can we be assured that the House will meet during the week beginning 30 April for four days, or does the Leader of the House have something else in mind for that week?
My Lords, I cannot think what that would be. The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, went back to the BBC report. Let me say this for the record: the Government have not seen the report. No member of the Government has seen it, and no civil servant has seen it. The Government have no view as to the recommendations on the bishops or anybody else, other than those that were listed in the draft Bill or the White Paper. There is no collusion between the Joint Committee of both Houses and the Government in any shape or form. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, can nod in agreement, and I am sure he will. When the report is published, it will be as much of a surprise to me as to my colleagues in government. Apart from anything else, I am very much looking forward to it.
I assure the House that over the next few months there will be plenty of opportunities to debate and discuss the future of this House at considerable length in many different fora. All those matters will be taken seriously. I did not hear my noble friend Lord Forsyth, but I am sure it was a quip that I would not necessarily have been able to respond to very quickly. I can assure noble Lords that there will be a debate before the Bill is published. I will, of course, work with the usual channels on when that will be.
I shall finish with this point. I do not wish to pre-empt the Queen’s Speech, but it has been known for some time that the Government intend to legislate in this area. The Joint Committee may well say, “Under no circumstances should you do this”. It may say, “You should do this, but here are some things you may wish to consider”. I have no idea. The Government will wish to take that into account, and will do so after the publication of the report.
My Lords, is not the question of how many sitting days we have before Prorogation rather relevant to this? Presumably the noble Lord knows on how many days the House will sit in the week beginning 30 April. Am I right that we do not know, or does everybody know?
My Lords, it really does depend on the progress of business on the date of Prorogation. We will be taking a view on that shortly. On the question of when the House will sit, by not sitting in the week of 16 April we are saving the taxpayer £500,000. That is quite a considerable amount of money. As I have said, there will be plenty of opportunities to debate the committee report and the whole subject of Lords reform on many occasions in the months ahead.