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Palace of Westminster Committee

Volume 764: debated on Thursday 9 July 2015

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That it is expedient that a joint committee of Lords and Commons be appointed to consider and report on the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster in the light of the Independent Options Appraisal commissioned by the House Committee and the House of Commons Commission.

My Lords, I think the House would feel that it is terribly important that there should be equality of representation on this committee between both Houses. That is true not only in terms of the number of people who are involved on both sides but in the offices that some of them will represent. I have heard it said that the Chairman of Committees will not be represented in the Lords representation on this Joint Committee. As I understand it, he performs in this House functions similar to those performed by an official in the other place who will be on the committee. In those circumstances, there seems to be a disparity between the representation of the two Houses. If that is so, will the Leader of the House undertake to make sure that something is done about it?

My Lords, this is a matter of major importance and of potentially huge public expenditure. As far as I can recall, we have not had the opportunity of debating it in this House yet. I went to a presentation in Portcullis House, as did some other Members, organised by the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Clerk of the House of Commons. I must say that I found it totally inadequate: there were questions that could not be answered and the presentation was not clear. We need more information about exactly what options are being proposed.

I ask three things from the Leader of the House. First, to repeat the point made by my noble friend, representation should be equal between this House and the other place. A decision was made about the education centre, which has major implications for us, but we were not able to play any part in it—it was made by the House of Commons and forced upon us, yet the centre is effectively just outside our back door and will have a huge effect on us. Can we have an assurance that we will have equal representation on the committee?

Secondly, can we get an assurance that before any decision is taken that will affect expenditure and the workings of this House there will be a full debate in this House, and that no decision will be made without such a debate? Thirdly, I ask the noble Baroness to make it clear that the Joint Committee will consider all the options for dealing with this matter, not just those that have been put forward so far as a preferred option or preferred options. All of them should be looked at properly and thoroughly by the committee. This is a matter of great importance, and I find it very strange that it was almost put through on the nod.

To follow on from my noble friend’s point, on a related matter, he is quite right that this is an issue that affects both Houses of Parliament but there are many other issues, one of which is highly relevant, pertinent and newsworthy at the moment: English votes on English laws. It has been suggested that the rules relating to that could be made in the Commons without any proper joint consultation with Members of this House. There should be at least a Joint Committee of some sort to look at the implications for both Chambers of changes of this magnitude.

I do not use the word “disgrace” lightly, but it is a disgrace that we are making fundamental constitutional changes by an order in the Commons without any reference to us whatever. Changing the legislative process, in which we are intimately involved, unilaterally in one House without any consultation, let alone agreement, between the two Houses is unacceptable. I put it to the noble Baroness respectfully that she, as Leader of the House, has a duty to those of us here, particularly the Scots, not to allow our rights to be in any way diminished by any changes in the constitutional arrangements—at least, not without both Houses being fully involved.

My Lords, returning to the subject of the debate, I urge my noble friend the Leader to carefully consider the need for full debate in your Lordships’ House before the committee does too much work.

My Lords, is the logic of what is being said not so much whether or not this or that decision is the correct one but that this needs to be a two-tier consultation exercise? The noble Baroness the Leader may care to say a bit more about the process of selecting who goes on to the Joint Committee, as has been said, but there are also some leading questions about the 40-year impact and so on that surely need to be brought back to the House for people to be able to comment on, when they have been considered more systematically by the Joint Committee, before final decisions are taken. It should not just be a question of saying yes or no to a report from a Joint Committee.

I am grateful to all noble Lords for the points that have been made in this short debate. I shall address the questions that have been put. First, on the membership of the committee, the Motion today sets the wheels in motion for a committee to be established. Membership of the committee is not yet finalised. I take on board the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, about the quality of representation from this House and indeed its equality. We will put together a strong team to represent the interests of this House. Clearly, once I have had confirmation from the Commons of which people it intends to field on the committee, that will be reflected on before we finalise the membership of the committee as regards its representation from here.

On the way in which we proceed, there will certainly be equality in numbers on that committee, which will be a Joint Committee of both Houses. The intention is that the Joint Committee will be co-chaired by myself and the Leader of the House of Commons, primarily so that we ensure—as I said when this matter was raised here a few months ago—that this House is in no way considered in any way subordinate when we discuss matters of this kind. I very much see it as my responsibility as Leader of this House to ensure that the situation that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, referred to with regard to the education centre is not repeated.

Once the committee is established, clearly we will want to interrogate very thoroughly the report that was produced by the independent consultants and published a couple of weeks ago. Ultimately, it will be for both Houses of Parliament to take the decision on the way forward on restoration and renewal, and I will certainly want to consider carefully the process between the committee being set up and its work starting, to the point at which we make a decision by way of a full debate and Division in each House. It is of course important that I and all others who sit on that committee from this House can properly understand and are able to take into account the views of Members as we carry out our work. Therefore I hope that I can give noble Lords the reassurance they are looking for in responding to those points.

On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on English votes for English laws, I do not intend to divert from the topic of this Motion, but I refer him to the Statement I repeated in your Lordships’ House last Thursday, and to the points I made in response to the questions in that debate. The key point was that with regard to any decisions made in the House of Commons to change their procedures, whatever happens down there will not affect the authority or the processes in this House. However, the noble Lord, Lord Butler, has secured a Question for Short Debate next Thursday, and no doubt we will be able to discuss this matter further at that time.

My Lords, on a point of clarity with regard to the first issue of the Joint Committee of the Lords and Commons, my understanding, from all the conversations I have had with the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, is that there will be completely equal representation between both Houses. I think that she has heard the mood of the House—that is what this House expects. I think she said that that was likely, but she did not give the guarantee that the House is seeking. Can I therefore press her, because that is my understanding of the present situation anyway, to give a guarantee that there will be equal representation between both Houses?

On the noble Baroness’s second point, in which she responded to my noble friend Lord Grocott, as much as we welcome the QSD in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, next week on 16 July, that does not replace the need for a proper debate on the proposals for English votes for English laws, which impact on the work of your Lordships’ House. It is all very well for the noble Baroness to say, “We are not affected by it”, but we are. It affects how legislation is conducted in Parliament, and we are part of that process. I know that when she responded to the debate on the Statement the Government made last week she rejected the notion, but she will have heard that noble Lords across the House are very concerned at the lack of debate in this House on that issue, and I urge her to reconsider. It is the view of the Official Opposition and, I think, of other noble Lords around this House, that there should be a full debate, perhaps on a Motion that can be divided on as well. To deny this House the opportunity to debate this in government time is totally unacceptable.

Further to the point made by the Leader of the Opposition, I understand that in another place the Government have decided not to go ahead with the changes to Standing Orders next week but to have a two-day debate on them. Does that not strengthen the case for there also being a full debate in this House, in addition to the Question for Short Debate?

Coming back to the topic of this Motion, I make it clear to the noble Baroness and to the House that it has been my view that the membership of the restoration and renewal Joint Committee should be equal in numbers and in approach in terms of this House and the other place. I am just waiting for the House of Commons to confirm its approach before we finalise our own because I am trying to achieve exactly that aim—making sure that there is a proper balance in the way that the Joint Committee is formed. I hope that that gives the noble Baroness and the House the assurance that they are looking for. Therefore, we will be equally represented in number, and I might even suggest to your Lordships that the team of members from this House will be more powerful and more authoritative, because, quite frankly, that is what I think we are.

I note what the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said about the decision in the House of Commons regarding English votes for English laws, but I say to him, as I say to the noble Baroness and to the House as a whole, that the House of Commons is debating changes to its Standing Orders.

I note that a noble Lord said from a sedentary position that that will affect us. However, the processes and procedures of our House will not be affected by any changes to the Standing Orders in the other place.

Motion agreed.