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Liaison Committee

Volume 790: debated on Thursday 29 March 2018

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the Report from the Select Committee New ad hoc Committees in 2018–19 (2nd Report, HL Paper 103) be agreed to.

My Lords, I apologise for nearly spilling the water but I did not utter one word.

It is universally acknowledged that committee activity in the House of Lords is one of its greatest strengths. In fact, we are renowned for our scrutiny work. The expansion of this activity in the 2010 to 2015 Parliament of ad hoc committees from one to three, and one post-legislative committee, has been rightly popular. Recently there has been a huge increase in the level of activity regarding the EU referendum result. This element was recognised only on Monday in the Scottish Parliament when I attended, along with other noble Lords, the meeting of the Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit—which, incidentally, was established by the House of Lords.

The committees have never been more important to inform the national debate. However, much more could be done to improve the present situation. That is why the Liaison Committee initiated the first full-scale review of committees for 25 years, covering both investigative and scrutiny committee activity. I have been tasked by the Liaison Committee to take this forward. To date I have spoken to dozens of Members individually on that, I have received a range of individual submissions on the report—we have extended the date for final submissions to Friday, 20 April—and shortly I will be making a second visit to the political groups.

I mention this important development as a background to the Motion today. We received 35 submissions on the ad hoc committees and three topics were chosen, along with one post-legislative topic. As we all know, it is never possible to please every Member of your Lordships’ House, even some of the time, but I hope your Lordships will agree that the committee’s recommendations cover a wide range of subjects, which will make excellent use of Members’ talents and contribute to the debate and policy-making in a range of topical and cross-cutting areas.

We agreed the following proposals for ad hoc committees: first, intergenerational fairness and provision; secondly, regenerating seaside towns and communities; and, thirdly, the rural economy. We also agreed to recommend an ad hoc post-legislative scrutiny committee to consider the Bribery Act 2010.

We considered these proposals against a published set of criteria, considering what would, first, make best use of the knowledge and experience of Members of the House; secondly, complement the work of Commons departmental Select Committees; thirdly, address the areas of policy that cross departmental boundaries; and fourthly, whether the inquiry proposed should be confined to one Session. The Liaison Committee took care and time in coming to its conclusions and I hope the House will agree that our recommendations will provide a timely and manageable set of inquiries for the coming year.

I end as I began: on a note of thanks. Having seen this matter through, I am in no doubt whatever of the seriousness with which noble Lords have approached their role in your Lordships’ House and the range and depth of their expertise. I am most grateful to all concerned. I beg to move.

My Lords, the report was most unsatisfactory. It has been much criticised across the House over the past few days, since it was published. It is not in the spirit of Jellicoe, who initiated this whole arrangement. To illustrate my point, I want to show what happened in the case of the application I made for an ID card inquiry. My application was widely supported across the House by Members on all Benches, apart from the Liberal Democrats. It was supported by seven former Cabinet Ministers, including a former Attorney-General, a former chief constable of the Metropolitan police, two former Ministers of State, including a former Security Minister, a former chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and a leading Member at the heart of the Brexit debate. It met all the criteria in the sense that it would make the best use of Members. Many more Members wanted to submit their names in support and I said no because numbers do not matter to the committee; it will not take a decision on the basis of numbers, but on the basis of the experience of Members in the House available to carry out an inquiry. All the Members I referred to had an interest in this inquiry.

I want to set out the areas the inquiry would have dealt with: the use of entitlement cards in accessing public services, combating fraud, which is why a policeman was asked to sign up, and providing identity on request, which is why I sought the support of a human rights specialist; the benefit of the cards, post Brexit, which I why I asked a specialist in Brexit matters—if I may use the term—to sign up; the experience of European states in their use, which is why I asked a former Security Minister to sign up; the use of biometrics; and the benefits to the taxpayer arising from their use, which is why I sought the support of seven former Cabinet Ministers.

So why was it blocked? It was blocked by a coalition of three former Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers, all of whom had formed part of the coalition Government that had earlier reversed the Labour Government’s ID card programme and all of whom now serve on the Liaison Committee. We never had a chance. The committee was loaded with people who were opposed to the very idea of what we were after and had a record of opposing the matter.

It gets worse. Who led the pack? I understand that the meeting was quite ugly. It was not a full committee member who led the pack. In fact, if noble Lords look at the report and the committee member list, they will find that that person was not even on the committee. It was a surrogate member—the Chief Whip—who blocked the ID card inquiry and then pushed for non-controversial subjects, which were trouble-free for the Government. I understand that his interventions during the debate were described by some as “aggressive”. If anyone wants to understand what I mean by “aggressive”, they need do no more than consider what happened last week in the debate on the passport fee regulations, recorded in col. 421 of Hansard, when the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, the Chief Whip, demanded that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean sit down, in an intervention unprecedented in this House. Indeed, even in the Commons I never saw a Chief Whip insist that a Member sit down in the way that happened during the course of that debate. Furthermore, a very important inquiry on an application made by the noble Lord, Lord Horam, on housing and planning—an issue where we are in crisis in the United Kingdom—was blocked.

The issue for me is: should Ministers sit on Select Committees? I compare the position to that of other Select Committees in this House. They pick their own subjects. There are no Whips on Select Committees in this House, apart from the domestic committees, which is perfectly acceptable. There are two committees in the Commons that we should consider: the Liaison Committee, which is manned by the chairmen of all the other committees, with a slightly different remit, again with no Whips; and the Business Committee, which deals with Back-Bench applications for debate. It has a critical role in the operation of the House of Commons. Again, there are no Whips on it. As an eminent Member of the House said to me the other day, when you put the Chief Whip on a committee, the Chief Whip is the committee. There is no committee, just the Chief Whip. That is the way I see it on the basis of my experience.

The House might wish to consider the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, in his report to the House in 1992. It was a very interesting debate, which I read just last night. He said on the powers of the Whips, when he was Lord Privy Seal and chair of the first Liaison Committee:

“I should like to state that I am not trying to bludgeon anything through your Lordships’ House. My whole political life has been one of gentle persuasion. Bludgeoning is totally alien to my nature”.—[Official Report, 7/12/1992; col. 31.]

The Government Chief Whip should have these very wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, in mind when these matters are dealt with by the Liaison Committee and when I make my next application—my fourth—on ID cards next year.

My Lords, the noble Lord opposite has expressed the dissatisfaction felt by many Members who put in proposals—and maybe others, too—at the result of this committee. The chosen subjects seem anodyne, to put it mildly—motherhood and apple pie. We need to know why they are chosen. I have an interest; I hope it will not be categorised as sour grapes, although I suppose in part it is. Reading the list, one wonders exactly why some other proposals with real meat and real substance to them, which could produce recommendations that would make a real difference in the short term to the lives of people and which might be reflected in legislation, were not chosen, yet others that amount to no more than a talking shop or debating issue came forward. Is there some feeling that the House is already overburdened with Brexit and should not have to take on anything more controversial? I would not have thought so.

In brief, we need transparency. What is the strategy? Why are certain subjects chosen according to that strategy? It needs to be explained. We need more transparency and wider House buy-in. After all, Members of this House will have to volunteer to sit on those committees. A suggestion made to me was that if the Liaison Committee, as it did, whittled the number of proposals down to 10, the whole House should be able to vote on them. Certainly, the situation as it stands has not produced a very satisfactory result. I am pleased to know that there is a wider review of all the committees of this House, which I hope will come up with a more popular and acceptable way of choosing these committees.

My Lords, I supported the noble Lord in his application, both this year and last, for a committee to look at the issue of—I never like the phrase “identity cards”—entitlement cards or something that would use the new technology. We have just had Liberal Question Time for the past half hour, where many of these issues came up, so it is important.

The reason I get up to speak is to hope that perhaps the noble Lord’s application next year will be successful but also to defend against his somewhat robust attack on my noble friend the Chief Whip. It is true that the Chief Whip told me to sit down last Thursday, but in his defence he has apologised to me and also I had not appreciated that at noon there was a memorial service for the policeman who gave his life for our security. I am sure that what was in the Chief Whip’s mind was that the business was going to run out of control and that he would not be able to attend. So it was not an attempt to muzzle me: the Chief Whip has never attempted to muzzle me, as Members of this House must be fully aware.

I hope that the arguments in principle for discussing this matter will be taken on board and there will be an opportunity for us to take it forward. It seems to me that having some form of identification, for access to services such as the health service or to get into the country or to show when you have left the country, will be an important component of the post-Brexit world, which I look forward to with great enthusiasm.

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that being mugged by a Chief Whip is a badge of honour, not something to resile from. First, in what will be a very brief intervention, I pay tribute to the Senior Deputy Speaker, the noble Lord, Lord McFall, who is doing a first-class job in modernising and seeking to reform the system. My remarks are in no way critical, therefore, of his work.

We saw from the Questions this morning, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has just indicated, a real need to be able to prepare for future debates and legislation in a timely manner. The issue of verification of identity will be vital in any new immigration system, not least given what the Minister said in answer to the final Question, that there will be an end to free movement of labour. As a consequence, all kinds of issues will arise in respect of verification of identity and authentication of those measures or pieces of paper that are required to verify that, as underlined by the intervention on the final Question—I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, of the Liberal Democrats who rightly said that there would be both red tape and problems for business. If there has ever been a moment when this issue should have been investigated thoroughly by a committee of this House, it should have been now. As it cannot be now, I hope very much that it will coincide with the legislation that the Government are going to bring forward next year in relation to the changes to immigration policy required by and arising from the decision to remove Britain from the European Union.

My Lords, when I put my feet on the bedroom floor this morning, I felt that it was going to be a topsy-turvy day and so it has proved so far. I am reminded of my primary school teacher when she did the 12 times table, from one to 12, and then went on to division. She would say, “McFall, 35 into three?” and I would say, “Won’t go”. What do you do? You bring down the nothings: 35 into 30 will not go and that is what we face today, with 35 submissions from which to pick three at the end of the day. Am I sympathetic to the comments that have been made this morning? Absolutely, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said, I see my role as serving Members’ interests in this matter. The points made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours—he also made them last year—are very relevant. Indeed, they were articulated in the EU debates by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, and by the noble Lord, Lord Reid, in today’s Questions. They resonate with noble Lords, but sadly they were not chosen.

The noble Lord said that the meeting was ugly and that the Chief Whip was in the committee. As the chairman of the committee, I do not recognise that as having been an issue. All members of the Liaison Committee participated—if you speak to them, I think you will get the same response as you have had from me. Substitutes for all the usual channels are allowed in the committee, and there were substitutes there that day. But, in terms of transparency and rigour, I would like to reassure Members that all the proposals are published in the report before the House; the criteria used to decide what proposals to recommend have been published throughout the process, including when inviting submissions from Members; and decision documents from each Liaison Committee meeting are published on the website as soon as practical following the meeting. Those Members whose proposals were not selected for further scoping—that selection took 35 proposals down to 10—were informed shortly after the first meeting of the Liaison Committee on this subject.

In terms of rigour, the committee initially considered the full list of proposals, and from these selected eight themes and two post-legislative scrutiny options to be scoped further by committee staff. I pay tribute to the work of the committee staff, because there is a difference between policy and process here, and the committee staff went to speak to Members to see if they could modify their proposals so they could be included in the scoping work. Following that extensive work, the committee met again to consider which proposals ought to be recommended to the House. The results of that discussion are detailed in the report before the House.

The noble Lord made a point about the review of committees. That is an extremely important issue. I have already been to the meeting of the usual channels and will be going back again. I am open to individual Members or a collective coming to talk to me about this, because this is the first review for 25 years and we have to get it right for the long term.

When the committee considers these issues in future, would it not be possible for it also to write a report on why it turned down particular applications—I understand this was the practice before? I noticed that there is no reference in this report to the applications that were turned down. In addition, why can we not have a division list in the report, so that information about who voted which way is openly available, without me having to use intelligence to find out?

My answer to those comments is in line with what I mentioned yesterday to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, in our telephone call on this issue. I said to her—I think she can reinforce this—that I take these proposals seriously and, therefore, that I will take some of these issues back to the Liaison Committee and ask, “Can we be more inclusive? Can we ensure that when we get the list, we whittle it down and engage in the 10 subjects we have chosen, as we may find there is a body of support in the House for that approach?”. There is an opportunity to do things differently, and I am happy to discuss that with the Liaison Committee.

The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has already made a submission to the review and I have met with him. In our discussions, the core issue was Member engagement. I want Members to know that that is one of my primary considerations as Liaison Committee chairman.

Lastly, I have been a Member of the House of Lords and the House of Commons alongside the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for a long time, and this is not the first time a Chief Whip has asked him to sit down.

Does the noble Lord not agree that it is very anomalous and dubious that the Government should have a share in deciding what subjects Parliament is allowed to investigate through its Select Committee mechanism? I have the greatest personal admiration for the Chief Whip, but it is quite wrong in principle that a representative of the Government, let alone a Chief Whip, should be in that position.

When I moved this last year, that issue was not brought up about having representatives of the usual channels, so I suggest that the noble Lord submits points to me and then we can discuss these issues. I beg to move.

Motion agreed.