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Liaison Committee Report

Volume 796: debated on Thursday 28 March 2019

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the Report from the Committee New special inquiry committees 2019-20 (4th Report, HL Paper 309) be agreed to.

My Lords, the ad hoc committees that the House set up last spring have now started to report. In anticipation, last autumn I invited Members of the House to put forward proposals for what we are now calling special inquiry committees.

I am once again very grateful to all the Members of the House who put forward proposals for special inquiry committees in the next Session. The Liaison Committee has had an excellent range of topics to choose from, and the proposals underline the range and breadth of expertise that is in your Lordships’ House. The committee always has a difficult task in choosing which committees to recommend and, with 27 proposals to choose from, this year was no exception. I hope noble Lords will all agree that the committee’s recommendations cover a wide range of subjects that will make excellent use of Members’ talents and contribute to debate and policy-making in a range of topical and cross-cutting areas.

We agreed the following proposals for special inquiry committees: democracy and digital technologies, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve; food, poverty, health and the environment, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott; and the social and economic consequences of the gambling industry, proposed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans.

As the report states, food, poverty, health and the environment all intersect. That inquiry would examine key issues, including how food can be made both sustainable and affordable. The gambling inquiry would be a wide-ranging study of both the social and economic consequences of this industry, bearing in mind that, with the rise of the internet, gambling is much more accessible than was the case 20 or so years ago.

On the proposed inquiry into democracy and digital technologies, the Political Polling and Digital Media Committee, which reported in April 2018, recommended that a further committee be established to scrutinise issues around digital media and politics that it had not had the opportunity to undertake in detail. Establishing this special inquiry is a response to that recommendation, as well as to the growing prominence of debates around democracy and digital technologies.

Since the appointment of the first House of Lords post-legislative scrutiny committee in May 2012, the House has established a strong reputation for this relatively new aspect of its work. Therefore, we agreed to recommend a post-legislative scrutiny committee to consider the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013.

We considered all the proposals we received against our published set of four criteria, namely: making best use of the knowledge and experience of Members of the House; complementing the work of Commons departmental Select Committees; addressing areas of policy that cross departmental boundaries; and, lastly, whether the inquiry proposed could be confined to one Session. The committee took care and time in coming to its conclusions. I hope the House will agree that our recommendations will provide a timely and manageable set of inquiries for the coming year.

I end on a note of gratitude for the work of all our committees. The enthusiasm with which Members from all sides of the House approach this aspect of our work is exemplary. We should all be proud of the work. I beg to move.

My Lords, Members might recall that this time a year ago anxieties were aired in this House, not so much about the subjects chosen, which seemed interesting, but about too much government control over membership and a lack of input from Members of the House over the subjects chosen. Indeed, I believe reform of the method of selection of members and subjects was aired; I think I gave evidence. Could the Senior Deputy Speaker tell us whether any reforms have taken place?

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness’s comments. Indeed, I recall her intervention last year.

I need to place on record once again, on behalf of colleagues, our concern and regret that the decisions taken by the committee did not include an inquiry into national identity cards. This is certainly the third year, perhaps even the fourth, that this committee has refused to entertain the idea of such an inquiry. It has been blocked again by the usual coalition of Liberal Democrats, who historically have opposed the introduction of national identity cards, and Conservative members of the committee. When the coalition was running the country, the Conservatives were forced by the Liberal Democrats to back down and abolish Labour’s programme.

I am also told that members of the committee are advised—indeed, I think it is some members’ view—that it is not necessary for Members to indicate the scale of support in the House for inquiries that they are suggesting. I challenge that; I believe that is quite wrong. I believe it is for Members, when submitting subjects for inquiry, to be able to indicate the scale of support. In the case of national identity cards, support came from right across the political spectrum, from left to right. It came from those with more liberal views on social issues as against those of a more conservative disposition. It came from Brexiteers and remainers. Brexiteers were particularly interested as they see ID cards as important in conditions of restrictions on free movement and management of entitlements, which are at the heart of much of the Brexit debate. Equally, remainers call in aid experience of the benefits of the introduction of these cards in other European states. The stats are very interesting. Of a European population of 742 million across 28 states, only four states have resisted their introduction: Switzerland with 8.5 million, Denmark with 6 million, Liechtenstein with 37,000 and the United Kingdom with 66 million, a total resistance of just over 10% throughout Europe.

Next year, we will try again, but I do not live in hope any more. Persistence simply is not paying, and it is very hard to know how to proceed. Right across this House, people often ask me when we will get this inquiry. This political resistance within the committee—which is now obvious to everybody—requires the reforms suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech.

My Lords, although it is perfectly natural for anyone who submitted an application to the committee—as I did on the issue of genocide—to feel disappointed if it does not succeed, I would like to say a word in support of what my noble friend Lady Deech said about the process itself.

I have very high regard for the Chairman of Committees and the members of the committee. This is no criticism of them. It is a positive suggestion about how we might deal with applications in the future. It would add to the life of the House if we had a hustings. People could argue their particular proposals, if they have made it to the shortlist—there would have to be a sifting process in advance. Why could Members of the House not then have the opportunity to vote on that shortlist? Certainly, there is proper debate and a vote taken with my noble friends on the Cross Benches in deciding what issues we place before the House. That is a very good precedent. This is something which engages the House, which is a merit in itself—that these are subjects we care about and want to see looked at properly by committees. The fair way to do that would be to look at the process itself. Therefore, can the noble Lord say whether it would be possible for the committee to look at ways to engage the House more widely, after the sifting for the shortlist, in choosing the topics that then go forward for inquiry by Select Committee?

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, that although I am a member of the committee I am not a political member at all. When I look at the subjects, politics simply does not come into my choosing. I confess that I did my best for him to enable the subject to get some kind of an airing—in a way that he did not accept—by trying to put it into post-legislative scrutiny. It was very much second best, but I was trying my best in the atmosphere I was party to. Politics did not come into it. If you look at the successful candidates, they were of very high merit. I am afraid that the problem is that it is always a competition. There may be other ways of handling that competition but, in the end, no subject has priority over the others: they compete according to the rules set out by the Senior Deputy Speaker.

My Lords, it may not have escaped the notice of some Members of this House that I can be awkward from time to time. I am a member of the Liaison Committee and I ask some awkward questions sometimes, as I am sure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, can confirm. However, I think that the Senior Deputy Speaker has conducted this whole exercise in an impeccable way, has always been willing to look at changes, and I am sure will be willing to consider the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I certainly want to look at it. We changed the system this year to allow wider consideration and more input from Members. The staff carried out a very detailed scoping exercise in a very professional and fair way to make reports to us.

My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours knows that I, personally, support his proposal. However, the committee had 27 different proposals and they were all very good, including that from the noble Lord, Lord Alton. My noble friend Lord Williams also put forward a good proposal, which I supported. At the end of the day, we had to come down on three on them and it was a very difficult decision. If my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours puts his proposal forward again next year, I will again support it. But I hope that he and others will understand that this is not an easy exercise and accept a view from a member of the awkward squad: that a member of the establishment, namely the Senior Deputy Speaker, did a very difficult job in an exemplary manner on this occasion.

My Lords, it has been my instinct over 40 years in both Houses that whenever the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, rises to his feet I stand up and disagree with him. However, I am also a member of the Liaison Committee and I agree with every word that he has said, which is so surprising that I find myself on my feet again. I emphasise to the House, and particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, that—largely thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes—his case was carefully, extensively and thoroughly considered in committee. It had to be considered against the quality of all the other submissions that the committee had. I have heard nobody criticise the quality of the submissions that have been chosen and recommended in the report and, on that basis, I hope that the House will be content to support the Senior Deputy Speaker on this Motion.

My Lords, it is almost 55 years since I was first elected to work in this building, and one of the biggest changes over those years has been the rise of the Select Committees. I did the original negotiations through the usual channels on the setting up of the departmental Select Committees in another place, way back in 1979-80. They have become a much more important part of the work which Members do in both Houses. I suggest to the Senior Deputy Speaker that his committee might look at whether having just three of these sessional committees is enough. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, talking about identity cards, I cannot see why we could not have an extra committee or even more than that. I cannot help feeling that three is not enough. While I have never been on the committee, I sometimes wonder whether the staff are not too much of an influence in the decisions of these committees.

I also point out that the European Union committees have an uncertain future. How long they will last we do not know, but there are a large number of noble Lords on the European Union Committee and its sub-committees. I hope that if those European committees come to be fewer and fewer, if at all, then something will be done to replace the work which they do; obviously, it would not be to do with the European Union but in other ways. I hope that the Liaison Committee will look at the prospect of expanding the work of Select Committees, as we have in the situation now and as it would be if the European Union committees came towards the end of their lives.

My Lords, perhaps I may support what the noble Lord has just said and go a little further. Given that these committees are perhaps your Lordships’ House’s most valuable contribution to life in modern Britain, it is disappointing to see that we can afford to have only three of them. Following what the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, has just said, dare we hope that if Brexit ever happens we will no longer need seven EU committees? As noble Lords know, I regard them as largely a waste of time anyway, because Brussels has never listened to anything that they have put forward.

My Lords, before everyone gets carried away about ID cards, perhaps we should remember why we burnt them a few years after the Second World War.

My Lords, I, too, am a member of the Liaison Committee and want to echo what other noble Lords have said in tribute to the work of the members of staff who support the committee. They do so in an extraordinarily professional way. The scoping reports that they produce on the various suggestions that have been made are of an exemplarily objective character. I get no sense of any attempt to lead the committee. If one gets any sense from reading the briefing papers in advance of the committee that their reports tend in a particular direction, I can only say that it is not uncommon to be disabused of any initial impressions one might have gathered from reading the papers as soon as one turns up to the committee. There is very lively debate on the proposals made and the supporting reports produced by the members of staff, which often leads to a change of view. We should not worry on any account that the staff have any undue influence over the conclusions that the committee reaches.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today. If any Member is exercised by this, it is me, because I am always conscious that from however many submissions there are—be it 27, 35 or whatever—I can select only three, so I leave the vast majority of people disappointed as a result.

The points made have been very constructive. I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others that politics did not come into this in any remote way—I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, on that. Indeed, at the end of it, Members may recall that I specifically asked whether everyone had been content with the process, and everyone agreed that they were. The staff do a fantastic job of engaging on this and the members take it very seriously. We are unanimous in our approach.

Reform is important—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, made that point. I am exercised by that as well. Other members of the committee will be able to tell you of my desire to increase Member engagement. At the moment, we are undertaking a review of committees. It has been extensive to date, but I am happy for it to be more so. I would like there to be not just more Member engagement but more Member submissions. We could achieve that with the review of committees. It is the first review for 25 years. Therefore, we have an obligation not only to understand the environment we are in but to ensure that the reputation of the House of Lords is enhanced. There is no better way of doing that than through the work of our committees. We are at one on that. If the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, or any noble Lord wishes to engage with me on that point, I am happy to do so at any time; my door is open.

Does the noble Lord the Deputy Speaker really believe that 11 people, some of whom are taking political positions—that is certainly the case with the Liberal Democrats and the government representatives on the committee, which I have always objected to—should take decisions on their own which command so much of the resource of this place? Why does the committee resist seeing lists of people in support of particular recommendations when it knows that those lists reflect views right across the House? Those views will surely influence decisions taken by the committee on the subjects that they pick.

The noble Lord and I are at variance on this. He is, in fact, at variance with every other member of the committee too. I will go over the noble Lord’s case because it is an important aspect. The committee and I were very mindful of the proposal for national identity cards and we were careful in our consideration of it. As the noble Lord knows, his proposal did not make it on to the shortlist, but it was considered for post-legislative scrutiny as part of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. I know that when that was conveyed to the noble Lord he was almost immediately not content with it and expressed his lack of support for it in subsequent discussions with officials.

The scoping note was prepared for the committee and therefore focused principally on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. As an alternative, the noble Lord proposed post-legislative scrutiny of the Identity Cards Act 2006, which is no longer in force. The committee considered that alternative proposal and agreed not to recommend it, on the basis that the Act itself was no longer on the statute book and that, in this instance, scrutiny would be further hampered by the fact that some records had been destroyed shortly after the repeal of the Act.

The Identity Documents Act 2010 introduced a range of measures which provided for the repeal of the Identity Cards Act 2006, the cancellation of all existing ID cards and prohibition of issuing any further ones on or after the date on which the Act was passed, and the destruction of information contained within the national identity register within two months from the date on which the Act was passed. So a lot of that information was no longer available. The Act was repealed and the committee said it was not worth pursuing the matter. When I conveyed that decision to the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, asked me whether, in these circumstances, we would consider the identity card proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. We had 27 submissions and eliminated all but eight. However, the entire committee and I accepted the request from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. So, rather than a short leet of eight, we had a short leet of nine. The submission from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, went to the final hurdle as one of the nine, but it failed at that point because the majority of the committee was not in favour of that inquiry.

I agree that we need to reform. The review of committees is there; I am happy to take things forward. With the will of the House, we can change this; we can have more submissions. That is for the longer term; I appreciate the constructive comments that have been made today and am willing to listen to more Members’ comments so that we have greater engagement.

May I press the noble Lord on the point I put to him? If Brexit ever happens we really will not go on needing seven EU committees: much resource is available there. Will he address the fact that Brussels has never paid the slightest attention to any of our suggestions, because the EU is designed precisely to ignore the views of national Parliaments? Is there not a resource waiting to be used if we ever get Brexit?

I have to say that all my problems are concerned with this House and my vision does not extend to Brussels. With that, I beg to move.

Motion agreed.