Wednesday 15 December 2010

Parliamentary Accountability

Asked by Baroness Royall of Blaisdon
To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to ensure that Parliament is able effectively to hold them to account.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, it is primarily for Parliament itself to determine how it can best hold the Government to account. However, I have sought to help that process in this House by setting up a Leader's Group to consider our working practices.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I warmly welcome the establishment of the Leader's Group, and I am sure that it will have some fruitful deliberations. Do the Government view the Cabinet manual, which we understand that they will be publishing later this week-possibly even tomorrow-as a first step towards a written constitution for this country, as was postulated in today's Daily Telegraph? How will the Cabinet manual improve government accountability in Parliament?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the Cabinet manual has yet to be published, so I will not comment on it. As to whether or not it is a precursor to a written constitution, no, I do not think so.

Lord Boston of Faversham: While I normally find myself in accord with what the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, says, is it not a rather strange concept that Her Majesty's Government would wish to be called to account?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I always admire the noble Lord for his questions. However, I think that the Government have an interest in the generality of being held to account by Parliament; that is part of our support for the parliamentary process as a whole. I have to say that in this Parliament, I think that noble Lords opposite-the Official Opposition-are doing a very good job.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I welcome this Question. In the previous Administration, the Executive were far too powerful and the legislature so weak. Had it been the other way round, perhaps there would have been better scrutiny of war with Iraq. That said, does the Leader's Group intend to look not only at the composition in terms of reform of the House but at the functions of both Houses and how they relate to each other, bearing in mind that in a fully elected House the Salisbury convention would no longer apply?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, a Leader's Group led by my noble friend Lord Goodlad is looking at the working practices of the House. There is another committee led by the Deputy Prime Minister looking at reform of the House of Lords; that will report early in the new year. As for the previous Government, I think that after 1997 there was a move away from good parliamentary governance, and the relationship between the House of Commons-another place-and the Government changed. We have sought to put that back.

Lord Morgan: My Lords, is not parliamentary governance and accountability a total fiction at present? To have parliamentary accountability, you need, first, a Government with a clear mandate. This Government do not have a mandate. They were not elected by the people; they were elected by six people in a closed room without consultation of the electorate. Nor do they have an agreed programme. There is no constitutional coalition manifesto; we have a mysterious document called the coalition agreement. Is that not a reinvention of the constitution much to our damage?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I completely disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, in almost everything he said. He does not have a long enough memory. There have not been many coalitions, but the whole point about the Government is that they are made up of whoever controls the majority in another place, and the coalition clearly does that.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: My Lords, in the interests of accountability, would the Government consider attaching where appropriate measurable numerical targets to legislation-for example, numeracy and literacy targets to legislation affecting primary schools?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, we in this Government have been trying to get away from targets. I am not entirely certain what point the noble Lord was trying to make, but perhaps I could look again at his question and, if I can think of a better answer, I will write to him.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, the Leader of the House was telling us how much he appreciated the Opposition being very good in this Parliament. Does he not realise that the Opposition could be much better if we had a Speaker with power who could call Members to speak?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the reason I thought the Opposition were doing so well is that out of 24 Divisions, the Government have lost six. We have been defeated in 25 per cent. That is why I think they are doing a very good job. I remember the Opposition of the 1980s and 1990s, when the Labour Party here was considerably smaller. They did a very good job then, which leads me to believe that Labour really is very good in opposition and is probably better in opposition than in government.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, is there much point in Parliament trying to hold the Government to account when the Government themselves are largely controlled from Brussels?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I had a feeling that the noble Lord was heading that way. Whatever the realities of the relationship between this Parliament and Europe, what is of primary importance to this Government is that Parliament itself is in a fit state to scrutinise the Government.

Lord Elton: My Lords, my noble friend was very welcoming and supportive of the idea of parliamentary control of government, which I am sure we all welcome. Will he bear in mind that this enthusiasm is common in every incoming Opposition and cools in the first 18 months, so can he get on with it?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend, with his long experience, is almost certainly right. The basic principle of parliamentary accountability of the Executive is an important one that we should never let go lightly.