Debate on the Address
Lord Strathclyde (Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament; Conservative)
My Lords, I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until tomorrow. In so doing, it is my most pleasant duty to congratulate the mover and seconder of this Motion on their remarkable speeches. I refer especially to the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and his thoughtful remarks on reform of this House. I agree with much of what he said.
It was for me a particular pleasure to see that the noble Lord was to speak today. As is widely known, he is a distinguished economist, but he is far better known as the father of the third way. It confirmed my feelings that this year's gracious Speech was all about the legacy. After all, the noble Lord was in at the beginning of it all; it is right that he should be here to pronounce the last rites.
The noble Lord rightly got his slot today while his pupil the Prime Minister is still in charge. Next year, Britain will have a new leader with new friends. I have a confession to make to the noble Lord. I am not an avid reader of tracts on the third way. Perhaps I would be a better person if I were, but I am not. I looked up the noble Lord's website at the LSE. It opens like this:
"Anthony Giddens is by common agreement the most widely cited contemporary sociologist in the world"—
clearly a modest man. The website goes on:
"He is renowned for his clear and fluent speaking style, and once won the title of the best lecturer in the world".
Having heard him today, we all acknowledge that fluency. The "Best in the World" title was from the University of Aarhus, no doubt a very fine centre of learning, but this House is a tougher judge, so the noble Lord will know that the pleasure with which he is heard here, and was heard again today, is a greater accolade than many. I congratulate him on his remarks.
I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Drefelin, with equal delight. She is one of the younger members of this House, in fact a near contemporary of mine, although she may not look it. She may lack the worldwide fame of the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, but she has won enormous respect in her career of public service. She has worked on many causes: for children, the homeless, the NHS, on asthma and notably in the field of breast cancer, where she came to know too close to home the terrible way in which this scourge strikes the young.
I hear that during the last election she drove with great verve and skill a Labour women's battle bus. Think of the treasure that she had in her hands—the Crown jewels of new Labour: Patricia Hewitt, Tessa Jowell, Harriet Harman and, who knows, perhaps the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, too. If the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, was equal to that awesome responsibility, she is equal to anything. Having heard her today, I am sure that a visit from her team did more good for Labour than an ocean of spin from Millbank. The noble Baroness graces this House and I congratulate her warmly on her speech.
This is a great occasion. The state opening of Parliament is a great day, when all of us come together to celebrate something that is fundamental, the rock of a constitution that has given our country freedom from revolution and civil conflict for 260 years. It is a day when we, who are, as was once cruelly said, here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians, see something greater than us: a Crown that is the gracious embodiment of the nation. It is also a day when this House for a few brief hours is the centre of the country's attention.
This House has seen great changes in recent years. The Cross-Benchers, who lost over half their strength in 1999, have grown again almost to outnumber the two main parties. Indeed, is it not striking—although I do not think that he is in his seat today—that the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, now resides on the Cross Benches? I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, gave him a great farewell party. How pleased we will all be that the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, will no longer have to cut short his speeches under pressure from Labour Whips.
One truth that we must all acknowledge is that since 1997 this House has been utterly transformed. No one sits here any more by virtue of a hereditary peerage. The arrival of the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, in October, now means that exactly half the House has been appointed since 1997. That is remarkable change for any legislature to accommodate and, surely, is legacy enough for this Prime Minister. When or if we have reform, it must strengthen the House, not weaken it. So I welcome the emphasis that the Government have so wisely laid on the need for consensus and the fact that there is no proposal for unilateral legislation on your Lordships' House in the gracious Speech.
Will the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, tell us if there will still be votes on the principle of any proposals, and will she confirm that this House will have a full say on the same basis as another place? Will she also confirm that the Government have dropped a manifesto commitment to introduce a 60-day guillotine into this place? That proposal was firmly rejected by the Joint Committee that was so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham. I hope that we will have an early opportunity to debate that report, too. Its fundamental conclusion was that this House operated well, that it does not abuse its powers or authority and, indeed, that it already plays a vital role in complementing the work of the one House that many of us here feel is not doing its job properly—another place.
The Session just closed, wisely handled by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, showed the virtues of this House. The usual channels do not always get acclaim in this place—sometimes rightly so, no doubt. But they do get a lot of calls right. Perhaps the House might allow me a small, personal aside to say how pleased I am to see my old sparring partner, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, with us again at the start of the Session. He should know the high esteem in which he is held.
At the end of the Session, we saw typical give and take. We did not reach ideal solutions, but we improved much bad legislation. That is what we are here to do under every Government. Although some were disappointed that the House did not do more, a willingness to give concessions and compromise on both sides is what makes this place work. However, if this House were elected, I believe that it would not have the same self-restraint.
Perhaps I may be permitted another small postscript to the last Session. The additions to the Companies Bill at so late a stage were an appalling way to legislate, of which the DTI should be ashamed. Never again. Equally, use of an order to impose deeply distasteful legislation on Northern Ireland was a disgrace. We all hope that the Northern Ireland Assembly will soon be up and running—it would be a tribute to the statesmanship and forbearance of many if it were. But, if it is not, it is imperative that we find a better way in this new Session to legislate for Northern Ireland than through the process of ministerial diktat by secondary legislation.
We now face a new Session, opened by the 10th gracious Speech crafted for Her Majesty under the close influence of Mr Blair. Few, if any, of the dated slogans of the first new Labour year survive, and I give heartfelt thanks for that. But there was a good sweepstake to be run on how many of the, yet again, far too many Bills promised are "legacy" Bills of the old leader and how many are "sunrise" Bills of the new. No doubt the noble Baroness will inform us when she tells us, with her usual courtesy, how many Bills there will be and how many will start in your Lordships' House.
When I look at the rather dowdy and uninspiring list of Bills, I see that there are, however, some that we can welcome, including overdue action on climate change, for example, which many fear will fall short of the bold proposals put forward by my party's leader, Mr Cameron. We shall look to improve that. There is, again, legislation on local government. That does need more freedom, but the test of the Bill will be whether it sweeps away central controls. I welcome a Bill to police our borders, but it is nine years too late in a country where illegal immigrants cannot be counted and where, if they are found guilty of a crime, they are released from prison to offend again.
I welcome, too, independence for government statistics. In fact, I think that both Houses welcomed that when they heard the gracious Speech this morning, but we have seen too many dodgy Treasury press releases not to want to look at the small print. We have yet another Bill on pensions, so soon after the last. We shall scrutinise that closely. And, again—does the Home Office never learn?—I am dismayed to see yet more (is it four, five or six?) Home Office Bills and, yet again, resurrection of the Government's obsessive attempt to restrict trial by jury.
We have had a gush of legislation from the Home Office these past 10 years but violent crime and lawlessness are no better, just as education and hospitals are still riven with problems. More legislation is not the answer—better administration is. I welcomed a speech by the Home Secretary earlier this week. He made precisely this point: it is not new law that is needed but properly applied law.
My colleagues on the Front Bench will have much more to say about the details of the Speech over the next few days. However, I want to address some more general points today, so perhaps I may add this. One way in which this House has distinguished itself in recent years has been in defence of the ancient liberties of our land. Those liberties were hard to win and much blood was spilt to win them, but they are desperately easy to lose.
I was born in the Cold War era, in which we faced a society where the surveillance of every individual was a commonplace, where the state was master and not servant, and where freedom was conditional and every citizen a suspect. That is not a society in which I wish to die, and I suspect that that goes for many noble Lords on all sides of this House. Freedom does not die in one blow; it dies by inches in public legislation. This House has been right to be vigilant and it should remain so. This is becoming a major fault-line in the philosophy of what a free society should be, as the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, recognised. We should never be cowed by the weapons of populist politics into voting to limit freedom. Often when the House has taken a stand on jury trial, habeas corpus, ID cards or the secret ballot, it has proved to be right. So I welcome the Home Secretary's words and assure him that we are always ready to meet in mature discussion on such issues.
It will be strange to see this Prime Minister—such a brilliant election winner—fading away on the US lecture circuit in the next year or so. He leaves the world a more dangerous place. In Israel and Palestine, in Iraq, in Iran and in Afghanistan, we face a varying and massive strategic and diplomatic challenge that this House must debate and debate soon. Latin America is tormented by a divisive philosophy, promoted with oil billions by Mr Chavez, which aims to drive that continent disastrously to the authoritarian left, just to spite America.
Where are we in that debate? Where are we on the complex issues unfolding in Russia? Where are we in the terrifying nuclear future that could loom in east Asia? Where are we on the blunder of historic proportions being made on Turkey by EU politicians, who cannot forget that the Ottomans came to the gates of Vienna in 1683? Where are we on a new vision for the European Union, framed for the needs of the 21st century and not rooted in the mindset of 1960? Nowhere. Those debates are not taking place. There is much to do, but the Prime Minister has lost the authority to do it. It is vital for this House, with all its wisdom, to have a say on all those great issues in the Session ahead.
I would like to say in conclusion that this Speech and, indeed, the last nine years formed a great legacy. Much as I want to unite the House today, however, I cannot in all truth say that. After three massive majorities, a decade in power and 370 Acts of Parliament so far, the question to answer is why so little has been achieved. Why, in 2006, is the Prime Minister battling forlornly to retake positions on health and education so wilfully abandoned in 1997? I think that it is because Mr Reid is right in what he says. Too often, spin and headlines have been put above delivery. Too often, law has been used to score political points, rather than to make real change. Too often, power has been centralised.
We are left with too many problems crying out to be solved: family breakdown; drug and alcohol dependency; isolation; alienation; and the collapse of the community. We need a fresh approach, one that trusts local communities, businesses and individuals. We need policies framed in the national interest, not for partisan advantage, and leadership focused not on the day's news headlines, but on the long-term good of all. We need Ministers less obsessed with rules and regulations and we need to renew the sense that people have real power over their own lives. And we should measure each and every policy against the test of whether it trusts British families. In short, we need fewer laws and more humility from all of us at the top.
As I think the House has realised, I am not hugely optimistic about the year ahead. It will take more than a change of guard in No. 10 to make a fresh start. The collective legacy of failure is too wide and too deep. A change of heart is needed in the very fibre of government. Above all, we need respect from Government for Parliament and for the wisdom of this House. This great House has never failed in its integrity and duty. I have faith that it will meet every challenge in the year ahead. On that note, I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until tomorrow.
Moved, That this debate be adjourned until tomorrow.—(Lord Strathclyde.)