Lord Strathclyde (Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament; Conservative)
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating this important Statement. It was a long Statement, and rightly so: the subject is massive and there have been enormous changes over the course of the past few years. Does she recognise that this House regards these matters with a great deal of importance and will she use her good offices to provide us with time for a debate on the issues and on the Green Paper at some stage—perhaps after the Summer Recess?
The Government have a new adviser on these matters whom they have found on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I assume that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has advised on the Statement and perhaps even the noble Baroness discussed it before reaching conclusions.
There was a great deal in the Statement that was welcome, but to listen to it, you would not think that the man who made it had been the second most powerful man in the country these past 10 years. The main message from the Statement was an attempt to distance the present Prime Minister from his predecessor's cavalier treatment of our constitution. That is why there is such a great need for change and thought as outlined in the Statement.
Of course we welcome a willingness to reach out to other parties, which I hope will embrace some of the enormous experience of the Cross Benchers sitting here in your Lordships' House. We welcome the ending of the shameful Order in Council giving political appointees power to give orders over civil servants. We welcome ideas to give more power to Back Benchers in the House of Commons. That echoes the Conservative programme for Commons reform. We welcome also many of the controls on operation of the Executive through the prerogative, but there are practical considerations in issues as diverse as the declaration of war and the appointment of bishops which will require careful consideration. Can the noble Baroness say whether the extra powers to be given to Parliament over the ratification of treaties will cover the powers of this Parliament over EU legislation?
There was much in the Statement about extra roles for the other place. I also welcome that. But as Leader of this House, can the noble Baroness say whether this House will be given any role in hearings before the appointment of senior public officials? This is a two-Chamber Parliament. Will the noble Baroness act to ensure that this House, with its unparalleled experience, plays its part in this and other new initiatives? One has only to think of the authority that the US Senate has in these matters to realise the potential importance of that to this House.
If the Prime Minister genuinely wants discussions with other parties, will the noble Baroness accept that we will take part in a practical spirit, just as we have in talks on the future of this House being led by the Secretary of State for Justice? The principles that should apply are clear but sadly have been ignored by this Government over the past 10 years. Change to the constitution should be based on consensus. It cannot be imposed by a one-party majority in one House. It cannot be designed to be to the benefit of one party or two; the interests of the country must come first. The consequences of every change must be carefully thought through before change is made. We want no repeat of the disastrous attempted abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor. Parliament must emerge stronger from any change, unlike too many changes over the past 10 years that have drained power from Parliament and given it to a range of other bodies, many of which are shamefully not even elected.
The astonishing thing about the British constitution is that since the middle of the 18thcentury we have, alone among advanced countries of the world, enjoyed over 250 years without civil war, without revolution, without overthrow of governments, except by a vote of the people in this Chamber or in another place. Yet, at the same time, we have accomplished massive social change. Change was made possible by an unwritten constitution, rooted in convention, that gave unprecedented flexibility, and by a doctrine of parliamentary primacy, the rule of law and constitutional government. This was a prize beyond belief. Now we are being asked to have a fresh look at all of this.
After 10 years of unilateral action the Prime Minister wants a multilateral approach to help sort out the mess. Well so be it, but can the noble Baroness tell us why this so-called new constitutional settlement fails totally to address the scandal of Scottish MPs voting on English laws when English MPs have no say on similar matters in Scotland? The Prime Minister says this will create a two-tier class of Members of Parliament. That two-tier class already exists today. Why does the Statement not consider apportionment of resources between parts of our kingdom? If, as Scotland's First Minister says, Scotland's resources finance England, or if, on the other hand, the Barnett formula works to the disadvantage of England, why should these issues not now be studied? Why is there no proposal to review use of referendums in the United Kingdom? There is talk of removing power from Government, so why will the review not look at who decides whether we have a referendum and what the rules will be? What is the noble Baroness's view on the right balance between the referendal principle and parliamentary democracy? If we cannot have a referendum on the transfer of power from this Parliament to Brussels—something explicitly promised in the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos—is there any case for referendums at all?
I welcome talk of a review of our damaged voting system, a system once trusted beyond doubt and understood by everyone, now riddled with confusion and tainted by corruption. Will it end the use of three or four different voting methods on the same day? This has demonstrated the weakness of proportional representation and we see no case for importing that system to Parliament.
We will take part in discussions on a written constitution and other ways of asserting individual rights. But as the Prime Minister says, this would represent a major change in the way things have been done in this country. Much recent constitutional change has been lawyer-driven and lawyer-made and it has not always been well made. Does the noble Baroness see any dangers in subjecting constitutional decisions of this Parliament to judicial oversight?
Surely what we need most of all is a fundamental reverse in the dragging of power to the centre. Where in the Statement is the real return of authority to local government and local communities? Where is the return of power from the quangos and unelected regional bodies to elected local authorities? Where is the scrapping of targets and controls from the centre, not only in local government but across the public sector as a whole? Will the noble Baroness confirm that there will be a full-blown Civil Service Act? Perhaps she might tell us whether it will be introduced in the next Session. If her answer is yes, we very much welcome it.
Before we define the new rights, should we not stop to consider what happened to the old ones, such as habeas corpus, privacy, a citizen police force, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and the freedom to travel without signing up for an ID card, which once made this country the envy of the world? No one had to write down the freedoms of the British people then; they were inborn.
What we now need is a massive programme of repair to our constitutional arrangements. We will play our part, and with the conviction and resolution that this House and the noble Baroness would expect. Our conviction is rooted in a deep love of liberty and freedom, and our resolution will be twofold: to give back to every individual, every family and every local community more power and say in the things that affect their lives; and to restore to this House and to this Parliament their central place in the key decisions that shape the future of our society and our country.