Business of the House — Motion on Standing Orders
Lord Tyler (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, the amendment suspends Standing Order 49, which says that no amendment can be moved to a Third Reading of a Bill unless notice has been given to the Clerk no later than the day before and in time for it to be printed and circulated.
Obviously, the reason for tabling this amendment is that some of the Bills scheduled for later today, including the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, and tomorrow might need to have amendments tabled to them after Report, in time for Third Reading, so that we can avoid the dangers of rushing our process. Mistakes and errors of judgment can so often occur in the wash-up stage. I have experienced that in the past.
For brevity, I shall concentrate on one Bill, but from what I hear from several Benches, other Members of your Lordships' House may wish to contribute in regard to other Bills scheduled for today and tomorrow. At the outset, I wish to make one point clear: the Leader of the House said that the "main parties" agreed to the deletions in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, but that does not include my noble friends on these Benches, nor do I believe it includes the Cross Benchers, nor any Back Benchers. I shall return to that point. We believe that the key clauses in the Bill should not have been struck out as part of the unholy alliance between the Government and the Conservative Front Benches. This casual and cavalier treatment of important issues does nothing for the reputation of your Lordships' House.
I was led to believe when I joined your Lordships' House that we were self-regulating, that we sought to be transparent and accountable, less partisan than the other place and that consultation was much more effective at this end of the building. Yet, on these negotiations, all the Back-Benchers, the Liberal Democrats and the Cross-Benchers have been excluded. This is not a wash-up, it is a stitch-up, and a squalid little stitch-up. It was conceived and speed and in secrecy behind closed doors. I would like to think that the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip did their best to ensure that the interest of your Lordships' House were represented in the negotiations. The facts suggest otherwise. It looks as if this was entirely dictated by Downing Street-either by the Prime Minister himself or the Commons Government Chief Whip.
In brief, our interests in your Lordships' House have been completely overruled. Why? Because the full reform of your Lordships' House has not taken place, and therefore the other place feels that they can slap their fingers at our interests. There has been plenty of time to bring forward proposals. The past 13 years have amounted to a missed opportunity. I want to concentrate on the issue of the continuation of the hereditary principle. Ninety-one weeks ago, a White Paper was produced, negotiated between the parties. At about the same time, there was a reference to electoral reform. Today, the Prime Minister is proposing a double referendum on those issues-13 years after the commitment was first made. Why should we believe this manifesto commitment when all the previous ones have been so clearly ignored?
This House deserves carefully managed stages to discuss the Bill and revisit all the Minister's previous promises on the issues; hence our amendment. There is a whole catalogue of commitments made in Labour manifestos and publications over the past 13 years. Starting in 1996, Mr Tony Blair stated in his personal credo, which he titled, New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, that he would bring,
"an end to hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords, as a first step to a proper directly elected second chamber, and the chance for the people to decide after the election the system by which they elect the Government of the future".
Then, the 1997 manifesto stated:
"The House of Lords must be reformed. As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute".
The 2001 manifesto stated:
"We are committed to completing House of Lords reform, including the removal of the remaining hereditary peers, to make it more representative and democratic".
At the last election in 2005, the Labour Party was quite sure, stating:
"In our next term we will complete the reform of the House of Lords so that it is a modern and effective revising Chamber".
"In the last 12 years, we have ... ended the hereditary principle in the House of Lords ".-[Hansard, Commons, 10/6/09; col. 797.]
In the interminable debates on the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Steel, supported on all sides of the House, most notably by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, my noble friend reiterated the determination to dispose of this anachronism. Ministers have agreed on every occasion on its urgency and importance. Only a few days ago, on Second Reading of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, repeated that commitment as being urgent. He said,
"we think strongly that the time has come to end the farce of these elections"-[Hansard, 24/3/10; col.1051.]
Yet when it comes to the crunch, they take the earliest opportunity to capitulate to the dinosaurs on the Conservative Front Bench.
After 13 years of dither, delay and downright deceit, why should anyone believe another Labour promise on reform of the Lords? With Mr Brown, it is always jam tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes. Labour manifestoes have been fantasies, and the one that Labour will publish in the next few days looks as if it will be just the same again.
I turn to the Conservatives. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, with whom I enjoy debating, participated in an exchange of views on the electoral system and the coming election at a meeting at the British Academy on
Where was that notable advocate of radical change in the composition of your Lordships' House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who has argued so persuasively for this major reform? Did he take part in these dubious discussions between the Front Benches in the carve-up that has taken place in recent days?
It need not have been like this. We could have had a full Bill soon after the July 2008 White Paper on Lords reform. There was no progress because the Government were split. We could have had effective control against big money buying British politics in the Act in 2009. Was it not extraordinary to hear the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Questions today twice refer to the problems caused by the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, and the investment of foreign, off-shore funds in British politics to buy seats? Was it not extraordinary to hear him referring to that when he and his Government have done nothing about it? How are they going to deliver it now if it is not in the Bill when it could have been? Similarly, on electoral reform, there was a complete failure to act on the promise and on the Jenkins report.
Whatever happened to the Prime Minister's promise to surrender or limit the prerogative powers, not least the power to decide when to go to the country, to hold an election? Today, he says he is in favour of fixed-term Parliaments. That is a fat lot of use in the last few days of this five-year Parliament. What an extraordinary promise to make now. Why did he not process it when he could have done?
All these missed opportunities could even now be achieved if Ministers really care. The 1997 precedent, to which I made reference in the House yesterday, gives a mechanism for Ministers, if they so wish, to make serious progress on issues where there is cross-party agreement, not necessarily complete consensus around the House, but at least enough to carry the day in the normal democratic way in the Division Lobby.
This morning the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, tried to pin the blame for yet more postponement of reform on these issues on the Conservatives. He asked us to believe that the 13-year delay had been caused simply by waiting for the right moment. With mind-boggling cheek, he said, "This is the beginning of reform". This is not even the beginning of the end, it is not even the end of the beginning; we have not started. This is a sad, bad day for your Lordships' House. The Government are treating us as pawns in their electoral game. As so many Members of your Lordships' House have been saying in the past 24 hours, this is no way to do serious business. My noble friend Lord Shutt yesterday put it so well,
"the wash-up is a wash-out".-[Hansard, 6/4/10; col. 1369.]
At the very least, there should be some mechanism by which the whole House is involved in discussions in the open with due time to assess priorities and practicalities. In the mean time, we are determined that there should be a proper process allocated for the limited changes that will be available to us in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill and in other Bills this evening and tomorrow. That is the purpose of our amendment. However, if the two other Front Benches are determined to defend the hereditary principle to the death-or perhaps I should say beyond-let them at least do it in full debate today, after this business Motion, rather than skimming over it at the bitter end, the fag-end of this Parliament. I beg to move.