Motion to Take Note
Draft House of Lords Reform Bill
Viscount Clancarty (Crossbench)
My Lords, as has been pointed out, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said that the committee did not have a blank sheet. That is fair enough, but it is worth bearing in mind that the draft Bill that the committee looked at is called the House of Lords Reform Bill. It is not called the "Composition of the House of Lords Reform Bill"-important though that area of reform will of course be.
In that spirit, I want to use my intervention to hold a magnifying glass over a specific topic of House of Lords reform that has not yet been mentioned and was not in the report but that would be a significant and timely measure for reasons of transparency, public confidence and modernity. My topic is the official recording of abstentions. This issue also throws up interesting questions about underlying attitudes that reform should address and challenge.
While this matter is not exclusive to the reform of the second House, our continuing refusal to record abstentions in either House is emblematic of the continuing emphasis in Parliament as a whole on a rigid two-party parliamentary system, despite the current reality that we have a coalition as well as renewed public interest in the notion of party politically independent candidates. It is a style that remains primarily confrontational, the very thing that the public do not like and are reacting against, and a style that, it has to be said, was reaffirmed by the decision to keep the first-past-the-post system for election to the Commons. Although tempered in the Lords, this system is nevertheless the foundation on which both Houses are currently built.
This system is of course reflected and reinforced by the very geography of both parliamentary Chambers, where Dispatch Boxes and rows of Benches are set up in opposition to each other. We are not of course the only Parliament in the world to use this layout, but it is a geography that, in relation to other more modern Parliaments that use a more open and often semicircular layout for their Members, can appear inward-looking and hermetic.
In an exchange in the Commons on
A more sophisticated and sensitive system and a more sensitive Parliament would appreciate that there are often shades of opinion on, for example, amendments to Bills. An amendment can sometimes carry within it two principles which Members of the House may feel are both valid but are in conflict. Indeed, there was a prime example of such a case in this House just last week during the Protection of Freedoms Bill when, as noble Lords will recall, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, in his speech from the opposition Front Bench, asked all opposition Members to abstain on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, on entry to premises, on the basis that protecting the privacy of occupants and the protection of consumers' rights were equally important.
The fact is that abstentions happen and will certainly happen even more, with or without recording, particularly if we are to continue to have coalition Governments. Disagreements between partners ought to be acknowledged as a fact of coalition life and are not necessarily something that Parliament needs to be embarrassed about. Hardly a vote has gone by when there have not been abstentions on some of the very complicated Bills that we have discussed recently.
If we introduced recorded abstentions, we would simply be getting up to speed with the more modern, and in my view more progressive, systems of many, if not all, European countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and Germany-and locally now including the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
The main argument is that we need a more transparent Parliament. This is a time when many are concerned about bringing a truer picture of Parliament to the public. If you are in this Chamber at the time of a Division, you know full well who has abstained. Members will often make it very clear when they sit down to be counted-to coin a phrase-often in no uncertain terms, that they are abstaining. That is a significant aspect of the business of this place and could make the difference between whether a vote is won or lost. It is insulting to the public that that information is in effect kept secret and not made available. It might not be the wilful neglect of the public, but it is wrong. That goes hand in hand with the scornful attitude in some quarters to websites such as TheyWorkForYou and the Public Whip, which number-crunch the votes and are all part and parcel of the larger public interest in Parliament.
The possibility of recording abstentions was last considered in 1998, when the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons produced a consultation paper on voting methods, finding that a majority-slim, but a majority nevertheless-of 54 per cent of Members were in favour of introducing that measure. It is high time, 15 years on, that that was looked at again. My understanding from research by the House of Lords Library, for which I am grateful, is that it might be possible to introduce that through a Standing Order, as another measure considered by the same committee, the practice of deferred Divisions, was introduced in that way in 2004-although an amendment might also be brought to the House of Lords Bill. The measure might well be trialled in the Lords as part of current reform.
I do not think that we should wait for the introduction of electronic voting systems, which is something of an excuse not to introduce this measure. There is no reason why abstentions could not be recorded with the clerk in the Chamber itself. Neither is it a measure that depends on the final composition of this House. It would be a significant improvement in the democratic workings of Parliament as a whole, not only for itself but as a sign of greater transparency and accountability.