Queen's Speech — Debate (2nd Day) (Continued)
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve (Crossbench)
My Lords, we are in something of a cleft stick when it comes to reform of your Lordships' House, and that is never a comfortable place to be. I think it is open to a Cross-Bencher to suggest a different way to move forward. It seems to me that it might even be a way that could be the focus for some consensus.
In the gracious Speech, the Government's proposal has been definitively set down as changing the composition of your Lordships' House but not its function. Of course, that invites the question: how do you change form without function? How do you alter the composition and leave the function intact? That goes to all the questions raised about greater legitimacy. It seems that people still aspire to more legitimacy-oh yes-but please not too much because then your Lordships' House would question the primacy of the other place.
There may be a way through this. I offer it just as a suggestion, but it might even attract some consensus-without going into the different meanings of consensus, about which we heard a good deal this morning. First, we could have a statutory independent commission, but it should be a nominations commission rather than an appointments commission. Its task would be to nominate candidates to stand as independents. It would have to have a carefully drawn remit. Having done that, we would have a national election: one person, one vote, with people voting either for the party-political candidate of their choice or for the independent list. In that way, the proportion of your Lordships' House consisting of independents could rise or fall. It might fall very low if the electorate felt that they wished to support the parties of their choice, not the independent list; or it might rise, reflecting the democratic will, if electors decided that they would prefer to support the independent list, not the parties not of their choice. Given the sad decline in enthusiasm for party-political politics, on which several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, have commented, which I take very seriously, one way to regenerate enthusiasm for electoral politics might be to put a little distance between choice and choosing a party.
The independent commission would of course have to have a careful remit. I suggest that the following points might be important. First, it should take a serious view of what is independence. As your Lordships know, not everybody who sits on these Benches is an independent Cross-Bench Peer. The commission should try to maintain that these Benches consist only of those who have not and have not recently had any party-political affiliation or supported any party financially. One would need that criterion.
An independent nominations commission could also take account of the spread of current expertise of various useful sorts in your Lordships' House. After all, it would know who was retiring, who was stepping down. It would have a broad view of the composition of the House for the next period. Given that broad view, it could ask the following serious questions. Do we have in this House enough industrial experience? Do we have enough doctors? Do we have enough engineers? Do we have too many Members-or, let us say, a great wealth of experience-of other sorts? In short, the independent list would have to be independent and contribute something distinctive to the House. That might work. It might allow us to have a House of which every Member had been nominated and every Member had been elected, but it would not allow any pure appointments.
I do not imagine that in the end the composition of your Lordships' House would be so different from what it is today. In fact, it might be an advantage in that, in many ways, it would mirror diversity. It would achieve the separation of two functions, with those representing constituencies more deeply anchored and more expert in the regional basis on which they were elected, and those on the independent list being there only because they brought something distinctive in their combination of experience and expertise, preferably one that was up to date, and preferably a trade or craft that they practise.
This may not commend itself in the middle of the present debate because we have rather got ourselves impaled on the idea that, whatever else, a hybrid House is a nice looking compromise and people will stand for it. A hybrid House has great risks, which were mentioned this morning by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and a House without independence has some risks. I want to say a little about that.
If we assume that the function of your Lordships' House remains scrutiny, it is not merely an activity that we undertake. It is underpinned in the process of the House by the possibility that the Government may not win every vote. They may either agree to bring forward an amendment that captures the spirit of the amendment that is then not pressed, or they may lose the vote on an amendment. That process of check and challenge is fundamental to scrutiny. There has been reference to the days before the 1999 reforms, when it was the self-restraint of the large number of Conservative hereditaries that allowed check and challenge to happen-a clearly unsatisfactory position. However, we could institute adequate check and challenge, and thereby retain our function of adequate scrutiny, if we could ensure a House that was composed in a more diverse way. I do not believe that that has to be at the cost of an electoral mandate.
Finally, would this House not be too legitimate-the other problem that all proposals hitherto would, in effect, have faced? It would be regarded as having a lesser and certainly a different sort of legitimacy from that of the House of Commons. It would probably be one in which the primacy of the other place could be preserved. There is my proposal: keep the primacy of the Commons, keep the function of scrutiny, have a wholly elected House and diversify the methods of election.
Lord Denham (Conservative)
My Lords, when on Monday and Tuesday of last week your Lordships debated a Motion not dissimilar from today's, most noble Lords opened their remarks by saying that in their view this House badly needed a reform, but not that one. Much the same could be said about today. I confess I am somewhat surprised by this sudden passion for more reform. At the time I made my maiden speech in your Lordships' House some 60 years ago, the composition of the House had remained unchanged for decades-if not centuries-but this state of affairs was not to last for long.
First came the Life Peerages Act 1958, which allowed Peers to be Members of this House for their own lives only and opened the way for those who did not wish to saddle their heirs with obligations that some of them would wish to avoid. The same Act brought in women as sitting Members of the House for the first time. This was followed in 1963 by the admission of female holders of hereditary peerages in their own right. At some point around this time, by tacit agreement between the parties, the creation of new hereditary peerages except in special circumstances began to be phased out. Then, of course, in 1999 came the cull of nine-tenths of the hereditary Peers of both sexes. Those are only the major changes that have taken place. Now, along come Her Majesty's Government, asking your Lordships' House to throw the whole thing away and start all over again. This House has already been reformed up to its eyebrows. It has been reforming itself, and it will continue such reforms so long as it is left by Her Majesty's Government to do so.
Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Labour)
My Lords, I rise with some trepidation to follow someone who, I now understand, entered this House before any women were allowed. That was in 1948, when I was probably about two and a half, so the noble Lord's experience in this House is, I suspect, longer than that of almost anyone else here today. Experience is an important thing; however, I am sure he will understand that I do not agree with everything in his speech.
This debate is in the wider context of yesterday's Queen's Speech. I felt a sort of enormous disappointment with it, because coalition government may be something that we have to learn and understand-and progress in future-but we got the lowest common denominator of coalitions yesterday: it was about what little they could agree on rather than what hope and aspiration they could come to by getting the best from both parts.
As I come from the north-east, your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that my main anxiety was that there was little hope to give regarding the devastation in that region. I have tried at Question Time to make sure the House knows about the increasing joblessness and the effects of the recession there. I think that it is our role to give hope and optimism to the public but, try as I might, I find little comfort, let alone optimism, for the north-east to draw on in yesterday's gracious Speech.
I also regret the lack of clarity around social care. We were disappointed by how little the health Bill delivered a way forward for social care, and there was much debate from these Benches about the need for much more clarity and a way forward. There is very little prospect of much progress on that coming out of the Queen's Speech.
To come to the issue of the day, however, all of us who want and strive to be part of a vibrant democracy know that there are huge challenges. I hope that what has been going on in the rest of Europe over the past week, as well as the very low turnout for our own democracy, tells us that we are walking in very difficult waters, with many people who we depend on for a democracy-the electorate-becoming very disillusioned. We saw that in the low turnout last week.
The proposal to move to individual registration is one that I understand. It is important to keep our system intact and without fraud, but I suspect that what the Government bring forward will smack far more of seeking political advantage than of putting the system right. My noble friend Lord Wills talked about this from his experience in the previous Government. I started the journey in the previous Government when I was Local Government Minister in the 1997 Parliament. At that stage, voting systems and elections were the Local Government Minister's responsibility; they moved after that. I got very interested in this subject and encouraged local authorities to look at how they could encourage more people to vote. There were some useful experiments around the country, although often they became very difficult to do because they needed a national register. I still think that we need to think about that and not wipe it off the agenda.
As we live in an increasingly mobile society, knowing who is entitled to vote and enabling them to vote where they are, rather than where they happen to have been on a particular day, is something that we need to look at. I am sure that I will be very unpopular on both sides if I say, "If we had maintained getting an identity card that really did tell you who was who, we would be able to eliminate fraud without some of the concerns and proposals that people are going for". I will look at the Bill carefully, but I am concerned that if it comes forward in the way in which it has been talked about, it will lead to a reduction in registration rather than an increase, and that will not be in the interests of democracy.
Everyone has said a great deal on Lords reform, and I do not want to repeat it. The main justification for the Bill is that we should be democratic. My problem with the proposals is that I do not believe that the Bill will support the aim of a vibrant democracy. Indeed, I fear that if it were introduced and agreed in its present form, it would increase cynicism about democracy. We have a constitution that evolves and changes. The Government are wrong to think only about composition, or that composition can be sorted out effectively without dealing with the other aspects that are so important to our democracy and governance.
I fear, as I say, that the proposals would increase cynicism in the electorate. We cannot really tell people why we want reform, other than that we want to introduce a democratic element. We also cannot tell them what balance we are seeking between the two Chambers or what they can expect from the House Lords. Indeed, we are even saying that they cannot expect anything from us: once someone is elected for the 15-year term, they will not be supported in engaging with the electorate at all because that might disturb the balance with the House of Commons. When you try to explain this to teenagers, they look at you with incredulity. They simply do not understand it. I feel that the Government have to turn things round, look at the fundamentals and deal with them. Then they will be able to talk much more easily about the way forward.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, about the risks of a hybrid House. I started by supporting a mixed House, but the more work I did on it and the more I looked at other Parliaments and legislatures, the more anxious I became.
I want to make a point that I do not think has been raised before; I certainly have not heard it, but that might be my fault. Many countries that have a bicameral legislature in which both Houses are elected not only have a written constitution, as my noble friend Lord Rooker said earlier, but separation of the Executive and the legislature. In the distant past, I read an old Liberal Democrat document that espoused that. I am not saying it is their policy now, but if you embark on a course where you are very hazy about the outcome, you will often end up with unintended consequences. I make that point about electoral registration, but I also make it about Lords reform. We are far too cavalier in simply saying, "Let's introduce democracy; everything will be okay".
I believe very strongly in our system because I think the British people appreciate being able to see their Member of Parliament have a go at the Prime Minister or at Ministers. Ministers never like it, but it is a very important part of our democracy and our democracy would be much less without it. We must not embark on something that has a logical end in which you would separate the Executive from the legislature. There is that danger in some of the proposals before us, partly because they simply have not been thought through enough.
That interaction between the two Houses and the accountability of the Executive are at the heart of our democracy and our constitutional settlement. Trying to deal only with the composition of the Lords, without any consideration of its effect on the other two parts, is very short-sighted and may well be dangerous. It could end up with those unintended consequences.
In all these things, we need to work very hard on what the proposals mean for the constitution and governance of our country as a whole, and then we should put whatever we come up with to a referendum.
Baroness Shephard of Northwold (Conservative)
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong. She said that the noble Lord, Lord Denham, came into this House when she was two and a half, but I remind her of a much more recent date: 25 years ago, nearly to the day, she and I entered the other place as newly elected Members.
I declare an interest as a member of the Joint Select Committee on Lords reform. I am also one of the 12 members of the Joint Select Committee who produced the alternative report. Regrettably, I was unable to take part in last week's debate as I could not stay until its conclusion, so I am grateful to have the chance to speak today in the light of the inclusion of Lords reform in the gracious Speech. I would like to pay tribute to chairman of the Joint Select Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who is not in his place. He guided and cajoled the committee to produce a very creditable report, despite our many different points of view on every issue. I would also like to thank my fellow committee members and, of course, the 11 committee members with whom I worked to produce the alternative report.
There are some 20 legislative proposals in the gracious Speech; Lords reform appears at number 18. The language that the Government have chosen to describe their intentions for Lords reform is, to say the least, delphic, referring to a Bill to change "the composition" of this House. What does it mean? With great respect to my noble friend the Leader of the House, who is also not in his place at the moment, I would not say that his contribution this morning, masterly though it was, was designed to be less delphic. Indeed, he is probably an oracle in his own person. However, if I were to use that kind of language, I think I would want to reassure constitutional reformers that I was with them, while at the same time indicating to voters that I understood their immediate concerns- the economy, jobs, social care, pensions, crime and border security-to be rather more pressing than constitutional change. If I had wanted to indicate those things, I might have used that language.
No doubt the Government are asked, as we all must frequently be, exactly what problem reform of the House of Lords is intended to fix. In fact, usefully, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister answered that question in the White Paper and draft Bill. They said that the objective of the draft Bill was,
"to change the House of Lords into a more democratically elected second chamber".
They added that the proposals would "strengthen Parliament". These are fine objectives. I have sympathy with them and doubt that anybody would not.
I rather welcome the opaque nature of the Government's commitment to Lords reform, as revealed by the gracious Speech, because I hope and believe that such opacity may buy some time, in the event of reform going ahead, to improve the proposals in the White Paper and the draft Bill before they are presented to Parliament. Last week's rehearsal in this House of the arguments for, but mostly against, the proposals revealed not only that the Government's analysis of the problem was flawed, but that their proposed solution does not meet its own objective. The Government now have the opportunity, which I hope they will use, to take note of and act on the work of the Joint Committee, the alternative report and the many expert and experienced points of view expressed last week in this House to improve any future Bill.
In particular, they must accept that Clause 2 of the draft Bill is a nonsense. Clause 2 asserts that Commons primacy would be unaffected by an electoral mandate for the Lords. That was torn apart by the Joint Committee and the alternative report, and during last week's debate. It is obvious that any proposals for elections to this House must perforce affect the House of Commons and, hence, the efficacy of Parliament as a whole. The clause was revealed as an assertion-nothing more-unsupported by any evidence to the Joint Committee, save that of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister, Mark Harper. Indeed, worse than that, as has been touched on by several noble Lords today, it was revealed as an attempt to reassure House of Commons colleagues that they would have nothing to fear from the presence in their constituencies of paid, elected party Senators, elected for long, non-renewable terms by a different voting system but to the same Parliament, dealing with the same policy issues.
The Government must understand that one consequence of such a proposal would be a weakening of electoral accountability, and another the likelihood of conflict between the two Houses that the Parliament Acts could not resolve-grave consequences indeed of a measure that they claim would strengthen Parliament. If they are to proceed with this constitutional reform, they must find a means of solving the dilemma that has bedevilled reform for the past century: how can you achieve greater legitimacy for the Lords without challenging the primacy of the Commons? That matter was just raised by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill.
The Government claim that people are in favour of Lords reform because the three main party manifestos favoured it at the last general election, but that claim will not wash. Not only is it a stunning non-sequitur but it also ignores the obvious differences in the manifesto pledges, the fact that no party actually won the election and the fact that because all three parties offered Lords reform it was not possible to vote against it.
The issue is not distinguished by its salience in the public mind, then or-for that matter-now. The public say, backed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and all three main party leaders in the other place, that constitutional reform is anything but a priority. Indeed, that might have been the message from the eight major cities that last week rejected through referendums the proposals for elected mayors. Maybe voters were not attracted by the idea of more paid party elected politicians. Of course, for now anyway the Government have rejected, as we heard again this morning, the idea of a referendum on Lords reform on grounds of cost, while at the same time promising a referendum on Scottish independence and apparently being unable to tell us the cost of electing, paying and maintaining another 450 Westminster politicians. I believe that the public are unimpressed by those inconsistencies, and that does not help the Government's case either.
I began my remarks by saying that I have sympathy with the objectives of the White Paper and draft Bill and I will conclude briefly by suggesting ways in which the Government might advance their cause. They need to understand that there is absolutely no consensus on their draft Bill within parties, in the academic world, between the two Houses and within them, or even on the need for a draft Bill. My noble friend the Leader has had a lot of fun with consensus and my noble friend Lord Forsyth had even more fun last week. But there are issues that need tackling, and which could be tackled now with a good degree of real consensus as identified in the Steel Bill and in the evidence to the joint Select Committee from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and others, for Lords reform-issues such as the size of the House, retirement, dealing with misconduct, the separation of honours from membership of the House of Lords, means of appointment, and so on. Those issues have been considered by the Joint Select Committee in the alternative report, and the Government could make progress and achieve some reform by pursuing them in a way that would rightly be seen as beneficial.
The Government's aim to strengthen Parliament through constitutional reform is a worthy one, but if they wish to succeed on the larger questions of election and conventions between the Houses, they must accept that their draft Bill as it stands does not meet their own objectives. They must think through the vast practical and constitutional implications of what they propose. In other words-and I cannot put it plainer-they should do the work, possibly through a constitutional convention or the like, before they seek to legislate. They must understand that if they present to Parliament half-thought-out constitutional reform, they will throw into chaos the very democratic machinery that is their only means of delivering other legislative change. Above all, since they claim to speak for the people, because Parliament is the voice of the people, they should give the people the chance to say what they think in a referendum. The price for democracy of getting it wrong is just too great.
Lord Owen (Crossbench)
My Lords, I wish to speak about what I believe is the biggest constitutional crisis facing this country, and it is related to the eurozone. There is a feeling, which I think is profoundly mistaken, that somehow we can isolate ourselves from the constitutional changes that are being suggested for the eurozone. It is to the credit of the Government, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer that throughout this eurozone crisis they have been ready to accept that in order to get the crisis eased, or at best overcome, there will have to be substantial changes in the eurozone.
There is no point spending time arguing about what has been; the milk has been spilt and this fatally flawed eurozone design is with us here and now. It is in all our interests-that of the United States economy, the British economy, obviously the European economy but also the global economy-that this eurozone crisis is resolved. However, the greatest danger would be for us in this country to think that we can go on watching the eurozone crisis unfold and the constitutional changes which are being made, and not recognise that it has deep and profound consequences for the constitution of this country.
In today's opening business the European Union (Approval of Treaty Amendment Decision) Bill was announced. It sounds very technocratic and would effectively mean accepting changes in the European treaty to create the European stability mechanism. I strongly support that. Europe needs that mechanism. We need this legislation to be passed and I am sure that we will try to ensure that that happens. The mechanism is meant to be in place by
On top of this, it appears that there is now parliamentary deadlock in Greece. Today, Bloomberg calculates that Greece's overall debt to private bondholders, the IMF and the ECB amounts to something like $517 billion. A default on that scale would have repercussions throughout the world economy, and could happen very quickly. If it happens, there will be immediate demands on this country to tackle a range of issues which affect the running of the eurozone. The UK has to have a position on this. That position will be all the stronger if it can be said to be that not just of the Conservative Party, or even its Liberal Democrat coalition partners, but of the Labour Party in opposition.
It is one thing for us to have good will towards the eurozone and to try to help it emerge from its current difficulties but quite another to think that we can make a massive concession, whereby we effectively accept a degree of integration which nobody in this country would contemplate for any part of the eurozone, without asking ourselves where it would leave this country. This very big concession would comprise far greater integration than there has been hitherto; in effect, it would create an economic government based on many of the proposals put forward for the medium term by Angela Merkel and Gerhard Schroeder. Those two German Chancellors-one current, one former-have said openly that the fiscal compact is just the beginning. They know that the German people will be persuaded to fund the eurozone and to put substantial sums of money behind it only if far greater integration is involved.
If that is the course that they wish to follow, we should wish it well but we need to extract a price from that negotiation whether as regards unanimity within the EU or an arrangement whereby the fiscal compact is introduced outside the European Union treaties but has within it a pledge that it will become part of those treaties within five years. We are told-I do not know whether it is true-that the deputy leader of the coalition, Nick Clegg, was behind that addition. That has considerable and profound implications.
There is a growing view, most recently expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, in a speech in Oxford, that a referendum on the European Union is inevitable. I believe it to be inevitable and it should happen fairly quickly. What are we going to say in that referendum? At the moment, if the referendum question was put in this country, it would be for a simple withdrawal. Can that be in the interests of this country? Consider the issue of the single market, for example. The Conservative Party, through all its long disagreements over the Common Market, the European Community and the European Union, never doubted that it wanted to be a member of EFTA. The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, when Prime Minister often claimed, rightly, credit for the single market and our influence on the EU.
Are we ready to withdraw from the single market? Even Angela Merkel has said that if she, as she envisages, is to make these changes in 2013-14-changes that are far-reaching in their political consequences-there would need to be, for example, direct elections for the President of the European Council, which is an intergovernmental appointment that was agreed only recently after years of negotiation, first through the constitutional treaty and then the Lisbon treaty. Are we suddenly to have that position elected? Schroeder, with all the strength of a Chancellor who did actually introduce competitiveness into the German economy without devaluation within the European treaty and has a right to be heard, has made it clear that the European Council must give up powers and be transformed into an upper chamber with similar functions to the Bundesrat in Germany. They want economic government, far greater European integration and they see that as the way to rescue the eurozone.
We need to say what we want. What is the minimum that we want out of the European Union? My view is that an essential element is the single market and we cannot just be part of the European Economic Area, which is a sort of hand me down of single market provision in which Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are involved. Are we ready to set our sights much higher and involve Turkey in a single market? There is absolute silence in Europe about the British position. It is not enough for a view on that to come just from the Prime Minister. I earnestly hope that just as this country is approaching the issue of a Scottish independence referendum with a recognition that the parties must get together and have a common view in this country-my understanding is that the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats are starting to have detailed conversations about how to deal with that deep constitutional challenge-so they should be looking at the question of how we deal with saving the eurozone.
I notice also that a former SPD Finance Minister said only yesterday that if he was in his former position, he would want a plan B to deal with a situation in which there might not be 17 countries in the eurozone. What will the British position be? It simply cannot be to concede just one more little treaty amendment as being made here on the ESM. We have already conceded that a treaty should be considered outside the European Union treaties on the fiscal compact.
The Government, particularly the Prime Minister, have learnt from the totally mistaken stance that he adopted in December. I was travelling around Europe talking to Finance Ministers in EU countries and no one knew what the British Government's position was. It is not enough to go into these negotiations without it being well known where your bottom line is, what you are prepared to stick on and what your principles are. I say this: this big change in Europe cannot take place-an integration far greater than we have ever contemplated before for the eurozone countries-without we in this country having a clear line defining our constitutional bottom line and what we are rightfully to demand. That should not be done in a sort of "Flashman" way, thrust at people right at the last moment, but in a deeply concerned and considered way. We are part of these treaties. They belong to us as much as they belong to everyone else. Hitherto, they have always been based on unanimity on treaty amendment. Giving up unanimity on treaty amendment is a vast concession for us to make. I think we should be ready to do it if it accords with our view of how the European Union can be restructured; otherwise, we will watch, wait and slowly wake up, and before we know where we are we will have seen in front of our very eyes in a substantial part of the European Union the creation of a country called Europe, and we will say to ourselves, "How did we allow this to happen?".
Our negotiating position must be reasonable and, as I said, it ought to have all-party agreement. It needs to be sustained up to and beyond a 2015 general election and it needs to be accepted by the people of this country. It is a long time since we had wholehearted consent in this country to our position in Europe, and then we kept it for only a very short time. In my view, such consent can be forged out of the present situation. I do not think that over the coming decades the people of this country will accept going into the sort of integrated eurozone that is now not only on offer but necessary. I would not accept it myself, but that does not matter. The people of this country have to be given the choice in a structured referendum and we must have a position in Europe that we can stand up for and negotiate for. There must be no flouncing off, no walk-outs and no empty chair. We must sit there with a view of how we will be Europeans and how, at the very least, there should be a single market involving far more than the existing countries in the EEA. It ought to involve Turkey, which is a substantial and major country.
If we could produce such a concept, it would be greatly welcomed in Europe, where people are only too conscious that they are being shunted from pillar to post as circumstances change. The most recent event is the Spanish banking crisis, which has the potential to cause a very serious crisis for the eurozone just because of the size of the country and the fact that it has 25% unemployment with youth unemployment at 50%. We are seeing more and more undemocratic measures taken to stoke up the system and keep it going. It is not pleasant to see interventions such as the forcing of technocratic Governments, first in Greece and then in Italy.
I dare say that these are bigger constitutional issues than have been debated in this House so far. I may be in a minority of one but I believe that the parties and leaders in this country, and particularly the Prime Minister, have a responsibility urgently to develop over the next few months a serious negotiating position for the United Kingdom and to stick to it in Europe over the next few years.
Lord Norton of Louth (Conservative)
My Lords, in the time available I wish to focus on constitutional affairs from two perspectives-those of process and substance.
I had the honour to be the first chairman of the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House. One of our first reports was on the process of constitutional change. That was in 2001. A decade on, the committee returned to the subject. Its report was published last July. In 2001, we expressed concern at the lack of a culture within government of dealing with constitutional issues. There was no coherence in the process by which constitutional issues were considered. The committee in its report last year-and I was again a member-noted:
"The evidence we have received points to this lack of coherence remaining a serious problem".
Not only was there no coherence to government policy in constitutional affairs but there was no coherence to the process by which the policy was generated within government. As the report recorded:
"It is of particular concern when this inconsistency appears to derive more from political considerations than any sense of constitutional principle".
It went on to note:
"There is a risk that changes to the constitution may be rushed through without any pause for thought as to their desirability or otherwise".
The Government's response to the report failed to assuage the committee's concerns but rather reinforced them. The response demonstrated a failure to appreciate the qualitatively distinct nature of constitutional change. There was no grasp of the fact that the constitution stands apart from other legislative change. The constitution is not the creature of the Government to be changed at will on the basis of political whim. The Government are the creature of the constitution rather than the other way round. We cannot afford to follow the Government in the way in which they deal with constitutional matters. Parliament has to adopt procedures that ensure that attempts to change the constitution are subject to scrutiny of a different order from that of ordinary legislation and, indeed, subject to a much higher order of justification. There needs to be a compelling case for change and not simply an arguable case. On such matters one cannot afford simply to give the Government the benefit of the doubt.
As Sir Jeffrey Jowell told the Constitution Committee:
"The time has come to simply take a little more care with constitutional reform".
We need, in particular, to be able to do what the Government are not doing: address how a change to one part affects other parts of the constitution. The academic and former Liberal Democrat MP David Howarth told the Committee that,
"we have no structural thinking going on about the interaction between the composition of the Houses ... the electoral systems, the courts and so on. We have no thinking about how all this fits together into a system of government".
We need to look holistically at our constitution and to understand the extent to which change does not take place in a vacuum. If you make major change to one part of our constitutional framework it has implications for the rest of that framework.
That brings me to the Government's proposals for reform of this House. We are told that a Bill will be brought forward. I served on the Joint Committee examining the Government's draft Bill and I have made the point before that we were limited in our examination. We addressed the Bill before us rather than looking at its wider implications. We looked at the relationship to the Commons and got rather bogged down in that exercise. We did not tackle the wider picture, nor for that matter did we address the principles underpinning change. We need to address the way in which change to one House affects the rest of our constitutional arrangements. The Government's stated proposals are flawed in that they derive from no such consideration. In short, the process is flawed.
I turn to the arguments that are advanced for an elected House. To listen to those who advance the case for election, one would think that the case is self-evident: that there is an unanswerable democratic argument for change; that in having an elected Chamber we should be following virtually every other second Chamber in the world; and that there is overwhelming popular support for change. Let me deal with each of those claims. One can indeed make a case for electing the House on democratic grounds. However, one can make a case on democratic grounds for not electing the second Chamber. Democracy-demos kratia-is about how people choose to govern themselves. In a representative democracy, accountability is fundamental. In our system, Governments are chosen through elections to the House of Commons and collectively are answerable to the people through the House of Commons. There is core accountability. There is one entity-the party or parties in government-responsible for public policy and the electors know who to call to account at the next general election.
Knowing that, the Government tend to be responsive to the mood of electors in between elections. As long as the final say rests with the House of Commons, the Government are able to govern and remain accountable to the electors. Electing the second Chamber would not necessarily produce co-equal Chambers. What it is likely to generate is a House with more powers and/or a willingness to use extant powers to a far greater extent than at present, and it would be in a position to frustrate on occasion the will of the first Chamber and, in effect, the capacity of government to govern. Accountability would be fragmented. There is an argument for that. My point is that there is, equally, an intellectually coherent case-I believe a compelling case-for maintaining the core accountability at the heart of our political system. One cannot proceed on the basis that what is being proposed by government is self-evidently the sole democratic option; it is not.
Some advance the argument that those who make or help make law must be elected. One can make that case, but it is not as clear cut as those who advance it appear to believe. They are in effect prioritising the accountability of individual Members over the collective accountability of government. I prefer to maintain the accountability of government to the people.
What about the claim that if we move to an elected second Chamber we will bring ourselves into line with other second Chambers around the globe? If we sought to follow the global norm, we would vote for abolition; most legislatures are unicameral. Bicameral legislatures adhere to no clear norm. Of the 76 second Chambers that exist, only 21 are wholly directly elected. Seventeen are indirectly elected, 15 are wholly appointed and the rest are selected by a variety of means.
The powers of second Chambers are also difficult to classify, as Meg Russell records in her article in the January issue of the Political Quarterly. She records the number of elected second Chambers with an absolute veto power over legislation and states that it is inaccurate to claim that in no single case does an elected second Chamber challenge the primacy of the first Chamber. In some systems, such as the presidential system of the United States, the concept of primacy is irrelevant. In parliamentary systems where the first Chamber can override the second, it is, as Meg Russell says,
"relatively common ... for this to require some kind of special majority".
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Conservative)
The information that my noble friend gave was very interesting, and new to me. Does it not contradict the mantra that we heard from my noble friend Lord Ashdown-sadly not in his place-who compared us to Belarus and others? Was he mistaken about that?
Lord Norton of Louth (Conservative)
My Lords, the simple answer is yes. Meg Russell's article explains directly in what way the noble Lord was mistaken.
There is an additional point germane to the present case that is rarely mentioned. We are not working on a blank canvas. We are not establishing a second Chamber from scratch. We cannot simply take an extant second Chamber and transpose it to the United Kingdom. The Government's proposals embody transitional arrangements, but there is no evidence that they have examined experience elsewhere of fundamental changes to second Chambers, and of transitions from one system to another. There has been some academic research, but relatively little. In the Joint Committee, I asked the Minister what study the Government had undertaken. A response in writing was offered, but as far as I am aware nothing was received.
I turn to public opinion. If people are asked whether they favour an elected second Chamber, they tend to say yes. My noble friend Lord Tyler reminded us of the figures last week. He included data reproduced in the Joint Committee report. He cited footnote 22 but did not report everything contained in it. What it showed was that it is quite possible to hold contradictory positions. In a Populus poll, 72% of respondents thought that at least half the Members of the second Chamber should be elected, while in the same poll 75% thought that the Chamber should remain largely appointed. It depends on how you ask the question.
We know from the Ipsos MORI poll of 2007 that electors privilege some of the functions of the present Chamber above the principle of having some Members elected. When one factors in options, that of election falls down the list. There is also evidence to suggest that the more people know about the House of Lords, the more they switch to favouring the existing House over an elected one. The picture is not as unambiguous as some claim.
On the argument that the issue has been discussed for more than a century, I made the point last week that the debate has been sporadic and rarely pursued at the level of first principles. Succeeding White Papers simply took the normative case as given and made no principled argument for change. The Joint Committee was limited by its terms of reference and did not address the case from first principles.
It has been argued that the Government's proposals are a distraction from more important issues. This claim is made in respect of the economic situation. I wish to make it in respect of a more basic point about our political system. Last week, my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in responding-or, rather, failing to respond-to the debate on the report of the Joint Committee, drew attention to the lack of trust in politics. It is a serious concern. My noble friend did not address the fact that the Government's proposals for the second Chamber-no accountability through re-election and no resources to respond to electors' pleas for assistance-would do nothing to restore faith in politics.
What he missed was where the problem lies. It is not in the structures and processes of our political system: the problem is with those who run the system. Arguing the case for structural reform is a form of displacement activity, a way of shifting responsibility elsewhere: "It is not us, it is the system". We will only restore trust in politics when we restore trust in politicians. That must be our principal focus. Without restoring that trust, there is no point in messing about with structures.
In short, we need a fundamental refocusing of our priorities. We need to consider what will restore trust in our political class. Changing our constitutional framework in an incoherent and ill-considered manner will do nothing to achieve that. If we are going to consider constitutional change, we need to begin by looking at our constitution holistically and making sense of where we are before deciding where we should be going. I have argued the case before for a constitutional convention and I reiterate the point I made last week that, if the Government really wish to take our constitution seriously, that is the route we should follow.
Yes, we can consider reform of this House-that is, reform within our existing constitutional framework. Changes to that framework are of a totally different order. The case for change has to be argued and its consequences fully explored. Assertion is simply not enough.
Lord Cotter (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, my comments today on constitutional reform relate solely to Lords reform. The issue of Lords reform has been with us for many years and has been addressed and enacted in a measured way over recent times, and quite rightly so, but now we have a proposal in front of us for a radical change-namely, an elected Chamber-which we must consider thoughtfully and seriously.
A committee was set up to consider the proposals and our thanks go to those Members who took part, particularly as the committee was put under time pressure to produce its report now when more time was needed. That is why I wish to thank those Members who got together to produce their well thought out and extremely valuable alternative report, which has drawn attention to aspects of the proposed reform which do not stand up or add up. It has demonstrated the need for more constructive consideration to be given to the impact and implications of the reform as proposed.
How can it be right that reform is proposed without clearly examining the relationship between the two Chambers and how they will be affected? The alternative report recommends that this issue must be addressed. Surely none of us embarks on a journey or a change without working out the destination or how things will change. This is a major fault in the process.
Perhaps I may mention at this stage why I was asked to join your Lordships' House. Although I had been an MP for eight years, I was asked because of my particular experience in the business world-I have been in business all my life-and, one hopes, to add something to my party's business team. There is one thing I know: if you are in business, you do not embark on change without first working out what the end result will be. That is just common sense. To me, this is a gaping hole in the proposed process for reform; it does not make sense.
A further point made in the alternative report is on costings. This area is equally important-in fact, surely it is vital. The wider public are entitled and will want to know what the costs will be for the elections and for the salaries, expenses and costs of the representatives-the Senators, as they may be called. The public must know what costs they are going to have to bear. Are we to throw all the balls in the air and hope that they land in some order, or will we examine things in more detail?
One of the problems is that people do not understand what we do here and how we do it. The noble Lord who has just spoken made that point, as have others, but I wish to make it again. In my short six years in this place I have been impressed not only by the expertise but by the esprit de corps of this place, where people work hard to improve legislation. For eight years I was an MP just along the corridor, only 100 yards away, but did I understand what this place was doing? No, I did not. Moreover, I think that many MPs would agree with that comment. It is ridiculous that we did not appreciate the work being done here. Now I do, however, and that is why I say that we have a vital and important role to play. Our elected Chamber is under government pressure because Governments of all colours want to push through their legislation quickly. That happens in an elected Chamber, and there is a danger that with a second elected Chamber, that sort of pressure will be put on it as well. I hope that we may now be better able to put the message over to the other place about what we actually do, and indeed to the public themselves.
I can truly say that I have been accosted in the street many times by ex-constituents of mine who tell me how much they appreciate the work being done in the House of Lords and the measured way that we approach and decide things. That has happened in the street, on buses, in trains and so on. I do not think that anyone has ever come up to me and said, "You are a whole load of rubbish", far from it. Colleagues have referred to the various ways of assessing opinion, and I shall quote just one example from the debate last week. My noble friend and colleague Lord Phillips referred to a public meeting he held to consider whether to elect this House or not. At the start, quite a number of people were in favour of election, but after all points of view were fairly represented there was a complete switch to acceptance of the House of Lords as it is. That emphasises the need for us to get the message out about what we really do here.
I can personally attest to my admiration for the work that is done in this Chamber. I can well remember that not long after I joined the House, in the spring/summer of 2007, the Government of the day were trying to press forward with the corporate manslaughter Bill. All parts of this House, as well as people elsewhere, wished to see that legislation become law because of its importance. However, resistance in this House ensured that there were five rounds of ping-pong on that legislation, right up to within hours before we were due to go into the Summer Recess. The Government kept saying no, but at the last minute they changed their mind on what was a small but very important issue. Surely we must all also accept the fantastic role recently played by the House of Lords when it came to assessing the Health and Social Care Bill. I sat on our Benches and looked at people opposite and around the Chamber and listened to people who had experience in the health field and really knew all about it, and it really impressed me that we were producing such a strong case for reconsideration of that Bill.
Just the other day, a small issue came up. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, is not here today, but he supported my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and others, as they raised a very important issue with regard to those who have been affected by asbestos. It was a small but very important issue of compensation. Fortunately, the argument was made well here and the Government conceded the point, and I was delighted to hear that. There are many other occasions that people who have been here longer than I can relay as well. Somebody is nodding their head; I think they did.
The expertise of this House is based on the wide experience people have. I could not do better than refer those who may have missed it to the intervention by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, earlier in this debate. With great clarity-clarity I can never achieve-she spoke about the breadth and quality of experience this House brought to consideration of the Welfare Reform Bill, as an example. She was so clear, it is worth rereading.
I realise that I have repeated some points made by others. This is usually not considered to be a very good thing to do, but on this occasion I think it is, because those of us who have concerns need to reinforce each other. The more who stand up to say they are concerned the less those who are going to be ticking the boxes afterwards will have to say, "Mmm, yes, right, whatever". So I have no hesitation in having repeated points made by various colleagues.
The Government have quite rightly said that we must concern ourselves with growth and the economy, and we all agree on this. This is another reason I believe that we should not embark on such a radical proposal as an elected Chamber at this time, particularly since so much time will be needed, with so much still to be resolved. We all know, whatever is said to the contrary, that the public are not having sleepless nights worrying about constitutional reform. No, they worry about jobs, their families, education, the NHS-the issues that really affect them-and it is our duty to address those issues.
I am speaking today because the proposed reforms are contentious, not properly worked out-as has been said by many colleagues-and could be contrary to the public interest. Like others, I want to devote my time to doing all I can, with colleagues, to address growth, business and the economy, to ensure that our youth and all people get the education and help they need to get the jobs they need. We need passion and determination to be directed to the real issues of the day: our people's needs and their wishes.
Lord Roberts of Conwy (Conservative)
My Lords, this Queen's Speech has been delivered against a deeply troubled global economic and social background, for which there is no clear, universally accepted, credible remedy. Although the precise nature of the crisis varies between continents and countries, there are unifying threads and common themes. We all want a return to growth, higher employment and prosperity, but the ways of achieving these desirable ends differ among economists and political leaders.
So much that was achieved in the past was financed by debt and resulted in unsustainable deficits, making reductions in public expenditure and austerity our first priority as a sound basis for an eventual return to sustainable growth. I am glad to see that that is noted in the Queen's Speech. But, of course, austere measures are as popular as public flagellation and result in mass protests, strikes and violent expressions of public anger. When a return to high spending is hoist as a banner before the public as an alternative way out of trouble, social unrest translates itself into a will to political and governmental change. We have seen such changes in Europe recently and are likely to see more. Former President Sarkozy was the 11th European leader to fall since 2008. What happens if and when the higher-spending policies fail for one reason or another is anybody's guess, but we bear our memories of the 1930s in Europe and the rise of the dictators very much in mind. Who can deny that the extremist clouds are already gathering? However stormy the outside world becomes, we in this sceptred isle want above all else to maintain and preserve stability. It is against that criterion that I judge the measures proposed in the Queen's Speech and what the Government will do.
Compliments to the coalition Government have been few and far between in the fraught weeks behind us, but their steadfast adherence to the policy of deficit reduction is truly commendable. The policy may not be radical enough to eliminate the deficit in this Parliament, but it is on the right lines and must be stuck to come what may. Austerity does not rule out positive measures to stimulate growth-far from it-and there is much that can be done to encourage growth. We should talk more about such measures-do austerity, talk growth; one leads to the other.
We need a wide-ranging change of ethos in our society-a reassertion of our traditional principles and values derived from our Judeo-Christian, classical cultural inheritance-to restore our British national spirit to its strength and vigour. We must express these principles and values, embody them in ourselves and encourage their embodiment in the work of other people.
Attacking our long established institutions in the name of reform and modernisation is not part of the change required and will contribute nothing to the country's well-being-quite the opposite, it is an irrelevance that will add to the nation's discontent. The draft House of Lords reform Bill, which we have referred to today, falls into this category. Mercifully, it was holed below the waterline by both reports discussed at the end of the previous Session. An elected House of Lords cannot be reconciled with the primacy of the House of Commons. I said that the Bill was holed below the waterline; after the speech of my noble friend Lord Norton, I think that it was blown out of the water, sky high, by salvo after salvo fired from cross-party lines.
One aspect of that earlier Bill which escaped close examination was why the Government were so badly and so persistently in need of it at this critical time of all times. There were a number of superficial answers that did not stand up to scrutiny, relating to party manifestos and coalition commitments and so on, but is the real reason that an elected House clears the way for greater executive power? It is part of the continuing battle between Crown and Parliament, as my noble friend Lord Elton pointed out in our debate on
My noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury highlighted in the same debate the fact that the previous Labour Government were defeated only six times in the Commons during 13 years, compared to 528 times in your Lordships' House. He went on to say that:
Those 48 defeats may be taken as a tribute to the principled robustness of your Lordships compared with the docile diffidence of the other place but I doubt whether the Government view it that way-Governments do not like defeats. In the course of that fascinating debate, there were a number of deprecatory references to the extensive use of the guillotine procedure in the other place. Few of us would be surprised if an attempt was made to establish a similar procedure here to limit time for debate. It would be strongly resisted, on all sides, because we are aware that we are among the last bastions of the citizen's rights and liberty, if not the last. If this was to become an elected House, we may be sure that such pressures would be brought to bear on Members that the Executive's ambition to establish guillotine procedures would be forced through. In that dread event, the oligarchy that is the Cabinet and its head, the Prime Minister, would rule supreme, without let or hindrance, short of an outright rebellion by elected Members.
Without being mildly paranoid about this possible change in the nature of our democracy, allow me to remind your Lordships, yet again, of the precarious, perilous situation that the western world is in. We were certainly reminded of that by the noble Lord, Lord Owen, just earlier this afternoon. We are reminded time and again of the 1930s and the rise of the fascist dictatorships. Could a time come when very firm government is necessary in this country and the services of a Napoleon of Notting Hill, with Cromwellian propensities, are required? Of course, it is a fanciful notion and we are not there yet.
However, I do not rely on history not to repeat itself. The constitutional convention proposed in the alternative report has listed among the issues it might consider:
"The relationship of the House of Lords to devolved assemblies, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland".
As one of only two parliamentary Conservative Peers with a home in Wales, a Minister of the old Welsh Office for more than 15 years and an MP for a Welsh constituency for 27 years, I wholly approve of that convention proposal as it applies to Wales. It is high time to examine not only the relationship between the National Assembly for Wales and this House, but the entire relationship between that body, its Assembly Government, and this UK Parliament and its Government. The truth is that there is little cohesion between the devolved and centralised bodies. I sense that the same is true of Scotland and Northern Ireland in different ways and to different extents. We have all drifted apart. It is no wonder that there is deep concern about the future prospects of the union.
The coalition Government have pursued a helpful, indeed promotional, role towards devolution in Wales. They held a referendum last year to confirm, or otherwise, the grant of additional powers to the Assembly under the 2006 Act. The referendum affirmed the grant of those powers, on a fairly low turnout. Subsequently, the coalition Government established a commission, chaired by Paul Silk, a former parliamentary official here at Westminster and a highly respected officer of the Assembly, to examine how the Assembly Government might be made more accountable, a transfer of selected fiscal powers to the Assembly, and what further constitutional changes might be appropriate. Wales is thus being encouraged to follow the path already taken by Scotland-a path eagerly sought by some leading members of Plaid Cymru for some years. Whether the Welsh electorate are tempted to seek independence depends on circumstances: the leadership they are given and their response to it.
Much depends, too, on the regional policies pursued by the United Kingdom Government, which are less favourable to Wales both as regards representation in the other place-to be reduced by 25%, if the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act comes into force-and, I suspect, as regards economic development in the broadest sense. Since the advent of devolution, the focus of UK government policy has, understandably, been on England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been left to do their own thing, especially in the devolved areas of government. That is not always for the best in terms of results, and that begins to show over time.
Ardent pro-devolutionists continue to sing the praises of the achievements of their cause, but the outcomes are not always as good as they would have us believe. In education, health and employment, for example, Wales visibly lags behind. The National Assembly's early ambition to raise Welsh GDP above the UK regional average has totally failed. Unemployment is high, which was to be expected because so much employment was created in the public sector and is unsustainable in austere conditions. Devolution is indeed a process and, like all processes, it will come to an end in time if it fails the people whom it is intended to serve.
Lord Cormack (Conservative)
My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy. We entered another place on the same day in June 1970 and have been friends ever since. I am also delighted to have been able to listen to the novel but extremely important speech of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, who, unlike most of us, did not talk about reform of your Lordships' House but with expert knowledge drew our attention to issues on which it is surely important that the Government should focus. I could not help but think during his speech that there is probably no other forum in this country-certainly not at the other end of the Corridor-where a speech based on such knowledge and expertise could have been delivered. The noble Lord will forgive me if I do not follow him; I am not equipped to do so. I want to talk on the subject on which we have focused our attention today.
There was a very interesting moment when the Deputy Prime Minister and Mr Mark Harper went to give evidence to the Joint Committee. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is not in his place, because I wanted to pay him a tribute-or at least to quote him. In the inimitable way in which we all know that the noble Lord speaks, he looked at the Deputy Prime Minister and, very respectfully, said: "Mr Clegg, are you a House of Commons man or are you a man from the House of Commons?". There was a look of blank incredulity on the Deputy Prime Minister's face. He really had not a clue what the noble Lord was talking about. Therein lies so much.
I like to think that I was a House of Commons man. I sat there for almost exactly 40 years, and I shall always look back on those years with great affection and a feeling of real gratitude. As Horace Walpole once said, there is no greater honour that any British-he actually said English-man could enjoy than being elected to represent a constituency in the House of Commons. A century or more later, Anthony Trollope said something very similar.
I still believe that. It is not that I do not enjoy this place; I do. I feel proud and honoured to be here. I believe that this place has a collegiate atmosphere that the other place does not and, indeed, never could have. It brings together a group of men and women of real, varied experience and expertise such as you would find in no other parliamentary assembly in the world. However, I still look down the Corridor to the place where there is an unambiguous democratic mandate. That is the great thing about our system: we all know where the buck stops.
Not everything is perfect in the House of Commons. My noble friend the Leader of the House, in a remarkable and frank interview that he gave to the FTearlier this week, talked about the elected second Chamber inevitably becoming far more assertive, and that is right. I would like to see the House of Commons become far more assertive, because it has become far too much the creature of the Executive. That is partly the fault of having had in recent years Governments with enormous majorities. If any man ever said a true thing, it was the late Francis Pym-Lord Pym-when he said in 1983 that he did not want the Government to have too big a majority. He was sacked for his pains, of course.
The trouble when you have a big majority, be it Mrs Thatcher's majority of 1983 or Mr Blair's of 1997 or 2001, is that it is very easy for Parliament to be the creature of the Executive. That is added to by the fact that the Executive are drawn from the legislature, and therefore there are always a fair number of very ambitious young men and women who are a little reluctant to cross swords with the powers that be. That is part of our system, and we all accept that, but I would like to see the Commons become more assertive. Through its new Backbench Business Committee, which seems to have got off to a very good start-I am delighted about that-I would like it to tackle the Government head-on on the subject of the timetabling of Bills, because the programming of Bills is inimical to true parliamentary democracy.
We do not have that here, and it is one of the greatest attributes of this place. We cannot, of course, veto ultimately but merely hold up. We can delay, at the most, for a year but we can and do say, "Think again". When your Lordships in this House look upon Bills-we have seen this happen recently, because not all legislation presented to us by the coalition Government has been impeccable in its drafting or in anything else-we have seen what was the Health and Social Care Bill improved beyond measure. We have seen the Welfare Reform Bill and the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill improved in this place, while at the same time Members in this place have recognised that they cannot stop the will of the elected House. I believe that we do not sufficiently accept, or many of us do not, how crucial to our unwritten constitution and our democracy that is.
I was talking recently to the ambassador of a major European country. He said to me, "We do not have a House of Lords and we would not invent one, but you have this assembly of extraordinarily varied and talented people, drawn from all walks of life and all backgrounds. Why are you thinking of getting rid of it"? It is not hampering democracy but buttressing democracy. It is adding to our system, not detracting from it, and we all ought to recognise that.
If it ever came to a referendum, I have absolute confidence that if these things were truly explained from public platforms around the country-colleagues have referred today to people perhaps not fully understanding how this place works-and the alternative of, as my noble friend Lady Shephard of Northwold said, 450 paid politicians were offered in exchange, I think that we would have a result similar to the one in the north-east when the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, then Mr Prescott, was confident that there would be an elected assembly, people were given the chance and they said no. Last week we saw something of the same in the series of referendums on mayoral office in many of our great cities. In the second city of our land, Birmingham, candidates were already lining up but the people said, "Hold on a minute-we don't want that". I think that they would say much the same in a referendum on the future of this place, but I hope that it does not come to that.
We will have before us a Bill to do with composition. Earlier today I sat in, as I am sure some of your Lordships did, on the Statement on the aircraft carriers. The Minister presented it very effectively and was congratulated in all parts of the House-some of the congratulations were slightly barbed but that is only to be expected-but he made the point that the Government recognised that a change of course and of policy was necessary. I hope that when they have listened to this debate and they come to draw up the Bill, they will realise that a change of policy is necessary here too.
The Government should focus on the word "composition". What does it mean? It refers to those who are here and perhaps to how they get here. We know that there are issues on which there is a degree of true consensus-and how that word has been distorted-right across the Benches in this Chamber. We all recognise that we have to look at such things as size, retirement and expulsion-a range of things that the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, in one of his speeches on his Bill, referred to as "housekeeping issues". That is partly the case, but they are more than that. There are things that could make this Chamber so much more effective than it is already.
This morning I was talking to a Minister who said to me, "I hope you will make the point about the committees on Europe". I promised that I would, so I will do so. In the House of Commons there is one committee dealing with European matters, chaired by the redoubtable Mr William Cash, whose views on Europe are of course entirely neutral, who has no fixed aim or agenda himself, and who chairs that committee with a draconian aplomb of which only Mr William Cash is capable. What do we have in this House? We were reminded yesterday, when the noble Lord, Lord Roper, stepped down from the European Union Committee and my noble friend Lord Boswell of Aynho was appointed to take over. There are eight sub-committees dealing with a range of issues, so effectively that there is no other country in the EU that produces reports of rival quality. That seems to be acknowledged whenever one talks to politicians and commentators in this country and beyond. Does that not add value to our system? Would it be possible to find the people for eight committees at the other end of the Corridor, taking into account their myriad responsibilities in their constituencies? Do not let us forget that because we do not have constituency responsibilities, we can bring to our work a degree of objectivity. We also do not have to face elections, and that brings objectivity too. We can bring that to our work, as well as more time to study and to take part in deliberations.
Last week I talked about form and function. If we are to look at the future of our parliamentary system, it is terribly important that we look at the function as well as the form-who can do what best? Although this place is not perfect, and no human institution ever was or will be, I believe that we have here an assembly of real worth and real renown, and I believe it would be a constitutional tragedy to get rid of it. The Business Secretary, Mr Cable, said we should do it quietly and quickly-my noble friend is nodding at me from the Front Bench, and I shall sit down in just a moment-like burying Sir John Moore at Corunna:
"We buried him darkly at dead of night".
They are not going to do that here. We have got to be prepared to put up a real fight if it is necessary, but I beg of my noble friend on the Front Bench that it will not be necessary so that we can reform this institution constructively and properly without creating unnecessary competition with the other end of the Corridor, creating a House that is not complementary but in conflict, because that is what we would do, and in the process exposing something else. Yesterday in this Chamber Her Majesty read the Speech from the Throne. That is what this debate is all about. Do we really want to suggest by implication that one has to be elected in order to be legitimate? I think not.
Lord Soley (Labour)
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, who I have exchanged views with on many occasions in the House of Commons. A number of the things that he said today I readily agree with. The thing that saddens me about the Queen's Speech on this issue is that there was not a very simple line saying, "My Government will bring forward a Bill to set up a constitutional convention to look at the wider aspects of the constitution". That way, I line myself up very solidly behind the alternative report on the draft Bill. The alternative is a constitutional one.
It is often said that we have been promising this for a hundred years and should get on with it. The reason we have been promising it for a hundred years and the reason it has not happened is a lesson worth learning, and it is one I had to learn over several years. It is this: you cannot reform the House of Lords on its own. As the noble Lord, Lord Cotter, said, people regard the House of Lords as something rather untidy hanging off the body politic. It is a bit like a long, dragging thread from a well knitted, attractive jumper. You feel you ought to pull it off and get rid of it because it is unattractive, but if you do so, you might end up with a very attractive jumper or you might end up with a tangled mass of wool with no recognisable purpose or pattern.
One of the things we sometimes forget, which has been touched on a number of times, but let me say it again, is that in a strict sense this House is not a legislature. We do not legislate. In a way, we have adopted what Walter Bagehot in the 19th century would have called the monarch's role to advise, to warn-in our case, to revise-to be consulted and all those things, but we do not legislate because the House of Commons, quite rightly as the elected Chamber, can reject virtually anything that we do. In that sense, we are not legislating. If you believe we are, then any civil servant who suggests that certain clauses go in a Bill that were not envisaged in the original Bill-and it has been known to happen on many occasions-is legislating, but the clause gets passed into law only if the Minister and the House of Commons agree. We advise, warn and revise, and that is a very important role. Unless we ask ourselves the key question about the purpose of our second Chamber, it becomes a bit of a nonsense to try to decide who should be in it because our problem is that to change that without changing anything else is, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, very effectively said, not to recognise the complexity of a constitution. It will change the way that other parts of it work.
If we decide to go down the road of election, we will end up, in effect, with a written constitution, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, put it very well. There is a case for a written constitution. However, any Government that set out to write one will find that the rest of their programme goes out of the window as they spend the next four or five years trying to decide what should and should not be in it. The very least that you would need to do is write down a clear set of rules on the respective powers of the two Houses. However, you would have to do much more than that. You would also have to decide the role of the Church of England-the role of the bishops-in relation to the state. A whole range of other things come into it. Therefore, a wholly elected House, although a perfectly legitimate idea, is one that you cannot just put forward without recognising that you are changing everything else. As has been suggested by a number of people, a partially elected Chamber raises as many problems as it solves.
As a one-liner, I say that the idea of having people elected for a long period-say 15 years-is a nonsense. Bear in mind that the reason for it is to discourage someone from then going into the other Chamber. If you are a 25 year-old who is elected to this Chamber for a 15-year term, you might well think of going into the other Chamber when you are 40. That is a good age to go into it. I went in at that age so there must be something to be said for it.
The key issue here is, again, scrutiny. If the House of Commons did scrutiny well, it would call into question the role that this House has now. Scrutiny is what this House does best. If the House of Commons suddenly started doing scrutiny well, you would have to ask, "What is our role?". The House of Commons is the political cockpit of the nation and it is important that that is so. However, inevitably, the political cockpit on the Floor of the House of Commons translates to a large extent, although not wholly, to the committees of that Chamber. That means that the detailed scrutiny of Bills will be different from what it would be if that were not the case, which raises a second question. If you elect the second Chamber, why will the political cockpit not be on the Floor of that Chamber and translate into its committees? Then you ask the key question again: what happens to scrutiny? It is the scrutiny role of this House that sets it out as being very effective and important. I would have no objection to certain changes if we were clear about what we would put in place instead.
Embarking on Lords reform without taking into account the impact on the rest of the constitution is a very serious matter. As I have said on several occasions in this place, the United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union that the world has ever seen. I feel very strongly about this issue. Union was brought about to deal with the fighting that was taking place in England, Scotland and the other parts of the United Kingdom. It ended up being, in effect, a federal system without a federal structure. In recent years, we have quite rightly devolved power to Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the great cities. We have elected mayors and we will now elect police commissioners. I am not opposed to that, although by having more elections we will not get rid of the apathy of which we rightly complain, and about which the noble Lord, Lord Laming, spoke eloquently. If people are to identify with elections, it is important that they feel that they are relevant to them and their lives. Incidentally, that is not just about the role of the elected person. It is also about something that troubles all western nations, not just the United Kingdom. It is not just about the allegations of lining our own pockets or whatever. It is also about the relationship between the media and politics, which makes it very difficult for individual politicians to establish any reputation other than a bad one. It is very easy to get one of those.
What I am trying to say is that, if you are going to devolve power, as I think we will continue to do, you have to put that in the context of constitutional change. If you just embark on looking at the structure of this place-the House of Lords-what are we going to do if the Scots vote for independence? As I have indicated, I very much hope that they will not, and I do not think that they will. I have enough confidence in the people of Scotland to see the disadvantages of it for them and for everyone else in the United Kingdom. But let us suppose that 30% vote in favour of independence and it becomes something of a running sore, and that a similar development happens in Wales, which is already there to some extent. One option that you have to ask yourself, as well as looking at the West Lothian question, which is being examined elsewhere at the moment, is about the possibility of a second Chamber that represents a federal United Kingdom. It should not be ruled out. But if you are going down the road of increased devolution, we have to address where we pull the United Kingdom back together. It is all very well devolving power, and I am in favour of it, but devolve it too far and you end up with a splintering and breaking up of the union. You need somewhere you can bring it back together again.
It is true, therefore, that you could consider a second Chamber that reflected the federal structure of the United Kingdom, which came about in theory when we united with Scotland 300 years ago. I am not suggesting that we do that, but it would be an act of lunacy to just look at the structure of the House of Lords without being aware of all the other things that we ourselves are doing in devolving power in both Chambers, and what both Chambers are doing. That brings me right back to the beginning of this argument that there is a case for a constitutional convention that can take this process step by step, looking at it in relation to what is happening in the other Chamber or other parts of the United Kingdom. You do what we have done very successfully in this country for 100 years and evolve the constitution. It has worked very well for many years, and I hope that it continues to do so.
Lord Lee of Trafford (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, in the debate last June on reform of this House, I made clear my total opposition to an elected House and the wholly unnecessary destruction of a great British institution. Nothing that has happened, certainly not the Joint Committee report, has altered my view. Indeed, what has been confirmed is that any fundamental change will lead to endless arguments and uncertainty on primacy, coupled with all the disadvantages of hybridity. I said in that debate that there was near zero public support, near zero media support and near zero support from serious political commentators for an elected House. Nothing has changed.
I certainly support evolutionary change, very much on the lines of Steel mark I; at least we have more consensus there. I have an open mind on variations to the existing methods of appointment. But no one can seriously believe that the knowledge and experience within your Lordships' House can be matched by senators elected on the lines proposed. Let us be absolutely clear that the drive for an elected Lords is Lib Dem driven. I fully respect my party's long-held view that in this day and age anyone involved in the legislative process should be elected by the people. That is an entirely legitimate position, but please do not try to convince us that it has any practical merit or, indeed, accountability.
The gracious Speech talks of reforming the composition of the Lords, but the long grass is growing longer. The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and others are falling over themselves to emphasise that Lords reform is not their top priority. Even my noble friend Lord Tyler, perhaps the arch-zealot for an elected House, did not over-focus on Lords reform today. But with Tory MP after Tory MP denouncing an elected Lords post appalling election results and with considerable unease in Tory ranks, is it not obvious to all that the only reason why this measure is being pursued at all is the Lib Dems' coalition lock?
I have to say that I question the morality of this. It is one thing to negotiate changes or improvements to normal proposed legislation; indeed, that is a legitimate part and parcel of coalition political life. But is it right that a minority coalition party, indeed a partner with only 9% of the total seats in the Commons, should effectively blackmail-that is what it is, and I take no pleasure in saying this-the clear majority partner to drive through major constitutional change on the flimsy pretext that this was in the three parties' manifestos at the last election? The issue comprised 116 words out of a Labour manifesto of 60 pages; 43 words out of 118 pages of a Conservative manifesto; and only 19 words-yes, 19-in a 103-page Lib Dem manifesto. Who seriously believes that anyone voted at the last general election because of these thin references to Lords reform, as my noble friend Lady Shephard said earlier?
Lord Tyler (Liberal Democrat)
I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I sincerely respect the sincerity and consistency with which he has advanced his views and hope that he will do the same for me. However, I must draw his attention to the fact that not just at the election but in the discussions that were held after it there was absolute unanimity between the two parties in the negotiations on the coalition agreement that this issue was to be part of the programme. Everybody involved in those discussions agreed to that. It was not a case of the minority party blackmailing the majority party, to use his term. That simply was not the case and I hope that he will therefore withdraw that word.
Lord Lee of Trafford (Liberal Democrat)
I will not withdraw that word. I hear what my noble friend says, respect his sincerity and accept what he says about the original composition and agreement of the coalition. However, I suggest that the situation has radically changed. I do not believe that the Prime Minister has any real commitment towards, or belief in, an elected House.
Recent quotations from senior members of my party are, frankly, a mixture of the naive and the bizarre, with our president, Tim Farron, quoted in the Observer saying that Lords reform could be got through in two weeks were it not for,
"a few Right-wing extremists".
I have been called many things in my time but never a right-wing extremist. Vince Cable, quoted in the Guardian, apparently told Sky that the Government should implement Lords reform "quietly and quickly"-some hope of that happening. Nick Clegg himself, in his article in Monday's Guardian entitled "The Centre Will Hold", said that,
"the third mid-term lesson is that we can only build a better economy with a better politics".
He went on to urge injecting democracy into the Lords. I confess that the relationship between the economy and House of Lords reform is a total mystery to me.
I firmly believe that any major constitutional change should be decided by a free vote in both Houses and a referendum of the people. Pleasingly, the Joint Committee also favours a referendum. How my party-the party of localism and community politics-whose policies are decided by party members who argued strongly and campaigned for a referendum on AV, can oppose a referendum is beyond me. To argue that we need elections to give this House legitimacy, as my leader does, but to resist allowing the people to have a say on the policy that would bring this about is surely an absurd and questionable stance. I hope that my party will reconsider its attitude to a referendum. Indeed, I heard my noble friend Lord Ashdown support a referendum in an interview yesterday.
As a democrat, I believe that if Parliament on a free vote and the country in a referendum vote for an elected House, then so be it. However, what I will oppose all the way is an unwanted and unnecessary Bill that is driven through on a whipped vote, possibly using the Parliament Act, and without consulting the people. That was described by my noble friend the Leader of the House in Wednesday's Financial Times as "the nuclear option". For me, the future of this great and effective House, which is part of our national heritage, transcends party politics.
Lord Naseby (Conservative)
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Lee, not least today when he produced a very brave speech, as it is not always easy to criticise your own party. He did it with finesse but with a thrust of the sword getting through to the heart.
The gracious Speech is clearly the most important speech made by the Government of the day. This one falls into three parts. I greatly welcome the first, the primacy of trying to get growth in our country and continuing to reduce the deficit. Some Bills in the gracious Speech will help that, including the energy Bill, provided that we as a nation face up to the increasing cost of nuclear fuel. There is the banking Bill, although we have to be rather careful not to make banking such a difficult profession to follow that we undermine credit to small and large businesses in the United Kingdom. However, what is missing from the tenor of the gracious Speech is a real crusade to achieve the real and necessary objective. I am very conscious of what is happening with the business rates of small businesses and retailers up and down the country. I hope that those on the Front Bench will listen to the suggestions in today's Financial Times from the chief executive of Sainsbury's.
The second objective listed in the Speech is tackling crime. I say, well done. There are huge threats to our country from very nasty people out there. We all know about al-Qaeda in a lot of detail. I happen to know in great depth about the Tamil Tigers, and there are other equally nasty factions out there, all of which wish to undermine society, whether it be in the West, the Middle East or Asia.
The third objective is, needless to say, the one that we have all focused on, which, frankly, sticks in the gullet: reforming the composition of your Lordships' House. It is totally irrelevant to the needs of our country today. Our Leader of the House, my noble friend, much to my surprise, gets on the front page of the Financial Times, where he suddenly changes tack. He admits that such reform will create a much more assertive House. I have again read his speeches, and this is the first time, as far as I can see, that he has openly come out and made it clear that the result, if the reform were to happen, would be a highly assertive House.
I do not want to go back over what I said the other day on the committee report, but I have to repeat that were I fortunate enough, and some 15 years younger, to stand for the half million electors of Northamptonshire, I could hardly turn around, if elected, and say, "I am terribly sorry, but I can't have anything to with matters of supply". Even more importantly, if the nation isconsidering whether or not to go to war, I can hardly say to the half million people of Northamptonshire, "I am terribly sorry; I am not allowed to do that bit". That is not tenable and it is high time that someone somewhere understood that point.
The Leader stated that he wanted a consensus. I have commented on that in some depth. There is a simple answer: call my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood into the Leader's study and say to him, "We the Government are prepared to resurrect your Bill and see it through". That is quite simple. Send my noble friend Lord Steel a message, sit him down in the study, give him a drink and tell him that that is the way forward. At the same time-this is probably the more difficult bit-the Government have to be honest with the people of the country and say, "That is the end of discussion about reform of the Lords". It is a bit like killing a rabbit. You have to do it properly to ensure that the animal does not suffer.
At the moment the animal, the body politic, is suffering. If that approach is not to be accepted, all the issues of cost, representation, primacy of the Commons and the daft idea of being elected for 15 years will come swelling back for discussion on the Floor of your Lordships' House. Do we really want to spend hours, days and months bogged down in a mire of a debate on issues that we have discussed so often and for so long? Perhaps I may emphasise my point of view. Nearly 40 years ago I had the privilege of being elected for the constituency of Northampton South by the princely majority of 179. I came into politics with a certain conviction, which I admit was influenced greatly by my readings of the Civil War, as some of my colleagues will know well, and over the years I grew more and more conscious of the importance of the primacy of the House of Commons and the sanctity of the role of MPs in that House.
Therefore, if push comes to shove and we are to have this lengthy debate, I shall move amendments, speak at great length and vote. I am prepared to work very long, very late and very often, and I shall go as near to a filibuster as I can under the rules of this House. I do not want to do that but I will do it to frustrate a Bill of the nature that I have just talked about.
I finish on the thought that there are huge problems out there, as every Member of your Lordships' House knows. We are all tuned in to what is happening-we are not in a Chamber that is cut off. Not least, all of us are very aware that families and businesses, young and old, are facing great difficulty, and they are all looking to the politicians for leadership. I suggest that in this Chamber we should be putting forward proposals, suggestions and policies that will help the economy; that is where we should be assertive. The depth of experience across this Chamber in commercial, industrial and financial matters is second to none in the nation and there is certainly a great deal more of it than is to be found in the other place.
Therefore, in the months ahead let us spend our time helping our nation to get out of the difficulties that we are in, rather than reflecting on the whims of a few politicians who believe that somehow or other making this Chamber democratic is going to help our nation.
Baroness Miller of Hendon (Conservative)
My Lords, before I begin, it is my duty to apologise for the fact that I was not here when my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the House, opened the debate this morning. Indeed, I missed a tiny bit of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who is sitting in his place, but I shall read Hansard. I am afraid that my absence was absolutely beyond my control. I was stuck not in traffic but in a position that prevented me from being here. I hope that the House will forgive me.
I now ask forgiveness for something else. I shall return to the subject of the House of Lords, of which I think we must all have had enough today, and I have been rushing through my notes to see whether I can take out the bits that have already been covered.
Yesterday, Her Majesty announced:
"A Bill will be brought forward to reform the composition of the House of Lords".
My noble friend has already mentioned the use of the word "composition" and my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley, in his excellent speech yesterday proposing the Motion for the Loyal Address, described this cryptic term as "opaque". The noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, made a similar complaint in her speech on the same Motion, and I, too, have no idea what the Government, or the coalition, have in mind. I felt very bad about that until I heard my noble friend Lady Shephard say that she did not know what it meant, and then I thought, "Well, if she doesn't know, it's not quite so bad if I don't know either".
Nor do I understand, considering all the publicity that there has been on the subject in the past few weeks and the forest of conflicting kites that have been flown, why the Government have been so coy about spelling out their plans in a little more detail for the purposes of the Queen's Speech. As we have been left to speculate on the Government's intentions on this important constitutional topic, I am going to make just a few points of my own in the hope that when the Bill finally emerges I will not need to address your Lordships in any detail at its Second Reading.
First, perhaps I may point out that, contrary to the mantra repeated by numerous speakers in debates in your Lordships' House and the other place, as well as in talk shows and discussions on television, reform of the House of Lords was not-I repeat emphatically, was not-in the manifestos of all three parties at the last general election. The Conservative manifesto, which I shall quote precisely, said:
"We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber".
In producing a draft Bill that was thoroughly examined by a Joint Committee of both Houses and rejected by it, and then by the alternative report written by half of that committee, and effectively demolished by the 74 speakers on the debate on the reports, the Conservative Party has fully and effectively honoured its election promise. It has established beyond question that whatever number of votes constitutes consensus, one is not even on the horizon on this subject. Moral obligation met: move on.
Why is this veiled threat about the constitution of your Lordships' House still hanging over our heads? Is it because of the pact with the Liberal Democrats in the programme for government,
"to establish a Committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation"?
As I have pointed out, a draft Bill was published and the Committee was established. It has duly reported and it rejected the coalition's manifesto-based proposals. I repeat: moral obligation met, so we should move on, especially as the electorate was not even invited to vote on it. More than that, last year the electorate, in an entirely democratic referendum, roundly rejected the idea of introducing proportional representation into elections for one branch of Parliament. Why, if it is not suitable for the House of Commons, should it be suitable for the House of Lords?
I remind the leaders of my party, in case hidden in the enigmatic announcement in the Queen's Speech there is some intention to agree with the Liberal Democrat request for a PR election, that our 2010 manifesto said:
"We support the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections".
I believe that we are entitled to expect the Government to adhere to this and to honour what they promised.
In a television interview last Sunday, the Chancellor proclaimed the need to focus on what is relevant, and on Monday the Prime Minister, in an article in the Daily Telegraph,repeated that. In the Daily Mailpublished yesterday, only hours before the Queen's Speech, he said:
"I must focus on what can be done, what must be done now".
I say with all the respect in the world to the leaders of my party, what the country does not need now, and what does not need to be done now, is to tie up both Houses of Parliament in hours, days and weeks of a long drawn out sterile argument about an elected Chamber, for which it is clear that this Government have absolutely no mandate, and for which there is absolutely no consensus among the parties, or between the two Houses, or even within the parties themselves.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no call for it by the public. If your Lordships were to ask the next thousand persons walking past the front of the Houses of Parliament, "What are your political concerns?", we can be sure that it would be the economy, unemployment, housing, immigration, and the cost of fuel. It would not be the composition of the House of Lords.
Let me make it clear that I am not implacably opposed to any change in the composition of your Lordships' House. I believe that the process of electing replacement hereditary Peers now has to cease. It was intended as a temporary measure after the 1999 Act, during the final stages of which I wept in this Chamber-I am doing it again; noble Lords must not laugh at me as that will make it worse-at the wanton and partisan destruction of more than 800 years of our history. The present hereditary Peers have earned their places for life at least as much as some Members whose qualification for membership has been that they are chums of one of the Prime Ministers-the present one or one that went before. That is not very satisfactory.
I agree with the rejected draft Bill and with the Joint Committee that there is a case for limiting the size of your Lordships' House. In recent times, under the successive leaderships of the major parties, like Topsy "it just growed". It is clear from the difficulty in finding space on these Benches in the Chamber, or in the car park or the Peers' Guest Room, that we must limit our numbers. Some anomalies were recently resolved by the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood, to which I trust the Government will now give fair passage in the other place-despite the mysterious proposed new Bill that they are talking about. This will allow Members to retire.
The United Kingdom is not the only country with a legislature that includes an appointed second Chamber. The Canadian Senate-sometimes called the Red Chamber-is wholly appointed, but with a term limit based on age. I declare an interest here. I know that I am not as young as I was, but fortunately, in my opinion, I am in possession of all my marbles. Black Rod and his staff would have a very hard job pushing me out of the door if it were decided that in future age was the criterion instead of the ability to do the job and contribute to the working of the House.
Finally, I turn to the future problems that any act of purposeless political correctness would create. At the time of the campaign to eject the hereditary Peers, I warned that it was one step on the slippery slope to salami-slicing our constitution and electing the second Chamber. I looked at my speech to make sure that that was what I said. I was right, and here we are. Therefore, I now warn any of those gullible enough to swallow the specious, pseudo-idealistic argument in favour of such a Chamber that the road on which the Bill is embarking will inevitably lead to calls for an elected head of state. Why would we risk unleashing anything like that? We should think carefully before taking forward any of these dreadful proposals.
Lord Mawhinney (Conservative)
My Lords, like most if not all speakers, I came with a prepared speech. However, this is a debate so I will start by acknowledging and expressing appreciation for three speeches. The first was that of the noble Lord, Lord Owen. He raised sombre, significant, far-reaching and urgent points. I very much hope that the Government will address them in the depth that they deserve before the debate on the gracious Speech winds to a conclusion. Secondly, the House is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for his insightful and true criticisms of the House of Commons scrutiny procedure. The third speech that I acknowledge with appreciation is that of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, who set out a compelling intellectual case. I say to my noble friends on the Front Bench that no Bill will go anywhere unless the points raised by my noble friend Lord Norton and the noble Lord, Lord Laming, are addressed to the satisfaction at least of this House.
The convention is that we are debating the constitution, and I will do that. However, as this is my only chance to speak on the gracious Speech, I will very quickly say how much I welcome the proposal to legislate on adoption. It is high time that Parliament put in its place political correctness at the expense of children. Secondly-this may differentiate me from a few Members on these Benches-I compliment the Government on their continued commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on aid. No matter how difficult times are-and I acknowledge them to be very difficult-the truth is that we are all better off than the poorest in the world, and it is appropriate for a British Government to recognise that reality. The Government have to do more about the effective delivery of that aid, but I welcome their acknowledgement of the need for it.
As to the constitutional aspects of the gracious Speech, I wish to refer to two of them. At the heart of our constitution is free speech, and I welcome the Government's commitment to bringing forward legislation to improve and modernise the laws of defamation. Some noble Lords will know that I have to declare an interest because I had the privilege of chairing the Joint Committee on the draft Defamation Bill. I have some reason to believe that the Government found our report helpful and I look forward to reading the Bill to see just how helpful they thought it was. However, there are big issues in the constitutional position of freedom of speech: the "chilling effect" that takes place at the moment; the need for mediation and arbitration as an alternative to rushing off to court; the cost of defamation proceedings; and the need to address the anonymous contributions on the internet. This is an important constitutional Bill and I welcome it.
On House of Lords reform, I have to be honest with the House and say that, as a former chairman of the Conservative Party, I am a little surprised that we are addressing such a Bill from a Government in which our party has a majority, given the history of the Conservative Party and its relations with your Lordships' House. But there you are: life continues to be surprising. If my noble friends were trying to surprise people, at least they had a success with me.
I go back a long way with the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, from when we were both kid MPs. We have a friendship that dates back a long way and I pay tribute to the bravery of his speech. This was also acknowledged by my noble friend Lord Naseby. It brought to mind something which I read in the Independent the other day, which was a Lib Dem spokesman saying that even on the doorstep in the local elections, Lords reform was not raised. If Lib Dem campaigners cannot get people on the doorstep to talk about Lords reform, then there really is no interest in the country about doing anything.
We hear that something has to be done because there are 800 of us. I would gently remind your Lordships that that is not because of some divine intervention-unless Tony Blair has a status of which I am unaware. He flooded the place, and an incoming Government who needed to have some balance for legislative reasons had to respond. There is no argument that the numbers need to go down; it is the proposal at the heart of the proposed Bill which is the problem.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Solely; we are not legislators but revisers and reviewers. If we were legislators our will would prevail, at least some of the time, but ultimately our will does not prevail. I, for one, utterly reject the idea that we have to be democratically elected because we are not legislators in the pure sense of the term.
As someone who has in his time drawn up election addresses on behalf of the party, I am hugely unimpressed. Never mind what the words say-the noble Lord, Lord Lee, has given a helpful indication of their importance-the truth is that the party's election address is not a matter of great consultation among the party, and not even among the MPs. I know that because I have been there, done that and got the T-shirt. For those of your Lordships who have never stood for election, I can tell you that the party's election address arrives long after individual candidates have written their own local election addresses. To suggest that what is written at party headquarters and released half way through an election becomes a binding commitment on every candidate is nonsense. It is not even worth the time to argue about it.
Then we move on to consensus. I was intrigued by the speeches of the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and indeed by that of my noble friend-and personal friend-Lord Wakeham. I am more confused than I was when this debate started. I have no idea what "consensus" means. Is it Front Bench/Back Bench? Is it the majority? Is it arm twisting to get a deal somewhere in the middle? Is that what consensus is? I have to say to your Lordships that if I had used language as loosely as that when I was seeking to get my university degrees in science, I would have failed, and if I had done that I would not be here today. Let us talk about what it is we actually mean, because if we try to conduct this debate on the basis of jargon, the country will suffer.
Let me add my support to something that others have said: this issue needs to focus on structures, on relationships and on primacy. It needs to outline the difficult questions and to find broad agreement on what are and should be the answers to those broad questions. I hope that my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth will forgive me because I think I have said what he said, but not with the elegance or the intellectual rigour. However, the point is well made and I want to support it.
The public priority was mentioned at the very beginning of the gracious Speech in the words:
"economic growth ... reduce the deficit and restore economic stability".
That is what the public are focused on at the moment: jobs, investment and small businesses. The gracious Speech acknowledged that and then moved on. Perhaps I may say to my noble friends on the Front Bench that for public confidence, competent delivery and persuasive communication are the essence of good politics. I can speak from experience as the Conservative Party chairman in the run-up to the 1997 general election. If the public lose confidence, it is virtually impossible to get it back, and it is against that background that this debate needs to be conducted.
My right honourable friend the Prime Minister said something the other day which I cannot have been the only one to have noticed. He said, "I believe that Parliament can handle more than one thing at a time". Parliament can handle more than one issue at a time but, if that issue is trying to get people elected into this House, it may just be that the Prime Minister will need to revise his judgment.
Baroness O'Loan (Crossbench)
My Lords, before I begin I would like to apologise to the House for the fact that I, too, was unable to be here for the beginning of the debate this morning. I was unavoidably delayed in the course of my journey here.
I wish to speak on the issue of the reform of the composition of the House of Lords, on which Her Majesty informed your Lordships' House that a Bill will be brought forward. The final days of the previous Session were marked by lengthy debate in your Lordships' House on this matter, and the one point on which there appeared to be wide-ranging consensus, using the commonly understood meaning of the word, was that the draft House of Lords Bill presented during the previous Session was not capable of enabling the complex processes of legislative enactment and all the other functions of the current parliamentary system in a way that would allow the proper development of the law. Indeed, a risk that the parliamentary system would become deadlocked by virtue of the opposing democratic mandates of the two Chambers was regularly identified. This is happening again today.
What the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said this morning indicates that there has been little change from the Bill with which we were presented in the previous Session, despite the valiant efforts of so many Members of this House. The noble Lord told us that Members will be directly elected; the second Chamber will have a democratic mandate; size and membership will be dramatically reduced; elected Members will come from all regions and nations of the UK; and we will be able to expel Members who have committed serious criminal offences.
Millions of words must have been written and spoken on this topic over the years and I almost hesitate to add to them. There clearly is no consensus on the matter between the parties currently in government. A report published in April 2012 by Mr Oliver Heald, a Member of the other place and chairman of the executive committee of the Society of Conservative Lawyers, with a foreword by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, chairman of research at the Society of Conservative Lawyers, stated that the Government's proposals would,
"jeopardise the Government's ability to govern effectively ... weaken the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament ... blur the constituency link between MPs and their constituents and lead to conflicts at local level ... reduce the quality and extent of the pool of talent available for the Second Chamber ... increase election costs by at least £100 million and add to the complexity of the voting system and ... increase the cost of running the Second Chamber by tens of millions of pounds each year".
This was a fairly succinct statement of the flaws in the Bill that was presented to us in the previous Session.
I do not speak in favour of the existing system of appointment to this House by the parties. The reality is that of our 830 Members, all but about 80 were either appointed by the parties or are Peers by virtue of heredity. Twenty-six are here because they are the current holders of office in the Church of England. We have a number of former Speakers of the other place. Only 50, I believe, have been appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission since its creation in 2000. They are appointed as non-party political Cross-Benchers. So 90% of our membership is party-appointed or government-appointed. One hundred and ten have been appointed since the election in 2010, despite both the Government and the Opposition having articulated their concerns about the number of Peers in the House. Actually, there is a simple solution to this: stop appointing for a while.
I support the proposal for a statutory appointments commission, particularly one that would include transparently appointed members of the public. I heard with interest the views of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, on the contribution-and indeed the value-of the Cross-Benchers. It continues to be my view that there must be space in any second Chamber for the views of those who, like me, could not subscribe to party politics, and who are not prepared to find themselves being whipped into Divisions, saying to one another, "We should not be doing this".
It would seem unlikely that a 100% elected house could deliver the diversity and range of experience that exist in the Chamber. Current processes provide diversity in this place. We have 22% women. We have 5.8% ethic minority Members-2.1% higher than in the other place. We have representatives of all the established Christian churches and the non-established Christian churches, and members of the Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and Buddhist communities. We have gay Members. We have very active and effective Members with disability.
Combined with the range of expertise in the House-which, despite protestations to the contrary, is extensive and significant-this diversity facilitates the work of the House well. As other noble Lords have said, we saw this in the previous Session in the amendments that were made to the Welfare Reform Act, the Health and Social Care Act, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, et cetera. We need more diversity but at least we have some. Given that election to the other place has not produced such diversity, one must ask whether election to this House would preserve the levels of diversity that we currently enjoy.
It is this system that the parties now seek to change. More than this, we have the frequently articulated problem of those who would wish to resign or retire, for a multiplicity of reasons-not least that having reached a distinguished age, and having made a significant contribution over the years, they now feel that they must continue to serve because that is their duty as a consequence of the honour that was bestowed on them by Her Majesty when their peerage was created. We have also the issue of dealing with those whose conduct is not commensurate with membership of the House. The Bill presented by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, which passed through this House during the previous Session, dealt effectively with these issues. The Bill was not given parliamentary time in the other place. The passing of a Bill with similar provisions would enable both a more effective Chamber and proper consideration of the impact of the creation of a second elected Chamber.
As one who came to this House only two years ago, I have observed the workings of the Chamber with interest and, on occasion-I have to confess-with some mystification. However, it has been almost always with a great admiration for those who play their part in the legislative process and who work very long hours debating word by word the content of legislation which has very often gone through the other place without proper consideration. Indeed, on occasion, I have asked Members of the other place how it was that legislation came to us in the form in which it did and why there had been no challenge to very obvious inconsistencies, or to provisions which would either produce manifest inequity or create a situation which would not enhance the law. They have often answered either that they expected the Lords to do it or that there was no time in the Commons. This was in spite of the fact that, having rushed draft legislation through the other place without proper consideration, Members of the other place complained that they then had no work to do while the painstaking work was being done in this House.
All this leads me to believe that reform of the parliamentary process is multi-faceted, involving not only consideration of matters of election or appointment, the conventions applicable to the relationships between the two Houses and the balance of power but also the way in which the other place functions and the impact of that on any reform of this House. Reform must deal with the presenting problems and the underlying issues, which are not just those of patronage and competition between parties but of the way in which our laws are made and our Governments scrutinised.
We are now in a double-dip recession. It could be a decade or more before we emerge, as we will, from it. At such times, one of the aims of governance must be to limit public spending and public borrowing requirements while protecting our existing constitutional rights. During the previous Session, for example, we agreed processes for the costly election of police commissioners who would be very well paid. I fear that we will come to regret those measures, particularly if the consequence of the election of police commissioners is even the perception of the politicisation of policing, which this country has managed to avoid since the establishment of policing as we know it in the 19th century. Now we are being asked to contemplate elections to this House. The question in these constrained times, when the general view is that there is no major interest in changing the House of Lords, must be what the cost would be. No figures were provided by the Government during the previous Session. Comparisons with the cost of elections to the European Parliament may be relevant here. Seventy-two United Kingdom Members were elected at a cost of £103 million in the previous election. We are proposing to elect some 300 or 400 Members of this House. In the absence of detailed costings in the alternative report on House of Lords reform, it is difficult to envisage how the election of 300 or 400 members from constituencies across the United Kingdom could cost only £113 million. If one were to extrapolate it, the cost of an election to this House could presumably be in the order of at least £200 million. If the UK is to spend £200 million per election, the process must be right, but, more importantly, the outcomes in terms of saving expenditure at a time of grave economic distress must be proven. It would be unacceptable, to say the least, were the Government to refuse to produce any risk register on reform of this House in all its elements.
The Government did not produce any prediction of the cost of an elected House whose Members would be paid a salary which would probably be at least twice the national average salary but slightly less than the income paid to Members of the other place. We know that the cost of Members in terms of Peers' expenses and financial support amounted to £18 million in the financial year 2010-11. In the other place, £185 million was spent on the pay, staffing and expenses of Members. So the membership costs of other place are 1000% of the cost of this place. At a time of financial stringency, when questions are legitimately to be asked about how public money is spent, it is hard to justify an increase from £18 million to the suggested £300 million or £400 million that it would cost to run an elected, paid House.
With an ageing population, requirements for NHS care for such disabling and restrictive conditions as osteoarthritis and sight loss will inevitably increase. For the cost of elections only to this House, we could currently provide 1,000 cataract operations. For the projected cost of an elected Chamber, the NHS could liberate at least 650 individuals from severe pain and mobility problems consequential upon osteoarthritis of the knee, with consequential savings for health and social care services. I acknowledge that it is inevitable that a second Chamber will cost money. My sole question is how the Government can assure us that what they are planning will actually work in terms of the delivery of parliamentary services to the people who pay for them. Until such time as we can assure the public that any proposed system would work, would produce the requisite 1evel of commitment and debate and challenge to government, and would ensure that it was democratic, we surely have a duty to be cautious.
I would now like to revert to the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, about the loss of confidence of people in politicians and hence, I would suggest, in democracy. The Committee on Standards in Public Life survey in 2011 showed that the percentage of people who think MPs are dedicated to working well for the public dropped from 46% to 26%. We now have organisations like Citizens UK and London Citizens, which are mobilising to identify key issues and to try to compel candidates for election to commit to making specific changes.
The people are rejecting the processes through which we are moving at present. Creating more elections will not solve the deficit in confidence. This confidence is earned as people see politicians of this Chamber and the other place actually working for the benefit of the people. What is undoubtedly required is transparency as to the process of how people come to membership of the House. There is an overwhelming need for the ability to demonstrate why the proposed arrangements could work as suggested.
Finally, I have referred to any risk register on the issue. If one does not exist, then as any Bill is drafted it should be accompanied by a serious analysis of the risks and necessary controls to secure a viable working Parliament. The operation of the current conventions, the presumption of the primacy of the other place, the consequences of the responsibilities of an elected Peer to their constituents, who will want accountability if they are to be required to pay £300 million or £400 million a year for it-otherwise there will be talk of another gravy train-cannot facilitate such a viable Parliament.
The starting place for this debate must be consideration of how the whole Parliament works, or does not work, and what is necessary to make it capable of serving the people better.
Viscount Eccles (Conservative)
My Lords, in expressing pleasure at following the noble Baroness, Lady O'Loan, I wish to follow up her theme of the loss of public confidence in our political system. Before that, I reflect that if this were a two-day cricket match and I could dictate that stumps are drawn at 6 pm, I would be able to continue on Monday afternoon, as I would not be out. However, it was not to be. I did not speak in the Richard report debate; nor do I want to refer to composition today, except to say that I may be an early example of indirect election. I was re-elected to this House by a vote of the whole House, and in being re-elected, I showed that you can be elected and enter this House twice, and can achieve sufficient accountability to get in the second time.
However, my interest is much more in the wider issue of public disenchantment with our political system. Turnout in the local elections was 31%. It was 24% in Nottingham, where there was also a referendum on whether to have a mayor. As has been pointed out, maybe that referendum was lost simply because of the thought that a mayor would cost money. It could of course be that the electorate could not see that the benefits would outweigh that cost.
In pursuing these matters, we within the Westminster system seem to think that changes to the constitution will work the oracle. That may well be the wrong target. It might be that it is not the structure which is at fault-here I follow my noble friend Lord Norton-but behaviour within the structure. As the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, said, the public may want more democracy, but they do not want more party politics. I just add to that, more three-party politics, because I defer to those who would like to analyse the BNP and UKIP, which I do not want to add in.
The question is: why do the public dislike the present three-party politics and are they sensible to be doubtful about it? I wish to make the case that they are sensible to be doubtful about it. The first thing that they see is that the possibilities of our political system have greatly changed. The big things have gone. We do not declare world wars any more. We do not have an empire. Instead, we see the global economy, the fall of communism, the rise of China and India and, as the noble Lord, Lord Owen, said, Europe. If I was a member of the voting public without the special ability to look at things in depth through the benefit of the committees of this House, I would say that we are in a dead muddle about Europe. We do not know what we think about Europe. That will not do, but that is the perception of a large proportion of the electorate.
As politics is about power, and as our power has been eroded in the past century, it is not so surprising that people get more doubtful about our political system. However, all the while, knowledge has expanded; all the while, science has marched gone, delivering material progress of an unprecedented kind. The average per capita income in real terms in the United Kingdom today is four times what it was in the depression of the 1930s. At the same time that the big canvas, the larger, simpler canvas, has shrunk, the smaller, much more complicated canvas has taken its place. The canvas of economic and social issues, human rights and all sorts of other issues has become much more complicated. We could not envisage making the simplicity of the speeches of, for example, Mr Gladstone or Mr Disraeli.
The electorate know that it is not the political system that has driven that material and scientific change. It may at times have added to it by being a bit clever here and there; or subtracted from it by being a bit silly here or there; but that has not been driven by the political system, because many political systems have achieved the same sort of material progress.
The majority, who are doing all right in general, who are not doing too badly, who are not the disadvantaged or-like me, by definition-the vulnerable, are uncertain about the political system and think that its propensity to make mistakes may outweigh its possible benefits. As there are always many things on which public money could be spent, there is one unforgivable achievement. That is to manage the national finances and run out of money. Is it any surprise that there is a degree of genuine and justifiable disillusion out there?
Of course, there has been another major change-the fall of socialist economics and the disappearance of Clause 4. The media still talk about right and left¸ but we talk about the centre ground. I do not know, in this muddle in the middle, where right or left are in our political system now. None of the three parties seems to have a unique set of core values that identify it as either right or left. The overlap is continuous, and you will find people all around this House and in all parties who have a value that they share. The electorate recognise this; they do not want politicians to keep talking to them about core values, because they do not believe that in any real sense they exist.
To return to the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, what is the role or relevance of adversarial party politics? I do not think the public value it. Instead, they value sound management and administration-if I may say so, the politics of Boris Johnson rather than the ideology of democratic legitimacy. While the political elite enjoy argument, mostly based on theory-in the elite I include think tanks, lobby groups and special advisers-the public look for consensus solutions to mundane matters, such as which drugs the NHS should be prescribing and which it should not, the queues at Heathrow and even aircraft carrier decisions, and all to be done without running out of money.
What has Parliament's response been to date to this pragmatism and common sense? Masses and masses of legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, reminded us in the debate on the report of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that 10,000 pages come in and only 4,000 go out. That is an unsustainable trend. You cannot go on like that; it makes no sense to anyone. The assumption in the system is still that we can impose change, and changed behaviour, on the electorate. That assumption is out of date and the electorate do not believe it can be done, nor do they believe that that tax capacity is there to pay for the programmes. As we add to the law, we need Bills about litigation because there is more of it, which is hardly surprising if you have more law.
Are there any hopeful signs? We seem to be moving towards pre-legislative scrutiny and draft Bills. We are a long way from stabilising the length of Halsbury's Laws of England or Tolley's Tax Guide, but then politics is always the art of the possible, and maybe we recognise that we need a much deeper understanding of what realistically can be done and of how best it can be done. We need to slow down and deepen that dialogue because the centre ground, which I am sure we all agree we should be on, implies a search for consensus, whatever you may want that word to mean. I would want it to mean that something came through this House and the vote was not called, because everyone knew that if it were called it would be lost. In that search for consensus, it may be that there is not much wrong with our constitution-it is probably the behaviour within it that needs to change.
Debate adjourned until