Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:22 pm on 29th November 2004.

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Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Shadow Minister, Law Officers (Constitutional Affairs) 6:22 pm, 29th November 2004

My Lords, as is usual in debates on the gracious Speech, the debate has been both interesting and wide-ranging. We have heard two distinguished maiden speeches from speakers whom we very much hope to hear again, although I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, will not mind if I make one small correction to her speech. The first MP of Indian descent was not, as she suggested, Mr Saklatvala, but Mr Dadabhai Naoroji, who was elected as a Liberal MP for Finsbury Central in 1894, some 30 years earlier.

I am in absolute agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, about the protection of universities and their staff from harassment by animal rights movements, and about the dangers to and damage caused by visa charges on students.

I was very much encouraged by the number of speakers this evening, starting with my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford and including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, who have expressed their concern about the threat of the Government's legislative programme to human rights and civil liberties. I refer in particular to the typically passionate speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, which I believe should be compulsory reading for the Prime Minister and all Ministers in the Home Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

The debate covered the problems of all the constituent parts of the United Kingdom—not only England, but also Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Battersea. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, was particularly thought-provoking. He said that he was a devolutionist because he is a unionist, and that he felt that that has been a success. It certainly appears so to all of us south of the Border, perhaps because the Scots now get so annoyed with Holyrood that they do not have the same time and incentive to get annoyed with Westminster.

I was struck by the concerns expressed about the problems of children and young people who get involved with the criminal justice system in the speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel.

My noble friend Lord Dholakia dealt with most of the Home Office Bills and I will indicate our response to the Bills from the Department for Constitutional Affairs which were referred to in the gracious Speech.

First, the criminal defence service Bill will govern legal aid in criminal cases. We of course support the principle of controlling costs and it is wholly unacceptable that 1 per cent of criminal cases account for 40 per cent of criminal legal aid. It is right in principle that defendants who can afford to pay should do so—if they are acquitted, of course, normally they recover their costs from public funds—but we are concerned that the savings may turn out to be small and that the need to assess ability to pay before legal aid can be granted may lead to significant delays. We need to be sure that the system for deciding whether legal aid should be granted is fair and speedy before we can give it our full support.

The Inquiries Bill will receive its Second Reading next week in your Lordships' House. This has not been exactly a good year for inquiries. The Bloody Sunday inquiry has taken an intolerable amount of time, it has cost an intolerable amount of money and it looks all too likely that it will leave us no clearer about the events of that day. The Hutton report can best be described as quick but naive and, of the high profile inquiries, only Butler comes out with a reasonable amount of credit—and then only from those who can translate the Mandarin into English.

The question is whether the Bill will improve the inquiry system. Inquiries should be independent, open, targeted and effective in their use of time. The Bill will help this and we give it a general welcome. We have some doubts about aspects of the Bill—for example, when we reach the Committee and Report stages of the Bill we shall want to look at the extent of the Government's powers to prevent publication of reports.

The judicial pensions Bill was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech, but we shall see it shortly. Here I find myself—a little to my surprise—in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, although I do not find myself in anything like total agreement with the rest of what he said. The purpose of the Bill is to give judges an exemption from the proposed general rule that relief on pension contributions will not be given if the pension pot exceeds £1.5 million. It is not clear why judges need a special exemption from this tax law. They are not normally immune from changes in tax law; if the rate of income tax goes up, the amount of income tax that judges pay goes up.

Judges get generous pensions. As I understand it, they receive a two-thirds pension after 20 years' service and—this is important—most of them will have built up substantial private pension pots during their time in practice. Most judges take a substantial cut in earnings when they go onto the Bench—no doubt a good judicial pension is part of the incentive for them to do so—but it is not clear whether this special exemption is justified. If the present incentives are inadequate it would be better to be open and to increase judicial salaries, rather than to hide any increase by fiddling with the tax arrangements. We are therefore very likely to oppose the Bill.

We are likely to support the draft civil claims and tribunals Bill and we agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, in that regard. The Constitutional Reform Bill has been carried over—I shall speak to that Bill shortly—and there are a number of other Bills which involve the Department for Constitutional Affairs and other departments.

We shall support the Mental Capacity Bill, which has been carried over. It clarifies and strengthens the rights of a vulnerable section of the community and we certainly do not see it, as some have claimed, as a Bill to authorise euthanasia. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, which had its Second Reading today, is, of course, just that. I support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, but that is an entirely different matter.

An equality Bill will establish a single commission for equality and human rights. That is a principle which we have strongly supported, although we are not satisfied that the commission will have adequate powers.

With regard to the charities Bill, again, we welcome the modernisation of an archaic field of law. There can be few others where so much attention is still paid to a statute passed in 1603. We support the Bill in principle.

The draft corporate manslaughter Bill is, in fact, a DTI Bill, but it is dealt with here as a Home Office Bill. There are undoubtedly problems with the existing law. In frequent cases, no individual in a company is so negligent as to be personally guilty of manslaughter, but the cumulative effect of the failures of several different people is to leave the company with a wholly inadequate system to ensure health and safety. It is plainly right that in those circumstances, the corporation should be convicted of manslaughter and therefore subject to a heavy fine and damage to its reputation.

However, it does not follow, as some people have suggested, that when a company is convicted of corporate manslaughter, the directors of that company should therefore be liable to prison. That should happen only when a director is charged with manslaughter under the existing law on the grounds of his own gross negligence. However, I suggest that we investigate the possibility of extending civil penalties under the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 to cases where failures of the directors have collectively contributed to a corporate manslaughter case.

Let me turn to the wider question of the constitution. Since 1997, the Government have made many changes to the constitution. We have supported almost all of them—indeed, we advocated many of them long before the Government did. But there is unfinished business. I should like to mention three outstanding issues. One is party funding, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland. He rather understated the amount of money that has been spent in the past because he referred to the money spent in the 2001 election and not to the much larger sums spent in the 1997 election, when the Conservatives spent £26 million and the Labour Party £28 million.

I think that the time has come—and I hope that the Electoral Commission will say so in its report—for a cap on the amount that can be given to a political party by any individual or corporation. At the other end, there should be tax relief, perhaps similar to Gift Aid, on small donations to political parties.

Secondly, in its manifesto for the last election, the Labour Party committed itself to a review of voting systems. That review plainly cannot be completed before the election is called, but it could at least be announced and commenced. There has been no action so far, and I hope that that will come before the dissolution of the present Parliament.

Thirdly, and most importantly, is the further reform of your Lordships' House. There has been no movement whatever for five years. The present position is simply not sustainable. Nothing is proposed in the gracious Speech. To some extent, I can understand that, because any proposals will be controversial and not suitable for what is likely to be a short Session of Parliament. But we have made our views clear to the Government.

We believe that three principles must be applied to reform. First, your Lordships' House must contain elected Members. Secondly, those elected Members must, at least by the end of the transitional period, amount to a clear majority of Members of your Lordships' House. Thirdly, those Members must be elected by a democratic and proportional system and not by some half-baked secondary system such as that proposed by Billy Bragg. We greatly welcome the initiative of five senior Members of Parliament—Robin Cook, Tony Wright, Ken Clarke, George Young and my honourable friend Paul Tyler—in publishing their proposals for the reform of your Lordships' House and their intention to produce a draft Bill in the new year. I believe that there is wide recognition in all parties, not only in mine, of the need for democratic reform of your Lordship's House.

Today's debate has covered issues that are central to the Government's legislative programme. We need to look and we will look at the items in that programme on their merits. To some, I have indicated that we will give full support. In some cases, we will have to wait to see the details before we can make a decision. Others, we will oppose. We recognise that the security of the public from terrorism and from more mundane forms of crime is of enormous importance, but so too are the liberty and freedom of the individual. Terrible evils have been done in the past in the name of security. It is ironic that in revolutionary France the committee of public safety was the vehicle for the terror.

Of course, some restrictions on liberty may have to be imposed for the sake of security, but those restrictions must be imposed only if they are necessary, proportionate to the threat and are measures that are likely to be effective. It is against those benchmarks that we will test the proposals in the Government's programme.