– in the House of Lords at 11:48 am on 15th June 2006.
rose to call attention to the report of the Power inquiry Power to the People; and to move for Papers.
My Lords, I shall start by making a few remarks that are entirely out of order but appropriate today. I am delighted by the introduction to your Lordships' House today of my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester. I spent some eight years under her leadership receiving my orders and instructions from her, and I am delighted that she has now been reduced to the same level as the rest of us. I also look forward to the maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford.
The Government, to their credit, have introduced many important constitutional reforms in the past nine years. They include devolution for Scotland and Wales, the Human Rights Act 1998, the House of Lords Act 1999, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and, last year, the Constitutional Reform Act. Some of those Acts are unfinished business, particularly the government of Wales, which is now receiving further attention, House of Lords reform and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, which is now being looked at again by the committee of Sir Hayden Phillips.
We now have the Power report by a commission set up by the Joseph Rowntree trusts. We owe a great debt to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, as chair of the commission, and her team for their work. They have taken up this unfinished business and gone beyond it, especially in taking up the important issue of the disengagement of ordinary people from politics. I do not agree with everything in the report—when I disagree I will say so—but I agree with the great majority of its recommendations.
Let me start with disengagement, which, I feel, is an absolutely crucial problem for us. Disengagement has happened; low turnouts prove that. I suspect that engagement may have diminished even further than the turnout figures show because of the increasing number of those eligible to vote who are not on the register. The causes of lower turnout are not all bad by any means.
For a long period—roughly from the 1920s to the 1980s—a high proportion of the electorate felt that either the Conservatives or the Labour Party represented their team, to which they owed a class loyalty. It is absurd to say that class divisions no longer exist but they are plainly far less important than they were when most Members of your Lordships' House were young. That, I believe unequivocally, is a good thing.
With the collapse of what I would describe as Clause IV socialism as a credible economic theory and the implosion of the Soviet Union, ideology has become far less important. There is a wide agreement on economic issues nowadays and a wide consensus on the need for—and what are—appropriate public services. Again, this is a positive change. But even if these changes are positive, the decline in participation in politics is bad and we need to find ways to correct this.
The report says that there needs to be:
"A re-balancing of power between the constituent elements of the political system: a shift of power away from the Executive to Parliament and from central to local government".
I agree profoundly with both those conclusions.
The greatest defect which now exists in the British constitution is what was memorably described by the late Lord Hailsham as "elective dictatorship"; that is, the ability of the executive backed by a working majority in the House of Commons to enact whatever legislation they choose. The two most important checks that exist on elective dictatorship nowadays are the judiciary and your Lordships' House. Of these the judiciary is at present the most important—here I am stepping a bit outside what was considered by the Power commission.
Fifty years ago, the judiciary was complacent and rarely interfered with government decisions. For a number of reasons, that has changed radically since the 1960s and there is now a great deal more tension between the executive and the judiciary. That tension is a healthy thing if it does not go too far. We do not want a complacent judiciary who are, in Chancellor Bacon's words, "lions under the throne". But judges need to exercise restraint and so do politicians. As I pointed out at Question Time on Monday, Ministers have a statutory obligation to defend the independence of the judiciary. That obligation is breached by Ministers who describe the decision of a judge as "an abuse of common sense", especially when that Minister is the Prime Minister and the decision is under appeal. I welcome the efforts of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to cool down the overheated statements from some of his colleagues. He clearly recognises the problems that are arising.
The second check on elective dictatorship is your Lordships' House. I will touch only briefly on the question of further reform of this House. It is a subject which this House discusses frequently, and from time to time, I fear, almost ad nauseam. I agree with the Power commission that, for your Lordships' House to be a more effective check on the executive than it is now, it needs to contain a majority of elected Members. In the words of Edward Gibbon in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
"The principles of a free constitution are irrevocably lost when the legislative power is nominated by the Executive".
I agree with most of the Power commission's recommendations on your Lordships' House, although not with the idea that it should have a compulsory minimum age of 40. We need some younger Members in this House. We are very short of them at present. I agree that your Lordships' House should not be used as a stepping stone to the House of Commons by ambitious young politicians, but there are other ways of achieving that than by having a minimum age of 40. We also need—and this is even more important—to strengthen the powers of the House of Commons over the executive.
There is one way—and I believe only one—of achieving this: a change in the electoral system to make the House of Commons more representative of the views of people as a whole. The idea that a party with 35 per cent of the popular vote has a mandate to carry out its manifesto is, frankly, absurd. With a proportional representational system we usually get a coalition or minority government; that, I believe, is a good thing and not a bad thing. A strong government can be dangerous if they are not supported by the wishes of the people and if they confer on themselves powers they should not have. A government elected by a proper system of election would genuinely need to have the support of the majority behind their policies before they could implement them.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. Perhaps I may say that as someone with considerable practical experience of fighting elections under the single-transferable vote system of election, I find the passages of the Power report dealing with this subject to be its weakest. It failed to appreciate the way in which STV, in particular, gravely weakens parties internally and helps to produce poor-quality government.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord's intervention. The single transferable vote is, I believe, a very substantial improvement. Of course the situation in Northern Ireland is different from that on this side of the Irish Sea because it is a country where there are deep and fundamental divisions between two parts of the community. I do not want to go into the advantages of STV and I recognise that no system is perfect, but I believe that it offers us a more balanced representation of public opinion in Parliament and that it will give us more diversity of membership.
As the Power commission points out, a PR system such as STV or an open list would mean that individual voters would be far more likely to influence the outcome of elections and would provide an incentive to vote.
The other shift of power which the Power commission calls for is from central to local government. For a long time, particularly for the past 25 years, power has constantly been taken from local government and transferred to the centre. That process continues to this day. One hundred years ago the great cities of this country had civic pride and local government mattered. Birmingham City Council, in the days of the Chamberlain family, was a body of national importance. The great town halls in cities such as Manchester and Bradford really stood for something. It is not surprising that as powers have moved to the centre, local pride in cities and counties is lost and the turnout at local elections becomes shameful.
I am not nostalgic, but in this case I believe that something of real value has been lost, and we need to get it back. Powers need to be restored to local authorities. Local authorities should raise more of their own funds as the Power commission recommends with, of course, a subsidy from central funds for local authorities with weaker tax bases. I recognise that this could lead to more postcode differentials in the exercise of powers, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. It could give rise to innovation and experiment on a wider scale around the country. Again, however, a vital element here is a change in the electoral system to avoid inertia and corruption, which develops in places that are single-party monopolies under the present system.
The Power commission proposes further ways of re-engaging citizens in politics. I do not agree with all of them. I have to say that I am dubious, to say the least, about the proposals for citizens' initiatives. Last year, the BBC's "Today" programme invited listeners to propose new legislation. The winner of the vote was a Bill to make it easier for householders to shoot burglars. I therefore remain somewhat doubtful about the value of that proposal. I also think that the Power report seriously underestimates the extent to which most MPs already engage with their constituents, perhaps because I do not think the Power commission included anyone with experience of service as a Member of the House of Commons.
I agree, however, with many other proposals, including the reduction of the voting age to 16. We raised this in the debate on the Electoral Administration Bill, but we were defeated by the combined forces of Labour and the Conservatives. We believe that the casting of a vote should be treated as one of the rites of passage to adult citizenship. Giving 16 year-olds the right to vote would mean that most young people who stay at school until 18 would have the chance to vote in local elections, if not in a general election, while still at school. This would give a sense of reality and immediacy to citizenship courses, and would get young people into the habit of voting.
Another important recommendation relates to party funding. The report proposes the capping of contributions by individuals and organisations. The figures proposed for the cap are open to question, but we believe that the principle is plainly right. A corollary to this is the need to increase state funding. In this, the Power report makes a very useful suggestion, borrowed, I think, from the USA. Each voter could tick a box on the ballot paper at a general election which would require the Treasury to donate £3 a year to the party of the voter's choice in their local area. This could well be coupled with the recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, of which I was a member at the time, to allow a form of tax relief similar to gift aid on small donations to political parties.
Finally, the Power commission does not deal with one issue that we believe is of great importance: the need for a written constitution. We have, although we do not always recognise it, what is already to a very large extent a written constitution. The central principles of the system of government are now written in statute. There are, however, several problems. First, there are a significant number of gaps. There is, for example, no statutory control over what is described formally as the Royal prerogative, but is in fact the Prime Minister's prerogative. We have, as yet, no Civil Service Act, and we have incomplete reform of your Lordships' House and, as I mentioned earlier, of other institutions. Secondly, the constitutional bits of statutes are mixed in with a lot of stuff that is not really constitutional. For example, the Constitutional Reform Act not only sets up the Supreme Court and the Judicial Appointments Commission, which are clearly matters of the highest constitutional importance, but contains a great deal of detail, for example, on the procedure by which the ombudsman will deal with complaints against the judiciary—administrative rather than constitutional matters.
Thirdly, at present, we have no entrenchment of the central provisions of the constitution requiring a special procedure for their amendment. In constitutional theory, the Scotland Act could be amended or repealed by ordinary Act of Parliament. The Human Rights Act, which I regard as a modern Magna Carta, could be repealed or mutilated by a decision of the House of Commons alone. That is not just a theoretical but a real risk with a Prime Minister who appears to regard the Human Rights Act as a tiresome nuisance.
I began by welcoming the constitutional reforms introduced by the Government since 1997. Let me finish by emphasising that much remains to be done. The Power report makes a vital contribution to that process. The rebalancing of powers as the Power commission proposes is essential. We should not only take note of those proposals but act on them. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and the Power inquiry team on a serious and important contribution to the debate on political participation. Of course, it is a report with attitude; I would not have expected or hoped for much else. She and the other members of the team have a point of view and the report, while extremely well written, constantly hovers between impartial objectivity and a niggling unease with the way in which the Government conduct their political affairs. You can feel the noble Baroness straining to be critical but, in the end, judicial integrity wins through and the report makes great strides towards achieving the truth about political disengagement.
At the heart of the report is a tension between a long-standing commitment to representative democracy and a growing understanding that participatory democracy is the emerging future of politics. In the end, the report's commitment to participatory democracy is decisive. It makes it clear that,
"when 'ordinary' citizens are presented with clear information and given the freedom and structure to deliberate on that information, they will come to decisions as reasons and balanced as those made by elected representatives or public officials".
In my view, that is the basic sentiment that underpins participatory democracy. The people can do it if you give them the chance. There is, of course, a caveat in the report, that on no account must ordinary voters be allowed unqualified access to political power. So there is a way to go yet.
The report is right to say that we face a crisis of political engagement. The metaphor that I have long used for this crisis is the empty stadium. We who work in politics continue as normal while the audience—in this case, literally—trickles away. The report is also right to make it clear that the current crisis of democracy has no single cause or easy explanation. It flows from the whirlwind of change, much of it generated by globalisation, which has transformed our politics in recent years. That process of accelerated change has trapped political engagement inside a four-sided box: national states are more vulnerable than ever before; disengaged citizens are more insecure than ever before; consumers are more empowered than ever before; and communications are more contaminated than ever before. That is the box from which political engagement must escape.
I demur from the description of the modern Executive as quietly and increasingly authoritarian. Politics is an activity concerned mostly with survival in a dangerous and uncertain world. As the world becomes more hostile, more complex and faster-moving, that becomes an ever more arduous task. Perceptions of the Executive seeking more power are much less a result of the state seeking more power and much more a result of the state seeking to exercise its legitimate power in much more demanding circumstances—less the authoritarian state, much more the vulnerable state.
If the state is vulnerable, the citizen feels insecure and trapped by a series of competing forces apparently beyond his or her control. Global schism has left many feeling trapped and exposed. People feel that the world is being divided by religion, environment and economic differences that appear to be beyond their control.
Globalisation has led to a heightened sense of the individual's lack of control. Although people can see the benefits of an increasingly interconnected world, many feel unnerved and exposed by their greater dependence on external events and their capacity to influence them. Community is believed to have eroded in the face of those pressures. The focus of that is concerns about crime, anti-social behaviour, the decline of traditional family life and migration, which, in their turn, are the result of globalisation.
Those perceptions of a declining community, linked to a perceived erosion of traditional sources of authority, have further helped to foster distrust towards public and political institutions. In the face of that, confidence in the effectiveness of elected Governments has been eroded as people see the power of global forces that seem beyond the scope of government. To many, global corporations now seem more powerful than Governments. The autonomous power of national Governments appears weakened in the face of global, economic, social and migratory forces.
In contrast, as citizens feel more insecure, consumers feel more empowered. As consumers, the public across Europe display confidence and empowerment. People feel that they have a real choice as consumers and are able to exert control and influence over their lives. As one well known commentator has written,
"they want to 'opt in' and make their own choices, controlling their destinies and their cash. They want their voices to be heard and they want them to matter".
Ironically, the individual as consumer feels more empowered and more in control of his or her life than ever, while the same individual, as citizen, feels more insecure and more disempowered in the face of vast global forces.
The empowered consumer goes further than just wanting choice. He or she now wants self-actualisation, a world of connection, community and authenticity. That produces an extraordinary bipolarity where the same person can feel empowered as a consumer, yet disempowered as a citizen. That tension between the insecure citizen and the empowered consumer further heightens the sense of political engagement as the individual seeks fulfilment of control but as a citizen feels voiceless and lacking in influence. The world of consumption appears to meet modern needs. The world of politics appears to frustrate them. This gap between consumer empowerment and citizen insecurity leads to frustration, resentment and a loss of faith in politics. But it is the twisted and distorted nature of so much communication about politics that turns scepticism about politics into resentment about politics and, ultimately, to political disengagement.
Steve Barnett, professor of politics, has laid out the four phases of media development; that is, the age of deference, the age of debate, the age of journalistic disdain and, finally, the age of contempt. He says that,
"there is considerable evidence on both sides of the Atlantic that media reporting has crossed the line from detached skepticism to derision and ridicule . . . politicians are treated almost routinely as a lower form of life".
As the report says, it is foolish to say that it is only the media's fault. It is clear that there is a joint responsibility between politics and the media, but the cost of contaminated political communication has been high. The UK now has the least trusted political system in Europe and the least trusted press, with 77 per cent of people not trusting it. No one can be content with that.
We are left with a four-sided problem—a box from which we must escape. We have modern states battling to make sense of a world of risk and disorder, a world of conventional politics that is blamed for insecurity, powerlessness and social fracture, a consumer world of empowerment and self-realisation that is profoundly disconnected from the world of politics, and political communication that all too often treats politics and politicians with contempt and abuse, and in which the feeling is increasingly entirely mutual.
It is not surprising that the stadium is emptying and the public are disengaging from politics. I have long believed that there is only one response to the empty stadium; it is to effect a complete revolution, transforming our politics from passivity to participation. If we are to fill the stadium, we need a new kind of politics and a new kind of democracy that puts participation at its heart.
If I have a criticism of the report, it is that it places too much reliance on constitutional reform as a remedy for such huge and sweeping changes. I do not believe that, for example, electoral reform of the voting system for the European elections has made any difference to participation in those elections. I do not believe that a new Select Committee for supranational institutions is anywhere near an appropriate response to the revolution in globalisation that has gripped the world in recent decades. If we do seek to create democracy out of the global forces that surround us, we must look for a far more radical realignment of the global forces that govern us, the sort of solutions that, for example, David Held from the LSE has been developing with his "cosmopolitan democracy" notion. But the strength of the report outweighs these weaknesses. The step that the report makes into participatory democracy is decisive. It is this recognition of the limits of conventional representational democracy and the need to develop a new form of democracy based on direct participation that will be the lasting impact of the Power inquiry. Participatory democracy is not delegated democracy; it is interactive democracy in which political participation is based on free and full information, open debate and shared responsibility for outcomes. It involves a new relationship between citizen and representative which is continuous and responsive, and a relationship between citizen and executive that is direct and reciprocal.
For this to work, a lot of things must change. Politics has to become more open and transparent, the media less cynical and destructive and the Executive more realistic about the limits and possibilities of political change. But, above all, the formal political class has to recognise that over recent years it has moved from being part of the solution to being part of the problem, and that the way out of the box lies not with making constitutional amendments to conventional politics, but by making informal politics the driver of a new and transformed political process which has participation at its heart.
That sounds far-fetched, but we can be assured that it is already happening. In 2001, I stood up after the general election and said that never again would we fight an election that would lead to such high levels of disengagement. I argued that that election was the last of its kind and that the next campaign would be based around participatory campaigning. I was wrong, of course. The next campaign produced little more in the way of genuine participation than the one preceding it. But goodness knows we tried: phones, mails, e-mailings, local campaigning and massive amounts of additional resources to local constituency campaigning. In 2005, we were more local and more interactive than ever before, but it did not work, for one simple reason: it was driven from the top down and not from the bottom up.
Historically, political change is driven from the bottom, and that is more true today than ever. The public want participation, they want involvement, but they do not want it on our terms. There is a revolution taking place in politics and communication, but the revolution is not ours. If we want to be part of it, we must join their world, not try to force them to join us. In the history of political change, it was ever thus. As we speak, probably the biggest single catalyst for political change in this country is the mySociety website, which is attempting to facilitate a conversation between every elected or unelected representative in this country and every citizen. From HearFromYourMP.com, every MP will have access eventually to the e-mails of every one of their constituents, and every constituent will have the opportunity to connect with their MP in a mediated and workable process. This builds on other websites such as TheyWorkForYou.com and WriteToThem.com. This is such a huge catalyst for change.
Important though these websites are, they are but the tip of a deluge of participatory change. In the US, 57 per cent of teenagers create content for the internet. People are no longer consuming media, they are creating it. With participatory media, the distinction between audience and creation blurs and disappears. David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard University, describes this process as taking institutions and turning them into conversations. However enclosed and hierarchical an institution, it cannot avoid this process. Try as we might, we cannot avoid the power of participation.
Participatory democracy is the future of politics, and it is happening now. We may wish to argue, as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, did the other day, that this House should be wary of public opinion, but such a view, untenable a century ago, is simply absurd now. It is to the great credit of the report that it knows that the solution to disengagement is not to ignore what the public think but to build new political structures that will allow participation to flourish and the views of the public to prevail. The unique contribution of the Power inquiry is to try to suggest ways in which this can happen without compromising the liberal strengths of our constitution.
I should like the report to go further—much further, really, when it comes to participation—but it remains the case that a commitment to empowering the citizen in new ways for new times took courage. For that, as well as for much else, the report should be commended. I believe that we can use this as the basis of a new start.
My Lords, I ask the indulgence of your Lordships' House as I speak here for the first time. In particular, I ask the House to excuse any infelicities of language or style of which I may be guilty.
Perhaps I may start by thanking noble Lords and those who serve your Lordships' House for their courtesy and warm welcome to this place and for the great help and assistance that I have been offered here. I hope in turn to be a useful and diligent Member and to play my part in your Lordships' deliberations. No one would appear to know when last a Lincolnshire Fenman born and bred had a seat, place and voice here—if ever. Perhaps noble Lords will be reassured that I do not in reality have webbed feet or a yellow belly. But the place that I come from has a distinctive character, and I hope to bring some of that here. Although part of that character is a traditional antipathy to authority and government, I am none the less grateful for the opportunity to join in this debate.
The Power inquiry sought to examine the key relationship between government and the people and the increasing difficulties in that relationship. I doubt whether anyone, even the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, finds himself in full agreement with the inquiry's conclusions—indeed, in my own case I have to confess that I cannot pretend to have read it all in full—but it draws our attention to the vital importance of making our democracy work. It can be argued that apathy and disengagement are signs of an untroubled electorate, but I would suggest that few noble Lords would make that judgment. Most noble Lords would, I am sure, believe that our fellow citizens have become disengaged for other reasons, the principal of which is that individuals believe themselves of no consequence to the process.
I should like now to turn to an area where a lack of information, complex procedure and a lack of commitment have produced a devastating democratic deficit. I refer to overseas voters. I must first declare an interest as chairman of Conservatives Abroad. The situation is that Parliament has willed that British electors resident overseas for any period up to 15 years should be entitled to vote in general elections here. I have seen figures estimating that some 2 million people may be eligible under this provision. At the last election, fewer than 18,000 overseas voters were recorded in England and Wales—less than 1 per cent of the number who might have done so. I know that Sam Younger and the Electoral Commission are aware of this problem. Indeed, they mounted a limited last-minute campaign to tackle it, as did the main political parties. But such a situation, where the will of Parliament is not being effected, must be addressed as a matter of urgency and priority.
I turn now to the Cinderella of our democracy, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Gould—local government. Here, I must declare an interest as the husband of a long-serving county councillor. Many of those elected to local government find themselves frustrated in their wish to serve their electors by a combination of prescription, targets, bids and linked funding. All too often the effect of initiatives such as partnership agreements—well intentioned, I am sure—is to remove discretion at a local level as central government or their proxy, the regions, control the outcome. Partnership in this, as in most cases where the purse strings are controlled by government, becomes a one-way street.
Elsewhere—in schools, hospitals, care services and even in business and the other professions—procedure is king. In a society that has become ever more litigious and where blame culture rules, procedure is not only king; it has become ever more defensive. That in turn demands regulation to maintain standards. Although that provides security and assurance, it removes—and I believe this lies at the very heart of the conundrum—discretion, choice and judgment, the very essence of the democratic process.
Our institutions and our daily lives need to allow the individual and the community to exercise these virtues. As democracy is the process by which the condition of the people is improved, it demands that all people are identified by it, able to participate in it and engaged in its outcome. I thank noble Lords for their indulgence.
My Lords, it is a singular pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, in his maiden speech. He and I have in common Lincolnshire, the Lincoln diocese—the noble Lord will doubtless remember the late Bishop Kenneth Ritches, who ordained me—and the Farmers Club. In my days as a curate at Boston Stump, following an apprenticeship in Grantham no less, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, was a well known and respected figure, not only in the farming community. His track record in politics and the local community is nothing less than distinguished. It is good to have someone with his experience, which embraces publishing on bulbs, in this House. We look forward to many occasions when he can bring that special Fenland wisdom—as I shall call it, rather than rebelliousness—which I learned to appreciate 30 years ago to our counsels and deliberations.
I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has secured an opportunity for this House to spend some considered time to explore the pressing concerns about how our democracy is working and not working in the context of the recently published Power report. Many of its observations and recommendations rang bells with me. It is important to note at the outset that its findings are recognised not only on the basis of their hard research base but in how they comment on many other aspects of our society and not just the political.
For differentiated as our society manifestly is, with different aspects and interests chopped up into various parts—home, leisure, work, DIY and sport, with or without religion—we are all part of the same whole. To take one example from my own job, younger members of the General Synod of the Church of England are more likely to be there because of their concerns about particular issues than an older desire to be generally representative. That is not meant to be any criticism; far from it, it is a fact of life and a defining flavour of how people want to express participation in corporate life at this stage of history, and it happens to be different from 30 or 40 years ago. It is not bad, it is just different. But we need to respond to it.
I want to make some observations on this, not with any sense of offering easy solutions. The Power commission report needs to be taken very seriously indeed, although, as I shall suggest, there are some over-emphases and some gaps. I turn first to participation. Jargon of all kinds usually has the most innocent of origins, and it is as true of religion as of anything else. The word "communion" comes from a Greek word often used in ancient society to describe civic life at its best. In Plato's dialogue, the Gorgias, Socrates argues that a man—and I am afraid that in those days it only was a man, but we have moved on from there—who pursues neither justice nor temperance and who does not restrain his desires in effect leads the life of a robber. He goes on to say,
"where there is no communion"—
"there can be no friendship"— philia
For Socrates the individual is a microcosm and the universe is a macrocosm, and that Platonic vision has influenced at its best much of the ideology of western democratic life since, just as it has influenced at its best the Christian Church's self-understanding—the one body with many members working together. How do we try to hold things together and motivate each other in a society that is ethnically and culturally far more diverse than the ancient Greek city state? The root of the problem is that what works for one section of society manifestly does not work for others. This is an issue that we face in this House with virtually every piece of legislation before us and I know it full well in my own work as I try to care for the very different communities in south-east Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
The Power inquiry report focuses on electoral issues of our democracy—votes—perhaps at the expense of what might be called participative democracy, to echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Gould. For example, there is the enormous number of local consultations that take place either on a one-off basis, or the work of local partnerships that happens all the time. Perhaps we could turn further afield, if we have ears to hear; we are beginning to learn of the rich hidden traditions in Islam of participation in society that are not exact replicas of the modern western secular democracy.
That Platonic vision of participation is already going on in many places. The problem is with the gap between our political institutions and processes and the creative ferment on the ground. Here again, I can draw parallels in the way a diocese functions with diocesan and deanery synods and the local parochial church councils very often having very much a will of their own, thank you very much. I am sure that similar parallels could be drawn from other people, if they were here; for example, from a chief constable or a local regional health authority official, were they to speak frankly.
Secondly, there is the way in which our processes actually work. We have a saying in the Church that theology is too important to leave to theologians. As a don manqué, I have written a number of sleep-inducing professional theological monographs, but when I am preaching I try to drip-feed the congregation, hoping that my hearers—many of them possibly slightly suspicious of the professional theologian—might be helped to think more deeply about their lives without too much of the jargon and the shorthand getting in the way. I am not saying that I am particularly successful; rotten apples have not yet been thrown at me in the pulpit, although perhaps one or two mental ones have.
I wonder how far our political process, based properly on the view that politics is too important to leave to the politicians, might reflect a comparable strategy. My sense is that people do talk politics and do politics, and quite passionately, but not in the same way as the professionals, who may often approach it with the baggage, shorthand and jargon of how things work here in Westminster. Pushing this one stage further, we should look for programmes of action and less at manifestos. The two should be synonymous but in practice they are not. I am not alone in expressing a weariness with over-legislation, to say nothing of the latest crackdown or shake-up or whatever the next thing is going to be that may catch the headlines but seems to deliver very little on the ground—and that is the point.
We need fewer rigid plans and more effective partnerships that can help to create less nervous communities that are more at ease with themselves; to quote something from the World Council of Churches, we need a,
"just, sustainable and participatory society".
In that connection, I draw attention to another Rowntree report, issued in March, on Faith as Social Capital, which emphasises how many faith communities,
"contribute . . . by participating in the wider public domain. Faith", and,
"worship .. can foster qualities . . . for civic engagement. External networking and action are usually undertaken by a relatively small number of people, but their achievements are often substantial".
Finally, I touch on House of Lords reform. Here I hope to fight against the wearied tones that I sensed from the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, because what I am about to say is almost like switching on a recorded message. These Benches have all along repeated our commitment to this matter. To those in favour of an entirely elected Chamber, it may amuse you to note that we on these Benches could be something of a paradoxical model. We are elected after a fashion; we are Members of the House of Lords, not Peers, so we introduce ourselves without Garter King of Arms—but, of course, we are used to bowing so we do not need to watch the dip in his stave at the crucial bit. To secure active working engagement with our communities, we retire!
The debate on House of Lords reform has, typically and sadly for our age, polarised between either elected or appointed, without looking very often at the many different ways of electing or many different ways of appointing, when in practice sometimes they might meet in the middle. There is another observation that is bubbling up from the hinterland of the Power inquiry—that we at this end of the corridor are far from being the problem. The democratic deficit, so manifestly identified in the report, is not so much about what Westminster means as how it works and the increasing need for people, whether in this House or another place, to assume nothing about ourselves when speaking with the people whom we are dealing with or working with or representing.
I shall slightly tease one of our national newspapers. I need not name it, but it has a Germanic layout now. All through the week of our sit-in, as it almost was, with the other place over the anti-terrorism Bill, we were praised as an unelected Chamber for what we were doing in standing up for democracy—but on the last day, bang came the crescendo. At the end of a leader, it said something like, "but the House needs to be elected". I gently point out that there is a slight irony in that account.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, is well known as a communicator and a translator, to bridge the sometimes obdurate Caledonian-English divide. This debate convinces me more and more that both talents, communicating and translating, will be in demand if we are serious about tackling the issues raised in this debate, which are, after all, only symptoms of a changing society.
All of this leads me to suggest that the problems and issues before us today are so deep-rooted that they require a royal commission on Parliament and its workings, as well as its increasingly rich potential for working far more effectively than at the moment with what is already going on in our local communities.
My Lords, for well publicised reasons my intake has endured a long wait for our peerages to be conferred. We endeavoured to monitor progress through snippets in the media. I learnt that inquiries had been made about all of us—the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, included, no doubt—to the Inland Revenue, the Serious Fraud Office, MI5 and, somewhat bizarrely, the Department of Health. I had no qualms about the first three, but was not sure I would survive the health test. I can only assume that I passed it, as my noble friend Lord Dholakia, a member of the Appointments Commission, generously, and without regard to his own safety, stood close to me during Monday's introduction as one of my supporters. I commend the work of the Appointments Commission, and believe it should have statutory powers.
No sooner had I got here than I picked up serious talk of reforming the composition of your Lordships' House. I therefore resolved to make my maiden speech as soon as possible, before risking being placed on the transfer list on the "last in, first out" principle. My concern about such an early maiden was not just about finding the appropriate words and terminology, but indeed about finding the Chamber itself. Thankfully, colleagues and attendants kindly guided me here safely today. Indeed, "kindness" is the word that has dominated my week. I have had extraordinary kindnesses from noble Lords on all sides of the House and all the staff here in the Upper Chamber.
I have taken the title of Trafford from the borough in Greater Manchester where I have lived for most of my life, where my late father was a general practitioner, and where in the Trafford town hall I was installed a few years ago as High Sheriff of Greater Manchester. Also, as a serious private investor and regular Financial Times journalist, I had done very nicely out of Trafford Park Estate shares. However, what is concerning me now is that people are increasingly referring to me as "Old Trafford".
It gave me considerable satisfaction on a hot Monday evening, after my introduction, to revisit after so many years the tearoom in the other place. Not a great deal had changed. Indeed, the pork pie I decided against seemed very similar to the one I spurned in 1992. In fact, I felt that it almost winked at me. I was proud to represent the north-east Lancashire constituency of Nelson and Colne—renamed Pendle on a boundary change—for 13 years. It is the home territory of my noble friend Lord Greaves, who has played such an influential political role there over so many years. I am also touched that my predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, is with us in the Chamber today.
There then followed for me 13 years away from Westminster, so, in total, a quarter of a century of political activity and reflection. I have reached a number of personal conclusions. A British Prime Minister just has too much personal power and patronage. Governments of all persuasions try to do too much, usually with undue haste, and too infrequently are prepared to admit mistakes and failures. Additionally, I believe party labels exaggerate political divisions. If all our politicians were to be given a confidential questionnaire, probably 80 per cent would be ticking the same boxes. Finally, while the public have a very low opinion of politicians in general, a more favourable impression arises when they have real experience of their own Member of Parliament or similar.
Much of this is picked up by the Power report, and in part has undoubtedly contributed to the democratic malaise we have all identified. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and her team on their weighty report. The problem for me is that no way have I got time in my short contribution to adequately address such a broad, complex political canvas. My colleagues may find my attitude to the Power commission somewhat conservative—but then, in my case, that is hardly surprising.
I query the phrase "grave concern" that is used in the report to describe political alienation in our country today. Surely that is a tad over the top. Serious and worrying, perhaps, and changes are unquestionably required, but let us keep the problem in perspective. Some of Power's recommendations find favour with me: strengthening the powers of the Select Committees; reducing the power of the Whips, capping personal donations to political parties; as referred to by my noble friend Lord Goodhart; and replacing deposits with the signatures of supporters. Some, however, I am unhappy with: for example, lowering the voting age to 16, particularly for general elections, and a 70 per cent-elected Chamber is, for me, on the high side.
For the most part, though, I am uncertain. Variants of proportional representation hold some attractions, but I question whether new political parties—almost certainly single-issue, or built around egocentric personalities—have a real future role. I have to confess that I had not focused at all on the question of overseas voters, and thus appreciated the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, in his excellent maiden speech.
We all have a part to play in rebuilding the bridges to our people, and a responsibility to do so. In particular, Governments should be much more upfront and honest in admitting their mistakes, rather than attempting to bluff their way out of obvious failures. I would suggest that the media has a role to play in promoting our democracy. By all means expose hypocrisy or wrongdoing, but please desist from peddling the myths that if politicians are not in the Chamber they are not working; that their gross salary and expenses is their net take; and that parliamentary Recesses are just for extended holidays and junkets.
Finally, as chairman of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, of which the Palace of Westminster has recently become a member, and which Lady Baker, the wife of the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, my friend and my other supporter, played a leading role in establishing, I welcome the likely development of a parliamentary visitor and information centre. Done properly, and on a sufficient scale, it could play a very useful role in promoting Parliament's history and its workings.
In summary, my overall preference is for evolutionary change and reform, which our country and our democracy have done so well over the years. Your Lordships' House, which I am so privileged and proud to join this week, is very special, and in my view is held in much greater esteem out there, particularly in the regions, than some here imagine. We change it too speedily, and too radically, at our peril.
My Lords, it is a delight for me to follow the elegant and entertaining maiden speech of my old friend and colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford. He joins us with vast experience as a parliamentarian, and as a distinguished former Minister of defence and of tourism. He has given important public service outside Parliament, particularly in culture and health. He therefore comes formidably equipped to contribute to the deliberations of your Lordships' House. He also brings something else: he is one of that small group of people who have had the privilege to serve in Parliament as a member of more than one party. We like to think that that experience gives us a special perspective and even a certain additional insight. We very much look forward to the noble Lord's contributions. His excellent maiden speech followed the wonderful maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach.
The Power commission, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, has usefully focused our attention on a variety of issues, particularly disaffection and with disengagement from formal politics. This is not a new concern. I remember my dismay, following the 1992 election, when, if I recall aright, we found that only 42 per cent of 18 to 24 year-olds had taken the trouble to vote. I thought then that perhaps that was the writing on the wall for Westminster democracy. But for many years even before then Members of Parliament had been weeping into their soup in parliamentary dining clubs as they bemoaned the decline of Parliament. We need to place our present discontents in the perspective of history.
Professor Paul Langford, in his remarkably interesting History of Parliament Trust lecture, told us that concerns about the debility of Parliament are nothing new. Walpole's opponents pictured a time when Members of Parliament would serve as footmen in livery for the Prime Minister of the day. Equally, the debility of Cabinet government is a long-standing concern. Sheridan remarked of Pitt the Younger:
"There was no counting of noses in his Cabinet. Only one nose as large as the steeple of Strasbourg".
Ronald Butt, in The Power of Parliament, quoted by Peter Riddell in Parliament Under Blair, wrote:
"Criticism of Parliament has a long history. In this century"— he was writing in 1967—
"it has been almost incessant since parliamentarians were depressed after World War One by a sense of lost independence and by the encroachment of bureaucracy and government action".
He chronicles complaints that recurred throughout the 20th century: the impotence of Back-Benchers, the low ability of Members, the frustration of life at Westminster, the failure of the press to report Parliament adequately and the need to modernise Parliament.
Public contempt for politicians was perhaps even more virulent in the 18th century. The satire of The Craftsman and the cartoons of James Gillray may make the satire of Private Eye and the cartoons of Gerald Scarfe seem anodyne. But that these issues and problems are not new does not make it less important that we think seriously about them. We should be grateful to the noble Baroness and her commission for the prompt that they have given us.
Undoubtedly, there is now a perception among both the public and politicians that power and decision-taking happen in places other than in our formal institutions of politics and government, and in ways that are not democratically accountable: in the media, at the Bank of England, among regulators and quangos, in the courts, at Brussels, in the White House, and in the activities of global capitalism and of the World Trade Organisation, to give but a small selection. So parliamentary sovereignty and democratic government may seem a charade to many people. It is important that we persuade them that parliamentary government is still effective and valuable.
The commission understates the problem regarding the media. The media may, indeed, not prompt disengagement but they do make for disaffection. John Lloyd, in his book What the Media are Doing to Our Politics, proposes that there is a master myth of today's media that politics is a degraded activity. The Hutton report had to be a whitewash. The noble Lord, Lord Gould, spoke powerfully on that issue. It seems to have become de rigueur—as John Lloyd, a journalist, says—to present politicians as stupid, incompetent, absurd, on the make, creeping and crawling to the Whips, sleazy and contemptible. The indictment of the media is almost as severe: that they are guilty of simplification, partiality, casualness with fact, and, above all, trivialisation. Issues are instantly converted into matters of personality and gossip. It is assumed that the national attention span is minimal. The reporting of Parliament has been reduced to sketch writing and relegated to long wave. Parliament is seen as an unsatisfactory subset of the entertainment industry.
The press proceeds on too many ignoble assumptions about human nature, and the human nature of politicians in particular. John Lloyd quotes Harold Evans, as editor of the Sunday Times, offering a precept to his staff:
"Always ask yourself when you interview a politician, why is this bastard lying to me?"
Political journalists are not just reporters and commentators, they are engaged in a competition for power. The "Today" studio and the "Newsnight" studio are to be the real debating chambers of the nation and the zones of political accountability. The ultimate quest of too many members of the media pack is to bring down a Minister, and, best of all, to bring down the Prime Minister. Woodward and Bernstein are seen as role models.
The noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, in a Reith lecture observed that if you cannot trust the media, the wells of public discourse are poisoned. Of course, there is great ability and, indeed, great integrity among a number of political journalists, but the able, decent and democratically responsible among them do not prevail against the cultural momentum and commercial imperatives that I have sketched. Presumably, the commissioners do not agree or do not take such a worried view. Perhaps I have caricaturised the position, but the reality seems to me a poisoned symbiosis between politics and journalism, which does not make for a joyous democracy.
The commission regrets that there are no more grand ideologies to fire and mobilise the citizens of our democracy. In truth, British politics has never been very ideological. The greatest Conservative thinkers, such as Burke and Oakeshott, have never articulated Conservatism as an ideology, more a view of life hardly susceptible to the strong delineation of ideology. Fabian socialism and Crosslandite social democracy were dilute ideologies compared to the schemes of the Left elsewhere in Europe. Politics, of course, must be constructed on values, but whole-hog ideology—fascism, communism and, I dare say, Thatcherism as expressed by some of its crasser interpreters—does not conduce to happiness. Ideology ignores inconvenient complexity, economic and human cost, the fact that you need to break eggs if you are going to make an omelette, and it makes for arrogance and the very authoritarianism in politics that the commission deplores. So I do not share the commission's hankering for more ideology in place of the intelligent pragmatism and discipline, tempered by a principled concern for social justice, which characterises our present Government, and which, we live in hope, will in due course characterise the Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties under their new leaderships.
Politics, policy-making and government are tough and difficult. More public participation is, of course, an admirable objective which we all share and, indeed, it will happen in a whole variety of new ways. We have to take account of that. But amateurism will not provide what is needed. The commissioners are too fastidious about politics. As all of us who are veteran politicians know, elections will not be won with kid gloves. They are hard fought, and rightly so. What is at stake are our routes to prosperity or ruin, our choice of values as to what makes for a decent society and how as a country we acquit ourselves in the world. We can wince at the ruthlessness of spin, the stridency of advertising and the grotesqueries of the parties' characterisations of their opponents, but squeamishness does not win out in the inevitable and proper struggle for power. This distastefulness is for honourable purposes. The public understand that electioneering is a stylised form, more like Noh theatre than the Ballets Russes.
The commission is too fastidious also about the Whips. Tales of the black arts of the Whips ought always to be taken with a large pinch of salt. Effective whipping is normally rather gracious in my experience—I speak as a former Whip—and involves a good measure of tolerance. Everyone who is a professional in politics understands the necessity of whipping and, indeed, of determined whipping. Most Members of Parliament have strong personalities; they are individualist, tending to the unruly. They have to be organised if parties are to get anything done in Parliament. The myth that the Whips are running a more and more totalitarian set-up is quickly dispelled if you look at voting patterns in Parliament, as analysed, for example, by Professor Philip Cowley of Nottingham University.
I do not share the enthusiasm of the commission for referendums and citizens' initiatives. How do you pose the right question in a referendum? How do you prevent extraneous factors influencing votes on the specific issue in question? The commission points to California as an encouraging precedent. I visited California when I was higher education Minister, after the vote on proposition 13 had wrecked the tax base of the state. The state-funded University of California, including Berkeley, was in terrible trouble. Politics needs to be able to screen out facile and populist propositions; it can never be exclusively about the single issues that attract popular enthusiasm.
Elected representatives must take difficult and unpopular decisions. Politics is a laborious, infinitely complex, largely unglamorous process of reconciling competing interests and forging compromises. It is a profession, which needs to be practised by honourable, courageous, hard-working and able people, and in my observation that is what nearly all Members of Parliament are.
Of course, that view is at odds with the negative perception of politicians that was so extensively reported by the commission. Without downplaying the reality and the importance of that view, other aspects of the public view need to be taken into account.
One is the phenomenon of scapegoating. It is a commonplace of social psychology that anyone who sets themselves up on a platform or pedestal of authority is bound to attract irrational and negative attitudes. Part of the role of politicians is to take the blame. It is every free-born Briton's right—and indeed it is a pleasure for many of them—to kick their elected representative. We also have to recognise that there is a plentiful dose of healthy scepticism and irony in what people say about their attitudes to politicians. They do not think that we should get too big for our boots, and they pretend to think that we are all as bad as each other. They like to keep Members of Parliament on permanent notice that they are liable to be kicked out at the next election. Actually, if there are so many safe seats, perhaps voters are not as dissatisfied with orthodox politics and political parties as they tell commissioners and others with clipboards that they are.
We may also wonder whether, in the post-industrial culture to which the commission in a salutary way insists politics must adapt, the public may be entertaining some rather fanciful views about what politics is and what politics should be expected to do. Is it appropriate to regard voting or non-voting as a lifestyle choice or as an act of consumerism? Is democracy an exercise in mere individualism or of civic responsibility? Democracy must be predicated on assumptions about maturity and responsibility in its participants.
The report romanticises democratic politics—not the politics that we now have but the politics that the commissioners dream of. My view is drearier. Politics will not deliver the good life. Democracy is a necessary but insufficient condition for the good life. If we lead a good life, we do so in our private relationships and in our communities, not by contracting the responsibility out to politicians and public officials. A proliferation of referendums, citizens' initiatives, new political parties and votes at 16 will, I fear, produce more demagogues, more George Galloways, and more disappointment. Indeed, I was interested to note that sensible and serious sixth formers from Lliswerry School in my old constituency visiting the House of Commons recently told my successor and me that they did not want the right to vote at 16.
Our very scepticism about politics may be a saving grace. For many, politics is seen best as a backcloth, only brought into focus when things go badly wrong, rather like an insurance policy that you get out and study when you need to. So long as we do not have hyperinflation or mass unemployment, sectional conflict or total war, so long as the Government are perceived as working for the nation as a whole and performing decently and adequately, most people are content to get on with their lives. They will seek fulfilment in myriad other ways and not bother much about politics.
Proportional representation may indeed persuade some who do not now vote to do so, though there is not much evidence of that in turnout to the elections to the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament. However, it could introduce new elements of dissatisfaction, particularly at the choice of Government being taken out of the people's hands.
While I do not agree, therefore, with some parts of the commission's diagnosis and prescriptions, I do think that the commission is spot-on in identifying the weakness of local government as a very significant issue for our democracy. Local government has taken a pounding at the hands of central government for many years. We therefore must take it as a high and urgent priority to restore a much greater degree of genuine autonomy to local government. Without that, we will continue to experience a withering of our democratic culture.
My Lords, I agree with the Power inquiry that people are interested in political issues in spite of the fact that a smaller number of people actually turn out at elections. That suggests to me that other features of our constitution are as important as voting; there are other means of expression and other ways in which people can feel represented.
I begin with a contrast between the two Houses of Parliament. Your Lordships' House is, in my view, very representative of the life and work of this country. Any debate in your Lordships' House is always marked by Peers on all sides of the House who have deep knowledge and experience of the subject concerned. That is achieved without an elected element in your Lordships' House. By contrast, another place is, in my view, less representative of the Great British public than it was in 1964 when I was first elected. I say that because there are a smaller number of MPs now who know intimately the world of work outside politics. That suggests to me that voting does not necessarily produce good representation.
My next point, which has been referred to already, is that the power of the Government has increased dramatically over the years, and as a consequence the power of Parliament has diminished. That is to some degree true, but it neglects the good work that is done by Select Committees in both Houses, which has certainly improved both in quality and in substance over the years that I have been in Parliament. We have also now developed the concept of pre-legislative scrutiny, which means that bodies and individuals outside have an opportunity to make a contribution before a Bill is set in concrete. We can be encouraged to realise that the Select Committee process as it has developed is an effective use of the power of Parliament and it helps the people to co-operate.
My next point is the media, which have been referred to by a number of noble Lords. We all in the political business know that the media tend to exaggerate. They tend to get things wrong, and we take that with a pinch of salt. Equally, we know that on many occasions the media are able to find conflict within the Government and to find that the Government have made errors and mistakes. In that sense, the media are a valuable ally to the work that we endeavour to do in Parliament.
There are people who criticise the growth of single-issue bodies. Of course, such bodies do not see things in the round as we in politics have to, but they enable individuals who feel strongly on one particular issue to participate and to bring that concept forward when mainstream politicians would perhaps tend to neglect it. Although they irritate us in politics in many ways, they serve a valuable function.
My final point concerns public opinion. Whether people vote or not, there is no doubt about the strong influence of public opinion. The Great British public do not read manifestos; they leave that to politicians and civil servants. They do not follow every issue that comes before Parliament, but they have a good nose for whether the Government are doing well or badly.
My party, the Tory party, has recently had very good reason to feel the lash of public displeasure. It is uncomfortable, but it is a powerful and good discipline. It may be that the lash of public opinion is beginning to build up again. Such things tend to come around full circle, but there is no doubt that, whether or not people vote, public opinion is able to express itself in a dramatic way that keeps us all on our toes.
I shall be brief. My conclusion is that of course we should take seriously the declining turnout at elections and, particularly, we in the two Houses of Parliament should do all that we can to try to improve turnout. But the other features that I have mentioned are equally important. They provide us with checks and balances, and with stability and continuity, which are the distinguishing marks of the British constitution.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Goodhart on initiating this timely debate on the report of the Power inquiry, which itself was very timely; and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, her colleagues on the Power commission and Pam Giddy, its director, and her staff. I also welcome the maiden speeches of my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford and that of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach.
I should declare a number of interests. Along with my noble friend Lord Shutt, I was a director of the Citizens' Inquiry trust, which set up and oversaw the work of the Power inquiry on behalf of the charitable wing of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, joint sponsors of the Power inquiry. I have been a director of the former since 1975 and was for many years a member of the latter's democracy committee. The Power inquiry is a powerful demonstration of the two trusts' collaboration.
I want to concentrate on the need to create a climate for further democratic reform. The greatest contribution of the Power report lies in its incontrovertible analysis of the parlous condition of contemporary British democracy. It rightly focuses on the growing disjuncture between citizens and the formal institutions of representative democracy. The evidence for this continuing and worrying trend has been there for all who would see. Increasing popular disaffection with conventional politics is evidenced in the regular "state of the nation" polls conducted by Democratic Audit for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. This is mirrored in the real world of politics by the continuing decline in voter turnout, as many noble Lords have observed, and the very low memberships recorded by the main political parties.
It is somewhat ironic that the UK model, or, rather, an outdated and idealised version of it, is being promoted by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and other agencies, when the reality of the contemporary constitutional system is actually approaching crisis. What was once glorified as our unique "unwritten constitution" is now an unravelled constitution, and the public, in their own way, are aware of that. The Power report provides a cogent analysis of that state of affairs.
But the report suggests grounds for optimism. Its most important observation is that all is not lost, for the public are not politically apathetic. They may increasingly eschew and feel alienated from conventional parliamentary and local government politics, but they nevertheless show a great deal of interest in political issues per se. These cover a wide range of topics, such as the environment, fair trade, third-world development and other single issues in politics. Disenchanted they may be with conventional politics, but people are clearly not politically apathetic.
The IT revolution, referred to in some detail by the noble Lord, Lord Gould, has had a considerable and growing influence on the rise of single-issue politics. That political phenomenon has always been around, as the Anti-Corn Law League demonstrated. In its modern form, it emanates from the prototype of CND and, from the 1970s onwards, can be seen in the appearance of groups such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Mothers in Action, the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Peter Hain's Stop the Seventy Tour and the like.
The advent of the IT revolution has promoted a mushrooming of interest in specific political issues and has facilitated the easy and speedy mobilisation of particular audiences, each with its own continuing dialogue, often culminating in political demands. The internet, in its own way, is creating a new form of direct democracy that challenges our enfeebled and atrophying system of representative or indirect democracy.
I should say, in passing and in fairness to them, that two MPs over 30 years ago anticipated the general thrust of the shape of things to come—although they could not predict the precise nature of the impact of developments in communications technology. In their writings, both Tony Benn and the late Dr Jeremy Bray were alone among politicians in their prescience.
Modern political parties are fully conscious of the state of affairs that has emerged and the challenges with which it confronts them. There is hardly an MP today without his or her own website, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Gould, indicated, such responses by themselves are destined to fail. They are mere sticking plasters. They can become fully effective only as part of a much more profound change in the way that politics is conducted and the institutional framework within which they are operated.
As it is, parliamentarians, for the most part, are part of the problem. They are averse to any change that may affect them. There is little real discussion about Commons reform, as my noble friend Lord Goodhart remarked, and about its size, composition, functions and electoral basis. Similarly, in your Lordships' House, there is much debate about the future, but it is largely a displacement activity. It is significant that the tableau at St Stephen's Entrance that announces the new visitor centre depicts the main events in the history of Parliament without mentioning any of the Reform Acts that extended the franchise. I congratulate the designers, because, unfortunately, but only too accurately, the design reflects present parliamentary opinion—in the main, although I hope that there are exceptions, including myself—about reform.
Our present situation is similar to that which obtained three-quarters of the way through the last century. In the 1970s and 1980s, the tide began to turn, so that, for example, it was only external pressure from without Parliament from groups such as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, led by the redoubtable Canon Kenyon Wright, that succeeded in creating the conditions for a Scottish parliament. Similarly, the Campaign for Freedom of Information, led by Maurice Frankel and James Cornford, led, finally, to the passage of the Freedom of Information Act—admittedly, in too dilute a form. Charter 88, set up by Stuart Weir and Anthony Barnett, and chaired successively by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and the noble Lord, Lord Currie, had a tremendous impact on the climate of opinion that influenced the late John Smith, as Labour leader, and whose legacy led to the reforms introduced by the first Blair Administration. The momentum has not been sustained.
The need for and how to create that reformist climate are the questions that the Power inquiry has addressed. Its proposals are useful in continuing the dialogue that the report has restarted. Its ideas regarding citizen initiatives are worth further explanation, although my view may represent only a small minority in the House today. Equally, emphasising the need to rebalance the relationship between Parliament and the Executive is indisputable, as is its proposal to rebalance the relationship between local and central government. Both reforms would be prerequisites for the revitalisation of our democracy.
However, I disagree with the suggested mechanism for achieving those changes. So-called concordats are not the answer. Secret deals of that sort are unacceptable. Indeed, I fear that one is being stitched up now as a result of Sir Hayden Phillips's inquiry into party financing. I believe that a concordat will emerge, agreed by the three main parties and eagerly supported by all the parties in Northern Ireland, together with the SNP and Plaid Cymru, which will greatly extend the use of state funding for political parties. That issue needs very careful handling if the public are to accept any suggestion along those lines. A secret deal that gives huge sums of public money to the headquarters of political parties will backfire. That is where the Power inquiry's suggestion for voters to indicate up to, say, £3 from Exchequer funds on their voting forms to a party of their choice provides for an element of individual participation in the allocation of state funds. At this stage, the particular recommendations of the Power inquiry matter less than maintaining the dialogue about the refurbishment of democracy in the UK.
Whatever form the continuation of the Power commission may take, it must, in my view, involve at least two things. First, the various policy think tanks across the political spectrum should be engaged in focusing on democratic renewal. Policy exchange from the centre right and the centre left—from the IPPR, Compass, Demos and the CentreForum—needs to be encouraged to look at the issues in a coherent and focused way. The non-party—or the all-party—Hansard Society and the academic Constitution Unit at University College London could audit the proposals put forward by the more partisan and proactive think tanks. That would be a useful partnership. All of that activity would run in parallel with, and would complement the work of, Kenneth Clarke's Conservative democracy task force, Gordon Brown's constitutional meditations and Ming Campbell's constitutional review.
Secondly, the debate must be conducted beyond the golden metropolitan triangle and extend across England. I say that because Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have had, and continue to have, robust constitutional debates—in a way, quite different from the situation prevailing in England. For a start, I would suggest building on the pioneering work of Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg and Steve Clayton in their study of the parlous state of local politics and government. They concentrated on Burnley and Harrogate in their book Whose Town is it Anyway?, which was initiated and sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. It reveals how precarious local democracy is in those quite dissimilar towns. They may both be north of Watford, but they are as different as chalk and cheese. Using a generous definition, local democracy is sustained in Burnley by only 89 political activists and by only 118 in Harrogate. Surely new ways must be devised to increase public participation in public affairs.
The Power inquiry has performed a considerable service in recharging the debate on constitutional democratic reform. I hope that others in the debate might recharge us with the required energy, but so far there has been more than a degree of complacency in some contributions. This matter is urgent and must be addressed as a priority. The new momentum that the Power inquiry has initiated must be sustained.
My Lords, it gives me very great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton, who has injected into the debate a question to which I wish to address most of my remarks: how might the proposals of the Power commission be taken forward? I agree with his observation that there have been moments in our House today when there has been a remarkable degree of complacency. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, will forgive me if I indicate that I scarcely recognised his descriptions of what we have gone through in the past 10 years since the party to which he now belongs assumed responsibility.
The maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and of my noble friend Lord Lee are immensely welcome, both for what they said, which was so pertinent—drawing on their own experiences—and for the way in which they said it. They spoke with such grace and humour. We look forward to hearing them speak again on this subject and on others for which they have shown such considerable public commitment.
In the past decade, Britain has experienced the most wide-ranging enactments of constitutional reform, but paradoxically, and at the same time, there has been a rising chorus of complaint about the serious shortcomings in how we govern ourselves. I take at random the serious academic comments of someone like Professor Dawn Oliver or the writings of an insider, Sir Christopher Foster, about why we are so badly governed. We see it even in the interstices of the necessary inferences of a former Cabinet Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Butler, in his report on how our Cabinet system failed to work in the face of the challenges of Iraq.
Wherever we look we find powerful critiques of what is being done. The Philippics have been directed against the system from inside and outside Parliament. They have come from mild-mannered, careful commentators, academics and inside practitioners alike. Former permanent secretaries, thoughtful journalists, judges, retired judges, with a greater freedom than they have previously enjoyed, and captains of industry have lined up to complain, not so much about the political philosophy or the purposes that lie behind government policies, but about the crass miss-match of measures to requirements and the consequential failures of delivery that can be described only as bad government. Added to that has been the growing concern that prime ministerial power is being revealed in Britain as capable of eroding long-accepted and valued rules for the protection of rights—legal rights, such as the presumption of innocence, which we have all taken for granted—all in the name of some presumed higher reason of state, which is often these days referred to disarmingly as the security of our citizens.
The virtue of the Power inquiry report is the very clear and, I think, incontrovertible evidence that it has deployed to show that those concerns are not the property of the elite alone, but are shared throughout British society. Its central hypothesis is that the disengagement of people from the formal political process is not to be explained by their attachment to particular causes—to the exclusion of all others—or by their contentment with the outcomes of government; rather, it is due to the general awareness of the limitations of the possibilities for influencing outcomes through formal political processes. That is seen properly as a threat to British democracy. I find it easy to accept most—but not all—of the proposed institutional prescriptions for this deep-seated cancer at the heart of our polity.
I find the commission's thinking about how its proposals might be translated into binding and effective constitutional prescriptions less clear. I very much look forward to hearing the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and hope that she will tell us how she, personally, would like to see these matters taken forward, in the light of our experience of running hard to stand still in the development of our constitutional protections over the past few years. The lessons of the past decade are that piecemeal reform and the beloved and hallowed British belief in the inevitability of gradualness are, I fear, not proof against the accelerating centralisation of executive power. Our system cannot withstand the depredations of a Prime Minister blinded by self-belief to the lessons of history and the value of others' opinions. We are seeing the erosion—not systematic, and sometimes almost inadvertent—of the conventions, customs and even fundamental principles of law which have sustained our unwritten constitution and buttressed the workings of our democracy.
Reform of the voting system for the House of Commons, perhaps along the wise lines advocated by the commission appointed under the chairmanship of Roy Jenkins by the Government in their early days, might save our political constitution—I use the word "save" deliberately—from the absolutism in the exercise of power that we are currently witnessing. I am not, however, sanguine about political parties making that commitment without an accidental election result which denied the power to any individual party to continue as we are at present. Nor am I confident in the capability of Parliament alone, particularly the House of Commons, to make the changes that the Power commission advocates. Here I very much agreed with what my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton said.
We have seen one of the most reform-minded Select Committees ever set up in Parliament, the Public Administration Committee under the enlightened chairmanship of Tony Wright, repeatedly hitting the buffers of executive intransigence. We have had comments and suggestions within this debate, as in the report itself, about the role of the Whips, somewhat disparagingly treated by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. The idea that they would manage how these Select Committees will run themselves—as they have sought to do, rather successfully on the whole—has deeply devalued the aspirations and achievements of many of these committees. We would do well to recognise that and their efforts to take a proper role in our parliamentary democracy.
This is a personal view, but I am afraid that this country now needs a constitutional regime change. It should not have to be the result of political discontinuity such as that experienced in France during the transition from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic. Rather, it should flow from a deliberative process, endorsed, if not initiated, by Parliament; and with the findings of that process popularly supported and given effect by Parliament in due course. I had the suggestion that a number of think tanks could usefully play a useful role in this. But it is my belief that, although that is true, the process needs to be pulled together by Parliament or those who have the sense and perception that what must be done must be done with a coherence and totality of approach enabling us to move towards the construction of a written constitution.
Such a settlement requires a written constitution to entrench the required democratic checks and balances which have been found so wanting in recent years. They will protect the entrenchment, as we had thought, of the fundamental rights and freedoms under the Human Rights Act 1998 from the kind of executive utterances that we have had the misfortune to listen to. These are not merely in the form of ex cathedra imprecations about particular provisions of the Human Rights Act, but also measures brought forward in the name of defending our citizens' security, which have plainly cut back on matters like habeas corpus without any apparent governmental sense of embarrassment.
We need this constitution to take forward the process of true decentralisation of power. With the immense complexities and perceived responsibilities of Government today, perhaps the most charitable explanation for what is happening is that central Government are hopelessly overloaded and, in the single person of the Prime Minister, there is no possibility of matching the scale of the need effectively and equitably. That decentralisation must be to the nations, a process begun but with distorting inequalities; to the regions, a process begun but set back by the mishandled and partisan approach to the referendums in the north-east; and to the localities, to reverse the process of sucking from local government the powers and financial responsibilities that they need to give immediacy to our citizenry's appreciation of how they can influence government at the level at which many of the matters pressing home upon them rest.
I know it will be easily objected that a proposal to establish some form of constitutional convention—even if acceptable in principle by those, like myself, despairing of the House of Commons as the bastion of democracy—begs the biggest question of the lot: how do we get from here to there? I confess that I long hoped that the tranches of constitutional reform upon which the Blair Government embarked in 1997, with Liberal Democrat support, might in time lead to a coherent framework of constitutional decision-making which would commend itself as effective and democratic. With some adjustments in the light of experience, I had hoped it might be consolidated in just such a written constitution, with broad agreement inside and outside Parliament. Perhaps that was unreasonably optimistic, although optimism is what keeps committed politicians going.
I now take the view that this strategy of indirect approach will not suffice. By deliberation, we should set up a convention along the lines of that in Scotland, to which my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton referred. It should certainly take its time, for the measures required are complex and of vital importance. With the authority and support of political parties, however—and, I hope, the endorsement of Parliament—it will eventually lead to the consideration of its proposals by the people and their endorsement by Parliament itself.
My Lords, the report of the Power inquiry chastises the media for having,
"significant unelected influence on government policy and decisions", and, in particular, the concentration of ownership of the media. The combination of a media lacking diversity and an apathetic electorate is not, the report concludes, good for democracy. Some of those canvassed felt that in recent years the media have acted more like a political party with a clear right or left bias and that that turn of events is largely due to the concentration of ownership in the hands of a very few who have their own agendas. The thesis is that with such heavy and broad influence, the citizen's influence is correspondingly reduced and the incentives for engagement weakened. Those who think about these matters at all feel that the media should return to their traditional role of factual reporting rather than publishing views too often disguised as news.
These concerns are by no means new. What is new, however, is the seriousness with which even very liberal journalists are treating them. One of them, John Lloyd, who has long been associated with the Financial Times, worries about how the media wield their undoubted power. He argues that the growth of the promotion of opinions, of taking a position whether it be leftist, liberal or conservative, comes with a price when those opinions drift into the news columns, implicitly or explicitly. The news then ceases to be an attempt to present a version of the truth, and more an effort to fit events to a view. One ends up adopting a position—as has, for example, the Independent—of being not so much a newspaper but a "viewspaper" and this dispenses with any claim to objectivity in favour of the polemical role.
One of the best examples of this mismatch between reporting and assuming a shared political stance arose when the European constitution was rejected by the French and the Dutch last year. The elite of the European media had apparently become blind to an underground popular mood and movement that was against the long-held acceptance of and belief in the European project, a belief that the press assumed was shared by readers and viewers in those countries. The lesson here perhaps is that adherence to a view can distance journalism from popular movements and from disaffection. Another example, of course, was the failure of the serious media in America, liberal or not, to report critically and persistently on the evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Lloyd suggests that proper news reporting, defined as relating facts in a way credible to people of differing views, must hold to two criteria: any political interest or bias must be declared, and there has to be transparency about the quality of the information provided; for example, are sources first- or third-hand, and has the information been checked and cross-checked?
The citizen is entitled to information upon which he or she can make decisions and attempt to influence policies that affect his or her life and livelihood. One of the important roles of the media is to convey that information by one means or another, but they must do so as objectively as possible. That, it is argued, does not happen in part due to the single ownership of a number of diverse media outlets, all of which, it must be assumed, project a single political stance. The discontent that that provokes and the rapid growth of new technology has prompted direct communication— so-called "public conversation" or "citizen journalism"—in the form of blogging and discussion forums. Private channels provide opportunities for debate, new ideas and refining arguments, but they cannot replace, at least in the foreseeable future, the more traditional media for at least two reasons. First, while private channels can respond in real time and with passion, inevitably, fact-checking is absent, and, secondly, they do not have any direct influence on political decision-making.
It is suggested in the report that the media act today as an obstacle to the power of the citizen, and yet genuinely free and independent media are a crucial institution of democracy. The restraint on introducing any kind of statutory curb on the media has held and, indeed, must be held. However, that does not preclude, as the Power inquiry suggests, a review of the laws that govern media monopolies and the concentration of media ownership. Diverse media which adequately distinguish between factual reporting, comment and entertainment are a democratic strength.
This is an excellent report, and if only some of the innovative, practical and doable recommendations are adopted by the Government, the improvements will be felt by every citizen in this country.
My Lords, I suspect that I am going to demonstrate some of the Lincolnshire qualities to which my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach referred. We both hail from Lincolnshire, which is England's premier county.
I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and welcome the opportunity to debate the report of the Power commission, which was chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy. She and her commissioners have clearly devoted a great deal of time to investigating the problems with our political system—there are problems—and have produced a substantial report. Regrettably, though, it is flawed in its methodology, its analysis and its prescriptions.
In terms of the methodology, the report is deficient at several levels. One is in respect of definition. The title of the report is, Power to the People, but what people? That is basic to the whole exercise. Does the term refer to everybody in the country, to the majority of the people, to those who shout the loudest or to those who can be bothered to participate? At no point are we told, and the report itself appears to jump from one to another of those categories. The report devises means for the majority will to prevail, except when the majority want something that is incompatible with the Human Rights Act, and at other times, as with the experiment in Harrow, for an interested minority to have its say. One cannot retort that it does not matter and that the term encompasses all the categories for the simple reason that they are not necessarily compatible with one another. What happens if the views of the participating minority clash with majority opinion? The report does not tell us and cannot because it never explains who constitutes "the people".
That leads to the second problem under the rubric of methodology. There is no rigorous analysis or testing of evidence in order to produce findings and conclusions. Instead, reliance is placed on often unsubstantiated assertions by some of the disparate array of groups and individuals who appeared before the commission and on suppositions by the commission itself. There is no attempt to test whether some of the perceptions of witnesses are actually empirically well founded. The views of "the people", or, rather, some people, are taken at face value, even when the commission's own evidence, as at page 92, reveals high levels of ignorance of the subject. At times, in the absence of evidence or, worse still, despite the evidence, the commission rests on its own suppositions and prejudices. In the report, we find phrases such as "we felt", "it is quite conceivable" and "our sense on this issue" as substitutes for evidence.
The most glaring example of the willingness of members of the commission to prefer their own unsubstantiated views in the face of hard evidence is to be found in the section entitled "Red Herrings". That is the section where they park interpretations that do not fit with their particular view of the world. They dismiss the claim that the decline in voter turnout can be attributed to the absence of competitive elections. They cite the studies carried out on the basis of empirical analysis that supports that claim, but then go on to assert that it seems highly likely that the support for the claim is either overstated in its impact or has been misinterpreted. The counter-evidence they offer is hardly compelling, but they go on to declare,
"we have heard an alternative explanation of the data".
They then write:
"We have not seen any hard evidence to support this thesis, but it seems as plausible as the original interpretation".
So detailed analysis of hard data is dismissed—all those qualified researchers who have laboured long and hard have got it wrong—and someone who happens to have suggested another view, with no hard evidence at all to support it, is given equal, if not more, weight.
Indeed, the commission is quite good at ignoring the evidence in front of it. We are invited to believe that a growing disengagement with politics has led to a falling turnout in elections. In which case, one wonders why the turnout in the 1992 general election was higher than that in the 1964 general election. The data are in figure 1 in the report. Membership of political parties has indeed declined, but if one compares the data in figures 1 and 2 in the report there is no obvious correlation. Party membership has declined over time, whereas turnout has not; it has gone up and down, as figure 1 shows, and only dropped dramatically in 2001, when the outcome was obvious.
We are also invited to accept that there is a clear dichotomy between formal and informal politics, with people deserting the former in preference to the latter. As Tim Bale, Paul Taggart and Paul Webb of Sussex University point out in a forthcoming article in Political Quarterly, the distinction is not that clear cut. Many of the supposed informal activities are linked to formal politics. According to the data cited in the report, more people contact politicians in an attempt to change law than take part in demonstrations. The percentage of those who volunteer is less than the percentage of those who vote, and no evidence is presented to demonstrate that there is not a close correlation between the two activities. Furthermore, as Bale, Taggart and Webb note, many of the activities listed involve little ongoing commitment.
This leads to another problem. We are invited to believe that the explanation for disengagement is structural rather than attitudinal. The existing forms of the political system are not structured in such a way as to enable people to engage. However, as Declan McHugh of the Hansard Society points out in a forthcoming article in Parliamentary Affairs, data from the latest audit of political engagement challenge this assumption. When questioned, people tend to say they want to have a say in the way the country is run and feel that they are presently denied the opportunity. When pushed on what type of activity they would be prepared to engage in, a different picture emerges. As McHugh writes:
"The answers suggest that there is indeed a fairly big gap between their broad desire and concrete intentions".
As he notes, beyond signing petitions, the vast majority of respondents were unwilling to undertake any further action. These findings are consistent with those of other surveys, including those undertaken by Ipsos MORI on participation at local level. MORI found that most people questioned were content to let local authorities get on with governing, provided they are informed about what is going on.
The Audit of Political Engagement contained another finding that is very relevant to the argument of the Power inquiry and what constitutes "the people". The audit found that those most likely to want to have a say and to participate are the informed middle class. McHugh notes that while the call for more participatory democracy,
"has a visceral emotional appeal, in practice it may only succeed in engaging those already over-represented amongst voters and party members—that is, the educated, affluent and middle class. Mechanisms designed to provide greater opportunities for citizens to participate more directly in decision-making as a means of increasing legitimacy and reducing the perceived democratic deficit may therefore have the opposite effect".
In other words, the introduction of mechanisms of participatory democracy may enhance the position of groups that take particular, sometimes self-serving, positions on policy, strengthening them at the expense of the mechanisms of representative democracy. The advantage of our existing representative system, operating through parties, is that it helps aggregate opinion through collective deliberation and serves as an effective shield against the demands of powerful interest groups. The Power report may therefore prove to be an enemy of the people rather than a friend.
Furthermore, the report misunderstands not only what the people would prefer, but also the institutions that attract its strictures. It has no clear grasp of what is happening in Parliament. Parliament is not as supine as it suggests, nor has the institution failed to adapt to deal with changes in the Executive and the wider political community. This point is well developed in a paper to be presented tomorrow by Alexandra Kelso of Strathclyde University at a legislative studies conference in Sheffield. As she argues, there is much more to be done in reforming Parliament—something I have regularly argued in your Lordships' House—but the point she stresses is that Parliament has taken steps to develop more deliberative and participatory mechanisms within its representative framework.
There are two things that I find especially surprising about the analysis offered in the report. The first is that the members of the commission seem to feel that they have come up with some great new finding, yet on page 258 we discover that in their meetings with politicians in Cardiff, the politicians were aware of the problems and had an understanding of how they had come about. The second is that, having come up with their analysis, the members of the commission present a disparate array of proposals which rarely appear to bear on the very analysis they have presented. This point has been made succinctly by the Constitution Unit at University College, London. Its newsletter, Monitor, published last month, offers the following observation on the report:
"Many of the proposals are familiar, and predate the recent concerns with electoral turnout and falling levels of political trust. Many are already existent in other developed countries which are suffering identical problems to those in Britain. Whilst the commission therefore provided a considerable analysis of the problem, and a useful checklist of reforms, it remains doubtful whether the two are connected in the way that they suggest".
Electoral reform, for example, will not obviously produce a greater engagement. Changes from one electoral system to another do not necessarily result in an increase in turnout. Look at the experience of New Zealand. Closer to home, one can cite the example of the European Parliament. Rather bizarrely, the commission concedes that it has not seen evidence to suggest that a new electoral system will increase engagement, but argues none the less that it is a part of the jigsaw. However, if it will not increase engagement, why is it part of the jigsaw?
Indeed, it is not clear how the various pieces of the jigsaw fit together. It is not obvious why they will deliver on the three major shifts advocated by the commission, nor incidentally why the three must be taken as a package. It is simply asserted. Some of the proposals have, as the report concedes, seen the light of day in other reports. Some are simply na-ve. Some have not been thought through. One or two, as with the recommendations on citizenship education and engagement at the EU and supranational level, are not radical enough—in respect of the latter, they are distinctly unimaginative.
The noble Lord, Lord Gould, spoke about the effects of globalisation on the citizen. He was quite right and that is recognised in the report. But it is like a lion roaring about the impact of globalisation, which is quite severe, and the report coming up with a mouse in terms of the structure of recommendations to deal with that problem.
I could offer a detailed critique of each proposal—my copy of the report is extensively annotated—but I realise that the price of engaging one's critical faculties is to be accused of complacency. I am conscious of time, so let me end by quoting from Declan McHugh's article again. He writes:
"The sense of estrangement from the political process felt by many may be better addressed by improving communications between representatives and citizens rather than by creating novel and elaborate avenues of participation few will ever use".
The kindest thing that I can say about the report is that it is a lost opportunity.
My Lords, I am delighted to support the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, in calling attention to the Power inquiry report. As a Yorkshireman, I congratulate both the Lincolnshire Fen man, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and the Lancastrian sheriff, the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, on their maiden speeches. We hope to hear more from them on future occasions.
As the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, indicated, I, too, have to declare interests in that I have been a trustee for some years of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the JRSST Charitable Trust, which have jointly funded the inquiry. I have also chaired the Citizens' Inquiry trust, which has been overseeing the inquiry. Apart from our real endeavour to make sure that we had a credible group of commissioners, our job has been to make certain that the report is, in the phrase that one hears these days, "on time, on budget", but the work of the commission and the report is theirs. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and Ferdinand Mount, who were chairman and vice-chairman of the inquiry. I also congratulate the staff members—Pam Giddy, Adam Lent and Caroline Watson—who have been with the inquiry throughout, and the talented group of young people who have assisted them. It is their report, and it has been enhanced by the deliberations and involvement of many people.
"On time, on budget"—it really has been on time and timely. The published book is split into two parts. The first half sets out the democratic dilemma and the second half has 30 ideas for improvement. Many can wax lyrically about the faults of our current democratic system, but it is good to have 30 specific proposals. Some, of course, are more exciting than others; I cannot say that I am hostile to any of them, and they sit well as a package. But these are ideas, not Bills and certainly not Acts or parts thereof.
I want to highlight five of the ideas, but, before I do so, I will briefly mention some others. First, reference has been made to votes at 16. I have come to the view that this is not a bad thing. There are some people at 16 who you would be delighted to see have a vote and others who you might not. But I take the same view of folk at 66; there are some I like to see with a vote and some I would rather not. I believe that getting involved in democracy and in democratic principles early is a good thing. This is an important part of the report. Secondly, I was interested to see the whole business of the Whips and of the power particularly of the Government Chief Whip in the House of Commons. I contrast that with the benign operation that I operate as the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip here. But we learn things all the time. Thirdly, the whole business of the growth of the quango state is referred to throughout. The fourth item is that new ways of citizen involvement are important and worth pursuing.
Let me move on to the five items that particularly attract me. Before coming to this place, and even for a few years while in it, I spent 25 years of my life in local government. Therefore, I think that it is important that we look at local government. The report says three things: there should be an unambiguous process of decentralisation of powers from central to local government; there should be a concordat between central and local government setting out respective powers; and local government should be given enhanced powers to raise taxes and administer its own finances.
In a debate about four years ago, I picked up the minute book of Halifax Borough Council for the year 1937 and looked at all the areas over which local government had influence at that time—health, public utilities such as gas, electric and water, public transport, further education, the totality of planning powers, and many more. The debilitation of local government has been constant. There were areas where it was obvious that local government should be involved. The Government will say to give themselves credit, "One of the things we really want to brag about is Sure Start". But that is a very simple matter of putting time, effort and money into giving under-fives a good start in life. Why on earth do we need multitudes of quangos to operate it? Why could it not have been entrusted to local government?
My Lords, as a Sure Start Minister, I can say that Sure Start is entirely run through local government.
My Lords, it certainly was not entirely run though local government when I was a local councillor. Indeed, we were told to keep out. I tell it straight: we were told to keep out and that it was nothing to do with us.
My Lords, when I was Sure Start Minister, we transferred powers and made sure that local government played exactly the role that the noble Lord would wish it to play.
Well, my Lords, we beg to differ. But that is how I experienced it as a local councillor. I went to a public meeting that was called to start up Sure Start and we were told, "It's nothing to do with you; you're local councillors, so keep out". I use that as an instance of something that is extremely local and should have stayed local, rather than becoming part of the quango society.
In a related independent report—to which my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton referred—Whose Town is it Anyway? The State of Local Democracy in Two Northern Towns, reference is made to Burnley and Harrogate. The most amazing fact about those towns is that their councils are responsible for only 5 per cent of local public expenditure, yet those are the doors that the citizens of those towns knock at when looking for help and assistance. That may well be worth a debate on its own, and perhaps we should look at it later.
When will centralisation stop? The Power report mentions enhanced powers for raising money. I have sat here year after year and heard the Government's announcement each autumn, which is given at the same time as council-tax-fixing announcements in multitudes of local authorities throughout the country.
Recommendation 12 is:
"A responsive electoral system should be introduced for elections to the House of Commons, House of Lords and local councils in England and Wales".
Credit has already been given to the Government for what has happened with elections to the European Parliament, the elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland local elections. It is worth saying—because the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, interjected in the speech of my noble friend Lord Goodhart to suggest that PR in Northern Ireland was not all that it might be cracked up to be—that no system is absolutely perfect. However, were the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, to seek election to Stormont, in most constituencies he and his party would have a chance of election, which they certainly did not have in the first-past-the-post election that rejected him from the other place.
Some people think that proportional representation would be good for Liberal Democrats. It might be, but, like everyone, we will have to learn how to contest PR elections. I am not certain that we as a party know that at the present time. But that is not the point; the reason for proportional representation is that it is right in itself. It gives value for the vote and it will assist women and ethnic minorities—indeed, all minorities, particularly those that find themselves in one-party states at the moment.
My final point is on recommendation 20:
"State funding to support local activity by political parties and independent candidates".
That is the "£3 tick-box" suggestion, which should go hand in hand with capped donations. But it is really important to have funding at a local level. Nothing would be worse than bloated central political parties hand in hand with an even more bloated central Government.
The Power report takes the lid off many mysteries to people concerned about politics, but there are still mysteries. It is important to open up the political process and make it transparent. I have had a rather inelegant phrase for some years: "Politics is knackered". My noble friend referred to the fact that in Burnley and Harrogate the total numbers of people involved in the political process were 89 and 118. Some may think that an exaggeration, but if 200 is the total tally of people really taking politics seriously in those substantial towns, that is a very limited number. All of us who are concerned about politics should be concerned about that. The proposals in the Power report can put politics on the mend. The amazing thing is that the proposals do not, in themselves, cost money.
My Lords, I will focus today on how we pay for our politics in Britain and on the excellent Power inquiry recommendations. For the past 50 years, we have muddled along in a typically British way on party funding. There has been an occasional bad smell coming from the seamier side of political fundraising, especially under the Thatcher Government, but a scandal on an utterly different scale has unfolded since last October. There have been huge secret loans to the Labour Party from four people not known to be long-standing Labour supporters who were then in short order—apparently, by a series of amazing coincidences—put forward by the Prime Minister for peerages, only to find their nominations fail the test of vetting for propriety by the independent commission.
It is as if a volcano had occasionally let off a little steam over the years or been heard rumbling gently. It has now suddenly erupted with full force, threatening anything in its path all the way to Downing Street. The police are properly investigating that extraordinary sequence of events. I hope that I can help them in their inquiry into whether those loans to the Labour Party were made to normal commercial terms. Like my old friend the newly ennobled Lord Lee of Trafford, whom I warmly welcome to the House—I greatly look forward to benefiting, perhaps even financially, from his wisdom and sound judgment—and like the other new noble Lord, also called John, whom I also welcome and congratulate on his splendid maiden speech, I have some business experience. In fact, I have borrowed more than £100 million from banks and insurance companies during my business career—I still have to pay some of it back—so I know normal commercial loan terms when I see them.
No reputable banker, looking at the accounts of the Labour Party, with its massive debts, negative net assets and dismal cash flow, would have lent it the extra £5 million that the four nominees provided at only 2 per cent over base, or at anywhere near that rate, without separate extra security off the balance sheet or guarantees from elsewhere. Yesterday, I asked a senior director of one of our largest clearing banks whether his bank would have made loans on terms like that to the Labour Party. "Not in a million years", was his reply. If and when the case comes to court, expert financial witnesses will say the same. So the million-pound question is still: if the Labour Party could really have borrowed the money on those terms from the bank, why didn't it?
The Power to the People commission and the noble Lady, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, have done democracy a signal service, both in their coherent and convincing analysis of the ills of our body politic and in their prescriptions for reform. If we remember just one statistic from the report, it must be that everyone who has given more than £1 million to Labour Party funds during the past nine years has received a knighthood or a peerage. As the Conservative MP for Chichester, Andrew Tyrie, points out in his thoughtful recent report, Clean Politics, under the previous Conservative Government, while only 6 per cent of companies made donations to the Conservative Party, 50 per cent of knighthoods and peerages went to directors of companies that made such donations. All credit to a Conservative MP for pointing that out.
Mr Blair, with his back right up against the wall, has charged Sir Hayden Phillips with finding common ground between the three main parties on funding. We wish him well, but neither his remit nor his resources allow him to explore and explain why our party funding system has now fallen so far out of control and into disrepute. Why on earth has he been asked to duplicate the independent Electoral Commission's own review of political party financing?
I also pay tribute to the two Rowntree trusts' outstanding support of the Power commission's work, carrying on their long and proud tradition of defending and developing democracy in our country, and to my noble friends Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord Shutt, who are representing the trusts here today. I ought to declare my interest as a beneficiary of their generosity as one of the original chocolate soldiers working for Roy Jenkins in opposition more than 30 years ago, before my stint as special adviser to him as Home Secretary. I remember that Rowntree paid me £2,500. It was the only job that I have ever had for which my salary was paid quarterly in advance. Thank goodness it was, because inflation was running at more than 20 per cent a year.
In their self-inflicted arms race, the Labour and Conservative parties spent almost £18 million pounds each on their national campaigns at the last general election, partly paid for by secret loans. The Liberal Democrats spent £4.3 million, and all other parties combined spent £1.1 million between them. Politics in Britain has been funded for far too long by millions of pounds from the few. It must now be funded by a few pounds each from the millions.
Here the Power report has the right answer. As we have heard, it proposes that everyone who votes at a general election should also mark, if they wish, a second ballot paper to allocate £3 a year of public money to whichever local registered political party they choose. My noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton put his finger on the point. At a stroke, that would counter the natural reaction of cynicism and disgust that many ordinary voters would now have if the political parties just helped themselves to a central carve-up of tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money.
The Power proposal gives every voter a free choice to give the money, or not, as he or she wishes, and to any party they like, not necessarily the one for which they are forced to vote under our flawed first-past-the-post voting system. You may be a Labour voter holding his nose and voting Liberal Democrat in Twickenham, who would now have a real say in helping Labour to campaign for what he believed in locally; or a Green voting Labour in Bolton to keep the Tories out; or a tactical Tory voter in West Dorset whose real loyalty is to UKIP. Because the money goes to the party that the voter chooses locally, it should help to rebuild our hollowed-out democracy, where so few seats are seriously contested by the national parties. Their understandable ruthless concentration on just a few centrally chosen target seats breeds an ever greater sense of disillusion and falling voter turnout in so many parts of Britain.
Power beats other plans—such as matching membership subscriptions, or tax relief on small donations—because it is simple and open to everyone, whether or not they pay tax or want to join a political party. The Power plan also includes a cap of £10,000 on individual donations to political parties. That is fine. In my view—this is my idea, not that of Power—if campaigning organisations, whether trade unions or pressure groups, want to donate directly to political parties, there should be no cap as long as they ballot their members and give their donations to each of the political parties in exactly the proportions that their members vote for. So if the leaders of a typical trade union, half of whose members vote Labour and a quarter each vote Liberal Democrat and Conservative, want to give Labour £100,000, that is fine, but they should also give £50,000 to each of the two other parties.
The Power way to pay will not solve all the ills of British politics, but it would be a very solid practical start. It would reinvigorate local politics and end the desperate chase after vast donations, which will always breed suspicion and contain the seeds of corruption.
I have been ashamed of our politics in Britain during the past year. Our maligned journalists and broadcasters, led by the Independent on Sunday, the Sunday Times and the Times, have been brave and skilled as they have exposed wrongdoing. The independent appointments commission has done its job superbly. The whole affair is now, rightly, in the hands of the police. We must change the system and give the power of the political pound to the millions, not the millionaires, before our politics stink to high heaven.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for providing the opportunity to discuss the Power inquiry report. I also thank everyone, particularly those who have been appreciative of the report and the work of my wonderful team, for taking part in the debate. I also congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Taylor and Lord Lee, on their maiden speeches, which have added greatly to the debate. I look forward to further opportunities to discuss the inquiry's report with them.
As the chairman of the commission that produced the report, I had the great privilege of receiving evidence from thousands of citizens across Britain. Some of that evidence came to us live, some came through e-mails, some came in written submissions, some—let me tell the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart—came from Members of Parliament, some from members of the press, and some from experts in the academy. We had a great deal of information. We did not reinvent the wheel, but drew on a lot of work that had been done by other bodies considering democracy. It was an experience that proved to be hugely stimulating and inspiring. I felt privileged to be involved in it, but it was also profoundly troubling. It was inspiring because it vindicated my faith in the capacity of the British people to discuss issues of great importance with seriousness, compassion and a spirit of tolerance. I was also proud to hear and read evidence that clearly displayed the fact that millions of Britons are highly active citizens involved in all manner of activities, charitable work and volunteering. They go into schools and do all sorts of things to raise money, and they visit prisoners, which we do not hear a lot about. They do incredible things. They are also involved in campaigning on all manner of issues.
Our young, who we are constantly told are feckless and useless, are political and interested and want to make the world a better place. Do not believe those who say that the people of this country are apathetic, lazy or too comfortable living their lives to care or to be interested in things that politics seeks to consider. Wherever we went, we found people with a deep interest in both the big issues that this country faces and in the small issues that their communities and neighbourhoods face. We went to community centres, to village and town halls and to schools and colleges. I should tell my noble friend Lord Gould that we even had a meeting in a football stadium. Much to our surprise, people turned up, because we thought that if people did not turn up to vote they would not turn up to take part in discussions with us. The people there were not only the ones who were interested and who could be bothered to turn up—that self-selecting group; we actually sought people out, particularly among communities where voting is very low. There are growing divides between the rich and poor in this country, and the poorest people are those who are not voting and who feel particularly voiceless. We made a great effort to reach into those communities and to take part in conversations with people about why there was that abstinence.
What came through to us very clearly was that the attitude of many British people towards formal democracy is very worrying. When I first spoke about the inquiry in this House in February last year, I indicated how we were uncovering a deep well of distrust towards formal politics. I also talked about the way in which very many people now regard politics as it is practised in Parliament as irrelevant to them. I am sad to say that nothing happened in the intervening months, as we continued to gather evidence and reflect on it, that has changed my view or that of the commission on that point.
I have listened to the brickbats of the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I know that academics in the political field hate others to trespass on their terrain, and I know that those who are part of the political elite, in which I include former Members of Parliament, parliamentarians and even Members of this House, often want to find the easiest answers to this kind of malaise and to decide that people will be switched on once we have a new leader of a political party or have something else in place. I have to tell noble Lords, however, that the problems run far deeper than that. I will listen with care to what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has to say. I am sure that he will be absolutely right about some elements. No one is suggesting that the Power report has all the answers or has done its job to perfection. All I would say is that we had the opportunity to listen to the people, which academics do not. The people were saying loudly and clearly that they did not feel happy with what was happening on political terrain.
If anything, the great swathe of evidence heard and analysed by the inquiry strengthened the view of the Power commission that we have entered a period where there is real alienation from the political system. People are saying that they do not feel that their voices are heard, and they feel they have no influence, so why should they bother to vote? I do not need to tell noble Lords how dangerous that is. The threat to the key principles of representation, mandate and dialogue that underpin our democracy is great indeed if ever greater numbers see no point in voting, if they feel hostile to all the main political parties and if they believe that all politicians place their tribal political interests, or even their self-interests, above those of their constituents and the country. Although we may say that we know many good, decent people in the political world and that that is not true, we must accept and understand the feelings of many people.
We should also be keenly aware of the fact that, although Britain has been blessed for the past decade by a healthy economic performance, it is unlikely to last for ever. Even last week, Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, pointed out the vulnerability of economic systems in our global economy and the way in which global factors can have an influence and could involve a downturn. Economic hardship and deep political alienation are a combustible mix, and extremist parties and organisations would happily use the combination to their great advantage. It is therefore important that we seek to address this now. We now face a major crisis in our democracy. I do not say that lightly. Political parties on the ground are haemorrhaging and are non-existent in many areas. The pool of people from which parties can recruit candidates both for Westminster and for local councils is getting smaller. If you are young, from a minority community or from the poorer sections of our country, you are the least likely to even want to engage with formal politics, never mind get actively involved. We are in danger of turning citizens into the spectators to whom the noble Lord, Lord Gould, referred. That is not acceptable.
The Power inquiry argued that a healthy relationship between politicians and citizens could be rekindled if there were three major shifts in political practice. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has explained some of those shifts. He referred to our report's encouragement of a rebalancing of power between the Executive and the legislature and between central and local government. We propose very strongly that that be done by concordat. We can cry in the wind about wanting written constitutions, but the reality is that that will remain in the long grass for some time to come. The starting point lies very much with the weft and weave of the British tradition of how to do things. We must recognise that some things should be put down in stone now, because the conventions and gentlemen's agreements of the past no longer work.
The concordats that we recommend actually align with something that is already in place. A concordat was created between the judiciary and the Executive to protect the judiciary from the encroachments of the Executive, and to protect judicial independence. That concordat gives us a template for creating what I describe as a spinal column. This is not some rigid constitution; it simply puts in place some vertebrae that put down firmly the arrangements that there should be between the Executive and Parliament, between the central and the local, and between the judiciary and the Executive. Those vertebrae allow for the flexibility that is so much part of the British way of doing things and do not allow the kind of rigidity that we see in some constitutional arrangements. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, also talked about the introduction of electoral reform—another hot potato that two of the main political parties will want to push into the long grass. Again, however, it is something that people should have the opportunity to debate with a proper understanding.
The third shift is to provide citizens with a more direct and focused say over individual political decisions and policies. We came away from this process with the strong sense that we really had to move to much greater participative democracy. This change is vital and cannot be consigned to a Cinderella role alongside the other two. In this debate, we have had noble Lords who do not trust the people. They say that we will end up with all sorts of ugly things coming through or that we will get the sort of thing that the "Today" programme produced, such as legislation for shooting burglars, or hanging reintroduced.
The reality is not that we will have a kind of "press button" citizens' engagement. It is part of something deliberative in the context of citizens' juries, forums or engagement in processes where they hear evidence and have good information on which to engage with decision-making. That requires a much more responsible media, which of course must be engaged in a debate on how such participative processes can be enriched by a responsible media or undermined by an irresponsible one.
We proposed this more participatory approach to democracy for a number of reasons. Crucially, we heard most strongly in our evidence that people want the ability to have a more direct influence over decisions made in their name. They want a way to force issues that they want to discuss on to the political agenda. They do not want issues forced into law, but on to the agenda. They want to insist that there are proper debates and processes around issues that concern them, rather than the kind of deals that are done by the political elite behind closed doors.
Not many people get it, but I was pleased to hear that my noble friend Lord Gould gets it: people want to be heard. We have to reinvent some aspects of our democracy that are not working. This is not an end to representative democracy; it is a way of enriching it. The days when people were content to delegate decision-making to their supposedly intellectual and moral superiors in Parliament are long gone. British people hold themselves and their own opinions in far higher esteem than they once did. They crave self-determination even if they do not always achieve it. They increasingly expect choice and influence in many parts of their everyday lives, from the most trivial to the most monumental.
A political system which does not meet those expectations will only breed further alienation and disconnection. The most notable example of this change in public expectations came in the evidence that we received on elections. People feel that voting once every four or five years just does not do it for them. They do not feel that that is enough. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has said, they do not want to sit on committees every day of the week. They do not want to sit in rooms above pubs all the time in the kind of formalised sense that the noble Lord described. But they would be happy, rather like on jury service, to be drawn in for important issues where they feel that they could make a difference.
Many of the decisions and much of the research that we received showed that citizens increasingly find it ridiculous that such a limited process as the general election is regularly taken by Governments as a blanket mandate for action on everything from international security to the governance of a local school. Therefore, part of this report is about giving power back to the local. I cannot emphasise enough that that means money has to follow. It cannot just be a cosmetic nod towards the local. It does not mean consultation as currently spoken of by government. The people have a sense of smell and know when consultation is window-dressing on decisions that have already been made behind firmly closed doors.
My time is coming to a close. I am sorry that I have not been able to deal with all the issues raised, particularly where colleagues have suggested that there were things that they did not go along with. I suggest that noble Lords do not go along with many of them because they have not heard why young people's engagement, for example, is so important. If the hum and the habits of democracy are not inculcated early on, I am afraid that people are lost for ever. We have increasingly older generations voting, but not the young. They do not get into the habit once they have children or pay taxes. They remain alienated and feel a sense of exclusion.
In answer to the question what next, we on the commission feel very strongly that one of the problems in Britain is that we always do things in a top-down way, particularly on matters constitutional. This has to come from the bottom up. The reason why the Human Rights Act is now not being loved by people is the way in which it came into being. It was never championed and people were never made to feel that they had a purchase on it. If we want democratic renewal, we have to let people engage in debates and bring stuff up from the bottom. We intend to launch a campaign around democratic renewal; otherwise, we will see a hollowing-out of our democracy, where political parties concentrate only on the marginal seats to win elections and it becomes democracy by numbers. That is not good enough.
The Power report says that there has to be a new way of doing politics. Everyone must be given an opportunity to engage. There must be honesty in politics, an end to spin and consultants, and an end to the improprieties associated with money and funding. We have to see our system and our people re-empowered. This is an opportunity to be seized. We all have to take it.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. It is to the credit of your Lordships' House that we have managed to debate this subject now for almost three hours and no one has seriously used the awful word "stakeholder". Perhaps there is hope left in this country, even if it is only in the House of Lords.
My final point before I start is that in the town where I live—as noble Lords will know, I spend half my time attempting to be very active as a local politician—a much needed and quite attractive Sure Start building is being built, which we are all very excited about and grateful for. I was one of those negotiating with Sure Start on the design of the building; the district council had no direct involvement in Sure Start and I do not think that the county council had either. So, as far as we are concerned, it is a local quango partnership set-up—arrangements which seems to run everything nowadays, certainly as far as Colne is concerned.
The report contains a huge amount of valuable research and a lot of good sense. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness and the others who produced it will not be too upset when I say that its conclusions are rather timid. I found the whole package a bit disappointing. I do not think that I was quite as disappointed as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, but I am an active politician and not an academic. I do not look for the academic rigorousness that the noble Lord looks for; I just look for sensible proposals. Although most of the proposals are useful and helpful, I do not think that they are "transformational"—another of the Government's buzzwords—regarding people's active involvement in politics.
A couple of unarticulated threads run through the report, shouting out on page after page, but I do not think the report has grasped hold of them. They concern how and where individuals can take an active personal involvement in politics. People can do so at two levels. First, they can take part in political parties. My noble friend Lord Shutt has given the technical phrase for the state of political parties in this country and I agree—they are due for the knacker's yard. Secondly, people can take part outside political parties, which more often than not is done at the local level. It concerns things that are happening in the community and the neighbourhood which people feel strongly about or get involved in, whether they do so positively, oppositionally or whatever.
Increasingly, as the noble Lord, Lord Gould of Brookwood, pointed out, involvement is about the internet, which is opening up a huge array of ways in which people can take part in debate and discussion. That is a vital part of political involvement. Individuals can also get involved in campaigns and so on. One of the flaws of the report is that it does not investigate this area as it develops.
I was fascinated by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Gould, who used the buzzwords "participatory democracy", which warmed my heart. The first person I heard talking about participation as an important part of politics was Jo Grimond, over 40 years ago. It was one of the reasons I got involved in politics. After listening carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Gould, had to say, I am still not sure whether I strongly agree or disagree with him. Perhaps we agree on a great deal but we just use different words.
The tension between representative democracy and participatory democracy is crucial and underlies the whole argument. I do not believe, as the noble Lord does, that participatory democracy is the future of politics. I rather go along with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, that although more participation will enrich politics, participatory politics and representative politics have to work together. It is difficult to see how one can work satisfactorily and democratically without the other. It is difficult to see how participatory politics can work on its own. You need a system of representation; without one, it is difficult to see how the system can work at all. I do not think they are separate things, but an emphasis on more participation is absolutely fundamental.
This comes down to what I call real politics and real democracy. There is an enormous pressure in this country to say that real democracy and real politics are bad things, and I shall explain why. More than anything else, real democracy and politics are about debate. They are about people exchanging and thrashing out ideas in debate and coming to a consensus or agreeing not to agree. They are about people interacting with the system, being involved in discussions and campaigning, and, as far as possible, being involved in the decisions themselves. These are all the things that today's party managers in this country do not like. They do not like it in their own parties and they do not like it outside. I am not pointing the finger specifically at any party; it is a tendency in all political parties including, unfortunately, my own. Party managers want well-managed and well-mannered parties, carefully controlled messages and well-scrubbed and well-painted candidates, both male and female. There is an obsession with management, an obsession with spin and an obsession with style. All these things mitigate against real democracy and real politics.
Democracy is not like that. It is unpredictable and people will not necessarily make the decisions you want them to make. It is untidy. If people are campaigning, organising and associating—the right of association is not much talked about nowadays, but it is absolutely crucial for taking part in politics within a democracy—such things can often be subversive. There are clashes, differences of view and big arguments. Big arguments lead to rows because it is not just intellectual debate. People feel strongly about issues. If someone is building a new supermarket in the field next to your house, you feel emotional about it as well as looking for arguments why the building should be turned down under the planning rules. So there are clashes of emotions, and nowadays all that is thought to be a bad thing. If people in political parties row with each other or even have minor disagreements, it is splashed across the press as big rows and splits and all the rest of it.
Like the inquiry, I do not believe that people are apathetic, just that they are discriminating about what they do and do not take part in. I have been to some pretty fantastic events over the years. I remember my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford when he was my Member of Parliament in the days when I had the opportunity to vote for my Member of Parliament, although I regret to say that I did not vote for him. We had a fantastic public meeting in the big sports hall in Colne. The Conservative Government of the day, about 20 years ago, proposed to close the local hospital. I was chairman of the campaign group and my noble friend was there as our local Member of Parliament; he had come along to give us his support. In the circumstances, he probably did more than he reasonably could have done. Some 400 people were at the meeting, which was part of a terrific campaign. The people who went to that meeting will remember it, and they still talk about it today. It became part of their life experience and their participation in politics.
Almost the last time I saw my noble friend before he came to this House was at an election rally for the European elections held two years ago, believe it or not, at a local hall in Nelson. Over 100 people were there, and that is not apathy. So there are places where people manage to break through apathy now and again. At the same European election campaign in the north-west, I spoke at the biggest political meeting I have ever spoken to in my life apart from at party conferences, with over 1,000 people in attendance. It was a European election rally in Manchester. That was perhaps quite extraordinary, but it can and sometimes does happen. I should say that, for my sins, I was also the agent this year in a number of local elections. In one ward in Nelson I believe that we had the highest turnout in any urban ward in the country, in the mid-70s percentage range. Also in the all-postal elections held on the same day as the European elections, we had a turnout of 82 per cent, again the highest in the country, and certainly the highest for an urban ward. At 82 per cent, pretty well everyone has voted apart from those who are away, incapacitated, Jehovah's Witnesses or dead—and since it was an all-postal election, I suspect some of them voted too.
Political parties have to find ways of reinvigorating themselves as democratic organisations, as well as try to organise themselves into running elections in ways that do not put people off, as I believe happens at the moment. There are no real answers, but the problem has to be looked at.
At the local level, the report rightly talks about the need to reinvigorate local government. That is crucial. Another report produced by Rowntree, Whose Town Is It Anyway?, which is about Harrogate and Burnley and which my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton referred to, makes a useful observation in a piece of academic research that I think the noble Lord, Lord Norton, might like—that if you want people to become more involved in local government, local elections and local affairs, the smaller the unit, the more involvement you will get. Yet that is contrary to the present drive towards larger units. The Government are pushing for larger units in the health service, in the police and, in some parts of the country, probably in local authorities. The basis of that thinking is that a top-down, management-based drive for efficiency will result in better delivery of services. But I have to say that I regard "delivery" as a new Labour weasel word. Of course this is about producing good services, but it is also about producing democratically controlled services with the democratic involvement of the people involved in their production. In some cases it will mean that delivery is not quite what central government want. They might not meet their targets because the local people may think that other things are a bit more important. Until we get away from the idea that public services have to be produced uniformly and in a management-efficient way throughout the country, local democracy has no future.
One way the Government are promoting local involvement is through something called "neighbourhood management". There are 35 Pathfinders—another buzzword—as well as many other neighbourhood management areas in the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders, including three in Pendle alone, one of which I am involved with. A lot of the talk in the old ODPM about "double devolution" to the local level was based on the idea that neighbourhood management in these Pathfinders would provide a model for devolution below the level of local authorities to neighbourhoods. As someone who is heavily involved in a neighbourhood management scheme in Colne that is working quite well, I nevertheless have a great deal of doubt about whether that will be the case.
Perhaps I may conclude by giving a typical example of why that should be so. If you look on the neighbourhood renewal unit website and do a Google search for "Neighbourhood Management", you will find a glossary to help you through the nightmare. There are 137 different things that you will have to learn about, ranging from an "Active Community Unit" until the last on the list, "Working Together Learning Together", which turns out to apply in Scotland only and is run by an organisation called Communities Scotland. The glossary runs through the "Building Communities Initiative" and the "Community Empowerment Fund".
Of course, floor targets and mainstreaming are crucial to the whole thing. So, if you want to engage with your local community, you have to learn about floor targets and mainstreaming before you get involved. The glossary continues with "Local Public Service Agreement", "Local Strategic Partnerships", "Locality Budgeting", "Neighbourhood Management Programme", "Neighbourhood Renewal Fund", "Neighbourhood Support Fund", "New Commitment to Neighbourhood Renewal", "Public Service Agreements"—which some people will know are an absolute minefield—"Sustainable Communities Programme", and so on.
Perhaps I may finally read out the public service agreements' definition:
"Deprivation will be tackled through the bending of main Departmental programmes such as the police and health services, to focus more specifically on the most deprived areas. Departments now have minimum targets to meet, which means that, for the first time, they will be judged on the areas where they are doing worst, and not just on averages".
In other words, everything that happens at the bottom has to meet targets, floors and all the rest of it, prescribed from above. It then says:
"(See Floor targets)".
It is all top down. It is a well meaning attempt to deliver the services but is profoundly undemocratic.
My Lords, this has been a fascinating and very thoughtful debate, not least in the maiden contributions of my noble friend Lord Lee and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor.
I had a very small, walk-on part in the Power inquiry. I was, first, very interested in it as a concept; secondly, very intrigued; and, finally, very impressed. I should like to place on record the thanks of the whole House, I think, to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and her team. Above all, it succeeded where so many others have failed in securing the direct involvement of a huge number of people—not least, young people—outside the Westminster village and outside the usual political anorak group. I went to the conference at the end of the exercise. The many, many hundreds of people there were not the usual suspects. I have been involved all my political life in this sort of circle and there were people I did not know. That in itself is a great tribute to this exercise.
I believe there are two seminal reasons for the decline in interest, participation and commitment of British citizens in political institutions. First, the continuing and escalating failure of our systems to clearly represent and implement their democratic choices; and, secondly, the shattered hopes and expectations of those who put their faith in promises of change and improvement which did not then occur. I shall concentrate on the first, with only a brief reference to the second.
As I had a role in producing a draft Bill on the reform of your Lordships' House with the late Robin Cook, Ken Clarke, Tony Wright and George Young, which was specifically endorsed by the Power commission, I will be very modest and keep completely off that subject. Instead, as a former Member of Parliament, shadow Leader of the Commons and a constitutional reform spokesman, I want to concentrate on the Power analysis of the shortcomings of the House of Commons.
It is interesting to see what a good debate we have had here when, as far as I know, there has been no reference to the Power commission in any substantial form down the Corridor. I note, incidentally, that four of us speaking in today's debate are refugees from that place—only four—and I am the most recent, so I suppose that I come with the scars to show for it.
In essence they have shown in this report that the citizens of this country believe that our representative parliamentary system has become dysfunctional and, in the current fashionable phrase, not fit for purpose. At a time when so many are busy challenging the legitimacy of this House—with some justification—it is surely a healthy corrective for us to examine the legitimacy of the House of Commons.
In the first general election which attracted my interest—in 1955, at school, when I was very young and na-ve, so I was the Labour candidate—96.1 per cent of the national vote went to either the Conservative or Labour parties; the winning party gained a fraction under half of the total vote, just under 50 per cent, and every vote seemed to matter. The turnout was 76.8 per cent. Most important of all, the result reflected what the people had voted for and could be seen to have done so.
Fifty years later, in 2005, what do we see? Only 67.5 per cent voted for those two parties, only 35.2 per cent voted for the winning party—21 per cent of the registered electorate—which, nevertheless, won for it an overall majority of 66 in the House of Commons. In huge swathes of the country the outcome seemed entirely predictable and the turnout was a miserable 61.3 per cent. The average figure disguised huge variations, with the safest seats typically scoring little more than half that of the most marginal.
Election turnout is not, of course, the most effective test—it is not the only litmus test—of a healthy democracy, as many noble Lords have said already, but if such a substantial proportion cannot be motivated to pop into their polling station, and have good reason to think it is a waste of time, that must surely worry all democrats. A whole generation is getting out of the habit of voting.
In some areas, of course, there was no representation at all for one or other of the three major parties. Labour gained nearly a quarter of the votes in Cambridgeshire and won no seats; the Conservatives did the same in Cleveland and won no seats; while in Cornwall we now have a Tory-free zone and a Labour-free zone. The Conservatives achieved some 50,000 more votes than Labour in England but ended up with 92 fewer seats. Chris Patten and others have referred to the fact that if it does not change its attachment to first-past-the-post the Conservative Party now faces built-in distortions of gigantic proportions.
Local representation can be equally haphazard. In the recent May council elections, the Conservatives won 40.8 per cent of the votes in the London borough of Kingston, compared to the Liberal Democrats' 38.5 per cent, but the latter retained control, winning 25 seats to the former's 21. In Birmingham, Labour had the largest share of the vote but the Conservatives had the most seats. In some councils where party supporters recorded substantial numbers of votes, they got no seats at all—the Conservatives in Cambridge, Labour in Richmond and the Liberal Democrats in Croydon.
For those noble Lords who need more evidence, the report published yesterday by ERS, The Great Local Votes Swindle, demonstrates some extraordinary distortions. No wonder voters feel cheated. Some 54.8 per cent of the votes cast in the Birmingham elections were cast for losing candidates and a further 18.2 per cent contributed to excess majorities, making a total of 73 per cent of votes effectively "wasted". No wonder even registered electors do not bother to vote; no wonder an increasing number of citizens do not even bother to register.
The one certainty of the past 50 years, between 1955 and 2005, has been the constant trend towards greater uncertainty. The linking thread has been a consistent reduction in linkage—reflecting also, of course, a reduction in identification with social class—between the nation's wish and the electoral outcome. There has also been a dramatic drop in the membership of the three major parties. This has identified a most important change in our society. There is less personal identification with the various parties. In fact, it has almost halved during that period.
There have been attempts to tinker with the system, which have had minimal impact. My noble friend Lord Greaves referred to the compulsory postal voting scheme, and I believe that the Electoral Commission has quite rightly objected to what was, to a large extent, an open door to minor corruption. It is already clear that that will not make a major change. Indeed, there have been attempts to improve the registration process, but people—particularly in the 18 to 30 age group—will not bother to register if they think the whole process is pointless.
Last year, of course, there were some important elections in other parts of the world. In New Zealand, where everybody knows that every vote counts, electoral registration reached 95.2 per cent—they were slightly disappointed, but we could do with that.
Reference has already been made to the fact that there is at present a secret and incestuous review of electoral systems, apparently still chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister. But it is anybody's guess what will come out of that because it is not transparent and, in particular, it seems to be looking only, as Ministers have confessed, at recent experience in the United Kingdom. Surely, international comparisons of the kind to which I have just referred are important. We should all be asking that that particular exercise now be made transparent, inclusive and independent, and not simply be a government exercise.
Presiding over the increasing but avoidable democratic deficit could prove a lasting legacy for Mr Blair. I believe that he will have to consider this issue again in the next few months if that is not to be the case. The blatant injustice of the system to the voter—not to the politicians or the parties—is clearly the most powerful reason for doing something about it. One can hardly blame the 40 per cent of those who could vote but refused to do so when they could see that it was so pointless. Again, international comparison showed that last year in Germany the turnout was 77.7 per cent and in New Zealand over 80 per cent. As the noble Baroness's commission has so rightly noted, turnout is not the only health check on the body politic but it is the most tangible one.
The ignominious retreat from the promises of 1997, which were so implicit in the agreement that my noble friend Lord Maclennan and Robin Cook negotiated before 1997, have been very damaging to the whole reputation of the business of politics. The Power commission pulls no punches. It identified as essential:
"A responsive electoral system—which offers voters a greater choice and diversity of parties and candidates—should be introduced for elections to the House of Commons, House of Lords and local councils in England and Wales to replace the first-past-the-post system".
It has been noted that the report also advocated the use of the single transferable vote to maximise voter choice and minimise party dominance.
In his book New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, published just before the 1997 election victory—I took it out of the House of Commons Library and was interested to find that only one person had read it before me—Mr Blair pledged,
"an end to hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords as the first step to a properly directly elected second chamber, and the chance for the people to decide after the election the system by which they elect the government of the future".
Just a few paragraphs later, he emphasised the nature of these commitments:
"The party I lead will carry out in government the programme we provide in our Manifesto beforehand. Nothing more, nothing less, that is my word. We deliver what we promise. We don't promise what we can't deliver".
At Prime Minister's Questions on
The second major cause of public disenchantment with politics and politicians is the widespread perception that you cannot trust the system to deliver what it and they promise. The rosy dawn of
"All power disconnects but absolute power disconnects absolutely".
I am a firm believer in the parliamentary system and we have had some notable victories, but we still have some important challenges to come, not least to see whether your Lordships' House will remain a fully appointed Chamber of Tony's cronies or whether we can do something better. Again, I welcome the recommendations of the Power commission.
Where does that leave us? Churchill urged politicians 50 years ago to trust the people, but what if they do not trust the politicians or the political system? A Daily Telegraph poll on
My Lords, would the noble Lord like to tell us the percentage for professors, which I believe is about 80 per cent?
My Lords, the noble Lord has made his point very effectively.
In his speech to the Power conference, which of course was attended by the leader of the Conservative Party and my right honourable friend the Liberal Democrat leader, Ming Campbell, Sir Ming announced that he would be launching an online virtual conference in the run-up to the party conference season—very much in the spirit of what has been said this afternoon. It will maintain the momentum and spirit of the Power inquiry by inviting citizens to exercise their rights to contribute to the continuing debate on the commission's analysis and to make suggestions for reform. For us, a principal purpose of taking power is to give it away. That will be demonstrable in this exercise. Ming Campbell emphasised on that occasion that we would,
"invite everyone—with any political affiliation or none—to take part in this discussion", in a genuinely interactive conference. That is the first step towards enabling people with a bottom-up input into this debate so that the momentum so effectively started by the Power commission can continue.
My colleagues and I trust the people. We believe that they deserve to be trusted with a truly responsive political system. We believe, with the Power team, that that is the only way to regain their trust.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate, and the Power inquiry deserves no less. I think we all agree that the Power inquiry addresses all our questions even if we do not necessarily agree that it provides all the right answers.
It has been a pleasure to have had two maiden speeches with which I could feel particularly familiar. I spent five years as a boy living not far from Holbeach, in the fens. My first paid job was picking daffodils, although not on the noble Lord's farm, and I can remember those occasions when the Wallace family would cycle out to one of the villages for tea, going against the wind at five miles an hour in one direction and coming back with the wind at what felt like 25 miles an hour—those are the fens.
On Conservatives Abroad, we should debate on another occasion the question of representation without taxation, which is the question of voting from abroad. The right for British citizens abroad to vote here was, after all, introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister. It was intended to raise the level of Conservative voting. In the United States, foreign voting is allowed, but you are supposed to pay tax. If noble Lords are following the American press at the moment, they will know that there is a great deal of argument about non-resident taxation in the United States, so we may need to consider that question a little more on other occasions.
It is a great pleasure to have my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford here. He and I have known each other since 1974, when we both fought Manchester Moss Side, a constituency with many problems of political alienation even then, although we were fighting at that point for different parties. I had great pleasure in taking part in one of the largest political meetings that I have ever addressed, in Pendle, a couple of years ago, which my noble friend Lord Lee was chairing. It was good to see that there is still mass participation in some parts of Britain and in some of our communities.
Of the range of speeches that we have had, one of the most interesting and which we need to discuss a great deal further was that of the noble Lord, Lord Gould, on participatory democracy. Participatory democracy offers us greater promise but also has great problems. We need to explore further how we can make sure that it is proper participation and not manipulation from the centre.
As for the noble Lord, Lord Norton, as a professor myself I suddenly realised that I was hearing the authentic voice of the external examiner in a PhD thesis viva as he unpicked the weak points and the challengeable assumptions of the thesis, drew attention to the academic studies not cited and marked it finally as in need of major revisions before receiving a doctorate degree.
We are now all agreed that the problem of political disengagement is an enormous one, not only for Britain but for many other countries. The solidarity of the traditional two-party system belonged to the industrial age, with mass membership and strong popular identification with parties and political leaders leading to a high turnout in a real sense of engagement, although largely on a ritual basis. There was mass industry, mass society and class politics. We now have a dual problem. With the middle class, we have the paradox of a highly educated electorate, more prosperous and more leisured than their parents but less engaged in representative politics. That is paralleled by the wider alienation of the less well educated and prosperous, so that political competition in the past two or three elections has focused increasingly on the middle classes who vote rather than on the marginalised people who do not vote. We are still stuck with a political system built for the industrial age with government and opposition, masses against the classes and an entrenched two-party system.
One thing that we in Westminster need to learn from our benighted but struggling local government is the extent to which local government in many areas has moved beyond the two-party system, with more than three parties—Greens, nationalists, UKIP, even the BNP on occasions and, in many cases, independents—leading to cross-party co-operation and coalitions and a different style of government. When we look at other countries, it is worth remarking that the worst alienation from politics in Europe, apart from in Britain, is in France, a system where power is also concentrated in an executive presidency—although in France they actually call it an executive presidency—scarcely accountable to a weak National Assembly.
The drift of British government in the past 25 years, which started under Mrs Thatcher and has been taken further by Tony Blair, has crushed local democracy. There has been a deep distrust from the centre for local democracy as such. Then we have seen the growth of the quango state, a Government who love businessmen and give them legitimacy while denying the legitimacy to people who have been elected at the local level. We have personal leadership at the centre much more than collective government, with Cabinet committees that do not meet and a Prime Minister with a direct relationship with the media—and, as he sees it, with the people. My noble friend Lord Maclennan criticised the Prime Minister for his high degree of self-belief, which made me stop and think, "Which British politician in the past 150 years would compare with our current Prime Minister for his degree of self-belief?" I came to his conclusion that it was W.E. Gladstone, who, I may say, almost destroyed his party in the process. One should warn Members of the Government Benches that he not only resigned but kept coming back again afterwards because he was not sure that his party was doing what he liked.
We have politicians who lead against their parties, who are marketed almost as anti-politicians—almost as personal brands. We have a Government who cultivate the media and indeed follow them, so when media campaigns build up, the Government make new announcements and new Bills. For example, there have been 40 Home Office Bills since 1997. After the Blair brand we will be offered the Cameron brand as the sort of new Blair that washes whiter—younger, cleaner, non-conservative, also running against his own party. We need a different style of government, one which is more open, local and consultative. That means less concentration of funding in the hands of the national campaigning organisations; it means an acceptance of multiple parties—and I suggest not just a three-party system but a multiple-party system, with room for UKIP and the Greens as well—and it means looser parties. It means having a more independent Parliament, not seeing itself with the Commons subordinate to the Executive, a more consultative style of government and, please, slower government, with fewer Bills and government announcements.
Necessarily, as part of this, there should be a more open voting system. I do not believe, nor does anyone on my Benches believe, that a change in the voting system is somehow a magic bullet that changes everything, but it is part of a package. We know that multiple constituencies bring more balanced representation, with more women and more members of ethnic minorities automatically. We know that more open voting would mean wider campaigning, reversing the dreadful trend of all political parties including my own to focus on marginal voters in marginal constituencies rather than on voters as a whole. In the past two elections, travelling around and working for my party, I was increasingly disturbed by the number of constituencies in which you could see that none of the parties was actively campaigning because other constituencies were target seats. I regret to say that it was the Liberal Democrats who taught other parties how to target specific seats. It is hardly surprising that turnout in safe seats where no one was campaigning has gone down more heavily.
I have some doubts about the version given by the noble Lord, Lord Gould, of participatory democracy. I entirely agree with him that the internet opens up new avenues for information and debate and happily undermines the concentrated power of the national media. That is extremely encouraging, but it is open to manipulation and marketing. There is a real risk of the illusion of popular participation without the reality. We need a dialogue between representative democracy and participatory democracy. One needs political elites to interpret what the choices are; otherwise, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, remarks, we end up with the Californian problem, in which voters when given the chance will always vote for higher spending and lower taxation and you are forced to jump between one form of populism and another. Populism is, after all, one of the great dangers of the age that we face. If we look at Berlusconi and various other examples that we have had around Europe, we have been lucky so far that the potential populists in Britain have self-destructed before they made too much progress—I am sure that noble Lords all know which particular well tanned, double-barrelled university professor I am talking about.
We need to talk about citizenship rather than consumers. Marketing politics means that voters have been treated as if they were simply consumers. That means that the citizenship agenda is one that we all have to engage with. We debated this a little in this Chamber on other occasions—and I have to say to the Minister that the replies that we have had from some of her colleagues about the idea that the Labour Government can themselves define what national identity and citizenship will be taught in schools is not enough. We need a wider consensus for this that teaches rights and responsibilities and which will encourage people from school on to become engaged in local self-government and national participation. The Education Bill that we will be discussing next week goes in the opposite direction from much of that, in so many ways. Schools, after all, are at the heart of local communities, but the Bill wants to take them further away from local control.
We face a serious and long-term problem of popular disengagement from representative politics. Our political institutions have to adapt in response, and there is in Westminster and Whitehall a deep reluctance to adapt. The danger is that we edge further in the direction of political marketing, treating voters as passive consumers of politics. That is only likely to fuel longer-term disillusionment as each plausible new leader—David Cameron being the latest—falls by the wayside, and eventually we will end up with populism of the kind we have seen in other countries. We need to think about changes and how we fund political parties in the voting system, as well as the relationship between Parliament and the Executive—a package of constitutional reforms for which many of us on these Benches have argued for years. I hope we also agree that the revival of local democracy is a key part of all of this, because local participation in issues that directly affect each individual voter is the beginning of political participation, as such.
There is, as the noble Lord, Lord Gould, also touched on, a tremendous problem of international accountability as globalisation takes decisions further away from the citizen. I know and immensely like Professor David Held, but I am not entirely convinced by his models of cosmopolitan democracy. I am a committed European, but I recognise that attempts at a European level to build a sense of citizenship, participation, representative accountability and popular referendums have all raised severe problems. How we combine democracy, participation, accountability and a global economy is one of the biggest problems the next generation will face.
Lastly, I repeat that one of the most important areas that the Government have half-addressed, but have not yet taken far enough and certainly have not consulted about on a wide enough basis, is political education, the concept of citizenship, and citizenship within the context of local, regional and national communities.
My Lords, I congratulate the members of the Power inquiry commission, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. She and I have known each other for many years. Her energy, enthusiasm, integrity and ability mean that she will have thrown herself fully into this work, and absolutely every member of this commission will have been at it from beginning to end. We must also thank the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, as one of the trustees of the Rowntree trust, for his enthusiasm in making sure that this work has taken place. We think that this report is a welcome addition to the literature on an important topic and I hope that it will encourage further interest and discussion. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for giving us the opportunity to debate the report. It has obviously been an unalloyed pleasure for him to find and bring to the House's attention a report that supports so many of his party's policies.
Yes, my Lords. We have been delighted to hear two fine maiden speeches today. We were all interested to hear the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, and I congratulate him on getting it over so soon after his introduction, even if it was, as he said, to avoid the transfer list he feared was coming in your Lordships' House. His experience in two Houses and two parties will ensure that his views get attention, and I am sure that the House will benefit from contributions from him in the future, just as we have in the debate today.
We also heard from my noble friend Lord Taylor, who referred to himself as "the Lincolnshire fenman". He comes here with a strong business background. Many of us know his family company of which he is chairman, Taylors Bulbs, which has won many gold medals and other awards, as well as having many commercial successes over the years. He has worked very hard for years at all levels from top to bottom of the voluntary side of our party. He has done everything connected with elections, which is why he was so interested to make his speech today. If I may adapt a horticultural metaphor, he is the epitome of a grass root. It is good to have his experience in today's debate. He spoke with authority on overseas voters and local government. We look forward to hearing from him often in your Lordships' House.
Although I cannot agree with many of the report's recommendations, the concerns that it expresses of falling voter turnout and public apathy or anger towards the political system and politicians are shared across the political spectrum. This was highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Gould, who talked about informed people and participatory democracy. He often mentioned the consumer. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I believe that we have to be careful when we are talking about the consumer or the citizen. I am particularly sensitive to that, as I was chairman of the National Consumer Council—a job that has now been taken over by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, of the Labour Party—which defined what a consumer was. It might be helpful if I remind noble Lords of that definition of a consumer; namely, someone who uses or buys goods or services, whether publicly or privately provided. A citizen is a very different animal. I recommend that the commission sticks with the word "citizen", because that is what we are about here.
Noble Lords on the Conservative Benches are generally sceptical of complaints about the fundamental principles of a political system that has lasted for so many years and has proved so flexible over those years. Of course, I accept that our democracy is not perfect, but I challenge anyone to show me one that is. The search for the perfect system of government has occupied human minds for thousands of years. This morning, we were very lucky to have the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth give us not only a Greek lesson and then a history lesson but a glimpse into the complexities of the governance of the Church of England.
We do not have to worry too much about continuing the debate. We should not see it as a sign of failure. We should continue to strive to improve on what we have, taking care not to destroy what is so very valuable to us. As such, I am concerned about the report's insistence that its three main imperatives must be taken as a package. The claim that all or none of its recommendations must be accepted seems to me an unnecessarily dramatic statement. It is not cherry picking to support some recommendations of the report but not others. Indeed, given the commissioners' disdain for the idea that a member of a political party must support all the party's principles and policies, it seems hypocritical for them to see value only in those who wholeheartedly agree with the entire report.
It is with that in mind that I sincerely say that there are many recommendations that I am glad to see debated in this House and brought to wider public attention. It was particularly gratifying for me, and no doubt for everyone here, to read of continuing public and expert support for the role of the House of Lords. I am pleased that the report acknowledged,
"the vital role", that we play,
"in the legislative and scrutiny procedures of Parliament".
I hope that any steps that might be taken to reduce the power of the House of Lords will receive short shrift from both the public and those who realise our valuable contribution to the making of effective and sensible legislation. The recommendation in the report on the need for an elected element, while not popular in this House, also needs to be given serious consideration.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, I wholeheartedly sympathise with the dismay shown by the public at the spectacle of peerages being handed out as political patronage or as a reward for political donations. The recent scandal over party funding has been a major nail in the coffin of public trust in politics. Enormous donations from shadowy sources need to be capped and the public must be reassured that party policies and appointments are no longer made on the basis of generosity to the party coffers.
On topics outside this House, the report also has much to say that we would be very wise to listen to. There is no question about the unfortunate effect that presidential-style politics has had on the public's perception of the policies emanating from this Government. Any steps that would restore the role of Parliament and elected institutions have my full support. Procedures that limit the role of Parliament, such as the widespread use of the guillotine to restrict debate on a Bill, need to be examined and reformed to give legislation the time to be properly scrutinised. Furthermore, the supremacy of unelected special advisers over elected representatives has been a disaster. It has produced ill thought through, knee-jerk legislation designed to catch headlines and a popular perception that voting will make no difference to the policies produced.
The rise of Ministers with a thirst for mandarin-like powers, as epitomised in the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, with which I am associated and which is currently going through this House, needs to be stopped—and quickly. The public need to know that those who make decisions on their behalf, whether they are Ministers or civil servants, will be held to account by Parliament for their mistakes. At the risk of repeating a question that we on these Benches have been asking for months now: where is the draft Civil Service Bill, which is so clearly needed?
Along with many others, I see the great wisdom in the report's support of localism and the importance of supporting elected local councils against the tide of regulation and control pouring out of central Government and departments. Decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level so that the public can engage effectively with those who take the decisions that affect their lives. How can councils be expected to listen and respond to the concerns and protests of the public who elected them if they have no control over the policies that they must enact?
Unfortunately, there are some recommendations in the report about which I am less enthusiastic. It is not in the least bit surprising to me that this debate was brought to the House by the Liberal Democrats, on whose Benches, as noble Lords can see, most of the speakers are sitting today. The Liberal Democrats' dislike for our system of first past the post is a matter of course. We have heard their arguments for proportional representation numerous times in this House. I will touch on the subject only to point out again that all electoral systems have their advantages and disadvantages. We on these Benches think that being able to conclusively vote out of power the Administration whom you disagree with is a vital part of a vibrant democracy. Similarly, the constituency relationship with a single MP is a critical element of our representative democracy. I do not believe that the public will find it easier to engage with Parliament if they lose that link. However, constituency boundaries certainly need to be redrawn as soon as possible. Unequal representation destroys the principle that each person's opinion should be given equal weight and it is grossly unfair. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that taking steps to address the problem will not be put on the back-burner.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, spoke strongly against lowering the voting age to 16, a proposal that has been debated many times in this House and has been suggested in the report. I can only repeat the arguments that we have made so often before and which have never effectively been countered. The activities that a 16 year-old can do, including marrying, joining the Armed Forces and becoming a company director, are all notable for the part that adults play in vetting the young person's suitability for the role. In many cases, the role is only a limited version of what they would be expected to do at 18. What is more, there is no evidence that this recommendation would do anything to address the unfortunate level of non-voting among young people. Resources and attention would be far better focused on those who currently can vote but do not vote.
Out of all the views that I have heard today, I took fresh heart in the debate when my noble friend Lord Dean, who spoke for a shorter time than just about anyone, certainly me, told us, "Vote or no vote, politicians will still feel the lash of public opinion". The people will always make their voice heard, even if it is uncomfortably through the media. The authors of the report feel that the problem of political disengagement can be solved by their recommendations, but my distinguished noble friend Lord Norton says that the report suffers from a worrying lack of empirical evidence for many of its assumptions. That may be so, but I hope that we will see more reports of this sort being produced by those outside the usual political contributors. This is not a debate that can be solved by a political elite; it needs the input of the whole country to succeed.
My Lords, this has been an extraordinarily good debate. This morning I thought, "Oh, my goodness, I have to sit there for a very long time", and I have ended up, in a way, wishing that we could go on—although I would like to eat something. I have just been told: "Steady on!". This debate needs to continue not only formally in your Lordships' House, but, I suspect, informally among those of us who I would probably call anoraks, but for whom I have a deep affection, and among all noble Lords and people who have been engaged on this issue.
I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who has energy that surpasses practically anyone else in your Lordships' House. Perhaps I know better than most how much time the noble Lord puts into everything that I am involved in, and I know that he does many other things. It was incredibly important to raise this matter. Although I would expect the Liberal Democrat Benches to be full because of the nature of this debate, I recognise, none the less, the commitment and energy of those Benches—particularly in local politics.
I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Kennedy. Whether you get brickbats or accolades for the work of the Power commission, it has inspired people to continue the debate. That in itself is well worth the effort involved. I pay tribute, as did the noble Lords, Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord Shutt, to the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust for the financial resources that were made available. It is an excellent example of the amazing work that they do to enhance our democracy.
I pay tribute to the two maiden speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, spoke about his antipathy to government and authority. I can assure the noble Lord that he will be well happy here. I will no doubt be one of the people who reap the benefits of that. Just to prove that we work at speed, I actually got the Electoral Commission to do some work after the noble Lord spoke about overseas voters. It wants me to say that although there are a small number of them, the commission is encouraged that it has been able to double the number of overseas voters over time. As the noble Lord will know, it is committed to trying to do more to encourage people who are entitled to vote to do so. Perhaps the noble Lord will initiate such a debate in this House and I hope that I have the privilege of debating with him.
I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, who comes from the correct side of the Pennines, as far as I am concerned—as the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, knows well. I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lee, that 80 per cent of us might tick the same boxes in a questionnaire if we all sat down and listened, but I would be fascinated by the 20 per cent who did not. I congratulate the noble Lords on their maiden speeches. Both contributed very well to today's debate and I am extremely grateful to them. I know and remember how hard it can be to make such a speech.
I have thrown away the speech that the officials gave me. They are aware of that and have said that they will listen with enormous interest to what I might say.
I wanted to say something about the use of the word "complacency", because a number of noble Lords have rightly said that we should not be complacent. I could not agree more. I have to say that I did not sense any complacency here. I disagreed violently with some of the things that were said but agreed with many of the points made. But no noble Lord who has spoken has been complacent. My noble friend Lady Kennedy referred to the contributions of people all over the country; there is no complacency, but there is an issue that we have to address and noble Lords have rightly indicated the importance of that.
For me, three themes emerged, although many things were said: the involvement of the citizen—the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, pointed to the differences between the consumer and the citizen and I agree very much with what she said about her extraordinary experiences in this field; the role of government, the power of the executive and the role of local government in its relationship to central government; and, of course, institutions, and the relationship between institutions, whether they constitute the media or the House of Lords.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that we are lucky to have a democracy. In many parts of the world, citizens would give a huge amount to be able to have this kind of debate about how to ensure that democracy works. For too many, it is a dream. For us, it is a reality that we know we must cherish and make sure that it is as robust and as strong as possible. The subject is always worth putting in that context. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, is living proof that politics is not, as he said, "knackered". I apologise profusely for interrupting him, which was a terrible thing to do—and I did it twice. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, also leapt in. I was trying to say that when I was Minister with responsibility for Sure Start, we put local government right at the heart of that programme. For the very reasons that both noble Lords will know, that is absolutely critical to its continuing success and to its bedding down.
However, I do not apologise for sometimes needing to engage local groups outside local government. Not all local government has been successful in engaging local people, particularly mums, because there is not a natural way in which they engage. The combination of the role of local government and the role of local groups coming together—particularly young mothers—is very important. I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. I should not have done so.
The noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, spoke about £100 million, and the money that he knows about. At that point my noble friend Lord Evans of Temple Guiting said that, in his experience, that is peanuts. Clearly, my noble friend is used to dealing with much greater amounts of money than I possibly could.
The final thing I want to say by way of introduction is that I have been very aware of how many noble Lords started off in a different party from the one to which they now belong. I wondered about asking for a quick show of hands of those who, like me, have stayed in the party in which they started, but I shall not. That is an interesting proposition.
My noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport raised an interesting point on the big ideas and the big debates. When one considers what is happening to democracy, one can be concerned that we have lost the big ideas. There is no big divide any more; it is more about the better management of the current system. Those huge ideological changes have gone, as has the ideological fight between socialism and capitalism. However, I believe there is a real need for us to engage in some of those big political debates.
I have already mentioned democracy in the rest of the world, but there are still issues about freedom, democracy and equality for many citizens in the world and there are still issues of equality for citizens in our own country. Other big debates concern how we tackle goals that we may share on education, health and environmental issues. We need to ensure that we do not lose the ability to debate those big topics so that people on different sides of the argument are engaged. Perhaps, as political parties, those are matters that we should consider.
The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, talked in a rather negative way on some points. However, I agreed with him about the role of my honourable friend Tony Wright, whom I regard very highly, and the role of the Public Administration Select Committee. I think it is doing an extremely good job. In my discussions with him, I did not get the impression that he has been banging his head all the time. Of course, we do not always agree with him, but I believe in the Select Committee process. He is a very good example of the process working, as is the right honourable friend of the noble Lord, Alan Beith of the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.
We must not forget what has happened in Wales and Scotland, to which the noble Lord did not refer, and the work done in Northern Ireland. There is also the Freedom of Information Act, the Human Rights Act and constitutional reform. Although noble Lords may wish us to go further, and may worry about those pieces of legislation not being as robust as they would like, none the less, they are achievements of which we should all be proud, but especially this Government.
What went through my mind as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, was speaking was that I have got one like you at home. I do not for a second underestimate the noble Lord because he has a huge reputation. I agreed with what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said about the approach. The noble Lord knows that I was very much looking forward to listening to what he said as it was very important. As my noble friend knows, it is important that all the work that is done also has it critics, who are able to say, "Yes, but perhaps you should think about this", and so on. The issue about participative versus representative democracy is probably very central to how we take this forward.
I shall talk about the citizen consumer debate, important points on local democracy and how we deal with it. In his article in response to the Power report, Peter Riddell spoke of treacherous ground, which essentially is what was being said about the "Today" programme and how people will come up with rather extreme examples, whether it is phone-ins or instant polls on television or whatever. I think they were described as "all the usual suspects". One cannot achieve democracy in that way as one will simply have interest groups that dominate. I also agree, however, that some of the work I was involved in 15 years ago with Planning for Real, where you worked with local communities to design what their communities ought to be, the work of schools' councils and representatives, and some of the fantastic work around community development—mainly in the voluntary sector—have been real examples of participatory work: real people in real communities working out what works for them.
In my experience, both as a chair of governors and chair of a health authority, it is sometimes difficult to get people to participate unless something is going terribly wrong. If you threaten to close an accident and emergency unit, you can fill your halls. Some noble Lords will remember those fantastic school AGMs where you get three people if you are lucky; but if there is a problem, there are all in there. In a way, we used to approach it by saying that it probably meant that things were going okay. We must approach participation recognising that it is not going to work for its own sake. People must feel that there is a real benefit.
We know that when people look at politicians, they look for qualities like honesty and strength. They are not looking for ideology. They look at who we are: "people who stick up for people like us". They want us to both listen and lead. They are saying that the people involved in politics need to lead, but they also want them to listen. If the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth was talking about his own congregation, that would not be very different from the way that the congregation of the Church of England would regard the role of the Bishop. They want you to listen to what they say and what they feel strongly about, but they also want you to lead. People make up their minds on the basis of trust, not on the intricacies of political proposals.
I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lee, about people's experience of local politicians. When people meet them and get involved, their experiences are often quite different. A lot of MPs and local councillors have had that experience of becoming real people in their eyes. I suppose it all boils down to something my husband has said in a couple of articles: it is better to have fallible human beings with all their frailties than regiments of local speak-your-weight machines. I guess that probably sums up, for me, what we are trying to achieve.
Where do I think we can make changes, and why do I think this is a critical part of this debate? Campaigning styles have been mentioned a number of times. How do political parties, both locally and nationally, get out there, reach people and address them? That is a fundamental part of what is coming out of the conversations with the Power commission. I agree with what my noble friend Lord Gould said about the role of the internet, the need to get involved with people and how the young are talking to each other. I think some noble Lords have teenagers at home, and they will know that a whole conversation is conducted all evening via this fantastic machine, without anybody actually saying a word. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, looks completely and utterly horrified at that prospect, which is another conversation we have had before.
My Lords, I have daughters who are just about young enough, so I understand that.
My Lords, I hope they teach the noble Lord well.
We were discussing the book by Tip O'Neill, the former US Speaker of the House, who said that "all politics is local", which often gets misunderstood. He was talking about a translation from what happens in the political process to people's everyday experiences. There is loads of evidence on that, and all political parties suffer from it, both in central government and local, where people do not see the connection between what you do on the ground and what is being said. They will say "My local school is very good, but the education system is hopeless". It is about how we make that connection for people, so that they understand the value of politics.
We are no doubt living in a more individualistic society, more atomised in many ways. That is not good for collective organisations, of which political parties are a classic example, but that does not mean it cannot be changed. That is important. On the idea that it is too important to leave to politicians, I go back to the right reverend Prelate. It is the same thing: too important to leave to the Bishops but, actually, we need them. It is important that we pay tribute at some point in the debate—I know some noble Lords have done so, but I want to do it formally—to our local councillors, MPs, Members of your Lordships' House and our MEPs; people who get involved in politics and are willing to put their heads above the parapet. It is not an easy life, as we know, and we should pay tribute to them.
There is a huge amount in what has been said, both within the report and, particularly, in your Lordships' House, about the relationship between the citizen and local government. Sir Michael Lyons's report, which will be published as a White Paper later this year, is looking at how we determine the role and functions of local government. Although not everyone may agree with our conclusions, the Government are very alive to make sure that we develop that relationship appropriately and recognise the value and importance of local government, which I certainly do.
I was hoping that we would get on to voting systems because I love it when we can talk about d'Hondt and all that, but we did not. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that last year this House discussed the question of what we use voting systems for. To repeat briefly what I said then, we choose an Executive, and we choose a legislature that represents the full range of political views and the different localities. Some people would say that there is another legitimate concern, which is to keep out extremism. The core problem is that no single electoral system achieves everything we want. One of the big debates that we must continue to have is what we are trying to achieve when we have elections. We have different voting systems for different purposes, and we continually have to think about whether we achieve what we want for the system that we want to have in place.
There are issues about turnout compared to turnout in other countries. There were high turnouts in Australia in the past three elections, partly, of course, because voting is compulsory; turnout is something like 94.7 per cent, so somebody got away with it. In Malta, which has a population of 300,000, turnout is 96.1 per cent. I am delighted to say that South Africa has a very high turnout. Some countries that are newer to democracy have lower turnouts. There is a raft of different reasons for there being lower turnouts. Those are worth exploring and no doubt we will have an opportunity to do that.
On some of the specifics about the House of Lords, I was a little unsure about only people over 40 coming into the House of Lords because some people of 40 have fantastic experience, and some have none. Some people who are 25 have lots of experience, and some have none. I would rather have an experience bar, if I were going to have a bar, not an age bar.
We have debated at great length the question of voting at 16. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, said that there are some people of 66 who he would not want to see voting. I disagree with him; I want everybody at 66 to vote. I want everybody from 18 upwards to vote. We have talked before about what is an appropriate age and what we expect people to think about when they vote. I think 18 is about right. That does not mean that I do not believe that younger people should be involved in democracy in all sorts of ways, in schools and through other opportunities. We should make clear that we expect everybody to participate and what it is that we are asking them to do.
I am nervous about £3 for every vote because I, like many other people, read the interesting analysis done by Philip Cowley at the University of Nottingham about what would happen to the British National Party if we had that system in place. We would end up providing a huge amount of funding for it. One may say, "That's how life is", but I am not convinced that that is the direction in which we want to go. There were 200,000 votes for that party, which means it could get about £500,000 of state funding each year.
The Power report also considers scrapping the deposit requirement. We think that that is one of the constraints that prevent extreme parties, particularly the BNP, standing in every constituency because they would be bankrupt. I am not convinced that we would not, in a sense, encourage them to do more. It is not for me, but I thought I would mention it because it has been raised as an issue, and we would have to think about it if it were to be put forward.
As for the Whips, my noble friend is a living testament to the ability of parliamentarians to defy their lash.
Noble Lords took their time there! I am sure my noble friend will not mind me saying that. Since governments are elected on their manifestos, it is the role of the Whips to remind MPs, in particular, but also Members of this House, about that manifesto and their role. I do not think that the Whips consider themselves to be over-powerful. There are plenty of people who can demonstrate that they do not obey the Whips on every occasion.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dean, about Select Committees and pre-legislative scrutiny. They are important but are still reasonably new ideas that we should be proud of in terms of democracy.
I shall end by touching on the media. On the one hand, people trust the media, particularly the major broadcasting companies—the BBC and ITV and so on—and the broadsheets and they are very aware of what the tabloids are like and what they do. I do not think we should necessarily be persuaded that the tabloids are read by people who take in every word. We have to recognise that we have the media that we have and we must find other ways of engaging with people and making sure that there is an opportunity for them to find out more about the political system and their politicians. But the media also play an important role in making sure that we have a healthier culture so I am not going to pursue the route of doing more to curb them. We need to engage with them more effectively to make sure that, as well as producing the parliamentary sketch of the week—interesting and occasionally very funny though that can be—they understand and listen to what is being said.
I agree with my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws that it is an incredible tribute to people that they have participated in this report. My noble friend said that she was very aware of the incredible things that people do. I share that view completely. People are engaged in all sorts of facets of life and do the most amazing things. We should not see that as suggesting any real disengagement from our society. The question is how we engage with them again to make sure the engagement is a proper process where they have the opportunity to influence what is actually happening.
It is important that we enrich the representative democracy that we have. What we need to do is think about a healthier way of getting people to participate in order to improve our representative democracy. I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for initiating the debate.
My Lords, the debate has lasted for four hours and 10 minutes and we have had a very full and thorough tour of the scene. Among the many noble Lords who have spoken, I am grateful for the two distinguished maiden speeches we have had. I thank the Minister for having thrown away the speech that was written for her by her civil servants and for coming up with a very admirable response to all the points that were made. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, not only for her excellent speech on this occasion but even more for having chaired the commission that came up with the Power report, which is so important.
We have been discussing how to reverse the disengagement of people from politics. This subject is both very important and very difficult. We need to ensure first that the voices of the people are heard more clearly than they are now—I emphasise that I refer to the voices of the people because the people have many voices, not just one voice. At the same time, we need to ensure that those who speak quietly are listened to just as much as those who shout the loudest. I hope that this debate will have played a helpful part in achieving that purpose.
We have finished in time so that any Member of your Lordships' House who should wish for any reason to watch television between five and seven o'clock will have plenty of time in which to do so. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.