Queen's Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:41 pm on 9th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Spokesperson In the Lords (With Special Responsibility for Civil Service Reform), Spokesperson in the Lords, Ministry of Justice, Scotland, Scottish and Northern Ireland Affairs 4:41 pm, 9th December 2008

My Lords, one of the more remarkable communications from the present Administration was the Green Paper, published within a matter of a few weeks of the Prime Minister taking office, on the governance of Britain. It is remarkable that that Green Paper, which was extensively debated in this House, came at a time when the Prime Minister's standing in the country was extremely high. I venture to suggest that it was brought forward in part because of his recognition and his personal imprimatur on the need to review the workings of our democracy and the need to consider, as spelt out in the Green Paper, how best to limit the powers of the Executive, how to make the Executive more accountable, and how to reinvigorate our democracy. Some progress was made in that direction in earlier Sessions of this Parliament, but what is noticeable is that the programme has almost entirely disappeared from the gracious Speech that we are considering today.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, mentioned the rather opaque remarks in the gracious Speech about the Government's intention to take forward the proposals in their draft constitutional renewal Bill, which was considered in the last Session. While I do not agree at all with the noble and learned Lord's remarks about the position of the Attorney-General, I none the less regret that that Bill has not re-emerged in this Session, not least because over many Sessions we have looked to the Government to fulfil their commitment to bring forward legislation to put the Civil Service on a statutory basis. To that end, I was particularly glad to hear the Front Bench of the Conservative Party reiterate its understanding of the importance of this Bill. How that could possibly be doubted at this time, with all the criticisms we have heard about partisanship in the Civil Service, I cannot imagine. I hope that in his winding-up speech the Minister will give us a clear indication of the Government's intentions behind the opaque language about progressing these matters.

It may be thought that it is understandable that the gracious Speech focused more on the financial and economic crisis which overhangs our country's future than on matters of governance. The legislative programme that the gracious Speech adumbrates is the most limited since the Government took office in 1997. In particular, it may be understandable that the Government do not wish to return at this time to the agenda for the reform of governance that they have announced, particularly at a time when their efforts are bent on projecting, at home and abroad, the Prime Minister as the leader needed to conduct us safely through this storm. It may be argued that it is a mere distraction to be seen to be working for what the Government's own Green Paper describes as,

"a settlement that entrusts Parliament and the people with more power".

What a contrast that offers to the recognition by President-elect Obama of the United States of the requirement for full congressional backing to ensure the success of the evolving fiscal and banking measures required to turn round the United States economy.

There is, I regret, some truth in the observation made after the gracious Speech by Professor Anthony King, of Essex University. In a remarkable article in the Daily Telegraph he said that,

"the deepest divide in British politics today is ... between Britain's whole political class and the great majority of the British people. On the far side of a chasm stand politicians of all parties and their hangers—on. On the near side is almost everyone else".

The charge that Professor King makes—that our system of governance is failing to perform adequately—is one that we cannot afford to put on ice until the financial problems which this country faces are adequately and finally dealt with. That, unquestionably, will take some years.

The professor summed up the situation by referring to the three decades that have given us the BSE debacle, the poll tax, the Child Support Agency, Britain's ignominious expulsion from the European exchange rate mechanism, the Millennium Dome, the massive cost overruns and the partial or total failure of IT projects across the public sector, the bungled introduction of home information packs, the abandonment of super casinos, the fiasco of the cost-ineffective Assets Recovery Agency, the collapse of Metronet, GPs' and dentists' ill drafted contracts, Northern Rock, the failure of government regulation across the financial sector, the botched marking of last summer's SATs exams, the mishandling of Post Office card accounts, the shambolic arrest of Damian Green, and a great deal else besides.

Professor King is not expressing a partisan view. His criticisms are not directed against individual Ministers but towards a system which is producing such widespread concern about the competence of our Government. One factor to which he particularly drew attention was the opinion expressed in a YouGov poll that 70 per cent of the public consider that the unwillingness of politicians of different parties to co-operate in the national interest is a matter of great concern. That line of reasoning lies behind the thinking that a proportional system of election would deal with one of the public's most serious concerns.

I detect a strong and widespread hope that the Prime Minister is indeed the man for the hour, but even the optimistic observer would do well to reflect on the dangers of deep public alienation from the Government as the fallout of the worsening recession is felt and hits jobs, savings and home ownership. The risk in any democracy is that disappointment and fear lead to distrust and even contempt, not only for the particular individuals holding political power but for the system that has empowered them. The risk is exacerbated when, as seems likely, the Opposition do not appear to offer a better alternative way out.

The consequence flowing from the loss of hope that we must avoid is that public confidence in the capability of our system of governance to find an acceptable way out of our discontent is displaced by deep divisions in our society, a grasping for populist remedies and the weakening of the firm democratic underpinnings upon which the accountability of our chosen leaders depends. My general message today, therefore, is that this is not a time to neglect the measures required to secure the health of our democracy; rather, it is appropriate to continue the process of reform to lead to better and more assured deliberative decision-making by the Government, decision-making that better commands the understanding and acceptance of our citizens. That principle is not wholly denied in the gracious Speech. There is, for example, a reference to creating,

"greater opportunities for community and individual involvement in local decision-making".

The British public well know the limitations of local decision-making.

Just one example of an overdue reform that is apt for action now, at this time of financial difficulty and crisis, is that when the Government are seeking to stimulate public investment effectively, they must also convince that they are doing so fairly. The Barnett formula and arrangements for the distribution of central government funds to the regions ought to be recast. It is good that the matter is being considered by the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and I commend for its consideration what has been called the McLean/Macmillan formula in the author's excellent book on the state of the Union. To the Government themselves I suggest that they should not allow the financial difficulties in which this country is languishing entirely to skew their approach to constitutional reform, which the Prime Minister stimulated in his early days and which was so widely appreciated at the time.