Constitutional Renewal — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:48 pm on 10th June 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament 3:48 pm, 10th June 2009

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating this Statement. It seems that we will be busy in the final year of this Government. The Statement spoke of renewal, but last week the Labour Party had the opportunity to show the British people that it heard their crushing verdict on the performance and style of this Government, and their call for change. Sadly, the Government failed the test. Today, we get the same old verbiage from the same old bunker.

Much of the Statement concerned the other place. We all want to see that great House revived, and my right honourable friend David Cameron has set out a major programme of reform that must include more power for back-benchers. If anyone thinks that the power of the Whips in the other place is lessened, they should contemplate the events of last weekend.

We need a smaller House of Commons, and if we want an electoral system that is fairer, should we not ensure that each constituency has equal worth? Some constituencies have twice as many voters as others. Should we not ask the Boundary Commission immediately to begin work to redraw boundaries to make them the same size?

We are at war, and in the throes of an unprecedented recession, hearing daily news of lost jobs and homes. The first thing this Prime Minister comes forward with is a plan to clog up Parliament with constitutional Bills. I wonder whether the loyal party workers who saw the Labour Party beaten into second place in Wales and sixth place in Cornwall are throwing their caps in the air for that. The reaction of the Prime Minister to this defeat simply reinforces the truth that it is not a relaunch within Number 10 that we need, but a removal van at its gates. The greatest renewal this Parliament could have would be a general election, and until we in the political class trust the people, the people will never trust us.

My right honourable friend Mr Cameron has accepted the need in the House of Commons for the new supervisory body that the Prime Minister proposes, but are there not still serious questions to answer? How will this body relate to the two Houses if that is what happens? How will it recognise the differences between a House that is paid and representative and one that is not? To whom will this body ultimately be accountable? The Statement says that the regulator will,

"apply firm and appropriate sanctions".

What if a Peer or an MP objects? Will he be able to challenge the regulator in the courts? Surely, there is one thing on which we can all agree: we do not want the judiciary determining questions that are matters for Parliament.

I listened in disbelief to the remarks of the Prime Minister after his Statement in another place. He said, and I noted his words:

"The House of Lords has to face up to the fact its disciplinary procedures are not good enough".

Does the Prime Minister know anything about your Lordships' House? Is he aware of the swift and exemplary action recently taken to suspend two Labour Peers following a thorough investigation by a committee of your Lordships' House, a decision by the Committee for Privileges and a unanimous vote of this House? Can the noble Baroness tell the House precisely what in those procedures her right honourable friend considers is not good enough? Can she say, for example, what would have happened if the sentence recommended had been proposed not by your Lordships' Committee for Privileges, but by the new super-regulator? Could that have led to months of debate in the courts? If she cannot say where your Lordships' disciplinary procedures are not good enough, perhaps she will take back to the Prime Minister the profound distaste that we have for such sweeping, disparaging comments on your Lordships' House?

The Statement referred to the Prime Minister's concern that Peers and MPs could be sentenced to up to a year in prison and not be excluded from your Lordships' House. There is a respected Member of your Lordships' House who was sentenced for offences that are not even crimes today. Is the Prime Minister aware of that? Can the noble Baroness give a firm assurance that no proposal for retrospective action will be laid before either House?

This set of proposals is emerging from something called the National Council for Democratic Renewal. Can the noble Baroness confirm that it is in fact just another set of Cabinet Ministers? How can democratic renewal come out of a private cabal in a dying Government clinging to office? Why were these plans not put out to cross-party discussion?

Since we have not been asked to the party, can I suggest a piece of renewal that needs no permission from the Prime Minister? We now have two Secretaries of State in this House, one of them now widely regarded as the real Prime Minister. What about a fortnightly Question Time to enable each of them to be held publicly to account in this Chamber as their counterparts are in another place?

My right honourable friend Mr Cameron has made clear our opposition to proportional representation. We have held that view whatever our electoral fortunes through some of the darkest days of our party. Forgive me if I am a little cynical when I see a Prime Minister who has just won 15 per cent of the popular vote rushing forward with a carrot to a party that has just won 13 per cent of it. It is worthy of note that the Conservative Party at last week's elections won as many votes as the Labour and Liberal parties combined. If the noble Baroness thinks that chumming up to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will stop the electorate ditching this Government, then she is riding for a fall. Just when the contemptible BNP has won success in a national election for the first time via PR, that is the last time I would be peddling this solution to the country's needs. We have had far too much messing about with the electoral system in these last 10 years. It has not reduced disillusion. It has not increased turnout. It has simply spread confusion, and now enabled extremists to make an advance. It was not an alternative vote that the public called for in last week's elections—it was an alternative Government.

Finally, I must turn to the question—tossed into this reheated constitutional custard—of House of Lords reform. I have never made any secret of the fact that I support full reform. But change to a House of Parliament cannot just be thrown into a Statement as an afterthought by a Prime Minister in trouble. We have been here before.

When Mr Blair was in trouble he suddenly blurted out that he was abolishing the office of Lord Chancellor. Look where that got us: years of confusion and division; tens of millions wasted on an unwanted Supreme Court building; and the loss of the Law Lords which will be so keenly felt by this House in months to come. What are we going to get now another Prime Minister in trouble has blurted out that the remedy to problems in the House of Commons is to kick the House of Lords again?

Up until now, at the Dispatch Box, the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, have given a firm commitment that the Government were opposed to piecemeal reform and that change to this House could only come in the context of a major Government reform Bill. Does that commitment still stand? Or does the commitment—that change in composition would come only with stage 2 reform— stand repudiated this afternoon by this Government?

The integrity of that commitment has been the basis of the successful operation of this House for a decade. The noble Baroness should be under no illusion about the seriousness with which its abandonment would be viewed by many in this House.

The Prime Minister talks of publishing proposals for the final stages of Lords reform before the summer break. Is he aware that your Lordships' House has not had a chance to debate the White Paper published by the Government last year, nor even to have a say in it. Is that not an outrageous way to treat this House? Will the noble Baroness set out in her reply—she must have discussed this with her colleagues—a precise timetable for the proposals on Lords reform announced by the Prime Minister. When will we debate the White Paper? What will reform consist of? Will it be the 80:20 House referred to? When will the plans be presented—and in what form? If reform of this House is intended, this is the worst way and the worst time to go about it. Your Lordships who work so hard for this country and this Parliament surely deserve far better than this Prime Ministerial face-saving Statement.