Constitutional Renewal — Debate

– in the House of Lords at 11:38 am on 11th June 2009.

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Moved By Lord Tyler

To call attention to the legislative proposals for constitutional renewal; and to move for Papers.

Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Constitutional Affairs 11:41 am, 11th June 2009

My Lords, in moving this Motion, I must first congratulate the Minister, who is now in his place. He is obviously a man of great influence and power. When preparing for a debate of this sort, Ministers normally rely entirely on officials in their departments, but in his case he persuaded the Prime Minister to produce the briefing that was published yesterday. What amazing timing. In this debate, we shall be touching on issues of considerable concern not just to Members of your Lordships' House but to the public at large, and therefore it is very timely.

The Government have been talking about constitutional reform and renewal ever since they took office. Indeed, the Prime Minister was talking about it again yesterday. Yet Ministers seem to use the reform agenda as a sort of rhetorical JCB; when in a hole, they dig even further down. Talk is cheap, and yesterday we had yet more from the Prime Minister, but the present House of Commons is on course for five more years of illegitimacy if the present system is allowed to continue. Why should people trust in a Parliament any more than they trust in this one if, just as happened at the last general election, not one single Member of Parliament enjoyed majority support among his or her constituents? That is a dire prospectus for democracy.

The Prime Minister has now promised, again, a constitutional renewal Bill. From what he said yesterday, it will do little of any substance whatever. Your Lordships will recall that, at the end of March, I brought before the House and obtained a First Reading of my own Constitutional Renewal Bill, so Mr Brown's version will rightly be known as the "Constitutional Renewal (No. 2) Bill"—how apt for a Bill which promises to be second choice and second-rate. I published my Bill because I gave up on the long, long period when we were awaiting the Government's proposals. Their first draft dodged the big issues and mainly sought to enshrine outdated conventions in modern statute. Ministers promised improvements; none came, and it looks like none will. So today, I want to address some of the issues that are in my Bill—the real thing—rather than the Government's likely pale imitation.

My Bill deliberately does not refer to the two big issues on which the Government have made some progress—Lords reform and party funding. The agreed package across the parties on the former will, I hope, come forward, and the Government will implement that in the next few months. Meanwhile, we will be voting next week on the issues that are raised by party funding. My noble friends will deal with specific issues of reform, but my Bill concentrates on those issues on which the Prime Minister has made promises, as have many other Members of the Government, but failed to deliver. There is nothing in my Bill that Labour has not itself suggested should happen, and now is an opportunity to investigate the delivery.

The first is the engine of democracy—the electoral system. The arguments about the defects and the features of the present system are well rehearsed and have been for many years. It is an absolute subversion of democracy for any Government to win a majority in the House of Commons with such a small minority of the vote in the country. The present Government enjoy just 35 per cent support among those who voted and only 22 per cent among those entitled to vote. That scarcely gives them legitimacy.

There is therefore an unanswerable case for change. I defy anyone to tell me that the system is fair or that it gives the voter real power. It is not and it does not. Indeed, the current first-past-the-post system offers the elector party lists, each with only one name on it—no real choice whatever. The solution is surely too important to be left to self-interested parties and politicians: the public must have a role in the decision-making. My Bill would pave the way for electoral reform, first, by fixing the dates on which elections could be held at strictly four-year intervals and then by providing for a citizens' assembly to determine the voting system that should be used for elections to the House of Commons. It would not be just another committee or commission of the great and good, but a genuinely public process effectively subjecting our present system and the alternatives to a real jury trial. It would be a public choice and the assembly's conclusion could then be put to a national referendum so that any new system would have broad support from the population at large.

The process could be swift. If we willed it, reforms could be in place in this Parliament, but clearly we would have to start now. I am confident that, like the Power inquiry, which was chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, citizens would choose the system that gave them the most choice among candidates not just between parties; namely, the single transferable vote. There is the fundamental issue. How do we elect our House of Commons and thereby choose and give our confidence to a Prime Minister. What then? What powers should the Prime Minister enjoy? Members of your Lordships' House will be well aware of the comments made by Andrew Rawnsley, a respected commentator. He said:

"Within his own universe, no democratic leader is potentially more powerful than a British Prime Minister with a reliable parliamentary majority and an obedient Cabinet".

The present Prime Minister may not remember what it is like to have a reliable parliamentary majority let alone an obedient Cabinet, but the point stands. Gordon Brown promised to surrender or limit many of the powers at his disposal. He has not: my Bill would. It would put on a statutory basis the right of this House and the other place to ratify international treaties and other important international agreements such as the star wars deal between this country and our partners.

Then there is the right to go to war—the gravest of decisions for any Government or nation to take—which should surely be firmly on the statute book. Ministers should have to have the support of MPs to commit the nation's troops to armed conflict. Noble Lords will doubtless have in mind that critical vote in the other place that took this country to war in Iraq. I was there. It was a genuine time of debate and an agonising one for all sides the House, particularly on the Government side. However, we learnt subsequently that the case for war was found wanting and advice confirming the legality of that action was altered at the last minute. The Attorney-General, who gave the advice, was a Member of the Government and it was his final opinion that suited the political case that enabled the Government to make war. It seems that he who appoints the piper plays the tune. These are serious allegations but they come from the highest level in the Attorney-General's office.

The only answer is transparency. My Bill would bring to an end a system of advice permeated with political prejudice, riddled with secrecy and rightly discredited as a result. Any legal advice used in support of a political case put to both Houses of Parliament should be published for MPs and Members of your Lordships' House to see and address.

Meanwhile, the role of the Attorney-General clearly needs to change. The Prime Minister himself said so in July 2007. He was right then and he is right now. Yet the Government's own proposals are feeble. They contradict the views of the two cross-party Commons Select Committees, with their Labour majorities. My Bill tackles this issue head on, separating the office of Attorney-General entirely from any ministerial position or responsibility.

Next there is the issue of the Civil Service. In July 2007, the Prime Minister said that,

"this Government has finally responded to the central recommendation of the Northcote-Trevelyan report on the Civil Service made over 150 years ago in 1854".

The only problem is that they have not. He spoke in the past tense about something that he has yet to do. My Bill would put these measures in place and would cap the number of Damian McBrides—the special advisers—that taxpayers fund for their political radars rather than for their expertise.

I know that my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill has additional proposals in his executive powers and Civil Service Bill. I hope he will be able to contribute to our debate today. Surely the Government should be listening to his suggestions now.

Finally, my Bill addresses the issue of the moment: the conduct of parliamentarians and the public's loss of trust in our politicians. Some may say that constitutional reform is being used as a shield for a political class which claims that it is the system, rather than individuals, that is at fault. The truth is that it is both. There are a few unscrupulous individuals in British politics—precious few—but the whole way we do British politics is itself unscrupulous. It would be unsatisfactory in and of itself, even if every politician was an angel.

My Bill addresses the latter point with root-and-branch reform as well as putting in place effective discipline for Members of both Houses when they fall below strict codes of conduct. We heard from the Prime Minister yesterday a vapid, delusional Statement promising yet more debate, consideration and consultation. Yet the Government have the lightest legislative programme in modern times.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. On his point about breaching trust with the electorate and unscrupulous behaviour, does not promising a referendum on a treaty and then reneging on that leads to exactly the kind of problem he is describing, a promise made by his own party as well as the Benches opposite?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Leader in the House of Lords, Spokesperson for Constitutional Affairs , Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, while commenting on that, would my noble friend comment on noble Lords who do not have the courtesy to take part in the debate but use House of Commons tactics to get their names into Hansard making cheap party-political points?

Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Constitutional Affairs

My Lords, I need not comment further on what my noble friend has put so persuasively. I just make this point: we have had successive and considerable debate about the difference between the treaty and the original constitution. I do not propose to go any further down that particular route.

As I was saying, the Government have the lightest legislative programme in modern times. They are clinging to office without any idea what they want to do with power. Time is running out. The Prime Minister has at most 10 months before the law forces the general election that he has resisted. The time for commissions, committees and endless consultations is over. This new "grand committee" that we were told about earlier in the week, which actually turns out to be a Cabinet sub-committee, is extraordinary. These ministerial escape chutes will no longer do.

What we need now is not more protracted debate but urgent decision.

When the Minister responds, I hope that he will not insult the intelligence of Members of your Lordships' House by making promises for yet more talk. He and his colleagues must now concentrate not on what needs to be discussed but on what needs to be done and when it is going to happen. As the Prime Minister said yesterday:

"It will be what we now do, not just what we say, that will prove that we have learned and that we have changed".—[Hansard, Commons, 10/6/09; col. 795.]

This is his chance to prove it. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 11:55 am, 11th June 2009

My Lords, we should all be extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for enabling us to hold this debate. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not devote my speech to examination of his particular propositions in detail; we are not, after all, yet in Committee on his Bill, so I will talk about rather more general issues. I want to counsel some caution amidst all the current zeal and busyness over constitutional reform and amid all the talk of radicalism.

That is not to say that I do not have great respect for the propositions of the Liberal Democrat party. Its members have thought consistently and seriously over a considerable number of years and we owe them a debt for keeping these issues before us. However, at the same time, I would like to rein them back a little if I could. Our historical experience is that, in matters of constitutional change, the old adage, "more haste, less speed" applies. We can look back at many historical instances: the Levellers; the British enthusiasts for the French revolution, who formed societies to correspond with the French Jacobins; and the Chartists. All sowed invaluable and precious seeds of change, but they were slow to germinate. Constitutional change in this country has been characterised by incrementalism, which is a good thing on the whole.

Lord Holland wrote to the King of Naples at the beginning of the 19th century, when the newly installed King of Naples had inquired whether Lord Holland would be able to supply him with a written constitution. He replied:

"You might as well ask me to build you a tree".

The metaphor of organic growth that Edmund Burke taught us to use as we think about the constitution is profoundly wise.

That is not to say that this is a moment for complacency. Mr Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend observed:

"We Englishmen are Very Proud of our Constitution, Sir. It Was Bestowed Upon Us By Providence. No Other Country is so Favoured as This Country".

I do not think that Mr Podsnap would catch the national mood of today. There is a restlessness; there is a seeking after change. However, I suggest that, as parliamentarians in either House of Parliament, we are trustees of the British constitution. We hold the constitution in trust on behalf of the people who have allowed us, for the time being, to play a part in politics and government. The constitution is not the plaything of enthusiasts in think tanks, nor of the caprice of the Front Benches. It is significant that it has been the convention in the House of Commons that significant constitutional measures are debated in Committee on the Floor of the House. I very much hope that that will remain the tradition, and certainly that the guillotine will not be applied to any such legislation.

Nor, of course, should constitutional change be embarked upon merely as a matter of party advantage—and least of all, I suggest, out of panic. It is a non sequitur to say that, because the people have expressed their strong displeasure at how the system of allowances has been allowed to develop, it follows that there need be wholesale constitutional reform. It is true that parliamentarians have been less self-critical and more self-indulgent than they should have been, within the code of a club, but the remedies that are needed should be precisely addressed to these problems.

Major constitutional reform requires, as a precondition, extensive debate, much pamphleteering, much listening, much speechifying, much listening again and the slow forging of an emergent consensus. That consensus needs to be a great deal wider and deeper than the consensus between the Front Benches. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has recognised exactly that. In his Statement repeated in this House yesterday, he stated:

"Democratic reform cannot be led in Westminster alone ... Rather, it must principally be led by our engagement with the public ... It cannot be top-down".—[Hansard, 10/6/09; col. 641.]

That is exactly right.

I think in that same spirit what the Prime Minister has to say about his personal preference for a written constitution is expressed in entirely appropriate terms:

"I personally favour a written constitution but I recognise that changing this would represent an historic shift in our constitutional arrangements. Therefore, such proposals will be subject to wide public debate and ultimately the drafting of such a constitution should be a matter for the widest possible consultation with the British people themselves".—[Hansard, 10/6/09; col. 642.]

In that spirit, it is indeed appropriate to venture forward. If we are thinking about the implications of a written constitution, I am sure that we shall not overlook the drastic implications for the relationship between the judiciary and the legislature. We should observe that even the preternatural wisdom of the founding fathers of the American constitution landed Americans to this day with gun laws that they are unable to get rid of as a result of a component of the constitution which was designed to ensure greater equality vis-à-vis what had been a feudal society. The constitution gave every citizen the right to bear arms because the aristocracy in Europe had had the right to bear arms. The result is that you have gun laws which provide a licence for people to murder each other on a rather large scale because it is one of the sanctities of a written constitution which seems to be impossible to reform.

Some noble Lords will have read a very interesting article by the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, in the Financial Times recently, in which he expounded the attractions of the separation of powers. I think any parliamentarian from this country who has visited Washington and seen the powers that are exercised by congressmen and senators under that constitution cannot but be envious. Above all, the power of appropriation gives congressional and senatorial committees extraordinary power over the Executive. In the American Congress, elected politicians are not dominated by the Executive as they are here, and that is attractive. But how would you have a system of separation of powers that avoided the characteristic problems that we also see in Washington—the power of lobbyists and most importantly the inability of the Administration to be able to achieve its legislative ambitions? The constitution was engineered precisely to ensure checks and balances that make it difficult to legislate. How welcome would that be in this country? To some it would be very welcome, but not to all. Among the consequences, I think, of the inability of US Administrations to achieve their purposes in domestic policy is that they have had a propensity instead to go adventuring abroad, whether to Guatemala, or Vietnam, or Somalia, often with very unhappy consequences indeed. These issues are very complicated and there are many lessons to learn from history.

Where then is there agreement, and what constitutional reforms might we wisely put first? Of course, we need reforms to the system of allowances that has been the subject of such vexed controversy, and I will not say any more about that because we are going to have plenty of other opportunities to talk about it.

To my mind, the most important front upon which we should engage to renovate our democratic culture is the renewal of local government. The Communities and Local Government Select Committee in another place has just produced a very thoughtful and very valuable report entitled The Balance of Power: Central and Local Government. This is among the five major issues that the Prime Minister has proposed that we should set out to debate. On the devolution of power and engagement of people in their local communities, he said that,

"the Communities and Local Government Secretary will set out how we will strengthen the engagement of citizens in the democratic life of their own communities as we progress this next level of devolution in England. So we must consider whether we should offer stronger, clearly defined powers to local government and city regions and strengthen their accountability to local people".—[Hansard, 10/6/09; col. 642.]

But note the use of the term "devolution". The heart of the difficulties that we find as we try to strengthen our democracy and encourage greater participation and responsibility within our democracy is that historically power in this country has stemmed from the centre. It is the legacy of monarchy. Powers of local self-government were historically granted to chartered boroughs by the Crown. Our constitutional history from the Reformation until today is essentially the story of a struggle for power between Parliament and the Executive.

There were the constraints on absolute monarchy in the 17th century and the achievement of a limited monarchy in 1688-89, but then the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory: as Parliament gained more control over the Executive, the Executive gained more control over Parliament as Ministers took upon themselves the powers that the Crown had originally exercised. Now we see Parliament trying to pull some of those powers back or titbits being offered by the Executive. Indeed, part of the noble Lord's Bill is a power for the House of Commons to ratify treaties and to validate going to war. But whether this would be a real transfer of power from the Executive to Parliament is doubtful because, of course, the Executive dominates Parliament and the votes would be whipped.

When we consider local government, we hear the condescending language of "earned autonomy". Local authorities would exercise powers, not because it is a right of people in their own communities to enjoy such powers, but because the powers would be granted condescendingly by central government, from which power flows. So what the Prime Minister proposes would be a remarkable breach with historical tradition. I think it is a necessary breach. It is extraordinarily important that we should genuinely invigorate our local democracy and thus the whole of our democratic culture.

Indeed, we will not get a smaller House of Commons unless there can be real self-government at the local level. That will not happen unless central government are prepared to relinquish control of resources to an important extent. Can we see the Treasury willingly letting go? It is hard to forecast. Will people in this country tolerate the inconsistencies and disparities of the provision of services that would follow from a greater degree of local autonomy if the centre was not redistributing resources and thereby exercising its influence? We do not like postcode lotteries.

The Prime Minister also rightly insists that we must create a better public engagement with politics. The withering of local democracy that we have seen is, of course, part of that problem. We need to consider why people have become alienated from the Westminster democratic process. Is it because they consider that the debates that really matter happen elsewhere, in broadcasting studios and on the internet? Is it because they consider that the power that really matters is elsewhere, in the hands of judges, the European Union or the devolved Administrations? Is it because there are these days no great clashes of ideology or principle? Is it because of the weakening of class identification? These are complex issues, but we must do our very best to reconnect the people with our politics at Westminster.

Where there is no consensus is that there should be an elected second Chamber. That is a matter of great divisiveness here and a matter of substantial indifference among the public. I simply observe that it is not the panacea that some people think it would be for our national ills, or even for our political and governmental ills.

I conclude with a sentence or two on the media. Nothing was said in the Prime Minister's Statement about the media, but in our unwritten constitution the media have a very important constitutional role. They mediate information; they mediate the debate. There are brilliant reporters, commentators and interviewers. They often show us up in our failure to hold Ministers and Governments to account as we should. I would of course uphold their right to do that and to expose abuse, injustice and incompetence in government and politics. But they cause great damage when they are cynical, casual, reckless and when they treat the coverage of politics as a power game and even as a blood sport. My main indictment is that the trivialisation of politics by the media, reducing so many issues to personalities and soundbites and assuming that people have an attention span of little more than 10 seconds, makes it well nigh impossible for a complex or subtle argument to be put forward.

It may be said that people get the newspapers they deserve and that there is an accountability of the marketplace. It may be said people should stop buying the newspapers. But we need a responsible media. A liberal state cannot regulate, and should not regulate, the media. Mr Gladstone observed that,

"the British constitution presumes more boldly than any other the good sense and good faith of those who work it".

I would just like to know from my noble friend when he comes to wind up whether the Prime Minister's plans to set out in a document rights and responsibilities will include an attempt to define what the rights and responsibilities of the media should be. How else can we influence the media to enable us to have a mature and decent democracy?

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 12:11 pm, 11th June 2009

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on securing this very timely debate—it is even more timely than he probably anticipated.

No sooner has a new ministerial committee, the democratic renewal council, met than we have a Statement. The Statement yesterday was billed as being on the constitutional renewal Bill, but at no point was there actually a reference in it to the constitutional renewal Bill. There appeared to be last-minute reflection on timescale for consulting on constitutional issues. The printed Statement said the Government would consult on particular issues "over the coming weeks" but what was said in delivery was "over the coming months".

It is not that surprising, therefore, that in looking at the constitution in conceptual terms, the Statement lacked coherence. Various approaches to constitutional change have been developed in recent years, each advocating a type of constitution deemed most appropriate for the United Kingdom. The Liberal Democrats advocate one approach, as we have heard, but it is only one. The Statement yesterday bore no relationship to any of the approaches. It embodied a number of proposals—some concrete and some somewhat more fluid—but what they lacked was a clear philosophical base. In so far as we can give some shape, or attempt to give some shape, to the Statement, it is in distinguishing those measures which merit introduction in this Parliament from those which are for future Parliaments.

My first point, therefore, relates to where to draw the line. What should we legislate for within what remains of the current Parliament and what should be for future consideration? Indeed, what form should that future consideration take? It is crucial that we make this distinction. I believe it is necessary in relation to the crisis that we face. There are those who argue that the present crisis of confidence necessitates constitutional change—indeed, radical constitutional change. There is no compelling logic to this argument. What we are facing is a crisis of confidence in the political class and not in our basic constitutional arrangements. What flows from this is a need to focus on rules —standard-setting rules—rather than structures. Some changes to the rules can be achieved without the need for legislation. Others can be embodied in legislation.

The focus within the current Parliament should thus be on making changes within, rather than to, our existing constitutional arrangements. Changes to the constitutional system are for the future and not the fag end of the current Parliament. Our immediate concern, therefore, should be ensuring that relationships within our existing constitutional framework are strengthened. There are two basic relationships: that of Parliament to Government and that of Parliament to people. We have not neglected the relationship of Parliament to people, but we have tended to focus on the relationship of Parliament to Government. We have historically acted as a somewhat closed institution, almost operating in a vacuum. The impression that electors presently have is that we are too insular and self-regarding. We need therefore to address both relationships—to strengthen Parliament in calling Government to account, and to be seen to do so; and to strengthen our link with the people, ensuring that we are seen to act in the public interest and not on the basis of self-interest. We can do much under both headings without legislation. That was recognised in the Statement yesterday, and I welcome it. I would take it further. There is a need for more extensive pre-legislative scrutiny. We can do more in this House in making use of evidence-taking committees for legislative scrutiny. Both Houses can do more in relation to petitions, not least e-petitions.

What then requires legislation? The Government propose to introduce a Bill to provide for statutory regulation of parliamentary standards. Other proposals may need to be incorporated in the constitutional renewal Bill. What should be considered? I suggest two candidates. In an earlier debate, I advocated putting on a statutory basis those standard-setting bodies that fall under the Cabinet Office. Those include the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Given the need for public reassurance, that would be a beneficial move. The committee could be the regulatory body envisaged in yesterday's Statement, but serious consideration should be given to putting it and related bodies on a firmer footing.

The other proposal relates to your Lordships' House. Provisions governing conduct, such as the power to expel, may be included in the Bill envisaged in the Statement. However, current concerns extend beyond conduct to encompass membership—that is, becoming a member and the size of the House. We need to put the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory footing, providing reassurance to the public that all nominees meet a clear—and high—quality threshold. We also need to make provision for Peers to take permanent leave of absence. It may be possible to achieve that without legislation, but we need to explore how best we can allow Members to take honourable leave of the House after distinguished service. The size of the House is already a concern. It will become even more so after the next general election. It is imperative that we act as quickly as possible to reduce the size of the House.

I am conscious of trying to put too much into a Bill that is already five Bills in one. Our approach must be one of combining statutory provision with non-legislative actions to address current—and legitimate—public concerns about the conduct of parliamentarians. On conduct, we have to craft rules that are clearly expressed, transparent, fair, enforceable and seen to be all of those.

My second point covers what we should not include in legislation in this Parliament. We have already seen significant constitutional change over recent years, or rather—crucial to my argument—significant constitutional changes. They have been disparate and discrete measures, collectively having a major impact on our constitution, but without deriving from any clear conception of the type of constitution appropriate for the United Kingdom. The Government have at no point articulated an intellectually coherent approach to constitutional change. When we debated the constitution in December 2002, the then Lord Chancellor—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who we are delighted to see in his place—admitted that the Government had no overarching theory. There has been something of a change of direction under the premiership of Gordon Brown, but we still do not know the intended destination.

Given the incoherence of the changes and of yesterday's Statement, the last thing we need is to rush into making more, especially changes that the public cannot relate to the current crisis of confidence. I very much endorse the comments made yesterday by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill of Bengarve. We have to get a clear grasp of what we have done so far. We need a major exercise in cartography. To undertake the exercise I have in mind, the body has to be detached from Government.

For that reason, I have previously made the case for a commission on the constitution. It could take the form of a parliamentary committee of inquiry, of the sort advocated by the Public Administration Committee in the other place. Though the format may be somewhat traditional, it is important that the form of consultation with the public and interested parties is anything but. We have the means to harness new technology to ensure wide-ranging and interactive consultation. We can draw on an extensive range of opinion and not simply the usual suspects. It may be that we should consider making such a body permanent.

The main point is that we need to make sense of where we are. What are the constitutional principles that govern, and now link, the different parts of our constitution, and how well do the parts relate to one another? That, I submit, is a necessary condition before we consider any further major changes to the constitution of the United Kingdom. Given that, as a starting point to such an exercise, it will be helpful if the Minister will tell us the philosophy that dictates the Government's approach to constitutional change. Do they have a philosophy? Yesterday's Statement suggests that the answer is no. I invite the Minister to surprise us.

Photo of Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Crossbench 12:21 pm, 11th June 2009

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on choosing this subject for debate this afternoon. He is, perhaps, luckier than he expected. It is indeed timely. With two right reverend Prelates taking part in today's debate, perhaps I may be forgiven for taking a text for my contribution. My text will be the contribution to yesterday afternoon's discussion by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill of Bengarve. It was wise and brief; I only wish that I could match it, both in wisdom and brevity.

The restoration of trust in our parliamentary institutions, and particularly—but not only—in Members of the other place, requires us to deal urgently with Members' expenses and allowances. It is sad that Members can no longer be trusted to police their expenses themselves. Members of both Houses of Parliament should be able to be trusted to act responsibly and with integrity on their expenses and allowances, as well as on other matters. As it is, not only should we embrace transparency; we also have to accept independent scrutiny and supervision. However, I suggest that the membership of the body that is set up for this purpose should include a minority of representatives from your Lordships' House and from the other place. It should not be difficult to identify one or two Members from each House who could be trusted as having the integrity to take an unbiased part in the work of the body and who would have the knowledge and experience to contribute an understanding of the legitimate needs and concerns of the two Houses and of their Members.

For the rest, as is already clear from the earlier speeches in this debate, in the wake of the furore over Members' expenses and allowances, many ideas for wider constitutional reform are already swirling around. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that the necessity for wider constitutional reform does not follow logically from the argument about Members' expenses and allowances, but it has created the furore and it is right that we should use the opportunity to consider seriously what we should do about it. There is not now time to legislate on all the ideas swirling around about constitutional reform; indeed, there may not be time to legislate on any in this Parliament. It is more important to get it right than to get it written, so we should not rush into a change, but use the interval for a mature and considered public discussion of the ideas and suggestions, the merits and demerits of each, and how they relate to each other. I respond sympathetically to the plea for intellectual coherence made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth.

I suggest that this public discussion should not, and perhaps even cannot, be led or co-ordinated by the Government at a time when it will inevitably be overshadowed by the prospect of an imminent general election. Constitutional reform that is to be widely accepted needs to be founded on a degree of consensus which is above and beyond any narrow party policy. I understand the view of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that not all party politicians are angles.

Of course, the political parties should have a large input into the discussion. After all, it is the politicians who work the system and who have to make it work for the public good. However, it seems to me, as it evidently seems to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that this big, complicated and diverse task needs to be drawn together by a small, high-grade, high-level, well staffed and independent royal commission or some such body that can pursue with determination and dispatch an orderly programme of collecting and collating the ideas, assessing their strengths and weaknesses and their capacity to command widespread public support, undertaking the consultation which modern technology makes possible, setting the ideas in a coherent framework or pattern and producing a set of recommendations for an articulated and prioritised programme of measures to be taken up in legislation and otherwise in the new Parliament after an election.

They say that royal commissions take minutes and last years. They need not last years, if we do not want them to and if they are businesslike and well organised. And we have at any rate, since the election is not likely to take place immediately, a little time to make a very good start on that process before it comes. I am sure that political parties should be represented on the body that undertakes this work because of the input they have to make to it, but they should not dominate it or constitute a majority of its members.

I am not one who thinks—

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Spokesperson for Women and Equality

My Lords, does the noble Lord remember what happened when his suggestion was taken up many years ago and we had Lord Kilbrandon's commission on the constitution, which went around the country, did exactly what the noble Lord said and led to precisely nothing.

Photo of Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Crossbench

I remember it well, my Lords, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for reminding me of it, but I believe we can do better than that in the current situation.

I am not one who thinks that we should give ourselves a written constitution. In a sense, of course, we already have one: our constitutional arrangements are described in great detail and with great authority in many learned volumes, but these are descriptions, not prescriptions. The fact that the constitution is set out in conventions and not in statutes means that it is a living organism—as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said, a tree—and not an ossified structure. Because we have a mature democracy, we have the great advantage of a mature and developed constitutional system that has grown over many years, adapting to the needs of the times. It is flexible enough to broaden out from precedent to precedent, as situations change and circumstances require.

I do not propose this afternoon to discuss any of the ingredients of constitutional reform that have been swirling about our ears in recent weeks. I resist that temptation, although I have my own ideas about most of them. I wish only to air a modest proposal, which could be introduced without legislation and with immediate effect, and which would make for better drafted legislation, better parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, better accountability of government to Parliament, better public appreciation of the role and importance of Parliament, and greater self-esteem among Members of both Houses of Parliament. All it requires is a little restraint and self-discipline in government. Is that too much to hope for?

We have experienced in recent years the introduction of a series of massive portmanteau pieces—blockbusters —of legislation, each of which brings into one single gargantuan blockbuster of a Bill an often ill-assorted and sometimes unrelated set of measures. The Government's own draft Constitutional Renewal Bill last year was a case in point, including in one Bill, as it did, half a dozen more or less unrelated measures. The Coroners and Justice Bill, which is now going through this House, is another such measure. This is very convenient for the Government of the day, since each gargantuan Bill needs only one Second Reading, one Committee stage, one Report stage and one Third Reading in your Lordships' House and in the other place. These Bills never get thorough or even adequate parliamentary scrutiny, at least in the other place, and there is a growing tendency for much of the detailed legislation required to implement the main proposals to be left to delegated legislation, which is often very complex and difficult to understand, not always as well drafted as it should be, and incapable of being amended by Parliament. The Government get away with murder.

My proposal is that the Government should make a self-denying resolution to eschew these huge portmanteau blockbusters of legislation, revert to the habit of introducing simpler single-subject Bills, and allow Parliament to take time to heed and reflect on the views of interested parties and public opinion, to scrutinise the Bills properly, and to amend them where they need to be amended. That might mean a larger number of Bills coming to Parliament, but they would be smaller clearer Bills, each concentrating on a single purpose. That should give us lighter and more transparent legislative programmes, better parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, and probably less and certainly better legislation. This would give Members of both Houses of Parliament a renewed sense of the value of their work, and would help to restore public confidence in our governmental and parliamentary institutions. In short, I suggest that this modest proposal could be effected without legislation, and would be good for the Government, good for Parliament, and good for the country.

Photo of The Bishop of Liverpool The Bishop of Liverpool Bishop 12:33 pm, 11th June 2009

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, not only for this timely opportunity for the debate but for the many important features in his Bill. In his helpful Explanatory Note, he emphasises the importance of discerning principles. I welcome that, because this debate must proceed philosophically by looking at certain principles. I should like therefore to discern and explore one particular principle from his Bill and apply it more broadly to this whole debate on constitutional renewal for which, as we have heard, the Prime Minister has called.

We have before us a proposal to create a citizens' assembly to review and renew the electoral system. This assembly will have great power and will in effect occupy a place of authority over Parliament in deciding and framing the question for a referendum to determine the nature and the character of Parliament. However, this assembly will not be elected. On the contrary, it will be appointed and will actually exclude from its membership people who have been duly elected to the Parliaments in the United Kingdom and in Europe. That is specified in the Bill. What is the principle here? I should be glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, expound it when he responds.

Let me be clear; I am not criticising this, I am simply drawing attention to the fact that at the heart of this Constitutional Renewal Bill is an appointed body with extraordinary authority to shape the constitution of Parliament. I happen to be content with this proposal, but that is because, like many in your Lordships' House, I see merit in appointed bodies, provided that the processes are transparent and accountable. The truth is that in today's world, election, especially in this media-dominated culture in which we live, does not always deliver what is needed. Election, with respect, delivers up the political class, which is perhaps why the noble Lord does not want to use election for the citizens' assembly, which will help to determine how the political class will be elected in future.

Please do not get me wrong; I respect the political class, and not even in the present climate would I dare to rubbish it. However, it is too narrow a constituency to produce what is needed, especially in this House, for a revising and legislating Assembly. We need to recover the unity of Parliament in the constitutional debate—two Houses, but one Parliament: a Commons that is elected and with the authority of having the last word, and a revising Chamber to advise, revise and refine the legislation. Such a revising Chamber should be made up of what is in effect and what could be called the elders of our society: men and women experienced in different walks of life, who, from their expertise and wisdom, can shape the laws that govern our common life. Such people cannot be limited to the political class but must be recruited and appointed with transparency and accountability and for fixed terms.

In this one Parliament, there should be—I long to see this recovered to our debate—a mutuality between the two Houses, each distinctive in character and composition but mutually dependent, the elected looking to the other for the wisdom of experience, the appointed deferring to the elected and acknowledging their authority to have the last word as the voice of the people: one Parliament of two Houses under the Crown, as a sign that our own accountability is in two directions; below to the people, above to the source of our moral intuition. I hope that this debate on constitutional renewal will not set the one House against the other. I hope that it will not force one House to imitate or to compete with the other. I hope that we can recognise our distinctiveness and not be afraid of having two Houses of different character within the one Parliament.

Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, Spokesperson for Constitutional Affairs, Spokesperson for Scotland 12:38 pm, 11th June 2009

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the right reverend Prelate and then to discover that I am to be followed by another right reverend Prelate. A circle of sanctity is being put around my presence here. I express appreciation to my noble friend for the timeliness of this debate. I very much agree with his sentiments. Consequently, I will not need to repeat every word that he said. I broadly accept the thrust of his arguments, but I should like to draw attention to some other general questions.

In some quarters, notably in government circles, there has been a propensity to say that we are faced with such crises of management, in relation to the international financial situation in particular, that we are effectively required to postpone the important issues of constitutional reform with which we are engaged. I resist that argument because to me the financial crisis is at least in part due to bad government. By that, I do not mean bad Ministers so much as a bad system, which has not allowed real debate to take place about some of the issues with which this country has been faced for some time. There was a kind of consensus between the main party of government and the main party of opposition that we should live in a largely deregulated economy. That kind of consensus has contributed to the banking sector's extraordinary difficulty with billions of pounds being spent by the taxpayer to tackle this situation.

It is not the case that we are living in a fixed constitutional situation. As the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said, the change is incremental; he appeared to be quite content with that. Some of the changes take place quite without deliberation, but they have a significant impact on the way in which we achieve our aims of government. For example, in recent weeks, the Prime Minister decided to parachute into this House from outside three extraordinarily significant Ministers: the noble Lords, Lord Mandelson, Lord Malloch-Brown and Lord Myners. That action was not totally consistent with the expressed intention of reforming this House to make it more electorally accountable.

Furthermore, the establishment of the new ministry under the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, has translated a number of departments into one with almost half the Ministers—I think, five of the 11 Ministers in this gargantuan department—being Members of this House, which has the consequence of depriving the elected Members of the possibility of directly addressing these people. I make that point not wholly critically but simply to indicate that I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is right to say that there is a conspicuous lack of coherence of view in addressing these constitutional changes.

I have mentioned the three noble Lords, for each of whom I have the highest admiration, who have become Ministers. The question is not whether they should be here but whether they should be in the Government. If they are bringing things to the Government, another theoretical constitutional issue is raised. Do we need to have these Ministers as Members of either House in order to be Ministers? They certainly could be required by Parliament to come and give an account of themselves. If they are seen to be offering such major contributions, it is worth asking ourselves that question. I am not advocating a policy. I am just trying to illustrate the need for the kind of overall coherence of philosophical approach about which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, spoke.

It seems to me that our incremental approach has serious drawbacks, the main one being that it is not speedy enough to respond to the situations that we are faced with as a nation. For some time, there has been discussion about whether the prerogative powers of the Crown, for example, were appropriate in the modern world. Many people felt that the arrangements for scrutiny and decision-making on the war in Iraq were 18th century at best, which accounted in no small measure for the division of the public over that major, central issue. It cannot be said that what we have is satisfactory or what has been proposed will address that problem. In the constitutional renewal Bill that we considered in the Joint Committee last year, there were proposals for the scrutiny of these decisions to involve the country in armed conflict, but they were so watered down that it was quite clear that Parliament would be given no serious authority over the decision-making of the Government in the event of a national or international emergency that might lead to the commitment of troops.

We have to recognise that we are not the great constitutional thinkers that we have imagined, certainly in respect of ourselves, although we have written remarkably strong constitutions for other people. I think particularly of the Labour Government's skill in providing a constitution for that great country India and of how well it has lasted, how strongly it has stood up to the ravages of communalism and poverty and how it has been built on.

I do not believe that the Prime Minister's sympathy for a written constitution, which he expressed in his Statement yesterday, is other than a very wise instinct. However, it cannot be achieved overnight and groundwork needs to be done. If we are going to involve the public, it cannot be done too quickly or just by a group of wise men, as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, suggested constitutional reform might best be done. I am not clear that his historical picture of how constitutional change has come about is very accurate. With the greatest respect, it seems to me that the great leaps forward have often come about as a result of a radical movement, which has led to a party riding that wave of reform and delivering.

Certainly, some things can be done without legislation. I do not doubt that it would be possible to make the Select Committees on departmental matters more accountable to Members of Parliament and less to the Whips. That sort of thing could and should be done before the next election. I was glad to see references to this possibility in yesterday's Statement, but there are other matters involving interaction between the Executive and the two branches of the legislature that cannot be done on the back of an envelope. Consideration is required not only of the composition of the two branches, how they are to become more democratically accountable and how the public are to be involved, but perhaps also of a division of functions. What are their roles? They are not supposed to replicate each other. But if they are both legitimately elected, why should one have a hierarchical superiority to the other? Do we think that we have to stick with the notion of the primacy of the House of Commons, a body that is patently in the Executive's power and only exceptionally calls the Executive effectively to account? Is it enough to say that, when a general election is held, the Government must govern and therefore may go on doing anything they like for up to five years? That is not the modern appreciation of how a parliamentary system should work. It ought to be much more responsive to minority opinions, taking into consideration points that may not be thought of in advance by the mainstream parties.

These, I admit, are philosophical considerations, but they lead me to the view that certain things that need to be done could be done now. I wholly accept the urgency of doing something about parliamentary expenses and I am not at all unhappy about the fact that this is related in the public mind to the need to restore confidence in Parliament by wider changes. There may be no logical connection, but there is a bubbling debate and it is therefore an apt moment to address some of these questions.

The great risk facing this country is that we will go into a general election with our electoral system unchanged. As my noble friend said, this has produced a Parliament in which no Member enjoys the support of 50 per cent of the electorate. There is a serious need to have an ad hoc arrangement for the next Parliament that would ensure that at least 50 per cent of the voters supported their own Member. That would be a proper and immediate response to the crisis over the expenses of Members of Parliament. The new system would not require the boundaries of the constituencies to be changed. It would be simply understood and could be given effect by Act of Parliament. It would not be a permanent change.

At the same time as the Act was going through, it would be possible to establish a referendum on alternative systems and leave that decision to the public. Preferably, it would be done not at the time of the election—that would focus the election too narrowly, and elections are often decided on matters that are not put directly to the public—but before. A very workable alternative was put forward by the government commission chaired by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. It has been the subject of debate and its merits have been widely considered. I hope that some of these thoughts may be of some influence and attract the attention of the Minister.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop 12:53 pm, 11th June 2009

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for his timely raising of this subject, in line with the Green Paper of two years ago, the White Paper of last year and his own Bill of March this year, which subsequent surprising events have shown to be—shall we say?—prophetic. I know that my right reverend friend behind me will join in celebrating the fact that the noble Lord who has just spoken is the ham in the episcopal sandwich. We hope that the noble Lord enjoys that status while it lasts.

The constitution is far more important than party politics. One might almost propose that party politicians should be kept away from constitutional reform lest it appear that they were rejigging things this way or that for party advantage; whereas the constitution ought to be the framework within which those debates take place, and not itself subject to them. That is the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about a citizens' assembly; though if an appointment to such an assembly were made partly by the Prime Minister, and then under a scheme run by the Secretary of State, it is hard to see how independence would be seen to have been achieved. Most people in this country think that the House of Commons is the citizens' assembly, and, if that is not working, it is not clear how putting another structure above it would do the trick. One can imagine an infinite regress—perish the thought.

That leads to my first main point. It is alarming that the Prime Minister is using the need to clean up the expenses system as a Trojan horse to smuggle in major constitutional proposals, threatening to force them through in a rush. If even a Government in happier times, with no whiff of scandal or internal division, were suddenly to propose such a package, we would be startled: how much more when this is bound to appear as a diversionary tactic, a displacement activity, a desperate attempt to flail around in the water as the sharks close in? We need constitutional reform, but this is not the way to go about it, and this Government are not the team to do it. If we are to have serious change, it must command massive assent across the country, and the Government are now incapable of achieving that.

We now have on the table creative proposals from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and others—nobody has yet mentioned that, last Monday, Professor Vernon Bogdanor published his new book, The New British Constitution. With proposals like this coming out, we must have a debate and not suddenly be pushed in one direction. That is not an invitation just to more talk—I take the noble Lord's point—but to a wider discussion in which his particular and interesting proposals are to be understood. Most people in this country have only just become aware of the depth of the constitutional problem. It is time to let the saucepan simmer a little longer, rather than quickly serving the vegetables half-cooked.

In case anyone should imagine that by criticising the Government I am implicitly supporting one of the other parties, let me be even-handed. I regard with equal suspicion the call for an immediate election, or for PR. These do not address the problems in hand—either the problem of the breakdown of trust in Parliament, or the problem of the constitution. They both assume that if we only voted again, or voted differently, the sun would come out from behind the cloud and everyone in the country would smile again. No—the people I meet day by day in the north-east of England are not eager for an election, and they are not fussed about proportional representation. They want representatives they can trust who will address their real questions and interests. They do not think that another vote, of whatever shape, will achieve that. Thatis the real problem. It is a problem of legitimacy and accountability. Those are the issues underlying the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and we need to attend to them urgently.

Fine-tuned regulation matters, but the political malaise runs much deeper. We were warned just now about getting too philosophical, but I will say this. The cultural transition sometimes called "postmodernity" has at last washed up on the shores of politics. What does that mean? Our political systems have been relentlessly modernist, wedded to a philosophy of sociocultural progress and evolution; but most people do not think like that now, and they distrust people who do. That distrust has now been magnified a thousandfold. We cannot go back to the old modernist politics, with its embedded 18th century prejudice; but too many of today's politicians are still playing those games—and playing them to the Press Gallery—as though they were the real thing. It is time to ask the big questions about how we move through the postmodern morass, the failure of trust, and out the other side into new ways of doing things. Tinkering with bits and pieces of the system will not do. This is not just a political problem, and it is not just about Parliament: it is about where we are in the entire western cultural world.

Let us step back from the immediate flurry and point-scoring to ask what a constitution is for. A constitution is there to balance freedom and order; to ward off tyranny on the one hand and chaos on the other; to strive for justice and mercy; and to foster wisdom and responsibility. It is there particularly to ensure the proper balance between the Government and the people, with the people participating as fully as possible in the common life. Part of our problem is that we have gone on too long assuming that voting every few years will ensure those things. It does not and will not—hence the crisis in legitimacy and accountability. These are complex concepts. This is not the moment to explore in detail how they work, and how to create structures within which they can work; but it is because we need that exploration that I hope that the Government will be dissuaded from rash and hasty reform, replete with multiple unintended consequences.

We can at least say this. As the Prime Minister acknowledged yesterday, legitimacy does not arise just from having people vote for you. Legitimacy is also sustained by doing the job and being trusted. Public consent and approval can come through the ballot box, or in other ways. When you do not get the second form of legitimacy, sustained trust, people lose interest in the first, the ballot box. That is why more people vote in "Big Brother" than in general elections. Just as the "celeb" culture is conscripting the monarchy it imitates, so now the "Big Brother" culture is conscripting politics into its spurious and shallow populism.

These rather obvious reflections have an immediate bearing on the key questions that we must address, not least about reform of your Lordships' House: voting matters, but doing the job matters even more. The belief that only elected Members can have any sort of legitimacy, or that once someone has won a vote it gives them carte blanche to do whatever they like for the next five years, rings extremely hollow when it is precisely some of the elected Members in another place who have brought the system into disrepute. Our whole political system has encouraged career politicians who have never run a farm or a shop or a school or a ship, and who lurch from utopianism, which gets most of them into politics in the first place, to pragmatic power-seeking, which is what they turn to when Utopia fails to arrive on schedule. The suggestion that we should solve our present problems by electing more people like that to replace the widely experienced specialists on these Benches shows how out of touch some people are with the real problems.

Many of the interesting proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, have to do with accountability, which is obviously needed—let us reform the expenses system et cetera as soon as we possibly can. However, we still hear it repeated, and again from the Prime Minister yesterday, that MPs are accountable to their constituents. Well, they are and they are not: a great many seats are completely safe, and will be even if we redraw boundaries.

Further, the media and party advertisements encourage voters to vote primarily for a party and its leader and only secondarily for the candidate. But the real problem is that if we vote "this lot" out, that will simply mean voting "that lot" in, and for many in the country today, it is the whole lot who are felt to be the problem. You and I know that that is overly simple, but voting, or not voting, for someone every four or five years remains an extremely inexact and inefficient way of holding them to account for a complex and demanding job. We need accountability, but voting twice a decade—even if we made it compulsory as in Australia; now, there is a thought—does not come anywhere near providing it. Greek and Roman democracy used sometimes to put their rulers on trial, sometimes even during, but certainly after, their term of office. The Athenians invented in the fifth century BC an interesting system called ostracism, where you could have a popular vote to banish somebody for 10 years. It occurred to me that one of the forthcoming new Members in your Lordships' House might be rather interested in that. I can envisage a television programme which would have as its slogan, "You're ostracised!"

Accountability needs to be built back into the system. The House of Commons needs to return to real debates and real holding of the Government to account. Perhaps we need a Government appointed outside Parliament, as in America—as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, indicated, and the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, also suggested. That is at least worth discussing. Certainly, the present system, with up to 100 MPs in ministerial roles and another 100 eagerly awaiting their chance, has eliminated the debating and accounting role of the Commons and reduced MPs to constituency activists who rubber-stamp the Executive's decrees instead of holding them up to the light of serious discussion. We need in turn a strong House of Lords that will hold the Commons to account, which we will not get by voting in another few hundred party-whipped career politicians. As I said yesterday, be careful before you chop down your ancient trees. Political top-soil erodes faster than you might think. We may need some kind of outside, non-parliamentary body or figure, such as the Prime Minister is proposing, or perhaps the kind of independent Attorney-General favoured by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler in his Bill. But how such a person would be appointed if the office is to be free from the taint of special party pleading and how such an office is to be held to account are difficult matters requiring careful consideration. I do not see that that has yet been addressed, far less resolved.

In and through it all, we are in the business of doing justice and loving mercy. You do not achieve those either by issuing more regulations or by tinkering with the structures; you get them by humble service. "Do justice", says the prophet Micah, "love mercy, and walk humbly with your God". That last does not simply superimpose an old-fashioned personal piety on the practicalities. It closes the gap, the gap between freedom and order, between justice and mercy, between responsibility and trust, and between utopianism and pragmatic power-seeking. Whether or not you believe in God, humility—the recognition that we are only stewards of something greater than ourselves, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said—is absolutely necessary to keep the system in balance, to foster and sustain the real legitimacy and the true accountability that we lack. Without that, we shall lurch from one sort of tyranny to another and one sort of chaos to another—we have a bit of both at the moment—even if, perhaps especially if, people keep voting from time to time and so imagine that they belong to a participatory democracy while the inward meaning has been lost.

These are only short notes towards the much fuller discussion that we should have, but I hope that they point towards that fuller discussion and warn against blundering ahead with ill-considered proposals on the one hand or an ill-timed election that will not solve the underlying problems on the other. We have a chance in the next few years to engage creatively and constructively with the issues which the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and others have outlined. Let us not squander that opportunity by being bounced into giving wrong answers to wrong questions. There are right questions out there, and we on these Benches want to work with the whole House and the country at large to find the right answers. As I said in your Lordships' House a couple of years ago, it looks as though constitutional change has been done on a wing and a prayer. We on these Benches are very happy to supply the prayer, but we want to be assured of the quality of the wing.

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour 1:06 pm, 11th June 2009

My Lords, they say in Hollywood that you should never act with children or animals. The rule here is: never follow a right reverend Prelate.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on getting a sort of Second Reading on his Bill without actually having a Second Reading. As the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, said, while it is not as bad as the Coroners and Justice Bill, it is a sort of portmanteau for lots of things and meanders all over the place—our Civil Service, the Attorney-General, treaties and conflicts and various other things. I should like to concentrate on what is more urgent now—one reason for congratulating the noble Lord is the timeliness of this debate.

When you talk about House of Lords or constitutional reform, people say, "It doesn't interest anybody in the Dog and Duck". This is one occasion on which the people in the Dog and Duck are interested in the constitution. While their attention will not last for very long, because the football season will no doubt resume, it is important to seize the initiative and put forward some proposals which command attention and debate. We can then take away people's reactions and work further on it. This is why I congratulate the Government on their Statement yesterday. People ask, "Why now? Why is it so broad-ranging?". But let us seize the moment.

We have suggestions for parliamentary, electoral and constitutional reform. It is important not to mix them up, because they will require things to be done at different speeds. You cannot do them all at one speed and without thinking quite a lot. It is urgent that we fix the expenses structure in another place, but that is their business. I am sure that something will happen which restores trust in Parliament. The most important principle is that a Member of the elected Chamber should not have any privileges that an ordinary citizen does not enjoy. We should treat parliamentarians who claim expenses, or whatever it is, in the same way as any ordinary citizen. People cannot understand why, when they claim expenses, the tax authorities are careful in scrutinising what they can get away with, while what parliamentarians do seems not to be so scrutinised. That is a big anomaly. If we can convince people that that is fixed, that is all right.

I only want to say one thing about electoral reform. If you really twisted my arm, I would agree to some form of PR and if you further twisted my arm I would say that AV will do. I would take the Jenkins report without the AV top-up—rather like the French, who used to have two rounds, and only by the second round would the person elected have the majority of the electorate. But if you cannot get people to vote twice in the space of a week, perhaps we should have a system by which candidates are ranked, as they do in Australia, and chosen by a single transferable vote system. That would retain the connection of the Member of Parliament with the constituency; it is that connection that has led to the recent outrage. It is a very important indication that people care what their Member of Parliament does, especially if that Member misbehaves. If there had been a scandal about MEPs—well, nobody knows who their MEP is. Even so soon after the election, I would be hard pressed to name who my MEPs in London are. I know there is Claude Moraes, but beyond that I would fail to name them. That is because none of them has any particular responsibility attached to any territory. We must preserve the constituency with the MP and make sure that we have devices ensuring that a majority of those voting—not necessary of the electorate, as that would require compulsory voting—has chosen the person concerned.

I do not think that we should really worry too much right now about House of Lords reform. I have always believed that any reform to make this House an elected place would require the Parliament Act 1949. It is a two-year proposition. It is rather like the American policy on Israel and Palestine. Most Governments think that they are coming to it far too late in their career and therefore there is never enough time to sort out the problem. But we have more or less an agreement or consensus that, at the next election, parties will put in their manifesto what their proposals are for House of Lords reform. That would give us enough time to pursue reform, if the winning party started immediately upon getting into office. All the arguments that have been made will have to be made all over again, but we shall get a well thought-out reform. You cannot do constitutional reform in a hurry; we will need pre-legislative scrutiny and a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament and we will need a lot of time to decide—plus the Parliament Act 1949.

I shall take up another issue that has been discussed, on the nature of the constitution. We accept too easily that we have an unwritten constitution. I want to challenge that idea and conduct the following thought experiment. When a country wants to join the European Union, it gets the acquis communautaire, which has all the legislation that will apply to the incoming Member. Let us suppose that someone wanted to join the United Kingdom—what is the acquis Britannique? There is an acquis Britannique. In your Lordships' House we have had Bills in which there is a list of statutes that will not be amended by Parliament. We have had those discussions here; I think the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, was involved in one of those Bills. There is a long schedule of legislation going back to the Magna Carta. That is the acquis Britannique. It is not that our constitution is not written but that it is easy to amend; that is what distinguishes the British constitution from an American constitution. It is much easier to amend the British constitution by any Parliament. Any Prime Minister with a good majority can amend the constitution, unless the House of Lords throws a tantrum. If we are going to have a written constitution, we must make quite sure that we do not take away from Parliament the power rapidly to change the constitution. The obstacles that we place in the way of the Parliament to alter the constitution should be well thought-out, because we do not want to find ourselves in the situation where we cannot amend the constitution.

The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, mentioned the Indian constitution. It is interesting that the Constituent Assembly of India deliberated over two and a half years to frame the constitution, which derived somewhat from the Westminster model. Over the years, it has evolved; one very good innovation that it has, which we should perhaps adopt, is that Members of one House are allowed to be present in another House when as Ministers they have to answer questions. While the present Prime Minister is in the upper House and not elected, or is only indirectly elected, he can answer questions in the lower House and speak in debates. There is no reason why we should not do that. The ancient prejudices about the Commons and Lords not being on the same turf is entirely obsolete now. There is no reason why we should not have people going back and forth and performing ministerial functions—in which case, if we had an elected House of Lords, the Prime Minister would not be able to parachute competent people to be Ministers here but would have people over there to send across. That would be something to think about as and when we amend the constitution.

What we have here is a great opportunity to do something fairly quickly—for example, with the parliamentary expenses. Then we can have long discussions about PR and about what is in the Jenkins report, or something of that sort, which could be agreed on either in a referendum or by the next Government. I do not think that you could immediately alter from our present position to PR in the next nine months; I do not think that people would stand for that sort of trick. Again, there will have to be a proper debate, but once we have had it we may arrive at some form of PR. The larger reform of the constitution will take much longer, and we should have a game plan or road map to tell us, over the next 10 years or so, that we shall accomplish a number of things.

On the noble Lord's Bill and the Iraq war, we should acknowledge that this Government initiated a vote in the House of Commons on the Prime Minister's power to declare war. I am in the unusual role here of defending this Government, but they have over the past 10 years done a number of very good constitutional things, with the Human Rights Act. The reform of the Supreme Court has been established and a lot of devolution has taken place. It is not as if the Government had been idle about constitutional reform. Your Lordships' House has been reformed, maybe not fully but partially. There have been good reforms. Because people do not like what happened in the Iraq war, they miss the point that there was still a constitutional innovation. You cannot say, "Get me a constitutional innovation that will not only give the House of Commons the power to decide about the war but get us a war that everybody would like". That is not possible. No electoral or constitutional system will guarantee you both. What you can have is the House of Commons giving the Prime Minister the power to launch the war; you cannot actually guarantee that a Prime Minister's evidence or statements will always, in retrospect, be found to be as desirable as people would like. Hindsight is a great thing, but you cannot constitutionally guarantee it beforehand.

Finally, we have an opportunity to get people's attention. While we have that attention, it is our task to have a road map. If we have to consult citizens, let us not have an Assembly, but use the internet and let everyone contribute to the constitution debate. If we do not want Parliament to do so, some independent think tank such as the Constitution Unit can be put in charge of gathering people's opinion. If we can do that we will have people participating in a process in the broadest manner possible.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Spokesperson for Women and Equality 1:20 pm, 11th June 2009

My Lords, even my sternest critics would agree that I am in favour of constitutional reform. Having said that, I agree with those noble Lords spiritual and temporal who have said today:

"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread".

I agree with all those who have said one way or another that constitutional reform of a structural and institutional kind cannot be rushed and therefore needs to be approached in a different way from short-term measures, such as those for dealing with MPs' expenses.

I do not agree with those noble Lords—the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, will forgive me for mentioning him in particular—who believe that the English constitution as laid down by the Victorians and extolled by Bagehot and Dicey is a thing of great wonderment that does not require further serious reform. We often forget what a peculiar constitution we have. In his new book The New British Constitution, to which the right reverend Prelate referred—I believe it to be a first-class answer to some of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, made about the lack of coherent principles—Vernon Bogdanor points out what a peculiar constitution we have. Why is it so peculiar? Because in the democratic world we are the only country, with the possible exception of New Zealand, that has an absolute and sovereign Parliament, according to the dogma of parliamentary supremacy.

Whenever I ask law students about the legal source for that doctrine, they never know the answer. I will not embarrass anyone today by asking the question. We are in a peculiar position because the only constraints on the absolute sovereign Parliament are the constraints that come from membership of the European Union and adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights. In other words, European standards have to come in to rescue inadequacies in our constitution in restraining the abuses of power by Parliament as well as by the Executive.

The only branch of government that has seriously addressed that problem in my lifetime has been the judicial branch, which since 1976, by developing common-law principles of public law, administrative law and judicial review, has made great strides—owing to the laziness of the other two branches of government in dealing with this—to restrain the misuse of public powers. I commend the judicial branch for what it has done in the absence of proper work, as I say, either by the executive branch or by the legislative branch, in codifying principles of public law.

The tide for constitutional reforms undertaken by this Government came in in 1997. Tony Blair's new Labour Government, with their large majority—too large a majority, as it turned out—had debated and negotiated carefully in opposition with the Liberal Democrats under the Cook-Maclennan framework, in which my noble friends Lord McNally and Lord Maclennan and I took part, a package of reforms, including the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act, removing the hereditary element from the House of Lords, moving towards what became the Constitutional Reform Act on the appointment of judges, and so on. That was worked out in opposition, in a sensible way, and it was translated in the main into reforms while the tide for reform was in.

However, it was a botched job in some important respects. The way in which the removal of the hereditary element was handled, with a secret deal that broke promises to the Liberal Democrats, was not satisfactory. It has retained the anomaly of hereditary Peers who are here only because that was the pragmatic thing to do in getting through that reform. I say nothing about whether we should have an elected or partially elected Chamber; I am simply talking about removing the hereditary element.

On the Freedom of Information Act, as my noble friend Lord McNally in particular will remember, we were put under huge pressure. We were told, just before an election, that we would lose the Act altogether if we did not agree to unnecessary exceptions and qualifications being written into it. We caved in and were much criticised for being pragmatic in getting that Bill through. In terms of devolution, we have moved towards a quasi-federal system of asymmetrical government in which I think there are still problems.

The prerogative is another odd thing about our constitution. Ministers are clothed in monarchical powers. Their prerogative powers—their executive powers—derived not from Parliament but from the medieval monarch and, now, from the Queen. That does not happen in any other country with which I am familiar. All Commonwealth countries, common-law countries and European civil law countries have codified systems that make their legislature or their constitution the source of the powers exercised by Ministers.

The prerogative has some undesirable effects. The first of these, which I mention because no one else will have heard of it except possibly the Minister, is the Ram doctrine, propounded by Sir Granville Ram—a great Trollopian name—after the Second World War. The doctrine is that Ministers and government departments can do whatever they like as though they are private persons unless Parliament has said to the contrary through legislation. I came across this when I discovered that the Cabinet Office, some years ago, was suggesting that, on the basis of the Ram doctrine, data could be transmitted from one department to the other with no legislative or other standards whatever. Just as I could pass something to my noble friend Lord Maclennan as one private person to another, so government departments could pass information affecting the subject in the same way. It is absurd that the Ram doctrine was seriously being used in the Cabinet Office and beyond.

Another, much more scandalous example was what happened to the Chagos islanders—those dispossessed people who were removed from their homeland and dumped in the Seychelles and Mauritius on the theory that the Queen can do no wrong in the colonies. When the courts said that that was a gross abuse of power, Mr Blair, the Prime Minister, and Mr Straw, the Foreign Secretary, did not clothe themselves in primary legislation but overturned the courts' judgments using prerogative powers. In my view, that was a disgrace, but a disgrace about which our constitution had nothing to say. Regulating the prerogative and transferring the source of prerogative powers, which we need, from the monarch to Parliament are a necessary part of constitutional reform.

All that was when the tide came in, as I said, in 1997. I commend the Government for the way in which they carried out what constitutional reforms they did. When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, the tide came in again briefly. It looked as though on the basis of the Governance of Britain Green Paper we could have a second and more profound reform. I willingly accepted becoming the unpaid independent adviser to Mr Straw and Mr Wills in the Ministry of Justice because I really thought that there was the political will to carry out those reforms. I was most impressed by the high standard of work done by the civil servants engaged on the constitutional renewal Bill. However, I was disappointed that, whenever Ministers had to make choices, they always chose the lowest common denominator of agreement across departments, never the highest common factor. Therefore, when I left the department—resigning on the basis that I was serving no value to it and wasting its time, because we did not really agree—there was a constitutional renewal Bill that could have been published the next day.

That was eight months ago. The Bill would have been weak, but it could have been published and I do not know why it has not been since. I have heard no good reason. I am sorry that it has not happened, particularly given the Civil Service reform that the Bill contains. Noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, and I have been pressing for that for years and years. The Cabinet Secretary did an admirable job, in my view, in producing perfectly sensible arrangements within the Bill. It still has not happened, the Bill still has not been published and we are getting near the Recess. I simply do not understand why that is so.

On the human rights side, I have some slightly unfriendly words about the position of the Opposition. So far as the Government are concerned, we have the Human Rights Act, for which I campaigned. It is a good thing. It has worked with judges and lawyers, but it has not worked with the wider public, partly because it has been blamed by Ministers for their own default, partly because the media do not like a right of privacy that they think comes from the Human Rights Act and partly because the Act—unlike a normal, constitutional Bill of Rights and freedoms—derives from a European treaty, not a domestic legal order.

We ask a very odd question in this country. In the rest of the democratic world, people say, "Does this misuse of power violate the charter of rights and freedoms?". We do not. We say, "Does it violate a convention right?". In looking at the abuse of powers, the ordinary woman or man in the street finds that an unattractive question to be answered. The Government were mistaken in trying to deal with the unpopularity of the Human Rights Act by cobbling together another suggestion side by side—a Bill of Rights and responsibilities that created no new rights and no new responsibilities. I regard that as farcical and am sorry that so much time was wasted on it.

I am afraid that I also find the statements made again and again by David Cameron—that he will tear up the Human Rights Act if and when the Conservatives win power—to be a dismal response. I believe that the Irish will vote yes to the Lisbon treaty. If the Conservatives then win, they will be looking for bones to throw to their Eurosceptic right-wing and they might believe that tearing up the Human Rights Act is politically attractive.

That really would be a stupid thing to do. Why? Because we need effective remedies in this country, in British courts, for violations of our fundamental rights and freedoms. The more you tamper with the Human Rights Act as its stands and weaken the remedies that British courts can provide, the more you lead to our having to go to Strasbourg and a European Court of Human Rights that already has 100,000 pending cases. I do not believe that politically, legally or sensibly it is other than constitutionally illiterate—to use Ken Clarke's moderate language—to think of tearing up the Human Rights Act and weakening the effective remedies that we already have. Those remedies are quite moderate. They do not allow the courts to strike down Acts of Parliament; they allow the Executive a breathing space in giving effect to the judgments. We have won great respect in the European Court of Human Rights through the jurisprudence fashioned by our courts, which makes the British legal influence in Strasbourg much stronger now than that of any other European state.

I can only hope that sensible people such as Dominic Grieve QC MP, who will have responsibility for this if the Conservatives win power, will drop the idea of scrapping the Human Rights Act and weakening our effective remedies. I hope that they will instead move toward a charter of rights and freedoms, protecting fundamental law and the citizen against the misuse of power. None of that can, I am afraid, be done by this Government; the tide has now gone out for that kind of thing. We will have to hope that, after the next election, we will get towards the written constitution that other countries have and we deserve.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 1:35 pm, 11th June 2009

My Lords, I am in awe of the psychic powers of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who was able to put down a Motion that is being debated the day after the Government made a Statement on the same subject. Obviously, it could not have come at a better time. Perhaps he can put his skills to the service of us all by giving us advance notice of government statements in future. I shall use my time to make three general and two specific points about constitutional reform. It will not surprise the House to know that the two specific ones relate to electoral and to Lords reform.

My general points are the framework within which I would look at proposals for constitutional reform, and a number of speakers have touched upon them already. The first for me, and in many ways perhaps the most urgent, is that on this, of all subjects, we must move in step with the public. It is no use conjuring schemes for constitutional reform that bear no relation whatever to the issues that interest the public. We suffer from the same condition as any institution that I have ever had anything to do with, in that we are much more interested in talking among ourselves about ourselves than we necessarily are in talking about our responsibilities outside the structure of our own institution.

There is a very good and simple illustration of that in today's proceedings of the House. There are two debates down for discussion; this one, on constitutional renewal, and another on,

"the quality and cost of public transport and the level of crime".

Does it surprise anyone that there are twice as many people down to speak on this debate as on the other? If we asked the people outside this House which of those two subjects they think should attract the most attention—and to which we should devote the most time—there would be absolutely no doubt whatever about the response. It would be the latter.

We know that from opinion polls. I am wary of them, but I checked a fairly regular MORI poll that comes out on the issues that concern the British public, which they list in order of the subjects that the public raised in a poll of 1,000 people. Again, there were no surprises there: 59 per cent raised the economy, 30 per cent raised race relations and related matters of immigration and asylum, 30 per cent crime and law and order, and 20 per cent unemployment, factory closures and lack of industry. The only point at which any reference that could in any way be considered as constitutional reform comes is 26th on the list, at 1 per cent—just behind bird flu. Now, that should be a sobering thought to us when we debate these issues. I am not saying that we can never do anything that the public are not demanding instantly, but it should put these discussions into perspective.

On the same subject, salutary lessons come from the European Union which, time and again, seems to spend far more time talking about its structures and modes of operations than in dealing with the issues that the people in Europe seem to want it to discuss. I am very wary, then, when there is a disconnect between the things that we are discussing and those which people in this country think are important.

I will give one last bit of evidence on this particular theme. It is well known to anyone who has been a Member of Parliament that there are a number of occasions when, during the week, both Houses are debating particular issues that seem to be of monumental significance when you are taking part in them. You discuss them with colleagues then go home at the weekend where you do your advice bureaux, go to schools and factories and you find that people there are raising issues totally unconnected with the things that you thought were so important during the week.

That is a salutary lesson. This is addressed perhaps more to the Conservative Front Bench than anywhere else, but because of the fundamental importance of the link between politicians and the public—the link between the individual Member of Parliament and the public—I am sceptical about suggestions for reducing the number of MPs. It is a nice little headline, but I do not see how you enrich our democracy and get closer contact between people and MPs in Parliament by reducing the number of MPs, and I am not so sure that it would be so popular if suggested in individual parts of the country. We must keep in touch with the public.

The second thing that I want to say at a general level, and it might sound rather conservative, is that I am not one of those who take the view that the British system of government and our constitution is something that we should be ashamed of or is beyond repair. I do not think there is any serious evidence for that. There are numerous things that need to be done and I am happy to participate in them, but does it sound too much like "Land of Hope and Glory" to say that ours is a constitutional system that has been copied, usually in the Commonwealth, by many other countries in the world and has operated successfully in many other countries? For all the day-to-day complaints, on any international comparison we are one of the freest countries in the world for freedom of expression and we have one of the easiest mechanisms of access to the people in power—through our MPs returning each weekend to constituents and connecting them to the Government.

There is a level of intimacy and access in our country which we should be proud of and we should cherish. I have come across that in my own experience on a number of occasions. When you talk to parliamentarians abroad, they are amazed at the extent to which the lives of MPs in this country are dominated—quite rightly—by the needs of their constituents. MPs need to ensure that meetings are held regularly in constituencies, which is never the same in other countries, particularly those that have systems of proportional representation, to which I will return in a moment.

My third general principle is this: in all aspects of constitutional reform, and this is certainly true of Lords reform, we should beware of what the right reverend Prelate referred to—the law of unintended consequences. That applies to Lords reform. I find it difficult to take seriously the argument that you can have a massive change in the way that this House operates that has no real significance in relation to the rest of the constitution. Perhaps this is mildly insulting to this House, but my concern throughout with Lords reform has had less to do with the effect on this House than on the whole of the constitution, particularly in the way that it would inevitably diminish the power and authority of the House of Commons. Coupled with that, any change in this House would look to the relationship between the two Houses. I would be very wary of any system that led to adjudications between the two Houses being made by the courts or that kind of development. Those are the things that concern me most and the framework within which we should view constitutional reform.

I now come to the two specifics, and one of those may not be supported by colleagues and friends of mine in the Liberal Democrat Party, although others may be more sympathetic—the issue of voting reform. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will remedy this when he comes to speak, but we have had three Liberal speakers so far and not one of them has referred in any size, shape or form and certainly not with any real acclamation to the one real example we have of proportional representation in this country—elections to the European Parliament. That is from a party that is passionate about proportional representation. That is a system that is already in existence.

I do not like proportional representation. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, suggested that self-interest motivated all the actions on this issue of the two big parties, as he described them. I can only plead in mitigation that I have had the same view throughout my political life. Within the Labour Party, it has sometimes been very popular to advocate electoral reform, and at other times less so, but that has always been my view. The noble Lord needs to acknowledge that when the Liberal Party advocates electoral reform, it could be argued that it is not entirely without party self-interest being somewhere in the background. As far as I know, the various mechanisms that are recommended would all probably result in increased representation for the Liberal Party. There are elements of self-interest, but we should not dismiss arguments on the basis of whether they are self-interested or not.

What makes me so worried about the prospect of electoral reform, certainly for the House of Commons, is the fact that it destroys the link, which is fundamental to our democracy, between a Member of Parliament and the constituency. I know that I will be told that there are lots of other forms of electoral reform. That is why it is such a difficult argument to have from my perspective. If you say that a system is wrong it is like saying that the wrong kind of leaves are on the line and that there are lots of alternatives to deal with the various problems. But we should be honest. As far as Europe is concerned, the system there has not delivered on some of the things that its proponents said that it would. I had these arguments long before the European PR system was introduced, but we were told that electoral reform would increase voter interest and turnout because it would liberate all the Conservatives in the north-east and all the Labour voters in the south-east who never had any possibility of representation under first-past-the-post. There is no shred of evidence for that. The turnout at European elections has certainly not improved since we moved from first-past-the-post to proportional representation.

Without going into any further detail, if we are to have a debate on electoral reform, please let us have it with our eyes wide open and include in it an honest appraisal of whether the system as it exists for the European elections has been a success. I am well aware that there were many criticisms at the time, and that it was my Government, a Labour Government, who introduced the system, which came as a result of a manifesto commitment. But let us compare like with like—systems actually in operation with other systems in operation—and see what conclusion we come to.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Spokesperson for Women and Equality

My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that the fair comparison is not with the European elections, with all the problems of huge constituencies and other matters that give rise to where we are now? Should we not look at different national systems, whether in the Republic of Ireland or New Zealand, for example, to see exactly how they work in practice? Would that that not be a better comparison?

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

My Lords, I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that I feel very strongly that there comes a point when a system has to be defended. You cannot have an argument or a debate where people like me who favour first-past-the-post are defending a system that is well known, and tried and all its faults are known—I acknowledge its faults—and the other side of the argument is saying, "Well it's not that system. It's this other system", and somehow there is a perfect system. It is wishful thinking to think that there is a perfect electoral system. The minimum should be the least bad electoral system.

The other specific point is Lords reform. This House owes the noble Lord, Lord Steel, a debt of gratitude for his work with his Bill on Lords reform. It is a model Bill that deals with two or three specific problems—the point of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong. It is short and can be picked up by noble friend Lord Bach and incorporated in full into the constitutional renewal Bill just like that. It has an enormous amount to recommend it.

We should all welcome the opportunity to take part in what is a never-ending process of trying to improve our constitutional arrangements. Our constitution is not broken beyond repair. We do not need a clean sheet of paper. We need to identify improvements as and when we see them. I am happy to take part in that debate and hope we approach further discussions of this sort with that kind of framework in mind.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader in the House of Lords, Spokesperson for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 1:51 pm, 11th June 2009

My Lords, we are going to discuss constitutional change and renewal over the next year and beyond. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has just said, it may be the case that this is not the sort of thing that really excites people on a local level. Yet all of us who went back to our local areas in the Recess the week before last caught a strong and palpable sense of public disillusionment with politics. I had only to walk down the main street in Saltaire to get a handful of it. Talking to our councillors in Bradford, I got a real sense of what people thought was wrong about London, politics as a whole, the political class and, in some ways, democracy. That is deeply worrying and we have to respond to it.

The noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill of Bengarve, said yesterday that this is a crisis of public trust in politics, not just the political class. We have to treat it like that. I was struck that the English Democrat elected as Mayor of Doncaster ran on an actively anti-political platform. He happens to be the father of my local Conservative MP in Shipley, so I know something of him. His first action is to propose to cut in half the number of elected councillors for Doncaster. We are facing an anti-political and potentially anti-democratic mood. We have to respond in those terms.

We also need to recognise that this is not just a British problem. There is to some extent a collapse of trust in the political elite across the whole of Europe. We are in a slightly happier position than Italy, at least in national politics. In Italy, the level of trust in local politics and your city remains high. Part of what has gone wrong in Britain is that we have destroyed local representation and trust in local politics. We are faced with a much weaker position than some of those in other European countries. Again I am struck that the one country in Europe where the crisis of politics seems to be least acute is Germany, where church-going, the small town and small company remain strongest and the local bank still remains. These are all the things we have lost and are going to find hard to regain.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. One of the glories of this country is that we have not actually lost the local church. We have lost the local just-about-everything-else, but the church is hanging in there by its fingernails. I know that is much valued.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader in the House of Lords, Spokesperson for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My Lords, I take that view. When the local church is also becoming the local Post Office and local shop, there is much we have to thank the church for and I strongly support that.

I felt puzzled as I listened to some of the earlier speeches. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, could have been made about political reform in 1831—and probably was—with its Burkeian approach to politics: slow growth, deep conservatism, not sure whether the French Revolution was a good idea and opposed to the guillotine. The noble Lord at least recognised that the Liberals have been interested in reform for "a considerable number of years". I remind him that it is 150 years, with an interest in Lords reform for 98 years so far. We are not wishing to push things too fast, just a little faster than we thought when we first met in the 1850s to talk about a party based on peace, retrenchment and reform.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, calls for a commission on the constitution and that really took me back. You will find in Volume 9 of the collected papers of the Kilbrandon commission on the constitution, which met between 1969 and 1973, a memorandum which I wrote as a young academic. It is just next to the memorandum on the constitutional relationship between the United Kingdom and the Crown dependencies, which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, knows well. It is the only thing on the subject. As he has said to a Commons committee, it still leaves the relationship deeply ambiguous so that we do not quite know where we are on that. I recall, in the middle of that commission, my wife and I being invited into the Treasury to talk to the constitution unit then headed by Sir Michael Quinlan, whose requiem mass, sadly, I shall be attending next week. We spent a morning discussing whether it was possible to conceive of devolving financial responsibility from the Treasury to any devolved level of government. Treasury officials simply could not imagine that you could do this. The world has not changed at all in this respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that the one real example of proportional representation in this country is for the European Parliament. In the United Kingdom, we have a different system of election in Northern Ireland, in Scotland, for Scottish local government and in London. I have even voted in the London elections. Last week, Alex Salmond splendidly talked about the advantages of a minority government through a different electoral system which, he pointed out, has to negotiate with its opposition parties and has to persuade, not bully, bluster and force things through. I understood the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, as being strongly in favour of government that can force things through and does not have to negotiate or persuade. That for me, and others, is part of what is wrong.

I want to talk about four particular aspects of the British crisis: first, the executive dominance of Parliament; secondly, the central dominance of politics in Britain; thirdly, the whole new Labour project of government as delivery rather than dialogue and participation; and fourthly, the style of government we have. By "style" I mean action through initiative, the search for the daily headline, that Ministers must issue new instructions on almost everything and the whole destructive relationship between Westminster-obsessed media and centralised government. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, on one thing: we need also to talk about the rights and responsibilities of the media and perhaps subject their pay and expenses to the same level of transparency to which they wish to subject ours. I would also quite like to subject their contributions to the British tax revenue base to similar scrutiny: the Barclay brothers operating out of Sark; Lord Rothermere claiming to be a non-domiciled person; and the News Corporation operating out of Bermuda.

The question of executive dominance of Parliament is clear to all of us. If we do not reduce the number of Ministers and abolish the unnecessary position of a Parliamentary Private Secretary, we will not regain a worthwhile Parliament and House of Commons. I did a quick count this morning of the number of Ministers in particular departments. The department of the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, now has 11 Ministers. Putting the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office together—they were after all one department—there are now 12 Ministers. The Lord Chancellor's Department used to have two Ministers and in those days the Home Office had five Ministers. It has grown. The Department of Carpets and Soft Furnishing—I mean, the Department for Children, Schools and Families—has seven Ministers, as does the FCO. The Department for Communities and Local Government has six. All of them are concerned to tell local authorities and schools what to do in their own particular ways. We could reduce the number of Ministers quite substantially, partly by devolving our autonomy back to local government. We have more Ministers than any other Government in Europe by a large margin.

Central dominance, with a stream of instructions, targets, demands for information and measurement is part of what has gone wrong with the whole basis of government in Britain. There has been a long-term trend, from the distrust of local government that Mrs Thatcher had to the distrust of local government that the Blair Government had—which is, after all, new Labour's distrust of old Labour, with all of those corrupt local councils scattered over the north of England. We have all these national schemes interfering in what used to be local autonomy, such as academies and building schools for the future.

I note that Michael Gove, as the shadow Minister for education, made a speech in Bradford the other week saying that he would impose faith schools throughout the country. From Bradford's point of view, the imposition of separate faith schools across West Yorkshire and east Lancashire is not the sort of thing that an MP from Surrey should think about terribly easily without understanding the difference of our local circumstances. To noble Lords who talk about the postcode lottery, I say that we are a diverse country. We do not have the same standards of services throughout the country; that is part of the myth of the postcode lottery. We should be delivering services in a different way and accepting that local circumstances are different.

The reinvigoration of local democracy is part of the key to regaining public trust. It is where most people interact with government and where they now find that they are facing distant offices and appointed quangos. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, defends the role of the MP in his constituency. That is partly because the MP has in many ways displaced what used to be local government. One of my party's MPs was telling me that half of the issues that come to his surgery are really local council matters. That is because we now have wards of 15,000 to 20,000 electors for most local representatives. We are the only developed democracy where local representation has been so weakened and has so little fiscal and financial autonomy.

What do I mean by "delivery rather than dialogue"? The whole new Labour project, in which delivery is what counts and the citizen is a customer and consumer—with public-choice economics, the new public sector management, the private finance initiative and large numbers of outside consultants brought in—has delivered public services that are seen by those who receive them as distant and ineffective. There are deep cost inefficiencies to this approach and huge contradictions between the Government's citizenship agenda, which talks of active citizens and involvement, and a public service delivery system which is done through regionally delivered contracts and outside consultants which therefore have no form of accountability at local level. I have listened to Hazel Blears twice in the past year on how to produce active citizenship. I did not understand her on either occasion.

Constitutional renewal is not just about Westminster; it is about the whole relationship between government and citizens. It is about a different approach to government. That is one reason why the simple election of a new Conservative Government—a sort of "Blair II", after new Labour—will not provide even the beginnings of any answer and, indeed, threatens only to lead to yet another cycle of popular disillusion. What we need is public services delivered more locally and more diversely. We need a leaner central government, a more independent Parliament and certainly a livelier, multi-level local democracy.

I am pleased and honoured that my party has asked me to chair a working group on how we provide local democracy; we will be working over the next six months. I look forward to seeing the Conservatives defining what they mean by "reinvigorating local democracy". I have read a number of their papers on this and I do not understand them any more than I understand Hazel Blears. I note that the Prime Minister yesterday talked about the reinvigoration of local democracy but, again, there was no content.

This is part of an approach to government in which we must start from the recognition that Westminster has lost public trust and must devolve authority back to the people through local democracy as well as cleaning up its own act.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Leader in the House of Lords, Spokesperson for Constitutional Affairs , Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 2:05 pm, 11th June 2009

My Lords, as always, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Wallace, whose speech was, as usual, well researched, incisive and amusing. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Tyler for bringing forward this debate on the back of a "Constitutional Renewal (No. 1) Bill". My noble friend has been one of those who have, as the Americans say, stretched across the aisle to try to find consensus on constitutional reform. This debate is all the better for that. I take pride in these Benches and the contributions that we have heard from my noble friends Lord Maclennan and Lord Lester in their tradition of a long commitment to constitutional reform. To that tradition we could add the names of my noble friends Lady Williams, Lord Ashdown and Lord Goodhart. I accept that some aspects of constitutional reform would be in the self-interest of the Liberal Democrats, but anybody looking at the record reasonably would say that our consistency goes beyond self-interest.

I also welcome today the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I am not going to tease him for this. I really appreciate that he should take part in a Liberal Democrat day to speak to the House; I hope that it will not be for the length of time he took in our last debate, on my noble friend Lord Steel's Bill, which was two minutes under an hour. Nevertheless, it is important in the last year of a Parliament that we hear the authoritative voice of the Conservative Party on these matters. It would be depressing if we thought that the idea of constitutional reform would simply hit the buffers if there was a change of Government. As my noble friend Lord Lester has asked for clarification about the Human Rights Act, I also ask whether Lords reform is indeed a third-term priority for a Conservative Government. As the late John Junor used to say in the Sunday Express, "I think we should be told". I look forward to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, with more than my usual, ever-present interest.

On the philosophy, I notice that this year's Reith Lectures are by Professor Michael Sandel, professor of government at Harvard University. He is addressing many of these topics. As many speakers have said, these issues are not just UK-located. I shall listen to and read those lectures with great interest.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Desai, I believe that we should seize the moment. That is why, with all due respect to the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, the right reverend Prelates and others who have advised caution, it is almost breathtaking when we think of the amount of study, work, discussion and debate that has gone on about constitutional reform to claim that it has all suddenly come upon us as a shock and that we should look at it slowly and carefully.

It was mentioned that I sat on the Cook-Maclennan Labour/Liberal Democrat committee before the 1997 election. The reason both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats wanted to look at the constitution in 1996 was that we saw the linkage between what we saw as underperformance in all aspects of our society and the way in which we were governed. That is why the Cook-Maclennan committee was set up and why, when a Labour Government came in 1997, they were ready to bring forward a whole raft of constitutional reforms that I suspect will stand the test of time and will not be reversed by any incoming Government.

In fact, this Government's record is divided into two parts. Between 1997 and 2001, they relied heavily on the Cook-Maclennan report and carried through a lot of worthwhile constitutional reforms, but then—I have got to say with some regret—constitutional reform was handed over to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, Mr John Prescott and Mr Jack Straw. Then evidence of the back of the envelope and party short-term advantage came into constitutional reform.

We on these Benches make no apology for using this day for again rehearsing the need for urgency. It is the Government's decade of inaction and neglect which has resulted in a massive crisis of public confidence in Parliament itself. This brings with it a second danger, namely that a Government addicted to the quick fix, spin and the need to appease the 24/7 news cycle will adopt solutions to these problems which will weaken and undermine our parliamentary democracy. I said in an earlier debate that the foundations of this institution run deep and the walls are strong. That does not mean they cannot be fatally undermined by too readily ceding power to outside bodies and unelected quangos. I say to my noble friend that I suspect trying to solve the problems by extra-parliamentary appointments is extremely dangerous. Citizens' assemblies may have an attraction, but I think it was the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham who said that the way he was brought up was that the citizens' assembly is down the corridor in the House of Commons.

The aim of reform must be to strengthen our democracy and make it more accountable to the people, and as has been said so often, enable it to keep our overly powerful Executive in check. The constitutional reform Bill that my noble friend Lord Tyler has brought forward is intended to set the bar for Jack Straw's long-promised Bill. I have known Mr Straw for more than 40 years since our days as student politicians, and it gives me great sadness to say that his political epitaph will be that one of the most radical student leaders of his generation has evolved into one of the most conservative of constitutional reformers. My noble friend Lord Lester mentioned how the Freedom of Information Act came into being, and we did make a deal in wash-up under threat. I was told then quite specifically that Mr Straw in particular would remove the Freedom of Information Act entirely if we did not make the concessions that we did.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way, but is not the assessment of Mr Jack Straw's career one that could be looked at exactly the other way round? The mistake that he has been making in recent years, which may result, on Lords reform for example, in nothing being achieved before the election, is due to this wild revolutionary idea that you can have a fundamental change by just passing an Act, as opposed to incrementalism. The incremental cake has been 80 per cent cooked. None of the cake in the discussion today has been cooked at all. In this regard, is that not the moral of the career of Mr Jack Straw?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Leader in the House of Lords, Spokesperson for Constitutional Affairs , Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, I hope that I get extra time for that intervention. I will leave that to history. All that I would say to the noble Lord is that he, rather like the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I once knew in other times and other places as genuine, radical reformers who have now metamorphosed into conservatives—with a small "c"—and it saddens me greatly. I think that the fact that some of the most fervent opponents of constitutional reform are found on the Labour red Benches is a very sad thing indeed but, as I said, we are fortunate that although time is short, much of the groundwork has been done by the Power inquiry and by the Select Committee on Public Administration, chaired by Mr Tony Wright, who I am pleased to see has been given a key role in developing policy over these next few weeks. As I have said, the building blocks of reform are all there ready to be assembled. My noble friends and other noble Lords have dealt with other areas of reform, most notably my noble friends Lord Lester, Lord Maclennan and Lord Wallace.

I want to deal briefly with two issues. First, I hope we can in this Parliament bring forward measures to protect and enhance the status of the Civil Service by putting its rights and responsibilities on a statutory basis. I often like to quote the memorable words of the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, who said that in Britain the BBC and our Civil Service are the two great gifts that the 20th century has bequeathed to the 21st. However both need eternal vigilance if their qualities and benefits are to survive. The defence of the BBC is for another day, but now is the opportunity to underpin one of the great triumphs of 19th century liberalism, the implementation of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms, which for 140 years have given us a Civil Service chosen and promoted on merit and free of political influence and patronage.

Just over a decade ago, I served on a committee of this House under the late Lord Slynn, to examine the ethos of the public service and whether it was still alive. We concluded that it was, but under threat, and the Government's delay in bringing in a Civil Service Act—proposed, I remind noble Lords, in the Cook-Maclennan report and in Labour's 1997 manifesto—has done little to protect that ethos.

As one who was one of the early beneficiaries of the special adviser concept to run parallel with the mainstream Civil Service, I am not one to decry it. However, it needs careful policing, particularly during long periods of one party being in office. My noble friend Lord Tyler has made some admirable suggestions in his Bill on how we should, quite properly, clip the wings of special advisers. One thing that I think should be looked at—we have had an example of it in this Administration and there were examples in the other—is that should beware of making it too easy for civil servants to become political advisers, or vice versa. Those should not be areas that are too easily blurred, and as I say, it is something that can and does arise in long periods of government.

Finally, I turn to the reform of this House. There is a need for a similar sense of urgency about reform of the other place, but let me concentrate today on this House. Some noble Lords have claimed that I have changed my mind about reform, because I have thrown my weight behind the Bill of my noble friend Lord Steel. I am well aware of its origins among a group of politically motivated men, three of whom are sitting here today. They thought that this could perhaps stem wider reform, but I am convinced that unless we use the time left in this Parliament to deal with the most outrageous aspects of its composition, then the public respect which we hitherto have enjoyed will quickly turn to contempt.

If there is not a change of Government at the next election, membership of this House is likely to climb to more than 800. The proportion of Members coming in for their tick and expenses and little else is likely to grow as the large number of Peers created between 1997 and 2007 grow old. We must do what we can now on these issues, and the key elements are in the constitutional reforms proposed by my noble friend Lord Steel.

I will just say this in my one minute of extra time —here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—we should not be too quick to say that our political system is busted. There is a need for reform; but I am much influenced by my father. He was a process worker in ICI, but he read books, he read newspapers, he went to his trade union meetings and he went to his party political meetings. We should not forget that our political democracy works because hundreds and thousands of political activists, of all political parties, go out, knock on doors and argue their case with the electorate. When I hear, as I heard a lady say on television last week after the election, "Oh, I never vote; my parents never voted", I have to pose the question to her and the millions like her: how do we make a political democracy work unless it involves democrats working in it? That does not mean collapsing our confidence in our present system; it means bringing reform where we can, but defending it when we have to.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, just for the record, extra time is not allocated by the Whips, but it is occasionally taken.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament 2:21 pm, 11th June 2009

My Lords, I, too, have enormously enjoyed the debate, rather more than I was expecting. There have been speeches of importance, many of which deserve re-reading at a quieter time. It is also a great pleasure on this occasion to follow the noble Lord, Lord McNally; normally it is the other way round.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament

My Lords, I knew there had to be a reason and we have discovered what it was.

The noble Lord naturally gave me an opportunity and an invitation to talk about the Conservative Party's plans for the constitution in the next Parliament if we are fortunate enough to be invited by the British people to take over from the Government. However, I shall disappoint him by telling him that I shall not be writing the manifesto on constitutional matters this afternoon; on the contrary. But I shall take up some of the issues raised by others, as well as adding one or two thoughts of my own.

I join with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, who talked about the public disillusion that he found—as did many Peers—when he was electioneering over the course of the past few weeks. There is a tremendous sense of frustration—anger, even—among voters about what has happened vis-à-vis the expenses. I have a feeling that that frustration was also born out of a more general frustration with what has developed in politics, not only over the past 10 years but over a considerable amount of time. They are frustrated with politicians who pronounce what they are going to do and then, as soon as they are elected, find every reason not to be able to do that.

This happens at all levels of politics. It is the kind of frustration that people feel when their plumber comes in a car and they find that they receive a parking fine, not for a trivial amount of money but perhaps for £100. They feel frustrated on a large scale when terrorists from overseas cannot be deported because they hide behind the provisions of the Human Rights Act. They feel it in their everyday lives. I hate to think what the risk analysis book in Durham Cathedral looks like or what you have to go through in order to change the light bulbs in our great cathedrals. All this adds up to a frustration with politics and politicians.

Over the past 12 years we have been undergoing a massive constitutional experiment. It is as though we have been on a great journey. Noble Lords in the Liberal Democrat Party say it was all part of a deliberate plan, cooked up, to coin a phrase, with Robin Cook in the mid-1990s. But what are its effects? We now have separatism within the United Kingdom that is more powerful than ever; and we still have the strange problem of Scots and Welsh MPs voting on English legislation which is extremely complicated to solve. If it was easy to solve we would have done so a long time ago. We have extremists in the European Parliament profiting from the PR system that the Prime Minister, according to his Statement yesterday, now incredibly wants to spread. We have a jumble of voting systems that spreads confusion and has done nothing to increase the participation that was promised; and we have fraud at elections which, when we had only that stubby little pencil on the end of a piece of string, was unheard of.

We face the imminent expulsion of the Law Lords from Parliament and the new Supreme Court towers opening up opposite it, which I predict will lead to friction and clashes between the new court and Parliament in the years ahead. We have a cynical exploitation of the Human Rights Act, which too often drives a coach and horses through common sense. We have a huge waste of resources on proto-regional governments which, when they were asked, we found that people did not want. We have major transfers of authority from our belittled Parliament.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Spokesperson for Women and Equality

My Lords, I would be grateful if the noble Lord could give an example of what he is talking about. He has levelled these charges about the new Supreme Court and the Human Rights Act; could he give one example so that we understand what the basis for this is?

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament

My Lords, my point about the Supreme Court is a little hard to give because it is not yet in existence. My fear is that a new Supreme Court over the road in Parliament Square will find itself clashing increasingly with Parliament; that, as it has been removed from Parliament, we will see the growth of judge-made law rather than Parliament-made law. We already have an example of that on the role of privacy, which has been decided not by Parliament but by the courts. That may be a good thing or a bad thing—I make no comment—but it has been decided by judges, not by Parliament.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, what has that possibly got to do with any move to a Supreme Court? I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. How is that relevant in the slightest to the justified or unjustified criticism the noble Lord makes?

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament

My Lords, I can explain it quite clearly to the noble Lord. I fear that this is the start of a trend that can only continue. It has not been thought through. By removing the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom from this place to another we will encourage the judiciary to behave in that way.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament

My Lords, before I give way—and I am very happy to do so—I should remind noble Lords that this is a time-limited debate and that I have quite a lot to get through.

Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, Spokesperson for Constitutional Affairs, Spokesperson for Scotland

My Lords, very quickly, does not the noble Lord accept that the development of the law of privacy has been on the basis of the Human Rights Act, which was enacted by Parliament, including this House? How he can suggest that it was not anything to do with Parliament but was to do with the courts is very hard to understand.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament

My Lords, that is the precisely the point I am making. Through having the Human Rights Act, judges have gone into new areas of the law which Parliament has not decided upon.

Another thing we have seen is a cascade of referendums, but none on the EU constitution. I know the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will be stressed about this but it is worth repeating how ironic it is that many enthusiasts for renewal and a written constitution in this debate broke their written pledge in the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos for a referendum. I know why that was done. There was a deal struck between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats which went, "We do not need to debate this at the general election because we will promise a referendum. Then, when we get to the other side of the election, we will scrap that suggestion". That is why it is an unanswerable question and why the Liberal Democrats hate it being raised. If you cannot keep your own written promise, what price drumming up respect for a written constitution, and what claim do you have to be among the authors of it?

A year ago, amidst national mourning, the Government lost the services of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill—he explained why this afternoon—as their constitutional adviser. He praised the deal in the mid-1990s with the Labour Party but as soon as there is a deal in the House of Lords he bleats that somehow it is unfair. Now the noble Lord also spoke in a code. He said that he was not interested in getting into the debate between an elected House and an unelected House. What that means, in my experience, is that Peers feel that you could not elect anybody better than themselves, and the same, I suspect, is true for the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Spokesperson for Women and Equality

My Lords, I am very sorry but I have to say to the noble Lord, since he attacks me personally, that when he reads what I said he will find it bears as little relationship to reality and what I in fact said as what he has just said about the Supreme Court or the Human Rights Act.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament

My Lords, on the question of the Human Rights Act, I think it would have been helpful to those who do not know about the noble Lord if he had declared his substantial remunerated interests in these subjects. We know it, but those outside the House do not. Further, to hear some of the Liberal Democrats speeches in this debate, you would think that all we needed to save Britain from recession was to tear up what was left of our ancestral constitution and invent something new.

Before plunging into more so-called renewal, might it be wise to review the dubious success of the most recent renewals? I do not set my teeth against change; indeed, I think I am well known in this place for wanting to find a consensus for change here. We need a smaller House of Commons. Will that be in the Government's Bill? If we want fair voting, we need rules to ensure that the sizes of each constituency are near enough the same. We need rules to ensure that political parties should not retain donations that are the proceeds of fraud or of crime. We need that massive transfer of power to local communities to which my right honourable friend Mr Cameron has spoken. So we do need some change, very often beyond local government and down to people. I am cynical about the constant delays in the Government's constitutional renewal Bill—such a glorious title—first promised more than two years ago. Perhaps the noble Lord can tell us when it will be introduced.

Instead of smokescreens of change thrown up by the Prime Minister to hide the problems in his own backyard, which targeted this House from the basis of what I can only describe as apparent ignorance, we cannot renew confidence in Parliament without giving the British people the chance to send fresh faces to Westminster in a general election.

I have troubled your Lordships in the past with a modest maxim of my own, which I urge us to remember: things are not necessarily bad simply because they are old: they become old because they are good and have the qualities to endure. As I listened to the right reverend Prelate I thought that Durham Cathedral was not a bad example. Doubtless, if we had the faith and the genius we could build a new one, but I would be inclined to be modest about whether the result would be quite the same. So I am not an easy sell on change for change's sake. Let us take that single case of proportional representation about which the Liberal Democrats and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, get so excited, although I lean rather more in the direction of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, than the Liberal Democrats.

One thing Britain has benefited from is stable Governments, with representatives at Westminster directly accountable to their electors and extremists shut out of office. Why on earth should we change that to suit the constantly thwarted ambitions of a third most popular party? Forgive me if my history is a little shaky; perhaps the noble Lords, Lord Howarth and Lord Wallace, can put me right. But am I not right in thinking that with the decades of Liberal control of Parliament from the 1830s to the 1880s and the great landslide of 1906, we were never given this incredible elixir of proportional representation? Indeed, when the first Lord Avebury put it to the vote in the Commons, just 17 of those massed Liberal MPs supported it. Mr Gladstone was not having any, and neither should we.

PR is said to stand for proportional representation. We all know that what it means is permanent representation—permanent representation for Liberal Democrats in office, a glorious never-never land in which those great Platonic guardians will be immovable from office and decide which of the more popular parties will exercise it. We live in it every day in this House, as Liberal Democrat Peers decide which parts of the Government's legislation will go through and which will not. I chuckle when I hear Mr Clegg saying that he wants PR to shake the hold of the two establishment parties. What he really wants is one establishment party—his own—with permanent representation in office. That is what PR is all about.

Because time is getting on, let me conclude with two brief points. First, can I renew my suggestion of a regular Question Time for the two Secretaries of State now in this House? I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, on the Front Bench. I do not want to break the valuable rule that Ministers in this House answer for the whole Government and that our Question Times are varied, but an additional provision to scrutinise these Ministers would be widely welcomed.

Secondly, as we all come to write our manifestos for the election that the Prime Minister cannot indefinitely delay, can I research the status of an old wisdom? For this side, the Salisbury doctrine, as reinforced in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, will apply if we are not elected. We have observed it scrupulously these past 12 years. I am not sure of the position of the Liberal Democrats but I think that they have honoured it and would wish to continue to honour it from now on. Will the Minister give an assurance that the Labour Party, if in opposition in this unelected House, would observe it again? This is one principle that surely needs to be explicitly and clearly reaffirmed.

The real joy of this debate is that there will be, as we heard yesterday, a whole series of opportunities in the next few months to debate these issues many times again, with the publication of the constitutional renewal Bill, the clauses on reform of the House of Lords and, indeed, the short Bill on the new super-regulator for the whole of Parliament. There are many other things that I wish to say, but I know that I will have the opportunity to do so in the months to come.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 2:27 pm, 11th June 2009

My Lords, I start off by agreeing absolutely with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I have enjoyed this debate much, much more than I thought I was going to. However, I have a feeling that that is where the enjoyment, both of myself and of those of in the House at the present time, may end. The Government put their case yesterday and I have to make a confession straightaway. The Government have not changed their mind overnight. Noble Lords may well have heard on an earlier occasion some of what I am going to say. That has not stopped this debate being an absolutely terrific one, if I may say so, with wonderful speeches from all sides expressing different points of view. It has been a delight to take part in it.

The great expertise that there is in this House on this subject has shown itself today. Even if I am not going to say anything particularly original this afternoon, one thing that the Government will have gained from this debate is the listening; is what will appear in Hansardtomorrow and what will be there for ever afterwards. There is a great advantage in seeing in print what was said in one of the Houses of Parliament on this subject at this time. We will take great note, I can assure the House, of what has been said on all sides in this important debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, deserves congratulations both on his timeliness and also on what he has had to say. He is quite right too to call for decisive and prompt action. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister yesterday made clear the path we must pursue to renew our democracy. The goal of this process of renewal must be the regaining of the country's trust. A number of noble Lords have spoken, whether they used the word trust or not, about how trust seems to have departed as it were in the relationship between the people and Parliament.

I am sure we all agree with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister's view that most Members of Parliament enter public life to serve the public interest in the same way that Members of both House are in politics, not for what they can get, but for what they can give. I think that still is absolutely true. Nevertheless, public confidence has been badly shaken. We must renew our democracy but, particularly when we are discussing these matters, we will not regain the trust of the people in these difficult times without to a large extent setting aside for the sake of our common democracy the differences that exist and have existed for some years between our parties. The Prime Minister sounded a warning yesterday:

"At precisely the moment when the public need their politicians to be focused on the issues that affect their lives ... the subject of politics itself has become the focus of our politics".—[Hansard, Commons, 10/6/09; col. 795.]

Our debate today has shown that this need not be so—that we can lead by example in openly and constructively discussing the steps we should take to make right our parliamentary democracy.

Without wishing to test the House's patience too much, I believe it is important to review the Government's plans for democratic renewal. At its first meeting on Tuesday, the Government's democratic council decided to bring forward new legislative proposals before the Summer Recess on two issues which have been the subject of constructive cross-party discussion. Interestingly, those issues have not played a prominent part in today's debate because we have talked in broader terms about the future of democracy, so let me remind the House. The first proposal pertains to the immediate creation of a new parliamentary standards authority with delegated power to regulate the system of allowances. That decisive step will underline our commitment that the House of Commons, and subsequently this House, must move from the old system of self-regulation to independent statutory regulation. The proposed new authority would take over the role of the Fees Office in authorising Members' claims; oversee the new allowance system following proposals, of course, from the Committee on Standards in Public Life; maintain the Register of Members' Interests; and disallow claims, require repayment and apply firm and appropriate sanctions in cases of financial irregularity.

The second legislative proposal of course relates to a code of conduct. The House will be asked to agree a statutory code of conduct for all Members of Parliament, clarifying their role in relation to the people and to Parliament. It will codify much more clearly the different potential offences that have to be addressed and the options available for sanction. As was said yesterday, those measures will be included in a short self-standing Bill on the conduct of members in another place, which will be introduced and debated before the Summer Recess. That will address the most immediate issues about which we know the public are most upset. During the past few weeks, many of us will have had experiences like that of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, as he walked down Saltaire high street. I am sure that we all welcome the clarity and transparency the proposals will bring. However, they represent only the first stage of the Government's legislation programme for constitutional and democratic reform; I think that the House will be pleased to hear that.

The House knows that the Government believe that the House of Lords should also be reformed. Following a meeting of the House Committee, and at its request, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister yesterday wrote to the Senior Salaries Review Body to ask it to review the system of financial support in this House to increase accountability and transparency and reduce cost. For the first time there will also be legislation for new disciplinary sanctions for the misconduct of Peers. Given the vital role that transparency has played in sweeping away the decrepit system of allowances and in holding power to account, we should do more to spread the culture and practice of freedom of information. The Government will set out further plans to look at broadening the application of freedom of information to include additional bodies which also need to be subject to greater transparency and accountability.

Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour

My Lords, will my noble friend kindly tell us some examples of what those bodies are likely to be?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, if I recall from my reading of the press during the past few days, a number of them are public bodies financed by the taxpayer. The BBC is one; others escape me at the moment, but they are in that category.

In the past 12 years, we have created the devolved Administrations, ended the hereditary principle in this House, and introduced the Freedom of Information Act and the Human Rights Act. That is what I believed until a few minutes ago, but it now appears that those measures were all the responsibility, almost uniquely, of the Liberal Democrats. History has been to some extent rewritten. I always thought that this Government had been responsible for the passing of that legislation—bringing it to Parliament and carrying it through both Houses—but I will apparently have to review carefully my no doubt rather strange belief. I was intrigued by the view of history of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, which was that there was a kind of golden age up to 2001 and that after that it had been downhill all the way. The Home Secretary between 1997 and 2001, when those great reforms occurred, was my right honourable friend the Justice Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, and I remind the noble Lord that any moves there have been towards reform of the House of Lords for a number of years are the responsibility of the very same politician; that is the view that many of my noble friends take, whether they are on the side of reform or not. To say that somehow the Justice Secretary has been a force for conservatism over the past few years in a constitutional sense seems to be rather stretching a point.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I wonder whether I can just finish this point, my Lords. If I were to be cynical, I would say that my right honourable friend had achieved more reform on his own as part of this Labour Government than any member of the Liberal Democrats for almost 100 years.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour

My Lords, I agree substantially with what my noble friend has said, with one exception, which is not about the period when Jack Straw was Home Secretary. It is a well known fact that, over the past two years, the Steel Bill has had a three-quarters or 80 per cent cooked cake but, in the interests of an ostensibly far more radical plan, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has not actually achieved that Lords reform. That is what has been rather disappointing to many of us. In no sense is that a general assessment of the radical instincts or achievements of Mr Jack Straw, which have been considerable.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his point but, as an old Liberal Prime Minister once said, let us wait and see.

Just as through recent changes we are removing ancient royal prerogatives and making the Executive more accountable to Parliament, so Parliament itself must now become rather more accountable to the people to establish and renew its legitimacy and status. That has been a theme of the debate. Therefore, democratic reform cannot be led in Westminster alone; it must principally be led by our engagement with the public, which sometimes we are not very good at. This Government will build a process that engages citizens from every background and every part of the country, so over the coming weeks the Government will set out proposals for debate and reform on a number of major issues.

A matter that is clearly of great interest to this House is electoral reform. Following the publication last year of a review of the electoral system, we will set out proposals for taking forward a debate on electoral reform. I hope the House agrees that we should be prepared to propose change only if there is a broad consensus in the country that it would strengthen our democracy and politics by improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of both government and Parliament and by enhancing the level and quality of representation and public engagement. It is surely right to concentrate on what will interest or engage the public, lest we fall into the trap of making politics the focus of our politics.

The Government have done much to take power away from Westminster and place it in the hands of citizens and local communities. We are all familiar with the establishment of the devolved Administrations. That was a matter of great constitutional and democratic significance, but the process of devolution is not finished; it is clearly ongoing. We have made proposals to complete the devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland. Next week the Calman commission will report with recommendations on the future of devolution in Scotland within the Union.

However significant these constitutional changes may be, we must continue to seek new ways to empower and engage citizens. The Government will shortly set out how we will strengthen the engagement of citizens in the democratic life of their own communities as we progress to the next level of devolution in England. There will be among those who spoke today, I hope, people who will say "hear, hear" to that. My noble friend Lord Howarth referred to that in his excellent speech. We must consider whether we should offer stronger, clearly defined powers to local government and city regions, and strengthen their accountability to local people.

Moreover, we have a duty to ensure that our democratic processes are legitimate and truly representative. We need to improve electoral registration. We will consider how we can increase the number of people on the register and help to combat fraud. On receipt of the Youth Citizenship Commission's report, and having heard from young people themselves, we will set out the steps that we will take to increase the engagement of young people in politics, including whether to give further consideration to lowering the voting age.

This is not the limit of our ambitions. Setting out not only the rights that people can expect, but the responsibilities that come with those rights as a British citizen, is a fundamental step in balancing power between government, Parliament and people. The Government have published proposals and these will be subject to wide public debate. Should the country want a written constitution, the drafting of such a constitution will be a matter for the widest possible consultation with the British people. My noble friend Lord Desai, the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, and the noble Lord, Lord Norton, among others, all spoke on their views about a formal written constitution.

Last but not least, I come to a matter that we have discussed often and will no doubt discuss at length in the future—the reform of this House. We would argue that the Government have taken historic steps to make our democracy fit for this century. The House of Lords Act 1999 removed the right of all but 92 hereditary Peers to sit in this Chamber. That must count as the most significant legislation to affect this House in more than 90 years, but we will not rest on our laurels. The Government are committed to introducing comprehensive reform to deliver on the votes in another place in March 2007. The Government's White Paper, published last July—for which there is, we believe, backing from other parties—committed us to an 80 or 100 per cent elected House of Lords. It is the Government's view that it is now time to carry this commitment to completion. We will publish proposals for the final stages of House of Lords reform before the Summer Recess, including the next steps towards resolving the position of the remaining hereditary Peers. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked about the Salisbury convention. I will be careful in answering him. The answer is that, of course, we will observe the Salisbury convention in the same way, and to the same extent, as the opposition parties.

I end by saying that we believe that what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said yesterday in his Statement—repeated here by my noble friend the Leader of the House—represents a strong plan of action to deal with profound issues. The excellent speeches of the two right reverend Prelates dealt with the profundity of the issues that we must face, as did most of the other speeches that we have heard today.

The Government will introduce a constitutional renewal Bill soon, but we must first address the issues raised by the expenses crisis. We must recognise that one piece of legislation will not solve all the problems facing the country. Only by a co-ordinated programme of reform can we renew our democracy and merit once more the trust of the country. Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for introducing this debate and all those who have spoken in it.

Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Constitutional Affairs 2:55 pm, 11th June 2009

My Lords, by my reckoning there are several minutes until our three and a half hours are up, but even if I took up every minute I could not do justice to all the contributions that have been made to this debate. I heartily endorse what the Minister has just said: we will all read Hansard tomorrow with exceptional care. It is customary to say that there has been a thoughtful and thought-provoking debate, but this one genuinely has been. I will look at every contribution with great care tomorrow. I hope that others will, too. It would perhaps be invidious to take up time in pointing out particular contributions, but I am particularly grateful to the two right reverend Prelates for their speeches, which were very interesting. As the Minister said, it has been a terrific debate and I am grateful to all who have contributed.

I go back to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. He said that there is a crisis of confidence in the political class. That is the background to our debate, but I would argue that it is not just about individuals but about the institutions that give rise to the political class. That is how they get there. It is the whole context in which those people come to those roles. We cannot simply divorce the two. We cannot simply deal with the present crisis, to which my noble friend Lord Wallace referred so eloquently, of a lack of confidence and trust in individuals. There is also a lack of trust in the institutions that those individuals occupy.

There is an interesting and notable correlation between those who sit in the safest seats in the other place and those who seem to have made the most excessive expense claims. That is backed up by academic research, so we cannot simply leave the issue of safe seats on one side and look only at the immediate expenses crisis.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

My Lords, can the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, confirm that there is no safer seat than being No. 1 on a party list?

Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Constitutional Affairs

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for making that point because, of course, there are party lists at the moment. Every single first past the post election is fought from a party list. The difference is that there is only one person on it. That is its significance.

Coming to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I admire the way in which he persistently defends what is, I think, the indefensible. He suggested, as I understood it, that the results of the European election somehow undermine the case for PR. Yes, it undermines the case for the regional list system, but I give the noble Lord some facts. No BNP candidate has been elected under single transferable vote in the local elections in Scotland, but they have under first past the post in England. Similarly, there is no evidence whatever that the AV-plus system recommended to both Houses by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead would result in any extremists being elected. As has been said in this debate, in many generations of use of the single transferable vote in the Republic of Ireland, extremist parties have not been elected. Do not let us be given this nonsense that, somehow, PR leads to extremists being elected. It simply is not true.

Photo of Lord Trimble Lord Trimble Conservative

My Lords, the noble Lord no doubt inadvertently omitted to refer to the experience of the single transferable vote in Northern Ireland, where there has been no shortage of extremists elected by virtue of the system.

Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Constitutional Affairs

My Lords, as the noble Lord himself has evidenced, it has also resulted, in the long term and over a long period, in reconciliation in Northern Ireland. He himself must take credit for that. I do not believe that that would have been nearly so easy with the first past the post system.

There were also references from many sides to the need for the public to have more confidence between elections that they have real power and influence over their representatives. It is for that reason that I have, on behalf of my colleagues, tabled an amendment to the Political Parties and Elections Bill, which we will be discussing in your Lordships' House on Report on Monday, to deal with the possibility of recall. It has to be a very careful process, a due process, not the sort of Star Chamber nonsense that the party leaders are indulging in. Indeed, we should involve the new parliamentary standards authority in the process. When a Member has been found to have bent the rules or misbehaved, there should be some way for the constituents of that representative to trigger a by-election, if a sufficient number of them are in that frame of mind. I know that the leader of the Conservatives has said that he is in favour of recall, so I hope that Conservative Members of your Lordships' House will support our amendment.

I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. We have to seize the moment. The public are looking to us, to both Houses, to take advantage of this situation, rather than simply brushing it under the carpet. It is extremely important to take the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I am not sure whether he was instancing the dilemma that, in a representative democracy, it is difficult to use the representative democracy and to have a participating electorate. He implied, but he did not say this, so I apologise for my paraphrase, that there is a legitimate reason for saying that political structures are too important to leave simply to politicians. Hence, in my Bill, to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool referred, there is a mechanism—not a perfect one—based on the experience of British Columbia, to involve people outwith the body politic. I am not sure whether the right reverend Prelate read Clause 48 of my Bill in full, as it says that there would be nominees from the political parties, but they would be a minority and would not have the final word. The final word would have to come back to Parliament and, in due course, after Parliament had discussed any improvements, it would have to be endorsed in a referendum. I hope that that meets the point made by my noble friend Lord McNally.

I am proud to be a parliamentarian and this is a parliamentary democracy but, as the Minister said today and the Prime Minister said yesterday, we have to find new ways to engage the public if we are to recoup their trust and confidence. I share the frustration of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, but it seems that his frustration does not extend to putting forward any proposals on behalf of his party. If, in a certain number of months, we are to be faced with a general election in which there will be a manifesto, I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will have an important role in writing some of it, not least in incorporating in it the proposals, to which he has put his name, for an elected House of Lords. I look forward to that opportunity with great excitement.

I was also interested in the point that the noble Lord made about the cathedral in the wonderful city of Durham, which we all admire. I also admire both the cathedrals in Liverpool. It is important that we not only make good use of and admire the great structures that this country has built, not least this building, but look to what is going to be appropriate for the 21st century, as our ancestors looked ahead in Liverpool.

The Minister referred to some of the immediate legislation that is to be put to your Lordships' House. He also mentioned the parliamentary standards authority. I hope that in coming weeks we will get a much clearer idea of the interrelationship between it and your Lordships' House. Very little has been said about that and, from what has been said, it has been rather difficult to discern what is intended.

The Minister also said that the statutory code of conduct will relate to all Members of Parliament. We are Members of Parliament just as much as the Members in other place. Will the code of conduct relate to us or will there be a separate code of conduct? To whom are we going to give the task of developing those proposals? The Minister referred to the role of the Senior Salaries Review Body in relation to the financial support given to Members of your Lordships' House. When do we expect that? Will it be in the autumn and will it be retrospective? The sooner we hear about that, the better.

I will read the Hansard for this debate with great care tomorrow because there have been some notable contributions. Noble Lords who have attended, unusually perhaps, on a Thursday not to speak but to listen will acknowledge that this has been a remarkable debate. I am extraordinarily grateful to all noble Lords who have been here. A number of noble Lords on all sides have expressed disappointment that they were not able to be here. I shall not embarrass them by mentioning them, but several noble Lords intended to come but were not able to spare the time. In your Lordships' House, we are not elected, but we are all accountable to the British people. We must find better ways of taking on that responsibility. We will all read what has been said today with that in mind. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.