Constitutional Renewal — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:11 pm on 11th June 2009.

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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.