Constitutional Renewal — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:27 pm on 11th June 2009.

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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 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.