Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:03 pm on 23rd November 2009.

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Photo of Lord Howe of Aberavon Lord Howe of Aberavon Conservative 5:03 pm, 23rd November 2009

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow what the noble Lord has just said because it fits in with my own approach to this subject, and I think that we should return to examine his suggestions in some detail. I agree, too, with the note struck by the right reverend Prelate in his contribution.

One thing that characterises the atmosphere at the moment is that, in many respects, we have been living in a period of diminished confidence in rather too many organs of government-this, to some extent, being one of them. The noble Lord who opened the debate for the Government pointed out that the provisions in the gracious Speech, on which legislation will be forthcoming, are designed to meet that.

Some other people seem to react to the present situation in a rather more self-satisfied way. I have in mind some observations made recently by the present holder of that rather tattered office of the Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw. In an article in the House Magazine on 12 October, he wrote:

"Over the last 12 years the government has overhauled Britain's constitutional landscape", and that this "quiet revolution" was not over yet. There is a degree of self-satisfaction about that and a degree of threat of further impulsive attitudes. Far from the quietude implied by his description of what has been going on, we have seen the extent to which we have had to experience in many different areas a frequently reckless torrent of often ill considered institutional upheaval. The noble and learned Lord, the former Lord Chief Justice, drew attention to the impact of such haste on the criminal law.

Another area of that kind of rapid change followed by further and yet further change has been in the field covered by the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles-the NOMS aspect of criminal justice-when change has followed other change in a rather reckless way. If the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, were here, I am sure that he would be pointing out the massive frequency of upheaval of almost every institution in the National Health Service without sufficient consideration.

There are some examples that have hardly been noticed because they took place in a rather disorderly fashion. Looking back on it, the transfer of the whole of our alcoholic licensing legislation from the magistracy to local authorities was an important and insufficiently considered step. So, too, was the transfer of the control of gambling-licensing and other controls-from the magistracy to local authorities. Together those changes significantly undermined the value and the role of the magistracy. One has to recognise that not only the present Government have inclined in that direction. I have to confess to being rather disturbed by the proposals being canvassed by my own party for the change in the management of our police authority and for the provision of elected police commissioners. That would be a dangerous step. To introduce electoral conflict into that field and to dismiss the valuable role of the magistracy would not be very sensible steps.

I am anxious about hasty legislation and hasty decision-making, not only in the public sector but elsewhere. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, pointed out, Parliament itself is far from immune from similarly unconstructed change and is not apt to adjust itself as it ought to do. I fear that as a result of the recent upheavals about expenses in the other place, there is a steady erosion of the independence of that House and its collective self-discipline, by transferring responsibility to agencies outside its own remit. The suggestion that membership of the House of Commons should become a "full-time job" is another restrictive and ill considered change, coupled as it seems to be with an obligation to register hours spent out of the House, and worse still, to register earnings outside parliamentary activity. All those changes will diminish the breadth and resourcefulness of the other place. Those of my colleagues in this place today who remember what it was like way back in 1964 and 1970 know that there was a diversity of people with continuous involvement in the real world outside the House of Commons. When I was lucky enough to be appointed Solicitor-General, I was one of at least half a dozen Queen's Counsel on our side of the House. There were not just QCs around, but trade union leaders, business leaders and people with a much wider base than the House of Commons now has.

So, too, the other place has lost the control that it used to have over changes in our electoral law. Whatever happened to the Speaker's Conference, which used to consider these changes in a more leisurely way? That responsibility is now handled by the Electoral Commission. There seems to be a constant flow of changes, followed by changes, being proposed from that quarter, with little impact on the Commons itself. I do not find that acceptable.

So, too, in this House, we have once again to look at the legislation, both in the constitutional renewal Bill but also in the legislation promised about the future shape of this House. On that, I am afraid, I must return to my regular song. Of course I do not oppose the changes which are necessary that are in the Steel Bill. A number of them are already in the constitutional renewal Bill. But we have looked in vain so far-and I think for ever-for evidence to justify the most fundamental change: the introduction of elected Members into this House. I am anxious about that because of the extent to which it would seriously diminish the independence, diversity and expertise of this Chamber. It will have a negative effect, reflecting the right reverend Prelate's observation about the electoral dictatorship. The Public Administration Committee of the other place-a very effective Select Committee, under the leadership of Mr Wright-warned that the risk of electoral majority in this Chamber, or even electoral minority, was that the,

"dominance of Parliament by the Executive would be increased and not reduced".

When the same question was considered by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, in his royal commission years before that, the conclusion expressed was that it would,

"in practice mean that British public life was dominated even more than it is already by professional politicians".

It is of the utmost importance for that pace to be maintained when we look at the future of this House; to take a rash step in that direction would be very unwise. So if I may echo a phrase that I have used in other contexts, if a politician nowadays goes to any staff boardroom in a hospital, school or company and says, "What would you like me to do next?", he will get from everyone the same response: "For God's sake, leave us alone". In my judgment, for the sake of the continuing efficiency of this House and for the sake of the continued governance of this country, that is a message that ought to be heard and taken seriously. Do not let us destroy this place; let us, for God's sake, give ourselves a chance of surviving with the effectiveness that we now have.