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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:12 pm on 23rd November 2009.

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Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Constitutional Affairs 5:12 pm, 23rd November 2009

My Lords, I am particularly grateful to be here to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, because both are very respected parliamentarians. I think that they will agree with me that there is now a real crisis of confidence in our parliamentary democracy. Both Houses have to accept this collapse in confidence. There may be legitimate complaints and concerns about the way in which this has happened and about the behaviour of certain journalists, but there can be no dispute about the extent of public dismay and disgust or about the disincentive to participate in our political life. Addressing this disenchantment should surely be our top priority in this truncated parliamentary Session.

So why are we wasting time on what is effectively the Government's belated legislative wish list, when everyone knows that-as night follows day-dissolution will come before Royal Assent for many or possibly all of these Bills? The Prime Minister has fundamentally mistaken what needs law and what needs resolve. He says, for example, that he wants to have a recall power for constituents to sack errant Members of Parliament, but his resolve-just saying it-is not enough. On the other hand, he says that he wants to halve the deficit. Even a short and simple Bill is, as my noble friend Lord Thomas indicated, unnecessary. He should just get on and do it, not seek to legislate it in a totally artificial way.

The electorate are not fooled. They know that very few controversial or complicated Bills can possibly reach the statute book by the middle of April next year. In the previous Parliament only four got there by that time, and two of those were routine Consolidated Fund Bills. Raising expectations that the world can be put right in a few months by passing laws is simply going to encourage people to think that we are incapable of genuine legislative intention. However, setting in motion the biggest repair job on our political system for generations in order to leave the next Parliament with a legacy of genuine democratic reform, rather than dismal financial disgrace, could, of course, restore public confidence in our system.

I contributed to the debates in your Lordships' House on the Parliamentary Standards Bill. Throughout the consideration of that Bill, Ministers kept trying to reassure us that its provisions could not, and should not, apply to your Lordships' House. That was nonsense. Of course it will eventually apply, and perhaps sooner rather than later. It was absurdly naive, or perhaps a misguided attempt to reduce opposition to that Bill, to say anything different. In those circumstances, we have to look very hard at the consequences of that legislation. The Leader of the House has stated in correspondence with me that judicial review is now quite possible for IPSA. It will be justiciable. In those circumstances, we could find this whole sorry saga dragged out for months ahead as issues are taken through the courts. The very least we should expect from Ministers today is that they should explain what they intend to do to prevent significant judicial distractions of that sort.

I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, because he has saved me not only a page of my notes but possibly a minute of my precious time. I agreed with what he said, particularly about Question Time. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, made an interesting intervention the other day, given his background, when he pointed out that it is mad for the person responsible for determining the next speaker to have their back to half the audience. I do not think he used that phrase, but that was the implication. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, made other suggestions, and they are all things that we could do without legislation. We could do them ourselves, and we could give people new confidence in the way in which your Lordships' House deals with our primary purpose of serving the public in scrutinising legislation and holding the Executive to account.

It is important that we use our time more carefully. The other House clearly does not have time to do some of the things that it attempts to do. I hope that Ministers will accept that when it comes to international treaties and agreements, this House should have a sifting committee to come forward with proposals about which international treaties should be looked at more carefully by both Houses. The same is true of the work that is done in joint committees, and I have had the privilege of serving on several, not least on the sadly and woefully delayed draft constitutional renewal Bill, which has now appeared in your Lordships' House as the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. It has 56 clauses, so it is not a jot of legislation, but will it make a jot of difference?

Your Lordships may recall that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, described the previous Bill as the constitutional retreat Bill. The present Bill before us is actually more of a retreat than the previous Bill. Had the Government moved swiftly when our committee reported last July, we might have completed its consideration by now, in which case we would have dealt with the very important issue of the Civil Service, which is the most important part of the Bill. However, even now we are not dealing with important issues of potential corrosive effect, such as the huge sums of money in our political system or the attempts by foreign millionaires, or even, as revealed by Peter Oborne in his "Dispatches" programme, apologists for the Israeli Government, to buy the next election, which knock for six minor scandals over expenses at the other end of the building.

The Lords reform Bill is still in drafting. I wish I could comment on it. I know that a number of my noble friends will be commenting on the failure to deliver on promises for Lords reform and voting reform. However, I shall say one thing on this issue: I hope the Government will take the opportunity now offered by the arrival of Sir George Young on the Conservative Front Bench in the other place, because he takes a very proactive view about what the Conservatives should do, and it is very close to ours. He wants an 80 per cent elected House, an STV system of election and a transition from patronage to democracy in clear tranches and suggests term peerages rather than new life Peers so that next year we do not have a huge new entry of life Peers. In those circumstances, surely the good news is that consensus is now possible. I have no doubt that the Conservative Front Bench in your Lordships' House will wish to endorse his conclusions because they will wish to have collective responsibility for the Conservative programme.

We must try to make real use of the few months ahead of us to do something really important: to deal with the problems that have arisen in recent months and that have undermined confidence in both Houses of Parliament. Frankly, I doubt that the Queen's Speech has anything serious in it to remedy this parlous situation. Not a single fear will be assuaged or a single constituent reassured, but there is still time to put the posturing to one side. Let us put it on the shelf marked "Election Manifesto" and instead bequeath to the next Parliament a system of election, scrutiny and remuneration for MPs that has real clout and real credibility for the public. So let us get on with it.