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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:27 pm on 23rd November 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative 7:27 pm, 23rd November 2009

My Lords, I found the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, fascinating and indeed I would like to continue in that vein by referring to the constitution, although I fear that my contribution will be very much less erudite than his. I am also bound to say that I found it hard to agree with him in a few of his winding-up remarks at the end.

What worries me is that there has been a great crisis of confidence in the parliamentary system, which destabilises the constitution. The country is lacking in trust. It is lacking trust with Parliament, with the legal system, with officialdom and with one another. That is bad and it is divisive.

On top of that, the Government seem to be encouraging not only the nanny state but the police state. "Get out of the bus lane. Fine: £100. And I have a camera in the back of a bus to photograph you. Sneak on your neighbour if you think that he is cheating on social security benefits, and there is a hotline so that nobody need know that it is you who are ringing. Watch what you put in your wheelie bin; otherwise we will photograph it or weigh it". All that is a sharp, bad turn for the worse. It really is the way in which society has been going for the past 10 years. In that time, of course, your Lordships' House has seen the removal of most of the hereditary Peers, the Lord Chancellor and now the Law Lords. The remainder of the hereditary Peers and the Bishops are now under threat. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, gave us a whiff this afternoon of what might come.

At the moment, the two Houses have separate compositions, separate rules and separate responsibilities. Each House has a different task and each is complementary to the other. However, make them similar-with the second Chamber saying to the other, "We have been elected, too, and we have just as much right as you do, House of Commons, to have our way; our views on legislation have equal weight to yours"-and you will end with bitterness and discord between the two Houses of an undreamt of nature.

In common with most noble Lords, I am sure, it breaks my heart to see what has happened, and is happening, to another place. No one approves of Members of Parliament breaking the law. If they do, they are subject to the law of the land just like everyone else, but many Members of another place who are at present being pilloried do not fall into that category. I was so glad that my noble friend Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market said what he did about Members of the House of Commons because so many of them are honourable people.

Most Members of another place are good, honest people. In my view, it is largely the rules that have been at fault. If the rules say that you are entitled to this or that, it is not good enough for someone to say, "Oh yes. You may be entitled to it, but morally you should not have claimed it". It is like saying that you are entitled to a first-class railway ticket but you ought to have bought an economy one because the country would have been better off if you had. I venture to suggest that, if there has been improper payment, the Fees Office, which, like the Inland Revenue, is the guardian of public funds in its area, should have had more control over the disbursements.

Some Members have been accused of claiming for things for which they did not claim. The right honourable gentleman Mr Hogg was accused of a claim for a "moat". There was no moat; there was a ditch. He was paid nothing, yet, like many respectable Members, he has had his character assassinated and is leaving Parliament. I find that devastating. The honourable gentleman Sir Peter Viggers has been lambasted for claiming for a duck island. A pretty, quacking duck makes a lovely picture on any newspaper, but he never received a penny. However, that does not stop everyone being quite convinced that he did and it does not stop him being reviled and having to stand down as a Member of Parliament. His mistake was to have asked the advice of the Fees Office and to have put it in writing. The letter got on to the disk that was obtained by the Daily Telegraph for £300,000 and the Daily Telegraph milked it as hard as it could. I do not know whether that says an awful lot for the responsibility of newspapers.

Some chivalrous-minded gentleman decided to dig up-not dig-the garden of the honourable gentleman Mr Duncan. Some time later, in order to try to let bygones be bygones, the honourable gentleman asked his new friend to have a drink with him on the terrace of another place. Having gone through all the security, as he was removing his bicycle helmet the new friend withdrew something from within the earpiece of his helmet and put it up his sleeve. With that, he filmed and recorded what was supposed to be a convivial private conversation. What was the result? The honourable gentleman was removed from the Shadow Cabinet. However, the significant point is that no one ever reprimanded the person-or even expressed disgust-for having suggested and engaged in one of the most dishonourable and despicable of all practices: entrapment. Justice seems to have become upended. With this virtual wall of water of public fury, people do not wish to hear the truth or even a defence. The fact is that, as we all know, a lie gets half way around the world before truth has got its boots on.

The Speaker said that there had to be some rough justice. If I was on the receiving end of that kind of rough justice, I would think that it was grossly unfair. Most Members of another place are still honourable Members doing their best for the country and for their constituents and I salute them for that. The powers that be seem to have lost their judgment and their sense of direction over all this. The Government's answer is, as always, to set up another quango, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, to control what Members are paid. The chairman is to be paid double what a Member of Parliament is paid. Is that right? It is unbelievable.

Some say, with justification, that this is the nationalisation of Parliament, but do we want Members of Parliament looked over by rules, commissions and quangos, theoretically cleaning it all up but actually creating more traps for people to fall into, more authorities to judge and more punishments to be dispersed? Do we really want to discourage Members of Parliament from having interests outside the Palace of Westminster and thereby being alert to what is happening in the mad world outside Parliament? I do not think that we do. Do we really want to know how much they are being paid for their outside interests? Do we really want to know how many hours of work they are putting in? Put in 20 hours, and it is bad for your firm; put in 200 hours, and you are not doing any work for your constituents.

There is no winner in all this other than the rigid manacle of bureaucracy. It is a convenient way of saying, "No remuneration from outside Parliament from now on". That will be hugely detrimental to getting the right people into Parliament and to Parliament itself. Members of Parliament were elected to run the country in the best way that they can and, if what they do does not have the approval of their constituents, they can be removed at the general election. They were never elected to be dictated to by some higher, better remunerated and unelected quango.

In my view, another place is making far more of a mess trying to get out of the mess than the original mess itself. If another place is going to clear itself up and be a place of authority again, it needs to be led by a Speaker with authority, who speaks with authority, who conducts himself with authority and who dresses with authority. I am sure that I am not the only one feeling a sense of sorrow that the Speaker chose the majestic State Opening of Parliament, where everyone symbolically represents the office of which he is the temporary holder and not himself, to fall out of line and not wear ceremonial dress to represent the full panoply of one of the highest offices in the land. Perhaps I may put it thus, I hope not offensively: Mr Speaker means everything; Mr Bercow means nothing.

Parliament has not been assailed by such distrust and by such a demise of power over the Executive for 300 years. My fear is that the anticipated cure for it all is going in the wrong direction. It is giving less power and less independence to Members of Parliament when what is wanted is more power and more independence for them and more trust.