Second Reading

Part of Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 24th March 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Boothroyd Baroness Boothroyd Crossbench 7:00 pm, 24th March 2010

My Lords, we have been in debate on this issue for some hours and it would be very nice if I could give the very popular Minister a little light relief, but I am afraid that I cannot manage it. I have to tell him, and it is with regret, that I cannot remember a more flagrant example of the mismanagement of an important constitutional Bill during my time in public life. The Government's decision to delay the Bill's arrival in this House until the eve of a general election is worse than a mishap. To me, it simply illustrates the Government's underlying contempt for this House, by not allowing us detailed scrutiny, and its disregard therefore of our duty to the nation.

It has been well minuted that after a series of Green and White Papers, the Bill was published as long ago as July of last year. If the Government had put their mind to it, it could have been on the statute book later that year, and in better shape than it is now. Instead I am afraid they dithered and, whatever Motion is on the Order Paper today, we all know-let us be honest about it-that we were given little time, if any time at all, to examine the 95 clauses and 15 schedules with the thoroughness essential for the proper scrutiny of legislation. Of course, I speak only for myself when I say that I think it is a scandalous way of dealing with this matter. I believe that the Government should think again.

We were promised a shiny new vehicle of reform. Instead, we are handed an overladen charabanc of changes that we are asked to approve without first being allowed even to look under the bonnet. The Government's negligence reminds me of a bus service that keeps its customers waiting for ages. When the bus finally arrives, it is already full up and there is no time to stop. We call out to the driver, "Hey there!", but he passes us by, just as the Government intend to do with this Bill. Ministers-even very popular Ministers-can hardly plead circumstances beyond their control, because the coming election has been on everybody's minds since Mr Brown became Prime Minister. Nor is this a minor measure, worthy only of a fag-end Parliament. Since taking its first steps a long time ago, it has grown like Topsy, as we have heard, with 39 more clauses and six more schedules.

The Justice Secretary described the Bill in a curious way at Second Reading last year. He said that its proposals,

"could be dismissed as prosaic", and that each step in the Government's programme of constitutional reform "appeared rather prosaic". I went to my dictionary-I thought that there might be a hidden, lawyer's meaning of "prosaic", but of course there was none. It means what we all know: dull, commonplace, unimaginative-hardly a recommendation and not a word I would use about changes to the legal status of the Civil Service, the ratification of treaties, the rights of the Royal Family and the composition of this House. I have been called many things in life but, thank goodness, never prosaic.

In his next breath, of course, the Justice Secretary changed his tune a bit and said that the Bill was part of,

"a major shift in power away from Whitehall to Parliament and the British people".-[Hansard, 20/10/09; col. 799.]

That is undoubtedly true for the Assemblies of the devolved regions, but not for the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Too much legislation is still ill considered; it is rushed and flawed, as the devastating report on the Bill from the Lords Select Committee on the Constitution makes clear.

Mr Straw speaks frequently about the need to make this House more legitimate, as if we were neither one thing nor the other. He really should reflect on his comments. We are here because the constitution of this country puts us here. Constitutional legitimacy is the lifeblood of this nation and I resent it being quibbled about by Mr Straw.

I do not object to the phasing out of the remaining hereditary Peers and I welcome our right to expel or suspend Peers whose conduct warrants it, but Mr Straw baulked at the need to entrench the powers of a statutory Appointments Commission to vet new life peerages, so there is no shift here in the Government's determination to hold on to power. Nor, I fear, will there be if we are replaced by a Chamber that lacks our independence. I understand that Mr Straw looks forward to finishing us off early after the election. If he gets the chance, he will have to manage the timetable better than he has managed the Bill.

Convention requires us to give this proposed legislation an unopposed Second Reading and so we shall. However, I urge the party leaderships and those who deal with the wash-up to take our reservations fully into account when they meet in the smokeless rooms for the wash-up session. The Bill has many good things in it, which I approve of, but it would be better still if much of it could be properly examined, in detail and in a new Parliament.