Second Reading

Part of Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:14 pm on 24th March 2010.

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Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative 7:14 pm, 24th March 2010

My Lords, I must congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Graham, on making a speech on a subject that is not in any way in the Bill.

I was extremely moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. Possibly this is because I feel sometimes that I have a kinship with Speakers since, at the bottom of the Speaker's stairs, there is my coat of arms because of the Onslow Speaker, and there was an even greater Onslow Speaker. When I see someone such as the noble Baroness, who filled that post with such distinction, I feel an almost-if she will forgive me-proprietorial pride in her achievement. When I heard what she had to say today, I could feel all the Onslow Speakers, of which there are three, rising up and clapping her, even though that is probably not in parliamentary order.

I am not going to say much, but I shall say again and again what has already been said about the disgracefulness of the way in which the Bill has been brought before your Lordships' House. Constitutions are serious things. Some of them are quite small; the American constitution, including all its amendments, is about 45 or 50 clauses. The Bill, however, has 95, which simply tidy up and tinker at the edges-and still they have not been properly debated.

The Bill was given a Second Reading in another place in July 2009 and comes here today. It went through the other place in a way in which, two Parliaments ago, it would not have been allowed to: on carryover. Constitutional Bills should not be carried over. It went through on a timetable. Constitutional Bills should not be on a timetable. If the Liberal Government could get the Parliament Act 1911 through without a timetable, I am sure that this Government, had they thought their way through properly-and, as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, said, had they produced Bills that were on one subject only, not on practically a whole Encyclopaedia Britannica's worth of subjects that are poured into people's ears in indigestible form-could have done the same. I had reason the other day to read one of Peel's police Acts; it was so understandable that it read like a Mills & Boon novel. British Bills now are practically all indigestible. They are too long and suffer from long titles of Macauleyesque length.

I cannot emphasise enough the total impropriety of people from both Front Benches-the Liberals will happily join in, obviously-going behind closed doors and agreeing which bits of a constitutional Bill should go through or not. I say to my own Front Bench, "Will you please tell us what you will allow through and what you will not?". I sincerely hope that the only part that it allows through is the one regarding IPSA, because it would be wrong for us not to; here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. All the others can wait. None of them is that urgent-after all, the Liberals promised to make this House more democratic in 1911 and they have not got much further.

Interestingly enough, one of the defences of the pre-1911 House of Lords was a quote from Cromwell, who said that if the House of Commons had total supremacy it would abuse it. What has happened? The House of Commons has total supremacy, more or less-although of course I am not advocating the repeal of the 1911 Act; that would be dotty even beyond my powers of imagination-and it is too dictatorial. What makes it worse is that, because of things such as timetabling, carryover and the party Whip system, the Executive have too much power. Our job in Parliament, in both Houses-the Commons has to sustain and provide money for the Government to go on-is to make life difficult for the Government. We should make them answer questions; we should make them come up with the right answer. Unless we do that, we are not doing our job properly. This is a perfect time for us to say, "No, we will not do anything; we will not allow it through".

It would have been much more honest not to have given the Bill its Second Reading. I understand about IPSA and about non-doms, but there is a great unfairness. This is only rumour, but it is right to raise it. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, will be rather unfairly treated by that provision. That, again, is a reason why things should be properly looked at and gone through word by word, not just agreed in smoke-filled rooms at the end of a Session. It is a disgraceful way to run a constitution. Lawyers such as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and Mr Straw ought to know better. After all, they have studied the law, they know what the law is about and they should understand the spirit of the law. I am afraid to say that their behaviour, in both cases, has shown that they do not. They have treated the constitution and Parliament with contempt in producing this Bill in this state. I am sorry if I am getting worked up, because I feel so strongly about Parliament and about Parliament serving people. It should not be just frittered away through the Bill in this dreadful way.