Second Reading

Part of Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:13 pm on 24th March 2010.

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Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Constitutional Affairs 9:13 pm, 24th March 2010

My Lords, as usual, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I think that he has made it possible for my speech to be slightly shorter, because he said some of the things that I might well have said. However, I would have found it difficult to do so with such vehemence, because he speaks not only as a member of the Labour Party but also as a former Minister.

This has been a fascinating and very wide-ranging debate, as we have had a good look for the first time at an extremely long-awaited Bill. The Prime Minister, as noble Lords will recall, took Parliament and the public on a roller-coaster of expectations from the moment when he entered Number 10. First he promised a substantial and steady diet of reforms, ranging from limiting the prerogative powers right through to changing the invidious double role of the Attorney-General, in 2007. Then we got a draft Bill that diluted many of those objectives, building in acres of ministerial wriggle room. Treaties were to be ratified by Parliament, except when they were not; war would be authorised by Parliament, except when it was not. The role of the Attorney-General would change, but not very much.

Along with several other speakers, I sat on the Joint Committee which considered that draft Bill and we found it pretty disappointing. I agreed very much with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, who called it the constitutional retreat Bill. Taking up that title, I was delighted to see-because I participated in the exercise-the work done by Democratic Audit, which I recommend to Members of your Lordships' House, because there in an annexe is a complete analysis of all the promises at various stages from the Prime Minister and other Ministers, and what has actually happened in terms of delivery from the moment those proposals were made.

Now we have this Bill, the CRAG Bill. It is on the edge of the election precipice, weaker in many places, more radical in a few others, but in all respects-as has been reflected so often today-very, very late. The Government have spent so long fiddling over the timetable-commissioning reports and committees-that they have missed the train. Worse, they have consolidated public disillusion with Parliament, rather than responding to the crisis of confidence that has been referred to so often today-by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, in particular, but also by my noble friend Lord McNally and the noble Lord, Lord Graham. There is a crisis of confidence in this House as well as in the other place and, sadly, the golden opportunity to change our politics is disappearing into the distance rather than coming any closer.

There have been references to the Bill being a Christmas tree and to the baubles that have been added to it. There have also been some boughs cut off, notably, of course, the role of the Attorney-General, referred to by other noble Lords. Another one is war powers: what should Parliament's role be when the country is on the brink of war? Reform of party funding has been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull. This is extremely important if we are to get back confidence in the way in which our politics are run. Then there are fixed-term Parliaments: suddenly, out of the blue, the Prime Minister is apparently prepared to give up his opportunity to play party games with the timing of general elections.

I have listened to 38 contributions today and I cannot possibly deal with them all, but I shall make brief reference to my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury, who we are delighted to see back here. We have missed him, because it is so evident from his contribution that he would have made a major contribution this evening to the interminable discussions we have had on some of these issues. For example, he was always a great protagonist for pre-legislative scrutiny. As has been referred to by many Members of your Lordships' House, we did give pre-legislative scrutiny-albeit, as has been accepted by the noble Lord, Lord Hart, it was inadequate for the timescale. We took evidence on, for example, the extremely important sections about the statutory role of the Civil Service.

The other theme which has been very strong today is the very detailed discussions that we have had on my noble friend Lord Steel's Bill at various stages. We went into great detail on that-I participated myself-so to suddenly pretend that it has appeared on the agenda this afternoon is naive in the extreme. We have had interminable discussions about taking a first step towards more comprehensive reform of your Lordships' House. It would be absurd to pretend that those sections of the Bill that pick up my noble friend's Bill have not had proper scrutiny.

Time and again, the dilemma that has come through our discussions today is that Members of your Lordships' House have said how outrageous it is that we suddenly have this Bill at this stage, there is not proper time to consider it and we doubt that there will be time to consider it in future-but, of course, there is one section of the Bill that they themselves think is absolutely vital to get on to the statute book in the next few days. The only problem is that it does not always seem to be the same section. That is the dilemma that the Government have thrown at us and it is their fault.

I was struck by the fact, for example, that the Constitution Select Committee conclusion-we have all paid tribute to the very good work that that committee does on our behalf, and the current report is part of that-says,

"we consider it to be extraordinary that it could be contemplated that matters of such fundamental constitutional importance as, for example, placing the civil service on a statutory footing should be agreed in the "wash-up"".

We have been at it for 150 years; we are not suddenly coming to this today. It was interesting that the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, followed by the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, and then the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, have all pleaded with us to get on with that job. I find it extraordinary that the Constitution Select Committee should have picked up that particular part of the Bill as needing more scrutiny. We gave it a great deal of scrutiny in the Joint Committee on the draft Bill and, as has been so apparent in the important contributions from the distinguished selection of your Lordships' House on the Cross Benches, there are strong reasons for taking that part of the Bill forward to the statute book.

Fourteen years ago, the then leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair, promised,

"a proper, directly elected second Chamber", yet we are still worrying about whether this appointed Chamber should have a statutory commission. Ninety weeks after Gordon Brown promised to reinvigorate our democracy, we are now facing the prospect of reactionary Tories fighting in the last ditch to preserve the hereditary principle in this House. They want to stop the public from having a say about the way in which they-not we in this House, but the public outside-elect Members of the other place. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, gave us a serious warning: it would look very odd if this unelected House started to put major obstacles in the way of how the public have a say in this matter.

The Government seem to have set a dinosaur trap, hoping that Tory Peers will seek to delay and destroy these reforms. They have deliberately left it to the fag-end of this Parliament to introduce the Bill so that they can go to the electorate in the coming weeks and say, "Look at what those unelected relics in the House of Lords have been doing, stopping us getting through sensible and popular changes".