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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:20 am on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 11:20 am, 27th May 2010

My Lords, if there is a look of surprise around the Chamber at seeing me standing here today, I can say at once that it is a feeling I entirely share.

Let me get one piece of protocol out of the way straight away. I intend to address members of both coalition parties as my noble friends. I have not checked how Viscount Samuel handled the matter in 1945 or the Marquis of Crewe in 1922, my most recent predecessors, but that is how I intend to do it. Of course, I am conscious of the advice that the new Member of the House of Commons received when he said what a pleasure it was to look across the Chamber and look into the eyes of his enemies. The old sweat next to him said, "No laddie, they are your opponents; your enemies are behind you".

Whatever the truth behind that advice, we are all coming to terms with the new politics-some of us faster than others. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and others in the Opposition made some observations about the role of the Liberal Democrats now that we are in government and in coalition. I remind noble Lords and Ladies on the Labour Benches that I have a very good example of how to behave in coalition. My personal political hero, Clement Attlee, and his colleagues served in a coalition for five years without losing their identity as individuals or as a party. The Labour Back Benchers retained their identity-so much so that Winston Churchill called Aneurin Bevan a squalid nuisance. So good were they at coalition that after five years the country rewarded them with a landslide victory in the 1945 election.

On another matter, I have searched the Ministry of Justice high and low to see whether the former Ministers in the department, the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Bach, left me a helpful note. I have searched in vain. I felt that it might just have said: "Sorry, old cock, all the prisons are full". What I have received from both, with characteristic generosity, is their personal good wishes, along with a rather chilling warning that they intend to keep a close eye on my stewardship. I pay tribute to them and to the noble Lord, Lord West. I will not pay tribute to former Lord Chancellors-that is above my pay grade-but I pay tribute to the Ministers who have served in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. Perhaps this is the moment for me to say how much I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, a distinguished public servant in a number of fields, not least in the Ministry of Justice.

All Ministers and civil servants grapple with getting the balance right between the role of the state in ensuring the safety of its citizens and protecting those civil liberties and human rights which make us a liberal democracy. There is a difference in outlook and approach, which was best encapsulated in an article I read some months ago in the Guardian, writing about the role of this House. It read:

"It is one of the paradoxes of our age that whereas in the 20th century the great reforming governments-Liberal in 1906, Labour in 1945-faced a recalcitrant House of Lords, in these early years of the 21st century it has been the House of Lords that has been the bulwark of civil liberties against an increasingly authoritarian government".

The concern about encroaching state power and the willingness to respond to every problem with a new law and a new offence was a criticism of the previous Government made not only by Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, but in this House from the Cross Benches and the Labour Benches as well. In carrying out our new responsibilities, I and other Ministers will continue to rely heavily on the collective wisdom of this House as we seek to balance the responsibility of the Government for the defence of the realm and the need to promote civil liberties in a free society.

The coalition agreement is clear on this issue. We will be strong in the defence of freedom. The British state has become too authoritarian, and over the past decade it has abused and eroded fundamental human freedoms and historic civil liberties. It is the Government's contention that the state has intruded too far. We will therefore bring forward proposals to make sure that we strike the right balance. For this reason, the gracious Speech brings forward proposals to scrap the ID cards scheme. Moreover, it is clear that our constitution, the way in which government makes decisions on behalf of the people whom it serves, the relationship between it and Parliament and the public, and how it is held to account are in need of some fairly radical surgery.

My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister set out our challenge in his recent speech. He said that we must transform politics so that the state has less control over the citizen but the citizen has far more control over the state. We must break up concentrations of power and make sure that power resides with the people, and we must persuade the public to have faith in politics and politicians.

Noble Lords may feel that they have heard such high-minded aspirations before and have seen them flounder on the rocks of parliamentary time or the sheer difficulty of achieving agreement. I suggest that there is a fundamental difference this time around. The strength of the government coalition is that there is a critical mass outside Parliament in support of our proposals for fair votes, parliamentary reform and greater local decision-making. In the gracious Speech, we show how we intend to capture this public mood.

I have already spoken of the delicate balance that we need to strike between the state and the individual. That is why the Government will establish a commission to investigate the case for the creation of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. In doing so, the commission will consider the proper balance that must be struck between the rights of the individual and the wider interests of the community, so that the liberties that we enjoy and the obligations that we owe are better understood. For the doubters, let me repeat the key words of what I have just said: a Bill that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Next, we will bring forward legislation to roll back the state, thereby reducing the weight of its involvement in people's lives. Your Lordships have spent a good deal of energy over the past few years pointing out the volume of criminal offences in government Bills, so I am confident that the Bill will be welcomed in this House. We will also bring forward legislation on parliamentary reform, providing for a referendum on a fairer voting system and for fewer and more equal constituency sizes, and legislation to enable constituents to petition for the recall of an MP who has engaged in serious wrongdoing. We will legislate for a five-year, fixed-term Parliament, and in advance of that the Government will table a Motion before the other place stating that the next election will be held on the first Thursday in May 2015. Noble Lords may want to put that in their diaries along with the recess dates.