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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:42 am on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour 11:42 am, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I am sure that the House will learn lessons from that experience. It all looks different from this side of the House. I can assure the noble Lord that we shall certainly scrutinise the legislation carefully.

I now turn to the alternative vote. Will the noble Baroness tell us in her winding-up speech when we can expect legislation on the proposed referendum and when the referendum is intended to be held? Will a threshold be set in terms of the turnout and the size of the majority that is required for a yes vote in the referendum to succeed? Fifty-five per cent, perhaps?

Why is the coalition bent on reducing the number of Members of Parliament? I have yet to see any persuasive arguments for that. Are 70,000 electors really too small a number for an MP to represent? The intention for more equal constituency sizes will create some unnatural constituencies, as the Electoral Commission pointed out in February. Constituencies will change more frequently, destabilising the link between MPs and constituents. Again, I suggest that the answer is bound up with a narrow, partisan interest and the proposed speeding up of individual voter registration.

We passed legislation to provide for a carefully staged transition from household registration to individual voter registration in a way that would reduce the risk of people falling off the electoral register, as happened in Northern Ireland. If that careful process is ripped up and the rollout made prematurely, millions of people could fall off the register. I remind the House that that is extremely important because constituency boundaries are drawn on the basis of registered electors. We know from the Electoral Commission that 3.5 million eligible voters are missing from the register today. They are predominantly missing in areas of poorer, younger, mobile populations. It would be wholly unacceptable for seats to be cut and boundaries redrawn on the basis of an electoral register from which millions of our fellow citizens are missing.

I am pleased that the Government are supporting the implementations of the Wright committee's proposals to make the House of Commons more effective, but what of your Lordships' House? I noted with interest the remarks made on Tuesday by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who said:

"I also believe that we should look afresh at our working practices. I do not think we should lose sight of the remarkable privileges that Peers already enjoy, such as the right, not given to Back-Bench Members in another place, to table amendments at three stages of a Bill, and to have each one heard and replied to. We should always keep our working practices up to date".-[Hansard, 25/5/10; col. 22.]

The noble Lord's rather late conversion to procedural reform is, on the face of it, most welcome, but I say to him that any attempt to restrict the right of Back-Benchers to scrutinise legislation will be firmly resisted. I am happy to discuss the report of the Labour Peers' working group, which was in the context of a wider debate about the conventions and the pressing against the boundaries of those conventions by the party opposite at the time.

Finally, I come to reform of your Lordships' House. The coalition parties have agreed to establish a committee. That is progress indeed. The noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Strathclyde, and I have already spent many happy hours in such a committee. I must put a question to the Minister, as I am not sure what the committee is going to be asked to do. It seems that the outcome of its work is already known. He has already said it today: a mainly or wholly elected upper Chamber under PR and a system of grandfathering for the current Peers. So what is left for the committee to do? What will the composition of the committee be? Will its outcome be a White Paper and will a draft Bill be published for pre-legislative scrutiny?

Grandfathering is not really about the transition; it is a term used in the regulation of professions and essentially it means that existing practitioners go forward into the new qualified regulated profession. It is clear that grandfathering means that existing Members become Members of a reformed House. I ask the noble Baroness to confirm my interpretation.

In the mean time, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, confirmed, we are faced with the apparent intention of the coalition to appoint dozens, if not hundreds, of new Peers. Why is this being done, given that the Government already heavily outnumber the Opposition, with 258 Members compared to our 211? There has long been an understanding that there should be rough parity between the Government and the main Opposition. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has eloquently put the case for a strong second Chamber. In his Politeia article, he argued:

"The executive may not want a second opinion, but every country needs a Parliamentary system that provides one. Part of that must lie in a strong, independent House of Lords".

Are those the words of a leading Member of a coalition that advocates swamping the Lords to give the Government an inbuilt and overwhelming majority?

Then there is the question of the conventions. I ask the noble Baroness to confirm that the committee will look at how the current conventions will be underpinned and the primacy of the Commons assured in an elected House. I remind her of the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, on the conventions, which made it clear that firm proposals for changing the composition of the House would require a re-examination of those conventions.

The coalition professes that it wants to strengthen Parliament to create a new politics. I would have thought that this should have been grounded in promises that the parties made to the public in the recent election. However, when we look at the proposals to be brought before us, how many do we see that were in the manifestos of the two parties? The Conservatives were certainly silent on a referendum on the alternative vote. They were also silent on fixed-term Parliaments. The Conservatives were silent on the intervals between elections to be fixed at five years, as were, incidentally, the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives were silent on the 55 per cent super-majority required for the Dissolution of Parliament, as were the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives were silent on their intention to give the Executive a massive majority in the Lords, as were the Liberal Democrats. We see proposals for major constitutional change that were not put to the British people at the recent election. They were cobbled together behind closed doors. They amount to a lack of trust between the two parties and they will do little-