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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:00 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Howe of Aberavon Lord Howe of Aberavon Conservative 12:00 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I am happy to say that I do not feel any embarrassment at speaking in support of the partnership which now exists to support this Government. I am also happy to say that not all that long ago, in 1945, when I was moving from school uniform to military uniform, I had the pleasure of canvassing vigorously for the general election of that year in the constituency of Exeter for a Liberal Party candidate. I cheered enthusiastically at the eve-of-poll meeting addressed by Sir Archibald Sinclair. Beyond that, to maintain respectability in my native Wales, I included in my memoirs a striking photograph taken, I think, in Biarritz, which establishes beyond doubt that Lloyd George knew my father, and even my mother. So I start with some contentment.

I can see that the way in which our two parties have come together may lead to some misunderstanding. Both parties fought on the simple premise that it was time for change. That is a phrase which has different meanings in different respects. My anxiety has been that both parties, including my own, may have misunderstood the kind of change for which the electorate were looking. I believe, as I have said frequently, that a mood has spread among the population which one detects if one goes into a school staff room, a hospital staff room or even a police canteen. If you ask that gathering, "What would you like me, as a politician, to do next?" you will always evoke the response, "For heaven's sake, leave us alone". Many people in this country are looking forward to a change from a period of intense, excessive and reckless activity to a more measured and considered one. I need some assurance in that respect as the weeks, months and years go by.

That is why I am glad to welcome some of the measures already foreshadowed by the Government, which undo some of the hasty measures carried through by the previous Government. I must regret, as I did so frequently, and as so many of us did, the impossibility of recreating the office of Lord Chancellor, so recklessly destroyed by the measures taken by the previous Government. I am glad, on a more modest scale, about the decisions to remove the imposition of identity cards and, not much less important, to secure the death of home information packs-the least popular innovation by the previous Government. To that I say: hip, hip, hurrah!

I listened with care to the speech made by my noble friend Lord McNally and welcomed the extent to which he set out the way that the Government intend to proceed with caution in respect of many matters. He purported to set out a similarly cautious approach to the future of your Lordships' House. I have to say, with regret, that that does not fit alongside the explicit commitment to a wholly or mainly elected Chamber and nothing short of that. I am mainly concerned about that in what I have to say to the House today. We all understand the enormous, distinguished, special value of this House as a legislative Chamber. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, clearly understands this and I pay tribute to him. All of us who have lived here have felt that very deeply. The effectiveness of that depends upon the essential difference between the two Chambers as they now exist.

As we know, this Chamber has a composition of diversity, independence and expertise and cannot, and never has been able to, oust the Government. The Government cannot dissolve the House of Lords. The House of Lords cannot dissolve the Government. The Commons-although the circumstances there are being changed as we wait-has a quite different quality and one that is above all dominated by party politics. We owe special gratitude to the leaders of all parties in this House for the way in which they have conducted the opening of the debate on the gracious Speech because they have all displayed the way in which we work together. That was the position in this House in the previous Parliament as well. Our leaders have been able to secure the smooth working of this House. They have also been able, in partnership with leaders in the other place, to secure the smooth handling of the much larger number of amendments being carried in this House for consideration by the other place. Therefore, we owe a great debt to the skill-in the previous Parliament and in this-of the leaders of our parties here.

The problem one now wants to consider is what is to happen from now on as a result of the commitment so fully pledged in advance to a wholly or mainly elected House. I refer noble Lords to some observations made by the Public Administration Committee of the other place under the chairmanship of Mr Tony Wright in a report that it produced-I think in 2002-on this House and its future. It said that,

"the principal cause of today's 'widespread public disillusionment with our political system' is the 'virtually untrammelled control ... by the Executive' of the elected House. Hence the Committee's two conclusions".

The first was:

"The need 'to ensure that the dominance of Parliament by the Executive, including the political Party machines, is reduced and not increased'".

That will not be the consequence of the kind of changes we have already had foreshadowed that the Executive have in mind for the structure and management of this House. The second conclusion of the committee under Mr Wright's chairmanship was as follows:

"The Second Chamber must be 'neither rival nor replica, but genuinely complementary to the Commons' and, therefore, 'as different as possible'".

That is a very shrewd judgment from the other place of what may lie ahead and needs to be taken very seriously; that is, to find both Houses being managed with a ruthlessness of which governments of any kind are sometimes capable. It is a shrewd judgment from the other place-a warning which I commend to this House and which deserves to be treated as fundamental, in both Houses, to securing the continued safety and effectiveness of a twin-House Parliament, with a distinct role for this House. In my judgment, this House ought not to be transformed so fundamentally, as it would be by the introduction of a large number-even a total number-of elected members. That would be to surrender our past, our capability for the present and would be the greatest mistake likely to be made in my lifetime.