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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:20 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of The Bishop of Leicester The Bishop of Leicester Convenor of the Lords Spiritual 12:20 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, as has already been observed, much has changed since we last debated the gracious Speech in this House, and not least the elbow room on these Benches from time to time.

In the midst of the economic, security and social challenges, which properly frame all that is in the gracious Speech, the Government have emphasised reform of our constitution and particularly of the functioning of our Parliament and democracy. On these Benches, we have good reason to believe that we are in touch with significant public opinion in relation to these proposals. In my diocese during the election, more than 20 public hustings were held in churches in Leicester and Leicestershire, and the pattern was repeated across the country. Parliamentary candidates commented that their primary engagement with significant live audiences of non-aligned citizens took place in the churches of England.

The evidence is that the public want a measure of parliamentary reform. This may include support for the provision of a referendum on the electoral system, reform of the number and size of constituencies, and power of recall for any Member engaged in serious wrongdoing. A strong, elected lower House, accountable to the public and transparent in its operation, is welcomed and supported on these Benches. However, as has already been mentioned, the proposal to increase the numbers in this House to reflect the proportion of the vote gained on 6 May is surely profoundly questionable. Does this not seem like creating a large number of new Peers with the sole object of voting themselves out of existence? That is surely strange for a coalition Government who are determined to reduce the scale and cost of government in general.

However, the Deputy Prime Minister has spoken of a "wholesale, big-bang approach" to political reform. That suggests something with destructive, sudden and irreversible consequences, having little regard to what has gone before and taking less account of unintended consequences for the future. This surely raises serious questions about how our constitution is to be changed and about whether it is the property of the Government of the day or of the nation as a whole.

Further, the Deputy Prime Minister referred to a committee-mentioned earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt-which he described as not yet another government talking shop but,

"a dedicated group devoted to kick-starting real reform".

Can the Minister tell us how such a committee will be composed, whether it will have any commitment to achieving consensus, and whether the Government would welcome the contribution of these Benches in formulating their proposals for change?

The former Bishop of Chelmsford gave much of his time with others to conversations leading to the 2008 White Paper-conversations certainly not regarded at the time as simply a talking shop. In his response to the White Paper, he set out the Church of England's position, which remains broadly the same today:

"The Church of England does not find the argument for a wholly elected 2nd Chamber convincing and supports the proposal for a fixed appointed element. This would help ensure the continuation of a breadth and diversity of talent amongst the membership, more often than not, currently evidenced within the members of the Cross Bench peers. It would ensure that all those with undoubted expertise, but who would not naturally submit themselves for election, would continue to have a role in parliamentary scrutiny and debate: a quality of the current House of Lords that has been invaluable, particularly when matters of great ethical importance are before it".

A similar point was made in a recent address by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham when he said:

"We have some excellent Members of Parliament but many observers think that to fill another Chamber with more of the same, whipped to the will of government, would be worse than pointless. I am, in other words, much more concerned with the ability of the Lords to scrutinise legislation than I am with the official place of Bishops in that House. But that is not the point. The point is that our fine-tuned constitution, like a complex ecosystem, cannot simply be tampered with and played about with without considerable risk".

That broadly represents our position, and especially now when two further considerations come to the forefront of the nation's concerns. First, there is now a major priority facing Parliament and the country, as the gracious Speech and the coalition agreement make absolutely clear. The people will not forgive Parliament if it gets caught up in self-regarding questions of its own organisation, at the expense of giving clear and focused attention to the consequences of dramatic fiscal cuts on the wider population. Secondly, the people clearly do not want the public discourse about reform to be conducted in polarising and unproductive language about privilege and entitlement. I am sure that most if not all Members of this House would hold the ideal of service above privilege, and that is certainly what will animate the contribution of these Benches to the debate, since we see our service to this House as an intrinsic element of the Church of England's broader service to the nation. It is on the basis of service and not privilege, and on that basis above all, that we shall judge the merits of the reform proposals that are brought before your Lordships' House in due course.