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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:35 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 12:35 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I shall use my time to talk about matters relating to constitutional change. I must begin by acknowledging a different experience from that of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who talked about clear public support for constitutional change. I spent four weeks knocking on doors in Telford during the general election period and must have had a different experience to the noble Lord knocking on doors in Blackpool, or wherever it was, because I did not find the slightest public interest in any aspect of constitutional change, whether Lords reform, fixed-term Parliaments, the alternative vote or any other of the often academic discussions that we have. Neither, I might say, did I notice anyone saying that what they were really looking forward to after the general election was a Lib Dem-Conservative Government. The people of Telford are pretty shrewd on these matters-as they were, I might say, in again returning a Labour MP.

I shall concentrate my arguments on three points but, as a brief preamble, I should say that I have been in politics a long time, and I understand that when two parties try to form an agreement, there will be all sorts of concessions and compromises. That is inevitable, but when the concessions, compromises-or, if you want to be more robust about it, horse-trading-take place in respect of constitutional change, that is far more serious. One party is saying to the other, "I absolutely hate that constitutional change you are proposing but I will go along with it as long as you support the constitutional change that I propose, which I know that you hate". That may be a way to try to fix short-term policies, but it is not a way to rewrite fundamental parts of the constitution of our country. The constitutional changes proposed in the coalition agreement between the two parties have been described already by the leader of the Liberals as the greatest reform Bill since 1832-so no pressure there then. I would have thought that that is quite a high hurdle to leap over, even for someone more popular than Winston Churchill.

These constitutional changes, should they be carried out, mean a significant weakening of Parliament. That is how I would describe them, not least because for the past 13 years I have heard nothing other than, "Governments are too strong and Parliaments are too weak". That was the received wisdom. Overnight on 6 May, the received wisdom became, "Parliaments are too strong and Governments are too weak, and we are going to have a strong Government". That underpins a lot of these constitutional proposals. In particular, I shall mention three. One is the fixed term, which is supposed greatly to strengthen Parliament. Clearly, it does not. I could not have imagined a situation in which a Prime Minister-a Prime Minister who, I might say, had fewer MPs than any Prime Minister since the war, if my maths is correct-was able in effect to announce, the day after the general election, "I am going to be your Prime Minister for the next five years, almost irrespective of what happens in Parliament". That does not strike me as strengthening Parliament; it makes Parliament less important and its votes of less significance.

I will not go in detail into the 55 per cent rule, which will surely have to be dropped. I was present, as were a number of other people here, when the Labour Government were quite properly voted down on a Motion of no confidence and quite properly immediately and without any fancy laws to refer to went to the country. From a purely personal point of view I wish they had not because I lost my seat. It would have been quite nice to say, "Oh, it doesn't matter. There are a few more months yet before the five years are up". I would have been amused to see my friend-I call him my friend-the noble Lord, Lord NcNally, a far more important man than the rest of us, going to see Jim Callaghan and saying, "We just lost a vote of no confidence, Jim, but don't worry, it doesn't really matter. Votes come and go, and we'll stick around for a bit longer". That is just silly. You can have all sorts of arguments about what is a good number, but 55 per cent is a silly proposal, so let us get rid of it.

I want to mention one other thing very briefly. If the proposal to increase the membership of the House of Lords in line with the number of votes in the last election is carried through, although I am not convinced that it will be, the fundamental convention that has operated certainly all the time I was the Chief Whip and throughout the time of my predecessors-that there is rough parity between the Government and the Opposition and that the Government must not be able to have a majority in the House of Lords-will be destroyed. It has been destroyed already, actually, because the Government have 250 seats and the Opposition have 210.

Please let us not confuse the argument by talking about the Bishops or the Cross-Benchers, who have never been included in any argument that I have heard or that has ever been advanced. The Government have a clear majority in the Lords, as they have a clear majority in the Commons. If that majority were enhanced even more, that would be quite outrageous. If I as Chief Whip had known that the Liberal Democrats would have voted with the Government on every single vote, I could not have justified a full-time job. I could have come in at midday and watched the cricket in the afternoon, and I would have loved it, because the Government would have known perfectly well that they would win every vote. Check the maths, check the history. This really cannot be allowed to sustain, and I hope that it will be addressed.

There is another way in which Parliament is being diminished by the constitutional changes. I do not call it reducing the number of MPs; I call it increasing the size of constituencies. I have some expertise in this in that I have represented two seats in Parliament, both of which were very large with 90,000 electors. Let me say that it is extraordinarily difficult to represent that number of people in anything like the way in which we have been accustomed to doing. I may upset some of my friends when I say that I do not object at all in principle to moving towards anything that makes constituencies of roughly equal size. That is not the problem; the problem is reducing the number of MPs. How on earth can that be described as making MPs more accountable? That really is torturing the language. MPs will be less accountable if the number of MPs is reduced.

In conclusion, I was particularly alarmed to see that the Government were proposing-I hope that this can be denied-that the whole process of drawing parliamentary constituencies is to be accelerated and local involvement in it diminished to get this through quickly. Let me remind the House that the previous redrawing of constituency boundaries in England has taken around six years, because local people have to be consulted and there have to be proper procedures for dealing with this. Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have in their manifestos the importance of local democracy, local control and local involvement. If they are going to run roughshod over the established procedures for redrawing parliamentary constituencies, that yet again diminishes Parliament.

In three crucial respects these constitutional changes diminish Parliament, rather than enhancing it; and, my word, we will not do our job here unless we scrutinise them very carefully indeed. I hope that some of them are thrown out.