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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:21 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 1:21 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, on his maiden speech. I was a Minister in the Department for Education and Employment when he was permanent secretary. I know his wisdom and passionate commitment to the public services. Your Lordships' House will value his contributions very much indeed. It is also a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, himself a highly effective parliamentary reformer. We should heed his wise caution as Bagehot's alter ego.

The British constitution is not a trophy to be grabbed by any Government, let alone a plaything to be handed to the junior party in a coalition-a party that won 23 per cent of the vote. It is a trust to be held with care and respect by those who for the time being serve in government. Most people would have preferred less triumphalism and more humility from the coalition as it addresses its responsibilities in relation to the constitution.

Constitutional change is continuous in our country. One of the virtues of our unwritten constitution is that it enables an appropriate adaptation to happen. The Conservative Party at least, if it remains heir to the thinking of Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, will understand that constitutional change should be approached with caution and tact, empirically and incrementally. Every proposition for constitutional reform needs to be examined thoroughly, open-mindedly and without partisanship. It is perfectly appropriate to examine topics such as the number of MPs, the voting system, lobbying, the Second Chamber and the devolution of power. Fixed-term parliaments and the recall of MPs might more wisely have been left alone-but we could add to the list the issues for our country arising from Germany's determination to rewrite the Treaty of Lisbon to enable Europe to integrate national budgetary and fiscal policies-that will be an interesting test for the coalition. The Prime Minister's crude threat to use the veto was perhaps not the best opening gambit.

It is a good idea to set up commissions on such issues, but it is not a good idea to prejudge them or to take them in a rush. One should allow the commissions, rather, to educate the nation on these important matters one by one. "Wholesale, big-bang" legislation, and "our very own Great Reform Act", to quote the Deputy Prime Minister's somewhat bombastic language, would be both imprudent and improper. Liberal Democrats and Conservatives rightly complained about wholesale legislation in the previous Parliament, with the Coroners and Justice Bill, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, which the House of Commons hardly pretended to scrutinise and the House of Lords had enormous difficulty in considering adequately.

The time may indeed have come to examine options for changing the electoral system. Turnout at elections has fallen over decades, with only a disappointingly small upturn at this last closely contested general election. In 1951, only 3 per cent of votes were cast for parties other than the two main parties; in 2010 it was 35 per cent. In first-past-the-post elections, a tiny minority of voters in marginal seats determine the electoral outcome for the UK, and large numbers of people now feel that their votes are of no account. But the Labour Party and the Conservative Party have been wrong to rush to conclusions and wrong to horse-trade electoral options. It is doubtful whether the alternative vote would be the right remedy, liable as it is to result in the election of candidates that no one really wanted. Let us have a thorough review of the arguments for and against a range of possible reforms, including proportional representation through the single transferable vote.

No doubt, the proponents of an elected Second Chamber will reflect on whether a Second Chamber elected by PR might not claim more legitimacy than a House of Commons elected on AV or FPTP. For my part, I want the primacy of the House of Commons to be preserved. Let us look and see whether the democratic credentials and capacity of the House of Commons can sensibly be enhanced by electoral reform and procedural reform. The question then will be whether what is needed is yet more elected politicians in the Second Chamber or to maintain and improve the Second Chamber's capacity for searching and expert scrutiny. It is not anti-democratic to note that the British constitution has been admired historically for its checks and balances, but that under the modern party system the House of Commons has become ineffective as a check on executive wilfulness. I favour reform of the House of Lords, but so as to improve its legitimacy and effectiveness as an appointed House. A House of Lords, appointed through the good offices of a statutory appointments commission, containing a wealth of experience and expertise systematically recruited from across the national life, relatively independent of party and media pressure, deferring ultimately to the authority of the elected House of Commons, will be able to do a better job than a second elected House in advising how to get legislation right and from time to time challenging elective dictatorship. The question that the enthusiasts for an elected Second Chamber ought to answer is how the change they favour would improve the performance of Parliament.

I would welcome the coalition's new localism if it meant the renewal of elective local self-government-if it meant, in fact, the rediscovery of old localism. I cannot welcome it if the new localism and the big society are to mean a further marginalisation of elective local government through the encouragement and funding of unaccountable populist groups-the incubation of a British Poujadism or Tea Party-pursuing idiosyncratic and self-interested projects through local referendums, vetoes, rights to take over services and self-granted planning permissions. It is right to diminish central and local bureaucratic interference in schools and strengthen partnerships with the private sector. It is wrong that the Government should strip local education authorities, whose role is to provide good education for all the children in their communities now and for the future, of their best performing schools and divert taxpayers' money to new so-called free schools in state-subsidised social division. Nor should policing be made vulnerable to individuals and political groups with aggressive agendas of their own.

Unfortunately, the new localism has fallen at the first fence with the coalition's lamentable commitment to abort the restoration of unitary local government to Norwich, the city in which I live, and Exeter. This is a significant symbolic issue as well as a very important practical one for the people of the cities whose lives will be affected. It is a petty and mean-spirited denial of the opportunity for two proud and historic cities to resume the municipal self-government which they enjoyed for centuries. It was taken away from them in 1974 by a Conservative Government who believed that big was beautiful in government. The coalition's proposal is an affront to Parliament, which earlier this year debated the issue thoroughly in both Houses before voting to approve unitary status for the two cities. In demonstrates contempt for the judiciary, since the Government have refused to await the outcome of the judicial review proceedings. It demonstrates contempt by Liberal Democrat Ministers for Liberal Democrats in Norwich and Exeter who might have hoped they could take their party leader at his word, when he said in his great speech on 19 May:

"I'm a liberal ... you know better than I do about how to run your life, your community, the services you use".

On the part of the Conservatives, it is the old bullying politics at its worst-winner takes all-exploiting a parliamentary majority for no other reason than to serve a party interest. Their assertion that this will save money is bogus. They cannot claim their manifesto commitment as justification since the people did not endorse their manifesto. The Select Committee on the Constitution of your Lordships' House may wish to consider the constitutional impropriety of this legislation, plainly devised to impact on two particular communities rather than to be of general application.

In any case, there is far too much in this Queen's Speech. In this time of severe national difficulty, the Government would do better to set aside self-indulgence and ideology and seek to unite the country in addressing-and addressing well-a limited number of issues that we can all agree should be the national priorities.