Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:54 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 1:54 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I wish to address constitutional issues. For reasons of time, I will reserve my detailed comments on specific measures for when they are introduced. Given that this is the debate on the Address at the start of a new Parliament, I thought I would focus on three overarching points that should inform the Government in how they proceed in dealing with constitutional affairs.

First, do not expect too much. There is the danger of offering constitutional change as a simple solution to complex issues. I fear our economic and social problems are not going to be alleviated by changes to our political structures. Indeed, our political problems are not necessarily going to be solved by changes to our political institutions. We face a crisis of confidence, but it is not a crisis of confidence in our established institutions, but rather a crisis of confidence in our political class. If people do not trust politicians, changing our electoral system is not going to solve the problem if it simply results in the same people being elected. There is the danger of constitutional change being used as a way of politicians absolving responsibility-of not accepting that the problem is the way they behave, rather than the institutional framework in which they operate. What is crucial is behaviour rather than structures. What we need primarily is leadership-politicians being seen to act in the public interest-and not necessarily institutional change.

Secondly, if we are to have change to our constitutional arrangements, it is essential that that change derives from a clear conceptual framework-a clear understanding of what type of constitution is appropriate for the United Kingdom. The previous Government introduced a number of major constitutional changes. They affected fundamentally our constitutional arrangements. The problem was that they constituted essentially disparate and discrete measures. They were never couched in any intellectually coherent approach to constitutional change.

When addressing constitutional change, we need to start from a clear understanding of the type of constitution we consider appropriate for the United Kingdom. We must be clear as to the principles that determine structure and composition. Take reform of your Lordships' House. The Times has been carrying letters from people who advance their pet schemes for reform, indicating what proportion should be elected and which Members should be selected by this or that body. Anybody can come up with a scheme to change the composition of the House; what is crucial is to start from first principles. That is, to determine what we expect of Parliament in our political system and, therefore, the role and relationship of the two Houses and their relationship to the other elements of our political system. Once we know what we expect of the second Chamber as an integral part of our constitutional arrangements, then and only then can we start to determine the composition best suited to the fulfilment of that role.

Thirdly, measures of constitutional change need not only to be grounded in an intellectually coherent approach to the constitution, but to be evidence-based It is not sufficient for a Minister to have a bright idea and then for that to be embodied in a Bill and rushed through on the basis of some supposedly self-evident principle. I have previously made the point that public policy should be evidence-based. Bills that seek to change our basic constitutional arrangements need to be based on sound evidence and subject to sustained parliamentary scrutiny to ensure that they are. That requires, wherever possible, pre-legislative scrutiny as well as sustained examination once a Bill is introduced.

Take, for example, something already referred to: the proposal for a super-majority of 55 per cent in the other place for a premature dissolution of Parliament. That needs to be thoroughly tested. Why a super-majority? Why 55 per cent? When the question has been put, the response has generally made reference to the position in the Scottish Parliament, where a two-thirds majority is required. This troubles me as it suggests a lack of knowledge of what happens elsewhere, other than in Scotland. The Scottish situation is not exceptional. A number of countries employ the two-thirds requirement. None, though, requires a 55 per cent majority. Perhaps my noble friend, in replying to the debate, could tell us the genesis of the 55 per cent requirement. That will be a useful starting point. We need to ensure that this is a thoroughly well grounded proposal and not some back-of-the-envelope approach of the sort that we have seen in the past.

I am not arguing against the proposal, but making the point that it must be thoroughly tested. Changes to how we are governed must be based on compelling evidence and located within a clear conceptual framework. That, I think, is the fundamental message I wish to convey. Ensuring this requires a rigorous process of scrutiny not only within Parliament but within Government itself. Ministers may wish to take a leaf out of the book of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg. When he appeared before the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House in 2001, as part of its inquiry into the process of constitutional change, he produced a flow-chart identifying the stages a measure had to go through before it was introduced to Parliament. I do not think that it outlived the tenure of the noble and learned Lord, but it is something well worth considering by the new Administration. Indeed, it will be very useful to know from my noble friend what particular processes have been established for determining the strength of proposed constitutional changes prior to their introduction to Parliament.

Ensuring that Bills have been thoroughly tested, both in terms of rationale and empirical support, is likely to mean that they are not rushed. It is important that Parliament is not front-loaded with such Bills. There is no need to rush; indeed, there is every reason not to rush. We can fruitfully utilise some of the time of the new Session to ensure that we do have enhanced processes of scrutiny in place. At the end of the previous Parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, reported, a number of informal working groups of your Lordships' House came up with proposals for strengthening the House in its conduct of business. Let us focus on those proposals and make sure that we have in place the most effective processes for examining changes to our constitution. I hope that the Government will do likewise. It is better to be right than to be rushed. Our constitution is not the plaything of any government. We need to ensure that change is justified both in principle and practice. It is essential that we have in place the mechanisms to do justice to whatever the Government bring forward.