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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:28 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Richard Lord Richard Labour 2:28 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, this is in many ways a special debate on a special day. Quite apart from the fact that it is the first time that Liberals have been in government for 70 years, it is certainly the first time that I have seen the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in such close proximity to the Conservative Party. Now he sits cosily there, next to the Leader of the House, as he was earlier on, as to the Front Bench born; but I have to say to him-I say it with, I hope, sincerity and respect-that it is deeply disappointing for many of us who have for years known him and those like him in the Liberal Democrat Party and their record of anti-establishment and anti-Tory campaigning. I dare say that he will get used to it. I dare say that we will have to get used to it too.

I wanted to say something significant to mark this unlikely coupling, so I turned, as I so often do in these times of serious stress, to the wisdom of Lewis Carroll. In the middle of the 18th century, the Reverend Isaac Watts, more known for hymn writing than anything else, wrote an improving text entitled "Against Idleness and Mischief". It starts:

"How doth the little busy BeeImprove each shining Hour".

In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll changed this. His version is perhaps apposite to the situation of the Liberal Democrats today. It runs:

"How doth the little crocodileImprove his shining tailAnd pour the waters of the NileOn every golden scale!How cheerfully he seems to grin,How neatly spreads his claws,And welcomes little fishes inWith gently smiling jaws!".

I hope that the Liberal Democrats note that.

I want to say a few words today on two subjects. The first is the absurd proposal to impose a 55 per cent qualifying limit before a dissolution can take place. As I had understood it until recently, the proposal set out in the coalition's programme was to legislate for five-year fixed-term Parliaments, and that that legislation would also provide for dissolution only if 55 per cent or more of the House voted in favour. The 55 per cent is expressed as 55 per cent of the House, not 55 per cent of the Members voting in the debate. However, from what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said today, this is still in doubt.

This is extraordinarily dangerous. At the moment, the Conservatives in the House of Commons have 306 seats. The combined Liberal Democrat and Labour total is 315. If, in order to force a dissolution, the Opposition must produce 55 per cent of the House, that puts the target at 357. Even if the Liberal Democrats, having come to their senses and left what I was about to call this gimcrack coalition but should perhaps call this recent coalition, had reverted to their more normal and sensible posture and decided to vote with us against the Government in the House of Commons; and even if one were then to add in all the 29 Members of the other parties-and we know five of them will not turn up because they are Irish nationalists-we reach a total of 344. In any event, it would be impossible in the House of Commons for the opposition parties to get up to 357. This cannot be right. If the Parliament is to last for five years, that gives the present Government a majority which on the face of it is impregnable.

That is how I had understood it until recently. However, reading the short debate in the other place, and particularly the speech of Mr David Heath, I emerged more confused than ever. He said something very firmly and definitely that was partly repeated today. He said:

"The Government will still have to resign if they lose the confidence of the House, and that will still be on a simple majority. There is no ambiguity about that. If the Government lose a vote of confidence, they are no longer the government of the day".-[Hansard, Commons, 25/5/10; col. 148.]

In that event, the Government having gone, there will then be an opportunity to see whether another Government can be formed. If they can, I assume that they will take over and govern for the remainder of the five years. If they cannot, a Motion to dissolve will be put to the vote and will require the 55 per cent for it to be carried. Let us assume that the Conservative Government has been defeated. I am not sure how they could be, but if they were defeated on a Motion for dissolution in the House of Commons, it would presumably be open to that Government to try to cobble together another coalition with another set of parties.

I am overwhelmingly driven to the conclusion that I do not see the point of this. What is the object of the exercise? In 1979, Mr Callaghan lost a Motion of confidence by one vote. What did he do? He immediately told the House that he would resign the following day and request a dissolution of Parliament. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, remembers it well. It was a simple procedure that Mr Callaghan followed to the letter. If the Government cannot command a majority in the House of Commons, they have to go and an election should follow, not a further period of political negotiation. That, as I understand it, is the British constitution. I was always brought up to believe that that was what it was. It should not be interfered with in order to provide the Conservative Party with an opportunity to stay in power, despite what Parliament says, for the whole of a five-year term.

The other matter that has concerned me greatly is the Government's policy towards this House. The reference in the Queen's Speech is clear. It said:

"Proposals will be brought forward for a reformed second House that is wholly or mainly elected on the basis of proportional representation".

As the House will know, I have favoured this for many years. If this is a serious commitment by the Government, and one which their supporters in this House can be induced to accept, then of course I welcome it; but there are many questions still unanswered. I regret that I do not have time to ask them. However, I will say something about what happens in the interim before the House is reformed. I refer in particular to the proposal that seems to have been leaked at a superior level for the creation of at least 100 Peers. If we are to "rebalance the House", whatever that means, and if the House is to be constituted on the basis of the popular vote at the last general election, it would involve creating something in the order of 96 Liberal Democrat Peers and 77 Conservative Peers. While it is true that the Government have resiled a bit from that position, I would be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that that is not the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

It was a clear understanding between the Conservative and Labour parties, certainly since I came into this House 20 years ago, that no one party should seek a majority in the House of Lords. Broadly speaking, there was parity between the two sides. The situation in this House has been changed enormously with the creation of the coalition. There is now only one opposition party in the House. The coalition already has a majority over the Opposition. There are 258 Conservative and Liberal Democrat Peers and 211 Labour Peers. While in office, we never sought to outnumber the combined opposition parties, and only increased our numbers gradually. Despite the 1999 Act, Labour still had fewer Peers than the Tories until 2005.

I am conscious that the figure 8-now the figure 9-has appeared on the monitor. Therefore, I will stop. I will say this to the Government. If they are serious about House of Lords reform, and if they can persuade their people in this House to go forward on the basis of a mainly elected House, I would welcome it. However, I have grave doubts about whether the enthusiasm for House of Lords reform will remain as bright on the other side of the House as it is on the Front Bench. We shall see.