Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:12 pm on 27th May 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 3:12 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I congratulate the new Ministers and I wish the coalition well. In fact, I hope that it works. Leaving aside the fact that the arithmetic did not provide an alternative to which the words "strong and stable" could be remotely attached, if it works-and, as I say, I hope it does-it will knock on the head once and for all the media threats to the British people at election time about what might happen if they vote the wrong way. I can see that work, and it is important.

I have supported fixed-term Parliaments a lot longer than I have supported proportional representation. I would have preferred four years, but I will vote for five because three is too short and six is too long. Five years is about right. My main reason has always been economic. If one looks back through the years, the UK economy has suffered massively over the decades by the manipulation of the economy to the electoral cycle as perceived by opinion polls and then the manipulation of the economic cycle to the electoral cycle. I cannot prove it, but I know that those factors have been taken into account over the decades, much to the detriment of the economy.

Fixing the term means that there has to be a built-in constraint to ensure that it works as intended and is not abused. A coalition breaking up mid-term does not mean, and should not allow, an abuse by the Prime Minister to go for a dissolution after perhaps a period of minority rule when the polls look good. There has to be a constraint built in. I will not go down the arguments. I will vote for a constraint and there will have to be a debate about the kind it will be. I would not support a simple majority, as happens now, because it is wide open to abuse within the system of a fixed term. Any constraint should have widespread support.

I also support a smaller House of Commons, which I said when I was a Member of that House. I would aim for 500 MPs, not 585. There is a built-in ratchet in the present system. With every boundary review it grows. The formula is such that it will never decrease, which is a problem. We are a UK Parliament and there should be a single quota for all constituencies. That should be the same throughout the UK. Everyone knows that under the present arrangement, and that of the past 20-odd years, there has been a built-in bias in the system which favours one party over another.

The simple fact is that people's votes are not equal. They should be. That ought to be a guiding principle. I realise that MPs will complain that they cannot cope. Frankly, they will. Even with my 500 MPs, the quota of constituents for each would be only 88,000. I understand that the Government plan to have around 575 MPs, which would mean a quote of around 75,000. After a boundary change in 1983, my former constituency increased from 52,000 constituents to 76,000. Without all the resources that MPs have today, I managed to keep an eye on the Government and to bring my constituents' problems to the Floor of the other place. I was, of course, a full-time MP, for which I do not apologise.

The key for the Deputy Prime Minister is to stop the wide variation in the size of seats, which is crucial. If it is left to the Boundary Commission, it will fail. It should not be charged with it. The rules have to be changed. I would not allow a variation of more than 5 per cent in total, plus or minus 2.5 per cent. It has to be as rigid as that in order to give the votes an equality of value throughout the country. I would warn him not to let it be left to political organisers who could fix those boundary changes even when they are held in public. All of us can have a view on this. That place down there is the people's Commons. It is not the Members' Commons. Therefore, although we do not have a vote, as my noble friend Lord Dubs said, we have got a view to put forward.

I will not go into the alternative vote. I made my position clear in the debate on 24 March. I oppose it on its own. I want a system that encourages people to vote for what they want as a first priority. The alternative vote does not do that. In fact, it makes tactical voting even worse because of the second part of the vote. It is not proportional. I will not support it and I hope that we can amend it as it goes through the House.

On Lords reform, electing Lords on proportional representation will make a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber far more representative of the people than the Commons. We should accept that, and the penny will drop soon enough. To be wholly or mainly elected means that we tear up the Parliament Act and do not use the conventions but the full powers of this House. Why should it be so constrained if it is fully elected? There is no argument for that. The reason for the constraint is the non-election of Lords. It is self-denying ordinance: we are not elected, therefore we must not use all the powers.

As ever, the answer is that we must clearly set out in legislation the powers and functions of a second Chamber and only then look at the composition of the House. It is cheap and immature politics to constantly talk only about the membership of the House without discussing these other important matters about a second Chamber. As I heard someone say earlier, it is time to visit the 2006 Joint Committee report on conventions of the UK Parliament. That report alluded only to the present state of play and said that if there was a change of composition and of the procedures, it should be revisited. That is absolutely crucial. I, too, ask: why would people stand for election if they do not know what the powers are? Why should the public vote for them when they know that they cannot vote them out at the next election because they are there for only a single term? However, all those issues are secondary to the functions and powers of the House. I would demand that at a suitable time we make that clear.

On Tuesday, I was very pleased to hear the Leader of the House refer to the workings of the House and to hear what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said today. I will say what I intended to say-I know that it has been mentioned by others, but when there is a good story it is worth repeating. It focuses in on the difficulties that some Ministers will have in discussions that will take place if they can quote what has been said. I know that that is important.

In my view, the job has been done on the workings of the House for the three Leaders and the Convenor. It is well known that last October the Lord Speaker hosted a seminar on the strengthening of Parliament, which resulted in three unofficial reports that were not led by the Lord Speaker. There was one on the scrutiny of primary legislation, one on non-legislative procedures and one, which should frighten everyone here who is involved in outside activities either in non-departmental public bodies or the private sector, on governance and accountability arrangements in this place. It is devastating to read the report of the committee chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy.

All members of the groups acted in a personal capacity-everyone makes that absolutely clear-and their reports were sent to the party leaders and committee members in March. I would like-we may be able to get this-to have those reports considered properly by the relevant committees of this House. They should look at the recommendations-nothing is perfect and they could be changed-and, whether or not they accept them, the reports should come back to this House for it to decide whether it wants to make any changes; it should not be a question of a committee saying, "We are not going to put this to the House because we do not agree with it". There will be plenty of opportunities to do this.

The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, and other Members who participated in the process have also raised these issues today. If we really want to strengthen Parliament, the ingredients and the menu have been provided. The reports are not secret; they were placed in the Library well before the date of the election. I am gratified to learn that the chairs of the three working groups have been invited by the Government to have discussions about this. I wish them well and I hope that we will get a positive outcome.