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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:36 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Gordon of Strathblane Lord Gordon of Strathblane Labour 3:36 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, after that speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, I should immediately say that I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, on their appointments and that I recognise that the coalition is the best solution possible given the result that the electorate delivered us. Indeed, I frankly would like it to be a tripartite solution, because this country faces economic problems that will require almost a unanimous view in Parliament if the measures that are taken are to be acceptable in the country at large.

Alistair Darling said that the cuts that would be coming would be more severe than anything under Margaret Thatcher, so, if we are honest, we can safely say that three-quarters of the cuts proposed by the coalition would have been brought forward by a Labour Government anyway. The quicker that we recognise that, the quicker politicians will regain the respect of the public, who know that things are tough and that quantitative easing, necessary though it may be, is methadone economics and does not solve the problem in the long run.

From time to time, I have mused that, much as I love the pomp and ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament every year, there might be a case for having it only after a general election and setting out a programme for a five-year Parliament. I wondered whether the coalition Government had privately decided to do that, because there are 25 Bills. That is an ambitious programme to achieve in five years, let alone just one quite long Session of Parliament.

I am particularly concerned about the state of play in Scotland. The media and the political class in general had not really caught up with the devolution legislation that had been enacted until the health warnings in the prime ministerial debates, which said, "By the way, what you are about to hear does not apply in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland". It may not have escaped noble Lords' notice that Alex Salmond has opted to delay public spending cuts for a year. To give him the benefit of the doubt, there may be legitimate economic reasons for going more gently in Scotland. However, it is also the case that the Scottish elections are due next year and I would not like to think that Scotland will face double trouble, perhaps under another Government immediately after the election, where we might have had slightly less pain if we had introduced the cuts more gently this year.

We have a problem in Scotland-I regret that a lot of my fellow countrymen would like to blame someone else for their problems. The reason why I think that there is a case for giving greater fiscal responsibility to the Scottish Parliament is that it would presumably end that, although I have heard SNP spokesmen blaming Westminster for the crisis in the Royal Bank of Scotland, which defeats logic. In Scotland, if you can blame someone else and the other person is English, you score double; if they are English Tories, you hit the jackpot.

I am also glad that we have a coalition with substantial Liberal Democrat representation in Scotland. Again, without being too cynical, if I were David Cameron, Scotland contributed one MP to my total and getting rid of Scotland left me with probably a safe Conservative majority in England, I would find it tempting to cobble together a deal with Alex Salmond. The Liberal Democrats would have much more to lose if that happened, so I hope that they will exercise a restraining influence. Like all Scots, I value the Union, if only because we Scots need something bigger to run than Scotland.

I also draw attention to the fact that in 2015 the five-year Parliament here will end and there will be Scottish government elections. We will therefore be faced with the electorate in Scotland having elections to Westminster under one system, elections to the Scottish Parliament under another and possibly even elections to the House of Lords under yet a third system. What a recipe for total chaos.

That brings me, naturally, to the House of Lords. I do not believe in an elected House of Lords, but I recognise the validity of a lot of the arguments put forward for it. You certainly can have an elected House of Lords, but do not try to make it subservient to the House of Commons. As the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Armstrong, both said, if the House of Lords were elected by proportional representation, which the Liberal Democrats passionately believe is a superior system, how would it not be at least the equal of, if not superior to, the House of Commons? You cannot say to a House of Lords that is elected, "You can have nothing to do with the Budget, with supply and everything else". It will demand the powers and take them gradually. If not given them, it will threaten a total strike on all legislation until it is given them. That will happen ineluctably.

The second argument that I would put against election is to ask whether the public really want a second set of MPs. I doubt that they do. Are we going to pay an elected House? If we are going to pay and it is partly elected, do we pay the ones who are elected or do we pay everyone? If we pay everyone, how popular is that going to be with the public? It would mean great expenditure at a time when the rest of the nation has been asked to make sacrifices, all to achieve a political principle of how we put people here, not to change fundamentally the nature of the job that they do. The other point that I would make about an elected House has already been made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker: there is no accountability if you are elected for a single term, because you are not responsible to anyone.

There are problems in this House. I am sure that we can do better and we must never be complacent, but, honestly, when you look at the two Houses of Parliament dispassionately, which do you think is in more need of reform? I am sure that even the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, would admit that it is the House of Commons; it is the more important House and it is certainly more drastically in need of reform. After all, do the electorate elect a member of the Government or someone to control the Government? One-third of the majority party or the coalition are in government and therefore have a somewhat vested interest in looking after it, while at least another one-third want to be in it and therefore will not be too hard on the Government in the hope of preferment in the future. The only people on the government or coalition side who will really be scrutinising the Government are those who will have been kicked out after the first reshuffle and will have nothing to lose. We have things to change in Parliament as a whole, but the first priority is at the other end of the building.