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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:26 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 4:26 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I am absolutely delighted to be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Over the past 13 years, I have found myself in the same Lobby as them on many occasions in the defence of liberty-and liberty is the lodestone of my life in Parliament. There are differences between us, but I have managed to work out my differences with those on my own Front Bench and I am sure that working them out with the Liberal Democrats will be a good deal easier.

The Opposition are still addicted to oppression rather than liberty. That was clear from what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said about CCTV. It is a drug that brings short-term relief in publicity but has nasty long-term side effects. I very much hope that a few years in opposition will have the same effect as a stay in the Priory and that we will recover the Labour Party that I used to look up to 20 years ago. Indeed, I was under the illusion that it was still there in 1997. I remember consoling myself over the loss of my job in 1997 by the thought that Michael Howard would no longer be Home Secretary. Every Labour Home Secretary has been worse and now at last we have the hope of some improvement.

I am also delighted that we are putting a strong emphasis on local decision-making. That is a constitutional change that, if it is taken radically and if we do as much as we should, will have great consequences. I see it fitting in extremely well with the changes in number, size and distribution that are proposed for parliamentary constituencies. I hope that it will bring an end to, or at least the diminution of, parliamentarians viewing themselves as consultants who deal with drainage and other petty issues that should be dealt with locally and properly but are not because of the lack of power and quality at a local level.

I totally agree with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said about prisons. I declare an interest in that I am heavily connected with the charity Safe Ground, which works in prison education. Yes, there are people in prison who need to be there for our protection and people who need to be there as a punishment for what they have done, but there are many more who ought to be in prison or some form custody or penalty for their rehabilitation. You cannot rehabilitate given the state of prisons at the moment. They are overcrowded and there is no money left because of all these people who are pushed into prison. All we reap is a reducing rate of good behaviour after prison; we reap ever greater expense without doing our society any good. I very much hope that we will be able to take a few radical measures just to set us on the right track again and get the prison population to dip. We must allow money and practices to come through that will improve the rate of rehabilitation and get us back to where we used to be with prisons under Home Secretaries such as the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, and Lord Whitelaw. That is where I would like to find myself.

I was immensely inspired, too, by the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bichard. If he needs a foot soldier in his campaign, I am happy to be that. I have not heard such stirring words since I last read C Northcote Parkinson on public service reform. We can do so much. For example, prestige could be given to those in the Civil Service responsible for delivery to make sure that they see projects through from beginning to end and reap the rewards for it, rather than prestige being a matter attached to policy development, where the incentive is to develop policy after policy and to keep the whole thing turning and changing. The noble Lord, Lord Bichard, knows much more about that than I do and I would be happy to treat him as my leader in this matter. I look for early action.

We all know that constitutional reform is not easy. The party opposite can look back on the abolition of the Lord Chancellor and even on the creation of IPSA as things on which it wished it had taken a bit more care. We have clearly fallen into the same trap when it comes to fixed-term Parliaments. Yes, it is a good idea. I support it and I think that it is well worth exploring. But it is not a simple idea. There are lots of little consequences and lots of things that we need to work out. I do not think that my noble friend should take the Labour Party too seriously when it huffs on about 55 per cent. It had fixed-term Parliaments in its manifesto and must have had a mechanism in mind for making sure that the Government could not simply overturn it because they happened to have a majority of seats in the other House. The figure of 55 per cent is randomly chosen. In most Parliaments in the past it would have been totally ineffective because the Government had a greater number of votes than that and could just have overturned it. The figure of 66 per cent, as in Scotland, seems to be much more sensible. We know what the Government are about and why they want to do it, so let us take this carefully and sensibly and not rush at it. We should make sure that we get the detail right, think through all the possible complications and then go firm on legislation. The Government have got their five years for this Parliament. There is no need to rush for further reform.

My sentiments on Lords reform are similar. I am a supporter of an elected House of Lords, which is a necessary, good and inevitable idea. I am as disturbed as the party opposite by the idea that a House that is already too large will have 150 to 200 Members added to it in order to make up the proportions. It would be ridiculous and would bring us into total disrepute. I do not think that noble Lords opposite should worry too much about their ability to defeat the Government. They managed it quite a lot while I was on the Front Bench when we had a vast hereditary army ever at our beck and call. A little bit of having late-night Divisions and a little smiling at Back-Bench Members opposite will work wonders.

Above all, I hope that in considering Lords reform we will not do what the party opposite has done and conduct our deliberations in secret. We should be open in our processes. If we set up a committee, it should publish its deliberations and be open to representations. We should have not just us but the nation feeling that it has been absorbed in-to the extent that it wishes to be absorbed in-the process of deciding the future of the House of Lords. It is not a simple matter. Anything that we do will have consequences. However limited the changes that we make around even the fact of election will have consequences. If we go for any of the more radical options, such as those proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, we will find ourselves in difficult waters. To do that closed, without involving people in the process, is merely to invite years of chaos afterwards.