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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:34 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Labour 4:34 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I, too, add my congratulations to those noble Lords who have become Ministers in the new Government. I congratulate in particular the noble Lord, Lord McNally, whose long experience was partly gained through the Labour Party. I am glad that his political hero is still Clement Attlee. That his experience and ability should be channelled into government is good news and I warmly congratulate him on that.

As has been pointed out in the debates, there are many ironies in the current governmental situation. I was struck by this when I returned to my London flat after spending most of the election period at home in the north-east of England. Having marvelled at the harmony and mutual admiration shown by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister in their Downing Street press conference, the first piece of literature that I saw on my doormat was an election communication from the Liberal Democrats warning me that the Tories were putting the NHS at risk and asking me, "What else are the Conservatives not telling you?".

However, as many people have pointed out, the parliamentary arithmetic as a result of the election made some kind of coalition or joint arrangement inevitable and, given the numbers, the coalition that has now been formed was the more obvious outcome. I pay tribute to both parties for the huge efforts that they put in to negotiate and secure a deal. Having said that, I believe that it is probably in the area of constitutional affairs where the greatest tensions within the new coalition Government are likely to arise. We have seen some evidence of that even today.

While I have often agreed with Liberal Democrat colleagues in the past on issues of constitutional reform, like my noble and learned friend Lord Boyd I was somewhat taken aback by the speech of the Deputy Prime Minister in which he rather grandiloquently compared his reform programme with that of the Great Reform Act. He criticised the outgoing Labour Government for excessive decentralisation and for quashing dissent in a way that I found both wildly inaccurate and, sadly, ungenerous. As has been pointed out, Labour had enacted a profound decentralising programme with devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London and even proposals-sadly voted down in a referendum-for regional devolution within England. The Liberal Democrats had supported most of that programme. Indeed, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Boyd, I remember the days of the coalition Government in Scotland. At that time I was an Agriculture Minister and worked closely and happily with my Liberal Democrat counterpart in the Scottish Parliament, Ross Finnie. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Hunt pointed out in his speech that, as well as these decentralist measures, our Government also brought in many measures on civil liberties. I am glad that he listed those and I wish that the Deputy Prime Minister had at least alluded to some of them.

The Government's programme contains constitutional proposals that I certainly support. Like the previous speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, I wish the Government well on Lords reform, as I have always supported the principle of a largely or wholly elected House. I agree strongly, however, with the comments made by my noble friend Lady Royall in her speech on Tuesday-and, indeed, by many others in today's debate-rejecting the idea of creating in the interim many more Conservative and Liberal Members. That seems to fly in the face of a principle that I thought was widely accepted in this House. It also runs counter to the comments repeatedly made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in previous debates-he even repeated them today-that a House of over 800 would lack credibility. If these proposals are brought forward, that is exactly what we would have, if not considerably more than 800. I hope that there will be a re-evaluation and reconsideration of that approach.

One suggestion that could be picked up from the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill that failed to make it through the wash-up period before Dissolution is that of allowing existing Members to retire. It would be interesting to know-perhaps the Minister will say in her wind-up-whether or not provisions will be brought forward to allow existing Members to retire from this House in the way foreshadowed in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill before Dissolution.

I also support the proposal for fixed-term Parliaments but, like many others who have spoken today, I do not support the 55 per cent requirement, which smacks of political manoeuvring. I hope that the Government will try to reach a wider consensus on this issue. It would be worth while doing so, particularly since opinion polls seem to show strong public support for the idea of fixed-term Parliaments.

I support changing the voting system to AV, although I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats settled for that. Furthermore, winning a referendum on it, particularly depending on the political circumstances of the time, will not be easy. Perhaps I might suggest, rather controversially, that AV be considered for the European Parliament. I was elected a Member of the European Parliament in the days when we had constituencies. Even though I was aware that the first past the post system distorted the vote, it was nonetheless very satisfying to represent a specific territory and have that territorial link. The constituency that I represented was very big, but it was suitable for the kind of industrial and economic issues that were dealt with in the European Parliament.

Like others, I am concerned about the Government's approach to local government. I hope that they will not proceed with the proposal to force elected mayors on 12-I do not know where that number came from-cities. I do not favour forcing local authorities to go down that route. I am concerned, too, that Governments-I include my own in this-do not recognise sufficiently some of the achievements of local government. The local authority that I represented and worked closely with for a number of years, Gateshead, had an outstanding record, which compared favourably with those of the great local governments of the 19th century. It was good at promoting educational success, which is why I have some concern about the wholesale academy approach being put forward by the Government.

Finally, I am concerned about the likelihood of the Government making much greater use of referendums in our constitution. This has not been mentioned much in today's debate, but we seem to be in danger of lurching towards a plebiscitary rather than a representative democracy, without thinking through the consequences. At local level in particular, the Government seem to favour a plebiscitary approach. That has not proved a panacea, as examples such as California amply illustrate. I strongly recommend to the Government the recent report of this House's Constitution Committee on referendums and urge caution in this respect.

The Government have set themselves an ambitious constitutional programme. While I genuinely wish them well in pursuing some of those goals, I hope that they will be prepared to think again about others on which I have expressed some reservations today.