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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:25 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Phillips of Sudbury Lord Phillips of Sudbury Liberal Democrat 5:25 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I am grateful for what the noble Lord says, but talking of both manifestos being jettisoned is just unreal. The fact is that neither party won an overall majority and in coalition there plainly has to be compromise on both sides. It is as simple as that: in effect, we were commanded by the public. I found that on doorstep after doorstep people were saying, "I hope that there is a hung Parliament because it's about time we had parties in Parliament co-operating".

I must confess that it is with some wistfulness that I look across at the Members on the Benches opposite, because after 40 years in opposition I am not sure how it is going to feel being part of the governing party, but there we are.

I think that we still have far too many Bills-22, I believe-in the programme. It is a really deep problem for this country and our democratic process that the amount of legislation is far beyond the capacity of the culture to understand, let alone digest. Although Nick Clegg has promised a great repeal bonanza, I hope sincerely that we will think hard about the way in which we proceed in both this House and the other place.

I should like to refer to the remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, when speaking on the Queen's Speech. He referred to the prospect of election to this Chamber, saying that,

"if there is a demand for change, it must be addressed in a comprehensive way. Let me assure the House that proposals will be put before your Lordships at a formative stage".-[Hansard, 25/5/10; col. 22.]

The key phrase there is,

"if there is a demand for change".

I believe that the only proper, democratic way in which we can measure whether there is a demand for change in the method by which this Chamber is composed is by holding a referendum. I must be honest with the House and say that it was not until having hospitality with the noble Lords, Lord Bach and Lord Bassam, an hour ago that I realised that it was part of the Labour Party's manifesto at the last election that there should indeed be a referendum to consider whether or not to elect this House wholly or mainly. I believe that that is absolutely essential-primarily because we do not own this House. We are servants of the public and surely there can be no more fundamental change than to alter profoundly the way in which this place is composed. The public must decide that. Anything short of that will sell the public short. I hope that the noble Baroness, in summing up the debate, can tell the House that the Government will consider-and do so soon-the need for such a referendum.

I shall talk a little about legal aid, which is a bit of an orphan subject in this debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol referred to it and my noble friend Lord Goodhart made a passing reference to it. Let us make no bones about it, legal aid has been ignored too much. It was one of the great achievements of the Attlee Government. In a country where lawmaking is out of control and one cannot move without reference to the law, which is ever more complex and all-embracing, it is a scandal that the legal aid scheme has-I cannot say "failed"-is in extreme ill health. There are deserts of legal aid in this country and they are growing. The number of solicitors' firms willing to do legal aid declines substantially every year. I have no time to go into the specifics but I hope that the Government will do more than what is suggested in the two lines in their programme and,

"carry out a fundamental review of Legal Aid to make it work more", not "efficiently", as they say, but more effectively. In that regard I hope that they will note the fact that the Law Society, I am pleased to say, has at last undertaken an in-depth review of what it calls access to justice. An 80-page interim report is now circulating throughout the legal profession for feedback. I hope that the Government will act soon and work with that review in the hope that there can be some consensual reforms. That leads into what has been said about prisons and many other things.

In the two minutes that I have left, I shall refer to the charity and voluntary sector. The gracious Speech states:

"The role of social enterprises, charities and co-operatives in our public services will be enhanced".

I hope that it is not just in our public services that the Government will make every effort to aid and abet the wonderful voluntary sector that we have in this country-the glory in many ways of the culture of the United Kingdom. Again I suggest that we need a bit of a change of attitude by government to the voluntary sector.

Too often, with the best intentions in the world, ministries will take initiatives, often with substantial funds, and will work not through the sector itself from the bottom up but in far too impository a way. For example, I would recommend that nothing should be done nationally without the close involvement of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which is the umbrella body of the-what is it?-third of a million charities in this country, 90 per cent of which do not have single paid member of staff. I suggest even more strongly that nothing, but nothing, is done towards reviving and engaging citizenship, helping charity-which often gets to the parts that the state cannot reach, namely the most vulnerable and fragile in our society-other than by working with what is there. The most vital tools are the councils for voluntary service in every city and every county in this land. They work closely with their membership-a plethora of extraordinary organisations.

In all that, I hope that there will be bureaucratic proportionality because by God there has been overkill. I hope that there will be a degree of proper risk by the state realising that sometimes you have to chance your arm, even in government, for greater prizes and returns.

Last but by no means least, I hope that the Government will realise that for every pound that they spend-let alone every pound that they cut from the charity and voluntary sector-they are not merely denying the work that was paid for but cutting off the state and its agencies from a vast input of voluntary effort, time, compassion, knowledge and contact. Please will the Government think twice, thrice and four times before cutting a penny from the voluntary sector's budget?