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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Neville-Jones Baroness Neville-Jones Minister of State (Home Office) (Security) 6:30 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, this debate on Her Majesty's gracious Speech has been extremely wide ranging and very stimulating. We do credit to ourselves in the quality and imagination that has been injected into a great deal of the interventions, and there have been 49 speakers. Before I do anything else, I join noble Lords in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, to our House and congratulate him on his excellent speech.

It is very gratifying that the work of the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Communities and Local Government should attract such a long list of speakers, but it makes for a difficult task in winding up. We will undoubtedly return to all these topics in due course, which will give the Government an opportunity for fuller replies, so I hope that I may be forgiven if I do not tonight cover all the points that have been raised. I will endeavour to write on any substantive points that I miss.

Before I go to the substance, I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the contribution not only of those who took part in today's discussion but of the Ministers in the previous Government who were involved in the affairs that we have discussed today, particularly the noble Lords, Lord West, Lord Hunt and Lord Bach. While in some areas of policy there will be changes of direction under this Government, in others it is clear that we shall be building on what our predecessors have done.

This Government have a strap line: freedom, fairness and responsibility. These themes run through the Government's programme, and they have run through today's debate with a strong focus on the citizen: the individual's relationship with the state, the individual's right to participate actively in the running of the society to which he belongs and the importance of people taking time and trouble to exercise those rights responsibly.

Before I turn to some of the more detailed points, I want to underline what my noble friend Lord McNally said when he opened this debate: this Government will be steadfast in their defence of civil liberties, and I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, that anybody who knows me knows that I am entirely comfortable sitting next door to my noble friend Lord McNally.

Protecting the public and safeguarding our liberties are not mutually exclusive. They are not a zero-sum game; the more of one, the less of the other. Indeed, one might ask: what is the point of security in a society if it is not free, if not to preserve the values that we believe in and stand for? We will not compromise our national security in the face of a serious and continuing threat. As the noble Lord, Lord Bach, rightly said, that is my particular responsibility. For me, the first duty of government is to protect a free society.

In this debate, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice have been brigaded together. Hearing the remarks made by some noble Lords, I hope that they do not think that with this brigading, somehow the Home Office will not always act proportionately. I stress that it is very important that the Home Office, in carrying out the duties that are particular to it, does so always with proportion. We should not be solely in the business of protecting the state, since in the 21st century security, and national security, are about maintaining the prosperity and way of life of society as a whole. We come back to the theme that has run through our debate; the centrality of the citizen.

Before I go into more detail about the Home Office and the Government's programme, I will address the questions raised by noble Lords about constitutional and electoral reform. I am in danger of wading into deep water here. It is clear that the prospect of change raises mixed emotions in this House, and a considerable degree of excitement. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said that a great opportunity for reform was being missed. Perhaps I might ask what the previous Government were doing for the past 13 years. Their enthusiasm for electoral reform was reserved for very near the election.

I turn to the substance of the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and many other noble Lords, asked about legislation on AV and the referendum. He inquired about the timetable for both. The referendum is a priority for this Government and we plan to hold the poll as soon as possible. The precise timing will depend on the passage of the Bill through the two Houses. More information on timing will come with the introduction of the Bill in another place. The question to be put will be submitted to the Electoral Commission for comment on its intelligibility, to ensure that we get a good question. The choice will be between the current system and AV. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, also asked about threshold and turnout, and a number of other more detailed questions. I am afraid that I cannot give him more information at present.

A number of questions were also asked about electoral issues that largely affect the other place. I do not propose to go into detail on those. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others, suggested that speed in redrawing electoral boundaries might come at the expense of consultation. I entirely agree that consultation is important. However, many people might consider that the present system has created a situation in which the boundaries are out of date before they are ever used, as in the case of the last election, and that we need to improve the speed at which these things are done. We do not accept the thesis that larger constituencies lead to less accountability-there is not going to be such a radical change-nor that more equal-sized constituencies are a bad idea. We will allow small variations to accommodate local conditions.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and many other noble Lords also raised the issue of reform of your Lordships' House. Indeed, I suppose that if there were a single issue on which we focused most, not surprisingly it was that. As the noble Lord noted, a committee is being set up but not, I think, on this occasion located in the long grass. Its composition is currently under consideration and the aim is that the committee should make recommendations by the end of the year.

My noble friend Lord McNally has already given some indications of the Government's broad direction of march on some of the important issues. The committee will look at the detail of these issues and such matters as the choice of the electoral system, the proportion of Members to be elected and the transitional arrangements, including some of the ones that we have discussed, such as grandfathering. These will also be matters for the committee, as indeed will the issue raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester concerning the future position of Bishops in our House.

We on these Benches are well aware of the strength of feeling in this House, including that we should have some say in our own fate. I share it. The noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Armstrong, made characteristically to-the-point speeches about the issues involved, including the question of powers. Ensuring that views expressed in this House are heard properly and are thoroughly considered is important. The Leader of the House has already made clear the possibility of timely discussion at a formative stage and I am sure that we shall want to enable that to happen.

I think that on the Benches opposite there is great excitement-perhaps I may put it that way-about the possible effect of what they see as being new appointments to this House. At the moment, there are no announcements so far as I know, only rumours. If there are new creations, I doubt that they will be only on one side of the House; I am sure that they will be on the other side, too.

There has been a certain amount of questioning about Parliaments being fixed for a term of five years. When I travelled abroad-and I used to do a great deal of that-I found that most countries found it pretty odd that we did not have a fixed term. We are, in our present state, extremely unusual. Many in this country have long thought that it would be a good thing to move to fixed-term Parliaments. A Parliament of five years does not seem to be outside the British tradition, so I feel that it is a perfectly reasonable figure on which to fix.

The question of 55 per cent is a sensitive issue. There were a number of very thoughtful contributions from noble Lords about the 55 per cent threshold, as well as the expression of some anxiety and, indeed, criticism. However, there is no hidden agenda. Such provisions are normal in the context of fixed Parliaments. If you have a fixed Parliament system, you tend to have a provision of this kind, particularly in countries where there are coalitions. Germany, for example, is no exception. Therefore, if we are botching this idea-to use the phrase of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer-I suspect that so are many other countries.

The first point that I want to emphasise is that the Government's proposals on the 55 per cent vote for Dissolution do not affect the conventions relating to a confidence vote in the other place. A Government who lose a confidence Motion, even by a single vote, will have to resign. This is not about stopping Parliament dismissing a Government; it is about stopping a Government being able to dismiss Parliament. This is in the context of fixed terms.

Detailed consideration was also given to the matter in a debate in the other place on Tuesday night. It will receive further detailed scrutiny, first, when the Government publish a Motion in the other place stating the date of the next election and, secondly, when a Bill is introduced. The crucial thing is that there is nothing unusual about requiring a percentage of a Chamber to vote for Dissolution. As we know, in Scotland the figure is two-thirds and in other countries there are different percentages. The 55 per cent was the threshold that the Government thought right for the UK. I have no doubt that further contributions will be made by noble Lords on that subject.