My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and his considered words. I am very much of his view that we should seek more incremental change. He reminds me of an occasion when I sat next to a colleague of his over tea one afternoon. She told me that my father had visited her primary school many years ago, and how important an experience it was to have a Member of the House of Lords come to her school, take an interest in what the children were doing, and talk about the Lords. One of my concerns is that with the publication of a Bill of this kind, we may be forced to look inwards and so do less of that kind of outreach work. Indeed, I have the honour to be a co-chair of an inquiry into the issue of children who run away from local authority care. We have heard from some good witnesses. However, unfortunately I was not able to attend a meeting today because I felt that I had to take part in the debate today. Noble Lords have only so much time. I share the concern expressed by others about the current austerity.
I thank, as many others have done, the members of the Joint Committee and its chair, and particularly my noble friends Lord Hennessy and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for their work on the report. I am grateful also to the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, and her colleagues for their alternative report.
As many Peers have said, we are in a time of extreme austerity. We are hearing of ever more of our citizens having to depend on food packages. We hear that further significant cuts in welfare payments are possible. It is a difficult time. We know that we need more growth in the economy if people are going to find employment, yet we also need to secure the confidence of the investment markets to avoid having to pay higher interest rates. Those are huge challenges for us. Is this the right time to take on this huge challenge in this House and to devote so much of our time and energy to this area?
I shall concentrate on the powers of your Lordships and the primacy of the other place. Two things in particular come to my mind. The first is the example of bickering parents-parents who are so busy getting at each other, trying to assert their own will against another person, that they neglect their children or allow the strongest child to bully the other ones. I am also reminded of an old story about an old king who decides to divide his power among his three daughters, which seems to him a very good idea at the time. However, he comes to realise that he has given up something which leads to great pain for him and his family and great conflict within the nation that he runs. A comment is made upon him: he only ever slenderly knew himself. The suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, and others of a conventional assembly to dig down further into these issues is important, because I would hate us to enter into something which might undermine our ability to make the changes that we are in a good position to make to the benefit of our nation.
My father took his seat in this House back in the 1930s, during the time of the depression. He was immensely privileged, being an Etonian and Cambridge and Oxford-educated. He wanted to use those privileges to help people without those sorts of leads, much in defiance of his family. I share with him the thought that we are extremely privileged, particularly in this place, and we can make a huge difference to the most vulnerable in society. However, if we lock ourselves into constant conflict with the other place, we are in danger of losing that capacity. Let us think about children's homes. In the evidence to the inquiry in which I am involved on children who run away from care, we hear from the police a familiar story: that there are a few poorly run children's homes from which children run away again and again. I am afraid that there are possibly gangs of men who are looking at those homes and thinking about what they can do with some of those children. This is such an old story; it needs to be sorted out. I know that the Government are thinking about instituting an inquiry into such children's homes and trying to do some good work in that area, but if we become so engrossed in this discussion about what we do and who we are, we are less likely to be able to give time to such work. This Government and the previous Government have done a huge amount of good work in improving the status of social work, which has involved many different measures. To pursue programmes of that kind is challenging when we may be involved in such self-obsessed expenditure of energy.
Let us think of the benefit to lobbyists of seeing two Houses that are about equally strong. I have in mind tobacco lobbyists, who have been so effective when they have wished to oppose tobacco legislation going through this House on a number of occasions. They had deep pockets. A former Secretary of State had been on the board of directors of British American Tobacco, for instance. They used all sorts of means to lobby very effectively. If the upper House is as strong as the lower House, we give them a second bite at the cherry in which they can frustrate such legislation as putting plain packaging on cigarettes or preventing children from seeing cigarettes in newsagents.
I think also of examples in the United States. President Carter won a mandate from the public to pass laws to restrict energy consumption at the time of the oil crisis, but that was frustrated. There were so many checks and balances to which that legislation was subjected that he could not make it work and he could not win his way. Again, President Clinton's health reforms were frustrated even though he had a mandate from the public.
I encourage noble Lords to look at the oral evidence from Dr Meg Russell to which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, referred. There are some important points there. In particular, she notes that nobody expected the authority of this House to be as strong as it is now, following the removal of the hereditary Peers. We are a far more assertive House than anyone expected, according to her. We need to think very carefully how much more assertive we might be if we were an elected House and not simply an appointed House as we are today.