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Queen’s Speech — Debate (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:21 pm on 9th May 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Crossbench 5:21 pm, 9th May 2013

My Lords, mine is the last in a long and varied set of Back-Bench contributions. I return to an issue raised in his customarily elegant opening contribution to the debate yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Lang of Monkton: the absence from this year’s legislative programme of measures on reform of your Lordships’ House that were,

“more modest but more practical”,—[ Official Report , 8/5/13; col. 7.]

than those unsuccessfully put forward by Her Majesty’s Government in last year’s legislative programme. Before I deal with that issue, I wish to deal briefly with three other sins of omission from the gracious Speech. My language must be influenced by the fact that I am sitting next to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey. I very much regret the absence of the expected legislation on the plain packaging of tobacco and minimum alcohol pricing. Both measures were mentioned earlier and both could have played an important part in public health policy and the prevention of illness. Not including them in the gracious Speech is a lost opportunity for improving health in this country, which is of great significance.

I also regret the omission of enshrining in legislation the Government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas development. I have enormous respect and admiration for what this Government have done in overseas development in both quality and quantity. Their achievement is more impressive having taken place at a time of such strict economic circumstances. It is therefore a sadness that they have not carried through into legislation their commitment in practice to the 0.7% target. To have done so would have ensured the sustainability of spending, but not just that; it would have encouraged other countries to follow the UK’s example. It would also have added to the huge respect that other countries have for us and our influence if we had shown in legislation that we intended this to be not a one-off but a continuing commitment to the developing world—an issue which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, talked about. We have gained tremendous international respect for what this Government have done, and I hope that they will reconsider that decision.

The final legislative proposal to which I wish to refer is a Private Member’s Bill on assisted dying for the terminally ill, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, will seek leave to introduce in the House next week. I am one of the 80% of the British public who support a measure that would enhance the choice and control available at the very end of life for terminally ill adults. I have to say that as a parliamentarian I understand very well the need to avoid unintended consequences and to safeguard against abuse. However, my experience as a member of the Select Committee of your Lordships’ House on the previous Bill, including our visits overseas and the very detailed work that has been put into the safeguards in the proposed Bill, reassure me that those safeguards are robust. I will be supporting the passage of that Bill.

I return to my main theme, which I am afraid is a matter on which I spoke in last year’s debate on the gracious Speech. I said then that in my criticism of the Government’s proposals I was in no way trying to support the status quo in your Lordships’ House. I hope I made it clear then, and have done so since, that there is a substantial agenda of reform—some of it legislative, some within the control of the House itself, and some which the party leaders could support and enhance. That would make us a better, more effective and more defensible Chamber as part of our bicameral Parliament. If we are to be that, we have to make some progress. I hope the Government will now accept that for the extent of this Parliament we are not going to see major reform along the lines of the previous Bill.

Indeed, the point has been made by several speakers in today’s debate, including the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Soley, that there are good reasons not to attempt the stand-alone reform of your Lordships’ House on that scale at a time of great constitutional uncertainty and possible change, and given the importance of looking in that context not only at both Houses but at all the nations of the United Kingdom. However, to my mind, that is not a reason for doing nothing.

Some of the proposals for reform—the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, always likes to call it housekeeping, and something in my feminist genes somehow responds to that; I call it incremental, evolutionary reform—have been discussed at great length in your Lordships’ House during debates on the Private Member’s Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who did the House a great service by his thorough and absolutely steadfast commitment in his attempts to gain support for that Bill. He did gain support for the Bill in this House, and I believe that he could have gained support for it in another place but for the attitude of the Government.

I would have said that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, was tireless, but I feel that perhaps he is just a little tired of taking this legislation forward. Therefore, with the leave of the House, I intend to bring forward a Private Member’s Bill next week to try to promote the agenda of incremental change. I shall not weary the House tonight with a Second Reading speech—there will be time for that. All I will do is make a heartfelt plea to the government Front Bench to accept that, with the failure of last year’s Bill, there will be no major changes to the composition of this House in this Parliament, and that it would not be responsible or grown-up politics to set their faces totally against progress in areas where there is if not nemine dissentiente then widespread consensus. I hope that that will be the atmosphere in which the Private Member’s Bill is discussed.