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My Lords, I first spoke in a debate on the then gracious Speech in March 1974. I recall being mystified by that vital penultimate sentence heard again today: “other measures will be laid before you”. I could not then imagine that such innocent, innocuous words could be so important, but on many occasions since, they have proved to be the most significant warning of political earthquakes to be anticipated—in Harold Macmillan’s words, “Events, dear boy, events”. Those words today give me— and, it would seem, many other Members who have spoken in the debate—hope that there will be other vital measures excluded at present from the text of the gracious Speech.
Both the noble Lord, Lord Lang, and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, referred yesterday to the absence from the gracious Speech of any reference to reform of your Lordships’ House. For once, I and my party shed no tears for that omission. We could hardly have expected the resurrection of the Government’s 2012 Bill.
However, it is salutary to remind Members that, far from being defeated in the House of Commons, as some members of this House have recently started to claim, the Bill received a record majority last July of 338 votes at Second Reading in the other place. Indeed, a majority of MPs in all three major parties supported it: 193 votes to 89 in the Conservative Party, 202 votes to 26 in the Labour Party and 53 votes to nil in the Liberal Democrats.
I agree with everything that my noble friend Lord Fowler said earlier. He made an extraordinarily powerful case for the primacy of the House of Commons in this debate, as also in the others to which he referred. Had the Labour Party agreed to a programme Motion—any programme Motion—to ensure that the time on the Bill was well managed, we would now, in May 2013, be faced with legislation which had received Royal Assent, or which had been carried over, or a Bill which was to be subjected to the provisions of the Parliament Act. I suggest that the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, was being rather disingenuous yesterday in failing to acknowledge the role that her party played in postponing serious reform. The truth is that her party sacrificed political reform at the altar of political opportunism. When its time came to make a difference, it flunked it.
I am certain that the matter of reforming this House will come back to us in due course. Unless the result of the 2015 general election is a very long way from the current state of the parties, there will certainly be a majority in favour of reform. I hope that then, rather than attempting to re-invent the wheel, the incoming Cabinet—whatever its political composition—will simply reintroduce the 2012 Bill, which was backed by such a huge majority in this Parliament, and get on with the job in a workmanlike manner.
Meanwhile, to avoid any possible perception or accusation of personal interest, I suggest that party leaders would be wise to make it clear that any MP who voted to retain the fully appointed House should not expect to be nominated to join us here. It would do nothing for the reputation of either House of Parliament, or of politics generally, for them to be seen to be rewarded for putting self-interest ahead of their manifesto promises to the electorate.
I know that one “other measure” that many in this House would like laid before us is progress on modest changes to the membership of the House, along the lines of the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood. Through all the muttering about this, I am never quite sure which Bill colleagues are referring to: Steel mark 1, which would have converted hereditary Peers into life Peers by abolishing the barmy by-elections, or Steel mark 2, which was filleted for easy digestion by hereditary Peers even before it completed its Committee stage in your Lordships’ House? The latter would hardly change the current situation. After all, there is already a retirement scheme—two Members have taken advantage of it—and the only other provisions related to disqualification. Anyone inside or outside this House who pinned their hopes on that latter Bill relieving overcrowding or easing the entry of new Peers was doomed to disappointment. Had the original Bill survived, I for one might have been bemoaning its absence from the gracious Speech, but the absence of Steel Mark 2 is no loss.
There are two other commitments in the party manifestos and the coalition agreement that seem to have been lost along the way, and which I still hope will be seen in this Session as “other measures”. First, the coalition agreement boldly stated:
“We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency”.
I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues in both Houses had high hopes of progress on that issue. It was indeed the Prime Minister who, as Leader of the Opposition, in the run-up to the 2010 election, rightly said that unregulated lobbying was,
“the next big scandal waiting to happen”.
However, we also know that solid and sensible proposals have been considered in government, and cannot understand why they have been delayed.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, of Basildon, said, lobbying by and for powerful interests—she may have been thinking of the Murdoch empire—under both the previous and the present Government has brought to the fore the urgent need to deal with lobbying. I understand that Mr Lynton Crosby, who previously helped the Conservative party when it was “the nasty party”, is reputed to consider such issues as mere barnacles on the ship of state to be completely ignored in deciding electoral principles. As an Antipodean, he should know that too many barnacles can dangerously impede the smooth travel of any vessel on a long-distance voyage. I prefer the view of Cameron to Crosby, of the captain to the cabin boy, of the organ-grinder to the monkey.
Then we come to the vexed issue of money and politics. Following firm commitments in party manifestos in 2010, the coalition agreement promised:
“We will also pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics”.
Those interparty discussions have indeed been taking place, but apparently without any outcome. We can hope only that they, too, will still result in “other measures” in this Session. The current situation is far from satisfactory. As a member of the informal all-party group which advises the Electoral Commission, I have been only too well aware of the yawning gaps in the present monitoring, reporting and control regime when it comes to the funding of political campaigning activity which falls outside the normal definitions of party and candidate support. An enterprising Russian oligarch, bored with football clubs, or some other maverick multi-millionaire could completely distort the campaigns in 2014 and 2015. Buying political influence through third-party campaigning organisations with vast sums of money, from outside the well established rules for the parties, could take us along the discredited road that they have experienced in the USA.
To draw attention to this unsatisfactory situation, and to emphasise that this is certainly unfinished business after the excellent November 2011 report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on this issue, I and a number of parliamentarians from across parties have been contributing to the preparation of a draft Bill. This will be published for consultation next week at a seminar to be chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly, newly retired as chairman of that committee. In the absence of proposals from the Government or from those official discussions, we can but hope that this draft Bill could still stimulate yet another “other” measure for this Session. Certainly, without appropriate legislation, there is a real danger that the campaigns for the 2014 European parliamentary elections and for the general election a year later—and their outcomes—could be mired in controversy. Where then would be the promise of this Government to take the big money out of politics?
I welcome what the gracious Speech does to maintain the Government’s course towards a stronger, more sustainable economy while building a fairer society.
There are many measures in the gracious Speech that will assist in these endeavours, and it is these that are central to the Liberal Democrat contribution to the coalition. But on these Benches we still strongly believe that a fairer society is also contingent on open, plural politics in which all views are represented and all voices heard. We will continue to press for those “other measures” that would help to make that happen.