We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Queen’s Speech — Debate (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:40 pm on 9th May 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 3:40 pm, 9th May 2013

My Lords, the House always listens with interest and respect to my noble friend when she talks on police matters. She has great experience and real passionate feeling for the police, as was evident in her peroration. I am not saying that I agree with everything she said this afternoon, but I was particularly grateful, as a former chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place, for what she said about Northern Ireland. I was appalled to think that, having devolved policing and justice to Northern Ireland, the sort of ghastly mistake to which she referred could have happened, and I am glad to know that it has been put right.

This debate has ranged far and wide on the subjects that we are supposed to be discussing today; indeed, it has ranged further and wider than the subjects we are supposed to be discussing today, to the benefit of us all, I think. I am very concerned and alarmed by what my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford said, and I want to look into that extremely carefully, as I think we all should.

I would like to pick on one or two things, but before I do so I shall make a general point. The Queen’s Speech is the great set piece of the parliamentary year. The problem about the Queen’s Speech and the debate that follows is that it tends, implicitly, to associate parliamentary activity with legislation. That it is a pity because Parliament is about more than legislating, and this House in particular is about more than legislating. I think that by common consent we have had the thinnest Queen’s Speech in recent years, and I hope that will not lead to a repetition of what I considered to be a mistake in recent weeks—the House being sent off on an extra week’s recess when there were grave issues of national and international importance that we could and should have debated in that time. This House is rich in experience, and we could have had some fascinating foreign affairs and other debates. I hope that if this proves to be a thin Queen’s Speech in legislative terms, we will have extra time for the sort of debates in which this House excels.

The speech touches on many things, but the one thing it is does not touch on is your Lordships’ House. As I listened yesterday, I could not help but feel a little glow of pleasure in the fact that the flagship of last year’s Queen’s Speech was holed below the waterline very satisfactorily in another place, and I am delighted to be wearing this tie as I address your Lordships because it was produced by the 91 who holed that Bill below the waterline in another place. The fact that the grandiose and, as the Joint Committee’s report on House of Lords reform made plain, frankly ill thought out Bill has gone—and I hope, unlike my noble friend Lord Tyler, gone for good—does not mean that we do not have to address this House and look at some of the things that could improve its effectiveness.

Although there is nothing in the gracious Speech that touches on any measure of Lords reform, and fully accepting that there cannot, and indeed should not, be wide-ranging reform in the penultimate Session of Parliament, I hope there can be a measure, perhaps based on one or other of the Steel Bills or perhaps even a combination of the two, that we can take through this House. If we do, I very much hope that the Government will feel able this time to give it a fair wind. I have enormous faith and confidence in my noble friend the Leader of the House. I believe that he brings a freshness and a sensitivity to his responsibilities that are themselves refreshing, and I hope that if a Bill is presented it will be able, in one way or another, to go forward and on to the statute books, to address some of the housekeeping measures that we have talked about in the past.

As for the future, obviously we have to bear in mind that in the autumn of next year there will be a referendum that could change the composition of the United Kingdom. I hope and pray that it will not, but we cannot assume that it will not. The worse thing one can ever do in political life is to underestimate the strength of the opposition. We have in Mr Salmond perhaps the wiliest of all political operators in the United Kingdom at the moment. We must not underestimate him, nor must we underestimate the fact that the franchise will be significantly extended for that referendum.

I think I made my own views plain on votes for 16 year-olds this morning, but we will debate that later when my noble friend Lord Tyler introduces his Bill. Whether one agrees or disagrees with it, it will extend the franchise significantly and could have an effect. I believe that what I consider to be common sense will prevail, but we must not be patronising to those of our fellow country men and women who live north of the border; we must accept that it is their choice and hope they will recognise that the United Kingdom together is much greater than the sum of its parts.

I mention that because we have to look at parliamentary reform in that context if we are to go forward and look at the composition of the respective Houses and their respective roles. There is no point in doing anything on a wider front until that issue has been settled. I hope we can then look at a proposal, which I hope will be settled in the way I have indicated, that was made in the alternative report produced by members of the Joint Committee last year, and maybe take time over a constitutional convention that looks at the respective roles of the two Houses. At the moment this is the more effective of the two Chambers. As one who sat in the other place, proudly and with great enjoyment, for 40 years, I despair that business is over by 7 pm or 7.30 pm most evenings. I despair that Thursday is almost a non-parliamentary day at the other end of the Corridor. Although I welcome the advent of the Back-Bench committee and believe that it has done a great deal, it has not arrested the Executive’s stranglehold over the legislature at that end, which of course is exercised mainly because of the automatic imposition of a timetable on any Bill that is introduced.

We need a convention that can look at all those things and consider the implications of the timetable on parliamentary democracy and on the balance of power between the Executive and the legislature, which is out of kilter. The spotlight of reform should be focused at that end at least as much, if not more, than at this end. As we consider that the Prime Minister may not get his way with the withdrawing of the boundaries because of Mr Clegg’s obdurate opposition to that, we do not want to revisit that debate. However, we could well enter a new Parliament in 2015, with 650 Members rather than 600 at the other end of the Corridor, and with a need, therefore, to look at the whole composition of Parliament, and, as I said earlier, at the respective roles and powers of the two Houses.

I advocate for this Session and the Session beyond a degree of modest, incremental housekeeping reform at this end of the Corridor, and then, in a new Parliament, I hope there will be a proper look at the whole structure of the parliamentary system in this country, because it is overdue. I add that all that could still be accomplished in the timetable of the ill-fated Clegg Bill. He envisaged everything being completed by 2025. That would still be possible, given that we have elections in 2015 and 2020.

I will touch briefly on one further thing that has already reared its head in the debate. When I modestly and gently intervened on my noble friend Lord Fowler, who had made an utterly splendid speech on Leveson and then turned his attention to another issue, and reminded him that the same-sex marriage Bill was not in the manifesto, he rounded on me as if he had been bitten by our noble friend Lord Deben. It was a most extraordinary moment. All I would say is that we should not think that this is an issue of equality. I do not think that anyone in this Chamber—I look at the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, who made a most interesting and important speech—does not believe in genuine equality.

However, the Bill redefines the basic building block of our society. Some of us believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, and believe it without in any way casting aspersions of any sort on different relationships. In the 21st century, we ought to be able to preserve the best of what has sustained the nation through the centuries, and at the same time extend a greater and more generous recognition to those whose ways are different and whose beliefs are diverse. All I would say to my noble friend Lord Fowler and those who feel passionately as he does—the noble Lord, Lord Low, for whom I have great respect, indicated that he took that line—is that we will of course speak in the debate as we believe, but let us have the generosity to recognise that others will speak with equal conviction and belief. I would hate to see the Bill tear this place apart in the coming weeks, and I hope that it will not.