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Queen’s Speech — Debate (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:53 pm on 9th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 3:53 pm, 9th May 2013

My Lords, I will speak on constitutional matters. Before I do, I will strongly endorse the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on the Leveson report and the current situation. It should deeply disturb the whole country that when people in financial industries such as banking, or indeed MPs and Peers, are caught in dubious situations or in wrongdoing, the full force of the press is turned against them, but when the press itself is caught, it suddenly goes into hiding and starts distorting and twisting the arguments made against it.

I also recall that the press couches so many arguments in terms of press freedom. However, it is important to remember that when the News of the World was closed we lost a successful newspaper, but the chief executive of the company continued in office. That was totally the wrong way round. I will also mention my frustration that some of the leaders of the press, for example Paul Dacre, who are busy pulling strings behind the scenes at the moment, do not put themselves before the public and expose themselves to the sort of accountability that they rightly expect of the rest of us. Perhaps it is time for radio and television to start inviting people like Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre on to programmes to discuss this. I am sure that in very many cases they would refuse to come. But it makes the point that people who have been very good at invading the privacy of others, sometimes correctly and sometimes incorrectly, surround themselves with a wall of secrecy that is dishonest, devious, hypocritical and frankly, at times, cowardly. They need to face up to that. We all want a free press, but closing newspapers with a failing chief executive is not the way to get it.

I turn to what I wanted to speak about today. It is a constitutional matter, which I was very pleased to see in the Queen’s Speech—and I was not surprised to see it—the confirmation that the Government wish to continue the argument to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom. I have said a number of times before, and I am pleased to see the Government use this phrase, too, that the United Kingdom has by almost any standards been the most successful political and economic union that the world has ever seen. It is important at times like these to recognise that the argument, which is so far taking place largely in Scotland, is about the United Kingdom. It is not just about Scotland. If Scotland chose to leave the United Kingdom, the implications for Scotland would be great, but they would be great also for the rest of the United Kingdom.

At times, those of us speaking in England make the mistake of referring to the United Kingdom or Britain as “England”, a mistake that is picked up at times in the media. We need to be much clearer about that. I understand fully as someone who has spent a great deal of my life in Scotland—in terms of my own heritage, I have very little English blood in me, if any at all—that it is undesirable that England, although it is the largest part of the United Kingdom, talked as though it was Britain. It is not. It is very important that we recognise that.

I want to put this issue in the context of the consequences of devolution. I am a great supporter of devolution; I think that it will continue and will expand in England, as well. I notice today that Boris Johnson is making the case for extended powers for himself in London. My guess is that that will continue and, if it does, as one or two other noble Lords have mentioned today, will change the nature and structure of the United Kingdom. It will have implications for the House of Commons and for this place, and we need to put that in some context. It is time that we stepped back a little and looked at the way in which our constitution functions. I do not want to see another Bill like the House of Lords Reform Bill, which we saw in the last Queen’s Speech. That was a mistake—and I say that as someone who, over the years, has occupied just about every position that it is possible to have on the reform of the House of Lords. I have never gone for abolition, because I think that a large country needs two Chambers, but it is about the only one that I have missed out on.

Any Government who chose to go down the road of electing the second Chamber would end up writing a constitution. To do that would be a very brave action for a Government, because it is very difficult to get it right—and, of course, you would unpick other aspects of the constitution, including the role of the church and the monarch, and so on, so it becomes a major issue. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said a few moments ago, that does not mean that we should not reform this Chamber. I am very much in favour of the proposal put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, at other times, on having a more independent method of selecting Peers. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, also touched on the question of trying to get the numbers down, and a number of other attributes. If we did those two things—reduced the numbers in the House and made the appointments system more visible and transparent, as well as less party political at times, although not getting rid of the party-political bit because it is very important—we could make reforms, so this place would not be the same in five or 10 years’ time. But I do not think that it ends there.

I am picking up on the role of the four parts of the United Kingdom and continuing devolution. If you look at what this House does best, it is scrutiny of Bills. However, what is most interesting and, in a way, deeply troubling, is that the Government use this Chamber to alter the Bills that they have brought before the House of Commons. This applies to all recent Governments in my experience. For example, the Localism Bill, which was brought forward in the previous Session, attracted 514 successful government amendments, the Health and Social Care Bill attracted 390 and I could give similar figures for previous government Bills of all parties. This Chamber has increasingly been used to alter legislation.

It is important to remember that we do not legislate in this Chamber in any significant way; that is done by the House of Commons as everything we do here can be overturned by the House of Commons because it is the elected Chamber. We need to give some thought to how this could change because one of the great changes that have taken place in the House of Commons recently, about which I am very pleased, is that Select Committees have become much more effective at criticising government. It may be a mistake to be optimistic after having spent so many years in the House of Commons, but I am optimistic enough to believe that ultimately that will transfer to the Bill committees in the House of Commons. If it does, those committees will become much more effective at scrutinising legislation and that will have a knock-on effect in this Chamber.

Together with the noble Lords, Lord McFall and Lord Foulkes, and the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, I suggested in an article in Progressonline, a revised version of which appeared in TheHouse Magazine, that, taking a much longer-term view, if we continued down the road of devolution, bearing in mind what is happening in the four parts of the United Kingdom, part of the future role of this Chamber could be to bring the United Kingdom back together again by representing those parts here. In other words, we should not go for a simplistic option of saying that we have to write a constitution and elect everyone or go for the other end of that scale and simply say, “Let us keep it as it is and appoint as we are doing”. There are a variety of options in between, many of which, incidentally, are practised in other countries. I am not automatically arguing for a mixed Chamber, but one of the mixes which could be useful would be something that represented the regions and countries of the United Kingdom but retained the scientists, experts, former ambassadors and former senior civil servants who add value to this place. We need to look at that sort of structure.

I do not think there are any quick solutions to this issue. I do not think that we ought to try to look for a quick solution because, if we do, we will get it wrong. Frankly, that was one of the things that led to the failure of the Clegg Bill. It was an attempt to get a quick fix and it was bound to fail. I say to my own party that if it attempts a similar quick fix, it will also fail. We need to give much longer thought to this issue. We need to hold the United Kingdom together. We need to recognise that devolution is developing, and is likely to continue to do so, and give more powers to the regions of Britain as a whole, including England. Therefore, it might be useful to find a way in which the second Chamber can bring the United Kingdom back together again so that its voice can be heard here. There are very real possibilities there and I hope that at some stage we will find a mechanism to enable us to look at this more constructively which does not make the mistake of a Government trying to bring forward a Bill and then desperately trying to amend it on the Floor of the House in a way that, frankly, is likely to fail.