My Lords, in 2007, when the last Labour Government launched their programme of constitutional reform, the political editor of the BBC pronounced that this was all very well but nobody would be talking about it down at the Dog and Duck.
Last year, in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, the same Nick Robinson said that such constitutional issues were,
“what politics is really about—who should have power over what?”.
He was right on both occasions.
Constitutional issues are often esoteric, but they are also always important. They reflect and determine how power is distributed in our country and, in turn, that determines how every other question in our public life will be answered. These issues are particularly important now. The politics of our democracy are febrile. Too many voters feel adrift and alienated, disillusioned and distrustful of politicians and suspicious of the established and powerful. In response, successive Governments have sought to make changes in the wiring of our democracy. There have been attempts to rebalance power away from Westminster and Whitehall, to reform Parliament and to restrict the power of the Executive. Now, this Government have announced themselves with a raft of new constitutional proposals in their manifesto and in the gracious Speech.
The Government are right to recognise the need for reform. Our constitutional arrangements urgently need to adapt to changing political realities. The union is fraying. Our relationship with the European Union is now in play. Everyone agrees that your Lordships’ House needs to change but very few agree how. At the last election, UKIP received nearly 4 million votes and has one Member of Parliament, and the SNP has 56 out of 59 MPs in Scotland and not a single Member in your Lordships’ House. George Osborne is the only member of the Cabinet with a constituency in the north of England. The main parties are increasingly sequestered in their redoubts. This is a fragmenting polity. Only 16% of the British people trust politicians to tell the truth but 31% trust bankers. Constitutional reform is needed.
Some of the Government’s proposals are welcome. Their measures that significantly devolve power to cities, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have received widespread support and will help to recreate a sense of belonging that is so important in countering this toxic sense of alienation. These reforms build on previous developments. The other proposals also address long-standing concerns.
However, the more closely those other proposals are scrutinised, the harder it is to avoid the conclusion that they are partisan and short-sighted, and driven not by the needs of the nation but by the short-term, sectarian interests of the Conservative Party. They do not “adopt a one-nation approach”, as promised in the gracious Speech; they are a departure from the welcome custom that successful and enduring constitutional reform needs to be framed by proportion and consensus. I want to discuss this in relation to four key proposals which, taken together, reveal an unmistakable pattern of behaviour. I am pleased to see that so many distinguished Members of your Lordships’ House from all sides are going to speak after me to provide their wisdom and insight into these issues and others, I hope.
Perhaps the most glaring example of this Government’s narrow and partisan approach is in their approach towards the union. For more than 300 years, the
United Kingdom has in my view been a uniquely successful enterprise in multicultural and multinational living, but it now faces what one can only say is an existential threat. For those of us who care about the future of this remarkable institution, this is a time for statesmanship and vision, a time to bring the people of these islands together again. But what we are getting from the Government instead is a short-sighted, self-interested approach to one of the most difficult and intractable constitutional questions. The
“going to explode a bomb in Labour territory”.
That bomb was giving English MPs a veto over matters affecting only England, which it is widely agreed will tend to give that veto to the Conservative Party. It constitutes and continues the process of setting nation against nation which is so destructive of the union. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is reported to have been an enthusiast for this bomb—relishing, it is reported, the “raw politics” of it.
The Prime Minister and the Chancellor did not try to build on the Scottish referendum result to cement the union. Instead, the very next morning they went out to explode a bomb in Labour territory. Once the veto is scrutinised in detail, its flaws reveal themselves. Quite apart from the technical problems of definition, critically, it ignores the principle of the need for differential protections for the minority nations of the United Kingdom. The Economist chided its favoured party of government by saying:
“Britain’s union is a delicate balancing act. It is the only stable rich country of its kind: one in which the population of one constituent part is much greater than all the others put together”.
That Conservative bomb on Labour territory was followed by another one during the recent election campaign with that party’s scare stories about Labour and the SNP—again setting the nations of this United Kingdom one against the other. On this I can do no better than to quote one of your Lordships who sits on the Conservative Benches opposite and who has unsurpassed experience in these issues. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, was quoted in the Guardian in April as saying of his party’s approach that:
“It doesn’t seem to me to be a very good policy to try and deal with the rise of Scottish nationalism by stirring up English nationalism. I think you have to, we need to find ways of binding the United Kingdom together, of binding that partnership together”.
That is exactly so. The survival of the United Kingdom is not a tactical munition to be chucked around in some politician’s jape after a curry dinner.
That brings me to this Government’s onslaught on the Human Rights Act, which among other things was designed to help foster a sense of belonging by providing the individual citizen with protection against the overweening power of the state. One rule of law must command broad support in society for it to be sustained. It should not come at the price of requiring majority support for every leaky judgment. That would leave minorities and individuals defenceless. We forget at our peril where the orthodoxies of majorities can lead. Modern human rights were born from the terrible experiences of the 20th century, where the protections that we take for granted—democracy and the rule of law—proved frail and millions and millions paid a terrible price.
The Government’s commitment to scrap the Human Rights Act is intended to suggest that human rights judgments in the courts that have provoked disquiet in sections of the media and the population will no longer occur. That is simply not true, not least because many such cases have resulted from judgments not in British courts but in the European Court of Human Rights. If the Government then seek to satisfy those populist demands by also withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, as some senior Ministers are reported to be advocating, they will be turning their backs on those fundamental protections for the individual.
Noble Lords should not take my word for that. In 2009 Jesse Norman, now a respected Conservative Member of Parliament and chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and Peter Oborne, a prominent right-wing commentator, wrote this:
“As a General Election approaches, it is important for the Conservative Party to drive home the message that it stands for freedom, decency and British liberty. It should drop its opposition to the Human Rights Act”.
The fact that it has not, again, speaks for the short-term and partisan nature of this Government’s approach.
Anyone who still has doubts about that should chart, as I have done, the occasions of the Prime Minister’s public pronouncements on the Human Rights Act. Their timing is characterised by coming after the Prime Minister has had some difficulty or other with the more extreme dwellers on his party’s right wing. The Human Rights Act is the meat that he throws from the sledge to keep those wolves at bay. The protection of the individual against the state really should be more precious than that.
Finally, I want to address two issues that are perhaps so technical that the Government might have hoped that they would sneak through without anyone in the media or the public taking much notice. Both of them will nevertheless fundamentally alter the way in which elections are fought in this country and how Governments are elected. In the light of this Government’s track record it is not surprising, perhaps, that they will alter them in favour of the Conservative Party.
The first concerns political party funding and the Government’s proposals that trade unions should opt in to this. There are two fundamental principles that should govern any attempt to solve the intractable problems with political party funding. First, it should remove the public perception that political influence can be bought; and secondly, it must do so in a way that is roughly equivalent in its impact on all the main political parties. In other words, it should be seen to be fair. This proposal satisfies neither principle. It will do little to address the popular perception that political influence can be bought and, while there may be good arguments for an opt-in, there are none for doing it in this way in isolation.
Why are the Government bringing forward this measure and not also one that, for example, would ban all party political donations from individuals who had evaded tax through aggressive tax avoidance schemes?
There is at least as good a case to exclude such donations. This Government’s partial approach makes it impossible to avoid the conclusion that they do not want to secure a long-overdue clean-up of party funding. Instead, they want to privilege the short-term interests of the Conservative Party.
My last example of this Government’s partisan approach is the superficially innocuous commitment in their manifesto to try again to,
“address the unfairness of the current Parliamentary boundaries, reduce the number of MPs to 600 to cut the costs of politics and make votes of more equal value”.
There is nothing inherently objectionable about that proposal. However, the statistical basis on which the size of constituencies is equalised is crucial. The Government appear to be opposing this not on the basis of population but on the basis of an electoral register that remains neither comprehensive nor accurate. The most recent assessment by the Electoral Commission last year suggested that it was still only 85% complete. That means that 8 million voters who are eligible to vote cannot do so because they are not on the register. This matters for specific electoral reasons as well as on the grounds of general democratic principle. Most agree that those eligible voters not registered to vote are more likely to vote Labour when they do vote and the Liberal Democrat vote in the inner cities, such as it still is, is also likely to suffer. The Electoral Commission found that underregistration is notably higher than average among the young, private sector tenants, and black and ethnic-minority British residents, and that the highest concentrations of underregistration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas.
The evidence suggests that the party that will suffer least, if at all, from such a flawed electoral register is the Conservative Party. Electoral registration has been significantly lower in Labour areas than in Conservative ones. The Daily Telegraph, with its hotline into the inner sanctum of the Conservative Party, revealed on
“Redrawing constituency boundaries to lock Labour out of power for decades is at the top of the agenda for the new Conservative government, senior Tories have said”.
Our electoral arrangements should never become the object of partisan manoeuvring; it corrodes public trust and undermines the foundations of our democracy. So for many years all political parties have sought consensus on such issues and have, for the most part, succeeded in finding it—but no longer, apparently.
These are all far-reaching reforms being pursued by a Government who have hardly received a resounding endorsement from the electorate. In the last 50 years, only one Government have had a smaller absolute majority. In these circumstances it might have been thought prudent to embark on an extensive and comprehensive programme of public engagement and consultation, but there has been no sign of that so far. The Government may argue that this is a matter for Parliament and that it is through Parliament that popular consensus is secure. Of course our system of representative democracy is one that we should continue to cherish, but it can be augmented. In the case of such profound changes, it should be.
Many of my noble friends, and others in your Lordships’ House, believe that there should be a constitutional convention to discuss all these issues in a way that properly reflects their interdependence. I have long been a supporter of this; I wrote a pamphlet advocating it 10 years ago, although it is important that such a convention should not just convene the usual great and good, but accommodate the peoples of these islands through a randomly selected, demographically representative sample of them. Even if a constitutional convention is too great a stretch, there are other means to engage the public through new technologies and deliberative forums. Again, there has been not a word from the Government about any of these forms of public engagement.
Worse than this, earlier this week we heard from the Justice Secretary his intention to restrict the ability of the public to engage with these issues by emasculating their rights to know under the Freedom of Information Act. It is no surprise that Ministers and civil servants do not like that Act—it would not be doing its job if they did—but it is essential to open up the Government to the public whom they serve. How do the Government think they will enhance the public’s confidence in their politicians if they restrict their rights to know in this way? What exactly is it that the Government want to stop the public finding out about their plans for the country?
I understand that the Minister is an Oxford historian. I do not know whether he took the paper on theories of the state when he was up there, but if he did he may recall what Aristotle said about constitutions. The great philosopher wrote that:
“constitutions which aim at the common advantage are correct and just without qualification, whereas those which aim only at the advantage of the rulers are deviant and unjust, because they involve despotic rule which is inappropriate for a community of free persons”.
If he does not recall those words, I commend them to him now. In the context of these short-sighted and partisan proposals, I conclude by also commending to him and to everyone in your Lordships’ House the conclusion of the royal commission in 2000, which was that your Lordships’ House’s key function is,
“to act as a ‘constitutional long-stop’”,
to ensure that,
“changes are not made to the constitution without full and open debate and an awareness of the consequences”.
My Lords, the House should be grateful to the Labour Party, and, indeed, to the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for introducing this timely subject. I suspect that much of this Parliament will be taken up with arguments on constitutional issues. We look forward with no hesitation to the Private Member’s Bill that my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed will introduce to the House for further debate in due course.
It was interesting that during the days of the debate on the gracious Speech so many Members on the Conservative Benches spoke in support of the idea of a constitutional convention. I hope that, at the end of today’s debate, the Minister will not be—how can I put it politely?—disappointingly coy on the subject of a constitutional commission or convention. I am sure that that is what is needed, rather than endless debates in both Houses of Parliament.
I shall make six points in my speech today, which means one point per minute. First, there is some confusion in the Government’s mind between devolution and home rule. My party has always believed in the latter. Jo Grimond put it very well when he wrote about the distinction:
“I do not like the word devolution … It implies that power rests at Westminster, from which centre some may be graciously devolved … Power should rest with the people who entrust it to their representatives to discharge the essential tasks of government. Once we accept that the Scots and the Welsh are nations, then we must accord them parliaments which have all the normal powers of government, except for those that they delegate to the United Kingdom government or the EEC”.
Jo Grimond was my great guru and I have always thought that that is a perfect description of the difference between devolution and home rule.
Secondly, people talk loosely about devo-max. I would rather talk about the maximum amount of home rule consistent with common sense—and it is common sense to retain a united foreign and defence policy together with a common currency, pension arrangements and macroeconomic strategy. The SNP based its financial forecasts at the time of the independence referendum on oil income at $105 per barrel. It has since fallen below $50 per barrel and is forecast to stay below $60 for the foreseeable future, which is why full fiscal autonomy is a dangerous myth.
Thirdly, that is why we need a constitutional convention or commission which would include more than just the political parties—as the noble Lord said in introducing the debate—to pursue a confederal approach to the United Kingdom. The arguments are not new. My distinguished predecessors as Liberal leaders, Mr Gladstone and Mr Asquith, both wrestled with “Home Rule All Round”, but were balked by the Conservative majority in the House of Lords. I hope that history will not repeat itself.
After the Parliament Act 1911, we had a very large, heavyweight constitutional commission, which reported in 1918 and recommended that this place should be elected by the other place. Of course, that was long before we had a Northern Ireland Assembly, a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. The electoral potential today is much greater than was available to that commission in 1918. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, in a somewhat unprofessorial phrase in a recent article, said about the constitution of this country:
“If one joined a tennis club, paid one’s subscription, and asked to be shown the rules, one would not be pleased to be told that the rules had never been gathered together in one place, that they were to be found in past decisions of the club’s committee over many generations, and that they lay scattered among many different documents”,
and that in any case some of the rules—conventions—were not written down at all. That is a pretty good description of the constitution as we know it today.
Fourthly, I believe that any constitutional convention would have to include on its agenda a proposal to replace this House with a smaller senate elected by the component parts of the United Kingdom—the institutions in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland—and that, as far as the House of Commons is concerned, any such election should be by region to avoid the overweighting of London membership in a future Chamber. It should also include plans for an independent element such as we have now on the Cross Benches, which we would not wish to lose.
Fifthly, we in Scotland must wake up to the dangers of a one-party state. We are all proud patriots, but nationalism is never of itself a satisfactory creed, as has been seen in other countries, and can be seen today in the utterances of the cybernats. It is to the credit of Nicola Sturgeon that she has done her best to counter them, but at the next Scottish Parliament elections, less than a year away, we must roll back the drift towards an unhealthy one-party autocracy which we have north of the border.
Sixthly, and lastly, the noble Lord who introduced the debate mentioned electoral reform. It is interesting that after almost every election there is criticism of the electoral system but somehow, as Parliaments progress, that discontent dies away and we never get electoral reform. In creating the new Scottish Parliament, we at least created a proportional election system. I am not a great fan of the regional list system but at least it is proportional and it does mean that people are represented correctly in that Parliament. We also managed to obtain proportional representation for local government in Scotland, which means that every council elected in Scotland correctly represents the people in their area. I do not wish to be put off by reference to the past AV referendum, because that was not about proportional representation at all.
There is much work to be done by a constitutional commission. I hope that this little debate moves us directly in that direction.
My Lords, I have been engaged with constitutional issues for over 25 years. I was one of the initial signatories to Charter 88, a cross-party organisation, set up in the late 1980s, which was concerned that in our modern democracy institutions did not work in the best way and that we should look at ways in which our constitutional arrangements needed to be reformed. I became chair of that organisation and there developed a very clear set of intentions. The idea was that there should be reform of Parliament, particularly this House. It did indeed lead, when Labour came into government, to reform, so that there was a much reduced number of hereditary Peers, the hereditary principle clearly being so outmoded. There were discussions about a written constitution and the need for devolution—perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said, home rule is a better description. We talked also about a Bill of Rights, reform of the judiciary, the Freedom of Information Act and proportional representation.
When Labour came into government in 1997, it was because of my involvement in constitutional reform that I came to be in this House. Many of those issues were the platform upon which Labour had become the Government, and many of the reforms took place in the following years, though not all of them. I remind the current Government that when we talked about a
British Bill of Rights, it was seen to be quite complicated. If we spoke about trial by jury being one of those rights, for example, it had to be circumscribed and it became difficult to work out who would be entitled to it and how to write that into a Bill. It could not be everybody, as in America, because that would be financially impossible. It became clear that incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights and bringing rights home was a more satisfactory way of doing things. That became our British Bill of Rights. In turn, that was incorporated into the Scotland Bill—Scotland, of course, has its own legal system—which too incorporated the European convention. In Northern Ireland it became part and parcel of the peace process. So, disentangling some of these things that become built into constitutions becomes rather difficult.
We did reform the judiciary but we should remember that, when you seek to reform, you should be careful what you wish for. The reform of the Lord Chancellor’s role was done in rather a back-of-an-envelope way. While I wanted to see reform of that role and, for example, the ways in which judges were appointed, the way it was done has led to a reduction in that great role and problems for us. We created a role that meant that people without legal training have become Lord Chancellor, which has reduced the greatness of that role. The reform had to be cobbled together because there had not been proper consideration of how it should take place. I say to this House: we are the guardians of the constitution. We have a wealth of experience and we should call upon the Government to look more carefully before they step into reform, because there can be unimagined consequences.
In 2006 I was invited by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust to chair an inquiry into the failure of people to vote, as we were seeing a big reduction in voting numbers. We held what was then called the Power inquiry. We thought about how it should be titled and decided on “Power” because, precisely as my noble friend Lord Wills said, it is all about power. That is what constitutional reform and constitutions are about: who has power, how the checks and balances are created and so on. When we did that inquiry—I emphasise that it was not a great and grand inquiry—it was quite useful to have people who were not the same old faces involved. That inquiry went round the country. We spoke to people in community centres and so on and asked them why they did not vote. What we got were the answers that my noble friend Lord Wills has referred to: real disengagement because people felt they were not listened to and that wealthy and well-connected people had access to power in a way that they did not. That is still bubbling away under the discontent that I think there is in our nation.
I warn the House that constitutional change is a very interconnected issue. I say this particularly with a view to Scotland. We saw what happened in the referendum. In many ways, the Prime Minister, Mr Cameron, was outplayed by Alex Salmond in the preparation for that referendum: the question ended up being written by Mr Salmond; the timing was chosen by Mr Salmond; and votes for the young—which I support—was pressed for by Mr Salmond. Our Prime Minister is currently under the same kinds of pressures from the anti-European lobby in his own party, and he is being much too compliant over how to set up a referendum and how it should take place. I ask him to think carefully about how he does that. If we are not careful, a referendum on the European Union which does lead to our leaving Europe will have enormous consequences internally for the United Kingdom. It is almost inevitable that at that point, Scotland would say, “We want to have another referendum on whether we stay part of the United Kingdom”, and I would regret that enormously. I see all these things as being interconnected, and great risks are being taken with our unity.
I know that my time is running out but I want to speak about how Scots will read the business of English votes for English laws. If it is done on the cheap—the solution being that Scots leave the Chamber when England gets to deal with its own subject matter—that, too, creates a second-class citizen feeling for people in Scotland. This business of English votes, which I thought was a terrible thing to announce on the steps of Downing Street the day after the referendum had been won by the no campaign, has to be handled with great caution because of how the Scottish people feel. The Scots feel at the moment that they are discussed in derogatory, sidelining and insulting ways. So we have to be mindful of how this dialogue is conducted and how we speak about each other if we want to retain a United Kingdom.
Finally, on the Human Rights Act, it will not surprise your Lordships to learn that I feel most alarmed that we are talking about leaving the European Convention on Human Rights and the European court. We are part of a tapestry in which we have played a leading role, not just in Europe but throughout the world. Our place in this tapestry is so powerful and we have the high ground. We are a beacon for the way in which we protect human rights. We wrote this thing, so the idea that we are stepping away from it is a tragedy but it also has implications for our relationship with the European Union. Once we want to step outside the court, there are questions about whether we can remain part of the Council of Europe, and that in turn has implications for whether we can actually be in the European Union, which has embraced the European convention so wholeheartedly into its systems.
We have to bear in mind the risks in all of this and the interconnectedness. We are the place that can do this best, but we have to speak to the Government about the risks they are taking with the United Kingdom, never mind with our relationship with the rest of the world.
My Lords, having missed the opportunity to take part in the third day of the debate on the gracious Speech, I welcome the chance to offer my two pennyworth—or rather seven minutes’ worth—today on this major part of the Government’s agenda for the year ahead, although I am not as censorious of the Government’s proposals as the noble Lord, Lord Wills.
It is a paradox that in a Queen’s Speech of which the avowed theme was “one nation” the Government should be doing so much to fragment power in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, I welcome the direction of march, as well as many of the individual measures in the Queen’s Speech. I have never believed that the man in Whitehall knows best. On the contrary, I believe that services are best delivered by empowering those nearest to the point of delivering them. Empowering managers and recognising local diversity was the theme of the Civil Service reform programme, Next Steps, which I led for 10 years as head of the Civil Service.
I sympathise with those speakers in the debate on the gracious Speech who looked at the variety of constitutional measures in the Government’s programme and yearned for a unifying theme. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, made a similar point. Nevertheless, I do not support the notion that these measures should be delayed pending a constitutional convention or commission to give logic and consistency to the reform programme. For one thing, there are pledges that need to be delivered. We may feel that the vows made to the people of Scotland in the days before the independence referendum were made in precipitate haste. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Wills, that they were made at the prompting of the former leader of his party. Nevertheless, they were made with the agreement of all parties and the Government are honour-bound to deliver them.
I believe that the Smith commission—despite the fact that it, too, had to act under great pressure—did a good job in producing a package that could be acted on. There will be matters that Parliament will need to look at closely in legislating for that package but the Government are nevertheless right to press ahead with implementing it. Similarly, the Government are right to press ahead with legislation to implement the Stormont agreement for Northern Ireland and the St David’s Day agreement for Wales. I welcome the intentions underlying the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which is currently being debated in your Lordships’ House.
Then there are the proposals about English votes for English laws, which the noble Lord, Lord Wills, said were prompted by the political interests of the Conservative Party. There is no entirely logical answer to the West Lothian question. Nevertheless, it is a nettle which has to be grasped. It would have been made even more urgent if the last election had produced a Government who had no majority in England and Wales, and who would only have been able to pass laws restricted to England and Wales through Scottish votes. The fact that this so easily could have happened underlines the need to find some arrangement which reconciles the right of English and Welsh MPs to determine laws affecting their own country, with the role of the Westminster Parliament to legislate for the United Kingdom as a whole. The Government have produced proposals to achieve that balance. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wills, that these are simply motivated by the political interests of the Conservative Party but good will is going to be needed from all parties to reach a reasonable outcome, recognising and balancing the undoubted rights of all parties to legislate on behalf of the United Kingdom.
I have not spoken about the British Bill of Rights or the referendum on EU membership. Nevertheless, this is a formidable programme of constitutional change. We should not postpone it while we set up a constitutional convention designed to produce a logical and lasting framework. The British constitution has always developed pragmatically. We may feel that at this moment it is developing with precipitate haste but stasis is not an option. This would be absolutely the wrong time to propose the chimera of a written constitution. There are too many moving parts. Nevertheless, this is very important and major stuff, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said.
The role of Parliament in this coming Session will be crucial in dealing with this programme of constitutional change. Both Houses will need to look at and debate the details of these changes with the greatest possible care. We have a very heavy responsibility and we will need the advice of our Select Committees. I believe that the Government abolished the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in another place at entirely the wrong time. Nevertheless, the Public Administration Select Committee has been given that role, and it will have a very important part in this. In this House, we are fortunate in having the Constitution Committee, with a very distinguished membership. That Select Committee will have a very important role in advising us, and the House as a whole will have a major part to play in the months ahead.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Butler. I have a very different perspective on the question at hand and will make two new propositions. First, we have a sort of written constitution. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, who is about to follow me, once added a schedule to a regulatory reform Bill which listed all the Acts that no subsequent Government could change—the core of the UK’s written constitution. I once tried to play the game of asking what acquis Britannique someone wanting to join the United Kingdom from outside would have to sign. The acquis Britannique exists—we know it exists but we just do not admit its existence.
Secondly, we have been in an ongoing constitutional convention for about the last 40 years. In the 1970s, we joined the European Union and had the Kilbrandon commission. The decision to join the European Union continues to be somewhat fraught and disputed, although I believe the forthcoming referendum will confirm that it was the right decision. We decided not to become a federation when the Kilbrandon commission reported. Ever since then, we have been playing with this question of whether to have a federation or not and have created a somewhat patchy sub-federation which is not yet complete. The whole question of English votes for English MPs, or whatever it is called, is really the final capstone in creating a proper federation: we have devolved power to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland but have not found a way of devolving power to England because we do not want to create another Parliament for England. That is the problem: if we could only afford another Parliament for England, the English votes question would not matter, as we would have devolved power in England.
We have done various things but do not want to admit that these things have happened. My noble friend Lady Kennedy referred to the very peculiar way in which we reformed the Lord Chancellorship. It was very much a Thursday afternoon decision. Everybody had gone home, suddenly the Lord Chancellorship was about to be abolished and new tights had to be found for the new Lord Chancellor early on Friday morning, otherwise we would not have met. We also reformed the judiciary—remember how contentious that Bill was as it went through your Lordships’ House. We successfully made one of the biggest reforms when we did that.
We have done reform, but it can be done only by the party in power. It is not possible to say that the party in power should be more consensual. That is not what power is about: if you are in power, you have a majority and you exercise it. You then wait for the next Government, if they have a chance, to reverse what you do. That is exactly what the Conservative Party is trying to do with the Human Rights Act. It was not in power when it was passed; it is now in power and saying, “Let us have a go at this Human Rights Act and see if we can do it more to our satisfaction”. It is a very imperfect, clumsy way of doing reform, but it is the way we have in this country and we have to make the best of what we have. We must understand that we are in a continual process of constitutional reform. It is just that nobody has written it all down, although maybe the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has and teaches it every week to his students.
Let me give one example. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, pointed out how representation in Scotland, at both parliamentary and local level, has an element of PR added. When the boundaries Bill passes here and the number of MPs is reduced from 650 to 600—if the Prime Minister can still satisfy his Back-Benchers to get that done—there is no reason why the 50 extra people should not then come from a top-up through PR. That could be done without any major referendum on voting procedures or anything like that. It would then be very easy for us to correct the kind of historic wrongs that have happened to UKIP, the Greens and so on. We would have 600 seats by the conventional first past the post method and 50 by a top-up method. That would be the beginning of reform and done in the standard British way of adding an amendment to a Bill. We do not need a major reform of voting procedure or the entire election process. We have opportunities here. We need to consolidate somewhere in our minds or in some written form what are the major gaps left and why they are there. If we can do things that way, we have the opportunity now, especially through your Lordships’ House, to point out to the Government where those gaps are.
To end, one major gap is key and dealing with it could create a proper federal constitution here. As I said, we have about three-fourths of a federal constitution. If we reformed your Lordships’ House—another endless saga, I know—in a way that it would be elected but elected through a regional representation or list system, and if you could have, let us say, 10 regions in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, we could have 30 representatives from each of those regions. We would then have an Upper Chamber that would be a truly good and federal one as well as representing a lot of local and devolved authorities. There are possibilities like that. There are omissions in what the Government said. However, it must be said that we do not trust them to actually do things right. The right thing is to never trust any Government to do things right unless they have a check put upon them. That is what your Lordships’ House should do.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wills, on initiating the debate. The Motion addresses the implications of constitutional changes. I propose to focus on the constitutional implications of those changes.
Robert Stevens, in his book The English Judges, published in 2002, makes the point that the nation witnessed massive constitutional change in the period from 1640 to 1720. He notes that there were major constitutional developments in later years, such as the Reform Acts, but these were essentially,
“independent acts rather than part of a dramatic period of constitutional restructuring”.
He then—this is my key point—says:
“For lawyers and courts, however, the period from 1970 to 2000 provided a practical and psychological transformation comparable with the earlier constitutional revolution”.
The Labour Government returned in 1997 introduced a whole raft of constitutional measures. Anyone expecting a period of quiet after 2010 was to be disappointed. The coalition agreement heralded concessions and compromises on a number of measures of constitutional reform. The current Government are committed to several major constitutional measures, not least—as we heard—in relation to devolution and the European Union. The sheer scale means that we are not looking at independent Acts—that is, piecemeal changes that have time to bed in before other changes are made. We are looking at a whole gamut of changes to our constitutional arrangements, changes that are significant quantitatively and qualitatively.
During the 1980s and 1990s, several coherent approaches to constitutional change developed, each stipulating a particular constitutional structure deemed most appropriate to the United Kingdom. The problem with the constitutional reforms implemented by the Blair Government was that they bore no clear relation to any approach. When I asked Ministers what was the intellectually coherent approach to constitutional change being taken by the Government, I received no answer. In 2002, I initiated a debate on the constitution. In replying, the then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, admitted that there was no such approach. Rather, he said, the Government proceeded,
“by way of pragmatism based on principle, without the need for an all-embracing theory”.—[ Official Report , 18/12/2002; col. 691.]
The principles that he enunciated were not necessarily compatible with one another, as they appeared to embrace power residing at the centre and power not residing at the centre.
The coalition Government fared no better in that they were formed by parties which adopted approaches that were almost diametrically opposed to one another. The Liberal Democrats adhere to the liberal approach to constitutional change and the Conservatives to the traditional, or Westminster, approach—approaches that are at different ends of the spectrum of negative and positive constitutionalism, of what one sees a constitution as being for.
The result is that we are seeing, and pursuing, major changes to our constitution without having a clear appreciation of the implications for the constitution as a constitution. What is the principled approach to constitutional change? What type of constitution are we trying to craft for the United Kingdom? As things stand, we are in danger of ending up with a constitution that is the sum of a raft of disparate constitutional changes, rather than a coherent framework that we have set out to create.
In the debate on the gracious Address, I made the case for a constitutional convocation, not to draft a new constitution, but rather to make sense of where we are. We need an exercise in constitutional cartography. My purpose today is not to repeat what I said then, but rather to put specific questions to my noble friend Lord Bridges about the Government’s approach to constitutional change—not to specific proposals, not to the implications of particular measures to be introduced, but rather to constitutional change as such.
First, what is the Government’s intellectually coherent approach to constitutional change? How do they see the constitution as a constitution? Are they wedded to maintaining the Westminster model and the attributes ascribed to it? Secondly, what are the mechanisms within government to ensure that it engages in joined-up thinking on constitutional measures? Who is in charge of constitutional issues, not least in terms of ensuring a coherent approach to constitutional change? This is a question not about, or not just about, co-ordination, but about leadership. It would be helpful to know from my noble friend how government is now structured in order to consider constitutional issues as constitutional issues.
My key point in this debate is to stress that in looking at the implications of constitutional change, we should not confine ourselves—indeed, must not confine ourselves—to looking solely at the implications of this Bill or that Bill. We must look at the implications for the constitution as a whole. To do that, we need to be clear as to what type of constitution we have, and want, for the United Kingdom.
My Lords, two constitutional dogs did not bark in the Queen’s Speech, although they should have done—parliamentary boundaries and the voting system. I shall say a word or two on each.
On parliamentary boundaries, under the Bill passed in the last Parliament, constituencies will have to have electorates within 5% of the average. An associated proposal would reduce the size of the House of Commons from 650 MPs to 600. In the last Parliament, noble Lords on this side of the House fought hard to stop the Bill. I am shocked to see that I spoke 166 times, according to Hansard. Noble Lords opposite accused of us of partisanship. Partisanship—moi? In fact, we had a case of great substance on two points, which got lost. One was that the 5% tolerance was too low; a 10% tolerance would mean far less disruptive change to constituency boundaries without ruining the effect of making every vote of roughly equal weight.
The second was that the reduction in the number of MPs was not justified, given that the number of electors per seat will, if that change goes through, have increased by 22% since 1950—and the workload of an MP is now many times what it used to be. I was very pleased that in March this year the now late constitutional affairs Select Committee produced a report which endorsed both these points.
The Government could just ignore the committee and plough on, but it would be a mistake—and this is the crucial point—from their own partisan point of view. The bias in the electoral system has gone. Before the 2015 election, it favoured Labour. Now it favours the Tories. Had the general election vote nationally been tied, the Tories would have won 301 seats to Labour’s 254, according to the electoral geographers Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie. However, if the changes to the rules go through, the Tories will be torn apart by internal conflict. There will be fewer seats for their MPs to represent. Even in the seats that remain, there will be fundamental changes in boundaries. These measures combined will mean a plethora of deadly duels, mostly in Tory seats, often between sitting Tory MPs, regularly involving clashes between new, young Members—winner takes all. It is a recipe for dissent.
Less obviously, it will have a terrific effect on the Prime Minister’s European goal, which I assume is to recommend to the country that we stay in. Tory grass roots are fundamentally Eurosceptic—I do not think anybody would deny that—so any MP who thinks, suspects or is worried that their seat may change or disappear will have every incentive to adopt a very Eurosceptic position. The prospect of Tory civil war—which in some ways I welcome—over Europe will be magnified several times over by these proposals. It is unusual that I appeal to the Government to exercise their self-interest, but they should have another look at the combined effect of these proposals.
I am not surprised that electoral reform was not in the Queen’s Speech. In my experience, parties rarely question a system that has delivered them an overall majority. I sat on the Jenkins commission—the result of a pledge by Labour in opposition to look at the electoral system—which somehow seemed a lot less attractive after we had just won an overwhelming majority under Tony Blair. Yet this election has again shown the unfairness in modern conditions of Britain’s electoral system. The Government’s overall majority is based on the votes of less than a quarter of the electorate. We now have a set of completely new injustices on top of the old ones. Lib Dem underrepresentation, which used to be the big concern, is now as nothing compared with UKIP underrepresentation: it got 14% of the vote and one seat. Then there is SNP over- representation: with just over 50% of the Scots vote, it got 95% of Scots MPs—so, because of the voting system, Scotland, which just last year rejected independence, now has MPs nearly all of whom favour it. This is very odd.
There was, of course, a referendum on electoral reform in 2011 which came down against change, but Nicola Sturgeon’s threats of a new Scottish referendum on independence show that in our febrile age referendum results do not last for ever. The previous European referendum has lasted for more than 40 years. Would anyone like have a bet with me that we will have another referendum on Scotland within 20 years? You cannot say that electoral reform can never be subject to another referendum and that it will not happen but is permanent.
In the mean time, I hope that attitudes in my party will change. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but the prospect of an overall Labour majority under the present system is now, and for the foreseeable future, near to nil. This is for three reasons. First, the bias of the electoral system is now against it, and will be even more against it if the boundary changes go ahead. Secondly, the 2015 general election showed a sharp decline in the number of marginal seats; again using the evidence of Professor Johnston. Whereas at the last election 75 seats would have fallen on a 5% swing to us, now it is only 49. Thirdly, Scotland is and may well remain a virtually Labour-free zone.
Given that the Government will not do anything, I wonder whether my party ought not to take an initiative on this, get together with the other parties that have been so badly affected by the electoral system and see whether there are any outline proposals that might come about that would improve it. We will not have an overall Labour majority in the foreseeable future but there could still be a hung Parliament—we only just avoided one this time—in which case it would again be possible to change the electoral system. At any rate, this is a matter that deserves to be debated.
My Lords, I very much welcome the Labour Party’s continuing interest in constitutional matters, as reflected in its choice of subject for this debate.
In the period before the election of the last Labour Government in 1997, I was the joint secretary of the committee examining constitutional reform that was established by the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and chaired jointly by the late Robin Cook and my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart. That committee demonstrated then that cross-party work in opposition could help to deliver real measures of reform when a Government are then willing to act to improve the health of our democracy. Contrary to the view expressed a few moments ago by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, I believe that the committee agreed a coherent programme. Our work helped to prepare for the rapid introduction of legislation for the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Assembly, all of which use forms of proportional representation, as well as the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law and the establishment of freedom of information legislation.
When that committee was established, we agreed that it is dangerous for any one party to propose on its own what it considers to be reforming changes to the constitution. That is why I am so committed to the principle of a constitutional convention, as currently proposed in the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed. The experience of the Scottish constitutional convention, in that same pre-1997 period, also showed the benefits of the involvement of civic society, working with people in all parties committed to making our country more democratic, enabling home rule, devolving power and making government at different levels more representative of the people who vote for it.
The Labour Government who were elected in 1997 failed, however, to deliver on their manifesto promise of a referendum on proportional representation—something very different from the system offered in the referendum four years ago. After introducing proportional representation for the 1999 European Parliament elections, progress on constitutional reform then faltered. The late and very much missed Lord Jenkins of Hillhead referred, in a report commissioned by the Labour Government proposing an alternative electoral system for Westminster, to the rich cornucopia of fruits delivered to the Labour Party in that 1997 landslide which caused a diminution of its interest in voting reform for the House of Commons. It is regrettable that the efforts put into the Jenkins commission by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, as he has just referred to, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, were spurned by those in their own party who probably considered at that time that the Labour Party had become invulnerable in general elections. They could not think that now.
Perhaps one of the greatest mistakes made by my own party in its 27-year existence was its failure at that time to accept the Labour Government’s offer of the alternative vote system, which was clearly being made as an alternative to the promised referendum on a proportional system. I begged my noble friend Lord Ashdown, who was leader at the time, not to reject such an offer. However, when the AV system was offered to the people four years ago, the referendum clearly killed off the prospects of adopting it as the sole means of electing Members of the House of Commons in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the election last month of another majority Conservative Government with a minority vote of just under 37% has again awakened interest in the subject of voting reform, at least among those parties that between them received over 63% of the vote, but also among those who do not want to see one-party states established in the parts of the UK towards which more power is now being devolved. I suspect that it was the distorting effect of first past the post in Scotland last month that has particularly caused some figures within the Labour Party again to consider voting reform. It simply cannot be right that 50% of the vote for the SNP in Scotland entitled it to 95% of Scottish MPs.
I noted carefully some of the contributions made in the debate on the gracious Speech by some Labour Members of the House. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of the Shaws, spoke then and today of her work with the Power commission, which recommended moving away from first past the post and giving the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds, and made significant suggestions for the reform of the funding of political parties—all of which should now be addressed in a constitutional convention. In that debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Adams of Craigielea, said:
“We are in a constitutional mess”,
“we have to look again at the voting system that produces such a result”.—[ Official Report , 1/6/15; cols. 229-30.]
I always listen with particular interest to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, although we have often disagreed in the past about the issue of voting reform. The noble Lord described himself in that debate as having been a “Neanderthal” or “dinosaur” when it comes to first past the post, but he agreed that we must look at the issue again, and in a comprehensive way, through the vehicle of a constitutional convention. The noble Lord, Lord Elder, who is much respected, speaking with what he described as “fear and trepidation”, acknowledged that,
“the present system, which has given absolute power to a Government with only just over a third of the votes cast and denies effective representation to other parties which have polled millions, is no longer fit for purpose”.—[ Official Report , 1/6/15; col. 222.]
I could not put it better.
Finally, I will refer briefly to the absence of any proper democratic accountability in the current proposals for mayors to control combined local authorities. The present proposals will in effect provide for one-party states, which cannot be good for the governance of those authorities. That is why my noble friends Lord Shipley and Lord Tyler are tabling amendments to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill to provide for elections on a fair basis, so that representative bodies will be able to hold such mayors properly to account in an open and democratic way.
My Lords, I very much thank my noble friend Lord Wills for having introduced such an important debate and for having done it so well.
It is clear from what he said—and this was very much reinforced by my noble friend Lord Lipsey—that the present arrangements are just not adequate. In fact, they are fundamentally flawed and lack credibility. Piecemeal reform is not the way to proceed; we need a road map and a destination which the road map will assist us in reaching. I am inclined to believe that we will have to go down the road of federalism and regionalism, even if we have several attempts, and whatever happens in Scotland. I also believe that it will also be necessary to introduce a new approach to voting that enables a far wider cross-section of the population to identify with those who claim to be representing them.
In recent times there has been a lot of talk about Magna Carta. I am as excited about Magna Carta as anybody—it has tremendous significance in our history. But we are trustees of a great deal more than just Magna Carta. It opened a door by taking on the exclusive power of the king and demonstrating that this could no longer prevail, but it also opened a door to a process of evolution to which the role of the people was absolutely essential.
Let us cast our minds back over our history just for a moment to William III, the Bill of Rights, the Levellers, Peterloo and the Tolpuddle martyrs. My wife, who is a historian, said to me this morning, “Aren’t you talking about social issues here rather than constitutional issues?”, but of course my point is that social and constitutional issues are essentially linked because the constitution has to reflect the social realities of the time in which one is living. There is a post-First World War endorsement of the essential role of women. We in this House should never forget the incredible courage of the Suffragettes, but of course they were preceded in the previous century by the Tolpuddle martyrs, and before that, more generally in politics, by the Great Reform Act 1832.
After the Second World War we saw very significant developments. There was the drive for the UN declaration on human rights, in which great people such as Eleanor Roosevelt played such a key part, as did leading statesmen in our own country from both left and right. They were central to the creation of that declaration. That then moved on to the European convention. Of course these had implications for our constitution—it was part of the process of evolution.
Another thing happened after 1945. We began to see in a highly interdependent world the indispensability of international institutions. Some people would ask whether this raised issues of sovereignty. Of course it did, but we were recognising that the interests of the people who happened to live in the British Isles could best be served by contributing—let us not talk about sacrificing—some of that sovereignty to the wider international community, because that was indispensably in our interests. More recently—and it will be with us for a long time—we have had the struggle for identity in Ireland and Scotland. In Scotland—I am a half-Scot—let us never forget that very much lingering at the back of a lot of people’s minds has been a feeling that the Act of Union was not something that they brought about but was very much a stitch-up between the Scottish establishment and the English, and that the day of reckoning will come.
I am trying to describe the fact that it has been evolution and struggle that has brought us to where we are, and we still have a very enviable society in many ways. Now, we are trying to engage in top-down management. We are saying, “We’re the people who manage things at the moment. How are we going to get it right for the future?”. I believe that that is destined to fail unless we re-engage the people in the process. We are practitioners within the existing constitution. We do not own it; the constitution belongs to the people. Therefore, if we are to have a lasting and sustainable way forward, it has to re-engage the people. It seems to me from that standpoint that a national convention on the constitution, with wider representative participation in society as a whole, is critical. I sometimes fear that we are determined in all we are doing to retain the power of the Executive. The time has come when we have to re-examine the role of the Executive, which is to reflect the will of the people. It is their servant, not their master.
My Lords, I want to touch briefly on the proposed British Bill of Rights. Of course, I recognise that a delay for consultation is now proposed, but there could be no clearer commitment than for such a Bill. Indeed, just two days ago in the other place, Dominic Raab, the new Justice Minister, full of enthusiasm, stated:
He continued by saying that, although leaving the convention was not the Government’s objective, no option was off the table.
There is time today to make only one or two brief points. First, in the debate on the gracious Speech on
“a feeling of great anxiety that the United Kingdom, with its tradition for respect of the rule of law, not the rule of lawyers, should be in breach of a treaty by which it is bound”.—[ Official Report , 1/6/15; col. 179.]
That of course was entirely consistent with evidence that the noble and learned Lord had given the Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill, as recorded at paragraph 92 of its report, HL Paper 103. Later in his speech, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, suggested a possible way of dealing with this sort of situation short of withdrawing from the convention. He suggested—as reported at cols. 179-80 of the Official Report for
Clearly, the noble and learned Lord was attempting to avoid the unthinkable possibility of withdrawing from the convention and to put forward a constructive suggestion. However, with the best will in the world, it seems to me inevitably doomed. In the first place, it is surely inconceivable that all the states party to the convention would agree to such an amendment of the convention. In any event, would we really be happy to achieve a position where, for example, if the Russian Duma, or indeed the Irish Parliament, wanted to recriminalise homosexuality, it would be perfectly able to do so? In truth, we must recognise that our preparedness to accept that the very occasional unwelcome ruling against us is the price we pay for the huge benefits to the wider population of the Council of Europe of subjecting less liberal states to the constraints and disciplines of the convention.
I should make it plain that I, too, regret a number, although in fact only a very small number, of Strasbourg’s decisions. Frankly, they do not include that on prisoner voting—a decision that we could satisfy simply by giving the vote only to those serving 12 months or less. Surely we are, after all, trying not to outlaw prisoners but to instil in them some sense of civic responsibility. However, I regret one or two Strasbourg decisions—for example, the cases of Al-Skeini and Al-Jedda, which are in direct disagreement with our own final court’s decisions, to which I was party respectively in this House and in the Supreme Court, and which tend to undermine our forces’ fighting capabilities in armed conflicts abroad. I am troubled, too, by the extent to which Strasbourg has extended the scope of the Article 8 right to respect for private and family life.
As to the application of the convention to warlike operations, there are possible solutions. Indeed, I canvassed them in a conference last month at Oxford, but there is not time to develop them today, although I hope that we may one day come back to them. With regard to Article 8 and, in particular, its impact on the deportation of foreign criminals, let us see how the changes to the legislation introduced by last year’s Immigration Act work out. According to the Times, there is shortly to be a Court of Appeal case which questions those changes.
There has been extensive debate during recent years about Section 2 of the Human Rights Act requiring our courts to “take into account” Strasbourg’s jurisprudence on the convention. High authority in our courts dictates that we should not only take account of that case law but, where it is settled, directly in point and authoritative —for example, a clear decision of the Grand Chamber—follow it. The object of the 1998 Act was, after all, to “bring rights home”. If our courts were to refuse to apply a clear Strasbourg decision, the inevitable consequence would be, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, mentioned, to drive the disappointed litigant back to Strasbourg to establish the claim there.
Of course, success in Strasbourg would bind the Government only in international law, as with prisoner voting, where primary legislation stands in the way of domestic enforceability. But I can see some arguments for preferring that to the present position, which, just very occasionally, requires our Supreme Court to follow a Strasbourg case against its own better judgment—those arguments were indeed canvassed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, back in December 2011. But it is one thing to elaborate Section 2 of the Act to spell out that our courts are not obliged to follow Strasbourg or, indeed, to repeal the 1998 Act—essentially reverting to the position before 2000, when we merely took account of the UK’s international law obligations—but quite another to legislate contrary to certain specific convention requirements as determined by the Strasbourg court, and that is what I understand the Government presently have in mind. We shall need to watch their proposals very carefully indeed.
My Lords, it was a pleasure to listen to the very constructive and thoughtful opening speech of my noble friend Lord Wills. It was a pleasure, too, to listen to many of the other speeches, including that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, to which I would add simply one line: one person in the European continent who will be delighted if we withdraw from the convention is Vladimir Putin. If you find yourself doing something that is on the same side as Vladimir Putin on human rights, it really is time to think again.
On the wider issue, I have re-read the Queen’s Speech today. There is not a lot in it on the constitution. I agree with the mayoral approach, which was introduced by the Blair Government. I supported it then and I still do. I like the idea of the northern powerhouse and, yes, we should do that elsewhere as well. After that, the speech descends into vagueness. One line that troubles me is:
“My government will also bring forward legislation to secure a strong and lasting constitutional settlement”.
That is usually the triumph of hope over experience. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, with whom I agree on many things on the constitution, I think he always seeks a logical structure, which, frankly, I do not think you will ever get, especially with the British constitution. It is the triumph of hope over experience because, basically, we make it up as we go along. That is not entirely a bad thing, because I sometimes think that overpredictability in politics is an anti-democratic approach; you should find yourselves at times in unpredictable situations because that is where you lose. Occasionally, we need to lose in politics, whether we are talking individually or as parties, because it sobers you up and makes you think through policies again.
I find the vagueness about how we handle this reform of the constitution deeply worrying. Like a number of other speakers today, including on the Tory side, I was deeply worried about the call for English votes for English laws immediately after the Scottish referendum. If you wave the English flag in front of the Scottish flag, you will provoke conflict and disagreement. It is only 300 years since we fought around that border and it is an issue in people’s hearts and minds. It could also easily give a boost to UKIP. If it finds itself speaking for English nationalism—previously, it tended to present itself as speaking for United Kingdom nationalism—it would create a greater danger within England. Although I have always found Scottish nationalism deeply disturbing, I consider English nationalism no less disturbing, and we could break up this precious union that we have had for so many years. So I do not think that English votes for English laws—or Welsh votes for Welsh laws—is the way forward.
That is not to say that there is no need to reflect the problem that England does not have a parliamentary structure of its own. We have to work out how we handle the relationship between the four parts of the United Kingdom. The big, obvious problem is that England is bigger than the other three parts put together, but there are problems within that. As I indicated when I last spoke on the constitution here, some 22 million people live in the south-east corner of England, which makes it bigger than the other three parts of the United Kingdom and bigger virtually than much of the rest of England. There is a distortion there. You also have the problem whereby, if you try to change the relationship between the various parts of the United Kingdom, you always have to remember that one part, Northern Ireland, would require, if you made too many changes, either the unstitching of some of the agreements already made or the altering of some international agreements that were lodged at the United Nations as part of the settlement with southern Ireland. So there is a complication there, which is why I think so many of us in the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrat party and, to some extent, the Conservative Party have been saying that the way forward is to have a constitutional conference of some type and to involve the people in it—not to have simply a top-down approach. Many people throughout the United Kingdom have lost confidence in the political system, so we need to involve people in change. I am not saying what those changes should be. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, made a good point when he talked about the difference between devolution and home rule. His point about home rule was powerful and we should give thought to it.
I have also been encouraged by the group that has been set up by, I think, the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Foulkes. It crosses all parties and involves Members of both Houses as well as members of local authorities. The discussions within that group have been incredibly co-operative and quite indicative of ways forward. A key question that we must all answer at the end of the day, touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is what the United Kingdom is for. The more we devolve power, or give home rule—as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, phrased it—the more we raise the question: what is the United Kingdom Government to do and what is their purpose? In fighting the referendum, we put great effort into spelling out the dangers of a break-up of the United Kingdom. We were right to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, mentioned the oil price, but it was not just that: if the Royal Bank of Scotland had gone belly up in an independent Scotland, the impact would have been disastrous for Scotland. The case for the union was very strong. But in drawing attention to the dangers of a break-up, we understated the advantages of staying together. I cannot spell them out now in this short contribution, but they are to do with issues such as macroeconomic policy, defence and foreign affairs, pensions and so on. If we are to start talking in a constitutional convention about what the role of the United Kingdom is, we can make it meaningful again for the people of the United Kingdom. We can show people in Scotland—or England if we see a rise in English nationalism—the advantages of being part of the UK.
We are in a strange situation at the moment. In a way, the SNP’s view of the United Kingdom is a bit like the Tories’ view of Europe: “We don’t really want to be part of this but maybe we have to be”. That is a very negative approach. We need to think of the advantages and about how we do this. If the Government are not going to go down the road of a constitutional convention, will they please say what their strategy is to deliver what they said they would do in the Queen’s Speech, which is to create a strong and lasting settlement for the United Kingdom?
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Wills on initiating this debate. I was going to congratulate him on his timeliness, but this debate would have been timely at any point during the last Parliament and probably any time during this one as well, such is the pace of change that this Government are introducing and have introduced in the past.
We have heard today that there is very little in terms of a common approach from the Government regarding constitutional change. There is one common thread, in that most of these changes are botched, fragmentary and not thought through. Many of them, as my noble friend said, are determined by political advantage, which is not a good driving force for constitutional change. During the last Parliament, we had the AV referendum, although I disagree with my noble friend
Lord Lipsey on electoral reform. We had the referendum not because the Government as a whole wanted to consider electoral reform but for the wrong reason—because of the coalition deal.
Then we had the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which certainly suited some in terms of political advantage at the time, although I am not sure that the electorate were enamoured of it when it came to that very long election campaign. I wish my noble friend Lord Grocott well in his attempt to repeal that Act. We also had the boundary changes, which several colleagues have talked about today. They were blatantly political. The idea of creating constituencies regardless of the natural boundaries in an area is dangerous. It makes the link between a Member of Parliament and their constituency all the more difficult. Any such constitutional change that has cutting the cost of politics as its purpose is going in the wrong direction. We should be defending the need for an effective representative democracy and not making cheap jibes in order to curry favour.
Nobody has mentioned the House of Lords reform that Nick Clegg introduced. That sank very quickly so perhaps it is best not to do dwell on it. But we saw other changes, such as voter registration. My noble friend produced figures that show that 8 million people will now be off the register. That is a serious situation, not just for our democracy but for our society. It will increase the alienation of many people, which is the last thing this country needs at this particular time.
Many noble Lords spoke about the Scottish referendum, of course. Many noble Lords in this House worked very hard to ensure that the result of that referendum was the right one—a vote for “better together”. However, our efforts were somewhat undermined when, after everyone had rejected the idea of a second question about devo-max on the ballot paper, we then had that vow—the panic measure a couple of days before, on the part of all parties—that undermined all that we had been trying to do.
Then, as others have said, it was even worse after the result, when separation had been rejected. Instead of making a statement consolidating the union, the Prime Minister, as my noble friend said, exploded a time bomb outside Downing Street in the morning, stoking up problems with his announcement about English votes for English laws being such a priority. As my noble friend said, you do not counter Scottish nationalism by fanning the flames of English nationalism— so much for the Government’s apparently enduring settlement aim, which totally contradicts what the Prime Minister did on that day.
It has been said that the purpose of EVEL is to harm the Labour Party. I am not sure that it will as much as people say, but some of that is in our own hands. I am sure that that was the motive behind what the Prime Minister said. Everybody within Parliament should be concerned that the Prime Minister is going to try to change our constitution by introducing English votes for English laws by changing the Standing Orders in the House of Commons, which could be done—and he wants to do it within 100 days. That is rather a fundamental change to go through simply on the basis of changing Standing Orders in another place. It is very serious indeed.
We have seen lots of piecemeal changes. Mention has been made today of the possibility of a constitutional convention, conference, convocation, commission or whatever—call it what you will. I do not think that the name matters. Maybe there should be a Joint Committee of both Houses. We need to know how all of these changes will knit together or I fear that we will have a ridiculous and unnecessary situation with many tensions and challenges, and too many times the courts will end up making decisions and not Parliament. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton: we need to step back, not to try to write a new codified constitution but to clarify the framework and get a coherent approach.
I want to make a final point about one type of creeping constitutional change that has not so far been mentioned: the increasing use—would say abuse—of Henry VIII powers in legislation. Sweeping changes are now being made by regulation and no proper indication is being given about the nature of those changes at the time that the legislation goes through—even in Committee and on Report. As Ministers we have all tried to push the boundary on that a little, but we used to have in government a legislation committee—a Cabinet committee—that actually looked at how legislation was fit for purpose and fit for being introduced. One of the tests of that was whether the statutory instruments that were being proposed were proportionate. We have got well away from SIs being proportionate. It is almost as if Ministers are competing to see who can get away with the most—on my count the noble Lord, Lord Nash, is winning at the moment. This House probably needs to look at whether we need a new mechanism so that it does not reject or accept an SI but has some powers of delay. That would be very helpful.
I congratulate my noble friend. He is right that we should keep returning to this issue and keep asking the questions about how the constitutional changes will fit together. He reminded the House that part of our role is to be a constitutional long-stop. This House has to take that responsibility very seriously indeed.
My Lords, to abuse an allusion from a former Prime Minister’s phrase, our union is one that is not at ease with itself. In his opening remarks the noble Lord, Lord Wills, said that our union is frayed, and I cannot disagree with that. I thank him for bringing this debate to the House. The absence of ease within our union was demonstrated in the general election when the political imperative in our nation became almost overpowering, with fear of government in one part of the United Kingdom being set against that in another. The last time posters of the nature we saw being displayed in the United Kingdom were those of a century ago on the Irish question. The union is a remarkable and resilient creation, but I fear that its resilience will be tested if we have perpetual government in the same manner as the kind of election campaign we saw in May. Government of the United Kingdom cannot be sustainable in the long term if it is formed from only one nation within the union and a one-party state in another part of the country, always using opposition against that union Government to its electoral advantage.
Surely for all of us who believe in the union, there must be discomfort with the greater political incentive being identity rather than philosophy. We in the United Kingdom are not immune to the wave of nationalism in Europe that has been gaining ground either. In May, some 6 million people in these islands voted for overtly nationalist parties. However, there is nothing to be gained from criticising or blaming the people for doing that. Our role must be to consider carefully what our union means in all parts of it and what it offers for every citizen, from the northern islands to Cornwall and from Wales to the east coast or the south coast. With all their different political imperatives and pressures, and all their different economic situations, they are still part of the union, and it seems that it is indeed becoming more frayed.
Our task in this Parliament is therefore to work on how we can resolve our relationship within the union, and its relationship with the wider European Union. If the union is to be at ease with itself, surely it must be outward-looking rather than one where, even on reading all the party manifestos in the election, one gets the impression that we will be spending the next five years looking inwards at ourselves and not beyond. If there is any lesson to be learned from the Scottish referendum, I would caution the Minister that if he thinks the European referendum will be the resolution of many of these issues, that is perhaps a naive thought. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, this debate is about the implications of constitutional change, but I wish to take a slightly different slant and consider what the implications are for the union as a whole. However, I cannot but draw the conclusion that if we continue with perpetual changes to one part of the constitution in isolation from consideration of their impact on the other parts, the pressure on the whole will become too great.
My noble friend Lord Steel highlighted the consistent view of Liberals and others for many generations that home rule or a federal arrangement is the most appropriate framework for government. Even in the constitutional crisis a century ago that led to the Parliament Act and others, there was no referendum in any one part of the union to secede from another. We have challenges ahead of us of a larger order that those which previous generations faced and we are not yet in a position to make a response in a commensurate way. We have not considered sufficiently what the referendum in Scotland tells us; we are still in the process of carrying out a sigh of relief rather than making a proper and rational assessment of what is required for the future. That is because for many years we have not been ahead of the debate on the constitution. We have debated it often, as has been indicated by other speakers, but we have done so almost in complaint about and in response to difficulties in one part of the United Kingdom, not to propose a new relationship for the country. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, and others, I do not question for one moment the ability of our Civil Service to make a silver purse out of a constitutional sow’s ear; we can do remarkable things by attaching a crown to something and giving it a historical name—suddenly it becomes a convention or a constitutional practice. But such a piecemeal approach, even with a degree of finesse, is no longer sufficient and it cannot be the pattern of things to come.
As my noble friend Lord Rennard indicated, it does not need to be that way. There can be cross-party agreements and ways forward so that we can secure some form of agreement. But we must change our mindset so that constitutional reform is not the Government having to do something in response to a political pressure of the day, but wanting to do something to hold the whole together. I hope therefore that my Constitutional Convention Bill will receive a fair hearing. It is meant to be one way of trying to gather together as much consensus as possible, along with a specific remit which means that we can address what the noble Lord, Lord Butler, indicated was his concern; namely, that we delay one part in order to try to make what is perhaps a naive attempt at achieving the whole in the future. We need not delay the Government, which to be fair are seeking to honour their commitment to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the cities, but it is important that we should commence at the same time a process to consider how the whole brings this together in a holistic way.
My Bill is a vehicle through which the Government can address the human rights legislation issue and how it fits in with our constitutional arrangements; about how we can have fair financing, not only for the cities and regions of England, but also about the formula which holds the whole together across the nations. And, yes, it also means that from that, we can then work out what the appropriate role for this institution is under the electoral system for this Chamber. I hope that the outcome may well be a charter of new union. It may well be a document which, while not a written constitution, would certainly signal what this union is and what it is for.
Finally, I know that a constitutional convention was not in the Conservative manifesto; it did not propose a convention, but nor did it rule one out. I am of an optimistic disposition and I know that the Minister is greatly experienced and a shrewd adviser. Since he was an adviser to the former Prime Minister who was seeking a nation that was at ease with itself, I hope that he will see the merit in a process that will assist in having a union at ease with itself too.
My Lords, I warmly welcome this debate and thank my noble friend Lord Wills for his opening remarks. I certainly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on the need for a coherent approach to constitutional change. He has made the point many times before. Any objective analysis of the Government’s proposals would show that they have produced anything but that coherence, and they certainly do not answer the questions raised by my noble friend Lord Soley when he asked what the nature of the UK itself is in the current context and about the need for a lasting settlement. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Wills said, many of the proposals seem to be motivated by short-term political advantage rather than in order to provide any long-term national benefit. I certainly see nothing in them that would bring our nation together, nor do I see anything which would restore public confidence in the health of our political system. I shall take one example. As my noble friend Lady Taylor said, we have proposals to create two tiers of Members of Parliament on the basis of Commons Standing Orders. A change of such immense importance surely deserves the full scrutiny of both Houses of Parliament, looking not only just at the proposal, but at the impact on the rest of the constitution.
We also see proposals for the repeal of the Human Rights Act which will reduce the ability of those who find themselves the victims of state abuse to defend themselves adequately, along with proposals which may involve the Human Rights Act continuing to apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland but not in England, thus driving a further wedge between England and Wales on the one hand and the rest of the United Kingdom on the other. My noble friend Lady Kennedy pointed out the risks of that.
There are proposals from the Justice Secretary to limit the public’s right to know by emasculating the Freedom of Information Act, and proposals to make it more difficult for unions to donate to political parties and ballot their members. These proposals do absolutely nothing to increase the transparency of donations made by private donors to political parties, particularly the Conservative Party. In the Bills that the Government intend to introduce, nowhere is there any sense of the public crisis in confidence in our constitutional arrangements. Where is the response to the work of my noble friend Lady Kennedy and the Power inquiry and the disengagement of so many people from those who wield power? Where are the proposals to deal with the imbalance in registration of voters? The young, the renters—those who do not own their own homes—the poor and those from minority ethnic groups have the highest levels of non-registration. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that electoral registration does not leave millions of people unregistered? My noble friend suggested that the figure is 8 million.
What steps will the Minister take to stop new constituencies being created that fail to take account of the actual number of people who live there? What is his response to my noble friend Lord Lipsey, who pointed out that the bias in favour of Labour has now been reversed, which should give the Government a greater sense of interest in providing greater tolerance in the numbers that will be allowed for each constituency? I also want to ask about the recent report of the Electoral Commission of the 1.9 million people retained on the electoral register under transitional arrangements. The Electoral Commission wants to delay bringing forward the order to bring an end to the IER. Will the Minister say whether the Government agree?
On human rights, my noble friend Lord Judd spoke of the indispensability of international institutions. How right he is. My noble friend Lady Kennedy spoke of the tragedy of our potential withdrawal on human rights. We have a Government who say that they support human rights but that they should be British human rights. Of course, one has to go back to the October 2014 document which said that the Conservatives would reintroduce the rights in the same wording as the convention rights, but would make it clear that there are aspects of those rights that would be specifically excluded. For example—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, has already pointed this out—on the prohibition of deportations if the deportee would be tortured or killed on return, such deportations could go ahead. Another example is the application of human rights law to the military.
We are very confused about what the Government intend partly because Ministers keep making remarks that seem to be in direct contradiction to each other. The Minister has a very good opportunity to spell out what are the Government’s intentions. Can he say whether they will withdraw from the convention? The Lord Chancellor made remarks on this yesterday that directly contradicted something one of his junior Ministers said very recently.
On devolution, I will simply say that in relation to Scotland we want the Smith commission to be implemented in a comprehensive way. We want to keep the Barnett formula alongside more powers to make the Scottish Parliament one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. We also want to put devolution on a stronger statutory basis. We agree with the proposals of the Silk commission but Wales should not be unfairly disadvantaged by the Barnett formula, and we support a fair funding system for Wales by introducing a funding floor. In Northern Ireland we welcome any aspects of the Stormont House agreement, but the current deferment of decisions on welfare mean that the agreement is in a precarious position. I should like to know what the Government are doing with the Northern Ireland Executive to deal with this issue.
On English devolution, I want to pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. We certainly support the devolution of much greater powers and control of budgets to the city regions and counties, but surely it is for those cities and counties to decide on their own leadership arrangements. Why, when the people of Birmingham made it abundantly clear in a referendum that we did not want an elected mayor, are we now being effectively blackmailed into having one to get powers commensurate with the importance of the greater Birmingham region to the UK economy?
On Lords reform, my noble friend Lord Desai put forward a perfectly coherent set of proposals and the noble Lord, Lord Steel, mentioned the Bryce commission of 1918, which bears a rather uncanny resemblance to the Billy Bragg secondary mandate proposals. The Conservative manifesto states:
“While we still see a strong case for introducing an elected element into our second chamber, this is not a priority in the next Parliament … will ensure the House of Lords continues to work well by addressing issues such as the size of the chamber and the retirement of peers”.
I assume it means that the Government will do absolutely nothing except address the size of the Chamber by appointing even more Conservative life Peers.
I want to ask about the increasing practice, raised by my noble friend Lady Taylor, which we have noticed in the number of Bills coming forward. They seem to be skeleton Bills with lots of Henry VIII powers. My noble friend said that we should look at whether the House should respond in the way in which it deals with statutory instruments. If the Government are using Commons Standing Orders to introduce two tiers of MPs in the House of Commons they should not be surprised if we seek to use Standing Orders in this House to give greater scrutiny to secondary legislation. The precedent will have been set in the other place.
My noble friend is so right. This is a programme aimed at short-term advantage and promotes division. It threatens the union, the reach of our voting system, the rights of our citizens and the strength of our nation as a defender of human rights in the world. Our political system is in trouble. The union is fragile. Our place in Europe is uncertain. Politicians are held in low esteem. Only 43% of those registered aged 18 to 24 voted at the last election. What better illustration of the problems in our political system?
No one should be complacent about the state of the health of our constitution. We have to re-engage and strengthen our constitutional arrangements. If ever we needed to look at the constitution in the round, the time is now. That is why we support the establishment of a constitutional convention. Why will the Government not agree to that?
My Lords, what a fantastic debate this has been, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wills, on securing it. He is quite right, I did read history at Oxford, but sadly, I clearly was somewhere else—maybe somewhere involving alcohol and thinking about things. It is another sign of my misspent youth; for example, when they were trying to teach us about Aristotle, I missed it.
When I was told there was to be a short debate on the constitution I looked at my officials in bemusement and asked whether this was not a contradiction in terms or actually a physical impossibility. This debate has been excellent; we have covered a lot of ground. I feel as if I have just been hit by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, with a tidal wave of questions about the constitution.
“on all great subjects, there still remain many things to be said”.
Of no subject is this more true than the British constitution. Much more remains to be said but I thank all noble Lords for their contributions, creating what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, described as a constitutional cornucopia, from which I shall try to pluck some of the fruits.
Trying to sum up is a little daunting. I feel like I am facing one of those test papers in that great source of insight into the British constitution, which I am sure noble Lords know well—1066 and All That—where students face questions such as:
As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, the exam question before us today, and for me to try to answer, is to note the implications of the constitutional changes proposed in the gracious Speech.
Let me start by rehearsing the intention behind those measures. As has been said, including by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, the Government intend to govern in the interests of one nation. This was a clear theme of the gracious Speech. What does that mean? In practice it means ensuring that our constitution, the institutions and the democratic processes that underpin our nation create a stable polity. Let me try to address my noble friend Lord Norton’s excellent exam question: this means that we need a constitutional settlement in which Parliament is sovereign and which is characterised by the principles of giving power to the people—a point that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, made so well. It is also a fair settlement and one that has a pragmatic recognition—two words that I emphasise—of the unique nature and characteristics of the different parts of our union. I am unsure that that answers my noble friend Lord Norton’s question, but I would be happy to debate with him further on it.
What does this mean in practice? We have rehearsed a number of these points today. It means that we will meet our commitment to deliver further powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It means—a critical point here on giving power to the people—a referendum on this country’s continued membership of the EU. It means, in the interests of fairness, that we will address the English question through the introduction of English votes, a point that I will return to. Further, it means that we will introduce a Bill of Rights, which will uphold fundamental human rights while protecting against the abuses of the Human Rights Act, a point that I will also return to. To answer my noble friend Lord Norton’s question about the machinery of government, clearly my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has oversight of all government policy, while my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster co-ordinates the constitutional reform programme.
I turn to the constitutional convention, or convocation, or however others might like it. I applaud the speech on this by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed. He spoke eloquently, as always. I shall answer this not by being coy, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, suggested; I shall address it head on. The Government do not plan to establish a constitutional convention. Instead, our focus must be on delivering the commitments that we made to the people of the United Kingdom. The Government were elected with a mandate to deliver the commitments that I have listed and that should not be delayed, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said in his powerful contribution.
There is nothing to suggest that the public want a constitutional convention. Instead, I point out that they were offered one at the last election by the Labour Party. It was one of the policies that was rejected and no doubt went the same way as the “Ed stone”. Instead, I argue that the British people want the Government to get on with the job they were elected to do. It might seem odd to quote Elvis Presley in this context, but I kept thinking of his song, “A Little Less Conversation”—a little more action. That is what I think the British people want on this point.
I know that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, has been keen on such a convention for some time. Indeed, I read his pamphlet back in 2006. He proposed that a convention might consist of 300 members who would be elected at a general election. They would look at everything: from devolution to an issue that I know matters to your Lordships—age restrictions on Peers—the whole gamut. Their contributions would be put to the public in a referendum. I should add that the noble Lord suggested that no one who ever stood for election would be able to serve on this convention, so that includes himself and a number of your Lordships.
I mention this not to put in lights the noble Lord’s contribution to the debate, but really to make the point that every person who wants an official convention has their own particular view as to who should be on it and what it should do. To get any agreement, I suspect that we would need a convention on a convention. Furthermore, international experience shows the challenges that lie in dealing with the outcomes of such conventions and then securing public and political legitimacy for their conclusions. In Ireland, of the 18 recommendations made by its constitutional conventions, just two were put to a referendum. In British Columbia and in Ontario the public rejected the outcomes.
Rather than go down this route, I argue that we must press ahead with the package of reforms that we have set out and scrutinise them vigorously, as a number of noble Lords have said. If others wish to look at these issues in a broader context, either here in Parliament or elsewhere, or even to set up their own convention, they are more than welcome to do so. Let a thousand flowers bloom, I say; knowing that your Lordships are not shrinking violets, I am sure they will. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, implored, your Lordships should do this as we are the best placed to do the job. What we cannot afford is an expensive talking shop that would delay, rather than deliver, reform. If we are really to listen to the people, kicking this issue into the long grass is not the answer. Those are not my words, but those of Margaret Hodge. For once, I entirely agree with her.
I turn to the reforms. Through the measures that we are introducing in this Parliament, the Government will deliver some of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. I dispute with those noble Lords who contend that there is not a programme here. It is important that those increased decision-making powers be accompanied by enhanced accountability to ensure that the devolved Administrations are responsible to the people who elect them.
On Scotland, I dispute what some of your Lordships have said: that the approach the Government are adopting is partisan. The Scotland Bill delivers the Smith commission agreement, on which there was cross-party agreement, in full. We are providing extensive new powers and more control over tax and spending. As set out in the St David’s Day agreement, we will devolve additional powers to Wales over areas such as transport, energy and the environment, and empower the Assembly to manage its own affairs. For Northern Ireland, the Stormont House agreement offers the prospect of a more prosperous, stable and secure future. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is meeting the parties again today, having held a series of bilaterals with all parties over the last week.
The Minister referred to the Smith commission, which was established by the Prime Minister and chaired so well by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Kelvin. Perhaps that indicates that commissions —which can be cross-party, consensual and result in clear conclusions that the Government then honour a commitment to deliver—need not be “long grass” and need not necessarily be in a party manifesto.
I argue instead that that commission was drawn up in response to a very specific point. It was brought about by the consequences of the referendum. What we have here is a much broader set of issues; as I argued, we do not have agreement on what a convention would do, its terms of reference or those who would sit on it. Furthermore, we have a mandate and a clear plan of action that we need to deliver. No doubt we will return to this in due course. I very much look forward to doing so.
Meanwhile, we are devolving more powers to cities and to communities. The local government Bill that is currently before your Lordships puts in place the legal framework enabling us to decentralise powers to cities and counties across the country. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for his support on that point. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, it would be for people to elect their local decision-makers and to hold them to account. I dispute the concept that they would be one-party states.
All this reflects the fact that the Government recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach to constitutional change will not work. The individual devolution settlements reflect the distinct histories and circumstances of the different parts of the United Kingdom. To make sure that those settlements function effectively, we must ensure that the Governments of the different nations of the United Kingdom work together. As such, all four of our Governments are working together to review the formal and informal processes that govern our relationships, and we will collectively agree the best way forward. As part of this, we will explore the recommendations of the House of Lords Constitution Committee’s report on intergovernmental relations.
I turn to English votes, another issue that a number of noble Lords have spoken about. Just as devolution has strengthened the voices of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland within our union, the Government’s proposals for English votes will create fairer procedures to ensure that decisions affecting England, or England and Wales, can be taken only with the consent of the majority of Members of Parliament representing constituencies in those parts of United Kingdom.
Once again, I refute the argument made by a number of noble Lords that this approach is partisan. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said, this issue and proposal is addressing something that was created by devolution. The West Lothian question is almost as old as I am. It sits there in the triptych of those other constitutional questions: the Schleswig-Holstein question and the Irish question. It deserves to be answered, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said.
What we need is a balanced and fair settlement which gives MPs from across the House a role in making legislation but ensures that English matters are approved by English MPs, just as Members of the
Scottish Parliament have the final say on devolved matters. Importantly, every MP from every part of the UK will still be able to debate and vote on every piece of legislation in the Commons. English votes for English laws will therefore help safeguard the union by embedding fairness into Parliament’s law-making processes.
Several noble Lords referred to the Bill of Rights. As the noble Lord, Lord Wills, mentioned, this is obviously something a number of your Lordships have scrutinised in depth. This Government were elected with a clear mandate to reform and modernise the UK human rights framework. As such, we will bring forward proposals, as was set out, for a Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act.
The Government are currently developing proposals on which we will consult fully in due course. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, and others argued that the Bill of Rights could undermine human rights. Once again, I disagree. Our Bill of Rights will protect fundamental human rights but also prevent their abuse and restore common sense to the system. We want to remain part of the European Convention on Human Rights but the system must be reformed to ensure that British judges decide how to interpret the law. Our Bill of Rights will therefore be based on convention rights but will take into account our common law tradition and make clear where the balance should lie between Strasbourg and the British courts—a point I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, referred to. We believe that we can make progress as part of the ECHR. However, to repeat what has been said before, we do not rule out leaving it if that proves impossible.
We will of course reflect on the devolution implications of a Bill of Rights as we develop our proposals, and we will engage the devolved Administrations in that process and make the case for reform. I know that this matter, like all the topics we are covering today, is of keen interest to your Lordships. Therefore, I reassure noble Lords, especially the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, that there will be significantly more consultation on and scrutiny of the Bill of Rights than there was for the Human Rights Act, which was introduced without formal consultation and within just six months.
The boundary review is, once again, an issue of fairness in order to give votes more equal value. Individual electoral registration policy has cross-party support and has been consulted upon widely and debated extensively in Parliament. The new online application service has made registration easier and more accessible than ever before, and it now takes as little as three minutes to submit an application. Indeed, there were more voters on the register at the general election than when the new IER was introduced a year before. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, last week the Electoral Commission published its analysis of the registers used to administer the general election in May 2015. I can confirm that the Government will indeed respond to that report in due course.
Our constitutional history is one of change, some sudden, some gradual. Once again, Sir Walter Bagehot put this very well when he referred to,
“an ancient and ever-altering constitution”,
full of “hidden inner change”.
Our programme for this Session, as set out in the humble Address, aims to create a fair and balanced settlement which empowers people across the United Kingdom. As we proceed, obviously the proposals must be debated and scrutinised. I am sure that those points that have been raised today which I have failed to address will be debated further in full, but here the role of this House will be invaluable. John Stuart Mill was quite right, though: much remains to be said. I look forward to hearing more in the weeks and months ahead.
My Lords, it was daunting enough to open this debate. It is even more daunting to close it after such a distinguished and compelling succession of speeches. I thank everyone on all sides of the House who took part in the debate. Every single contribution illuminated these extremely important issues.
I wish to pick up on only one point made by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, before I turn briefly to the Minister’s remarks. I do so only to set the record straight because he seemed to suggest that I was opposed to any attempt to deal with the West Lothian question, on the grounds that to do so would be partisan. That is not my position, as I think he will see when he reads Hansard tomorrow, as I hope he will. I am simply opposed to the way of dealing with it—the veto—set out in the Conservative Party manifesto. It is interesting that in his comprehensive remarks, the Minister did not seek to deny the story that I cited: that the Government’s motivation was to put a bomb on Labour territory. I do not know how the noble Lord, Lord Butler, defines “partisan”, but putting a bomb on the opposition’s territory seems a pretty good definition of it to me.
I thank the Minister for a very illuminating and comprehensive response to what I agree was an excellent debate. I am extremely grateful to him for reading our pamphlet, which means that I can now start counting its readership on my second hand. That is a devotion to duty that goes well beyond anything that could reasonably be expected of him, so I am grateful to him for that. I am also grateful to him for the wide range of references. I do not think I have ever been bracketed in the same paragraph with Elvis Presley before, something for which I will always be in the Minister’s debt.
Apart from that, I am afraid that the substance of the Minister’s response did nothing to allay my concerns about the Government’s programme. There are a whole range of issues on which we shall have to differ. I was particularly alarmed to note that the Government are still not ruling out leaving the European Convention on Human Rights. However, I have no doubt that we shall return to these issues again and again and again in the coming months. In the mean time, I beg to move.