Constitution: Gracious Speech — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:37 pm on 25th June 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 1:37 pm, 25th June 2015

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?