Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:06 pm on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 1:06 pm, 13th December 2018

My Lords, I am sorry that I cannot agree with everything the noble Lord said, although he did make some extremely pertinent and very important points. Not for the first time, I am grateful to my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, who has been friend, colleague, sparring partner and sometimes fellow campaigner both in the other place and this one. I did not know about this debate until yesterday. I came out of hospital to lead a debate last night on the Royal Academy—a totally uncontroversial subject—and, sitting next to my noble friend Lord Higgins earlier in the day, I learned of this debate and that he was going to make his valedictory speech. That is why I put my name down. I went through a slight wobble this morning and am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, for allowing me to come back in to the debate after I had scratched.

Listening to my noble friend Lord Higgins, I felt that I must say how much I have valued his wise counsel and long friendship since 1970, when I entered the other place as a new and very raw MP. I owe a great deal to my noble friend, who began his public life as a spectacular sprinter but has become the long-distance runner of British politics. He has been an invaluable Member of both Houses of Parliament. In the Commons, one always looked to him for sound sagacity. He was absolutely dedicated to the parliamentary ideal and—we did slightly conspire together, although we were not successful—would have made a wonderful Speaker of the other place. He has been a very successful Member of your Lordships’ House, on both the Front and Back Benches. I am grateful for what he said about the campaign for an elected second Chamber, which many of your Lordships present are supporters of and which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and I have attempted to steer for some 18 years now. Among the most regular attenders and those who have made a real contribution are the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, who spoke so movingly about my noble friend Lord Higgins, the late Lord Howe of Aberavon and my noble friend Lord Higgins.

I believe we are debating an important subject today. I am more in favour of the convocation than the convention, but I believe it is crucial to engage public interest in the democratic process and democratic institutions. We see now, in the aftermath of a bitterly divisive referendum, widespread disillusionment with the parliamentary practice and process that has made our country what it is. If we are to keep faith with people such as my noble friend Lord Higgins, we have to latch on to that and do something about it.

I believe, as does my noble friend Lord Higgins, that there is a continuing place for this Chamber. But it is important that its size be reduced, and that we recognise that we are not as effective as we should be because of our size. However, an assembly of those who do not in any sense challenge the unambiguous democratic authority of the other place has a continuing role to play in our democratic process. Yes, it should be more representative of the country as a whole, and yes, its numbers should be contained, but I believe it has a real and continuing role.

Following this debate—although it will not be immediate—I would like to see an appointment of a royal commission, as advocated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon. That should be followed by a convocation that takes evidence from around the country in a judicious and balanced way, always recognising the danger implicit in 85% of the population of the United Kingdom being in England, a point made splendidly by the noble Lord, Lord Hain. Such a convocation must take a long, balanced look at what our democracy should look like and what the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament should be as we move through the 21st century.

The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has done a service by bringing the subject before us today. My noble friend Lord Higgins has adorned the debate with his wit and wisdom in a way that will make it memorable. I hope it will also lead to something in the years ahead.