Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:19 pm on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 1:19 pm, 13th December 2018

My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for securing this important and timely debate. I declare my interests as a trustee of a mental health service for children and adolescents, and as a trustee of the Michael Sieff Foundation, a child welfare charity. For those of us working in that area, particularly, the system is not delivering geographically nor to the most vulnerable.

I do not refer to any particular Government. In our experience we have seen disjunction and discontinuity between successive Governments in areas such as housing policy and the development of apprenticeships. We have recognised these problems for many years but we have not got to grips with them. There is a lack of continuity in governance—a short democratic horizon—in this country. I hope that whatever facility is used to reflect on our constitution, and perhaps improve it, we will look across the world at the countries which seem to be doing best and learn from them.

My noble friend Lord Owen, who is in his place, referred to the Bundesrat and the German experience and practice. I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Germany, with which I visited the Bundestag last spring. I was struck by the fact that Germany seems to have a successful, prosperous economy and a good, healthy social contract. In contrast to the housing concerns here—130,000 children living in bed-and-breakfast or hostel accommodation this Christmas —in Germany, where they certainly have their issues, there is a more secure private sector and social housing set-up. In so many ways, one could see failures on our part where Germany has been successful.

A German journalist to whom I was speaking a while ago had visited Blackpool for a week to talk to families there. She said, “I am afraid it seems that your social contract is broken. In our country, Germany, it is more secure”. I hope that as part of this process we will look abroad and consider what has been successful.

In preparing for the visit to the Bundestag, I was struck by the continuities in German governance—in the leadership of Kohl and Merkel, and in the parties. Its multiparty system allows certain parties to continue through several Administrations so that there is continuity in fiscal policy and foreign policy, and that has benefited Germany. So I hope we will look at Germany and other nations when we consider this matter.

Turning to another important issue, there is a sense—I may have misunderstood this—that the membership of Parliament is becoming increasingly middle class and that the connection with people at the very bottom is being lost. I may be mistaken, but I wonder whether we can consider how to facilitate connecting Members of both Houses with the dispossessed.

We have an armed services facility to make it easy for Members to work in the Army, the Royal Navy and so on. We have the Industry and Parliament Trust to make it easy for Members of both Houses to get experience of industry. We do not have a social protection trust, which would make it easy for Members of both Houses to spend time with social workers and to live on a housing estate for a while. Clement Attlee—a middle-class/upper middle-class man and a barrister—went to live and work in Toynbee Hall as a youth worker. He got to know and have affection for young people living in poverty. It was a tremendous experience in his life.

There are various ways in which politicians who wish to can learn about how those at the nether end of society are living. Yesterday we heard from the head of security in both Houses of Parliament. He referred to a push system, a default position under which parliamentarians would be provided with information about security. What about some kind of push system to make it easy for parliamentarians to have that kind of experience?

Edward Timpson, who grew up with fostered and adopted brothers and sisters and used that experience in Parliament, told me that it was quite normal for parliamentarians to visit fire services and ambulance services, but quite rare for them to go out on calls with health visitors or to visit with social workers on the front line. If that became more normal, it might make a huge difference to the quality of policy and legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, emphasised what is at stake. In recent years we have not delivered as we might have done for the British people. I am reminded of a German 19th-century poem about a child and his father riding through a German forest. The child said, “My father, my father: I am being pursued by some terrible demon”. The father said, “No, no, you will be fine. You will be home in a minute”. The child keeps complaining and the father keeps saying, “No, no, it’s okay”. We cannot afford to be complacent. Our constitution has not been delivering for some time and I hope that the proposals brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, will be enacted in one way or another.