Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:54 pm on 13th May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Non-affiliated 5:54 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, it has been a very good debate. I shall concentrate on the union and the constitution, but I want to connect those two things, because a solution to the union would require substantial constitutional change, especially in the status and composition of your Lordships’ House. I start with a very famous saying, that if you want to preserve something you value very much, you have to change it—you have to change things all the time. While we are all for the union, we forget that the union itself has been changing within the last 50 years.

When I arrived in your Lordships’ House in 1991, the question of the nations was not as high on the agenda as it is today. The Scottish Constitutional Convention, the big public discussion, made us all aware that there was genuine dissatisfaction in Scotland. We do not even mention the fact that Wales was integrated without any Act of Parliament, and so was Ireland. Let us start again and say: we will have a union, a different union from what we have at present, and a better union.

I have studied the history of many newly independent nations, and it is never a good strategy to answer a demand for greater independence or greater devolution by saying, “Oh, it will ruin you economically.” That argument works the wrong way. People get riled up when you think their national feeling is just a matter of pounds, shillings and pence. We have changed quite a lot since 1991. Indeed, the Labour Government of 1997 onwards legislated on devolution. The time may have come—it has come—to look at the whole question again.

When we are looking at the question of the union, we must also see that we have parliamentary reform. Many noble Lords have said today that the problem with the House of Lords is that it needs reform and recomposition. We have heard many reports on how to do that. A Bill put before Parliament by the 2010 to 2015 Government was unfortunately rejected by the House of Commons, which did not allow it time. That House of Lords Reform Bill is a good example to go back to, because a committee of both Houses of Parliament deliberated on it carefully. Lord Richard, whom I still remember fondly for his campaign for House of Lords reform, chaired it. I think we have to go back to a committee to see what kind of proposals we can get through.

It is a question not just of the hereditary Peers but of the other unelected Peers. We have to change the structure of the House not just to admit the principle of elected Members but to make the House of Lords representative of all parts of the union. That is a fundamental and important part of any scheme of union or constitutional reform we may have.