HL Deb 07 May 1980 vol 408 cc1655-98

3.7 p.m.

Lord FOOT rose to call attention to the need to improve the effectiveness of central and local government, to reduce overmanning in the public service and to restore the supremacy of a truly representative Parliament; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in opening this debate which stands in my name I will not disguise to the House that I approach this task with some misgivings. That is primarily because when I look around the House and, indeed, when I look at the list of speakers, I am acutely aware that there are very many of your Lordships who have much greater authority and experience to speak upon the matter of the reform of government than I can lay claim to.

However, I am gratified to notice that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has been good enough to let this Motion catch his attention and that he is going to participate in this debate.

I say that because very recently I have had the opportunity to read the famous Dimbleby Lecture which the noble and learned Lord delivered, I believe, some two years ago. I heard it on that occasion on television, and I read it the other day—on both occasions with great profit. It is particularly satisfying to me that the noble and learned Lord is going to take part in this debate because nobody, and I say this with the utmost respect, has contributed more in recent times to the discussion of constitutional change in this country than has the noble and learned Lord. If we have done no more, my colleagues and 1, in putting down this Motion, than to enable the noble and learned Lord to have another platform, that is quite good enough.

The other reason for my misgivings is somewhat different. I cannot quite say how I shall get on, but, as at present minded, I do not think that I am going to say anything which is particularly controversial. That is a cause of misgiving to me, because in my family the view has always prevailed that if you say something which is entirely uncontroversial you are almost certainly saying something which is untrue—and vice versa. Therefore, what I will attempt to do, I hope briefly, is merely to present the scene, as it were, for the speeches which are to follow.

What I should like to do is to draw your Lordships' attention to, or, it would be better to say, to remind your Lordships of, two enormous changes which have taken place in the last 100 years in the social and political structure of this country—and, more particularly, have taken place during the lifetime of most of the elderly Members of the House, like myself. The first of them is one which was very much emphasised in the report of the Kilbrandon Commission, a commission of which I had the pleasure and honour of being a minor member. When we started out on the consideration of our task in that commission, one of the first things to be done was to try to assess how the country is governed today or was governed at that time, in the early 1970s. One of the things that impressed us most of all was to discover how enormous had been the growth in the scope and scale of government in this country over the first 70 years of this century. I do not want to weary you with any statistics, but perhaps I might quote two statistics from the Kilbrandon Report which serve to illustrate the enormous change which has taken place in the way in which we manage our affairs here in this country.

One figure is this. In 1900 at the turn of the century the number of civil servants at all levels in this country—that is central and local level—numbered no more than 50,000. By 1970—and this was the time, of course, when the commission were considering the matter—the number of civil servants, that is not industrial civil servants but people entirely concerned with the matter of government, had risen tenfold to 500,000, and I suspect that today the figure is that much greater again.

The other statistic which may serve to illustrate the matter is this: in 1870—and now I am going back 100 years—public expenditure represented only 9 per cent. of the national income. In 1970 that figure had risen to 43 per cent. of the national income. If I understand the latest statistics, the amount of public expenditure now is more than 50 per cent. of the national income.

Another way of looking at this is to compare the situation of the ordinary citizen in this country, say, at the turn of the century or perhaps 100 years ago. In those days the Government in this country were concerned in the main with foreign policy, with defence, with the raising of revenue, with the keeping of law and order, and very little else. There was—I have forgotten when it came into existence—a board of trade, but it was a comparatively minor office. If Mr. Gladstone or Mr. Disraeli back in those days had been asked what their policy was for the economic management of the country, you might reasonably have supposed that you would have received a blank response, because the economic management of the country was not at that time regarded as part of the business of government at all. Today this is the main preoccupation; indeed, the obsession of all Governments is the management of the economy.

One result of that enormous change in the way we manage our affairs is that it has added vastly to the complexity of the business of government. I stand aghast sometimes when I think of the burden that falls upon the shoulders of Ministers of the Crown, and the burden of course becomes heavier the higher you go in the hierarchy. One does not have to read the diaries of Richard Crossman to realise that if a Minister is in charge of a great department of state, with all the preoccupations of that, at the same time to play his proper part in the consideration of basic matters in the Cabinet and the like is imposing upon him an almost intolerable burden. It cannot surprise anyone if many of the indeed major decisions are made on the basis, so far as some of the departmental Ministers are concerned, of very little knowledge of what it is all about. That is one aspect.

As I say, 100 years ago the ordinary citizen in this country was scarcely aware of the existence of central government. It had very little impact upon him. Since then, of course, with increasing momentum, government intervention has spread out into every area of human life and we have these great departments of state given over to matters like health and social security, education, transport, the environment, energy, employment; all these are new creations of the last 100 years. Today the ordinary citizen of this country, going about his ordinary business, is affected by the business of central government and indeed local government almost every day of his life. That is the change in the structure of our society which has taken place since then.

The other great change to which I should like to refer briefly is what we call the technological revolution. What I mean by that for my present purposes is this: Over the last 70 or 80 years—or go a bit further back than that—ever since the discovery of the power of steam and, after that, other forms of energy, electric power, oil and now nuclear power, as we have learnt to master these new sources of power and we have applied those new sources of energy to the exploitation of the natural resources of the world, certainly in the great so-called developed industrial countries of the world we have transformed our environment and we have transformed our way of life on a larger scale than at any previous time in history. I suggest that presents us in these days with very im- portant questions concerning the way in which we are going to manage this new world into which we have emerged.

I do not need to speak about the benefits that have been derived from the technological revolution, but those benefits have been bought at a very high price. The most obvious example of that, of course, is the unlocking of the secret of the nucleus. What we did then was that we opened a Pandora's box which we can never shut, and now forever more—and this was one of the great turning points in the history of mankind—because we have acquired the capability to obliterate the species, because we have found that secret we can never unlearn the secret, we can never forget it, and we remain for ever more the prisoners of our own knowledge and the potential victims of our own ingenuity.

Let me pass from that to some less cataclysmic consequences to follow. One of them is that this technological revolution has only compounded the complexity of which I was speaking just now. So complex are matters today that we all now live, I suggest, enthralled by the expert and the computer, because there is no single mind which can comprehend the totality of the new situation in which we live.

In addition to that, and indeed perhaps more important than that, a further consequence of the technological revolution is that we have moved into a new interdependent world. Perhaps the most striking example of that which one could find (and one could find many examples) is the fact that we have all come to know of the so-called economic miracle of Japan. As everybody knows, and as the Japanese people in particular know, the whole of that vast economic structure which the Japanese have built up with so much efficiency and effectiveness is utterly dependent upon preserving the oil pipeline from the Gulf, because Japan does not produce one barrel of oil of her own and the whole of the Japanese economy, and indeed the life of the Japanese people, could be cut off if natural events prevented that oil lifeline from being kept open.

We are all now interdependent, both domestically and internationally. As a very young man I remember the General Strike and the coal strike of 1926. I refer to that for this reason. Your Lordships may remember that the General Strike went on for 10 days, but the mining strike went on for another nine months. So primitive was our society at that time, compared with our society today, that the country could manage and the economy could be held together despite the fact that not a ton of coal was mined in British mines over a period of nine months. In 1974 we discovered how drastically that situation has altered today.

Perhaps I may select another example of the way in which we have all become interdependent and dependent upon each other—the way in which we have all become, willy-nilly, whether we like it or not, members one of another. Take the electric grid which we have established in this country. With this wonderful procedure, by moving a switch or pressing a button one can direct energy from one part of the country to another; but, by the same token, if the people who have control of the switch or the button have a mind to, they can cut if off altogether and the life of this country would be paralysed perhaps within a period of 24 or 48 hours.

Internationally the situation is surely the same. One hundred years ago the ordinary citizens of this country were almost unaware of events abroad and their lives were almost unaffected by what might happen abroad. Indeed, the Government of the country could continue to manage the country's affairs almost undisturbed by events, however cataclysmic, which might happen on the other side of the Atlantic or in the Far East or even in the Middle East. We all know how that situation has changed. Today, wherever there is a situation of crisis or disturbance or conflict in any part of the world, whether it is political or economic, social or racial, we all know that the reverberations of the crisis can go round the globe within a period of 24 hours. From year to year we wait and wonder when there is going to be some final calamity or conflict, particularly in the Middle East. Economically in this country we are largely dependent, not upon our own efforts or what we do, but very largely upon what takes place abroad.

I draw your Lordship's attention to these points because I suggest that one consequence inevitably follows. It is that all Governments in this country, and indeed all Governments in the democratic developed countries of the world, nowadays work within severe and narrow margins. The area of manoeuvre available to any Government—in this country particularly but also in Western Europe and in the United States of America—in economic affairs especially, has been severely circumscribed.

I have ventured to make these, I am afraid, rather trite comments. Certainly I have been talking about things which will be familiar to all your Lordships, but I venture to put those propositions to you in order to pose a further question. Can we ask ourselves how far have we in this country in any recent times taken any steps in order to adapt our parliamentary system of government and our political institutions to this new world into which we have emerged? Change has been going on with increasing momentum over these last 70 years, and it will continue to go on at a headlong pace. What steps have been taken in this country, in this Parliament, in order to try to match our institutions to the vast changes which have taken place in our affairs?

I look back over the past 10 years—indeed, I think I can look back further than that, perhaps to the end of the war—and I can find only two occasions when we have even attempted to make any radical change in the constitutional arrangements of this country. One of them, which many of your Lordships will remember, was the attempt—if I remember rightly, something over 10 years ago now—under the Wilson Administration to get an all-party agreed reform of this Chamber.

The only other attempt which has been made to try to reform or to alter our constitutional arrangements was that made under Mr. Callaghan's Administration to provide a measure of devolution for Scotland and Wales. Both of them failed and I suggest that they failed for much the same reason; namely, neither of them was a genuine attempt, based upon some sort of constitutional principle, to improve the system of government under which we live. The proposals for devolution for Scotland and Wales were not put forward as a radical contribution to reform; they were put forward as a sop to what was thought to be Scottish and Welsh nationalism.

I suggest that the attempt that was made to reform this Chamber foundered for the same reason: it was an exercise in cosmetics. I venture to suggest that the only way in which this House can be reformed, short of abolition, is for it to be made representative. I do not mind very much who it represents but it must represent somebody. At the present moment, my Lords, none of us represents anybody except ourselves—and some of us do not even represent ourselves. As a matter of fact, I have always taken the view that if one compares the system of appointment of Peers like myself with the hereditary system it can be argued that there is a strong case to be made out for reverting to the hereditary system.

I say that because it is certainly arguable that those who come here under the hereditary system are selected and sent here by Almighty God rather than by the Prime Minister. When I took around the House, as I occasionally do, it seems to me that the Almighty is doing rather better than the Prime Minister even at that! To have the best of both worlds one would want to have Peers, of whom very happily we have two, who were originally selected by Almighty God and His selection was then endorsed by the Prime Minister. I refer of course to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and the noble Lord, Lord Home.

I have spoken for longer than I intended, but may I conclude by saying that it is all too easy for us, I suggest, with our long history, comparatively speaking, of constitutional development—the steady enlargement of suffrage, the way in which we have carried on our parliamentary system from precedent to precedent, we who have lived longer than perhaps most people in the world under a system of parliamentary and democratic government—to believe that democracy is the natural order of things. There is no historian who would agree about that. If one looks out over the world as it is today, over more than two-thirds of the face of the world, there is nothing resembling democracy. Indeed, over most of that territory, there are people who have never known democracy in any shape or form. It would be the worst delusion of all for us to suppose that democracy is safe; that our parliamentary institutions will go on for ever. If democracy is to be defended, it has to be fought for and it has constantly to be revised in order to bring it to match the conditions of the time.

May I conclude by posing the question which I have tried to stress in what I have been saying, by quoting some words which will be familiar to all of you. Perhaps, because they are so familiar, they lose their ring of truth, but I would suggest that they are words of the most profound truth. They are the words at the beginning of the great speech which Abraham Lincoln made on the field of Gettysburg. May I remind your Lordships, if you need to be reminded, that that speech was delivered while the Civil War was still in doubt and the outcome unknown. The question which Abraham Lincoln posed to his people at that time was expressed in these words: Four score and seven years ago, our fore-fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. We are now engaged in a great civil war, testing whether this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure".

I suggest that the question Abraham Lincoln posed more than 100 years ago is as urgent now as it was then. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foot, for having introduced this Motion in these terms. I think that most of your Lordships would agree with the historical setting within which he put his remarks. The Motion itself deals with, among other things, the question of the effectiveness of central and local government. It is one of the three topics in the Motion. I respectfully suggest to your Lordships that we are indeed concerned with the effectiveness of both arms of government, but "effectiveness" by itself may be a slightly misleading term because, of course, one can have very effective government indeed, backed by all the forces of the law, if necessary by armed dictatorship and by secret police. It can be very effective, at any rate in the short term. That does not necessarily imply a good government, however. I would take it that for our purposes the terms of the Motion do imply good and effective government.

As the noble Lord, Lord Foot, has so movingly reminded us, we live in a democracy. In the view of many, the principal aim of all democratic government should be to bring the greatest good to the greatest number. It may sound a very trite and simple way of putting it, but it is put in such terms as would, I feel, evoke the support of most ordinary folk up and down the United Kingdom. It is therefore important, when we are considering the improvement of the effectiveness of government, to view democratic government within that context.

I am not seeking to make a party political point or to develop a party political argument from it, but it would perhaps be wise if your Lordships would remember that we live within a democracy, and both central and local government endeavours to govern within its sphere within that democracy, within which the top 1 per cent. of the population own some 25 per cent. of its wealth, the bottom 80 per cent. own some 23 per cent., and there are various grades in between. So democratic government in the United Kingdom must function in circumstances in which there must be a degree of social tension and where there are great extremes of poverty and wealth within the society. By "poverty" I mean a sense of deprivation, which in many ways is the worst poverty of all—even worse sometimes than the deprivation of money. Democratic government has to function within those circumstances.

This is the last time I shall touch upon the question of policies involved, but it is with that overriding objective of bringing the greatest good to the greatest number in mind, within a context of the extremes of wealth and the social tensions that flow from them within a democracy, that Government has to govern as effectively as it can.

How can it function more effectively? It is very difficult for Members of your Lordships' House who have not been members of Government—and I myself have not—to commend to your Lordships what effectiveness should really constitute, outside the improvement towards the broad general objectives which I have stated. I am convinced, however, that to have effective government within a democracy (and I think the view may be widely shared among your Lordships) one has to have much more contact between the governors and the governed; there has to be a greater degree of contact between Government and the people. It is very easy when one is involved in a specialist task, either as a Minister or as a civil servant—under the pressure of events, the extreme pressure of paper, the pressure even of legislation—to begin to fall into the trap of thinking of people as numbers, or as digits, or as units, instead of living individuals.

Therefore, the more contact that can be cultivated between the Government and civil service and the public the better. From which it follows—and the point has been made many times over the last few months in another place and has been alluded to here—that the Government must be less secretive. In the United States in recent years they have brought in a Freedom of Information Act, which does ensure the dissemination through the press and other media of details of Government activities, which I am quite sure many Government departments here of a similar nature or engaged in similar functions do their very best to keep quiet so long as they conceivably can. This has been alluded to many times in connection with the Official Secrets Act. I think, therefore, that to improve effectiveness one does have to be far less secretive in the various matters with which the Government are dealing.

Then again, may I respectfully suggest to your Lordships that to be effective the legislation must be a good deal clearer in text and in explanation? I speak with some feeling here as one whose profession brings him in constant contact with the provisions of the Income Tax Act 1970, the succeeding finance Acts and the mass of tax cases that follow from the existing tax laws. They are far from simple. I cannot help feeling that, consistent with the very natural desire within a democracy to protect the equity rights of individuals by making a whole series of exceptions and by particularising legislation, much of the legislation that comes from another place, even before it gets there, ought to be expressed in much clearer terms.

The other way in which I would respectfully suggest that Government effectiveness can be increased was alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Foot, when he mentioned the tremendous load on Ministers of the Crown. This applies whichever party happens to be in Office. Many of your Lordships may have been entertained on the screen recently by a television series called "Yes, Minister", which does illustrate somewhat graphically the relationships that may be thought by many to exist between Ministers of the Crown and their leading civil servants. I have had no recent experience in the Ministry portrayed in the particular series, although I was very intimately concerned in the Ministry of Health, Housing and Local Government with the late Aneurin Bevan from 1945 to 1950. Things may have improved since then, but I cannot help feeling that there was more than a substantial element of truth in the film as presented. One has to be a very strong Minister indeed to enforce one's will through ministerial control of a civil service department.

I have for a long time thought—and I put forward the concept to your Lordships—that some consideration ought to be given to taking a look at the French system of Ministers appointing a chef de cabinet from their own party, a deliberate party choice, who would deal with a very considerable proportion of the paperwork that comes into the ministerial tray. It is common knowledge that if you want to tame a Minister the best way to do it is to make quite sure that into his in-tray or on to his desk comes the maximum amount of paper, usually commencing "The Minister might think", "The Minister might consider", "The Minister might give consideration to" or "The Minister might reply". There then follows a detailed memorandum which the Minister feels compelled to examine, in the same way as there is a natural impulse, even in a commercial office, when the telephone rings, to pick it up. A very erudite permanent secretary, a very resourceful permanent secretary who desires to keep his own departmental ideas intact has a very easy way of seeing that his Minister's nose is kept to the grindstone by bringing the maximum amount of paperwork in front of him. The appointment of a chef de cabinet, a political appointment, to sift through this material before advising his Minister would give the Minister much more freedom to think constructively and to formulate his views to put to his colleagues in Cabinet, and indeed it would give him a certain amount of personal freedom.

As it is, many Ministers—or so it was in my day—frequently cannot get to bed until two o'clock in the morning, after they have been through their dispatch boxes, read through the Foreign Office telegrams and dealt with the various minutiae that their permanent secretaries cause to be put in their boxes. I cannot help feeling that it would not do violence to the English system of government if such a concept were adopted. No vast question of principle is involved. It would mean that the minds of Ministers would be freer to roam over the whole range of problems upon which their views are required in Cabinet when discussing most important issues, rather than being too heavily immersed in details.

My Lords, the Motion makes mention, in connection, presumably, with discussing effectiveness, of overmanning and ways of preventing overmanning. As long as I have been in politics people have been complaining about the overmanning of the Civil Service. That has been a political ball that has been tossed to and fro across the House, both here and in another place, for as long as I can remember. It is a very popular call. But your Lordships will, I am sure, agree that where there are statutory functions to be performed where the Government of the day lay obligations on departments or lay obligations on local authorities, and, in order to ensure that these things are done in the way Parliament wishes them to be done, a certain amount of manpower is needed.

As I understand the position, the present position is that there is an organisation and methods unit within the existing system of administration. They have their own ways of evaluating the time taken to do a task, the number of people required to do it. I am given to understand that Sir Derek Rayner is already advising the Prime Minister as to what economies may be made in that regard. I would think it highly likely that economies can be made. I know of very few organisations, including commercial and industrial ones, where economies cannot be made, not only on the floor, where people are prone to mention restrictive practices, but also at much higher levels. One matter I am certain about is that if there is to be a reduction in manning levels, then those reductions must start at the top because there is no other way of reducing—one reduces at it were, in the enlarging pyramid fashion. It is no good reducing a few minions at the lower levels unless there are cuts at the top.

The final part of the Motion refers to the necessity of restoring "the supremacy of a truly representative Parliament." I am completely in agreement with the sentiment that lies behind that expression in the Motion. I have said many times that Parliament must, in fact, be seen to be supreme in the United Kingdom. It must not be seen to be, and it must not be, subordinate to any sectional interest because otherwise there can be no true progress, in a democratic sense, through the parliamentary institutions. However, to say that and to achieve it is another matter altogether. Parliament itself must be made more effective for that happy state of affairs to be reached.

It would be presumptions of me, as a Member of your Lordships' House, to make an undue number of recommendations that might affect the lower place. But like your Lordships, I am a United Kingdom citizen and I propose to express my views upon the subject. Whether those views will find favour in another place is another question altogether. Of one thing I am quite sure: for there to be a truly representative Parliament and to restore its supremacy, there needs to be much more intensive political education on the issues of the day in the United Kingdom, and a very considerable responsibility lies upon all the political parties to ensure that that is so. It is, of course, also a responsibility of the media, but I shall return to that in a few minutes.

There must be a better system for the adoption of candidates if we are to restore or indeed enhance the supremacy of Parliament. As is well known, the United States has a primary system which enables the general public to have some say in the selection of candidates. I am not sure that we could adopt that system here, but I am quite sure that we must take far more effective steps right the way across the board affecting all parties, to ensure a more representative and acceptable selection of candidates. That matter is, to some extent, linked with the question of the pay and conditions under which Members of Parliament work.

Your Lordships will remember the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, some three or four months ago, advocating significant increases in the salaries of Members of Parliament. I wish entirely to endorse his words. It really is scandalous in the United Kingdom that our parliamentary representatives in another place should be paid such a derisory sum in relation to the services that they perform and the duties that are thrust upon them. When one considers the level of salaries in other countries which do not raise even a flicker of interest among the public—for example, in Germany where they get about £25,000 a year, and the United States where they get very much more—one realises that the amount of remuneration received by Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom is quite disgraceful. It can only be said that the Governments of all parties seem to have been so terrified by the reaction of the printed media to such suggestions, that they have not had the courage to do what is vitally necessary.

Moreover, it is a question not only of salary, but of facilities. One of the ways in which Parliament can become more representative and more effective in itself is to provide individual Members of Parliament with much greater research facilities. Those are provided as a matter of commonplace in other countries. There is no question at all that the deliberations in another place, some of the quality of argument in another place, and some of the quality of legislation that comes from another place, is profoundly influenced by the fact that so many Members do not have really adequate research facilities to enable them to go fully into all the subjects and matters with which they are required to deal. I hope that some improvement can take place in that connection.

Finally, the need to restore the supremacy of Parliament and its prestige should, in my view, be more appreciated by the printed media. We have some of the most brilliant journalists in the world in this country: I wish that I could say the same about some of the national newspaper editors who seem, over the years, to make it their business—if they have the slightest excuse for doing so—to bring or to try to bring Parliament into disrepute. They ought to realise that a very great responsibility lies upon them, and I am not talking in the narrow party sense, nor do I wish to emphasise over-much the great political disparity that exists in actual press coverage. But, I am quite sure of that responsibility, and one would hope that national newspaper editors will face up to it.

We are all agreed on the necessities which are implied in the Motion and which have been so eloquently expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Foot. We on this side of the House would wish to give him our support.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down I should like to ask him one question. I did not want to interrupt during his speech but he spoke of overmanning, which is a very important matter. Does he not think that Parliament is somewhat to blame in asking central Government and especially local government to implement too much legislation at one time which, as he rightly said, has to be implemented but which requires much more staff? I spent a good many years in local government and I observed with my own eyes that we had to employ staff to implement the legislation and then we received the blame.


My Lords, I was not discussing, of course, whether the other place and this House were putting through too much legislation. I assume that the effectiveness of government could be assessed against the ability of the administration to deal with the legislation that is passed through Parliament. I was not expressing a view as to whether we legislate too much or too little. The short answer to the noble Lords's question is that I think that in some fields we legislate too much, but in other fields we legislate far too little.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down will he say as regards the restoration of a representative Parliament whether he has any views about your Lordships' House? Is he in any way inclined——


My Lords, I think that possibly the noble Lord should ask a simple question. I think that it would be the wish of your Lordships' House that we proceed to the next speaker.


My Lords, very well. Does the noble Lord have any views about your Lordships' House?


My Lords, yes.

4 p.m.


My Lords, I rise with some hesitation to take part in this debate, because last week, when I put my name down to speak, it was because of the first part of the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Foot: To call attention to the need to improve the effectiveness of central and local government". I listened with great interest to the noble Lord's very remarkable and very interesting speech. I was a little anxious because it seemed to me that he concentrated a good deal on the 19th century, on the early beginnings of Parliament and on what happened in those years, when he mentioned both Disraeli and Mr. Gladstone. The only contribution that I can make to that particular aspect is that, although I was not very old, my brother-in-law, Mr. Asquith, was Prime Minister from 1908 onwards for quite a long time, and before that my father was in Parliament in 1869. Whether either of those facts allows me to make my remarks today in a more up-to-date and modern manner, I do not know, but I thought that it was worth mentioning to the noble Lord, Lord Foot, that if he goes back as far as that, I can match him a little.

This debate is very interesting. I do not often agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, but today I agreed with everything he said. Therefore, I hope that, to start with, that puts me in his good books because what he said, in particular about the underpayment of Members of Parliament, is something about which I have always felt very strongly. For many years my husband was a Member of Parliament and he was for ever bringing up the fact that in his day people were paid £400 a year, and they thought that was a very large salary. Every time he raised the subject he was criticised for doing so. Today I agree with the noble Lord that Members of Parliament are not paid as much as they are in other countries, but they are paid a more respectable sum of money than they were 30 or 40 years ago.

My intention in making a speech today was to concentrate on the problems of local government, as that is something I know a little about. I have spent some 29 years of my life on the county council at home in Roxburghshire, and the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Foot, that we could improve both local and central government attracted me to this debate. We do not appreciate enough the fact that local government must, first and foremost, be local. It must be different, and local government representatives have a different part to play from Members of Parliament who represent constituencies. Of course, the politics of Westminster play an enormous part in local government, as to some extent they influence which person wins a seat in local government. But there is a great deal of local government which has absolutely nothing to do with politics at Westminster and which, as we know, is financed out of local rates. The job of local representatives in local government is to be as local as they possibly can.

Although Westminster has great influence, the real point of being a local government representative is that one must be absolutely down-to-earth, understand and know the area which one represents. I believe that this Government are right in restoring to local government many of the responsibilities which have been taken away in other legislation by other Parliaments. I should like to feel that more is being done to restore to local government as many responsibilities as possible, as it is its job to know what suits a particular area best.

That brings me to local elections and the responsibilities of local members. I speak primarily about Scotland as that is the area I know best and where I was a local representative. I gave evidence in Scotland to the last Royal Commission on Local Government. Looking back, I am sorry that I did not stress more the importance of small, rather than large, regions and districts. Members of Parliament can have large constituencies: local government constituencies should be small.

I am not in favour of areas such as Strathclyde in the West of Scotland, where almost half the population of Scotland live. It is quite true that when we debated the Scottish Local Government Bill we had an all-party discussion in this House which recommended that the great area of Strathclyde should be divided into four, which in my opinion would have been very much better; Argyll and the Isles in one area, Lanarkshire in another, Ayrshire in another and Glasgow and Dunbartonshire in the fourth. Noble Lords may say that that is too small and local a point to make, but it illustrates what I mean. Here, in this House, we passed a resolution—which was backed by all parties—in which we favoured those four regions rather than one. Unfortunately, when it went to the House of Commons they did not agree and the matter was overruled. As a result, we have, as we know, the enormous area of Strathclyde. Personally, I think that that is wrong, but that is what happened.

I know less about the re-organisation of local government in England, but I have heard many complaints about the break-up of counties with long traditions, such as Yorkshire, Lancashire, Gloucestershire and many others. The upheaval of these changes, which I am sure were carried out in good faith, is not yet complete and the re-organisation has not yet settled down. I have discussed this with many friends who are now in local government in the new setup. I am not; I resigned when the old organisation came to an end and the changes took over. My friends tell me that it cannot be changed again because the re-organisation has only just started, is only just settling down and that we must give it a chance, otherwise any further upheaval would be disastrous.

That may well be so, and I am prepared to wait; but I believe that this re-organisation has not really improved our local government, which we are anxious to do in this Motion. I should like to make a further comment on the importance of the interests of the locality being the chief interest of the person who represents it in local government. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Foot, agrees with me about this because he mentioned it. However, in the last re-organisation I think that we went about it in the wrong way; and, as said, I am sorry that I did not realise what it would mean when I backed it in giving evidence to the Royal Commission.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Foot, would probably talk about electoral reform, because that has been one of the great bones of contention of the Liberal Party for many years, and many different kinds of electoral reform have been suggested at various times. Like every Member of Parliament and every Member of your Lordships' House, I have thought about it, studied it, discussed it and sometimes been influenced one way and sometimes another way. However, after much thought I have come to the conclusion that I prefer the present system. I believe that it makes for a more stable central Government, even though at times the Government that the country elects are one of which I strongly disapprove. But the fact remains that the Government then have authority; they are a Government which the people understand and know.

Looking back to the years before the war, we saw the number of changes which took place in France because of the methods they used for their electoral system, which made for great instability. If I remember rightly, a government lasted for five years but within those five years it could change over and over again to different kinds of coalition, and that led to great instability.


My Lords, will the noble Baroness allow me to intervene? I remember that era very well. Was not that due rather to the proliferation of different parties than the electoral system?


My Lords, the enormous number of parties was caused by the electoral system, otherwise they would not have had them all. This was an absolute disaster, and I should hate to see that kind of thing happening again. The same thing happened before the rise of Hitler in Germany when the Weimar Republic was not very strong, and the changes which took place were very detrimental to the government of Germany at that time. Out of that instability arose the Nazis and the Hitler régime.

You may say that those things would not happen again, but they might, and I should therefore prefer to have the first-past-the-post system. I know that this does not meet with the views of the Liberal Party, but I still think it is better for this country and would make for a stronger Parliament than any other system. Our whole system of government is based on the authority of one man, one vote. Although it means one party in and then sometimes out, while the party which forms the Government is in, it will, and does, have a proper majority.

The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, said that he thought that the supremacy of Parliament was absolutely vital and something we must all support. This system that we have makes Parliament supreme, and I do not think that a change in the electoral system would really be a help. This debate is enormously important and interesting, but if we are to have the close liaison and close rapprochement that I like to see between the electorate and its representatives, whether they are in local government or in central government, one must keep this particular system of election because it brings government closer to the electorate than any other.


My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, may I ask her whether she realises that proportional representation can be arranged to give one party a clear majority? As I understand it, that is precisely what is happening in Germany.


My Lords, I said in my speech that there are a great many different kinds of proportional representation. I have looked at them all. I have studied the German system as well as the others and I still come to the conclusion that I prefer to have our existing system which, after all, has lasted since 1832 and is on the whole, one of the most successful systems in the world today.

4.14 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Foot, for giving us the opportunity to discuss these vitally important matters. I shall not attempt to follow the noble Lord in his extremely impressive, wide-ranging, and witty speech. Apart from anything else, I was only persuaded to take part in this debate at very short notice, and I shall not therefore be putting forward a detailed, comprehensive, or carefully constructed argument. Instead I should like to toss a few random ideas into the ring in the hope that they may, with luck, provide some useful food for thought.

The first two prongs of Lord Foot's Motion, the need to improve the effective- ness of central and local government and the need to reduce overmanning, are closely inter-related, because reducing overmanning would, in itself, go a long way towards improving the effectiveness of central and local government. An enormous amount has been written in the press about the need to improve public service efficiency over the past few weeks and months, but relatively little progress, or at any rate relatively little willing progress, seems to have been made, even though it is axiomatic that anyone who works in any capacity at any level for any organisation invariably knows of areas within the organisation where waste can be eliminated and efficiency improved.

Why therefore does there seem to be almost a sullen reluctance to co-operate for the most part among the public service employees and public service unions? Surely the answer is this: in a private enterprise organisation there is every incentive both to put forward one's own suggestions and to co-operate upon enacting other people's suggestions for improving efficiency and cutting costs, because if these suggestions are adopted they are likely to help the firm in question to outstrip its competitors and to capture a larger share of the market; whether the home or export market. From this success will flow benefits both tangible and intangible for the employee, including the pride and the enhanced self-esteem that come from being part of a successful and expanding organisation, and the more tangible benefits of higher pay and increased promotion prospects. In addition, many employers will pay substantial cash benefits to individual employees who put forward workable suggestions for improving efficiency.

In the public sector things are very different; because in this sector increased efficiency will not lead to expansion and to the prospect of basking in reflected glory, nor to enhance promotion prospects—indeed, in many cases, very much the opposite. All the more reason, therefore, given that it is unreasonable in peacetime to expect people to act in a manner contrary to their own economic interests, to try to make it financially worth while for civil servants and local government employees to co-operate in reducing overmanning and in improving efficiency generally.

A very dramatic break with precedent it may be, but surely it cannot be beyond the wit of man to devise some way in which public employees who co-operate in improving efficiency can share some of the fruits of that increased efficiency, on a once-for-all basis, and outside the normal salary and pension structures. If the civil service and local government could also see fit to emulate the example of the more enlightened private employers and award substantial cash bonuses to employees who have put forward cost-saving schemes which are then taken up and put into operation (whether these relate to their own or to another department), this would be more effective still.

I now turn to the third prong of Lord Foot's Motion. I must admit that Lord Foot wrong-footed me here: like the noble Baroness who has just sat down, I expected him to be riding the traditional Liberal hobby-horse of proportional representation. Instead he spoke of the non-representational nature of this noble House. I very much have my own ideas on this but I shall not develop them this afternoon: instead, I should like to revert to proprtional representation, given that there is such a large proportional representation lobby in your Lordships' House.

It is all too readily assumed that those who support PR are on the side of the angels; that all right thinking, fair-minded people favour PR of one sort or another, while only the cynical adherents of one of the two major political parties in this country, the Conservative and Labour Parties, prefer, for reasons of self-interest, the first-past-the-post system. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, I should like to dissent strongly from that viewpoint.

I can think of at least two objections to PR, although there are undoubtedly others. The first, and probably the less important, is that only rarely are the results strictly proportional, whatever the method chosen: the list system, the single transferable vote system, or whatever. Therefore, the moral case for PR is weaker than is generally claimed. For example, in the recent elections for the 80 black seats in what is now Zimbabwe, Bishop Muzorewa's party obtained only three seats, as his opponents and opponents of the short-lived internal settlement never tire of telling us with glee in their voices. However, had the representation been strictly proportional, which it was not, his party would have obtained seven seats—in other words, more than double the number.

In global context that is, no doubt, a fairly minor matter. Far more important are the adverse practical consequences that can occur when a country deviates from the superficially illogical and superficially unfair—I stress the word "superficially "—first-past-the-post system of electing a parliament or assembly. Consider two of the world's most volatile flash-points, Israel (by which I mean post-1967 Israel) and Cyprus (by which I mean post-1974 Cyprus). In the first case, Israel, the entire peace of the Middle East, together with the West's vital oil supplies, are threatened by the Begin Government's policy of planting Jewish settlers in Arab lands in the occupied West Bank. I doubt whether this policy would ever have been adopted had not the electoral system allowed the extreme religious parties, representing only a very small segment of Israeli opinion, to hold the balance of power.

The impasse in Cyprus may be slightly less of a threat to world peace—though it certainly weakens the southern flank of NATO—but it is extremely worrying nonetheless; the longer it continues the more attitudes harden into total rigidity. While the Greek Cypriots must certainly make wide-ranging concessions, some concessions are also necessary from the Turkish side if peace is to be achieved. Unfortunately, successive Turkish governments, whether headed by Mr. Ecevit or Mr. Demirel, have been hamstrung by their dependence, tacit or open, on the extreme religious National Salvation Party headed by Mr. Erbakan and, to a lesser extent, on the even more extreme right-wing National Action Party led by Colonel Türkes, which, because of the electoral system, have tended over the past few years to hold the balance of power in Turkey and which can always successfully bang the jingoist drum whenever the slightest concession over Cyprus is suggested.

It may be argued that Britain is a long way, both geographically and psychologically, from the Near East. Nevertheless, I do not want to see the balance of power in this country held by small minorities— whether extreme or moderate ones is of no great consequence—who can then exercise power out of all proportion to their numerical strength in the country. For that reason I, too, think that the present system, for all its undoubted faults, is the lesser of two evils.

4.23 p.m.


My Lords, I wish at the outset to thank my noble friend Lord Foot for proposing the Motion and for doing so in such a way as to give it its full worth. I believe it to be true to say that the opening speech did much to vindicate this House, and the quality of it is part of the argument which we use when we try to defend this noble House. I am sure that the speech in reply will be equally good and of such a high level as to make all of us in your Lordships' House think. I am also grateful to my noble friend, who is surely the best of all the "Feet", for proposing the Motion in such a way as not to take away the whole of my little piece, which is to comment on proportional representation. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, and the noble Lord, Lord Monson, for opposing PR because there is nothing worse than following a speaker who has already made one's case.

In considering what has happened in this country, I suggest we should look at our personal experience. I was 20 when the last war broke out and, like so many of your Lordships' I went off to the war. Six years later I returned—luckily, to a good farm; that of Benshie in Angus—a proud man; I was proud of the part played by our generation and this country in the war. I was proud of the way other people in the world thought of us, and I felt certain that our generation would make a tremendous difference, would advance the cause of human happiness for the greatest number and would solve a great many problems which had been facing previous generations. I felt that we had the tools, the instruments and the techniques to do those things. Furthermore, our generation was not decimated, as was the generation who fought the first war. We had our industry intact, we were in a position to play a marvellous part and take a lead in Europe and to open up the great new world which all of us in this country sincerely believed and hoped was coming.

That was our position then; but today we are looking at the wreck of our hopes. At that time, at the end of the war, we were the richest country in Europe, proud and eager to advance. People were looking to us for a lead; but now, economically, we are at the bottom of the league with Italy, and are treated not with contempt but with the hope in Europe and the rest of the world that signs of revival will appear here and that Britain will once again play its part in world affairs, take a lead and show what can be done. But we are not treated with the respect or even the liking that we should be.

As my noble friend Lord Foot said, we must examine our institutions. It is no good saying that when we became great we had a two-party system in this country. As Gilbert said: That every boy and every gal, That is born into the world alive, Is either a little Liberal, Or else a little Conservative! It is a great pity that is not the case; the "beastly Socialists" have spoilt it all. It was an entirely different system and the Members of Parliament were entirely different. Today, such is party discipline that if a man loses his seat he often loses his livelihood as well. In the old days, MPs were largely of independent means. They might lose their seat and spoil a political career, but they could still return to the plough or to a comfortable and respectable existence. Today, very often party managers can take away a man's livelihood as well as his seat.

While it is impossible today only for people of independent means to enter politics—it would be a had thing if that were the case—we must do something about the situation in which extreme party discipline has landed us. It has landed us in a situation where I think all Governments, except one, since the war have actually governed on a minority vote. Indeed, in recent years no Prime Minister addressing 100 people in this country could count on the real backing and support of more than about one-third of those people whom he or she was addressing. The two-party system which we have at present, the first-past-the-post system, must have something to do with our decline.

The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, spoke about France. They used to say of France between the wars and in the early post-war period, "She may change her Government quite often but she never changes her policy". I believe that has been true, although it has not been true of us, and one need look at only two examples, one glaring one, namely steel. Look at the mess we are in now. It must be due to the fact that nobody knew what was happening. As everybody knows, we nationalised steel, we denationalised it, and we renationalised it. Now we do not really know what we are to do with it, except hire someone from outside and hope that he can put it right. The same is true about pensions policy. These are all very important matters.

The lack of continuity must be responsible for many of the evils in this country today and for the decline that we all know we have suffered. I am certain that the system has much to do with it. The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, my friend, though not my political friend, said that we get firm government, we elect a Government. We do not get firm government at all; we get easy government. The Whip system means that we can pass legislation easily, and if everyone in one's party is tyrannised, they will obey the Whip. So we get easy government. But that is not to say that we have good government—and the results certainly do not show it.

We have a simple example today. Mr. Prior is putting through Parliament a Bill in order to try to legislate for the evident ills caused by trade union mismanagement, or call it what you will; but that it exists nobody denies. That we need legislation nobody denies, least of all the Labour Party, who had In Place of Strife, and who turned down a good Bill due to lack of courage. We know that we need legislation, and we all know that Mr. Prior's measures are half measures. We all know that Mr. Prior would like to put through better measures. We in the Liberal Party wholly support his approach. We consider that he is handling the matter enormously well. We do not want to force a confrontation. But why must he do this? He must do it because the TUC has no respect for the Government. The TUC regard them as part of the see- saw—Buggins' turn. The TUC says that it is to have a great nonsense on 14th May, when it is going to show the great will of the country, turn the Tories out, and get back its own puppets who will then proceed to do what it wants.

A large part of this disrespect for government arises because government is not representative. We can have whatever system of PR we find suitable for this country—not every system is suitable. Certainly modifications of the German system might suit us. We in the Liberal Party have long advocated the single transferable vote, which works extremely well in Ireland; indeed, it has produced an entire majority Government in Ireland.

Whatever the system, there is no doubt that we must have representative government, and that the only way to restore the supremacy of Parliament, to restore its respect, is by it being seen to be fair and to represent the mass of the nation. If this requires negotiation in order to form a Government, all the better. After the negotiations are over that Government can act firmly and wisely, and they will hold the respect of the people.

One factor that is true is that no longer are we in a situation of people desperately defending their own particular little rise above the level of starvation against the starving millions who want to take it from them. In this country we have had untold wealth compared with the poverty in which past generations have lived. We are in a position in this country in which the matters that unite us are infinitely greater than those which divide us, and we must change our political system, in particular our voting system, if we are to make the advance that we must make.

4.34 p.m.


My Lords, first, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Foot, for introducing the debate. For me, it occurs on a most unfortunate day. I should now be in the Committee on Consolidation of Bills, and there is always the question as to whether that committee has a quorum. Furthermore, I am to host a party in the Cholmondeley Room, and therefore, with your Lordships' indulgence, I should like to leave immediately after I have made my speech.

It was on 22nd May 1974 that I was fortunate enough to be able to initiate a full Wednesday debate on the need to consider what changes could usefully he made to our party and parliamentary system to bring it into line with present-day needs and to improve the functioning of our democracy Since then I have spoken a number of times on this theme. If a situation has not changed to any great extent, it is always tempting to repeat what was said previously, and one noble Baroness in this House has certainly shown the success of this tactic. However, today I shall concentrate on a very limited number of matters.

First, I shall deal with the need for change. If you look back on our society to even 20 years ago, you will appreciate the enormous changes that have occurred. Religion no longer plays an important part in affecting the mass of people's thinking and ideals. Without a belief in an after-life, it is only natural that people should become more selfish, and a humanistic view has led to what I would say is, taking the condition of the world as a whole, an excessive concern with the prolongation, rather than the quality, of life itself.

The pressures which are now exerted by pressure groups and by the unions are in their extent quite new. There have been enormous advances in technology, and these are affecting the whole of our society. Television is now in almost every home, and the silicon micro-chip will have a profound effect for better or for worse. Not only do these things affect our own society, but in many cases we must take into account the needs and aspirations of the developing countries and the world as a whole.

Despite all these changes, we have hardly considered what modifications ought to be made to our parliamentary system. We seem to imagine that what worked well in the 19th century is equally suitable today, without any change. It is just this attitude to change which has led to Britain's economic decline. In the political field we have sheltered behind the idea of being the Mother of Parliaments and in industry, until quite recently, we have sheltered behind the idea that Britain made the best engineering goods in the world and it was the customers' misfortune if they did not buy them.

As I see it, our major problem in government is the confrontation between our two major parties, which results in the ship of state steering a very erratic course indeed. As has already been mentioned, an example in this has been the nationalising, denationalising and re-nationalising of steel. As I said in a previous debate, I believe that under the present parliamentary system it is unlikely that inter-party agreement can be obtained on an approach to solving some of our major problems; but I think it is even more unlikely that we shall solve them without it.

For this reason alone—and there are many others—I would press for proportional representation, preferably on the German lines. There is no need for the party securing the majority of votes not to he given a majority in Parliament. This, as I understand it, is precisely what the German system ensures. I know that there are valid objections to this proposal, but, overall, I consider the case for proportional representation overwhelming at this time. With that view, it seems to me strange that people who talk about democratic forms of government should not be prepared to make it slightly more of a reality where there is an obvious and reasonable way of doing so.

The second matter on which I believe change is essential is to have a written, or partially written, constitution. Major changes in our constitution should be made only by a large majority clearly representative of public opinion. As things stand, our constitution could be radically altered by a Government elected by a minority of votes and activated by a small number of extremists. Never mind the abolition of the House of Lords as such, but abolition of a second Chamber, with the Commons as they are at present, would surely be a disaster and might even lead to some form of autocracy. We hear too much about the merits of the duly-elected representatives of the people when, in practice, only their party counts, except in marginal cases. And who exactly do the union ticket representatives really represent, if anybody? Logically, if we are to reform the House of Lords it should be in a context of reform of Parliament as a whole, starting with the Commons. Some people seem to have forgotten that the survey made by the Sun newspaper in January 1977 showed that seven people out of 10 were in favour of a fairer voting system, 70 per cent. thought the House of Lords a good thing, and nearly 60 per cent. did not want it reformed. Only 10 per cent. were in favour of abolition.

Thirdly, I believe that both the Conservative and Socialist Parties should be freed, to some extent, from financial dependence, on the one hand, on big business, and, on the other, on the unions. The latter I consider particularly insidious until the unions can set their own affairs in better order. Fourthly, there is a problem in extending the catchment area to attract really able representatives for Parliament and for local councils. The catchment areas for really able men have decreased over the years. Barristers now find it difficult, if not impossible, to stand for Parliament; part-time directorships are much less available; and transfer between Parliament and industry does not occur on a temporary basis at all. As regards the latter point, the trouble, I think, is undoubtedly that Parliament is no longer respected. People feel that the problems facing us today need serious consideration. The conduct of affairs in another place may have been amusing in the past: it is no longer considered to be so by the common man.

My Lords, I have mentioned only four areas where I think urgent change is necessary and could be achieved without too radical an approach. There are, of course, many other areas to which thought could usefully be given; for example, the relatively new and insidious doctrine of party mandates. Finally, overmanning in the public service is caused to a great extent by unnecessarily complicated legislation, which requires too many people to administer it. There are some 30 different types of benefit available to disabled persons, and the take-up of benefits as a whole is appallingly low. You need to be rich enough to employ an accountant in order to claim what may be your entitlement.

4.45 p.m.

Viscount THURSO

My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken before me, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Foot for the magnificent way in which he introduced his Motion to your Lordships' House. But if Lord Foot was talking about the whole edifice of government, I really want to deal only with some parts of the foundations. In today's Scotsman newspaper, under the headline, Young Scots to fore in drift to London", there appears the following report: A higher proportion of the young homeless and jobless, seen by a London hostel, are from Scotland than from any other part of the United Kingdom. Last year 558 Scots, aged between 16 and 25, called at the Soho hostel, Centrepoint, seeking shelter and help. The number … increased substantially last year. … Mr. Nicholas Fenton, co-ordinator of Centrepoint, writes in the report, … 'I have been asked a number of times by reporters and interviewers … why do so many young people still come down to London? … it is clear to me that increasing poverty must be the triggering force. Poverty of job opportunities, poverty of housing possibilities, poverty of spirit. The latter is beginning to spread wider, like a stain amongst the young people we see'. My Lords, what an indictment of today's government, both local and national! How clearly ineffective is government in oil-rich Scotland if young folk are leaving their homes in a steady stream to look for opportunities which they cannot find North of the Border! Clearly at no level are the Government giving the kind of confidence or leadership which is able to get through to young people; and clearly, in Scotland, there is a need to improve the effectiveness of central and local government". In local government in Scotland, this Government are reaping where their predecessors sowed in 1973. The brave new local government world which they sought to create by the Local Government (Scotland) Act has proved to be a mirage, and that shining new instrument of local administration looks pretty tarnished today.

In proposing the establishment of the new regional and district councils, the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, speaking in your Lordships' House said: We believe that we are not only creating a framework for the effective management of local services but also that we are securing for local government a standing more independent of central government than has been possible till now". Oh, dear! Oh, dear! How disappointed he must feel in the event, and how disillusioned will be those who believed that a new independence was being granted to local authorities, as they watch the Secretary of State for Scotland browbeating local councils so as to make them toe the line and cut what they believe to be essential services.

Seven years after the reorganisation of Scottish local government people up and down the length and breadth of Scotland are still bemoaning regionalisation; and the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, was bemoaning it here in your Lordships' House only a moment or two ago. I think she is very patient to wait so long and to be still prepared to give it another chance. But seven years have passed since we debated it here in your Lordships' House. What good, one can ask, has it done when it has made unworkable monstrosities like Strathclyde, and unmanageable areas like Highland?

I have tried to assess the impact of the Highland Region and the creation of the new Caithness District Council upon the management of local affairs in my home county. Two functions now performed by Highland Region still cover almost exactly the same areas of responsibility shouldered before reorganisation by the old Caithness County Council—a body, incidentally, on which I sat for some 23 years. These are education and social work. These are two very important areas of responsibility in local government, and in both these areas I claim, though I sat on the council myself, that the old council was both efficient and effective.

Today, exactly the same staffs do exactly the same duties in exactly the same buildings with much the same excellent results. But, alas! for the ratepayer, there is also another staff now to pay as well: nine people in Inverness supervise the education office, and eight people supervise the social work department. Then there are the administrators who supervise the supervisors and the councillors who spend large sums of money in travelling to Inverness to add an air of democratic verisimilitude to the whole operation.

Not only are we worse off today financially but we are also worse off democratically. I have been asking around in Caithness to see how satisfied are people with their local government organisation. I find that a lot of people do not under- stand the set-up at all. Many do not know what function each tier of local government performs; a lot of them do not know who their councillors are, or in which district they live or in which ward of a district. In Caithness, if a mother wants to discuss the schooling problems of her children, it is no longer possible for her to see the director of education in the county town no more than 20 miles away; she could see a depute; but the head man would be 150 miles away and very hard to make appointments with. The same is true of every function.

The head men are remote and unavailable, and they are making sweeping decisions which affect the lives of the real and smaller communities without the faintest idea of what it is like to live in these communities. The democratically-elected reppresentatives of the people are few and fragmented and are unable to exercise effective control of the administration. I only hope that the Stoddart Committee manage to fight their way through to the truth of the matter as they investigate these affairs, although one fears that they may not—certainly, containing, as they do, two chairmen of Highland and Grampian regions but not a single district council from the North of Scotland at all.

Just over a year ago our hopes rode high. The Scotland Bill was passing through your Lordships' House and many of us saw in this Bill a means of bringing effective democracy back to Scotland and a means of dispensing with the unwanted regions at the same time. After all, they were only imposed on Scotland in the first instance as a form of bowdlerised devolution. But it was not to be; Scotland voted for devolution but, unfortunately, not decisively enough. Therefore, we lost not only that Bill but seemingly have also lost devolution in any shape or form during the lifetime of this Government.

I have described the ineffectiveness of local and national government as I see it. I have shown, I hope you will agree, that the regions in Scotland constitute a built-in over-manning problem; but it would be unfair if I did not suggest some solutions. My first objective would be to build from the bottom up and to create a really comprehensive local authority unit designed to be understood and used by the people living within it, and to be controlled by them. Therefore, I would consolidate the general purpose powers in the hands of the district councils and upon the lines of the highly successful Island councils.

I look across the Pentland Firth with envy at the Orkney Isles who enjoy this great benefit of dealing with all of their local affairs locally. This would produce at once a massive saving in over-manning and an immediate improvement in democratic contact between the administrators and those being administered. Then we need a Scottish Parliament. That would be my second objective: a Scottish Parliament, preferably in a British federal context, but, by all means, a Scottish Parliament. Regions could then be shrunk to a small Scottish Parliament administrative presence at regional level or something of that kind.

I want to see people in the communities themselves making the decisions that affect those communities. We have been ruled for too long by bureaucracy and the demon "Planning". Only when people understand how to make democracy work locally will it be possible to restore the supremacy of a truly representative Parliament and to restore people's faith in democracy, because people have lost faith in the effect of their vote. How is it, if they have not lost faith, that so few turn out to vote at elections? How is it that so few councillors in parts of Scotland put themselves forward for election? It is because they do not believe that the system is effective and they do not believe that they themselves will be effective in it. I feel that we have to restore people's faith in democracy by making a system which people can understand at local level. Then people, when they understand how to make local democracy work, will realise its value and importance, in the larger context.

4.55 p.m.

The LORD CHANCELLOR (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, until I realised that I was going to have to reply to this debate, I was rather looking forward to it. But when it dawned upon me that I should have to say something at the end of it, I realised that my task was an impossible one. The noble Lord, Lord Foot, made what I hope he will not think it patronising of me to say was one of the most perceptive and thoughtful speeches I have ever heard in this House. But what he was saying—with which, as he probably knows, I very largely agree—was of such earth-shaking importance that, in a sense, one was astonished that, instead of being received with the praise which it certainly deserved as a contribution, it was not also greeted with howls of execration, for instance, from the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, who must have disagreed fundamentally with everything that Lord Foot was trying to say.

What he was trying to say, and what I largely agreed with, was something like this; and I know that he will not think that I am trying to misrepresent him. He was trying to say that the constitution of this country is breaking down from overstrain. This is very largely what I was trying to say in the lecture some years ago to which he was good enough to refer and also in the more elaborate book which I published about two years ago.

If that is true, it is both serious and very highly controversial. Serious because, although we received some support in a narrow field from the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, no one has been able to devise a means whereby a discontinuous change in our constitution can be made without any form of violence or revolution—which none of us wants.

I am bound to add this, I hope not cynically. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, who made a very optimistic speech, said, basically, that what we want to do on this part of the case is to educate people enough, to choose our Members of Parliament rather better, to give them a few clever, young, research assistants and, of course, we must provide more freedom of information. I wonder whether he is right about that—because, if Lord Foot is right, I do not think he is.

Of course, what I have found, approaching this matter from a very different party point of view but still rather tending in the same direction, is almost total non-interest in the subject either among my own Parliamentary colleagues or among my Parliamentary opponents; but still more completely among the public. You do not find page 3 of the Sun full of the breakdown in our constitution. On the contrary, you find a blithe non-interest in our constitution, and of course the sporting and financial pages are equally unperceptive if either the noble Lord, Lord Foot, or I are right about it.

I can, however, tell the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, that far from being secretive, the Lord Chancellor's office is guardian of the public records. Since the Lord Chancellor has been guardian of the public records, which is for the past 22 years from, I believe, 1958, 40 miles of information, 40 miles of shelf space, have been added to what the public have available if they want to get it in preference to page 3 of the Sun. If one actually contemplates the number of future historians at the rate at which that mileage of shelf space is being added to every day as the 30-year limit begins to have its impact upon the Public Record Office, all I can say is that I suppose that half of us will be researching into the present age in another 25 years—and even then we shall not be able to keep pace with the increase in documentation. So I am not sure that freedom of information is either wanted or going to do the trick. I feel much the same about the clever young researchers but I ought not to trespass on the patience of the House to indicate my disbelief in that.

May I now make a genuflexion in front of our traditional constitution, because, although I have come to the conclusion that it is showing signs of breaking down through overstrain, as the noble Lord, Lord Foot says, we ought to recognise the perfectly amazing success which it has had over a thousand years: its extreme versatility; its capacity for survival; its adaptability from one state of society and organisation to another, and the extent to which twice in a human lifetime—in two world wars—it has really saved this country because of its peculiar characteristics.

We all know that English history starts with the Norman Conquest. Unfortunately, the Scots did not suffer from that great advantage. It is worthwhile considering what has happened over the years. We started as an occupied country and we still to this day retain a centralised Executive with greater central authority than any other free society, which is the direct result of the Norman Conquest. The history of the development of our constitution over the succeeding thousand years was very largely the development of Parliament. Incidentally, Lord Foot's Motion refers to the supremacy of Parliament, to which I shall refer in a moment. Parliament has been devoted from the first to this day to the theory that government must command a certain measure of consent. The development of the constitution ultimately consisted in the fact that the instrument of government by consent ultimately attained supremacy over the system of centralised authority imposed by the invading conquerors.

Then a terrifying and, in our lifetime, disconcerting, discovery has begun to be made. It is that universal suffrage operating through Parliament is no guarantee at all, either against folly or against incompetence or oppression. This is where I honestly fall foul of one of the first things that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, said. Curiously enough, it was something which he said would command universal assent in all quarters of the House. He was not trying, and I am not trying, to make a party point. He said that the function of democracy was to promote the greatest good of the greatest number. T do not believe that to be true. On the contrary, I believe that every lawyer when he addresses a judge in court, every politician when he speaks to his House of Parliament, every candidate who utters a word on the platform, says words which are totally inconsistent with that theory. It was of course promulgated by Jeremy Bentham and it was sanctified by his close friend John Austin.

However, in the end we do not believe that to be true. We do not put down deformed children as if they were unwanted rabbits. We do not think with Caiaphas that it is meet and right that one man should perish for the good of the people. On the contrary, we speak of what is fair and what is just. We talk as if individuals and minorities had rights which cannot be overridden by the greatest good of the greatest number. It is precisely—and I think the noble Lord, Lord Foot, would agree—because Parliament is not responding to the needs of individuals as they are felt but that individuals, on the contrary, feel themselves oppressed by the power of an omnipotent Parliament, that one of the symptoms of breakdown has begun to appear.

One or two noble Lords discussed—not always unanimously—the merits of proportional representation in one of its 14 forms as an immediate remedy to the difficulties which I am trying to expound. I am not a dogmatist about voting systems. I would say this, quite frankly, to the supporters of that as a panacea. I think it all depends on the kind of office to which you are electing people, on the kind of country, on the kind of assembly and on the kind of powers, what kind of voting system you adopt. Personally, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie (who made an excellent speech on the subject) that I see nothing objectionable in the executive power of a state being operated by the largest organised minority—and that is what, roughly speaking our first-past-the-post system does. But I see everything objectionable in that largest organised minority operating the powers of an all-powerful legislature, which is what our constitution has given it.

Therefore although I have no objection at all to a system which elects a Lower House to cover the executive of a country with the cover given to it by the largest organised minority, I see every objection to that House elected in that manner, operating as an omnipotent legislature. The noble Lord, Lord Foot, referred to numerous changes, all of which I agree with, which have taken place in the past hundred years. One to which he referred only in passing is the gradual slide from a system of checks and balances to a system of elected dictatorship.

There was a time when Parliament had two Houses—we still think it has—but we, as the noble Lord, Lord Foot, pointed out, lack the authority which a representative character would otherwise give to us. My Lords, do not think I am being disloyal to this House, because I have been in it too long not to love and admire it, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Foot, said, we lack the political authority to do what is required of a second chamber. Personally, I think that if every Member of this House were, by a miracle, an elected member under whatever system of voting, and we went on with our present membership and our present rules of order, everyone would recognise—and many people, when they listen to wireless broadcasts of Parliament, say this as one goes about—that our debates are civilised, courteous and constructive and compare very favourably with the kind of animal noises one sometimes hears at Prime Minister's Question Time in another place.

But we are not an elected assembly, and personally I would say that if we are going to look at our constitution we have to look at the question of a second Chamber because—and I say this to noble Lords opposite not particularly wanting to offend them—their party, whatever may be true of them, is committed to the abolition of this House and to the substitution of nothing in its place. That I find profoundly repugnant and I think it would exaggerate all the evils to which the noble Lord, Lord Foot, was drawing attention. One thing is quite clear, of course: if we were going to substitute an elected chamber we would have to substitute a chamber elected by a method of voting different from that chosen in another place.

Several noble Lords referred to the system of local government, with which I am profoundly ill-qualified to deal; but I am bound to say both to the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and to my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood, that I think she was right when she said that whether our recent reforms in 1972 and 1973 were good or bad, one has to admit that they have had an almost universally bad press. However, whether they were good or bad, a little respite from changes in structure is almost indispensable if local government is to be carried on at all anywhere, because if you once keep on making changes I do not know where it will end.

The Motion—and here I think I am really going to stop because the truth is that one could continue talking indefinitely about this subject—refers to "the supremacy of … Parliament". That is a doctrine about which I have my reservations, again in slight difference from the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. Supreme over the Executive, supreme over the Crown, supreme over the Government?—why certainly: we fought and won that battle 300 years ago. Supreme over the judiciary?—yes, so far as it means that Parliament prescribes the laws which the judiciary are bound to apply, whether statute law or customary law, as the case may be. But supreme over them in the sense that they must fear for their jobs if they make unpopular political decisions?—and I see a trace in some political quarters of an anxiety to achieve that result. Then, most emphatically, no. Supreme over individuals and minorities? There, I would say "No" again. I believe this is one of the most important lessons which Government must learn, whatever their political composition may be: there are inherent limitations as to what Government can do or ought to try to do.

This, I think, is an underlying debate between all three of the political parties, each taking a slightly different standpoint. But so far as I personally am concerned, I challenge the theory that Government can hope to intrude into every aspect of economic or cultural life. I believe that the individual, I believe that the minority, I believe that the educational institutions of the country, I believe that the great professions, I believe that the scientific world, and I believe that the academic world are entitled to an independence of existence and thought, quite irrespective of the wishes which Parliament in either of its Houses may express about it. I do not believe that Government of any kind. be it of one man, of groups of men or of elected men and women, ought to have supremacy over the people they are supposed to govern and I think that if they try to do so they will kill out the creativeness and the spontaneity of the human spirit, upon which in the long run civilisation depends.

May I just say this before I sit down. Some people have said: "The Good Book says there is nothing new under the sun", but we are living in an age, as the noble Lord, Lord Foot, said in a rather different context, in which things are happening which neither have happened before nor could have happened before. If a Rip Van Winkle had gone to sleep at the time of the Roman Empire before the Dark Age and had woken up again in the 18th century England, he would have found many things different but he would have encountered a non-industrial society in which he would not have found himself wholly not at home. But the immense development of modern technology has altered the whole condition of human life in a way which nothing has ever done in the history of the planet before.

It is to this that government has got to accommodate itself. It has got to accommodate itself in the internal field—and we have been talking about this mostly this afternoon—and it has also got to accommodate itself (the noble Lord, Lord Foot, touched on this) on the international plane. Here I thought he was perhaps a little unfair about the structural changes which have taken place since the end of the last war. I think he was fair when he said that the two main attempts at constitutional reform—devolution in Scotland and reform in the House of Lords (and perhaps he should have added local government)—were the only constitutional changes of a radical kind which had been undertaken since 1945. I think myself they all failed, for the reason I was trying to put forward in the lecture and in the book, by failing to understand that the parts of a constitution are really interrelated and the questions cannot be divorced the one from the other.

I do not think you can have a different system of government in Edinburgh from that in Belfast, Cardiff or London. There, I think I differ a little from the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso. But internationally, the international organisations have made structural changes. The EEC is something which, whether you like it or not, has happened. The Eastern European bloc is something which has happened, and so is NATO. These are all reactions in greater or lesser degree to the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. However, I have detained your Lordships enough. I have replied to the debate—I have not spoken for the Government, except marginally—because, I suppose, there was no one else to reply to it. But, at any rate, I hope that I have not bored your Lordships beyond endurance.

5.20 p.m.


My Lords, before I withdraw the Motion, I should like, first, to thank all those who have taken part in the debate, particularly my noble friends, for the way in which they have filled out the wide gaps which were left when I sat down. As I said at the very beginning, this debate has been justified if only because it has evoked that speech to which we have just listened from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor.

I remember it was said of the late Lord Birkett, by one of the judges, when he was at the height of his powers as a defending counsel, and after he had successfully defended about 23 murderers in a row, that because he was so persuasive he was a positive menace to the administration of justice. I have always thought about the noble and learned Lord that he is enormously discouraging to anybody who would think of embarking upon public speaking, in that whenever I listen to him I come to the conclusion that I have learned nothing whatever about it.

This is not a conclusion that I have come to rapidly, because the noble and learned Lord may remember that some 50 years ago—he has probably forgotten—I was a freshman student at Oxford and I think that the noble and learned Lord was in his third year, not only on the point of gaining first-class honours in the Greats, but was president of the Union and All Souls was in the offing. At that time on two occasions, as I remember, he was good enough to walk through the meadows with me trying out the speech which he was going to make to the Union in the following week. At that time, I formed the conclusion that I have about the noble and learned Lord's art of speaking, and nothing has happened in the last 50 years to alter it.

I know very well from what the noble and learned Lord has written, and particularly from the Dimbleby lecture, that he has never agreed with us upon the matter of proportional representation. He spoke most eloquently about the rights of minorities, and I entirely share his view that the real test of whether you have a healthy democratic society is the extent to which it provides safeguards for the minorities. That is because in the work that we do, in the games that we play, in the arts in which we engage, in the appreciation of nature, music or language, we are all minorities and the first business of a decent democratic society is the protection of the minorities.

That is why I find it difficult to understand altogether why the noble and learned Lord does not see that one of the minorities in this country, which is being denied fundamental rights today, is the people who belong to a minority party and who may go through the whole of their lives in this democratic society, without ever being allowed to cast the vote that counts or that makes any difference to the Government of the country. I should have regarded that minority right, the right of people to be allowed to cast the vote that counts, and that has some impact upon the way in which their country is governed, as one of the fundamental rights which the noble and learned Lord would have been most anxious to protect.

Having said that, may I say finally to the noble and learned Lord that I am overwhelmed by the generosity of what he had to say about me, and may I thank your Lordships for having attended and listened to this debate. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.