Debate resumed on the Motion moved yesterday by Lord Clinton-Davis—namely, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:
Most gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament".
§ 2.32 p.m.
§ The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)
My Lords, this afternoon we continue our extended debate on the gracious Speech. I am sure it will produce a thorough discussion of all the measures the Government have proposed. I am also sure that—as always in an important debate in your Lordships' House—there will be many authoritative and informed speakers. No doubt we will hear contributions from those with vast, personal experience of the subjects to be considered. We will also hear a number of distinguished maiden speakers. Today I look forward to hearing the maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Butler of Brockwell and Lord Norton of Louth, and the noble Earl, Lord Dunmore.
I understand, of course, that for some Members of your Lordships' House there is only one issue of real interest: the Government's plans to reform the House itself. It would, clearly, be ridiculous to pretend that these proposals are not significant. They are matters of serious constitutional change and I shall return to them in detail, and in context, later in my speech. However, as legislators, we have a duty to look beyond our own affairs, beyond this Chamber and indeed beyond Westminster.
In this Session, the Government are proposing major new legislation on issues which are central to the cares and concerns of most people in Britain. I refer to Bills to reform our welfare system, to modernise the National Health Service and to cut crime; Bills to deliver better local authority services to local communities, and to give citizens better access to justice in our courts; Bills to make work pay for low-paid families, and to make employment fairer; and Bills to offer practical help to disabled people, and to help enterprise in our key financial services sector. These are the bedrock issues— rightly called the "heartland" issues—where change and reform will make a difference to every part of the country.
This year's programme builds on the achievements of the first legislative Session. It carries forward the Government's objectives of securing economic strength through stable management of the economy, accompanied by social justice and opportunity for all. Its key principles are fairness and enterprise. It is an ambitious programme; it is a radical programme. It is a measure of the importance of the programme that your Lordships have requested five days to debate it.
25 Before returning to this afternoon's consideration of constitutional and legal affairs, I wish to outline the major proposals to be addressed later. Tomorrow, we shall debate defence and foreign affairs. The gracious Speech sets out a number of challenges that will face us over the coming year on the world stage. Tomorrow will also be your Lordships' opportunity to discuss the Bill to convert the Commonwealth Development Corporation into a public/private partnership to increase investment in developing countries. This Bill has now been introduced into the House by my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey.
Next Monday's debate will focus on education, local government, the environment and agriculture. The Government have repeatedly made clear the absolute priority we attach to improving education in this country. The Government's commitment to lifelong learning was a major theme of last year's programme, with four education Acts. This year we shall bring forward proposals for continuing our drive to higher standards at all levels of education. We shall publish a Green Paper on improving the quality and status of the teaching profession. This will herald the biggest reform in teaching for half a century.
We shall continue our programme of reform of local and regional government. On Monday we shall also look at the Bill requiring local authorities to secure best value in the delivery of local services and to abolish the current arrangements for compulsory competitive tendering. Another Bill for initial debate on that day is to provide a fair basis for water charging in England and Wales—a Bill of real value to everyone.
On agriculture, the other subject for Monday's debate, the gracious Speech makes clear the Government's continued determination to see reform of the common agricultural policy. It also repeats our commitment to taking forward work on a food standards agency. Both initiatives follow our success this week in getting the beef ban lifted. That is a welcome step forward for everyone in Britain, especially, of course, our farmers. It was a step achieved only after a great deal of patient effort and delicate negotiation; a process which could only have been achieved by a government properly engaged in Europe. Over the past 18 months, this Government have been properly engaged and the positive results are starting to come through.
Tuesday's debate will concentrate on social, economic and industrial issues. It will focus on what the Government regard as the real centrepiece of the legislative programme: the far-reaching proposals for reform of the welfare state; that is, reform based on a firm principle of work for those who can and security for those who cannot. The Welfare Reform Bill will take forward the principles set out in the welfare reform Green Paper published last month. There are proposals for a single gateway to the benefit system for those of working age who are not in full-time work, and support for disabled people.
Welfare reform will also include a Bill to bring in the working families' tax credit, which will make work pay, especially for low-paid people, and a Bill to introduce 26 the disabled persons' tax credit, to offer help to disabled people getting back into work. Tuesday's debate will also include the Bill to combine the Contributions Agency and the Inland Revenue, the Bill introduced in your Lordships' House today by my noble friend Lady Hollis of Heigham.
The debate on that day will also cover the proposed financial services and markets Bill, which will establish a new statutory regulator for the financial services industry, and the Bill to promote electronic commerce, a vital new industry for the future. We shall consider, too, the Bill on fairness at work, which will introduce new policies for family-friendly employment, new rights for individual workers and a new employee relations settlement which will establish a forward-looking balance of rights and responsibilities for both employers and employees.
The last day of debate, next Wednesday, will concentrate on health and home affairs. This will underline our determination to reform the public services of this country. The gracious Speech includes a Bill to replace the National Health Service internal market with decentralised arrangements based on partnership, quality and efficiency. Doctors and nurses will take the lead in shaping local services for patients through primary care trusts. Collaboration and co-operation between service providers will replace the destructive competition of the recent past. New methods of raising and monitoring common high standards across the NHS will be introduced.
On crime, the Government's policies will be taken forward with a Bill to modernise the youth courts and to give more protection to vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. Home affairs legislation will also include a Bill to modernise the law on immigration and asylum, including reform of the appeals system and new support arrangements for asylum seekers.
I turn back now to the subject of today's debate: constitutional and legal affairs. I propose to say only a little about legal affairs. The access to justice Bill will among other things introduce measures to promote the establishment of a community legal service providing the widest possible access to high quality information and advice for everyone. It is the responsibility of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, and I shall leave him to deal with it in detail when he comes to speak at the end of today's debate. Suffice it for me to say that this important Bill, which again affects the day-to-day lives of many citizens, will start its parliamentary passage in your Lordships' House.
Health, welfare, crime, jobs, the economy and education: these are the centrepiece issues of the gracious Speech.
We will rightly concentrate on these key issues, but we will also proceed with further moves in the Government's constitutional reform programme. They are a major part of our proposals to modernise the institutions of this country. The key principles of the programme are clear: the decentralisation of power, real rights for citizens, openness—and modernising Parliament to improve its effectiveness. It is integral to our approach that we start from what is already there, 27 such as the existing administrative responsibilities of the Scottish and Welsh Offices or the European Convention on Human Rights. Our proposals are radical, but they are also firmly rooted in our existing arrangements.
The Opposition have been consistent on our programme of constitutional reform and, I have to say, consistently wrong. Every time, over every measure, their line is the same, "It shouldn't be done, and it can't be done". The problem for them, as has been demonstrated during the past year, is that the people of Britain feel differently—and so do the Government.
Last year, we made a significant start to our programme, with the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill; the Scotland Bill; the Government of Wales Bill; the Human Rights Bill; and, following the Belfast agreement, two Bills in relation to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Those Acts, as they now are, will transform the political landscape of this country.
The Human Rights Act will give UK citizens for the first time the ability to assert their convention rights directly in our own courts. It too will work with the constitutional settlement, not against it. Although the courts will be given more power, the sovereignty of Parliament will also be preserved. Its most important effect will be to change the way that public authorities in this country look at human rights issues, and to bring in a proper human rights culture.
That is a start in our determination to reform and renew British institutions. It is a good start. This year, the legislative programme contains fewer constitutional changes.
Apart from the Greater London Authority Bill, which my noble friend Lord Whitty will deal with next Monday, there is only one major constitutional measure in the programme: the Bill to begin the reform of your Lordships' House.
As the gracious Speech makes clear, there will be a Bill to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in this House. That was promised in our manifesto—and it will be delivered by this Government.
The Bill will be a self-contained measure, not dependent on any further reform in the future. It means that the removal of the hereditary Peers is compatible with any option for further reform which might sensibly be proposed. It works as a reform in its own right, and it will work as a reform in conjunction with any further reform.
As I have said on several occasions in your Lordships' House—and I am happy to repeat it today: the Government are entirely determined on further reforms, properly considered. The gracious Speech underlines that that next stage will be speedily progressed.
In the previous Session of this Parliament, we had an illuminating two-day debate on the Government's manifesto proposals. The main message I received from those two days is that most noble Lords opposite, most noble Lords who oppose the manifesto provisions, are fully signed up members of what one could call "The St. Augustine school of Lords reform"—it is a good idea in principle, but not yet, not yet.
28 The problem with that approach, as those noble Lords know very well, is that "not yet" has, in the past, always become "never". Indeed, it is on those very grounds that they choose to attack the Government's step-by-step approach.
They claim that the removal of the hereditary Peers will remove an "independent" element of this House, and will therefore be a retrograde step, while the Government's incentive to further reform will have gone, along with the hereditary Peers.
Our view, on the contrary, is that the hereditary Peers are not independent and therefore their removal is essential before any further changes can be made.
The Government's position remains simple and unchanged. We acknowledge the contribution of individual hereditary Peers, but we reject the hereditary principle as a basis for membership of this House of Parliament.
We have heard much in the recent past about the value of that hereditary principle in providing an independent voice in legislation. Hereditary Peers, and indeed some public commentators, may believe they are independent but the record tells otherwise.
I hardly need to rehearse in your Lordships' House the simple facts that the Conservative Party in this House has an in-built majority of three to one over the Government; or that the block vote has been deployed to defeat the Labour Government more times in the previous Session than in any during the 18 years of Tory rule; or that the contentious issue of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill would have been carried in each and every Division if only life Peers had voted. These are the unassailable facts.
I accept that some Cross-Bench hereditary Peers are independent. For them, independence is real. It is prized. It is valued and the Government are committed to maintaining that genuinely independent voice.
But this House knows what the reality is for the majority. This House knows which Lobby they go through time after time after time. "Independent" they may call themselves; well, independent by name—but not independent by nature or behaviour.
One further point: many of the hereditary Peers who claim a reserved seat in your Lordships' House actually take no part in its proceedings, in its important work.
Nearly 200 hereditary Peers failed to attend the House at all in the 1996–97 Session—not counting those who had sought leave of absence. As we approach the 21st century it is simply a nonsense to pretend that every hereditary Peer can automatically expect the right to serve as a Member of Parliament.
The status quo is simply unacceptable. It must be changed. Only then will it be possible to engage in constructive debate on the role, functions and composition of a fully reformed second Chamber, taking proper account of the whole of our evolving constitutional settlement.
The gracious Speech repeats our commitment to establish a Royal Commission to look into the issues in depth. The Government wish to ensure that a full range 29 of options is examined and that everyone who wishes to contribute has the opportunity to do so. We hope to proceed further by consensus.
Perhaps I may stress to your Lordships that the Royal Commission is not a delaying tactic. It will work to a tough and tight timetable and its recommendations will be promptly considered.
I have heard it suggested that had we appointed a Royal Commission when we first came into office 18 months ago, we could have had the full reform package ready by now. That is simply unrealistic. The Royal Commission will have to undertake its deliberations in the light of the other constitutional changes I have already mentioned. The devolution process and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights are significant and relevant changes.
If the Royal Commission had started its work 18 months ago, it could quite legitimately have said that it needed to see the final form of those changes before it could even begin to assess their implications for the House of Lords. Those changes are now on the statute book: their final form is clear. Now is the right time for the Royal Commission to start its work.
So I say again to your Lordships: the Government are as committed to the second part of their manifesto proposals on the House of Lords as they are to the first. We have reviewed the system for the appointment of life Peers in the future. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he is prepared to relinquish his sole power of patronage in this area. This will reform the systems by which in the Conservative Government of the 1980s and 1990s appointed twice as many Conservative as Opposition Peers. We will stand by our propositions that no political party should seek a majority in the House of Lords and that there should continue to be a significant independent element on the Cross-Benches.
We shall spell out in detail how we intend to fulfil those commitments in the context of this Session's Bill. Again the more we can achieve by consensus the better. I should also confirm that the Government will be re-introducing the European Elections Bill. 1 do not need to address the substance of that Bill—we are all well aware of it. How much of your Lordships' time it will occupy depends on the Opposition.
Perhaps I may simply observe that I have difficulty in following the principle, the logic, or indeed the political tactic, of opposition in this House to the elections Bill, which appear in some instances at least to be based on a perceived inexactitude in our general election manifesto, while opposition from the same quarters ignores the absolute precision of the manifesto commitment on the future of your Lordships' House. Perhaps someone in this afternoon's long list of speakers will be able to help me.
I am sure that we shall see challenge in this Session. The events of the last few weeks have left us on this side of the House in no doubt about that. But I believe, too, that we shall see change. And those on the other 30 side of the House should be in no doubt about that either. It is change that we expect to see reflected in reform across the country—not just in Parliament.
As I made clear, I understand the interest of this House in the one measure of reform. But I believe that the House for its part must understand the interest of the people of this country in the Government's whole package of measures. The Government's programme contains a range of far-reaching steps which will benefit everyone through modernising the welfare state, improving healthcare, tackling crime and strengthening the UK's competitiveness.
These may seem mundane issues to those seduced by dramatic headlines of "warfare" over parliamentary traditions, but they matter a great deal to a great many people whose lives are led far from the political hot house. Members of this House often speak properly of duty. I hope that in this coming Session your Lordships will recognise their duty not only to themselves, to their own interests, but to the country as a whole. I enthusiastically commend the Government's programme to the House.
§ 2.53 p.m.
My Lords, I think the whole House should be extremely grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating to us, and devoting such a high proportion of her remarks in doing so, what we had already heard yesterday. It was extraordinarily kind of her to remind your Lordships that there are matters at least as important as the reform of this House. I hope that my remarks will reflect that fact. Perhaps I may also say how much we are looking forward to the maiden speeches of three noble Lords: the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, the noble Earl, Lord Dunmore, and my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. I shall leave consideration of legal matters, which I acknowledge are an important element of the Government's programme, to my noble friend Lord Kingsland, who is eminently qualified to discuss them, when he winds up for the Opposition.
I for one was pleased to see the end of the previous Session. It was long—some say it was the longest Session since the 17th century, although in some quarters that is disputed. It certainly passed a great deal of legislation; the noble Baroness was right about that. However, I fear that much of that legislation was damaging in principle to the political and economic health of our country; it was based on policies that were almost universally ill-thought through and included innumerable provisions that were both illogical and inconsistent, as well as wrong. Furthermore, such is the control that the Government have established over another place—thanks to a combination of their vast majority and their determination to ride roughshod over the right of Parliament to hold them to account—that much of that legislation reached this House undiscussed by another place even for one split second at Committee or Report stages. Lest anyone dispute that, I pray in aid the example of the Welsh Bill as a classic case in point.
However, I wonder whether the Government are not more relieved to see the end of the Session than I am. In spite of their best efforts, the institution of 31 Parliament, helped by a free press, has begun to expose the shabbiness of the Government's approach. And, if I may say so, the role that this House has played in that exposure has been a glorious one. I know that "glory" is an unfashionable word in New Labour, but some of us are pleased with the history of our country and not ashamed of it. As always, this House has been at its most effective when speaking and voting across party lines and demonstrating that independence of thought and action that has been the despair of Chief Whips of both main parties in this place throughout our modern existence. It is an indication both of our effectiveness as a revising Chamber and of the state of the preparation of government Bills that during an admittedly long Session we passed 3,963 amendments in 228 sitting days, which consumed 1,605 long hours of debate. Another place admittedly sat for 11 more days, but is not yet in a position to tell us for how many hours.
During the past 18 months I have listened to many heated discussions among commentators about the Government's motives for inflicting their policies upon us. No one disputes that the Government are bent on ushering in a constitutional revolution unparalleled since Henry VIII. The noble Baroness gloried in it again today. The question that exercises a number of us is: do the Government have a coherent vision of what they want us to achieve? The noble Baroness asserted that they did, although during the course of her remarks produced precious little evidence to support that assertion. Do the Government know what they want the living constitutional landscape to look like?
As month has succeeded depressing month, and as one ill-thought out Bill has succeeded another and piled inconsistency on inconsistency, I fear that the answer to that question is becoming nightmarishly obvious. The Government are obsessed with living up to at least half of their name—the first half. They know that there are few votes any more in being called "Labour", but think that there will continue to be votes in being called "New". So they are wedded to pell-mell change at all costs, no matter how ill-considered are the provisions of the Bills they introduce. That is why the word "modernisation" occurs 11 times in the gracious Speech.
But what does modernisation under this Government really mean? It certainly means one thing, and again it is something of which the Government are immensely proud. It means an assault on tradition, a view that history began on 1st May 1997. They therefore repudiate a distinct national history and pave the way for the triumph of an integrated Europe based on the role of Napoleonic elites instead of electorates, on big government, high taxation and protectionism. It means fiddling with the constitution while the economy burns. The resulting effect on our constitutional landscape is an awful parody of what should be a happy analogy: the enthusiastic amateur landowner Squire Blair, desperate to introduce his modish improvements, aided and abetted by Incapability Brown and Alistair, rather than Colin Campbell. The result, of course, will be a Serpentine Gallery of politics in which all forms are broken, real meaning is obscured and meaning is only what the political cataloguers, the spin doctors, give it.
32 It could be exceeding wearisome to chronicle all the evidence for that assertion. However, it would be instructive to know what strategic vision dictated that four separate proportional representation systems should be used: first, for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly; secondly, for the Northern Ireland Assembly; thirdly, for the elections of London's mayor, and, fourthly, for the elections to the European Parliament. Of course, we already have a completely different system for elections to another place.
But if the Prime Minister were sufficiently to heal the splits in his own party to allow him to hold a referendum, on his usual rigged terms, on whether to change Westminster elections to another system, we would still be inflicting a fifth proportional system on our long-suffering electorate. Luckily for us, he risked splitting his party if he proceeded. Luckily for him, he has been able to kick that particular hot potato into touch with the active co-operation of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. I am distressed not to see him in his place today, but no doubt he has important matters of an academic nature to detain him. Otherwise, the Prime Minister might have been in some trouble over his adherence to his doctrine of the manifesto.
The loser is the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, who will have to wait for eight more long years before being able to fulfil his ambition and use us, the British electorate, as an open air laboratory for his pet scheme, unsullied as it is by previous use anywhere in the world.
It is clear that the constitutional measures the Government have introduced so far have not been thought through, either as to their major consequences or as to how they might work in detail. As far as their major consequences are concerned, there is no better example, I submit, than the Scotland Act. There can be no doubt that the people of Scotland want devolved government. However, we have always felt that devolution carried within it the danger that it would not end there, that Scotland would sleepwalk into complete independence, carried there on a wave of anti-English emotion and comforted by the delusion that Brussels money would compensate it for the potential loss of English taxpayers' subsidies.
It became clear a few weeks ago that suddenly the Government have woken up to the possibility that we might have been right all along. Scottish opinion polls began to show that the SNP was running neck and neck with, even sometimes ahead of, Labour. The Government, not surprisingly, embarked on a frenzy of prophylactic activity. That old-fashioned socialist, Mr. Gordon Brown himself, in panic, delivered a speech in defence of the Union that would have done credit to any Tory.
It is now evident that the Government have realised, so far as Scotland is concerned, what we had understood all along: that to chant the word "modernisation" like a mantra is no substitute for thinking through the consequences before legislating. We should note that in the Scotland Bill there were a number of other matters on which the Government seemed less than certain of their ground—matters of detail. The matter of the link between the number of members of the Scottish 33 Parliament and the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster is another case in point. I am told that the Scottish Office Ministers were desperate to give way on a point which made the Government look more than usually foolish. However, the Prime Minister— well-known for his defence of an existing position, however untenable—forbade them to give way at all.
The gracious Speech announced five other constitutional measures which make me wonder whether the Government, like the Bourbons, have learnt anything at all; and whether your Lordships will be forced yet again to draw the attention of another place and the public to the dangers of introducing legislation that is ill-prepared in both conception and execution.
It is true that there is one small glimmer of hope in that the Government have promised to introduce several Bills in draft, I hope to the delight of my noble friend Lord Renton. I greatly welcome that development, as I am sure he does. It can only improve the quality of legislation and increase public confidence in it. However, although the measures are certainly important and may in some instances be potentially useful, they certainly do not cover the Government's main programme. I fear that for important Bills we must resign ourselves to more of the same, in the light of bitter experience. There is absolutely no indication that they will use this admirable device to stem the tide of ill-considered legislation that is the curse of our age. After all, the only Bill which might be considered under this procedure, which might be thought to be part of the Government's principal programme of activity, is the freedom of information Bill. Since no other measure of a similar kind has been introduced under it, one cannot help wondering whether it is being used merely to kick a tricky question into touch—and not for the first time.
Nowhere is the Government's lack of forethought more evident than in the case of the Bill that in the current Session will most directly concern your Lordships' House: the first stage of the change in the composition of this place.
We have been discussing this question for some time—over 100 years. We discussed it again last month in the remarkable two-day debate in which I was privileged to take part. We will undoubtedly spend many delightful hours doing so again during our discussion of the Bill. I shall therefore not presume to weary your Lordships by once again embarking on a complete recapitulation of the arguments now, despite the noble Baroness's outstanding exercise in sourness this afternoon. Far be it from me to extend comparisons of the attendance of life Peers and hereditary Peers. I refer your Lordships to the records on the matter which the learned Clerks so helpfully keep. However, it must be a matter of extreme regret that the Government have insisted on tackling the question in the way they have.
The Government have tried to reassure us that they really do intend to proceed swiftly to a full stage two reform by promising us a White Paper and by undertaking to establish a Royal Commission. It would be useful to know when we can expect the White Paper and what it will cover. I welcome the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for the first historic time to 34 the Front Bench rather than the Woolsack. I hope that when he comes to reply he could also tell us whether the White Paper will confine itself to the mechanics of the stage one House. Will it cover how Peers will be appointed from now on? Will it address itself in any way to the timing of stage two? Will it set out the terms of reference of the Royal Commission? Will it tell us who will sit on the Royal Commission? Will it set out the options for stage two which the Government wish the Royal Commission to consider? Will the Royal Commission consider the powers a stage two House might enjoy? Will the Royal Commission hold public hearings? Despite what the noble Baroness the Leader of the House told us this afternoon, I cannot but feel that none of that is as yet at all clear. The Government owe it not only to the House but more importantly to the public to enlighten us.
It would be even more useful if the Government could give us some guarantee that the Royal Commission's report will not gather dust in some Whitehall pigeon-hole, apart from the clear assurances that the noble Baroness gave us this afternoon. I have quite a long experience now, although not nearly so long as that of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, (drawing a bow at a venture) of such assurances from government Ministers. I have listened to them from Ministers of both political parties. The political history of this country is littered with undertakings of that kind which have been more honoured in the breach than in the fulfilment. A guarantee greater even than the one given us by the noble Baroness this afternoon would be extraordinarily useful.
After all, pigeon-holing has all too often been the fate of Royal Commission reports in the past. Since the noble Baroness is constantly assuring us that she regards stage one as a satisfactory stand-alone reform, we cannot help wondering on this side of the House whether the Government will kick stage two into the long grass with the same sense of relief as they have kicked the elegantly phrased report of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.
In the absence of such a guarantee, I cannot help feeling that my noble friends will find it increasingly difficult, as I tried to indicate yesterday, to view the Bill with anything but the greatest of suspicion. Even at this late stage, I hope that the Government will be able to reconsider so that we can avoid a bruising contest in the weeks to come.
The noble Baroness rejected the idea that we could by now have had stage two had the Government proceeded as I originally suggested some 18 months ago. In spite of what she said I repeat that it could have been so very different if only the Government had done as we suggested. If they had set up the Royal Commission immediately after the last general election, we might by now have been considering its report.
As I have consistently undertaken, and the Government in their own interests have consistently disbelieved when I have said it, the official Opposition would have been entirely constructive in their response. There would have been no room for doubt that the Government intended to proceed to stage two. Above 35 all, there would have been an opportunity to build a public consensus for reform that would have encouraged another place to overcome its distaste for a more authoritative second Chamber and so enabled us to navigate around the rock upon which all attempts at thorough reform have so far foundered. I refer to another place, not your Lordships' House. After all, in 1968 we voted by four to one in favour of reform.
I am not alone in this. The public overwhelmingly think so too if a recent ICM finding endorsing an earlier MORI poll is correct. When asked, 68 per cent, of the public said that we should leave things as they are for the moment until all of the details of the reform have been decided, as opposed to a magnificent 25 per cent, who supported the Government's approach—almost as much as the present Tory opposition's standing in the polls itself. We are witnessing a great wasted opportunity, born of the fatal failure of this Government to think through the consequences of what they have begun to undertake. As I said yesterday, governments and politics being what they are, this Government in particular will be tempted to kick stage two into touch no matter what the Royal Commission recommends, in spite of what the noble Baroness has said today. In the absence of guaranteed progress to stage two, it will be extremely difficult for my noble friends and me to accept the Government's proposals.
Faced with the consequences of their fatal incoherence, the Government are being forced to take refuge in a number of devices that are designed to protect their position in the short term. Perhaps the most notorious and recent of these is the Government's refusal to implement the recommendations of the Neill Committee on the conduct of referendums—one of the most barefaced pieces of impudence even from this Government that I could have imagined. We know that they rigged both the Scottish and Welsh referendums with the result that Wales almost certainly got the result that it did not want. If the Government wish to maintain confidence in the integrity of our system of government, this is a curious way of showing it.
We are promised a number of further referendums, notably a new voting system for Westminster and on whether we should join the EMU. Do the Government want to rig those as well? If not, they should reassure us to the contrary now. If they introduce a Bill to give effect to the proper regulation of referendums, I assure the noble Baroness that we shall give it our enthusiastic support. These devices only serve to reinforce the impression that the Prime Minister's principal objective is to undermine the position of Parliament as the bedrock of the constitution.
Yesterday I sympathised with the Leader of the House in that any attempt to report great matters to Parliament was being blocked. We all know that in our country any government derive their authority from the electorate. However, they maintain that authority by submitting themselves to continuous scrutiny in Parliament. The Prime Minister's all-too-evident distaste for subjecting himself to that scrutiny confirms the impression on this side of the House that he would much prefer to govern without Parliament at all. Certainly, the Government's constitutional programme appears to have addressed 36 itself to everything piecemeal except the one matter with which they should have started their constitutional reforms: how to restore Parliament to the centre of our political life. For the only part of Parliament to which they have addressed themselves—the composition of your Lordships' House—they have made proposals that completely ignore the rest of Parliament altogether.
This is dangerous tinkering with the future of the constitution of our country. In the spirit of co-operation and friendship for which I am notorious, I suggest that for the Prime Minister himself it is short sighted. Paradoxically, were he to welcome greater parliamentary scrutiny and to think constructively about parliamentary reform as a whole, he would return from Parliament like Antaeus from each contact with the earth strengthened and with his authority enhanced. As it is, the Government must eventually collapse under the contradictions of the policies of which they claim to be most proud.
The kings of spin cannot fool us for ever as we begin to see that "devolution" means control of candidates from London; that "positive Europeanism" means the loss of national independence; that "directly elected mayors" means centrally vetted candidates: that "fair elections" for Europe means closed lists that give more power to the party apparat rather than the electorate; and that "a more democratic Lords" means a wholly nominated House. We are being sold snake oil by snake oil salesmen who want to perpetuate their hold on power only by rigging the system. They want nothing to do with genuine reform centred on a parliament that works better. As a House we should use the next Session to expose them ruthlessly.
§ Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank
My Lords, I am afraid that I am not sufficiently acquainted with the properties of snake oil to get the full measure of the noble Viscount's injunction. But there was a time when Members of Parliament of both Houses awaited the Queen's Speech with all the excitement of children eager to discover their Christmas presents. No longer. Almost all is now entirely predictable. For months Ministers—I do not mean merely the present Front Bench—go through the charade of pretending that they cannot anticipate the Speech while by winks and nods they indicate what it will contain. The press is given an even clearer indication of what to expect through Downing Street briefings. This year the prospect has been explicit. The Session will be dominated by a Bill to exclude the hereditary peerage from your Lordships' House. The only question appears to be how your Lordships will pass the time until the Bill arrives from the Commons some time before Easter.
When we debated in a very preliminary way the Queen's Speech yesterday the Leader of the House said that we would have a quiet time during December. We now know that after December, and before we get to the Government's legislative programme, we shall be dealing with a Bill that should have been allowed to pass a week ago in the closing days of the previous Session. No matter that Britain may be again poised on the edge of a conflict with Saddam Hussein, that Russia 37 is collapsing into chaos, that a recession may still engulf us or that peace in Northern Ireland remains a subject of concern, the second Chamber of the mother of Parliaments will be arguing the merits of open and closed lists and whose name should appear on the ballot paper. Let us repeat time and time again—this is the core of the matter—that in so doing a wholly unelected House will be challenging a wholly elected one about the nature of democracy. That is the issue, and nothing could be more topsy-turvy.
I suppose that we should have expected the hereditary Peers to go down fighting and made allowances for that fact. But most of all I am puzzled—my remarks are directed at the legislation we debated last week and will shortly see again but they may also apply to the debates we shall have on the reform of this House—by the judgment of many Conservative life Peers with experience of the other place who lent themselves to the war of attrition last week and before, and who did not know where to stop.
There were some notable absentees, for whatever reason, from last Wednesday's Division, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Hurd. Eighteen former Conservative Cabinet Ministers voted to kill the Bill. It is inconceivable that they would have tolerated any comparable action on a matter of this importance when they were in Cabinet. The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, who voted last Wednesday, would have been incandescent. Surely, they cannot believe that across the nation, in clubs, pubs, supermarkets and bus queues, the sole object of discussion is the gallant fight of Conservative Peers to determine the contents of ballot papers which on the previous occasion almost two-thirds of voters did not even bother to complete. Indeed, the great majority of our hereditary colleagues who serve in this place have never at any time submitted their names on a ballot paper.
As regards the position of the noble Viscount, it is difficult to know whether to be angry at what happened last week or to feel sorry for him. Indeed, when I consider the noble Viscount I am sometimes reminded of a description by Miss Beatrice Webb of Hugh Dalton—Dr. Dalton, as he was known when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer; and Lord Dalton as he became briefly. Beatrice Webb said of Hugh Dalton that he was,a subtle, wily man with a certain peculiar charm".The noble Viscount is a very different person, but I often think of that description applying to him, and not, I should say, in pejorative terms. But where were his subtlety and wiliness last week? Yes, the Government could have brought the Bill back a second time on Tuesday evening and have been prepared to sit through the night. But the noble Viscount was obliged to deal with the situation as it was on Wednesday. It may have been a lack of judgment, which I think is not in character. He was perhaps upstaged by his heir apparent, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. Alternatively, he could have been acting under instructions from his party leader, William Hague.
38 About his relations with Mr. Hague I have some sympathy. I am sure that although the noble Baroness would not admit it, she will be troubled from time to time by the Prime Minister believing that he knows better than she does about how to handle this House. To be fair, I must also admit to being provoked occasionally—very occasionally indeed—by a telephone call from another place. The truth is that those who have never served in this place generally have a very hazy idea of how it operates. I believe that, like the noble Viscount last week, the noble Baroness, and I from time to time, on future occasions will suffer from this lack of understanding of how we conduct our affairs.
I do not propose to rehearse today all the arguments made from these Benches and elsewhere in our two-day debate on 14th and 15th October about the future of this House, to which the noble Baroness referred. Our view from these Benches of what should be done has not changed even though we feel that the hereditary Peers were pushing their luck last week, and perhaps the Cross-Benches, too, in not following the lead of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and the view of the Lords Spiritual on some essentially temporal matters about the relationship between this House and another.
I join with the noble Viscount in saying that we still know very little about how the Government intend to proceed on the first stage of the House of Lords reform. We do not know precisely when the Bill will be published. We do not know when the White Paper will appear. We do not know what will be the terms of reference for the Royal Commission. We are presented again with a great deal of vagueness about a timetable which this House should know. We understand that the Lord Privy Seal is now in charge of these arrangements, and I hope that we shall see some acceleration of the process and greater clarity about what the Government intend.
It is important to make this point because again the noble Baroness said—I noted her words—that the Prime Minister made clear that the Government intend special arrangements to be made for the system of nomination of life Peers. That is stated in the Queen's Speech. But—it is the largest gap—we must not only have a better system of nomination. There must be a rational basis for the composition of this House when the hereditary Peers have gone. We still do not know what that will be. I hope that it is not too much to expect the Lord Chancellor at least to lean in the direction of giving us some hint this evening. It is not sufficient to leave matters as they are. This is the last outstanding issue which needs to be clarified irrespective of what the White Paper may seek.
I turn to some matters which are in the Queen's Speech, and some which are not. I leave to my noble friend Lord Goodhart the task of examining the Government's proposals on legal aid and whether they will extend access to justice. Later in our debates we shall examine what the Government have in mind on asylum and immigration. I say only this. Legal aid and law on immigration are among the issues that the Government want, in the words of the Queen's Speech, "to modernise" among others. But "to modernise" is 39 entirely value free. It means to change and to bring up to date. It does not even mean change for the better, never mind whose "better" that would be. It can be a euphemism for abandoning well tried and defensible policies because the Chancellor of the Exchequer thinks they cost too much. And it can be a euphemism for restrictive policies that narrow rather than widen our freedoms. So let us not suppose that proposals to modernise are automatically matters upon which we can endorse what the Government have in mind.
There is the proposal to publish a draft freedom of information Bill on, I nearly said the spurious but perhaps 1 should say ingenious, ground of more open government. But we all know that there has been a row between Cabinet Ministers, and this is a way of marking time while, it is hoped, earning some Brownie points. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Goodhart will have something further to say on that.
Later in our debate we shall probe another proposal to modernise local government. Real modernisation would involve greater genuine financial independence for local government and the introduction of proportional representation. I should be surprised to find that in any Bill. There is a strong case for cross-party agreement on proportional representation for local government, whatever disagreements there may be elsewhere. None of us within this Chamber can believe that single party control by any party—because the turn of the Liberal Democrats will come—for a quarter of a century or more can be consistent with good, efficient, innovating and responsive local government. A heretic might even say that proportional representation for local government might once upon a time have claimed priority over PR for Westminster.
However, this is the first of five days of debate and I do not want to trespass unreasonably on what is still to come. But the constitutional and legal issues that we are discussing today come within the context of the Government's wider programme. Indeed, to legislate is only a small part of what any government do. Ministers are responsible for a whole myriad of decisions which affect people's lives; and they set the tone of much by their speeches and pronouncements.
Looking back on the first Session of a new government, and looking behind and beyond the Queen's Speech, let me make this wider comment. Taken as a whole, new Labour has had a successful baptism in office despite what the noble Viscount says, and there is no point in pretending otherwise. On constitutional matters—I do not know whether all my noble friends share my arithmetic—I would have to give it nine out of 10 for trying, and seven out of 10 for getting it right. History may well say—it is too soon to know—that in that respect its achievement is comparable, if different, from the great reforming governments of 1908 and 1945. Beyond that, I am inclined to give it five out of 10 at best.
The Queen's Speech makes many proposals to improve services, for example, in health and education. No doubt the Government would claim that modernising the welfare state also comes into such a category. We on these Benches shall not quarrel with that when the 40 intention is genuine, the will is clear and the resources are made available. But how will they deal with the prickly, awkward but inescapable questions which command few votes in middle England? One of those prickly questions with which this House in all quarters has shown concern is the prison population. At the time of the previous Queen's Speech in May 1997 there was a prison population of 60,421. Last Thursday it was 66,109. Under a Labour government, in 18 months 6,000 more men and women have been sent to prison. There is not much sign there of a new regime at the Home Office.
Constitutional change will not diminish poverty. "Welfare to work" is a fine slogan, but it does little for those who cannot work or who become victims of rising unemployment in a recession.
As I have said—and I know that not all noble Lords will agree—on the whole, the Government have made a good start. However, we must look further ahead at the reach and weight of their total programme. Here they are yet to be convincing on a central aspect of how best to create a society at peace with itself.
The Queen's Speech is strong on the need for economic growth. We all read our newspapers yesterday and know that elsewhere the Government have been trying to find criteria for measuring the quality of life. But this Government, a Labour government, should be concerned not only with the creation of wealth but with the spread of wealth; its distribution as well as its growth. If at the end of their period in office the rich are still growing richer while the poor are no better off they will have failed, however much we applaud their constitutional settlement.
§ 3.32 p.m.
Lord Butler of Brockwell
My Lords, perhaps I may start by thanking your Lordships, not just conventionally, for the warmth of the welcome I have received in your Lordships' House. Perhaps I may also thank the officers and staff of the House for the help and advice they have given me. It has been necessary and invariably courteous.
From the moment I was introduced, I felt that most of my former life was in your Lordships' House. There are those in all three parties for whom I worked during their careers as Ministers. There are many on the Cross Benches who are my colleagues and my friends. For me, it is not so much a case of upstairs, downstairs as of downstairs, upstairs. I noticed that during the debate on the European Parliamentary Elections Bill last week, there was a good deal of talk about whether your Lordships would accept advice from one of your Lordship's valets or from the noble Lord himself. I do not know about valets, but here is a Butler who is very grateful for the welcome he has received in your Lordships' House.
I had planned to make my maiden speech on the report of the Select Committee on the public services chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Slynn of Hadley. Since one of the recommendations of that report was that your Lordships should give more time to debating the public services, I had intended to say that it was a pity time 41 had not been found for a debate on that most excellent and thoughtful report. I am delighted that since then a debate has been arranged for next week. In that respect, my fox has been shot and I shall reserve my remarks on the public services to that debate. Today, I shall comment briefly on a few aspects of the proposals on governance in the gracious Speech.
It was clear from the Labour Party's manifesto published before the general election that the proposals on governance would constitute an ambitious programme. It was also clear that it would be a hectic programme because of the Government's decision to process the Scottish, the Welsh and Northern Ireland legislation in the first Session. Clearly, there are differing views on the substance of that legislation and I shall not comment on it in a maiden speech. However, there should be no dispute that the processing of so many sensitive and difficult issues in the first Session of a parliament was a very considerable achievement. It was a tribute to the groundwork of the constitutional think tanks, to the industry and attention to detail of the Civil Service, and to the Cabinet committees, under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, which processed those issues. It was a working of the machinery of government of which a former head of the Civil Service could feel proud.
That brings me to the two points I wish to make on the programme for the coming Session. The first concerns a measure which is not in the programme; it is the freedom of information Bill. I welcome the fact that the Government are taking time to consider and to consult on that Bill. Some of your Lordships might be unkind enough to suspect that a former Cabinet Secretary would weep no bitter tears if the freedom of information Bill never saw the light of day. I want to assure your Lordships that that is not my motive. But it is important that the effect of that legislation should not be to prevent the frank thrashing out of policy issues within government.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, once described collective responsibility as being the right to change your mind in private. If a situation is created in which Ministers have to argue and civil servants have to advise for the record, because that advice and discussion is liable in very short order to be published, the candour and frankness of the discussion within government will be damaged. The greatest mistakes which I saw within government took place when the freedom to discuss issues freely, to bring to bear all the expertise and experience which was available within government, was for one reason or another interfered with.
The second point I wish to make relates to the reformation of your Lordships' House. That is territory on which it is not safe to trespass far in a maiden and, I hope, non-controversial speech. The other day, I was reading Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Your Lordships may think it appropriate that now I have become an academic I should be devoting myself to such works. I came across a passage which your Lordships might think had some relevance 42 to the position in your Lordships' House. Gibbon was writing about the reforms of the Emperor Augustus of the Roman Senate. He wrote of Augustus:In concert with his faithful Agrippa, he examined the list of senators, expelled a few whose vices or whose obstinacy required a public example, persuaded near 200 to prevent the shame of expulsion by a voluntary retreat, raised the qualification of a senator to about £10,000 and created a sufficient number of patrician families… But, while he then restored the dignity, he destroyed the independence of the Senate. The principles of a free constitution are irrevocably lost when the legislative power is nominated by the Executive".The situation in your Lordships' House is not at all akin to that faced by Augustus in the Senate. But that last sentence should give us thought:The principles of a free constitution are irrevocably lost when the legislative power is nominated by the Executive".Speaking as a nominated Peer, it is perhaps appropriate for me to say that I think it of the highest importance, in the absence of hereditary Peers, for the Royal Commission to find a way in which to select Members of your Lordships' House which does not depend solely on the patronage of the Executive.
§ 3.40 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Bristol
My Lords, I have the honour on behalf of your Lordships' House to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, on his maiden speech. It was a speech characterised by graciousness and salted with not a little wit. It is clear that 30 years of public service, not only in the Treasury but also at the centre of political life, will bring to your Lordships' House a wisdom and an overview of which we have had a glimpse this afternoon. We thank him for what he has already contributed and look forward to sharing in many other occasions in the future.
As a leasehold Member of your Lordships' House and a Bishop of the Church of England, the issue of reformation is life and breath to my life. But I recognise the unease in parts of your Lordships' House in relation to its proposed reform. That unease represents not only the shock it entails for the status quo but also uncertainty and legitimate concern about embarking on a journey for which the destination is not clear at the time of departure.
One declared stop along the way is the transitional arrangements for a House whose numbers may be made up by appointed Peers. We may well ask, as has already been asked, how that will be done. My friend, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, on 14th October in your Lordships' House suggested the model of the Crown Appointments Commission as a useful starting point. I hope that that will be kept in mind and become part of our deliberations.
For the rest of the journey, much will depend on the Royal Commission, not least on its membership and terms of reference, which we await with interest. There is an opportunity to contribute to an important process. It will clearly be important for the membership of the commission to be sufficiently broadly based to consider effectively all aspects of that complex matter, including the future of faith community representation in your Lordships' House.
43 The reform of your Lordships' House, as indicated in the gracious Speech, is concerned with democracy and representation. We need to ask what is the purpose of the reform. If it is not for the good government of this country, questions must indeed be raised. Good government must be for all the people and must include as many as possible in the life of our community. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, referred to that passionately and eloquently in her speech yesterday.
I wish to underline the issue of representation. The Church of England is happy to see a broadening of that representation, but the key question concerns the framework in which that representation is set. At present, Bishops not only strengthen the spiritual dimension of the work of your Lordships' House—at least, I trust they do that although I heard the rebuke of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, as to whether we should be involved in certain aspects—they also contribute to its regional diversity. The fact is that the Bishops in your Lordships' House represent diverse parts of the country in a manner unmatched, perhaps, by any other element in your Lordships' House. Bishops are related to parishes, local communities and dioceses and they have local knowledge and points of reference which enrich debate and inform the legislative review.
Her Majesty's Government have indicated that devolution is one context in which Lords reform will be set. There is clearly value in placing reform of the House in the framework of the broader constitutional arrangements being developed for the United Kingdom. But for that undertaking to be useful in the reform of the House, the issue of English devolution will have to be considered as well as devolution for Scotland and Wales.
So far, the process is in its infancy, with the regional development agency initiative. Bishops and dioceses already actively engage in that process and we need to report to your Lordships' House that our experience is extremely patchy. In some parts of the country it is welcomed, but in others there is a great deal to fight for to enable the faith community's voice to be heard. That suggests that it will be necessary for the Government to indicate their intentions regarding English devolution in order to set the reform of your Lordships' House effectively in a desired context.
The Bishops and the Church of England, because of their parochial and diocesan system, are able and willing to contribute to that important aspect of debate on the future of your Lordships' House. We commit ourselves to ensuring, to the best of our ability, that the reform will be such that it will be for the sake of good government of the whole nation, for all its people, so that they may participate fully in the life of our country.
§ 3.46 p.m.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
My Lords, having spent more than 20 years studying and writing about Parliament, perhaps I may say what a delight it is to be a Member of your Lordships' House. The attitude that I have adopted towards Parliament is one that I should describe as critical affection. Now that I am a Member of your Lordships' House, I should claim that the critical 44 aspect has been directed at the other place and the affection retained for your Lordships' House. This is a maiden speech. I must confess that it is not the first time I have given it but it is the first time that I have given it to an audience and out loud.
We are debating the future of this House. We are doing so under the rubric of constitutional affairs and I should like to take that rubric as the basis for my comments. I wish to place one proposition before your Lordships and to develop two points which derive from that proposition. The proposition is simple. It is that we must have greater intellectual rigour in our debates on constitutional affairs, not least in discussing the future of your Lordships' House. That is not some pedantic, academic point—although there is nothing wrong with academic quotations—but it is crucial to the quality of our debates and the decisions which will flow from those debates.
The first point that derives from that proposition is that we must have greater rigour and clarity in defining the principles and concepts which underpin our discussions on constitutional affairs. All too often terms are bandied about as though their meaning is clear and uncontested. In debates about the future of your Lordships' House, it is quite common to refer to representation or, at a more fundamental level, to democracy but without those terms being defined in any proper sense and, indeed, quite often without their being defined at all.
Those terms mean different things to different people. There is an important literature that identifies those different meanings. If we are to avoid talking at cross-purposes with one another, it is essential that we clarify and express clearly and unambiguously what we mean by the very terms that we employ.
The second point derives from the first and is fundamental to the debate about constitutional affairs; that is, that we must learn to talk about the constitution as a constitution. We must learn to develop a language which reflects an understanding of constitutional norms and relationships. We must learn, or perhaps re-learn, to engage in what might be termed a constitutional discourse. The history of this country demonstrates that we have that capacity. But we rather lost the habit of it in the quarter century after the Second World War. Our constitutional arrangements were largely taken for granted. They appeared to be delivering what was expected of them and were mentioned essentially for the purpose of praise and for recommending that they be emulated elsewhere.
The situation has clearly changed since. Over the past quarter century constitutional issues have come on to the agenda of political debate but without our really learning how to debate them in relation to the constitution as a whole and the relations that are at the heart of that constitution. It is essential that we do so. In debates about the future of this place, some argue that hereditary Peers are undemocratic; others that they provide a necessary degree of independence in a second Chamber. Those are legitimate points to advance. But we need to go beyond them to ask fundamental questions that derive from our understanding of what a constitution is.
45 We need to ask: what is the role of a second Chamber in our constitution? Indeed, we need to ask what shape the constitution should take. Those are the sorts of issues that we should be addressing. Once we know what form of constitution we want, then we know what shape the second Chamber should take and the composition that is appropriate to it.
That is important, especially—indeed, necessarily— given the Government's proposals for change. The proposal to reform your Lordships' House must be put alongside those constitutional changes that were enacted in the last Session and the proposals that may come forward in future Sessions. Taken together, they change the very framework of our constitution; they move us away from what I termed the "traditional" constitution. That is what distinguishes the Government's proposals from previous essentially singular changes that sought to modify or strengthen the existing framework but did not seek to replace the constitutional framework with another.
Thus, we face a new situation. That situation creates challenges both for those who want to defend the existing constitution and those who wish to change it. But those of us who wish to preserve the existing arrangements must identify the form, the coherence of our present constitutional arrangements and the benefits that derive therefrom. I variously attempted to do so, identifying in particular but not exclusively the accountability that is at the core of our present system.
As a complementary Chamber, this Chamber serves to facilitate the accountability of the elected Chamber. If we move away from the existing constitution, if it is changed as it is proposed to be changed, we will need to decide our response to that change—doing so on the basis of a principled perspective of what is the most appropriate constitution for this country. A wish to retain accountability as a fundamental feature of our constitutional arrangements will have clear implications for the form of the second Chamber and the method by which its Members are selected.
For those who wish to reform the constitution, the challenge is equally clear. They must identify and justify their alternative framework to the present constitution. They must identify where they wish to go. We know where they are coming from; we know that they are against specific aspects of the existing constitution. But where are they going? I am not altogether sure. If I may be permitted to be a bit mischievous in a maiden speech, I would say that it is akin to a young tearaway who has decided to leave home but has not yet decided where to go.
Where are we going? What will the constitution look like in five or 10 years' time? By that, I do not mean what changes will have been enacted; I mean what form the constitution will take. What are the principles underpinning it? What are the benefits that it will deliver to the people of this country? And in what way do they outweigh the substantial benefits of the existing system?
Those are the type of questions we should be asking and the type of debate in which we should be engaging. As I said, it is central to the quality of our debates and 46 the decisions that will flow from them. If there is a recommendation that flows from what I have said, it is that the proposed Royal Commission should have a fairly wide remit and not be restricted to a narrow focus. Instead, it should be allowed to look at the second Chamber from the perspective of the needs of the constitution rather than to allow proposals for the second Chamber to determine the shape of our constitution.
My conclusion—to return to my earlier analogy—is that before we leave home, we need to be sure where we are going; otherwise, what may beckon—I say only "may"—may be a constitutional wilderness.
§ 3.55 p.m.
§ Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on behalf of the whole House for an exceptional maiden speech. It is fair to say that it was a controversial maiden speech, but it was a very good maiden speech. I have no doubt that the noble Lord will make an exceptional contribution to this House at stage two of the debate of the reform of the House of Lords.
I am particularly pleased that the Government are honouring their manifesto pledge to establish a community legal service which will widen access to legal services, particularly for the very poor and particularly in the areas of housing and welfare. It is wrong that the present legal system does not give that kind of access to the poorest people in our country. Therefore I welcome that proposal and I am pleased that the Lord Chancellor will be introducing those measures.
The main issue I want to address is the reform of this House. I want to speak not only as a member of the Labour Party, but also as a hereditary Peer. I wish too to send a message to one group within this House; that is, the hereditary Peers who take the Conservative Party Whip. My message is this: question your leadership. The Conservative leadership is sacrificing your interests by engineering a possible constitutional crisis in the coming year.
The gracious Speech confirmed what we all knew. The hereditary peerage is to end within this House and the European elections Bill will be reintroduced and, if necessary, the Parliament Act applied. I had not intended to dwell particularly on the issue of removing hereditary Peers. But it is worth bringing the House back down to earth and addressing some of the points raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Norton.
There are 1,200 Members of this place. It is the largest second chamber in the world. Once all the hereditary Peers have gone, there will be 500 Members of your Lordships' House and it will still be the largest second chamber in the world. On top of that, the life Peers are the ones making the vast part of the contributions to the debates in your Lordships' House. I have undertaken a study with the help of the Library. Apparently, 70 per cent, of the contributions are made by life Peers. There cannot be any real doubt therefore that during the transition period this House will function very much as it has done in the past.
47 Another point worth making is that life Peers have been appointed by nine successive Prime Ministers. A Prime Minister would need to be in office an extremely long time to substantially change the political balance of life Peers. But the Prime Minister says that he does not wish to have a majority in this House. He has gone further; he says that he will set up a commission to appoint Cross-Bench Peers. No other Prime Minister has volunteered to reduce his influence in this House. On the contrary, as my noble friend pointed out in her speech, when the Opposition were in government, they increased their majority in this place.
There can be no doubt that the hereditary peerage will cease to exist within this House within this Parliament. The Government could not have been more plain about their intentions. The Bill has been announced and, on top of that, the Opposition Front Bench says it accepts that the Salisbury Convention applies to the measure. So hereditary Peers will lose their right to sit and vote.
In this context the European elections Bill is to be reintroduced this Session, and the Parliament Act may be applied. We have heard the arguments again and again on the merits of open lists versus closed lists. But whatever one's view, this cannot in any way be dressed up as one of the great constitutional issues of the last 50 years. No, it is a device, a ruse, engineered by the Conservative leadership to give it the potential to disrupt the Government's programme in the coming year. My plea, addressed to Tory hereditary Peers, is that they should play no part in this device as it undermines the traditions they have obeyed and under which they and their forebears have served in the House of Lords.
I wish to quote two noble Lords sitting on the Benches opposite. I hope they will agree that I am quoting them in context. The first quotation is from the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, who said last Wednesday after the Leader of the House announced that the European Parliamentary Elections Bill had been lost:We are aware of the limitations on the rights of this House … and I hope that we will behave accordingly when the Bill is reintroduced."—[Official Report, 18/11/98; col. 1361.]That was, I believe, the instinctive reaction of the noble Viscount. It was the correct reaction. But now we are faced with potential behaviour from the Tory leadership which is very far from the traditions of this House. I wonder quite honestly how comfortable the noble Viscount is with this change in stance. The noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, commented in last month's debate on reform that as a hereditary Peer he volunteered to take the Conservative Party Whip. At the time I slightly teased him about that comment, but of course he was absolutely right because all hereditary peers who take the party Whip do so voluntarily, and I have to admit that the Conservative Peers I know jealously defend their independence within the Conservative Party.
So we have a Conservative hereditary peerage which instinctively understands the practical limitation of power in this House and which regards itself as volunteering its allegiance to the Conservative Party and overwhelmingly accepts that the end has come so far as their voting and speaking rights in this House are 48 concerned. Is it right therefore that the Conservative leadership should ask its hereditary Peers to act petulantly on a puffed-up point of principle? Is it right that they should be asked to throw away their tradition of respect for the limitations of power within this House? Is it right that when hereditary Peers finally leave this House they will be remembered for the trouble they have caused rather than for the service they have given?
No, the way for hereditary Peers to leave this House is by respecting the traditions under which they have served in this House, by respecting the will of the elected Chamber and, above all, by demonstrating an independence from the Conservative Party.
§ 4.3 p.m.
The Earl of Dunmore
My Lords, I crave the indulgence of this House for my maiden speech. As the twelfth Earl of Dunmore, I stand with pride and humility in this great institution among distinguished and influential Members—proud to be part of what I so admire and humble because I come from so far away, Tasmania, the jewel of Australia, to take my place among you.
Australians at this time are endeavouring to come to terms with the proposed reform of their constitution: whether to stay with the constitution as it was designed, a constitutional Monarchy, with the Crown as its linchpin, or become a republic and try to patch and fill the present constitution, or to write a new constitution designed specifically for the purpose of becoming a republic.
Earlier this year a constitutional convention was held with elected delegates from both sides of the debate. It has become clear that the preparation of a draft republic constitution for presentation to the Australian people in a referendum will not be straightforward. The implications of a republic on the Statute of Westminster, the Australia Act, and the separate constitutions of the Australian states will take much consideration and deliberation. It is my belief that Australia becoming a republic is not inevitable. A referendum might remove the Queen and replace the Governor-General with a President. But I remind the House that Australia is a commonwealth of states, all of them with their own constitutions, and all of them would have to be in agreement.
In the gracious Speech there are proposals to reform your Lordships' House. The first stage in this process will be the removal of people like me. It is not my place, as the holder of an ancient title dating from 1686, to question this. I pray that the new-look second Chamber will not lose the rich tradition and heritage that have made it such a respected place and one which has made a great contribution over the centuries.
I suspect that this may prove to be my first and also my last speech in your Lordships' House. My first visit from my home in Australia to the United Kingdom has been the experience of a lifetime, and it is an honour to have had the opportunity to speak in your Lordships' House.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, it is a singular privilege as an expatriate Scot to follow the noble Earl, Lord Dunmore, a fellow expatriate, whose family left Scotland about three generations ago, and to congratulate him on his maiden speech. It was a memorable speech and his interest in constitutional affairs is of particular value coming from the Cross-Benches at this time. I should have looked forward to hearing the noble Earl speaking in the future, but I understood him to say that he might not be doing so. I am sad to hear that. It would have been nice to have had the privilege of hearing him again, particularly on the subsequent stages of the abolition Bill, in which the position of the Cross-Benches is of crucial importance.
In her speech the Leader of the House made no reference to the functions of this House as the guardian of the constitution and as affecting the conduct of proceedings. My noble friend Lord Cranborne adverted to order of conduct of proceedings on the abolition Bill and to some of the problems arising, together with the failure of the Government to clarify their position—a point most cogently made, if I may say so, by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. The Government Front Bench listened to my noble friend Lord Cranborne with deaf ears. Their attitude is dangerous to the constitution of the country, as my noble friend said.
With respect to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, I fear that my speech will be rather short on intellectual rigour, but I shall do my best to entertain a constitutional discourse such as my noble friend might approve. In particular, I take two of his points: one is that the terms of reference of the Royal Commission should extend to envisage a new type of constitutional settlement as to the powers and functions of both Houses as well as to the composition of a new second Chamber. He also made the point that one cannot get to grips with the question of the composition of a second Chamber before the respective powers and functions of each House have been decided.
The function of your Lordships' House, as sole guardian of the constitution, is somewhat loosely defined so as to provide some measure of constitutional protection and safeguard, always subject to the grant of Royal Assent for any Bill under the Parliament Acts, to impose the will of another place. But there is no constitutional court or any other body competent to declare any provision in a Bill as unconstitutional, and assuredly your Lordships' House has no such competence. So the exercise of this function may be advisory where there is not a Bill before the House or it may also be to delay a Bill, but in either event in deference to the state of public opinion, as was the case on closed lists. That could well be the case on the stand alone stage one Bill to abolish the hereditary entitlement and then to set up a wholly nominated Chamber.
The broad nature of this guardianship function and the flexibility of an evolutionary constitution, afford fertile fields for conflict if no accommodation between the two Houses may be found. The legality of the function to delay—one has to distinguish between that 50 and legitimacy—derives from the Parliament Acts. The legitimacy of the exercise of that function requires that it should afford time for the opinion of the nation to be expressed on a matter of fundamental constitutional consequence on which it is divided, or it should reflect the view of the vast majority of people, as already expressed. It was said yesterday on Radio 4 that the priority of this Government, this self-styled "people's party", was not the wishes of the people, but the priority of the party.
As regards the closed lists, it was legitimate to insist; but whether it was wise to do so, contrary to the conventions and the working relationships which had evolved between the two Houses, is a matter for the judgment of others. I simply say that the superb speech of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, all but persuaded me to abstain. In the opinion of the majority of your Lordships it was a wholly exceptional situation in which there was compelling justification for insistence. A basic tenet of the constitution, as expounded by Burke, was to be eroded to the point of deprivation at the behest of the Government with an overwhelming majority in another place. It was a deprivation which fostered resistance to what appeared to be the obdurate, overt, unconstitutional abuse of power at No. 10.
As a somewhat independent Conservative who does not always follow the Whip, I entered the Lobby to mark a personal protest against the abuse of power. There was no electoral advantage to my party in the MEP elections. That protest was echoed by an honourable Member of another place, the Member for Wrexham, who is also a somewhat independent Member.
When that Bill returns the view could well be taken that your Lordships' House had already sought to discharge its guardianship function to the best of its ability, but to no avail, and that further protest is sterile.
As to the stage one abolition Bill, the main principle of abolition is accepted. The speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and others, in dealing with that point, are wide of the mark. The principle of abolition is accepted save as to delayed enactment in accordance with the wishes of the people. An amendment which reflects such wishes shall either be tabled or supported. It would not be a wrecking amendment contrary to the Salisbury Convention. The question of rejection does not arise as the main purpose of the manifesto commitment and the main principle of the Bill are accepted.
An amendment will propose that before enactment the substance of the reform shall be known, the report of the Royal Commission on all the proposals for reform shall have been debated in both Houses and that options for reform shall have been put to the people in a properly conducted referendum. As my noble friend Lord Cranborne said, according to the poll released on 18th November, 68 per cent, favoured delayed enactment until all the details of reform had been decided. But what my noble friend did not point out was that, of that category, the largest section comprised first-time voters aged between 18 to 24 years. They 51 voted 73 per cent., which is about three to one, against the Government's proposals and whose priorities are not the wishes of the people. It is a dangerous situation.
In the MORI poll released on 2nd November there was a clear majority against a proposal to set up a wholly nominated Chamber. About 50 per cent, of those polled were in favour of some form of elected second Chamber. Again, those are the wishes of the people. As an octogenarian life Peer there will be no sustainable interest for me to declare in this affair as nominations will be subject to an age limit and to an appropriate degree of political correctness, which, in my particular instance, would inevitably be found wanting. Those nominated would have to be certified as fit to sit and vote in a Chamber subservient to party apparatchiks. The House of Lords would cease to exist.
But pending abolition, whenever that might be—it could take a little time for the details of reform to be decided and for the processes of your Lordships' House to be undertaken—the hope must be (it is assuredly my hope) that amity between the two Houses may be re-established; that the usual working relationships may be restored; that there may be some accommodation on the closed lists and on amendments to delay enactment of the abolition Bill for such time, and no more, as reflects the wishes of the people. The Bill will have the fundamental constitutional consequence of affecting the workings of Parliament.
The main questions are whether all options for reform will be referred to the Royal Commission or whether only those acceptable to the Government will be referred; whether the reference will be made before or after the abolition Bill, where there is a clear issue; how the ethos of independence will be preserved; what is to happen to the Cross Benches; will there be a referendum and, if so, will it be conducted under proper rules; how is it to be ensured that no party in your Lordships' House ever has a majority; who is to nominate and renominate; what are to be the criteria.
My noble friend Lord Cranborne referred to "this modernising". I think that the noble Baroness, the Leader of the House, used the word "legitimise" in some context the other day. The noble Baroness shakes her head. Perhaps it was a report in the paper of what she said. If she did not say it, I withdraw my remark. But, whether it is called "modernise" or "legitimise", one wants to know whether, in this process of curbing the powers and functions of the second Chamber, any provision for the guardianship of the constitution will be made.
It is not understood how, pending the enactment of the essence—in whatever form it may be cast—there should be interim disruption of the entitlements, not only of the hereditary Peers but of people like myself: life Peers who have a Patent. We have an expectation of receiving a Writ of Summons to attend for life and that, as I understand it, is to be removed. I accept with good grace that it should be removed at some time. I have accepted with good grace, I hope, that the hereditary peerage should be abolished. But what I will not accept, and will continue to fight, is that we should not know and approve of the substance of what is proposed by way of reform before we all go on our way.
52 The enactment of the proposed abolition Bill before all details of reform have been decided would lack the authority of broad electoral consent, an authority which is ever subservient to the pretended authority to govern by manifesto. There is widespread anxiety as to the prospects of resolution—let us not pretend that there is not—and as to orderly transition and the preservation of the ethos of independence. Would not imposition in such circumstances evince an order of hubris which could well displease the gods and augur ill omens of utter disaster?
§ 4.24 p.m.
§ The Marquess of Bath
My Lords, I express my delight that the Government, by turning their attention to the formation of development agencies for the English regions, are about to create an identity for these English regions which will gradually bring them into direct comparison with the territories of Scotland and Wales. I regard this as a real start towards the conception of a "United Regions of Britain", which we might regard as a precursor to an eventual "United Regions of Europe", if not for the world as a whole.
I hope that the Government will be careful at this juncture to get the size of these regions appropriate to the broader purpose of defining the map of Britain, so that it serves as an inspiration to the rest of Europe concerning the workings of a truly democratic spirit within the Continent as a whole, for we should envisage that the ideal of one man, one vote, will follow along this path of political evolution to become one region, one vote, for which reason I must stress the importance of getting the boundaries of each region drawn from the very start so that territories of equal gravity are conceived. I am here speaking of an approximation of that equal size in terms of each regional population.
This is really a plea that the Government do not introduce the idea of these regions being too small for such purposes. To speak in terms of a single example, there is much danger that the concept of Wessex could be broken down into a series of smaller regions which certainly have an identity of their own but which would be too small to furnish the gravity for any future political development of a "United Regions of Europe". Despite the fact that western Wessex does not identify closely with eastern Wessex—let alone with northern Wessex—I am concerned that the boundaries of each of the regions should be drawn wider than one might initially conceive of them.
This is not to say that any portion of a region should be coerced into union with another portion. There are bound to be areas which look in two or more different directions concerning where their future cultural identity should lie. Far from advocating that any decisions in such matters should be taken behind their backs, I would ask that such matters be decided by holding local referenda, with local debate on the subject initiated as quickly as possible.
It is most important that the principle of consent should prevail in the creation of these regions. It would be on a point of principle that Cornwall should never be told that it has to join with Wessex, unless Cornishmen 53 proclaim that this is their wish. I think I can say that it would not be, unless the region as a whole were to be called "Wessex and Cornwall". I speak here as someone who is half-Cornish. I envisage that there would be much 11th-hour negotiation between neighbouring counties to determine where the boundaries were to be drawn between any of our English regions.
In order that the Government should not end up with a proliferation of regions that are too small to have appropriate significance for these purposes, I might suggest that they should start with a clear idea of where the regional heartlands might be situated, and then add to or subtract from these in accordance with the response from the territories concerned. I am hopeful that by this process the number of regions thus emerging on the new map of England might be just nine. I mentioned those regions in the debate on the gracious Speech at the start of the previous Session so I shall refrain from repeating myself today.
I am urging the Government to give the new development agencies as much gravity as they deem possible both in terms of their geographical size and in terms of the functions that they might perform. There could be encouragement, for example, that they liaise not only with the development agencies for the other English regions but also with their counterparts in Europe so that the regional approach to government might more easily come into focus.
One of the most important of all the functions for these agencies to perform might be in overseeing the touristic image of their region, inspiring the tourist boards that already exist to present their territory as somewhere most attractive to visit, while co-ordinating such activities to maximise the effect so that tourists find it easy to perceive the overall character of the region. Perhaps the boards should be amalgamated within any one region so that a conscious effort can be made for them to be promoting the same unified concept, with all the emotional appeal that this involves, thus engendering a desire in the hearts of their tourists to return there frequently. For it is through tourism that all regions will discover their identity—because of their efforts to promote it in co-operation with all other regions for reasons of pride as well as for financial gain.
I am hopeful that once the development agencies have been established here in England the Government will consider incorporating the delegates that are elected by them and by the county councils of their region as life Peers within your Lordships' House, perhaps to constitute 50 per cent, of the total of life Peers, for that would truly transform the whole nature of government in this country, and perhaps in Europe too, on regional lines, with the ultimate goal of a "United Regions of Europe" emerging not far down that road.
§ 4.32 p.m.
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, when I first read the list of speakers, I imagined for one dreadful moment that the "M" against Bath stood for "maiden" and I contemplated having to say a good many polite things about the speech made by the noble Marquess. Well, I 54 am freed of that obligation, but I will say something polite about his speech. I think that he put over his case with considerable eloquence but I do not agree with him. I am against regional government simply because I believe it would be a move towards a federal Europe of the regions, which is something I fear. Perhaps I may be allowed to return to that point in a few moments.
The gracious Speech is unusual in that it harks back to last year's legislative programme and reminds us of next year's fall-out from it. I refer in particular to elections to the Scottish Parliament. What, of course, the speech does not mention is that those elections may herald the break-up of the United Kingdom. If the worst does not happen, which will be no thanks to the Government, we shall still see relations between the English and the Scots embittered, with the Scots blaming every badly run hospital on inadequate funds from London and the English railing at the unfairness of Scottish MPs interfering in English affairs when English MPs have no right to have their say about the affairs of Scotland.
Scottish devolution, whatever it does, means a diminished role for this Parliament. But I have to say that it is not just by legislation that the Prime Minister is contributing to a decline in the authority of Parliament. He is doing so by his reluctance to turn up in the other place, voting, for instance, only seven times in the first year of this government; by his resentment at being questioned and having to take part in what he insultingly refers to as a bun fight; by his habit of announcing government policy to the media rather than to the House; and by—this has been referred to already—the disdain and contempt with which he often treats his own Back-Benchers, imposing on them a grotesque discipline designed to prevent them from carrying out effectively their constitutional role as watchdogs for the public against an over-mighty Executive. Throughout, the Prime Minister presents himself indeed as someone who finds Parliament a bit of an irritating nuisance. Therefore, I found particularly surprising this afternoon the observation by the Leader of the House that the Government plan to modernise Parliament. Well, usually modernisers have an interest in the institutions which they wish to modernise, whereas this Prime Minister has shown scant interest in the important role that Parliament—the whole of Parliament—plays in our affairs.
For obvious reasons, the gracious Speech is silent about last week's debacle over the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. I say "for obvious reasons" because presumably the Speech had gone to the printers and those were last minute events. It is silent also about where the Government have got to in their rather tortuous negotiations with the Liberal Democrats regarding proportional representation for Westminster. But there can be little doubt in my mind that changes in the electoral system for England and Scotland and the planned changes for election to the European Parliament make far more real the threat of a change to proportional representation for the House of Commons, a change which would open the way to unstable coalitions and give the Liberal Democrat Party what it has coveted— power out of all proportion to its electoral strength, 55 power to the party with the least votes to decide which of the major parties should govern. A move to proportional representation would indeed be an act of constitutional vandalism. But the gracious Speech tells us nothing of the Government's intentions as to whether there is going to be a referendum, and, if so, when.
It is against this background that the proposals for further changes in our constitutional arrangements should be viewed, and we should constantly be reminding ourselves that for centuries now Britain, alone among the countries of Europe, has enjoyed stability and security and escaped tyranny; and we have enjoyed it not least because of the strength of our constitution—the institutions, laws and traditions which bind us together as a nation. In my submission, he who tampers with these institutions, which have stood us in such good stead, does so at his peril; and he should certainly tell the public plainly where he hopes he will finish up and where we will all finish up.
In the case of Scotland, Mr. Blair does not look like a man with a plan. He looks like a man in a panic. And when one comes to the European Union, about which I should now like to say a word, I think he does know what he is up to but has been very careful to conceal his ambitions from the public. I think—and here I come to what was said by the noble Marquess, Lord Bath—that a clue to his intentions can be found in his plans for regional government. I do not think anyone believes that the Regional Development Agencies Act does not pave the way for regional government.
The regions in the Regional Development Agencies Act are, of course, quite absurd. The north-west region, for instance, which lumps Carlisle in with Merseyside is not a political or economic entity or an area to which local people feel any loyalty at all. There is no community of interest whatsoever between the farmers on the banks of the Solway on the one hand and those who live in Merseyside on the other. These regions are artificial creations which make little sense except as pieces of the country large enough to make possible a system of proportional representation. However, it is an open secret that these areas would be the framework for a federal Europe of the regions if one were to come about. From the moment regional government is set up in this country, the authority of Parliament would be further grievously weakened as Brussels establishes direct links with the regions and the regions look directly to Brussels for subsidies.
But far more important than this issue when one is talking about the constitution is the issue of the single currency which has not yet been mentioned at all this afternoon. The gracious Speech is silent on the subject and, in my view, the Government have been busy spreading misinformation about this issue ever since they attained office. The Prime Minister vies with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the one trying to shout louder than the other, that whether we join the euro or not is purely an economic matter, a question of whether it is good for business, good for trade, good for our pockets. But that is stuff and nonsense. There is not a single independent democratic country in the world which does not have its own currency. Whether we join the euro—it may be right or it may be wrong and I 56 personally think it is wrong—will be one of the biggest political decisions we shall ever make. I am quite sure that Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown know that.
A few months ago—well before the Left's victory in Germany—a senior official in the Foreign Office, to whom I was complaining that the Foreign Office's obsession with Europe and the commitment of so much effort in that direction had gravely weakened our influence in the rest of the world, told me in all seriousness that with the arrival of the single currency the high water mark in moves towards a federal Europe would be reached. We had to sign up to the agenda or be left out in the cold, he said; but we need not worry, he continued, because the tide was nearly on the turn and there would be no more progress towards supra-nationality. In my experience the Foreign Office has not usually been right about the European Union and the intentions of our partners. The House will not be surprised to hear that back in April, not last month, the "mandarin" in question had scarcely finished his final sentence before almost every European leader was telling the world's press that the single currency was going to be a further massive step towards political union and must be followed by co-ordination of budgetary and economic policy.
In view of that it was not with amazement but weary resignation that I read over the weekend of how the Chancellor of the Exchequer, while telling the British people that he was wholly against tax harmonisation, had signed up to a document drafted by his own adviser, the aptly named Ed Balls, The New European Way, in which he and other socialist Finance Ministers pledged themselves to a greater role for the European Union in economic matters, including "closer tax co-ordination". If that is not tax harmonisation, I am a Dutchman. It is as sure as night follows day that the Chancellor's robust remarks—his expressed intention to fight tax harmonisation—will be followed by another abject surrender when the other member states follow their usual tactics and threaten to go ahead without us if we will not go along with them.
Many of the most disastrous decisions of recent years have been made after inane cries from the media, opinion formers and pundits that Britain once again risked being out of step with Europe, and that she could not afford not to sign up to whatever new initiative was being proposed, however inimical it might be to Britain's interest. She could not afford to be the odd man out. I see that the Guardian newspaper was at it again yesterday. It stated:Britain blocks tax harmonisation. Chancellor risks further isolation within Europe".In one respect we really are out of step in the sense of being the only member of the European Union whose government affect not to be able to see what is staring everyone else in the face; namely, that tax harmonisation is an inevitable consequence of the single currency and the single currency is a milestone on the road to political union.
Against those terrible dangers and the threat to sovereignty posed by developments in Europe, the Government's threats to change the composition of this House look pretty small beer. However, it is an 57 important matter. It is another dangerous development and one that in my belief highlights some of the dictatorial tendencies of this Government.
After the defeat of the Government on the European elections Bill, Downing Street announced that what had happened made an overwhelming case for reform of the Lords, and that the hereditary Peers, without whose votes the Bill would not have been lost, were an affront to democracy. If the hereditary Peers do not have much to do with democracy, neither has the Bill we are discussing. It is not designed to make the House more democratic and representative, to quote the Labour manifesto. It is not a Bill to create a second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of an hereditary basis, to quote the preamble of the 1911 Act. It is a Bill to create a House no more democratic than the present one but rather more easily capable of being manipulated by the government of the day. The time that has elapsed since the 1911 Act, with its bold preamble, is proof enough that if the Bill abolishing the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote is enacted without any provision being added to implement the second part of Labour's manifesto commitment, there will never be proper reform and we shall be stuck with a nominated Chamber for the foreseeable future, if not for ever.
There may be some who think that a wholly nominated Chamber—free of the inhibitions this House has simply because of the hereditary element—will show considerable spirit and independence of mind. All I can say is that it is certainly not the Government's intention that that should happen, judging by their comments last week—repeated by the noble Baroness this afternoon—when they made great play of the fact that if the hereditary Peers had not voted they would not have lost the European elections Bill.
I stress that as it is virtually impossible to find anyone, except those sitting on the Liberal Benches, who thinks the Government were right on the issue of closed lists. What the Government are saying is that the life Peers—the undemocratic life Peers—would on their own, without the votes of the hereditary Peers, have ensured the passage of a bad and wholly undemocratic measure. There we have it. The Government expect to get a second Chamber which would not even delay a measure which is as manifestly wrong as the European elections Bill, and is seen to be manifestly wrong by almost every newspaper in this country and by every informed person. They intend to get rid of a House which, for all its obvious imperfections, can within the limits of the Parliament Act check the Government and to substitute for it a Chamber which they believe will not. That is really what we are talking about.
If I have got it wrong, if that is not what the Government want, why do they not bring forward proposals for long-term reform? What would be lost if a Bill were introduced after the Royal Commission had reported—a Bill which took away the rights of hereditary Peers as part of a comprehensive reform designed to make the House more democratic and representative? There can be only one explanation: the Government would prefer a wholly nominated House because it would be less likely to challenge their actions.
58 In the absence of a written constitution, amendable only by special procedures, there are few safeguards in Britain against a government supported by a hefty but perhaps very temporary majority in the House of Commons destroying our most precious institutions, including the Monarchy itself—institutions which have grown up over the centuries and which most people recognise are not the playthings of politicians to be tampered with at the whim of a temporary majority in the Commons, but are held in trust for our children and our children's children.
It is difficult to see how we can safeguard ourselves against the exercise of arbitrary power without a second Chamber genuinely independent of the government of the day—and it is surely our job to try to see that brought about.
The battle shortly to be joined will not, therefore, be a battle between the Lords on the one hand and the people on the other; it will be a battle between an arrogant Administration, which resents any check on its ambitions, and a growing number of people throughout the country who can see that a House of placemen would be a poor guardian of our freedoms.
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ Lord Judd
My Lords, like others who have spoken, I believe that the Government are to be congratulated on the Queen's Speech. As my noble friend the Leader of the House said, it sets a challenging pace in the continued modernisation of the United Kingdom. I, for one, trust that the Government will never allow themselves to become defensive or apologetic about their constitutional commitments. These are not just institutional adjustments; they express the kind of society we aspire to be. In so far as those commitments affect this House, I hope that the Royal Commission will be able to go back to first principles and start by examining the case for a second Chamber amid all the other changes envisaged. If it concludes that there is, indeed, a case for one, I hope that it will then take a clean sheet of paper and set out what it believes is needed rather than limit itself to the concept of reform of the House of Lords as presently constituted.
There could be something paradoxical about a reforming government basing their plans for the future on the evolution of an institution rooted in what we are about to eliminate: the political power of the traditional peerage. There is a real opportunity to break free from the culture of privilege and social status. Terminology and style are important if that is to be achieved. At the same time it will, I suggest, be a missed opportunity if what emerges remains the preserve of the increasingly self-contained political community. It should make sense in terms of the real drive, flair and dynamism of the United Kingdom in the century ahead.
I hope that I will be forgiven if I take the opportunity of this strategic debate to reflect on some of the wider issues. The first reality of existence, let alone of politics, is the global interdependence of humanity. This is true of culture, finance, trade, environment, migration, climate change, global warming, drugs, crime, terrorism, security and much else besides. The overriding 59 responsibility of relevant political leadership is to recognise this and to make a success of it. In that context it may well be that the time has come to end the tradition of a separate foreign service and home service in our Civil Service. Those who resist the challenges of globalisation will be seen in history as having betrayed their children and grandchildren. If enlightenment is to prevail, we inevitably have to play our part constructively and co-operatively in developing and strengthening relevant international institutions. We protect the interests of the British people by putting those interests together with the interests of humanity as a whole.
This is already happening in, among other places, the European Union, the World Trade Organisation, G7, OECD, environmental conferences, NATO, OSCE, the World Bank, IMF and the UN itself. More and more key decisions and policies are being made and formulated in those spheres. What have not kept pace are our methods of scrutiny and accountability. As we reform our political institutions in the United Kingdom in the cause of a healthy democracy, this issue simply has to be addressed. How do we keep the international deliberations accountable—and felt to be accountable— to the people on whose behalf they are theoretically being undertaken? Perhaps whatever replaces our House as we know it could have a key part to play. As it is, significant changes may currently be happening with very little analysis in our representative political institutions.
Perhaps I may take just one example: in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq, what is the de facto constitutional transfer of political—not just operational—mandate from the United Nations to NATO and what are its long-term implications? International co-operation always involves some pooling of sovereignty. This has openly and consciously happened in our membership of the United Nations; but what is happening now? Are we now settling for pax Americana?
As the globalisation takes hold, there is for many an increasing sense of helplessness. To compensate, there is a search for identity which can take sinister forms: racism, religious militancy and nationalism. The frustration and uncertainty can become a fertile breeding ground for what have been described as the ethnic entrepreneurs. It therefore becomes essential to develop a political culture which does not deny identity, but which recognises it and leads on to self-confident co-operation based upon it. I hope that, as part of the millennium, we will give pride of place to the celebration of ethnic and cultural diversity within the United Kingdom and to the excitement of having become a multi-cultural society. For me, the joy of creation is precisely that diversity.
It is for those reasons that I believe what the Government are doing on Ireland, Scotland and Wales— indeed arguably on regionalism as well—is to be applauded. For those concerned with conflict prevention, proactive diplomacy and reconciliation, what the Government are introducing through devolution and decentralisation could well represent exactly the kind of policies the absence of which we 60 have lamented as we have faced the nightmares of the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia and too many other parts of the world as well.
In our concern for democracy we must not be simplistic. It is about far more than institutional arrangements and processes alone. At its best, it is based upon a complex dynamic which involves strong leadership and muscular accountability. It requires representative institutions, but it also requires pluralism, which is not always the same thing. If thriving civil society is the best guarantee of democracy, part of that civil society will involve representational strength, but part will involve the quality of ideas and originality. Part, of course, will involve a mixture of the two. What it all involves is the self-confidence and strength to challenge: a self-confidence and strength which is found when people are able to come together and work on their own ideas and priorities against the background of their own engagement and experience. It is a positive, not passive, concept of society. Alternative centres of deliberation and checks and balances are indispensable to sustain democracy.
That must apply to our political parties themselves. That is, of course, the undeniable underlying agenda in our deliberations on proportional representation and open or closed lists. I think it is altogether sensible and honourable for a political party to say: these are our policies and these are the people we put to you as committed to their implementation. What matters in a democratic society is the open nature of the political parties themselves and the genuine arrangements for their members to play a full and positive part in determining the policies and deciding who should fight for them. It is to that that we should all give maximum priority.
Of course, for good, highly motivated people, democracy can be frustrating. They see the quagmires of self-indulgence and delay. They yearn for effectiveness, efficiency, expeditious decision-making. The trouble is that, without a system of meaningful accountability and positive engagement, people as a whole become diminished and the dangers of self-destruction in government abound. Perhaps the most disturbing trend of all in recent decades has been the tendency to confuse consumerism with citizenship—sometimes, I fear, a deliberate tendency. Pace Decartes, "I shop, therefore I am". Citizenship and its responsibilities is not a matter of consumer politics. Democracy is, surely, above all about empowerment, fulfilment and the dignity of all.
Before I conclude, there are three other matters which seem to me to be essential for thriving democracy. One is the quality of the information on which it operates. Open government and access to information are indeed essential. A freedom of information Act is not just an addition to the cause of revitalising democracy; it is central to it. Similarly the media provide the lifeblood of democracy and it is not enough to leave it to laissez faire competition alone. That, frankly, is in effect naive as the self-generating downward thrust in standards takes over. There has to be a positive approach to sustaining pluralism.
61 Another matter is law. If globalisation is the new reality, law is no exception. The international dimensions of law, not least on human rights and war crimes, become vital. But they must be accessible to all, not just to the wealthy and the powerful, be they individuals or nations. Universality and consistency of application will be the criteria by which history judges them.
Above all, there is education. We need to be certain that our educational system is about producing creative, inquiring, critical and confident citizens, able to come to terms with the world and age in which they live and able to take on the very considerable responsibilities of active citizenship in a highly complex democracy.
The Government are, I believe, to be commended for their refusal to take democracy for granted and for their determination to regenerate and nurture it. It seems to me that specific legislation will always be the better for being approached in the context of a wider vision of what democracy is all about.
§ 5.3 p.m.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, in preparing for this debate—and I am at that moment when I am completely certain that my preparation is hopelessly inadequate—I found myself considering our present situation in two metaphors. I hope that by the time I have finished I shall have neither mixed them nor fallen between them.
The first is to consider the British constitutional settlement as if it were a heavily laden goods wagon on a railway track but with no engine. Successive teams of men in the form of various governments have for a very long time been struggling to sweat that wagon across a very long plateau. Now at last, with a shout of triumph—if I understood the noise behind us as we listened to the gracious Speech yesterday—they have shoved the wagon over the brow of the hill and it is on the down slope, although, of course, that picture is already out of date. The wagon began to roll with the programme of constitutional change and the devolution Bills in the previous Session. It already has considerable momentum. The hill will extend much further than the Government either wish or expect, and the wagon has no brakes.
Into this flurry of piecemeal change that must affect the whole of Parliament and the way we work together, the Government have thrown a mouse. And in the name of democracy, an idea they appear to resist in many ways, they declare a victory for democracy, for changing the membership rules. Really, my Lords! In relation to all the problems we face, that is what they have come up with. I am sorry.
The British constitution and government practice have evolved over centuries. Two events are of major significance and relevance today. The first took place in 1715 when George I came to the throne. Because he spoke no English, he chose an eminent parliamentarian to be his Prime Minister and chief executive. That was Sir Robert Walpole, who then picked from among his friends in the House of Commons other Ministers. In that way we firmly ensconced the executive within the 62 legislature—only just after Montesquieu had propounded the ideal of separating the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. It is a strange coincidence.
The next event to which I wish to refer brings us rather closer to the present, by almost 200 years. At the end of the last century—unsurprisingly since we still have the problem—we were having difficulties with Ireland. But in those days there were Irish Members of Parliament in the other place. They decided that the issue of Irish independence was of such significance that they would disrupt the business of government—which they did, extremely successfully.
As a result, standing orders in the other place were changed to guarantee that the government could get their business through. Those two events have created what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, has called an "elective dictatorship". Patronage ensures that the system works to the advantage of political leaders. That applies equally to governments and opposition parties, and not necessarily any more to the advantage of the British people at large.
Parliamentary reform is part of constitutional reform and needs to be considered in the round, not piecemeal. I refer particularly to the Scotland Bill, passed in the previous Session, but also to the Northern Ireland Bill and the Wales Bill. All those Bills have created different classes of Member for the other place. But the Scotland Bill is unquestionably the most significant because for Scottish MPs 50 per cent, of their function will now be removed. So we have 78 Scottish MPs with half a job. Will they have half a salary? I do not suppose that it will be suggested. Alternatively, as I suspect is more likely, will they simply duplicate the work done by members of the Scottish Parliament in order to justify their existence down here?
Of course, there is discussion of reducing that number. Scotland, because of its geographic problems, is overweight, so to speak, in terms of constituency size and it has more MPs than might otherwise be justified. There is talk of reducing the number to 58 or 59 so that the Scottish constituencies match the English constituencies. But they will still only have half a job. Perhaps 30 would be a more reasonable number, but I have never heard anyone suggest that, at least no one in a position of some authority and responsibility. The whole question is being treated as a matter of party convenience, perhaps with electoral considerations in the background.
Whatever we might do to Members of the other place numerically in relation to their coming here, it is no answer in any event to the West Lothian question. Nor is any proposal for regionalism in England an answer to the West Lothian question. What happens if one makes the pessimistic assumption and the Government win the next general election but with a much reduced majority? The Government may become reliant on what may well be a rump of Scottish Members of the other place in order to pass English legislation. The English will wake up. The Secretary of State for Scotland cannot say, as he did in a lecture only a week ago, that an English parliament is a danger because it might raise feelings of 63 nationalism when he has just brought such a body into being in Scotland and done just that. There is a wonderful inconsistency there.
My second metaphor is that of a safari photographer. Many of us have done it; I certainly have. We go out to collect trophies for our album. In this case, the photographer has seen a particularly picturesque and attractive animal to put in his album, one that is absolutely safe so long as he does not get within kicking range—the zebra. In order to improve the picture, he steps away from the Landrover that has taken him out into the forest and forgets the possibility of the lion in the long grass behind him; he has come between the lion and its prey. It happens to be a horrible fact that almost every year someone's life is lost in that way.
The truth is that the whole of Parliament is ripe for reform. I follow the right Reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol in saying that an English settlement is necessary. I take the view that it is necessary to have that in order to hold the United Kingdom together. In that situation a Royal Commission to consider the future of the House of Lords is hopelessly inadequate. It happens to be my view that a wholly appointed House is becoming completely unsustainable. It will be, and it will have to change rapidly. I also take the view that a partly appointed House and a partly elected House will equally be unsustainable in the long term. Whether we like it or not at this stage a wholly elected second chamber might perhaps be the bottom of the hill where we arrive at some point of stability once again. I do not accept the mantra so often proposed that the other place would never accept such a solution. The other place is itself ripe for reform and will become involved in a much more general and wider operation than has been considered until this time.
It is not a question of what Members of the other place want. In the end, it is a question of what the people of Britain at large want and will accept. I have tried to apply the intellectual rigour in my suggestions that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, asked for. The lion is waking up and the Government need to be very wary lest they are caught.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord Ackner
My Lords, it is a wise lawyer who desists from criticising suggestions to be found in a written document until he sees the document itself. Very occasionally I have made mild, respectful and somewhat hesitant criticisms of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary. Both Ministers have stressed that they listen and, as a result of listening, learn and, as a result of learning, occasionally change tack. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor did so in regard to an amendment which I raised to the Human Rights Bill. I duly thanked him.
I do not therefore know whether the strong judicial criticisms, made in written responses to the paper by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, The Way ahead, will have had any effect when one sees whichever Bill will reflect what his views are. I do not 64 know whether the powerful speech by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, accusing him of a serious breach of the doctrine of the separation of powers—a copy of which is to be found in your Lordships' Library—will have had any effect. I therefore desist from addressing any criticisms on that subject until I see what is in the documents.
In the same way, I make no observation at this stage on what is proposed to be done about vulnerable witnesses until I see whether the Home Secretary has paid any regard to the observations made by the former Lord Chief Justice, my noble and learned friend Lord Lane, or my noble and learned friend the former Chief Justice of Northern Ireland Lord Lowry now sitting next to me, or what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice himself said in a case in which he expressed his view on the desirability of the judge and the judge alone dealing with the problems of the difficult defendant in person.
I do not know whether the Home Secretary will at last, after about 30 years, do something about the Butler Committee's suggestion of reviewable sentences so that the public may be protected from persons who would otherwise be released at the conclusion of a determinative period which they have served. I only hope that something will be done. I do not know whether my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor will pay any attention to the very serious misgivings voiced by the Bar Council and in a recent speech by the Lord Chief Justice about the suggestion that legal aid should not be available in money claims and should be replaced by the conditional fee system.
In those circumstances I turn my attention to the constitutional issue. In regard to legislation, a great proportion of which will be highly controversial, it is important to place on record exactly what are the powers of Peers. I say that because some odd observations were made on 17th November when the Commons amendments were considered by your Lordships' House. It was observed by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that those who continued to insist on their amendment were "committing a constitutional outrage." The noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, said in terms at col. 1143 that the Opposition and anyone else who was minded to vote with them had no right so to do. He even suggested that they knew that they had no such right. When the Minister replied he commended what the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, had said. He said in terms that he could do no better than repeat what his noble friend Lord Callaghan had said. He went on to say, somewhat tautologously, that it was now becoming a wholly improper abuse of power. It sounds as if one can have a proper abuse of power.
My mind was taken back to the debates in your Lordships' House on the War Crimes Bill. At that time this House was robust enough on two occasions to deny a Second Reading to a Bill that had been supported by an enormous majority in the other place. True enough 65 there were free votes but that does not change the principle. My noble and learned friend Lord Shawcross referred to the differences, if any, that existed between the first and second occasions on which the question of whether there should be a Second Reading was considered:The only difference is that the Bill now comes to us for the second time with an indication—I will not say a threat—that the Parliament Act will be used to pass it into law if we repeat our rejection of it. That seems to me to present no kind of constitutional problem and no problem of principle. There is one restriction on the right of this House to disagree and veto measures that have come down from another place and that is not by law but by convention. That is known as the Salisbury-Addison convention. Nobody has suggested that that convention has the slightest application to this case … If that is so, by implication it follows that it is our duty and constitutional right to express our own independent view. That is the right and duty which is left to this House under the Parliament Act. We should exercise it for the public expects us to discharge it by taking an independent view of those measures that come down to us from another place and to say exactly what we think about them. There is nothing to suggest in this case that if we did so on this Bill we should be doing anything to thwart the views of the electorate as a whole. But even if that were so, and even if there were the slightest evidence that the electorate as a whole is in favour of this Bill, it would still be our duty to vote against it if we believe that it is wrong".—[Official Report, 30/4/91; col. 642.]My noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham put it a little shorter at col. 637:There cannot be a constitutional issue for this House. Since the Parliament Acts have been passed it must surely be the duty of this House to vote in accordance with its conscience. Not to vote in accordance with its conscience just because other people with greater legal powers than ourselves take a different view would be to vote against our conscience, which is the voice of God, in order to please man".I refer to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, in the earlier debate:We should be quite clear in our own minds that there is no question that it is competent for the House to take this step. If the reasoned amendment of my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway were to be accepted and the House declined to give the Bill a Second Reading for the reasons stated in the amendment, it would be open to the Government to re-introduce the Bill in the next session of Parliament. They could then secure its enactment under the Parliament Acts, despite the opposition of the House of Lords, provided that a majority of Members in the other place still supported the Bill on its second introduction".I stress the following passage:A mechanism therefore exists to ensure that where a clash occurs between the two Houses of Parliament, the will of the elected House will prevail, although there will be some delay in the legislative process. Beyond that point, we are in the realm of convention and of political judgment".—[Official Report, 4/6/90; col. 1131.]This makes it perfectly clear that the submission of the noble Lord, Lord Shore, on the final consideration of the amendments was totally correct. I hope that in future it will be accepted that the obligation upon Peers in this House, altered, amended or otherwise, is to vote in accordance with their conscience. They have a perfect right, indeed a duty, to do so. I believe that I have quoted all that is required, and accordingly I rest my case.