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National Council for Democratic Renewal

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 3 June 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect the National Council for Democratic Renewal, announced by the Prime Minister on 1 June, to meet.

My Lords, it is important that there is a mechanism at the heart of government to lead work to rebuild trust in politics and shape the next steps to renew our constitution. That is why the Prime Minister has said that he is establishing a national democratic renewal council. Further details will be announced shortly.

My Lords, I think that that means “not the foggiest”. Will the Lord President assure me that, when this council meets, the first item on its agenda will be the POWER report so that there is no reinventing of the wheel? Will she also use her considerable influence with the Prime Minister to ensure that the thrust of this body is to restore contact between Parliament and the people and to restore power to this Parliament? In a parliamentary democracy, that is where people’s liberties are defended, not on unelected quangos.

My Lords, I shall do my utmost to ensure that the POWER report, which is an excellent piece of work, is on the agenda for this committee. I am also absolutely sure that restoring the trust and engagement of the public, as well as power to Parliament, will be things that the committee addresses.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that placing the House of Commons and House of Lords codes of conduct in the law raises issues of parliamentary privilege which should be very fully considered before we go down that route?

My Lords, these issues must indeed be considered very carefully. I know it has been announced that the code of conduct for MPs should be in legislation. I am not sure where the code of conduct for our own House will lie, but I certainly agree that issues relating to privilege must be carefully considered.

My Lords, rather than scratch the surface of constitutional reform with this proposed council, which appears to be designed to make the minimum changes with which our political class can get away, why do the Government and the usual channels not promote an early Second Reading debate of the Bill of my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke, which was introduced yesterday? It proposes radical changes to our failed system of representative parliamentary democracy and is therefore very much in the interests of the British people.

My Lords, I think that all Members of this House, and indeed of our Parliament, would agree that minimum changes are no longer acceptable. We need radical changes. However, I would not include the Bill from the noble Lord sitting opposite in the changes that should be addressed.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for this initiative, but does the noble Baroness the Leader of the House agree that it should not come simply from the heart of government and that it certainly should not be dominated by politicians? If it is to be effective, it needs to draw in a much wider range of expertise and interest because part of the problem is that politics has become too inbred in our country.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate puts his finger on the button. I believe that this would be a Cabinet committee. Of course it must draw on the widest possible expertise but it must reach out to the public because we now have to engage with the public. That is where the gap is and it is where we have been failing in our duty to date.

My Lords, might it be more appropriate to convene a citizens’ jury rather than a Cabinet sub-committee to look at this vital question?

My Lords, the Cabinet has huge responsibilities but I do not think that that necessarily precludes convening something such as a citizens’ jury. This is the key Cabinet committee but it must reach out in many ways, including possibly a citizens’ jury.

My Lords, in future examination, will my noble friend accept the cardinal principle that elected Members of Parliament are not delegates and that they must be of independent mind? Otherwise, we will find that the House of Commons—and possibly in future the House of Lords—simply bends and twists to every piece of populist stuff in the newspapers, and people of independent mind will never take up causes which the public perceive as not meeting their exact needs.

My Lords, yes, and in everything we do henceforth we have to restore trust not just in politics but in politicians. I am a huge believer in parliamentary democracy and I have great regard for the work of politicians at the other end, but especially in the House of Lords. We should be hugely proud of what we do in this House and what we, as Members of the House of Lords, do outside. We would do well to remind people of that.

My Lords, the more this discussion has gone on, the more I realise how little we know about this proposal. How right the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was to table the Question. We have just discovered that this is not to be some kind of open inquiry but will be run entirely by the Cabinet out of the Cabinet Office. The noble Baroness said that there should be more engagement of the public; would not the best engagement of the public be to have a general election?

My Lords, general elections are very fine things at the appropriate time. I believe that at the moment it is appropriate that we clean up the mess that we have in Parliament. We can then embark on a general election.

My Lords, can my noble friend help me with an aspect of the current discussion on constitutional reform that is puzzling me? Some prominent people, including leaders of political parties, in one breath demand that there should be fixed-term Parliaments, and in the next that there should be an immediate general election.

My Lords, if the Lord President really wants to put her trust in Parliament, why are these discussions taking place in private within government? Why not put some of those proposals to your Lordships’ House and, indeed, to the other place? There are already proposals, so why not make progress on them instead of, in the dying days of this Government, indulging in yet another talking shop?

My Lords, it will not be a talking shop; the new body will be a Cabinet committee that reaches out. I do not think that we can ignore the fact that in the past 12 years this Government have made huge constitutional progress, and this Cabinet committee will build on that.

My Lords, the National Economic Council, or committee, which has brought us through this economic crisis, was called a national committee or council, and this is a parallel structure in which I have every confidence.

My Lords, can the Minister say how we can have fair general elections in the future when the huge discrepancy between the popular vote percentage and seats in the House continues with the unfair simple majority voting system?

My Lords, the forthcoming committee, and many others will have many things on the agenda, including electoral reform and the way in which elections are conducted.