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Constitutional Renewal

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2009


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the Government’s proposal to invite the House to agree further democratic reform, including legislation, before the House rises for the summer, on the conduct of MPs.

The past few months have shown us that the public require, as an urgent imperative, higher standards of financial conduct from all people in public life and an end to the abuses of the past. There is no more pressing task for this Parliament than to respond to this public demand. I believe that the vast majority of Members of Parliament enter public life so that they can serve the public interest. I believe also that the vast majority of MPs work hard for their constituents and demonstrate by their service that they are in politics not for what they can get but for what they can give. However, all of us have to have the humility to accept that public confidence has been shaken and battered and that the reputation of this institution cannot be repaired without fundamental change.

At precisely the moment when the public need their politicians to be focused on the issues that affect their lives, on fighting back against recession and on keeping people in their jobs and homes, the subject of politics itself has become the focus of our politics. We cannot move our country forward unless we break with the old practices and the old ways. Each of us has a part to play in the hard task of regaining the country’s trust, not for the sake of our different parties but for the sake of our common democracy. Without this trust, there can be no legitimacy and, without legitimacy, none of us can do the job that our constituents have sent us here to do. We must reflect on what has happened, redress the abuses, make sure that nothing like this can ever happen again and make sure that the public see us as individual MPs, accountable to our constituents. It will be what we now do, not just what we say, that will prove that we have learnt and that we have changed.

First, we need transparency. All MPs’ past and future expenses should and will be published on the internet. Claims submitted by MPs from all sides of the House over the past four years must be scrutinised by the independently led panel. This will ensure repayment where it is necessary and lead to discipline where there have been inappropriate claims. Mr Speaker, I know that you are working urgently to conclude the reassessment process. We must now publish the past four years’ receipts and start and conclude the scrutiny process as quickly as possible. This House has already agreed to restrict expenses further to those needed for parliamentary duties alone, to cut the costs for housing, to require all spending to be receipted and to ensure that incomes from second jobs are fully accounted for. All parties have committed themselves to accept the further recommendations of the independent Kelly committee once they are received later this year, provided that these proposals meet the tests of increased transparency, accountability and reduced costs for the taxpayer.

These steps to sort out the expenses crisis are necessary, but we all know that they are not sufficient. We need to go further. At its first meeting yesterday, the Government’s democratic council decided to bring forward new legislative proposals before the summer adjournment on two issues that have been the subject of constructive cross-party discussion.

First, we propose that the House of Commons and subsequently the House of Lords move from the old system of self-regulation to independent statutory regulation. This will mean the immediate creation of a new parliamentary standards authority with delegated power to regulate the system of allowances. No more can Westminster operate in ways reminiscent of the last century, where the Members make up the rules and operate them among themselves. The proposed new authority would take over the role of the Fees Office in authorising Members’ claims, oversee the new allowances system following proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, maintain the Register of Members’ Interests, disallow claims, require repayment and allow firm and appropriate sanctions in cases of financial irregularity. I welcome the cross-party support for this proposal, which will be contained in a Bill that we will introduce very soon. The whole House will also agree, as part of this process, that the new regulator should scrutinise efficiency and value for money in Parliament’s expenditure, and ensure, as suggested to Sir Christopher Kelly, that Parliament costs less.

Secondly, the House will be asked to agree a statutory code of conduct for all MPs, clarifying their role in relation to their constituents and to Parliament and detailing what the electorate can expect and the consequences that will follow for those who fail to deliver. It will codify much more clearly the different potential offences that must be addressed and the options available to sanction. These measures will be included in a short, self-standing Bill on the conduct of Members in the Commons, which will be introduced and debated before the summer adjournment. This will address the most immediate issues about which we know the public are upset, but it will be only the first stage of our legislation on the constitution.

The current system of sanctions for misconduct by Members is not fit for purpose. It does not give the public the confidence that they need that wrongdoing will be dealt with in an appropriate way. The last person to be expelled from this House was 55 years ago, in 1954, and it remains the case that Members can be sentenced to prison for up to a year without being required to give up their parliamentary seat. The sanctions available against financial misconduct or corruption have not been updated to meet the needs of the times. This is not a modern and accountable system that puts the interests of constituents first. It needs to change. There will be consultation with all sides of the House to come forward with new proposals for dealing effectively with inappropriate behaviour, including, potentially, the options of effective exclusion and recall for gross financial misconduct identified by the new independent regulator and the House itself.

The House of Lords needs to be reformed, too. Following a meeting of the House Committee of the House of Lords, and at its request, I have today written to the Senior Salaries Review Body to ask it to review the system of financial support in the House of Lords to increase its accountability, enhance its transparency and reduce its cost. For the first time, there will also be legislation for new disciplinary sanctions for the misconduct of Peers in the House of Lords.

We must also take forward urgent modernisation of the procedures of the House of Commons, so I am happy to give the Government’s support to a proposal from my right honourable friend the chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee that we will work with a special parliamentary commission comprising Members from all sides of this House, convened for a defined period to advise on necessary reforms, including making Select Committee processes more democratic, scheduling more and better time for non-government business in the House and enabling the public to initiate directly some issues for debate.

Given the vital role that transparency has played in sweeping away the discredited system of allowances and holding power to account, I believe that we should do more to spread the culture and practice of freedom of information. As a next step, the Justice Secretary will set out further plans to look at broadening the application of freedom of information to include additional bodies that need to be subject to greater transparency and accountability. This is the public’s money. They should know how it is spent.

I should also announce that, as part of extending the availability of official information and as our response to the Dacre review, we shall progressively reduce the time taken to release official documents. As the report recommended, we have considered the need to strengthen protection for particularly sensitive material and there will be protection of Royal Family and Cabinet papers as part of strictly limited exemptions. But we will reduce the time for release of all other official documents below the current 30 years to 20 years. So that government information is accessible and useful for the widest possible group of people, I have asked Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who led the creation of the world wide web, to help us to drive the opening up of access to government data in the web over the coming months.

In the last 12 years, we have created the devolved Administrations, ended the hereditary principle in the House of Lords and introduced the Freedom of Information Act and the Human Rights Act. But just as through recent changes we are removing ancient royal prerogatives and making the Executive more accountable to Parliament, so, to establish and renew its legitimacy and status, Parliament itself must now become more accountable to the people. Democratic reform cannot be led in Westminster alone; this is part of the lesson of the last month. Rather, it must principally be led by our engagement with the public. It cannot be top-down. That is part of the lesson of the last month. The public want to be, and should be, part of the solution, so we must build a process that engages citizens themselves—people of all parties and none, of all faiths and no faith, from every background and every part of the country.

Over the coming weeks, the Government will set out proposals for debate and reform on five major issues. First, we will move forward with reform of the House of Lords. The Government’s White Paper, published last July, and for which there is backing from other parties, committed us to an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected House of Lords. We must now take the next steps as we complete this reform. The Government will come forward with published proposals for the final stages of House of Lords reform before the summer break, including the next steps that we can take to resolve the position of the remaining hereditary Peers and other outstanding issues.

Secondly, setting out the rights that people can expect but also the responsibilities that come with those rights as a British citizen is a fundamental step in balancing power between government, Parliament and the people. It is to some people extraordinary that in Britain we still have a largely unwritten constitution. I personally favour a written constitution but I recognise that changing this would represent an historic shift in our constitutional arrangements. Therefore, such proposals will be subject to wide public debate and ultimately the drafting of such a constitution should be a matter for the widest possible consultation with the British people themselves.

The third issue is the devolution of power and engagement of people themselves in their local communities. The House will be aware of the proposals for the completion of devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland. Next week, the Calman commission will report with recommendations on the future of devolution in Scotland within the United Kingdom. The Government’s 2006 Act permits further devolution in Wales, on which there are discussions. My right honourable friend the Communities and Local Government Secretary will set out how we will strengthen the engagement of citizens in the democratic life of their own communities as we progress this next level of devolution in England. So we must consider whether we should offer stronger, clearly defined powers to local government and city regions and strengthen their accountability to local people.

Fourthly, last year we published our review of the electoral system. There is a long-standing debate on this issue. I still believe that the link between the MP and constituency is essential and that it is the constituency that is best able to hold MPs to account. We should be prepared to propose change only if there is a broad consensus in the country that it would strengthen our democracy and our politics by improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of both government and Parliament and by enhancing the level and quality of public representation and public engagement. We will set out proposals for taking this debate forward.

Fifthly, we will set out proposals for increasing public engagement in politics. To improve electoral registration, we will consider how we increase the number of people on the register and help to combat fraud. On receipt of the youth commission report, and having heard from young people themselves, we will set out the steps that we will take to increase the engagement of young people in politics, including whether to give further consideration to the voting age.

As we come forward with proposals, in each case the Government will look to consult widely. All proposed reforms will be underpinned by cross-party discussions. Our proposals will also be informed by leading external figures, including academics and others who command public respect and have a recognised interest or expertise in the different elements of democratic reform. I expect this to conclude in time to shape the Government’s forward legislative programme and to feed into the Queen’s Speech.

In the midst of all the rancour and recrimination, let us seize the moment to lift our politics to a higher standard. In the midst of doubt, let us revive confidence. Let us stand together, because on this, at least, I think that we all agree: Britain deserves a political system equal to the hopes and character of our people. Let us differ on policy—that is inevitable—but let us stand together for integrity and democracy. That is now more essential than ever. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating this Statement. It seems that we will be busy in the final year of this Government. The Statement spoke of renewal, but last week the Labour Party had the opportunity to show the British people that it heard their crushing verdict on the performance and style of this Government, and their call for change. Sadly, the Government failed the test. Today, we get the same old verbiage from the same old bunker.

Much of the Statement concerned the other place. We all want to see that great House revived, and my right honourable friend David Cameron has set out a major programme of reform that must include more power for Back-Benchers. If anyone thinks that the power of the Whips in the other place is lessened, they should contemplate the events of last weekend.

We need a smaller House of Commons, and if we want an electoral system that is fairer, should we not ensure that each constituency has equal worth? Some constituencies have twice as many voters as others. Should we not ask the Boundary Commission immediately to begin work to redraw boundaries to make them the same size?

We are at war, and in the throes of an unprecedented recession, hearing daily news of lost jobs and homes. The first thing this Prime Minister comes forward with is a plan to clog up Parliament with constitutional Bills. I wonder whether the loyal party workers who saw the Labour Party beaten into second place in Wales and sixth place in Cornwall are throwing their caps in the air for that. The reaction of the Prime Minister to this defeat simply reinforces the truth that it is not a relaunch within Number 10 that we need, but a removal van at its gates. The greatest renewal this Parliament could have would be a general election, and until we in the political class trust the people, the people will never trust us.

My right honourable friend Mr Cameron has accepted the need in the House of Commons for the new supervisory body that the Prime Minister proposes, but are there not still serious questions to answer? How will this body relate to the two Houses if that is what happens? How will it recognise the differences between a House that is paid and representative and one that is not? To whom will this body ultimately be accountable? The Statement says that the regulator will,

“apply firm and appropriate sanctions".

What if a Peer or an MP objects? Will he be able to challenge the regulator in the courts? Surely, there is one thing on which we can all agree: we do not want the judiciary determining questions that are matters for Parliament.

I listened in disbelief to the remarks of the Prime Minister after his Statement in another place. He said, and I noted his words:

“The House of Lords has to face up to the fact its disciplinary procedures are not good enough”.

Does the Prime Minister know anything about your Lordships' House? Is he aware of the swift and exemplary action recently taken to suspend two Labour Peers following a thorough investigation by a committee of your Lordships' House, a decision by the Committee for Privileges and a unanimous vote of this House? Can the noble Baroness tell the House precisely what in those procedures her right honourable friend considers is not good enough? Can she say, for example, what would have happened if the sentence recommended had been proposed not by your Lordships' Committee for Privileges, but by the new super-regulator? Could that have led to months of debate in the courts? If she cannot say where your Lordships’ disciplinary procedures are not good enough, perhaps she will take back to the Prime Minister the profound distaste that we have for such sweeping, disparaging comments on your Lordships' House?

The Statement referred to the Prime Minister's concern that Peers and MPs could be sentenced to up to a year in prison and not be excluded from your Lordships' House. There is a respected Member of your Lordships' House who was sentenced for offences that are not even crimes today. Is the Prime Minister aware of that? Can the noble Baroness give a firm assurance that no proposal for retrospective action will be laid before either House?

This set of proposals is emerging from something called the National Council for Democratic Renewal. Can the noble Baroness confirm that it is in fact just another set of Cabinet Ministers? How can democratic renewal come out of a private cabal in a dying Government clinging to office? Why were these plans not put out to cross-party discussion?

Since we have not been asked to the party, can I suggest a piece of renewal that needs no permission from the Prime Minister? We now have two Secretaries of State in this House, one of them now widely regarded as the real Prime Minister. What about a fortnightly Question Time to enable each of them to be held publicly to account in this Chamber as their counterparts are in another place?

My right honourable friend Mr Cameron has made clear our opposition to proportional representation. We have held that view whatever our electoral fortunes through some of the darkest days of our party. Forgive me if I am a little cynical when I see a Prime Minister who has just won 15 per cent of the popular vote rushing forward with a carrot to a party that has just won 13 per cent of it. It is worthy of note that the Conservative Party at last week's elections won as many votes as the Labour and Liberal parties combined. If the noble Baroness thinks that chumming up to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will stop the electorate ditching this Government, then she is riding for a fall. Just when the contemptible BNP has won success in a national election for the first time via PR, that is the last time I would be peddling this solution to the country’s needs. We have had far too much messing about with the electoral system in these last 10 years. It has not reduced disillusion. It has not increased turnout. It has simply spread confusion, and now enabled extremists to make an advance. It was not an alternative vote that the public called for in last week's elections—it was an alternative Government.

Finally, I must turn to the question—tossed into this reheated constitutional custard—of House of Lords reform. I have never made any secret of the fact that I support full reform. But change to a House of Parliament cannot just be thrown into a Statement as an afterthought by a Prime Minister in trouble. We have been here before.

When Mr Blair was in trouble he suddenly blurted out that he was abolishing the office of Lord Chancellor. Look where that got us: years of confusion and division; tens of millions wasted on an unwanted Supreme Court building; and the loss of the Law Lords which will be so keenly felt by this House in months to come. What are we going to get now another Prime Minister in trouble has blurted out that the remedy to problems in the House of Commons is to kick the House of Lords again?

Up until now, at the Dispatch Box, the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, have given a firm commitment that the Government were opposed to piecemeal reform and that change to this House could only come in the context of a major Government reform Bill. Does that commitment still stand? Or does the commitment—that change in composition would come only with stage 2 reform— stand repudiated this afternoon by this Government?

The integrity of that commitment has been the basis of the successful operation of this House for a decade. The noble Baroness should be under no illusion about the seriousness with which its abandonment would be viewed by many in this House.

The Prime Minister talks of publishing proposals for the final stages of Lords reform before the summer break. Is he aware that your Lordships’ House has not had a chance to debate the White Paper published by the Government last year, nor even to have a say in it. Is that not an outrageous way to treat this House? Will the noble Baroness set out in her reply—she must have discussed this with her colleagues—a precise timetable for the proposals on Lords reform announced by the Prime Minister. When will we debate the White Paper? What will reform consist of? Will it be the 80:20 House referred to? When will the plans be presented—and in what form? If reform of this House is intended, this is the worst way and the worst time to go about it. Your Lordships who work so hard for this country and this Parliament surely deserve far better than this Prime Ministerial face-saving Statement.

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, as he deftly has to square official conservative policy with the opinions that he knows are held behind him. He so often reminds me of the man on his deathbed who was asked to renounce the devil and all his works and who said, “This is no time to be making new enemies”. His response will have made no new enemies behind him, but the problem with this Statement is that it offers more committees, more reviews and more delay. Yet the groundwork on most of the issues has already been done. I have mentioned before the groundbreaking work done by the Power inquiry under the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy.

The time is now for action, not for words. We on these Benches welcome, as did my colleague in the other place, Nick Clegg, the setting up of the parliamentary standards authority. And we will co-operate fully in any machinery to ensure that this House is fully involved in defining its powers and responsibilities. I associate myself with what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said about the fact that it is important that the responsibilities of this House are fully consulted with this House and are not simply an afterthought from the other place.

Is the Leader of the House aware that we on these Benches agree that this House must move with urgency on matters of composition, finance and discipline? In the spirit of action not words, will the Government adopt the proposals made by my noble friend Lord Oakeshott on tax exiles sitting in this House and by my right honourable and noble friend Lord Steel on immediate reform of this House? The Government’s constitutional renewal Bill will be the “Constitutional Renewal (No. 2) Bill”. The original Bill is that already put before this House by my noble friend Lord Tyler, so I invite the Leader of the House to plunder that Bill for good ideas for the government Bill when we get it.

If they want more ideas on freedom of information, I suggest that the Government look at the White Paper produced by the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, which was so radical and far-sighted that it cost him his job in the Cabinet. If they want to reform party funding, let them implement the Hayden Phillips recommendations. If they want to fulfil their pledge on a Civil Service Bill, not mentioned by the Prime Minister, let them consult the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, or the draft Bill produced by the Public Administration Committee in another place. If they want to look at electoral reform, let them look at the Jenkins report. All the building blocks are there ready to be assembled.

What is not there is all the time that the Prime Minister seems to think he has. He talked about putting these proposals in the next Queen's Speech, which means November. Is the Leader of the House aware that the Parliament Act 1911 was introduced into the Commons on 21 February of that year and cleared the Lords on 10 August, 173 days later? I often wonder what it was about 10 August that made their Lordships give up, but give up they did. This Parliament still has over 300 days left to fulfil commitments that were not only in the Government's previous manifesto, but were actually in their 1997 manifesto, including of course the commitment to reform this House. The lesson of history is that constitutional reform is advanced not by everlasting searches for cosy consensus, but by radical Governments willing to show vision and leadership.

The Government have 300 days to rescue their reputation for reform. If they go in the right direction, they will have our support from these Benches every step of the way. As a stock token of that commitment, I invite the Leader of the House to come to the Liberal Democratic debate day tomorrow, when a galaxy of talent from these Benches will provide further constructive proposals for action.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement on constitutional renewal. There have been endless debates, a Green Paper, a White Paper and a cross-party taskforce specifically set up to try to achieve consensus on several aspects of Lords reform, including the composition of this House. The Statement is extremely welcome if it heralds reforms that will add to the efficient working of your Lordships' House.

It is particularly welcome that the Prime Minister, following the initiative that the House of Lords has already taken, has written to the SSRB requesting that it undertakes an independent review of financial support of Members. However, there are one or two small discrepancies between the letter sent by the Lord Speaker and the Prime Minister's Statement. The Lord Speaker's letter to the Prime Minister about the forthcoming SSRB review certainly refers to value for money. However, the Prime Minister’s Statement refers on page 3 to ensuring “that Parliament costs less” and on page 4 to the House of Lords costing less. Is this not a way of prejudging the outcome of the SSRB review? I would be interested to know if the Statement indicates that such smaller interim reforms, on which there is a wide degree of consensus—such as the freedom of Peers to take retirement, paving the way to a much smaller House; statutory status for the Appointments Commission; and the possible ending of hereditary Peers’ by-elections—will be covered in the forthcoming Bill, which is due to be announced before the Summer Recess.

Finally, the Statement refers to the backing from other parties in both Houses, as well as from the Cross Benches, for the proposals put forward in the White Paper of last July, particularly on the 80:20 aspect. There are many Back-Benchers and Cross-Benchers in this House and the other House who did not back the proposals for an elected House of Lords. Does the Statement therefore indicate that such major reforms might be set aside for later consideration?

My Lords, I am grateful for all the comments made; I think that is the best way of putting it. This is certainly an interesting debate on the Statement. First, I will deal with the election issue, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, because I am sure that we will deal with this on many occasions. I know how strongly the noble Lord and many of his colleagues feel about the need for an election. However, I, my colleagues and the Government believe that our duty to the public now is to get out there, safeguard those jobs and ensure that people can get through this recession. That is what we are doing and what we will continue to do.

The noble Lord asked about the size of the House of Commons and put forward the proposals that have been put forward by his right honourable friend the leader of the Opposition. It is quite right that we keep the size of the House of Commons under review; it is our duty to do so. However, we must maintain the link between Members of Parliament and the public, and we must ensure that the public are properly represented. We believe that the House of Commons, as it stands at this moment, is the right size.

The noble Lord said that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is clogging up Parliament with Bills. In the Statement that I have just repeated, there was reference to only one Bill, and that is a Bill on which I think we are all agreed. It is the Bill that will introduce the parliamentary regulatory body for the House of Commons. I took heed of the view expressed in the House two or three weeks ago that there should be proper consultation with this House before the body takes responsibility for this House. That is precisely what is happening. I promise that I will keep all Members of this House involved in discussions pertaining to the remit of that body over the House, but that is for a later stage.

There are, of course, still questions to be answered about the body and its relationship to the House of Commons. The noble Lord asked about privilege, and so on. These are issues that must be dealt with at the other end, but we will engage fully in discussions on those issues. The noble Lord also asked if my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was properly aware of the robust action that we have taken in this House in respect of Peers who have failed in their duty of honour to the House. He is aware of that; I heard what he said in response to questions on the Statement today. Of course, there is still much more to be done. It was acknowledged by the Privileges Committee of this House when we discussed these issues that expulsion of noble Lords, for example, was not something that we could do in this House alone. It would require legislation. That is the sort of thing that my right honourable friend is thinking about.

In response to the various comments made about reform of the House of Lords, we have not yet discussed the White Paper, but we have had many debates on the Bill put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. The views of the House are clear. The Statement mentions proposals. We are talking here about fulfilling a commitment that has been made by my noble friend Lord Hunt on many occasions. That is, we should bring forward draft clauses and proposals for discussion. That is exactly what we are doing. I would have thought that many Members of this House would have been pleased that we are fulfilling this commitment.

Electoral reform is not a carrot. I am dismayed, as are all those on the Benches behind me, the whole of the Government and my party. I am ashamed of the election turnout last week, and the sort of vote that we got. However, electoral reform is right and proper. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, pointed out, it is now 11 years since his noble friend the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead put forward his review. It is time to discuss these issues and we should not be frightened of doing so.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to the Power report. Yes, it will be taken into consideration. He talked about the Oakeshott proposals. As the House will know, we have great sympathy with the issues raised in the Oakeshott Bill. They are complex, and we are looking at how they could be best addressed.

I currently think that the constitutional renewal Bill—if I may call it that; the number two Bill which will deal with the main body of constitutional reform issues—will include many elements pertaining to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. It is recognised that House of Lords reform, even if proposals come forward quite soon, will take quite a long time to enact. We will therefore still see some of those things in the constitutional renewal Bill, along with elements to deal with the Civil Service and so on.

In answer to the question about value for money, we are all in favour of that. If noble Lords look at the Prime Minister’s letter to Mr Bill Cockburn of the SSRB, they will find that he says:

“I would ask that you pay particular attention to the need for transparency and accountability, the need to obtain value for money and the desirability of reducing costs to the taxpayer”.

I am sure that we would agree that the reduction of costs is desirable. Of course, it is not the main thing, but we should all pay heed to value for money.

The Government have been radical in addressing constitutional reform over the past 12 years. There is still a long way to go. We want to engage with the people in this House and the people of this country in taking that agenda forward.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for her Statement, repeated from the other place. Many of us on these Benches and around the country are aware of the problem of all that is going on being seen as simply a party issue. Many people out there are aware of what has been happening, but do not see it in terms of the either/or of ordinary party politics. These are questions of much wider interest. Will the noble Baroness accept that the public are bound to see this sudden rush of proposals as sheer displacement activity to distract attention from recent events which have happened on all sides of the political spectrum?

Many of us believe that we urgently need reform. However, suddenly to rush through a programme in this way cannot be the right way to do it. It is like somebody who, under the guise of so-called visionary leadership, decides to cut down all the old oak trees in the great park, only then to discover a few months later that the topsoil has all blown away. There is currently a real danger of us losing some of the political topsoil, and I hope that that will be taken into account.

Will the noble Baroness agree, while we of course need regulation and discipline to replace the indiscipline that has gone on in so many areas of public life, that regulation by itself is not enough? We have been drowning in regulation these many years, with the forms that we all fill in and all kinds of things that have come out of our overgenerous Home Office for many years past. We urgently need, not regulation, but character. The Government have talked about character. I look forward to seeing the development of character, values and virtues in a way which regulation by itself simply will not do.

Finally, does the noble Baroness agree that, although we have had many proposals and interesting suggestions over the years, there is still an enormous amount of confusion around in terms of legitimacy on the one hand and accountability on the other? These words are waved around as though we all knew what they meant. Again and again, however, when you poke your finger at them, it goes straight through the paper and we are left with puzzles continuing. We urgently need that sort of debate about the nature of government and constitutions, and we will simply not have it if we have a programme rushed ahead as a way of distracting attention from other events.

My Lords, the Statement that I repeated is not about displacement. This Government are focused on the economy and getting people back to work, and things are happening. It is clear that things such as the reduction in VAT are having an impact.

My Lords, it is true—look at the figures. I understand the concerns expressed by the right reverend Prelate. However, we are not rushing through a programme. What we are doing is debating many of these issues, and taking the debate outside to the people.

Nearly two years ago, when my right honourable friend the Prime Minister became Prime Minister, he said that the constitution was something that he wished to discuss. He started the process with the governance White Paper, and introduced the White Paper on House of Lords reform. What we are doing is taking these things forward. However, it has become clear over the past few months that the public are even more disengaged from politicians than we thought they were. We have to bridge that gap, and it is important that we discuss these things.

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right that individual responsibility and individual character cannot be determined or fashioned by regulation. There is a place for regulation: it is terribly important. However, we as individuals have to be responsible for what we do and say: the same goes for every parliamentarian.

My Lords, does the Leader of the House accept that the core of the message that she read out is that fundamental reform is required to restore the trust of the people in our parliamentary democracy; and that if that trust is to be restored, it must be accepted that the myth propagated by the Opposition Front Bench that the present voting system produces strong government has not been borne out by the events of the past few weeks?

Secondly, does she agree that if the legitimacy of Parliament is to be secured, and trust in our parliamentary democracy reinstated, we need to take action on our electoral system before the next election, which could condemn the country to a do-nothing Government?

Finally, does she accept that, if we cannot go the whole way—we probably cannot in the 300-plus days that are left—one way to meet the hunger of the people would be to arrange the next election with a system that allows at least 50 per cent of the electors in each constituency to decide who is going to be their MP? That could be done without altering boundaries after a long Boundary Commission study, but by the votes of this House and by presenting the case that I have suggested for something to be done with the immediate crisis of our constitution in mind.

My Lords, I believe that reform is necessary to restore trust in our democracy. As the noble Lord says, that is precisely what the Statement is about. In respect of the voting system, I hear what he says and I know what he and many other noble Lords feel. I am sure that, if there were to be a change in our electoral system, many people might feel that that would be an excellent way to restore trust in our democracy and the link with the people. However, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear today, either in the Statement or in questions afterwards, that no action will be taken on that before the election, because any change to our electoral system—even the type of change that the noble Lord referred to—would require a referendum. Therefore, there will be no change before the next election.

My Lords, on the voting system, did my noble friend notice the hugely important statement by the Prime Minister:

“I still believe the link between the MP and constituency is essential and that it is the constituency that is best able to hold MPs to account”?

If it is true that maintaining the link between the MP and the constituency is fundamental, does my noble friend agree that any move towards proportional representation will severely diminish, not enhance, our democracy? Further, having seen the evidence last weekend of proportional representation in action—it led, as many of us knew it would, to the growth of extremist parties and did nothing for turnout, which was lamentable under PR—can she acknowledge that it is necessary to have a debate about the electoral system, but the electoral system in Europe, with a view to returning to first past the post?

My Lords, I am well aware of the very trenchant views that my noble friend expresses, and I have noted the words of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. Retaining that link between the elected Member and the constituency is absolutely fundamental, but it is important to debate these issues. I believe that there are systems which allow for some form of proportional representation and ensuring that the link with constituencies is maintained. I am probably speaking from ignorance but there are many things out there to be debated. There are many systems in many parts of the world, and I think that they are worth looking at. It is certainly a debate worth having.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness realise that her Statement has caused a lot of concern? Does she recognise that all this started not only because of freedom of information but because a disk was hawked around Fleet Street and bought for, I understand, £300,000 by the Daily Telegraph, which then besmirched everyone’s characters? These accusations have never been proven and a lot of good, honourable people in another place have had their characters assassinated. Is that not therefore a bad atmosphere in which to create this great change? Why should you want to have a new quango on top of Members of Parliament? Members of Parliament have always been elected and they then decide things. Is someone now to sit on top of them and tell them that they should have decided something different? That would be terrible. Why should the Government introduce reform of the House of Lords into this? It has nothing to do with the House of Lords; these problems occurred in the House of Commons. They were problems so great that Members of the House of Commons were running around like headless chickens, and they shot the Speaker too. That is no atmosphere in which to reform Parliament. With the greatest respect, the Government are burnt toast. Under these conditions, it is not right to try to reform Parliament on the scale suggested by the noble Baroness, is it?

My Lords, of course I understand the concern that has been expressed by the noble Earl and around this Chamber. These are very serious issues for Parliament, for the public and, indeed, for us as Members of this House. I deplore the actions of the Daily Telegraph and I deplore the way in which good Members of Parliament, who are in the majority, have had their characters assassinated, as the noble Earl said. However, I believe that the events of the past few weeks, which arose as a consequence of the actions of the Daily Telegraph, have demonstrated that the systems in place are no longer adequate. That is why it is necessary to act in this way. I think that the actions that have been taken in respect of a new parliamentary standards authority will help to restore trust between the people and their representatives.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness clarify those matters which affect this House on which there will be action during this Parliament and those which are simply up for discussion? Am I correct in saying that the legislation will include the capacity to expel Members from this House for disciplinary offences, as well as an end to hereditary by-elections? May I pursue the question put by the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers—what has happened to the answer that I was given a few weeks ago about the proposal to allow Members to resign or retire from the House? Is that going to be included in the legislation? If these three things are, the noble Baroness will recognise that they are also in the Bill I presented, which has already had a Second Reading and was overwhelmingly supported in the House. I am willing to make her a free offer: why does she not take over the Bill and get on with it?

My Lords, I am always up for free offers; I spend a lot of time in supermarkets. I hoped that I had responded to the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza. As I understand it, the larger constitutional renewal Bill will still include elements of the noble Lord’s Bill. That Bill will be published in the not-too-distant future and as soon as I am able to inform noble Lords of its exact contents, I will do so.

My Lords, will we have an opportunity in the House of Lords to consider the special parliamentary commission? I am concerned about the membership of this House on that committee, as well as that of the House of Commons. Will we have an opportunity before the summer adjournment to consider the proposed Bill in so far as it affects this House? Finally, when the Government claim that there is all-party support for an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected House, what is the evidence for that?

My Lords, forgive me, but I do not recognise the committee to which the noble Lord refers so I cannot say whether there will be representatives of the House of Lords. Whether there will be a debate on the issues is up to the business managers and usual channels. The 80 per cent and 100 per cent refer to the vote which took place in the House of Commons last year.

My Lords, how does the suggestion of a written constitution lie with questions of reform of the House of Lords? It is obvious that, if there is constitutional reform on a grand scale in the shape of a written constitution for the first time, questions must arise about the position in that constitution of both Houses of Parliament.

My second question is in relation to the authority that is proposed in respect of the House of Commons. As I understand it, a committee is sitting at the moment on the reform of the allowance system in the House of Commons and it is hoped that a good, transparent, effective and reasonably cost-effective system will be proposed by Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee. If that is the case, it removes a considerable part of the difficulty that has affected the House of Commons in recent months. If, in addition to that, the expenses of the Members of the House of Commons are immediately made public, perhaps the problems that have existed will disappear. Is it right for this Parliament—with the problems that it has had, in particular this House of Commons—to take upon itself, prior to a general election, to conclude that those to be elected as MPs in the future will not be worthy of trust without the supervision of this body? I believe that may be seriously underestimating the electorate, who are capable of taking a pretty serious account of the matters that the right reverend Prelate referred to of character and conduct when it comes to electing Members of Parliament.

Thirdly, has any consideration been given to the relationship between this new body, if it comes into existence, and the existing Parliament? At the moment, Parliament enjoys a very special position in our constitution in that the ordinary courts of justice do not interfere with Parliament on the basis that it is supreme. This new body will apparently have disciplinary powers over Members of Parliament. If so, there must be a considerable question as to how its status will lie with the ordinary courts.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord first raised the issue of a written constitution. The Government propose that the UK could move towards a written constitution but only after extensive public engagement and the appointment of a commission. Therefore, we are talking about something that is clearly not immediate. These things necessitate a great deal of reflection, but it is right to start the discussions about these things now. Of course, a written constitution would have to have proper regard for Parliament and its two Houses.

The noble and learned Lord then talked about Sir Christopher Kelly publishing expenses on the internet. It is absolutely correct that whatever Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee comes up with, including the publication of expenses, will help to restore trust in parliamentarians. However, as I mentioned earlier, the days of self-regulation are gone and an independent regulator is necessary. That is not to say that MPs are not worthy of trust. They are, but it is something that the electorate expect these days, because no other similar body is self-regulated. This is also important for MPs themselves. We all have friends and colleagues in the other place who have been under the most enormous pressure and are having the most terrible time at the moment. They might well feel comforted by the fact that there is an independent regulator.

The point about the relationship between the new body, the courts and Parliament is extremely important. I am afraid that I have no answers at this stage, but it is being very carefully considered.

My Lords, I have a question for my noble friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster about the Statement on House of Lords reform. I have a letter from the Lord Speaker on behalf of the House Committee to the Prime Minister yesterday. It mentions,

“review options for the system of financial support for Members of the House of Lords”.

Transparency and accountability are clearly stated in the Statement on the reform of the House of Lords, but I also recall it being said in this House not so very long ago that House of Commons expenses cost this country £100 million a year and House of Lords expenses £17 million a year. Indeed, we have been told that it is the most inexpensive legislative body in the world. What does “reduce cost” mean?

My Lords, I readily acknowledge that this House does a remarkable job for a very small amount of money. We personify value for money in many ways, but it is right that the Prime Minister writes to the SSRB about the desirability of reducing costs to the taxpayer. That is what the taxpayer expects, so it is right that this body should take these things into account when it considers all these issues.

My Lords, I do not want to be Cassandra in this situation, but we have an immediate problem of public trust, which I do not believe will be given back to Parliament on the basis of a juggernaut of constitutional reform. We need to address the immediate issues first and take a proper length of time over consideration of the wider issues that divide us.

My Lords, I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Baroness. That is why we are addressing the most important issue that has helped to destroy the trust between public and Parliament—expenses. It is precisely why a Bill shall be introduced shortly on the introduction of a parliamentary standards authority for the House of Commons. The other issues mentioned in the Statement are very much secondary, if I might put it like that. They are issues for debate that will be coming along later. We are addressing the key issue first.

My Lords, does the Leader of the House recognise that, in laying great stress on the urgency of restoring legitimacy to Parliament, she has to look at some of the issues that are part of this Statement now rather than putting them into the long grass? For example, does the Cabinet recognise that not one MP enjoys the majority of his or her constituents’ support? Does that not raise great questions about the legitimacy of the present House of Commons? Does it not also deal with the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who thinks that the constituency connection is so important, when more than half the constituents in any one constituency do not support their Member? In that case, if the next general election is fought on exactly the same discredited system, surely we are back where we started.

My Lords, every Member of Parliament has been elected with a majority in his or her constituency. Therefore, I believe that those Members of Parliament are entirely legitimate. That is not to say that we should not be reflecting, looking at or debating different electoral systems, which is what the Prime Minister has undertaken to do. However, he has also said that there will be no change before the next election.

My Lords, might I remind my noble friend that, when some of us did some detailed research on the alternative vote some 20 years ago, in 1989, we found that it threw up freak results where third-placed candidates were awarded the seat on the basis of the 50 per cent threshold? That consideration drove the Plant commission, which was then established by the Labour Party, to recommend the supplementary vote, which avoids that problem. May I alert my noble friend to the need, before we start talking of the alternative vote as a way forward, for people to do a little homework?

My Lords, if we are to start messing around with the composition of both Houses of Parliament, we ought to consider that Parliament was invented to control the Government or Executive. It would be worth the noble Baroness telling us, if she knows, how many members of the Government, and their PPSs, are in the other place at the moment—it is well over 100—and how many are here, and to consider whether that number should be not reduced and capped, in parallel with the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Strathclyde of a proper Question Time in this House.

My Lords, I agree that the Executive must be controlled by Parliament; that is the duty of Parliament. Forgive me, but while I cannot say how many Ministers there are—although I shall certainly come back to the noble Lord—it is interesting to think about the number of Ministers in both Houses and to reflect whether there should be so many. That should be thrown into the argument. The noble Lord raised one other thing to which I wanted to respond, but I cannot quite recall what it was. Could he tell me?

My Lords, it was really to agree with my noble friend on the Front Bench that, if we are to have powerful Ministers here, we should have a powerful Question Time to deal with them.

My Lords, as I understand it, having a Question Time in this House has been discussed before. This is a self-regulating House. If it wishes to have that sort of Question Time, I am sure that the Government would be delighted to respond.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, rightly spoke about a far-reaching crisis of trust. This is not just about the Daily Telegraph and expenses; it runs much deeper in the sense that much of the public think that Parliament is no longer as effective as they believe it should be. Given the Prime Minister’s perfectly correct frequent references to the need to involve the public and to recognise that this reform must rest on the people and not simply on the political class, will the House consider two things? First, will it consider the introduction to this debate of a number of organisations and figures that have a great deal to contribute, and make it clear that they will be included in a discussion? Secondly, and more radically, will it put those proposals on the internet so that the public may be encouraged to give their own messages, responses and views in such a way that the Government and other parties can take those into account in reaching their recommendations?

My Lords, I completely agree that there is a crisis of trust. I do not think that it is a new crisis; it is one that has been developing over a number of years and one to which none of us has paid enough heed. I also agree that we have to include the public. The Government will work with a lot of organisations and figures, and I will bring the names to this House as soon as I can. I am sure that suggestions would be welcome. It is an excellent idea to put things on the internet and to seek the views of the public. I will take this back and I think that it will be acted on.

My Lords, I reiterate my long-standing support for the implication in the Statement that we will at last have a way of setting the expenses, allowances and, in the case of the House of Commons, salaries independently of the two Houses. With the best will in the world, the House of Commons—I do not think that it has happened here so much—has often tried to amend recommendations on the Floor, which is one of the things that have gone wrong. It is not the failure of character of Members of either House in total; it is a failure of character of a small number of people of both parties. But, above all, it is a failure of the system. The independent approach is the critically important way forward. As my noble friend has said, we are—if you will pardon the phrase—very cheap to run. Not only are we very cheap to run, but we do not have a salary, which is why, in a sense, the public need to have confidence in a system of independently assessing our allowances.

Finally, perhaps I may remind my noble friend of something that I suspect she knows. With the election of a new Speaker in the House of Commons and the fact that we have a Speaker here now, and given what the Government are saying about the reform of this House, it is very important that both Houses are advised and, in some cases, educated about the role of each House. There is a strong case for the two Speakers to be able to enhance and protect the role of this House, as long as we give our Speaker some flexibility in discussing the proposals that eventually come forth. They will be more influential in many cases than party leaders.

My Lords, I completely agree with the point about independence, which is why I am delighted that the Lord Speaker, as chair of the House Committee, has ensured that the SSRB will look at our system of expenses. Of course, both Houses of Parliament need to be much better educated about the other House. In that, I would include Ministers, as it is exasperating when one’s colleagues do not have enough information about what goes on in the other House. The Speaker of each House has a role to play in ensuring that the other House is better informed.