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Constitutional Reform

Volume 712: debated on Monday 6 July 2009

Question for Short Debate

Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will take forward legislative proposals for constitutional reform presently before the House of Lords.

My Lords, I am most grateful to noble Lords who are to speak in this short debate. It is a trial run at the Constitutional Reform Bill of my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke, which is to be found in the Printed Paper Office. That Bill is not having its Second Reading now because there is no time for it to complete all its stages in this Session of Parliament. However, I am sure that my noble friend will listen carefully to the views of noble Lords and bring the Bill back in the next Session, perhaps incorporating suggestions put forward today.

However, I should say at the outset that we do not think the Bill should be much less radical. I am aware that in the wake of the parliamentary expenses saga there have been several debates and suggestions about constitutional change, but these have only been tinkering at the edges of our system of representative parliamentary democracy, which is now, rightly and irretrievably, discredited with the people it was supposed to serve.

I hope your Lordships will not be too irritated if I quote what I said on 5 December 2007 when, not for the first time, I was trying to warn of the growing gulf between us, the political class, and the British people. I said:

“Over the past 50 years, we have brought this country pretty low: 40 per cent of our children leave primary school, and 15 per cent leave school, unable to read and write properly; our whole health service is in crisis; our police are overwhelmed; our prisons are bursting with the mentally ill and the illiterate; our transport system is inadequate; our Armed Forces are underfunded, overstretched and undervalued, and even their morale is beginning to crack; our border controls have been deliberately abandoned, so that our inner cities are increasingly uncomfortable and explosive places; and, most worrying of all, Islamist terrorists are on the march, many of whom are home grown”.—[Official Report, 5/12/07; col. 1761.]

That was before the credit crunch and parliamentary expenses hit the headlines, which have done nothing to endear the people to their political class.

Several times, before that and since, I have also tried to point out that another important reason for the British people’s disaffection from their political class and system is not just that it is hard for them to think of anything that their politicians have got right in the past 20 years or so, but that they do not feel that they or their vote can make any difference or help to bring about the change which is so obviously needed. Of course they are right. That may be why only 60 per cent of electors now bother to vote in general elections. Under our first past the post system, the Government of the day are elected by about 40 per cent of those who do vote, or 24 per cent of the electorate. That 24 per cent has to vote for the Government’s manifesto, containing about 150 commitments, many of which the voter may not agree with, en bloc.

It is, of course, worse than all of that because a large majority of our national law—perhaps 84 per cent if we accept the German Government’s figure—is now made in Brussels, where our Government have only some 8 per cent of the votes for large areas of what used to be our national life. So the people are right when they feel disenfranchised and when they feel that they cannot make any difference to the progress of our national decline.

Anyone who doubts the extent of our national decline should perhaps read the brief document entitled Better Government, published in January 2007 by the TaxPayers’ Alliance. Apart from the statistics I have already quoted on education, the study shows the UK as providing the worst healthcare among the top 18 developed nations and as having the third highest crime rate. It also contains a penetrating analysis of how Sir Humphrey has now completely taken over from Jim Hacker and how our Ministers have become incapable of delivering the services the people need at anything like a reasonable cost. I shall put a copy in the Library and recommend it as essential reading.

That is some of the background to my noble friend’s Bill. As to its detail, its most radical proposal is that binding national and local referenda should be introduced in this country, based largely on the model which has been working successfully in Switzerland for many years. To me, this is the only way in which the people can be reconnected with their democracy because it would get round behind the Westminster hen coop and force their will on those who are supposed to represent them.

I am of course aware that there will be a certain amount of harrumphing about Members of Parliament taking decisions on behalf of the ignorant people, but I suggest that the harrumphers are centuries out of date. Of course that theory was valid in the 18th and 19th centuries when most people could not read, but now they can, and modern technology brings them instantly up to date with events unfolding all over the planet. I submit, for instance, that if the system of referenda envisaged by the Bill had been in force at the time, we would not have gone to war with Iraq, nor would the present Government be allowed to drag on in office, and so on.

There is also evidence that the proposed system is very much wanted by the people. There is an excellent new organisation called the Campaign for Democracy, to be found at, which is finding 50 per cent support on the doorstep in the marginal constituencies for the introduction of binding national referenda. I understand that that is a very high figure.

Perhaps the Bill’s next most radical proposal is that the House of Commons should be reduced in size to some 250 Members and left in charge only of national matters. Those matters are defined in the Bill as the national treasury; defence; foreign affairs; border control; criminal law; agriculture, fisheries and food; national energy and transport policy; the national education curriculum and teaching qualifications; and our medical and nursing qualifications.

MPs would be limited to a salary of £30,000 per annum, with £170,000 for their offices and a transparent system for all their expenses. So most MPs would have to do a proper job as well and live in the real world, as do Swiss MPs. The Commons would not need to sit for more than 100 days in a year unless in emergency.

All other areas of our national life would pass under the control of local government with local tax-raising powers. Both the Commons and local government would sit for staggered, fixed periods of five years. The Bill leaves the method of election open. No doubt that can be decided when we come to Committee, but personally I have always been in favour of some form of proportional representation, perhaps different ones for national local elections.

The Bill would require a Royal Commission containing a majority of MPs within two years on the usefulness of our 1,000-odd quangos and other public bodies, including the regional and national Assemblies and Parliaments. I am aware that the Conservative leadership has today promised a “bonfire of the quangos”, but I recall Mr Major setting Tarzan—in the shape of Mr Michael Heseltine, as he then was—the task of cutting through the jungle of red tape. That jungle has grown apace, of course, until it now ensnares nearly every aspect of our lives. I fear that today’s Tory plans will prove just as ineffective.

The Bill would also require the consolidation of all existing legislation dealing with the same area of law, a long-overdue reform. If we could have thought of a way of preventing any new law being introduced without the repeal of, say, half a dozen others, we would have included it in the Bill, but we could not.

Our political class does not seem to realise that the people are entirely fed up with the endless interfering, restrictive stream of legislation from Brussels and Westminster. The Bill would do much to end it and even reverse it. It would introduce five-year sunset clauses for all new legislation and a 10-year sunset clause for the Bill itself.

Finally, the Bill considers the reform, even the abolition, of your Lordships’ House. The above system will take some time to bed down, so the Bill envisages a national referendum on the future of your Lordships’ House within seven years of the Bill’s passing. The Commons would have to consult with local authorities and this House and put four options to the people, including abolition and no change to the existing arrangements.

We submit that it is logical to leave reform of your Lordships’ House to the end, even if it is the softest target for our present political leadership. First, we must retrieve our democracy from Brussels, then we must sort out the House of Commons, local government and our myriad quangos. Only when we have done that can we decide whether we need a second Chamber, what its function should be, who should therefore sit in it and how they should be appointed or elected.

I am aware that my remarks may not meet with universal approval in your Lordships’ House, but nevertheless I trust that they provide food for debate here and in the country at large.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, on bringing this matter before us and on his interesting speech.

I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, on bringing the Bill before the House and on having the opportunity to discuss it. His Constitutional Reform Bill is an interesting document. I agree with many of its provisions, particularly the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972. The House will recall that Second Reading was given to a repeal Bill some years ago, but unfortunately it was not proceeded with and brought to a conclusion.

I also believe in more use of referendums, nationally and locally, to give people more say in lawmaking and real participation in Government. I am enthusiastic about proposals to give more power to local authorities to do things not specifically reserved to Parliament. As a former leader of a county borough council, I know that independent, powerful, well financed local government is the real road to the people’s democracy. That is where decisions are made and where people know what they want. They should be given more decision-making.

I agree that there should be fewer parliamentary seats, although I do not go all the way with the noble Lords, Lord Willoughby de Broke and Lord Pearson, in wishing to reduce the number to 250. That is perhaps taking things a bit too far, and I would have thought under the present circumstances that 450 would be a more appropriate number.

The reason I agree to some reduction of the numbers in the Commons is that they have lost so much of their power to Scotland, to Wales and, shortly, to Northern Ireland. Most of all, about 70 per cent of legislation now comes from Brussels. It is being made in a most undemocratic way, so we really do not need the present number of MPs in the Commons—649, I think it is. The job could be done very well with fewer, and I think the number of seats should be 450.

Then there is the consideration of Lords reform in the Bill after eight years. The best reform that could be made is probably just to leave things exactly as they are. As the House is constituted at present, it gives the House of Commons absolute sovereignty. This House is effectively an advisory body because, by the use of the Parliament Act, the Commons have sovereignty. Frankly, if they want to retain that sovereignty, they should leave things well alone. Any constitutional reform should take place only after long and mature consideration, wide consultation, intelligent debate and, above all, a people’s referendum. The people’s referendum in altering constitutional matters is very important. Parliament should not be allowed to hand over its sovereignty and lawmaking powers to anyone outside Westminster.

What worries me is that we have already had a bellyful of constitutional reform over the past 12 years. In practically every Session, we have had constitutional reform. Most of the hereditaries have been banished from the House of Lords. The Lord Chancellor’s powers have been very much reduced. He has been removed from the House of Lords and sent along to the House of Commons, of all places. The Law Lords have been banished to a place across the way. It is ridiculous now to talk about the High Court of Parliament. We are no longer the High Court of Parliament; the Supreme Court sits outside this place and that is, in my view, an absolute disgrace. There has been a decline of Cabinet government and the House of Commons has been sidelined and muted.

I could say a lot more, but I see that my time is up. I look forward to hearing further speakers.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, on raising this Question. I shall focus on the Government’s proposals for constitutional change. They may be somewhat less radical than those proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, but they may, arguably, stand a greater chance of getting enacted.

As the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said, we have seen several major constitutional changes since 1997. As I have argued before, they have not derived from a clear view of the type of constitution that the Government wish to achieve. Rather, they have been brought forward as freestanding measures, with little obvious thought given to the relationship between them. However, taking them as freestanding measures, it should at least be the subject of thorough planning within government.

In its fourth report of the 2001-02 Session, the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House published a report entitled Changing the Constitution: the Process of Constitutional Change. In evidence to the committee, the then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, explained in detail how Bills of constitutional significance were subject to a rigorous process of discussion within government, especially through the medium of a Cabinet committee. He produced a clear diagram detailing the process. He told the committee the number of times the relevant Cabinet committees had met. A great deal of preparation clearly took place before the legislation on devolution, for example, was brought before Parliament.

How, then, does this relate to proposals now being pursued for constitutional change? Last year the Government published a draft constitutional renewal Bill. The draft Bill was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. A Joint Committee was appointed—I served on it—and it undertook a fairly exhaustive examination of the measure, publishing its report in July of last year. There are various criticisms that can be levelled at the Bill and the process to which it is subject. The Bill is not a constitutional renewal Bill—it is, in essence, a constitutional renewal (miscellaneous provisions) Bill. The Joint Committee was not given the time recommended for pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government have yet to respond to the Joint Committee’s report. None the less, the draft Bill appeared to be the product of some considered reflection within government. The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, touched on some of the deliberations in his evidence to the Joint Committee. As a result of pre-legislative scrutiny, there is a substantial report on which the Government can draw before bringing the Bill before Parliament. The Government have been giving thought to introducing one or more additional parts to the Bill. Those additions appear to draw upon material that has been embodied in Bills previously brought before the House and discussed.

In short, the Government appear to be in a position to introduce their constitutional renewal Bill. They have said that they plan to do so before the Summer Recess. They have been saying that for some time. The Summer Recess gets ever nearer. However, they have introduced the Parliamentary Standards Bill. This has not been published in draft. It has not been subject to the structured process of deliberation within government that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, explained was the expected process for dealing with such Bills. Rather, it has been rushed within government—reflected in the poor drafting—and rushed through the other place in three days.

When a Bill of constitutional significance is brought forward without having been through the process that the Government have stipulated, there should be an expectation of thorough parliamentary scrutiny. If that is to be departed from and the Bill given an expedited passage, not only must a case be made for that but the case has to be compelling.

We seem to be in a perverse situation. A Bill of constitutional significance which has been subject to consideration within government and subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, containing provisions, as on the Civil Service, that all parties would like to see on the statute book, has not yet been brought forward. Yet a Bill which has been produced in haste and which was friendless among Back-Benchers when debated in the other place, is being rushed through, a Bill that would seem premature given that the report of the Kelly committee is expected in the autumn.

We shall return to the arguments on the Parliamentary Standards Bill on Wednesday. My main concern this evening is the opportunity cost—that is, the introduction of the constitutional renewal Bill. I have three questions for the Minister. First, does the process adumbrated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, remain the one to which constitutional Bills should be subject? Secondly, when may we expect the Government’s constitutional renewal Bill to be introduced? Lastly, what was the process that determined the relative priorities of the two Bills? Answers to these questions will, I believe, be helpful in clarifying the Government’s approach to legislation effecting constitutional change. As it stands, that approach is far from clear.

My Lords, the Bill to which the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, referred in his opening comments has 25 clauses and provides for major local government reform, major House of Lords reform, major House of Commons reform, the repeal of the human rights legislation, withdrawal from the EU and new policies on referenda. It is nothing if not imaginative. It would be quite difficult to do justice to those six subjects in six minutes, so I shall concentrate on just two issues that are raised by the Bill on which, to put it gently, I urge caution. They are both issues about which there has been a fair amount of debate in other contexts. I refer to the proposals for fixed-term Parliaments of five years and for reducing the number of MPs to 250, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, mentioned. I am putting it gently when I advise the House to be cautious in its approach to those two proposals.

I can see attractions in the fixed-term Parliament—one is the predictability of political life. We would know that there would be a general election in 2010 and every five years thereafter. We would know that there would be one in 2110, 2210, 2310, and so on; despite floods, famine, war, global warming, the elections would be held at fixed intervals. That is the attraction, to make life predictable; it has some problems.

The other attraction, which is harder for me to acknowledge, is that it is said to remove power from the Prime Minister. It is argued that it is very unfair that a Prime Minister can determine when the election will take place, despite the fact that over the years, Prime Ministers of all parties have frequently got that date wrong. It is not quite the golden advantage that it is sometimes characterised as being.

I object to fixed-term Parliaments because I think they would make Parliament—the House of Commons itself—weaker. It certainly makes it a less dramatic place. I offer in evidence the most dramatic debate since the war. It took place 30 years ago this year and resulted in the loss by one vote of a vote of confidence of the then Labour Government and a general election. I put it to this House that if it had been known that whatever the outcome of that vote, there could not possibly be a general election, it would have diminished the drama and significance of the occasion. I think that is bad for Parliament; it weakens Parliament, because the knowledge that Parliament can cause a general election is one of its great strengths and why it is taken so seriously. My other objection to fixed-term Parliaments is that I dread the thought of the American-style electoral cycle, where you know a year in advance precisely when a general election will take place. There is a year’s electioneering involving—it goes without saying—colossal sums of money. It does not appeal to me one iota.

I come now to the question of fewer MPs. I think even the proposer of the Bill would think that it goes too far in saying that the number of MPs should be reduced to 250. What worries me about this is not so much the reduction in MPs, but the increase in the size of constituencies. It would mean something like 250,000 constituents per MP. All I can say to that, to anyone who has been an MP—or who has not, but knows the political system well enough—is, “Just try representing that group of people”. I had the good fortune to be an MP twice, both times with very large constituencies of around 90,000 people. The idea that they should have been trebled fills me with deep concern, to put it mildly. Although it is superficially attractive, since MPs—as we know—are no more popular than journalists or estate agents, simply reducing the number certainly does not reduce the cost. If you had a constituency of 250,000 people, you would need a lot more help and assistance, such as secretarial support, to get anywhere near representing them. It would also alter the whole character of the relationship, which is a deeply precious one. That is one reason why I am not keen on proportional representation.

The relationship between an MP in the United Kingdom and their constituents is, in most cases, a very close one. The constituencies are small enough to enable that to happen. It may be popular globally to say, “Let’s reduce the number of MPs”, but not in individual areas. If you told some counties of Britain that they would have only one MP after this reform, I am not sure that there would be quite such support for the proposal. It goes without saying that constituencies would be colossal geographical areas, which is another big disadvantage.

Those are the two parts of this legislation that I would suggest treating with extreme caution. As I have said, the Bill is imaginative and well worth debating. However, one part—fixed-term Parliaments—would, in my view, weaken Parliament. The other— reducing the number of MPs—would reduce the strength of the relationship that exists at the moment between Members of Parliament and their constituencies.

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Pearson for so eloquently introducing the Bill in my name, which had its First Reading about a month ago. In the time allowed I will touch briefly on only three points. Since both the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Stoddart, have been rather exercised about the number of MPs, perhaps I could make one or two points on that. Yes, of course, constituencies would be larger; I do not necessarily accept that that is a bad thing. My Bill will, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, wished, give far more power to local authorities. At the moment, I think it is fair to say that some MPs do a lot of work that might normally be done by local—whether district or county—councillors. They take on quite a lot of local work, which could better be done by their much more local representatives. As for making Parliament weaker, my feeling—which I hope is not unfair—is that Parliament is weak enough as it is. The other provisions in the Bill will strengthen it. Of course, this is a sighting shot. These proposals could be discussed later in Committee and amended if that was the wish of the House.

On fixed-term Parliaments, I take the point about the dramatic impact of a vote of no confidence, but it does not happen very often. Certainly, it is outweighed by the advantages that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was kind enough to enumerate; namely, certainty and the inability of a Prime Minister to call elections, even if they get the timing wrong.

Turning to the Bill itself, the principle of Clause 1 —withdrawal from the European Union—is a sine qua non because otherwise all or most of the provisions would be unachievable, so that is where we start from. Whether we agree with the exact numbers or not, it seems to be common ground that we have too many legislators, who are certainly passing too many Bills. Why do we need 640 Members of Parliament and 750 Members of your Lordships’ House? There is too much legislation and yet not enough time to debate it. In the last 10 years we have passed nearly 500 Acts of Parliament: six on immigration, eight on terrorism, a dozen on education and 25 on criminal justice. In the same period Parliament has passed nearly 40,000 statutory instruments. That does not even include the thousands of statutory instruments which have direct application, coming straight from Brussels into UK law, not even seen or voted on by Parliament. We do not have the right to do that. This endless avalanche of legislation really has overwhelmed Parliament. It has made proper scrutiny and debate virtually meaningless. A telling statistic is that a statutory instrument was last overturned 30 years ago, in 1979. It really is time that Parliament passed fewer laws.

It is not just the expenses scandal which has so outraged people and, I am afraid, brought Parliament and its denizens into contempt; it is the sense of powerlessness that is important here. Surely it is time for a transfer of power away from the centre to people. I remind noble Lords that 1 million people marched in London against the Iraq war, and half a million people marched against the proposal to criminalise hunting. Were those voices listened to? No, they were not, so people naturally feel powerless. People care about politics but if they feel that they do not have a voice, they will not vote and that is what has happened. In the local elections, European elections and general elections there has been a successive and increasing loss of interest. That must be unhealthy.

The solution, as my Bill makes clear, to a working democracy in practice, is referendums, such as are held in Switzerland—arguably the most democratic country in the world—where referendums work very well at both national and local level. Their great advantage is that they give people a say in what is happening. They give people a real feeling that they have had a proper input into the laws that affect their lives. My Bill makes provision for referendums to be held at national and local level, as in Switzerland, initiated either by the Government or the required qualifying number of voters, who sign a petition for a referendum to be held.

Many of us in this House will have heard the patronising arguments against referendums, advanced by some of your Europhile Lordships during our debates on the Lisbon treaty; that is, people are too ignorant or too irresponsible to be granted the power that is given by a referendum. I do not accept that for a single moment; that is an argument against democracy itself. We should really have none of it. Sir Francis Bacon said:

“A country is less free if it is all in the hands of the state”.

That is surely right. Power to the people: that is what my Bill is about.

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, for this debate, not least because the title gives us an opportunity to speak about all sorts of issues, rather than simply concentrate on the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke. I feel that I should allow other speakers to deal, as they already have, with that. However, it is important to deal with one illusion—or, perhaps, delusion—that has been referred to by speakers, and that is the idea that such a huge percentage of legislation that affects our fellow citizens originates in the EU. It simply is not true. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, referred to the figure of 84 per cent. That relates to the German situation at federal level. It does not refer to all the regional laws that are developed in that country. It is rather ironic to have a UKIP Peer using propaganda from Berlin as if it were somehow sacrosanct to explain the situation in Britain. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, referred to a figure of more than 70 per cent. That is not true either. I think that refers to a speech made by Mr Hans Pöttering, in which he referred to the fact that 75 per cent of the legislation within the EU system went through the EU Parliament. He did not refer to an individual country at all.

Reference has been made to the extent to which regulation in this country originates in the EU. In a very interesting document published in May this year, entitled The EU and British Regulatory Systems, the British Chamber of Commerce pointed out:

“In terms of the number of regulations, the EU this year accounted for only 20%. The reduction from the previous EU level of about 30% is the primary reason for the overall decline in 2007/8”.

Therefore, I am afraid that some of the rationale for the Bill that has been put forward to the House, and in speeches this evening, does not stand up to scrutiny. In any case it surely is not the number of legislative proposals that is important, but their significance. There is an important issue—this has been referred to briefly this evening—regarding the extent to which British Governments of both colours have tended to gold-plate in Whitehall and Westminster what has come from the EU.

In the other place I held responsibility for shadowing the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as it then was, in the 1992 Parliament. I can tell your Lordships that a vast amount of addition was extended to the regulations that came through MAFF during that period. Yes, they originated in Brussels but by the time they reached the poor benighted farming community, or those seeking to sell or process home-grown food, they were quite unrecognisable from what had originated from the EU. If one compares—as I did during that period—the way in which abattoirs were treated in Germany, France, Scandinavia or this country, it was totally different, not because of anything that came out of Brussels or Strasbourg but because of Whitehall imposing much more stringent restrictions on small throughput slaughterhouses in this country. Other countries, notably the Scandinavian countries but also Germany, are meticulous in implementing EU directives, but take the opportunity to vary them and to use derogation. There is substantial variation all through the EU. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, that we are woefully overcentralised in Whitehall and Westminster. However, you cannot blame the EU for what we do in Whitehall and Westminster.

Proposals are already before your Lordships’ House that fall within the title of this debate. Two of my noble friends have Bills already in Committee before your Lordships' House on the reform of the House of Lords itself. We look forward with avid interest to see what the Government will produce on that score. The Prime Minister’s statement just a week or so ago implied that legislation would come before your Lordships' House. We look forward to that with interest. Then there is my own Constitutional Renewal Bill, which is still mark one because, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said, the Government have not come forward with their proposals. On Wednesday we shall have the Second Reading of the Parliamentary Standards Bill. I entirely endorse the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, in that regard.

The serious issue here is that we are packing into a few days before the Summer Recess extraordinarily important proposals for the British constitution. I cannot think that it is appropriate to do so, or of any time over the 60 or so years of my interest in politics when so much has been crammed into the last few days before the Summer Recess. I understand—I do not know whether this is a well-founded rumour—that the Government are considering re-establishing September sittings to deal with this problem. I do not know whether the Minister can confirm that. When I worked with Mr Robin Cook when he was Leader of the other place and I was his shadow, I recall that we produced what we thought was a very sensible bargain; namely, that Members with families should have half-term recesses in the spring and autumn in return for the two Houses of Parliament coming back in September. I think that would be a very sensible way to deal with this matter. It would be a parliamentary scandal if we are kept up all night on Monday 20 July for ridiculous ping-pong, ill-considered amendments and a revision of amendments to deal with this Bill. It would do nothing to reconnect people with their Parliament or give them more confidence and assurance that Parliament is dealing appropriately with the great issues of today. I hope that we will be reassured that that will not happen.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that it is difficult to do justice in six minutes to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, which is probably the biggest constitutional Bill that we have seen in our lifetime in terms of what it covers. I remind him, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has done, that the subject of this Question for Short Debate is,

“to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will take forward legislative proposals for constitutional reform presently before the House of Lords”.

We have to remind ourselves that not just this Bill but a whole host of other Bills are before us. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, has a Bill before the House. We have the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, government Bills of one sort or another, and other government Bills are promised. We cannot debate these things in the dinner break on a Monday evening and do justice to them.

That said, I will go through the usual forms and congratulate my former noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, on having introduced such a major constitutional reform Bill, and my former noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch on having found a way of debating it in the dinner break. No doubt when the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby, comes before the House, the usual channels—the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, will know how the usual channels operate—will find a means by which we can debate it at appropriate length and do justice to it. At this stage, I do not know how we will do that. I have been through the Bill and seen the fairly major things it tries to achieve. It is drafted in fairly simple terms. Clause 1 states:

“The European Communities Act 1972 … is repealed”.

Fair enough. We then move to Clause 2, which repeals the Human Rights Act. I do not wish to put questions to the Government, but I have to ask the noble Lord who introduced this Bill: do we, when we repeal the Human Rights Act, pass over the judgments on these matters from British courts to the European Court of Human Rights?

The Bill moves on to “International treaties”, “Military action”, the “Number of Parliamentary constituencies” and so on. It deals with local government and referendums—or referenda, as many prefer to describe them. Interestingly, while I appreciate that such people are good Latinists, the drafters of the Bill have used the word “referendums”.

Having made it clear that I do not think that it is appropriate that we should debate that Bill at this stage—no doubt, we can debate it later—I conclude with just one question. It is not one that the Government can answer, but the promoters of the Bill—and it is an interesting question. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, when introducing the Bill, mentioned that there would be a sunset clause in it and that it would expire after 10 years, beginning on the day it was passed. We on this side have always been very much in favour of sunset clauses; there is a lot to be said for them.

As this Bill progresses through the House after Second Reading, I am sure that the usual channels will give it its appropriate “godspeed”, it will progress through this House and, in however many days in the next Session, progress through another place. It will then become an Act. We will then discover that Clause 1 has come into effect and the European Communities Act 1972 has been repealed. I should like to ask the promoters of this Bill: what happens 10 years later when the sunset clause comes into effect? Do we then have to go back to Europe and say, “We are terribly sorry, but we have got it all wrong—we are back in”, or does Europe have a say in what happens?

I appreciate that this is not a matter to which the Minister needs to respond, but I would welcome his comments on the matter.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, on introducing this debate and agree with the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that we do not really have time tonight to debate this matter fully.

At this particular time, as all speakers have said, constitutional reform is a matter of considerable interest for Parliament and the public. All the major parties recently have published proposals for constitutional reform and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, for the chance to discuss this further. He asks whether the Government will take forward the legislative proposals for constitutional reform presently before the House of Lords. In this House, we are spoilt. We have both the Constitutional Reform Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, which we are discussing tonight, and the Constitutional Renewal Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler.

Last week in the other place, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, reminded us, Members debated the Government’s Parliamentary Standards Bill. It very much deals with democratic renewal, which goes hand in hand with constitutional reform. As we were reminded, that Bill is before this House and we will have the opportunity to debate it in detail over the next few weeks.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, asked me some questions. I do not have the answer to his question on the statement to the committee made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, some years ago. All I would say is that I worked closely with the noble and learned Lord and was a junior Minister under him for a while. In my opinion, the noble and learned Lord hardly ever did anything wrong. I have to leave the matter on that note. The noble Lord will not be surprised to hear me say that the Government still intend to introduce before the Summer Recess a Bill based on the draft constitutional renewal Bill; so he may not have to wait much longer. I accept that he has been very patient.

As for the priorities regarding the two Bills, I should say that it seemed to be agreed between the parties in another place—whatever else was not agreed—that it was important to introduce legislation quickly to begin to rebuild trust in politics and politicians. It seemed to be agreed that one of the priorities was to create an independent parliamentary standards authority and a commissioner for parliamentary investigations. We will have time later this week to debate these matters further. I cannot resist admiring the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for saying that the Bill was being rushed, because I have been reminded that it was his own party leader, Mr Clegg, who wanted to rewrite the whole British constitution in 100 days. That seems a quick way of doing things—in a recess, too.

The answer to the question asked in the debate is that the Government intend to take forward legislative proposals for constitutional reform presently before the House—but not those set out in the Constitutional Reform Bill. The best that can be said for it is that it is indeed an ambitious Bill.

We take seriously the issue of constitutional reform. We have undertaken a considerable programme of work in this regard under the Prime Minister. For example, we have published the draft legislative programme; created the Youth Citizenship Commission; sponsored the review of citizenship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith; undertaken a consultation on flag-flying; undertaken a consultation on weekend voting; undertaken a review of electoral systems; issued a White Paper on House of Lords reform; made changes to the arrangements for appointing bishops and granting honours, removing the Prime Minister from the process; and changed the rules on the pre-release of statistics.

These are only the latest in a long line of reforms stretching back to 1997, which include such significant reforms as devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; modernising your Lordships’ House; introducing the Freedom of Information and Human Rights Acts; reforming the role of the Lord Chancellor; and creating the UK Supreme Court. The Prime Minister has further demonstrated his commitment to constitutional reform with the creation of the Democratic Renewal Council, which meets weekly to consider constitutional matters; and by his swift action to bring forward legislation in response to public concerns over MPs’ expenses.

We see two areas where proposals in the Bills of the noble Lords, Lord Willoughby de Broke and Lord Tyler, have common ground with the Government’s proposals. First, the Government’s draft Constitutional Renewal Bill contains proposals for the ratification of treaties that would give a statutory basis for the parliamentary scrutiny of treaties prior to their ratification by the state. Secondly, the Government propose to introduce a draft resolution for debate in the other place that will set out in detail the processes that Parliament should follow in order to approve any commitment of Armed Forces to armed conflict. However, the noble Lord will not be surprised to hear that the Government take a different view from him on the Human Rights Act.

I am sure that the noble Lord will not mind me reminding him that those who inspired and drafted the European Convention on Human Rights, to which the Human Rights Act gives further effect, were British lawyers in the early 1950s—senior Conservatives, in fact. The Government are proud to have introduced the Human Rights Act. We are clear that any attempt to reverse the incorporation of the European Convention would prevent our judges from applying the convention in a way that is specific to the UK. It would also stop us contributing to the development of the interpretation of the European Convention in the international arena.

Repealing the Act would not mean automatically going back to the situation before 1998, when all cases had to be heard in Strasbourg. It would be legally possible to repeal the Human Rights Act and replicate selected provisions in a new Bill. We published a consultation paper in March, setting out proposals for a Bill of rights and responsibilities. This will build on the Human Rights Act, not replace or dilute it. We on these Benches have no intention of resiling from the protections afforded by the European Convention, or from the way in which they are given effect in the UK by the Human Rights Act.

We are also taking forward measures in respect of the working of Parliament. I will not go through them in detail. There have been calls to reduce the number of MPs. The Government agree that we need to keep under review the size of the Commons but we also agree with what my noble friend Lord Grocott said on the matter. It has already been reduced in size since 1997, and it is important to remember that, since 1950, the average number of electors that individual MPs represent has increased by more than 25 per cent. We agree with my noble friend that it is important to maintain the link between people and Parliament.

There has been much debate on reforms to your Lordships’ House. The Government are committed to reforming this House into a substantially or wholly elected second Chamber, and have been working with other parties to that end. We published a White Paper last July that was informed by cross-party talks. Since then, there has been almost a year of wider debate and discussion of the proposals contained in it. In developing more detailed plans for reform, the Government have listened to and reflected on the debate and discussion. This fully considered and comprehensive approach to the issue is one way in which we are attempting to promote and restore trust in politics and our political institutions. We intend to publish proposals for the final stages of Lords reform by the Summer Recess, including a summary of the responses to the White Paper. Our intention is that draft legislation should be introduced and fully in place shortly after the next general election, if it cannot be put through before then.

A great deal of what the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, is concerned with is what is defined as “local matters”. We are proud of our achievements in devolving power. We believe that devolution has delivered real benefits to people across the UK, providing the right balance between responsibility, accountability and representation. And we think devolution in England has been significantly advanced by the introduction of local area agreements between local authorities and their partners and central government. Within England the Government believe a regional approach is necessary to analyse and address the causes of economic disparity, to ensure planning and investment decisions are properly integrated, and to co-ordinate issues which sometimes extend beyond the boundaries of even the largest local authority.

We do not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach. We respect the outcome of the November 2004 north-east referendum. Therefore, we have no further plans for directly elected regional bodies. Instead, in November 2008 the Government’s response to the review of sub-national economic development and regeneration set out the Government’s intention. The Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill announced last December will bring some of the changes into effect.

The Prime Minister has appointed nine dedicated regional Ministers, helping strengthen the authority and viability of government offices as facilitators of partnership working in the regions and localities. In November 2008 the other place agreed to establish eight regional Select Committees, each with nine members, and eight Grand Committees. Those Select Committees have now begun their work. At Budget 2009 we announced that two city region pilots—Manchester and Leeds— would be asked to develop proposals to deliver even stronger integration of planning, housing, transport, regeneration, employment and skills responsibilities.

In conclusion, we feel this more than demonstrates the Government’s commitment to constitutional reform. We have a strong record in this regard and I am sure that your Lordships will assist us further by engaging in the debate on the Government’s legislation in the coming weeks. It remains for me to thank the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, once again.

Sitting suspended.