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UK: Tolerance, Democracy and Openness

Volume 716: debated on Thursday 14 January 2010


Moved By

To call attention to the progress that has been made in making the United Kingdom a more tolerant, democratic and open society; and to move for papers.

My Lords, in this bleak midwinter, I offer some reasons to be cheerful. Indeed, I celebrate and suggest that in the past long decade, we have become a more tolerant, more mobile, more open and, indeed, more democratic society.

In the forthcoming general election, the parties will divide on the economy, the NHS, education, housing and the reform of Parliament, but the parallel—indeed, complementary—agenda, so much of which helps people in some modest or targeted way, will scarcely be heard beneath the raging political arguments about those big issues. I regret that. There is much that an incumbent Government can do to improve people's lives, even at the margins. Whoever wins the general election must be alive and alert to mobilise that parallel agenda. Paradoxically, during these tough economic times, that agenda can flourish and help to mitigate some of the hardships.

In drawing attention to that parallel agenda, I do not claim that Labour has got everything right—it has not—but I assert that much has been done for the good and should be acknowledged. Let me offer some examples of our fostering a more open, democratic and tolerant Britain. The right to roam Acts applicable to the countryside and our coast have been a tonic for all of us who cherish the opportunity to walk and enjoy tracts of our beautiful countryside previously just talked about but, sadly, not walked about. Painstaking consultation with landowners has resulted in pleasure and leisure for the many, not just the few. Those of your Lordships who watched “Countryfile” on Sunday will have learnt of the farmer who changed his mind about access to the countryside. He found opportunities to offer tea to walkers coming through his land, make a bob or two and, as he said, meet people literally from the other side of the fence, perhaps promoting tolerance. The Act liberating the half of our coastline previously closed to the public was equally welcome, restoring to our people a national treasure. Indeed, we are all bonny beachcombers now.

The groundbreaking Hunting Act 2004 has also helped the countryside as well as establishing a decisive step in favour of animal welfare. The fear that the economy of the countryside would implode has been exploded. It has been quite the reverse. Drag hunting has attracted new enthusiasts who love the joy of horseriding. Rural industries and jobs there have been strengthened. Infractions of the hunting law have been limited, as the vast majority of riders have been keen to observe the law—yes, the law of the land.

But what of the countryside's future and the parallel agenda for rural Britain? The Government’s recent pledge to bring broadband to rural Britain is essential for a living and active countryside as it confers on the remotest SME or individual the right to roam all modern communications. I hope that we can enable our rural towns and villages to strengthen local communities by collocating essential services in the local shop, pub or, indeed, parish church. We need inspired responses to the changing countryside. Farming is a life-saving industry for our nation, but it is no longer as job-rich as the extractive industries, tourism or the countless small businesses that have been helped by the establishment of first-class broadband facilities.

Benign legislation has also allowed Britons the right to roam our national museums and art galleries free of charge. Free access brought in many more visitors, often for the first time, for whom entering a museum was as forbidding as unlocking Fort Knox. The profile of visitors to the excellent Museum of Liverpool shows that there are higher numbers drawn from social classes C2, D and E, which more than satisfies our hopes that our national treasures are thrown open to the people. As democracy comes to the arts, coupled with government-sponsored free access to our national museums has been huge capital investment in this sector, which has revived older museums, such as my own first museum, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and built new, such as Merseyside’s outstanding International Slavery Museum where we democratise the art and history of our country. Perhaps the parallel agenda can next liberate the 90 per cent of holdings in our museums hidden away from the public eye for want of exhibition space.

The Government have, post-millennium, stimulated new investment in exciting new public architecture, often generating enormous civic pride. Antony Gormley’s “Angel of the North” reflects the pride of the north-east’s industrial steel heritage. The millennium celebrations in London saw innovative public architecture, embracing not only the quickly popular wobbly bridge and the London Eye, but the Millennium Dome, now the world’s most successful entertainment venue. In future, I believe that local and private museums should be helped and linked with local industry and the national curriculum. They are palaces of wisdom and knowledge as yet untapped to the full extent, like too many of our private and public libraries. We should open up the former and repair the latter. Why not give free access to our unparalled theatres? London theatres prosper, but we could subsidise free entry, say, on a one-week-of-the-year basis, to our regional repertory theatres or provide free entry to groups such as the young and the jobless. The recession offers new opportunities for fresh thinking when judiciously encouraged by the Government.

How can one get to the local theatre or museum or the coast, countryside or England’s beautiful cathedrals, now spruced up by plentiful public grants? Free bus passes for pensioners have been a winner and are another right to roam. I remember pensioners enthusiastically planning routes to roam Britain by linking up local bus services. Some plotted journeys as far as from John o’Groats to Land’s End. London’s Freedom Pass incorporates the Underground. The right to roam TV channels through free TV licences for 4.5 million people over the age of 75 has proved a bonus, as has the extension of the winter fuel and cold weather payments schemes, which have saved lives as well as cheering everyone up in snow-bound Britain. These added extras supplement the substantial rise in pensions that secures real dignity for those in retirement.

The Disability Discrimination Act has strengthened the dignity of those who are less physically able, many of whom are pensioners. The Act not only outlawed obvious discriminatory practices but changed the whole atmosphere of how society values and cherishes all our citizens, whatever their level of mobility. I am a passionate bus fan, and I notice the kindness and tolerance that people have to less mobile fellow travellers on buses. Many people call for the return of the old Routemasters, but they were intolerant of women with children and older people.

A propos a more open society, I point to the liberalising of Britain’s antiquated licensing laws. It was controversial to some, but it is here to stay, meeting, as it has, the general public mood of exercising freedom of choice on where and when to drink. Related to this is the brave introduction of the ban on smoking in public places. Its successful implementation has astonished all but the most optimistic. Indeed, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” is now imprisoned in the gastropub’s jukebox and is no longer blown across the dining table to the discomfort of us all. Many habitual smokers welcomed the fresh opportunity to give up. In time, the evidence will show the enormous health benefits to our nation of this bold move. Perhaps excess alcohol consumption will be the next target of bold thinking.

A more tolerant society is a more open society and, in turn, a more democratic society. The change in mood in modern Britain towards women, members of the gay and lesbian communities and our ethnic communities strengthens our democratic roots. Increasingly, we are becoming a nation at ease with itself. The Civil Partnership Act epitomises this change of mood, as our gay and lesbian colleagues can now, with pride, express, at long last, their open love for and attachment to a companion human being of the same sex before a wider and more tolerant community. I remember learning to my delight from a senior marriage registrar of her staff’s visible pleasure in presiding over such happy civil partnership ceremonies. The Evening Standard’s recent uplifting report on the conference of gay armed services personnel held in the Victory Services Club in central London was unusual in itself, but the event was blessed by a personal message of welcome from Her Majesty the Queen. How welcome, and how heart-warming.

Similarly, on women in Britain today, I remind noble Lords of the song “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass”. There are examples here in this House of breaking the glass ceiling. Your Lordships’ House has had five Leaders since I arrived. Four have been noble Baronesses, each here on merit. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is our first Lord Speaker, and nowadays all the Front Benches boast gifted women in substantial numbers. Tokenism is unwelcome in your Lordships’ House, as it is when it comes to our valued ethnic communities. John Denham and the noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, on this morning’s “Today” programme, recognised a decade of achievement in this respect. We still have much more to do to sweep out prejudice in all its debilitating forms, but progress is real and we should celebrate it while remaining vigilant.

The Government’s parliamentary reform agenda has been substantial, and many parliamentarians are ambiguous about the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act, but despite the media’s often selective approach to this new freedom, the Act will be seen to endure. So, too, will be the profound reform of the British constitution, including the sensible divesting from our once multitasking Lord Chancellor his many incompatible roles. The Supreme Court will prove to be a worthy development and a wise surrender of excessive powers. No future Administration will undo it.

Similarly, on devolution, who now argues the status quo ante for the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, or indeed the coming together of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which are improved equally with a flourish of architectural development that rightly follows those changes?

There is an example in your Lordships’ House of how we have moved forward, becoming a more tolerant and more open society. We were the first House in these Houses of Parliament to welcome a youth parliament into our Chamber, which I celebrate. It is right and proper that we who are the responsible politicians of the day pass on the good news to our younger people.

In conclusion, there will be a clash of the mighty in the forthcoming general election, but there is a parallel agenda and there are ways in which enlightened and thinking Governments can help the lives of many of our other citizens. We should not miss those opportunities.

My Lords, I wish to concentrate my remarks on the “T” word—“tolerant”—in the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. While I recognise that there have been advances in tolerance in recent years, I have just begun to perceive that some advances in tolerance have led to intolerances in other areas, which I regret. In particular, I regret the creeping intolerance towards religious faiths of all sorts in this country.

It may well be necessary, sooner rather than later, for this House and another place to consider the introduction of legislation to protect religious freedoms in this country. It is about the one area that has not seen such legislation in recent years. This may cause the lips of self-styled liberals to curl a bit in scorn—I am rather careful about complaining about the work of liberals, who have indeed advanced matters quite considerably—but illiberalism is increasingly creeping into liberalism. There is a problem if people do not subscribe to this or that tenet of the fashionable liberalism of the day, whatever those nostrums are. Perhaps now is not the time to discuss this, and we do not have the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, that great grammarian, here to help us, but if you use some bits of language in a particular way, they are correct in the liberal canon, whereas if you use them in other ways, they are incorrect in the liberal canon.

Also creeping into modern and contemporary liberal thought is the clear view that the European Convention on Human Rights should drive how we behave and, much more than that, that the convention is all about the individual and not at all about the communities to which individuals belong. Therein, in some interpretations, we have seen some of the drive that has been pro the individual and anti groups, which include religious faiths of all sorts in this country. There must surely be some recognition that a pluralist society is not merely a collective of individuals—an idea that leads to totalitarianism—but a community of communities, as one wise person once observed to me.

It is very good that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has promoted this debate. He is an original thinker and I have enjoyed earlier debates that he has promoted in your Lordships’ House. In no way could he ever be accused of being a party hack. For fear that the Hansard writers who assiduously record our proceedings missed this, let me state that the person who said “Hear, hear” after the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, opined that the Labour Government have not got everything right was me.

It is good to have this debate before there is further progress on the piecemeal legislation in front of this House in the shape of the Equality Bill and other legislation. Seeking to help, perhaps for the best of reasons, toleration of this or that group, or this or that individual, may at the same time create a new and diminished understanding of the human and move against the interests of church and faith groups in this country.

I have not taken part in the proceedings on the Equality Bill. I am not trying to read across anything that I have said or will say in those debates, but I am interested to note that in our present piecemeal legislation representations are coming thick and fast from faith groups. I do not think that anyone should curl their lip at faith groups—churches, Jews, Muslims and others—feeling alarmed. In the area of long-term care for people with learning disabilities, for example, people living in such communities have got used to turning to a care worker and being able to say, “Please help me with this scripture. Please pray with me”, always knowing that there will be a Christian context. Faith groups are extremely concerned that the Bill might make it impossible to ensure that that is the case.

I do not think that the Government understand the role of the clergy. They now require proof that a protected job involves leading worship or teaching doctrine, wholly or mainly. Most pastors—I use that term generically, whether they are in the Jewish faith or the Muslim faith, or are Catholics or Protestants—are greatly involved in pastoral and administrative work. They probably could not demonstrate that they are mainly or wholly involved in leading worship or teaching doctrine.

The results of this sort of legislation could be disastrous. The Roman Catholic view—I am one of those who hold it—is in general that the new wording may outlaw its male-only clergy policy. I am not on direct drive from the Vatican. His Holiness has not instructed me to say this. No one from Archbishop’s House in Westminster has sent me the Roman Catholic equivalent of a three-line Whip, which is much tougher than any three-line Whip that we have ever seen in your Lordships’ House, to say this. I believe that non-Christian religious groups are also very concerned.

The time has come for religious groups and faith groups to make quite sure that they are not walking away from their ground in front of the little intolerances that are being brought in as a direct result of trying to promote tolerance. We do not have any Roman Catholic religious representation; we do not have any cardinals in your Lordships’ House. Recently, we had the very welcome introduction of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, who I hope will speak out in favour of religious freedoms.

We also have a Bench of Bishops. I have a story from a few years ago, which has the seal of the confessional as to who it involved. I met a Bishop as we were going through the Lobbies on one of those great life issues that exercise us all in this place and on which we all get together to vote one way or another. Very few Bishops were in the Lobby voting the same way as me. The Bishop involved was not the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester. In answer to my question as to why there were so few Bishops about, the Bishop said that the Bishops had between them, in a very real sense, taken the view that they did not want to be seen to be coming here and swamping the House in this Division. If churches vacate the ground, they cannot complain if an increasingly secular society moves its tanks on to the ground that they have vacated. I should like to see a terrifying figure, such as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, nipping at the heels of the Government on these issues to ensure that we do not vacate the ground of defending ancient religious rights and freedoms. An Act of Parliament will shortly be needed to protect what many churches have thought was theirs, but which many churches, faith groups, Muslims and Jews are ceding.

My Lords, I am tempted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Patten, in my role as a mere Methodist in this House, but that is not the direction in which I want to go today. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison, my travelling colleague from Crewe and Chester to London, for initiating this debate. I should like to stress again the democratic element in his Motion. The Government have moved, and we must express gratitude to them, to fulfil the pledge that they made in 1997 to establish a Parliament for Scotland and Assemblies for Northern Ireland and Wales. That has brought about a transformation in the way in which legislative programmes are considered in Wales and Scotland and, over time I expect, Northern Ireland. Instead of a Secretary of State dictating what is to happen, the elected Assembly or Parliament has a voice and makes the final decision. This is growing and improving as the years go by and we are grateful for it.

I want to mention the revolutionary change that was made to the way in which we elect Members of the European Parliament, so that we now use a form of PR list, for which, again, I am most grateful. However, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, when speaking in a debate a couple of nights ago, suggested that the next Conservative Government,

“might be reverting to first past the post, for European parliamentary elections”.—[Official Report, 11/1/10; col. 364.]

Others participating in the debate will have listened to that statement with a wee bit of alarm. Democracy cannot stand still and the systems of yesterday are not necessarily fit for purpose today.

Perhaps I may repeat what I have said a number of times. Around 200 years ago, there were uncontested, unopposed returns in many constituencies. Even as recently as the general election of 1900, there were some 243 unopposed returns. We had only the Whigs and the Tories and later the Liberals and the Conservatives. With only two candidates from each of the parties fighting for most of the seats, it was easy to achieve over 50 per cent of the vote for one of the candidates. But that has changed over the years. In Scotland and Wales, with nationalist parties and others having come into the ring, we now have three, four or five candidates for each seat. It is therefore often the case that a Member is elected with under 50 per cent of the votes and thus does not represent the majority of the constituents. Yesterday’s system does not work today and, as I have said, it is not fit for purpose.

We have seen changes over the past century such as votes for women, who achieved the same status as men in 1928, and, from 1960, votes for those aged 18 and over. We have also seen the growth of postal voting on demand. This is a move that we on these Benches regard with a bit of suspicion. This is the only country in the world that has postal votes on demand and the whole field has been opened up to the possibility of fraud. In Birmingham and other places, there have been court cases to decide on this element of democratic change.

Postal votes have changed everything. In 1997, 2.1 per cent of the electorate had a postal vote, which represented 937,205 votes. In 2001, the figure had risen to 1,758,055, representing 4 per cent of the electorate. By 2005, 12.1 per cent had the postal vote—5,362,501 people. For the European elections last year, 14.2 per cent of the electorate—6,318,501 people—had a postal vote. It is quite possible that in the election in May this year we will see 8 million postal votes. In Newcastle upon Tyne, for example, some 31 per cent of the electorate has registered for a postal vote—some 67,000 applications.

However, the election timetable remains the same. For parliamentary elections, close of nominations and close of postal vote applications occur only 11 days before polling day. When the number of postal vote applications has increased tenfold, an intolerable burden is placed on returning officers in the constituencies, which can lead to serious errors being made. When you do something under pressure, mistakes can be made.

I am pressing this in various ways, but what I would like is for us to look at the timetable. In local elections, 19 days are allowed between nomination day and polling day. Why do we not allow an extra week for people to register for postal votes in general elections? Once nomination day is reached, the electoral registration officer has 24 hours in which to send by Royal Mail all the ballot papers. There will be immense pressure this year if the general election is held on the same day as the local elections, which are being held in England on 6 May. It will be a recipe for disaster unless the Government move to extend the time allowed.

It is bad for us at home in this country, but are there not also great difficulties in trying to get postal votes returned from those in Afghanistan in 11 days? It cannot be done. One local authority informed me that it did not have one return from Iraq at the time of the last general election. By limiting the period to 11 days, we are disfranchising those young men and women who are putting their lives on the line for us. If we expect them to do that, the least we can do is make sure that they have the opportunity to vote in a general election.

I say 19 days, but the Electoral Commission says 25 days and has urged the Government to increase the period to that. There is time to do it. You can sometimes get a Bill through the House of Commons and the House of Lords in a matter of a day or two. Why are the Government not responding to this need and, at the same time, undermining the democratic ideal?

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Harrison on a wonderful, non-partisan survey of the triumphs of the Labour Government over the past 10 years. I also congratulate my tribal friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno on his speech. Like many Liberal Democrats, he believes that all roads lead to electoral reform. I shall say a little more in tune with what the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said in a moment as a corrective to what I agree was a grand and comprehensive speech. I was going to adopt most of what my noble friend said, in particular in relation to the smoking ban, until I noticed my noble friend Lady Farrington on the Front Bench and I thought it prudent not to follow him down that path.

However, I agree with most of what the noble Lord said so comprehensively about the right to roam and the openness of the arts. When he said that, I thought about the local library in my home city of Swansea. When I was a boy, the local library was full of stygian gloom and one was afraid of entering into it. Now it is gloriously open—with children before screens, comics and so on—and it is a joy to enter. What a change. My noble friend also mentioned the triumphs of the new deal, the minimum wage and the way in which the sclerotic constitution of this country has been radically altered over the period. In his theme of openness he mentioned the freedom of information legislation, which, of course, is a great inconvenience to government but which is, nevertheless, a key part of our democracy, with crucial new rights.

I think also, of course, of the technical advances we have made. We may dislike e-mails but, since having had the good fortune to come down this Corridor from the other side, I notice that my former colleagues down the Corridor are besieged by the e-mails which dominate their lives. Nevertheless, e-mails link them to the citizens and people they represent in a proper way.

My noble friend’s second theme was that of tolerance. The cause of tolerance has also taken great strides over that time, as evidenced by the speech that the Minister, John Denham, is going to make today. For example, the way in which racism was tolerated when I was a boy is no longer acceptable; and the jokes which were then acceptable are no longer funny. I refer to the new Ipsos MORI survey carried out for the Equality and Human Rights Commission which underlines that trend and shows that Britain is becoming a more racially tolerant society. The picture overall is very optimistic.

The reason for these changes is partly a new multiculturalism and a new attitude on the part of our people, but legislation has played a part, too. The great milestones and landmarks in the history of tolerance have been laid by Labour Governments, from the Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968 through to those of the 1970s and even of now. They are an example of how legislation is not only good in itself but sets the tone for public attitudes which follow.

I shall not dwell at length on democracy. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, mentioned the devolution which came about post-1997 and which means that we have brought power closer to the people, with some problems that have emerged. Nevertheless, there is no turning back and I think there is a welcome acceptance now of the devolution settlement. So often—this is perhaps the only partisan thing that I shall say—the Conservative Party will oppose any reform until it becomes a tradition. I recall even as a young Member of Parliament for a rural constituency, Monmouth, seeing the enormous upset over the introduction of breathalysers in 1967. I received sackloads of pro forma, signed documents which stated discreetly at the bottom: “Published for and on behalf of the Licensed Victuallers Association”. I think that I had only two letters in favour, both from Protestant pastors. Yet who now would want to turn back the clock and stop the controls over drinking and driving?

Following the theme of the noble Lord, Lord Patten, I sound one note of caution, about what I call managing the pendulum. One of the challenges to emerge in the midst of all the positive changes that have been made during the past 10 years is that of the swinging pendulum. When the pendulum has swung too far in one direction, there is naturally a public reaction against it and a danger therefore that the reforming zeal of those seeking correction will swing it too far in the other direction. Perhaps the best example of this in our history was the Charles II revolution after the Cromwellite period in the 1650s—perhaps I could designate myself as a moderate Roundhead. It is important to understand the stresses which have been generated as a result of some of the changes—I think that my noble friend was prepared to accept some of those. I am pleased that it is now clear that the Government are prepared to look again at 24-hour drinking, for example. Moreover, it is said in today’s press that they are ready to fix minimum prices for alcohol in an effort to curb binge drinking, which is a part of “set the people free” and where the pendulum has swung too far.

It has been seen in the Equality Bill that the Government have not really understood the role of clerics, pastors and others. However, it is seen also, although this is not directly to do with the Government, that there are ways in which the Christian faith has been marginalised; for example, the nurse who prayed for a patient, the teaching assistant who shared her faith with pupils, and the Christian registrar. Many more examples can be given, some of which the Bench of Bishops have mentioned. I think of the attitude to the Roman Catholic adoption societies, where a reasonable compromise could have been reached.

I raise these concerns, but, overall, I readily acknowledge the welcome advances made by the Government. I am sure that we all acknowledge that this country is still a very good place to live. There are queues at Calais of people wanting to come here; there are no queues at Dover to leave this great country.

My Lords, I remind noble Lords about the speaking time limits, otherwise my noble friend Lord Davies will have no time to reply.

My Lords, in terms of government priorities, I have no doubt that the economic well-being of people in terms of jobs and value for money in the shops as well as the greater advancement of international trade deserves to come out at the top. However, my noble friend Lord Harrison has done a most useful task in initiating a debate on the much wider issue in which government policy can also be very important—namely, how to improve the kind of society that we generally live in.

One Bill that the Government are bravely trying to get on to the statute book before the magic date of a general election is the Equality Bill. To my mind, that is a tremendous example of the Government trying to build on many decades of government success in combating the blot of discrimination in various fields in our society. The Equality Bill marks a broad level of that achievement. On the narrower level, as has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, is the Civil Partnership Bill. That is an example of a sign that we have progressed to a more tolerant society than used to be the case. Of course, the examples that several have given already of free entry to our museums and national galleries demonstrate that our heritage in art and culture is meant to be available for all to have access and enjoy. Those changes are all examples of a civilised approach, to use a general term, to the kind of society that we want to live in.

Just over 50 years ago, Tony Crosland published his influential book, The Future of Socialism. At the request of the then general secretary of the Fabian Society, now more generally known as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, I did the index to that book—and, of course, if you do an index to a book you have to read it so thoroughly that you get a bit bored with it. I was certainly most influenced by that book. Tony Crosland was once described by his rival intellectual in the Labour Party, Dick Crossman, as the Labour Party’s only other thinker. What struck me, more than anything that Tony Crosland said about the economic situation, was what he said on broader matters. The language may seem a little old-fashioned now, but he called for action to be taken to,

“widen opportunities for enjoyment and relaxation, and to diminish existing restrictions on personal freedom”.

He went on to say:

“We need not only higher exports and old-age pensions, but more open-air cafes”,

and later closing-hours for public houses. Those are the types of things that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, mentioned. Sadly, Crosland died young, as noble Lords will recall, when Callaghan’s Foreign Secretary in 1977, but he lived to see some of the reforms that he wanted carried out during the lifetime of the Wilson Governments of the 1960s and 1970s, for which his colleague Roy Jenkins deserves quite a lot of praise. This example has not been used in this debate, but he would certainly have been pleased to see the end of the Lord Chamberlain and the censorship of theatre productions in 1968.

At times, I am a bit concerned that my party gives the impression not of promoting personal freedom but of adopting a more negative approach, sometimes seeking to ban anything of which it disapproves. Hunting with dogs was mentioned—and I noted the gentle way in which the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, mentioned it. Even when a ban of some sort is justified on health grounds, for example, such as the ban on smoking in public places, we should examine very closely and perhaps more than we have the extent of the ban and the possibility of deleterious side effects. I believe—and this is a purely personal view—that the smoking ban has improved the health of many and enhanced the comfort of many more who have been unwilling, passive smokers for many a long year. However, I am not at all sure that we needed, for example, the latest Health Act to go further by imposing restrictions on the display of tobacco products.

More generally, my own view is that Labour and Labour Governments, irrespective of whether some of their members later joined another party, have enhanced personal freedoms—in the course of this Labour Government, particularly through the Human Rights Act. We need to keep the desirability of personal freedom and tolerance at the forefront of our consideration of all legislation that comes before Parliament. Some legislation has to be restrictive, imposing bans, but let us never forget the other side of the question: which personal freedoms may be lost as we move on?

My Lords, preparing for this reflective debate, so thoughtfully secured by my noble friend Lord Harrison, I turned to the Oxford dictionary and looked up “tolerate”. It is described as,

“the practice of enduring or sustaining pain or hardship”.

Meanwhile, “tolerant” is described as,

“disposed or inclined to tolerate or bear with something”,

and as,

“practising or favouring toleration”,

or as,

“able to endure the action of a drug”,


“irritant … without being affected; capable of resisting”.

Is that enough? Surely there is room for an even more positive approach. What about compassion, caring and solidarity? We talk a great deal about the poor, the handicapped, the young, the elderly and the excluded, but in our managerial society how often do we talk with them, listen to them or respond rather than prescribe? Is it not high time to ponder these aspects of our mercenary culture? Do technological developments invariably empower, or do they sometimes disempower?

Consider diversity. I am bewildered when people whom in many ways I respect deny the concept of a multicultural society, as if there is something inherently wrong with it. Diversity is one of the richest assets in the human story and the nature of creation. God forbid that we become a stunted bog of mediocrity and homogeneity. The exciting challenge is to make a success of multiculturalism, to celebrate it and not to dismiss it. It is on the foundations of lively diversity that we can build a healthy and vigorous social dynamic in contrast to the frail, defensive and insecure vulnerability of intellectual, cultural and physical inbreeding. To engage in that building is the way to strengthen a society worth defending against the negativism of the unyielding absolutists, bigots and extremists. The Human Rights Act is a highly significant and relevant development in that context, as are the Equality Bill and the revolution in policy and attitudes towards homosexuality.

The Motion refers to democracy. It seems to me that the viability of democracy depends on a creative tension between imaginative, visionary leadership and strong, well informed accountability. Is part of the public alienation from politics perhaps related to the extent to which politicians have become increasingly perceived as a closed, professional class? Is there not a need to ventilate that and open it up? Society is a matrix; could we miss a gigantic opportunity if we fail to reform this House into a second Chamber that convincingly reflects that matrix rather than into a pale, carbon copy of the Commons, with membership in effect largely coming through the existing, relatively narrow political machinery? In the same context, it is encouraging that the debate is no longer about whether but how we move to a more convincingly proportionally representative electoral system.

The success of democracy is also related to the quality of education. Is this now trapped in an overutilitarian approach? Do we need to reassert the importance of education as an end in itself in terms of the quality of life and the fulfilment of the individual? Must we not prioritise, producing self-confident, well informed and, one hopes, constructively critical citizens? It is vital to stem a trend towards blurring the distinction between consumerism and citizenship. We may indeed receive more questionnaires than ever before, but citizenship is about drafting the questions.

Of course, we must have effective management, but a flourishing political democracy is about spelling out and debating the objectives for which the management is required. Yes, good, qualified people in the engine room are essential, but the destination must be clear and the vision of those on the bridge is indispensable. Management cannot be an end in itself if we are to enhance the quality of our civilisation. Values desperately matter. We must see the objective as being when people are stimulated to want to vote, not when they are induced to do so by one device or another.

I am convinced that one of the great achievements of the present Government is devolution. In an age of globalisation, people badly need a sense of identity, but the challenge is to ensure that with that sense of identity the effective national and international co-operation, without which humanity is doomed, is generated. Perhaps a next step in our own constitutional evolution will prove before too long to be a federal United Kingdom. There is the West Lothian question to be resolved; it cannot be swept under the carpet.

Where I believe the Government deserve very positive recognition is in having demonstrated that constitutional change in the cause of a better-quality democracy is possible. The beginning of a better ethnic mix among the Members of this House is a very good example. Yes, of course, there are inconsistencies, each step reveals new contradictions and certainly we have a long way to go, but the process has, I believe, become irreversible. That in itself is substantial progress and the Government deserve great credit for it.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating this debate. In recent years I have spent a lot of time looking at the state of British democracy, having had the honour of chairing, first, Charter 88, which played an important role in the Government’s constitutional reform programme when they came to office in 1997, and then the Power inquiry for the Rowntree Trust, which reported in 2007.

I believe that Britain is probably one of the most tolerant, freedom-loving countries in the world. The strength of our democracy comes from many values: respecting the right of others to live as they please, so long as they are causing no harm; a healthy scepticism about state power, which keeps our politicians on their toes; a belief in the right of others to express their views freely, which gives rise to our free press; and in recent times an increased desire to see light shone in dark corners to flush out systemic abuse. We have one of the finest judiciaries in the world, with no hint of corruption. We have a rich civil society, which comes from a willingness of people to volunteer in millions of ways to improve the lot of others.

The list of good things is long and others have contributed to it in the debate, but that is not to say that everything is perfect within our system. In recent times our democratic system has taken something of a battering, with profound public concern and disillusionment after the allowances scandal and, before that, the scandal of loans for peerages and the taint of corporate lobbyists possibly being able to influence policy. There is political disengagement, particularly among the young, which is a serious threat to democracy. Much of it comes from a sense that politicians are unable to hold the Executive to account and from people feeling that they themselves have very little power and that their voice is not heard.

I have taken part in this debate to convey some good news. Last weekend, as a follow-on from the Power inquiry, a campaign called Power2010 held a deliberative poll. It was an unprecedented experiment in deliberative democracy. It was unprecedented because we have never before had an experiment on such a scale here in Britain and because the issues, rather than coming from government or some campaign group, were put forward by the public themselves. The poll was overseen by a team of political scientists from Stanford University led by Professor Jim Fishkin. He is the global maestro of such processes and has used his methodology for deliberative polling in bringing reform to different parts of the United States, Canada, Greece, Japan and, more recently, even China. He has been involved in deliberative polling in the European Union and in Australia.

Last weekend, 130 people came together—a representative sample of the United Kingdom put together by YouGov by boiling down our nation into a large hall. They came together to discuss, debate and learn about how our democracy works and to consider a set of proposals put forward by the public through the internet. Very often this kind of event—a public meeting or a consultation—is a collection of people who impersonate the public but are not a representative cross-section of it. The people at the gathering over two days discussed suggestions on improving the workings of Parliament and the workings of political parties—from funding through to the selection of candidates. They debated voting systems, the role of the Prime Minister and the role of this House. They discussed Europe and the euro, devolution, the possibility of an English Parliament and the way in which legislation has been put through with the votes of Scottish MPs on specifically English issues. They also discussed local government and the election of mayors.

The results were extraordinary. They showed us that when people are given good information they make sensible, well informed decisions. That was not new to me, because I have practised for many years in the courts—I am a trial lawyer—and I have considerable experience of juries. One of the things that juries have taught me is that the public can be trusted so long as they are given good information and allowed to debate outcomes in a safe and reassuring environment.

Changes can very easily be knee-jerk if you simply ask the public’s opinion without giving them good information. That is when there is intolerance and when serious risks are posed to our democracy. ID cards are a good example. When first asked, “Do you want ID cards?”, a significant percentage of the public said yes. After the debates that have taken place, the reflection is very different. When polled before the process last weekend, people were keen on all manner of populist solutions. Yet when they discussed the options, heard the arguments and were able to ask questions of experts in the field—mainly professors of politics—they often came to very different conclusions. The results of the outgoing poll after two days of deliberation were nuanced, conscientious and very different from the views expressed at the beginning.

Noble Lords can find the results on the Power2010 website, where one can vote on the reforms, which this cross-section of the public ranked in order of priority. The purpose is to create a set of five key reforms to take to the political parties and candidates at the next election. It was interesting that at the top of the poll came the strengthening of Parliament. People did not want some mad reform; they wanted a strengthening of Select Committees, more free votes for Members of Parliament, more parliamentary time for MPs’ Bills and—would you believe it?—less use of statutory instruments. Most of them did not previously have a clue what a statutory instrument was, but when they found out they started thinking, “Of course there are circumstances when they are useful, but they should not be overused”. That was interesting. They wanted voting at weekends, on a Sunday—why not? They wanted “None of the above” to be on the ballot paper. They wanted a strengthening of local government.

The people were dissuaded from an English Parliament. They were not happy about that idea. When it was pointed out that Scotland has a population of only 5 million, Ireland only one point whatever million and Wales three point something million, that England would be a huge part of the federal system with more than 40 million people and that that would be unworkable, they started to retreat from such a possibility because of their concern about the risk to the union. They were also not persuaded that there should be votes at 16.

I just say to your Lordships that a way in which we can enrich our representative democracy is by allowing people’s voices to be heard on important issues. That, I think, is certainly better than turning too readily to referenda. The good news for your Lordships—I want to say this before I sit down—is that reform of the House of Lords was not very high on the public’s list of priorities. When they heard the experts’ different views and understood our role, they thought that it was much more complex than it had at first appeared. They did not want an elected House as a knee-jerk reaction; they wanted more reflection on it. I suggest that a deliberative poll might be the way of taking this matter forward and having the public properly debate the issues.

Over the past 12 years, the Government have done many positive things on creating tolerance and they have many things of which to be proud. However, the protection of our democracy means that we have to be constantly vigilant. We have to find new ways of retuning the vibrancy of our democracy and we have to make real efforts to regain public trust.

My Lords, God bless the British public: it seems that there will be no reform of the House of Lords. I thank my noble friend Lord Harrison for his introduction to this debate, which was full of content, uplifting and, on a very gloomy and grey day out there, very cheery.

In 1964, as a very excited 21 year-old, I left London for New York. I had been accepted for a postgraduate degree at Columbia University and I could hardly contain myself. One of the first things that struck me on my arrival was that I had dropped into the centre of the world’s greatest melting pot. I had never seen such a melange of faces, colours, languages and restaurants—each community with its own strong sense of identity, culture and political power.

For a Jew, New York was a wonder to behold. Jews have a strong presence in that city and in those days more Jews lived in New York than in Israel. I was staggered at Hanukkah to see the local branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank with menorah candles in the shop front. That was unheard of in London. Had I been Irish, Puerto Rican or Afro-American, I am sure that I would have had a similar sensation. It made me feel very provincial, having left a London that then was very white and very homogeneous. Sure I was Jewish, but we were a small minority nestling in the outer reaches of north-west London.

I remember my mother telling me how, as a 15 year-old, she could not get a job as a shop assistant at C&A in Oxford Street. The people there unashamedly told her that it was because her surname was Cohen and they had a policy of not employing Jews. She and her generation had to endure continuous anti-Semitism, most notably during the Mosley marches in the 1930s. Knowing what Hitler was advocating in Germany, can your Lordships imagine how they must have felt watching the fascists march in the East End?

Before the war, some of our leading authors, poets and academics were openly anti-Semitic. Our leading public schools thought that they were being liberal when they imposed a 10 per cent Jewish quota on admissions. Indeed, some still do. I say all this as a Jew but I know that other minorities suffered similar indignities. Maybe it was simply the inevitable consequence of being immigrants in a very white Christian country.

Today in the 21st century, the London that I left no longer exists. The city of my birth and my continuous home is truly the city of the world, matched only by New York, and in many regards I think that we are even more multi-ethnic than New York is. I am sure that that is why we were awarded the Olympic Games. The world will be astounded in 2012 when it realises just how culturally diverse this city has become. Foreigners are staggered when they come to London—from the female immigration official wearing a hijab to the customs officer with a turban, to the mixed-race couples walking hand in hand on our streets, to the blasé way that we regard gays and lesbians. We simply do not care, and isn’t it wonderful?

So it may well come as quite a shock to learn that the Jewish community in this country feels under constant attack. I do not want to overstate the case, but many Jewish friends have said to me that they feel more frightened and threatened than at any time in their lives. Instances of anti-Semitic attacks are up. Some attacks are verbal, others are physical, but the trend is rising. Of course, many of the attacks are linked to the situation in the Middle East. Jews are held by some to be supporters of the more extreme elements in Israel and, when there is a south Lebanon or Gaza conflict, attacks on British Jews go up.

Noble Lords may not be aware that for many years all synagogues have had constant security patrols. At most Jewish social events, you will see Community Security Trust-trained personnel prominently watching and checking. At this point I must pay tribute first to CST but also to the police forces up and down this country that work hand in hand with the Jewish community, particularly the Metropolitan Police, which gets such a bad time from other quarters but which has done amazing things in this direction. Anti-Semitism is unacceptable for most people, but anti-Zionist or anti-Israeli attitudes have become its barely concealed proxy. That is what makes people very worried.

I am chair of an organisation called the Coexistence Trust. Our mission is to be united against intolerance. Our focus is on Muslim-Jewish relations, particularly on university campuses in the UK. Noble Lords may again be surprised to learn that there is a problem and that there are campuses in our country that Jews prefer to avoid. Religious Jews wearing any form of dress that identifies them as being Jewish are sometimes attacked. I can tell noble Lords of many instances where stickers saying things such as “Death to Jews” have been displayed at some of our leading campuses and have been slow to be removed. It is not a good scene.

Muslims also have a difficult time. Issues such as dietary observance and exams being held on religious holidays cause problems for them. I have raised these issues with university officials. They tell me that it is difficult for them, that universities thrive on free speech and that they are loath to get involved. Well, who can object to free speech? On the other hand, the universities have a legal duty of care towards their students, but in many cases they are slow to uphold this duty. The laws in this country are pretty tough on the subject of racism; there are plenty of weapons should they choose to use them, but they seldom do.

We can bemoan the situation or we can do something about it. Those who know me know that there is nothing that I like better than a challenge. The Coexistence Trust is absolutely balanced between Jews and Muslims; our trustees, our donors and our staff all come from both communities. We visit campuses with a simple message: racism and discrimination have no place in our society. We actively encourage Jewish and Muslim students to get to know one another. After all, our backgrounds are not that dissimilar; all of us are sons and daughters of immigrants.

Our campus objectives for 2010 are that we will provide conflict resolution training, develop student leadership skills and appoint campus representatives and ambassadors at key universities. Now I shall tell your Lordships what we will not be doing: we will not get into any discussions about the Middle East. The situation is complicated enough and nothing much that we can do can change it. We are concerned about British Muslims and British Jews. Our role, indeed, is to make the UK a more tolerant society. We are all lucky to live in this wonderful country. It is a beacon of tolerance to the world and long may it remain so.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I have enjoyed every speech but none more so than the one I have just heard. I congratulate my noble Friend, Lord Mitchell, on taking the opportunity, as has everyone, to use this debate as a peg, allowing them to introduce aspects of how they interpret the purpose of the title in their own way. I have learnt a great deal.

Like other colleagues, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Harrison on giving us this opportunity. He opened my eyes with his interpretation of the title, as did many other speakers. It is like mother love and apple pie. I am sure that all my political opponents will subscribe, as I do, to every aspect of the tenets of the Motion. Nevertheless, as a political opponent to many people on the other side of the House, I hope that we are all united, as the previous speaker was, in paying tribute to and being grateful for the nature of society in this country. When you look at how some other countries and some other cultures interpret their rights and their remit to the people of those countries, you can see that we should always be grateful for our type of society.

I am very much aware that all the main debates are subjective. Some of them I win and some of them I lose. When I win I say, “Democracy has worked”, but when I lose I say, “Democracy was asleep”. We all have to accept the fact that you win some and you lose some and that it is the general tenor.

A previous speaker said that there were queues to get into this country but none to leave. People sometimes say that we are a soft touch, but this country has for centuries been a haven for those who are oppressed in their own country. Although we have problems with immigration and assimilation we should look at the overall picture. As far as I am concerned, the British system has a great deal to be proud of.

As for democracy, I see my dear and noble friend Lord Davies on the Front Bench. At one time he proudly represented Enfield and I represented Edmonton next to him. In 1975 a great debate was initiated by the then Government on whether we should stay in or leave the Common Market. Through the local press in Edmonton I asked people to give me their views on the issue. I was then able to stand up in the Commons and say that, by a majority of two to one, my constituents favoured staying in. I had received three letters—two in favour and one against. Not for a moment would I have said that I was speaking on behalf of 60,000 electors; but that is the way it was.

I was very glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Patten, on the theme of religious tolerance and support of all faiths. I would agree with that although I am of no faith. I am a member of the Humanist Society, and I have the same right. There are relationships that need to be cultivated. I am not for a moment saying that there is a hierarchy or pecking order or that one is more important. But I would do nothing to inhibit the right of any man or woman to practise their religion in whichever way they can, within the clearly defined lines which are democratically created in this House and in the other House and to which we all have to conform. As far as I am concerned, the British Humanist Society is committed to human rights, democracy, equality and mutual respect. We work for an open, inclusive and tolerant society. I cannot imagine that many bodies of a religious faith would disagree with those tenets which underlie their rights.

I want to tell my noble friend Lord Mitchell how much I enjoyed his speech. One of my cousins is Miriam Stoppard. She was the daughter of my Auntie Jenny, who was the sister of my father, and she married Tom Stoppard. Her mother married Sid, who was a Jew, and they became Jewish. The other daughter, my cousin, was Hazel. She married Preston King and her daughter is Oona King. I am therefore fully alive to the problems of the Jewish race and sympathetic to the points of view that have been made.

While other noble Lords had to take a minute more than their lot to say what they wanted to say, I shall give my noble friend on the Front Bench a Christmas box too late by giving him a minute of my time.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing this debate. Last September, he and I travelled to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in Tanzania. He is keenly interested in tactical issues relating to democracy and democratic values, and much of our conversation over three days centred around that subject. I mention that because if ever your Lordships have an opportunity and want a peaceful, quiet visit to a country, don’t travel with him. If you do travel, don’t sit next to him.

We have a good story to tell. A number of noble Lords mentioned race relations legislation in this country. Who in their right mind in the 1950s and 60s would have stood up and said that this country would have a series of race relations laws based on achieving equality of opportunity and good relations? Today’s announcement by John Denham clearly demonstrates the extent to which the country has moved in terms of its tolerance.

I do not like the word “tolerance” as used by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, because it indicates a grudging way of acceptance, but I believe that it has achieved a substantial number of changes in the attitude mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Borrie. But let us also not forget that we have paid a heavy price to be able to reach this stage. Let us not forget the days of Enoch Powell and the time when even the Prime Minister talked about the country being swamped with different cultures. And let us not ever forget that it was the death of Stephen Lawrence which actually resulted in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act, whose achievements we are celebrating after 10 years.

There is not only success but a downside to this issue. Over the past few years we have increasingly sacrificed some of the values we cherish. The concepts of “rights” and “liberty” in a democratic society are all that we appreciate. These had to be fought for, and in many parts of the world they are still to be won. Increasingly, we see that political powers in Parliament or success in a general election are the result of issue-based politics which is lacking in political philosophy and beliefs. I shudder at the thought of a large number of measures being translated into parliamentary Bills without the underlying beliefs which should underpin policies.

For example, how can we justify the unremitting attacks on trial by jury; the derogation from human rights legislation; the introduction of ID cards; the criminalising of children as young as 10; the violating of the provisions of the UN convention on the rights of refugees; and the detention of DNA samples of innocent people? Where did all this feature in the core values of the Labour Party? It is here that great care needs to be exercised. Democracy and democratic values are established in one’s belief about the freedom of the individual. This is fundamental to the principle of democracy and any dilution of such principles negates democracy. If you take the freedom of the individual to its logical conclusion, it will point to a commitment to civil rights—the right to live in peace; the right to get an education; the right to get a job; the right to raise a family free from fear; and, above all, the right to be treated fairly and with respect without reference to race, colour or ethnic origin. All of those are the basic civil rights that we talk about.

In a democracy, they are the issues at the core of everything that needs to be done. They are at the heart of every issue. No longer can a society endure in peace, live with itself and prosper in all ways if in that society the establishment denies others equal opportunities and protection from discrimination.

In our fast-changing world we are often confronted with a change in attitude and a new assertiveness. Youngsters are better educated, better informed and question authority more than ever before. Equally, there are other factors that often put pressure on our democracy. The globalisation of power, the decline of class loyalty and the end of deference put great pressure on some of the antique structures and often on the antiquated ways in which some of us think. Change is frightening to many but there is a positive side. We are gaining interdependence, self-reliance, openness, liberty, diversity and pluralism. All these things are to be applauded in our society We are seeing the birth of new values and a new culture encompassing all that is good in our own values and all that is good in the values of others. We cannot turn a blind eye. No longer can we sustain our economic and political development if we continue to behave like little Englanders.

The crucial question will continue to arise: how do we safeguard democracy and the democratic process which is so deeply engrained in our values and beliefs? The answer is simple. We must continue to oppose and at times deny Governments the ability to take actions that impinge on our individual freedoms. The reform of our Parliament is still a long way off. It is not enough to talk about the reform of the Lords. Parliament as a whole needs to be reformed. The Executive is far too powerful and the legislators so weak. We still do not have adequate representation of women or our diverse communities in our political process.

Over the past 10 years we have had a steady development of the concept of human rights, including the very positive step of incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law through the Human Rights Act 1998. For far too long in the UK we have assumed that our liberties are protected by a set of traditions and customary activities assisted by general consensus within our society about the liberty of the individual. We have no written constitution and very little guidance in the legal process and in documentation. This is a nice cosy approach which is increasingly challenged by the human rights legislation. It is not surprising that this is uncomfortable for the Tory Party and that change is being proposed.

I am aware that my time is up, so I will sit down, but I hope that we will have further opportunities to debate this subject as there are so many issues to concentrate on. In conclusion, the heart of the democratic process is the voting process. It may lead us, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said, to voting reform. That is essential; otherwise it will negate our democracy.

My Lords, I begin by adding my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for securing the debate, which has been presented and conducted in an outstanding way. The contributions from around the Chamber have been constructive and occasionally inspiring as we have reflected on the democracy, openness and tolerance which is woven into the DNA and aspirations of the people of this country. We have a proud record of speaking up against injustice and intolerance and promoting democracy at home and abroad. That positive view, which was so wonderfully expounded on by the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, is something of which we are proud.

All such debates present a certain problem. I am an incurable optimist and love to be positive about everything, particularly about this country, but it would not be much of a debate if we all simply just agreed. In that spirit I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I consider some evidence that might point to a different view in the hope that we can come back to the clear view of what we need to do to secure those values that are so precious to us.

One of the weaknesses of the current Government is that whenever they are faced with a problem, they instinctively believe that the answer lies in one of three things: regulation; expenditure of public finance; or, indeed in surveillance—greater collection of data.

I want to present the case that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said, the people of this country can be trusted. There is another option available to us, which is not to legislate, not to give public money and not to surveille, but to trust people to do the right thing.

Over the past 10 years, the proportion of public income which is spent by the Government has risen from 38.2 per cent to 50 per cent this year. The average number of laws passed each year during the time of my noble friend Lady Thatcher as Prime Minister was 1,724. In 2007, that had risen to 3,071 laws each year. Each one of those laws, each one of those regulations, requires a bureaucrat to collect data to ensure that the law is being complied with. That requires a regulatory approach.

In addition, we have seen a greater centralisation of power. I take the point about devolution, but in England we have seen a significant centralisation of power, with more and more powers taken away from local people to have the freedom to decide how they spend their money and set targets to meet their local community needs. That decision is increasingly taken in Whitehall, rather than in their locality. As a result, the Local Government Association has estimated that its members are responsible for providing data on some 1,200 targets to the Government. Those data must be collected and sent up the line. Why does that matter? It matters not only because it is wasteful and information overload, but a lot of people come to teaching, nursing and the police force because they want to protect, to care and to teach. They do not do these jobs because they want to fill out forms—it would be pretty disappointing if they did. That is why we need to free people up and trust them more to do the right thing.

One thing we have not touched on—we need to put in a line about this—is that our prodigious style of legislating and legislating, issuing more and more regulations from this place, means that we are effectively saying that the people on the ground doing the job cannot be trusted. They then find a rich sense of irony in the events of last year, when it was found that some—I stress, some—Members of this place, who were legislating, could not be trusted to fill in their expenses correctly and behave in an honourable way. Therefore, people say, “Why should we trust you to legislate for us when you do not trust us to do our jobs?”. The erosion of trust is a great challenge in our society and something to which we must attend. The centralisation of power and the erosion of trust leads, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, said, to a lack of participation in local democracy. People think, “Why should I get involved in local democracy?”, so we find that more people vote on the final of “The X Factor” than in local elections. Why is that? Because there has been atrophy of power in local government. People think that it does not matter.

We see that represented in a number of minute ways. A telling example is the debate taking place surrounding the clearing of snow from pathways. I know that this is something of an urban myth, but it is an urban myth about which the Health and Safety Executive has done nothing to disabuse people. The view is, “Leave the snow, leave the pathways as they are, do not get involved in clearing them, because if you try to clear them for a neighbour or to make school a little more accessible, you could face a lawsuit”. Everyone says, “Oh, that is an urban myth”. It may be, but it would be great if the Minister could slay that urban myth when he responds. It is quite wrong that people should be paranoid about wanting to help other people by doing the right thing, doing good things in their community and helping their neighbours for fear that they will be the subject of litigation. As a result of the army of new legislation, the fear that we have become a more litigious, contractual society, rather than a relational society, causes concern.

A number of noble Lords spoke about tolerance. I particularly acknowledge the remarks of my noble friend Lord Patten, who spoke powerfully about the sense, particularly in the Christian church, that there is growing intolerance towards people of faith and that they are being victimised. That cannot be right. I am sure that the pendulum has swung, but we need to remember that legislation and the pendulum were meant to correct something that was wrong. The corrective was never meant to be normative. We have reached a position where we think that the default position we should have as a society is for ever to take powers away from people and take the view that we do not trust them to do the right thing in their local communities and to look after their neighbours.

The title of this debate asks how we can make the United Kingdom a more tolerant, democratic and open society. I believe that that is the language of legislation, regulation and surveillance and the language of the past. The language of the future needs to ask how we allow and encourage people to become more tolerant, democratic and free. The answer to that is in the words “personal responsibility”, and the mechanism for that is trust.

My Lords, this debate was consensual about the extent to which our society displays clear virtues with regard to tolerance and acceptance and where progress needs to be made. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, introduced controversy. I understand the point he made about prescription in narrow ways not being beneficial, but this debate identified that the achievement of a more tolerant society over the past 30 years is the result of legislation.

My noble friend Lord Harrison began the debate with a wide-ranging review of changes in society, and other speakers faced that position. Of course more needs to be done and we have weaknesses in levels of tolerance and acceptance in our society, but progress has been etched out and achieved by legislation. The Race Relations Act, the Disability Discrimination Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the devolution Act and the Civil Partnership Act all, in their different ways, enhance tolerance, greater freedom and participation. They are very different Acts covering very different areas, but they are all part of the architecture that nearly every contributor to this debate emphasised our society has much to be proud of. It is based on civil freedom, respect for the individual and, in particular, amity between communities, which we need to sustain and develop. I recognise that powerful speeches have been made about the areas in which we need to make further progress.

The noble Lord, Lord Bates, advanced a do-nothing perspective that might help on whether householders are creating danger when they clear paths. I have heard that canard before. It all revolves around whether a greater danger has been created by clearing the snow than by leaving it alone. On the whole, the number of prosecutions against householders for having put their neighbours at risk because they have cleared their paths is, if not negligible, then so limited as to be insignificant.

Meanwhile, we must recognise that our society is based on a framework of law, particularly with regard to the advancement of interests that are challenged and threatened. Those who need to feel safe in our society need protection, which is created significantly by the framework of law, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison not only for opening this debate but for identifying pieces of legislative achievement under Labour Administrations, including this one, that have enhanced the freedoms of our individuals.

I listened with care to everything that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, has just said. He will correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that his belief is that the only way, in the words of his noble friend Lord Harrison, to make the United Kingdom a more tolerant, democratic and open society is to use legislation on every occasion to bring this about.

My Lords, I am not saying, nor did my noble friend Lord Harrison suggest, that only legislation brought this about, although legislation is an important component that conditions the perspectives of society. One obvious example is the Disability Discrimination Act. There is no doubt at all that our improvements to the rights of the disabled across a whole range of activity in our society have been based on legislation. I recall a time, as no doubt noble Lords can, when an airline refused to allow disabled passengers on to its aircraft because, as far as it was concerned, they were an extra burden and it did not cater for them because it was a cheap-fares airline. We could do nothing about it because the legislation did not extend beyond the airport terminal to the tarmac and entry into the aircraft. It was a foreign airline, so we could do nothing about it. Where we can do things, however, it is quite clear that we have greatly enhanced the position of disabled people in our society, and the law has done that. Of course I recognise that there are other aspects beyond legislation, but I seek to counter the Opposition’s position, which will not stand in this debate.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for raising a number of issues. He talked about free access to theatres. That is pushing things a little further, but he will know that the National Theatre and others have pioneered cheap £10 tickets for major productions in the West End—a reflection of some progress in that area. He also emphasised the particular importance of something that was not picked up by any other speaker in the debate: the right to roam. There is no doubt at all that freedom includes freedom in this area. At one stage, landowners thought that this threatened their interests, but on the whole the Act has been hugely successful and has promoted opportunities for our citizens that are greatly appreciated.

The noble Lord, Lord Patten, moved on to the important issue of tolerance. I hear what he says about religious freedom, which is of the greatest significance. Our society cannot be free unless there is proper protection for religious freedom and people are free to worship in the way in which they are called to do so, but he will appreciate that part of our difficulty is that there are some who masquerade under the religious banner and who are a threat to our society. I have met many imams—I represented a constituency with a very large number of Muslim constituents, so I know of imams’ wonderful work and leadership in their communities—but the noble Lord will also know that we have to watch with care those who carry the title without any commitment to the teachings of Islam, who have a very distorted perspective of the concept of jihad and who are a constant physical challenge to other people. Within that framework there is bound to be an area of constraint. As to the more general positions that he put forward on religious freedoms, no one could possibly take exception to the thrust of his arguments.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, emphasised a number of points. He stressed that devolution and other legislation brought increased opportunities for participation in the devolved Administrations. I want to reassure him on his cardinal concern about postal votes and the general election, particularly with regard to our forces serving in Afghanistan. I am with him entirely on that. The Government are eager to reassure the House that we will make proper arrangements in time for the participation of our forces personnel in the next general election. The problem with the prescription put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, is that we would need changes to primary legislation to change the dates of postal voting. He will recognise the impossibility of us being able to offer that at this stage.

My noble friend Lord Anderson brought in some important points. He emphasised the extent to which we had to challenge racism in our society and how we have made progress in a more tolerant society. I want to reassure him on binge drinking, which predates changes in the licensing laws and has precious little to do with pubs staying open extra hours. A great deal of binge drinking relates to hours which are not just when the pubs are open. The number of public houses which have applied for licensing beyond midnight is relatively few. We are concerned about binge drinking, one aspect of which is the cheapness of alcohol. I want to reassure my noble friend that we are addressing ourselves—there was a recent Statement and another by the Department of Health—to the very cheap pricing of alcohol which helps to cause this problem.

My noble friend Lord Borrie took us down memory lane in referring to the contributions of Anthony Crosland and Richard Crossman to the development of our society. He emphasised that the process of enhancing personal freedoms has a long history to it, as did my noble friend Lord Judd in his emphasis on issues of constitutional change. I acknowledge that there always will be defects with regard to our constitutional arrangements which need to be challenged. He will also know that since 1997, we have had significant Acts of Parliament on constitutional change—not least the whole nature of this House has been transformed by the Act which changed its composition a decade ago.

I was very grateful for the contribution from my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. She knows that from time to time she makes a contribution that makes the hair curl of those of us who serve in the Government Whips Office and, to put it mildly, we have our anxieties. In counting Opposition votes, I have noted that my noble friend is often among them. In her terms it is for the very best of reasons, which she often articulates on the Floor. But today she brought a measure of encouragement as regards the way in which we could look at the processes of consultation with our communities with the confidence of the judgment that they would show. I do not think that there is the slightest doubt about that affirmation of the concepts of democracy to which we all subscribe. I am conscious that this House is just a tad away from the full embracement of democracy, but many noble Lords share her perspective, which she identified in such an important and constructive manner today.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Mitchell for his contribution. It was an important one that identified areas where enormous progress has been made. He is right to celebrate diversity, particularly in our capital city, and he is right to emphasise that we would not have got the Olympic Games without being able to present that argument. However, I take on board his point about anxieties in some communities. We know that there is a fascist element represented by a minority party in our society that poses a threat to all minority groups, and we know also that tensions arise from time to time between minority groups. My noble friend was also right to say that although universities of course have to cherish freedom of speech and debate as their essential role, it is also important that they remove any element of fear that might obtain with regard to some in their communities.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Graham and to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for his precise identification of the need to advance civil liberties. I regret that I am not able to pay full tribute to all the contributions made to this debate. It has been a most heartening and encouraging one, and on behalf of the Government Benches I hope that I can say that we are in total congruence with it.

My Lords, in swiftly ending the debate I shall respond to the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Anderson that I spoke in a partisan way. I thank all my colleagues on these Benches, but would like to point out that in the form of the Liberal Democrat Benches, both physically and philosophically, I have two fellow travellers. I would like also to thank all the other Members who spoke in the debate. With that, and with the hope that noble Lords will read the debate in Hansard, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.