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Constitutional Reform Bill [HL]

Volume 717: debated on Friday 5 February 2010

Second Reading

Moved By

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Constitutional Reform Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest so far as they are affected by the Bill at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Government for giving me the chance to present this Bill to the House. I remember that when the Bill had its First Reading on 19 November and I read out its first provision to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, there was a rather tolerant gust of laughter around the House. I was slightly surprised but did not mind at all; I have got used to the fact that certain noble Lords in this House find it difficult to understand that there can be any suggestion of life outside the EU. My reason for including this apparently laughable measure—the repeal of the 1972 Act—is that it is fundamental to the Bill. Without it, I submit that there is little point in talking about constitutional reform. Successive Governments and successive Parliaments have, through successive treaties, given ever more of their rightful powers to the EU. There can be no meaningful reform without claiming back those powers for Parliament and for the voters who elect that Parliament.

Clause 2 of my Bill repeals the Human Rights Act 1998. This Act has undermined the Government’s ability to deal effectively with terrorism, crime and illegal immigration. The Government have repeatedly found themselves in some difficulties over this Act. For example, the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 was found by the courts to be in breach of the Act, and the Government were forced to repeal part of this, their own Act, which had been passed only a few months earlier. Equally, the Human Rights Act has given them difficulty over control orders; because of that Act, they were unable to deport the nine Afghanis who hijacked a plane at Stansted in 2006. These difficulties led the then Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, to call for a rebalancing of this legislation. I am not quite sure what “rebalancing” means; I think that “repeal” is probably the right word. I do not think that my erstwhile friends on the Conservative Benches should have any problems with this clause, as their policy, as I understand it, is to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Henley, will be able to clarify that.

Clauses 3 and 4 make it a requirement that no international treaties or military action may be entered into without prior parliamentary approval. This puts the elected Parliament in the driving seat and is similar to arrangements in the United States, where the President needs Senate approval to sign any treaty and Congress has to vote approval for the money for any military engagement.

In Part 2, we come to the rebalancing—to borrow Jack Straw’s word—of Parliament. The main points here are, first, that the number of constituencies should be greatly reduced—the Bill suggests about 250. This Bill was trailed in a debate on constitutional reform in July last year, and the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Stoddart, who had both been elected MPs, objected to this number of MPs on the grounds that that would make constituencies too large and unwieldy. I see the force of that argument but I point out that MPs now do quite a lot of work that perhaps could be properly and better done by parish councillors, district councillors or county councillors. The proposals later in the Bill give real power to all those councillors through direct elections and powers given to them in the Bill. However, this is only Second Reading and we can probably revisit in Committee the question of the size of Parliament.

Clause 6 proposes a fixed parliamentary term of five years. That would give certainty to the electorate and remove power from the Prime Minister to call an election when it suited his rather than the country’s interests. I should point out that in Committee I intend to put in a provision that, should a Government lose a vote of no confidence during this five-year period, Parliament would have to be prorogued. Noble Lords will also note that under Clause 11(2) there is a power for voters to call for a general election under the referendum powers granted to them.

While I am on this point, noble Lords will see that Clause 6(1) says:

“The next parliamentary general election is to take place on 6th May 2010”.

This Bill was printed on 19 November last year but of course a lot of work went on before then, so at least, if nothing else, perhaps I can claim some clairvoyance there.

Clause 7 reduces the number of sitting days of Parliament to 100. The legislative sausage machine has to be slowed down or stopped. There is simply too much legislation. In the past 10 years, we have passed nearly 500 Acts of Parliament, added to the almost uncountable tens of thousands of regulations and statutory instruments—more than 10,000 in the past three years alone. When preparing for this Bill, I was astonished to find that 200 statutory instruments had been passed since 1 January this year alone—the Poultry Compartments (England) Order 2010, the Video Recordings (Labelling) Regulations and the Infrastructure Planning (Interested Parties) Regulations, to name but three.

These tens of thousands of SIs do not have a hope of being properly scrutinised. Indeed, many of them—particularly those coming to us from Brussels and directly applicable—are not even laid before Parliament. According to information supplied to me by the Library, the last time that an affirmative statutory instrument was defeated in the other place was in 1978. Fewer sitting days should lead to less but better regulation.

Clause 8 covers the payment of Members of the House of Commons, which is a delicate subject at the moment. My Bill proposes that Members should receive a generous but transparent expenses allowance to allow them to operate efficiently. The proposed salary is pitched to encourage Members of Parliament to have jobs outside Parliament and discourage the idea of career MPs.

On the reform of this House, I propose something different from the already large menus which we have been invited to scrutinise over the past few years. I suggest that there should be four options proposed by the House of Commons, two of them being no change and total abolition, which will be put within seven years to the electorate to vote on. They would vote on that in a referendum. That brings me to the central point in my Bill, which is to give power back to the people through binding national and local referendums. It is hard to deny that people now feel some contempt for Parliament. They feel powerless; they feel that their voice is not heard, that it goes unnoticed. They must be right. A million people marched in London against the Iraq war. Half a million people marched to protest against the criminalisation of hunting. Were their voices heard or taken any notice of? No, they were not.

I believe that the most profound change in the past 100 years to the way that this country is governed has been the incremental handover of legislative powers to Brussels from Westminster in a succession of EU treaties. No one in this country under the age of 55 has ever had a chance to say whether they agreed with that or not. My Bill would give people a meaningful say in decisions that affect their lives and which they pay for with their taxes.

Clauses 11 and 16 give governments, national and local, the right to hold referendums, and give voters the right to do the same through qualifying petitions. I do not accept for a moment the patronising arguments advanced in this House during our debate on the Lisbon treaty that voters are either too ignorant or too irresponsible to be granted such a right. That is an argument against democracy itself. Referendums work very well indeed in Switzerland, arguably the most democratic country in the world. I would expect the Government, at least, to accept my argument, as the Prime Minister has announced that he will propose that a decision be taken on whether to have first-past-the-post or alternative vote elections, to be decided by a referendum.

Clause 10 defines those areas that are reserved to Parliament and beyond the scope of local authorities. Clause 17 calls for a review of public bodies to ensure that they are necessary, accountable and cost-effective. This review will cover, for example, regional development agencies, regional assemblies and the forest of more than 1,100 quangos—or non-departmental public bodies, as they are also known—that have sprung up in the past 15 years, from the Advisory Committee on Advertising to the Youth Justice Board, via the Drainage Council for Northern Ireland and the Potato Council. A royal commission will decide where the axe should fall, in the public interest. Only this morning I read in the papers that the cost of quangos has now mushroomed to £46 billion a year. There must be some savings to be made there.

Finally, Clauses 12 to 15 give local authorities powers to determine local policies, make local laws and have local tax-raising powers. Again, the local electorate will be able to call a local election following a referendum, which will help to concentrate local authorities’ minds.

The thrust of my Bill is the rebalancing of powers away from the Executive and a whipped Parliament to the people. Sir Francis Bacon wrote:

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

This Bill will go some way to loosening the state’s grasp, and I commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, on bringing this Bill forward and giving us the chance to debate it. The Bill before us may be modest in length, but it is anything but in terms of content. The Bill is clearly contentious in terms of its provisions. However, my purpose is not to go through the specific proposals embodied in the Bill but rather to address it in the context of constitutional change.

The Bill may be accused of comprising a set of constitutional reforms which have been put together in haste, have not been subject to widespread consultation, and derive from no clear, coherent approach to constitutional change. The Minister, in replying to the debate, may have in mind making these very points. He would be most unwise to do so because the description I have just supplied applies just as well to the Government's proposals for constitutional change. The Prime Minister has announced a set of reform proposals that appear detached from any process of extended deliberation within government and which relate to no discernible coherent approach to constitutional change. This Bill, like the Prime Minister's proposals, comes at the end of a Parliament when there is no time for either House to consider it in detail.

One can argue, justifiably, that major constitutional change should not be brought about through the medium of a Private Member’s Bill. In practice, of course, any such Bill cannot achieve passage without the support or acquiescence of the Government and, in principle, should not do so without the support of all the principal parties. If it is not to be brought about through a Private Member’s Bill, how then is it to be achieved? I believe that there are two basic procedures that should be adopted, one within government and the other external to it.

First, there needs to be a clear, deliberative process within government for considering Bills of constitutional importance. When the then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, whom I am delighted to see in his place, appeared before the Constitution Committee in its inquiry into the process of constitutional change, he outlined such a process. He even produced a flow chart to illustrate how the process operated. He took pride in the extensive deliberations that took place on the reforms for which he was responsible. He told us that the Devolution Committee, which he chaired, met on 14 separate occasions in the first 11 weeks after the 1997 general election for meetings of at least two hours’ duration each, and considered a total of 43 papers. The Sub-Committee on House of Lords Reform, which he also chaired, met on 13 occasions in 1998 and considered a total of 32 papers. There was then a process of publishing Green or White Papers and drawing up legislation.

That deliberative process has clearly gone. It needs to be resuscitated. As parliamentarians, we need to be vigilant in monitoring legislation of constitutional significance to ensure that it has been subject to such a process. As the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, will doubtless concede, his Bill is not the product of such a process. Indeed, it would be interesting to know what consultations he has had on the Bill.

Secondly, there needs to be some means of examining proposals for constitutional change to see how they fit with our existing constitutional arrangements and with other changes proposed. I have variously advocated a constitutional commission or a committee, not so much to propose a new constitution for the United Kingdom, but rather to make sense of where we are at the moment. It should seek to relate change, including proposals for change, to the basic principles underpinning our constitution. To some extent, that is a task fulfilled by the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House, but what I have in mind is a body that would have the time and resources to look at the constitution holistically and engage in a major exercise in cartography.

The Government have implemented a number of constitutional reforms, but they have essentially promoted each on its individual merits. The reforms have not derived from any intellectually coherent approach to constitutional change. There has been no holistic view of the consultation, no clear adumbration of the type of constitution that the Government consider best suited to the United Kingdom.

When I initiated a debate in your Lordships’ House at the end of 2002 on constitutional change, the Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, conceded that the Government had no overarching theory. Instead, he said that the Government proceeded,

“by way of pragmatism based on principle”.

Unfortunately, the three principles that he enunciated were not necessarily compatible with one another and the third—

“to devise a solution to each problem on its own terms”—[Official Report, 18/12/02; cols. 691-692.]—

was essentially a get-out clause, destroying any scope for identifying where we were going in terms of constitutional change.

The Government’s approach bears no relation to various coherent views of constitutional change that have emerged in recent decades. Neither, I have to say, does the Bill before us. There is a case to be made that it is, in part, somewhat more coherent than the Government’s approach, but only in part. The Bill clearly rejects the high Tory approach—to maintain the status quo admitting no case for any change—and instead adopts, in part, a reactionary approach in Part 1, embracing the status quo ante, and in part a radical approach essentially in the remaining parts. I do not see the overall coherence. There is to be a referendum on Lords reform but not on any of the constitutional changes embodied in the Bill. The provisions for the referendum on Lords reform in Clause 9(2) appear to be a recipe for confusion. There are problems, practical as well as in principle, with other specific provisions, but these I shall keep for Committee.

My final point relates to timing. As I mentioned, the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, has brought his proposals forward, as has the Prime Minister with his, at the end of a Parliament. There is no time for considering them in detail before the general election and no grounds for seeking to enact them at short notice. That would be wholly inappropriate. I believe that both Houses have a responsibility to be vigilant in ensuring that nothing is slipped through, in whatever form, that brings about constitutional change without having undergone the scrutiny that I have outlined as well as being subject to thorough examination in both Houses of Parliament.

In conclusion, I invite the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, to say how he thinks his Bill fits with any coherent approach to constitutional change. Before the Minister takes any comfort from such an invitation, perhaps he, too, would like to take the opportunity to explain how the Government’s proposals—I presume the Prime Minister’s proposals constitute government policy—fit with any extant approach to constitutional change. I am sure that neither he nor the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, wishes to be accused of bringing forward an incoherent wish-list of reforms.

My Lords, it will come as no surprise to noble Lords to learn that I support my noble friend’s Bill. Its two most radical proposals are that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union and that the British people should be granted the power to hold binding referendums at national and local level. I submit that without these two essential proposals becoming a reality, the future of this country is beginning to look very worrying indeed. Of course, the political class will not welcome the Bill, as no doubt we will now hear, but the British people are not infinitely patient and they are getting very frustrated and angry with our present political system and those who run it and live off it. For years now they have resented the quantity of interfering legislation which has been forced on them and have seen their politicians as “in it for themselves”. I submit that their disdain has been turned into anger by the recent revelations about parliamentary expenses and into fear by our disastrous financial situation, for which they are of course right to blame their leaders.

I also submit, not for the first time, that the cause of much of the people’s frustration is that they have come to see that whatever they do, whatever letters they write to their Members of Parliament, however many of them march our streets in protest against one or other folly visited upon them by Brussels or Westminster, or for whichever party they cast their votes, it makes no difference. They cannot change anything. The tide of unwanted legislation flows on. Their post offices and pubs close, their waste is not collected and their hospitals are too often dirty and incompetent. Too many of their children fail in life because they have not been taught to read. Their police are weighed down with bureaucracy while the crime rate remains at unacceptable levels. Their prisons are overflowing with the mentally ill and the illiterate. The morale of their Armed Forces, which quite simply are the finest in the world, is starting to sap and, perhaps most pernicious of all, their borders have been deliberately dismantled by politicians who loathe their proud history and culture, so their inner cities have been turned into very dangerous places indeed.

It is not just that people feel that they cannot make a difference or change anything; they cannot. Modern Governments, under our absurd first past the post system, are elected by about 24 per cent of the electorate, or 40 per cent of the 60 per cent who still bother to vote. Now, thanks to our imprisonment in the European Union, those Governments make only a minority of our national law—perhaps as little as 16 per cent of it, if the German Government are to be believed. The majority of our national law is now made in Brussels, with your Lordships’ House and Members of the House of Commons, for whom the people are allowed to vote, irrelevant in the process.

The people have not yet understood that process, by which most of their national law is now made in Brussels and imposed on them here. Their political class, which includes the BBC of course, has done a brilliant job by simply refusing to reveal how the EU’s legislative process makes our law. I have said it before in your Lordships’ House, and I will go on saying it until the frightening truth reaches our people. EU laws are proposed in secret by the unelected bureaucracy, the European Commission. Those laws are then negotiated, still in secret, in a shadowy body called COREPER, the Committee of Permanent Representatives, consisting of bureaucrats from the nation states. They then go to the Council of Ministers from the nation states, where the UK has some 8 per cent of the votes, and to the European Parliament for final decision. The European Parliament, to which we elect MEPs, cannot propose EU legislation; it can only delay it. Of course, it does not do much of that because it does not want to derail its famous gravy train. Again, all our UK MEPs put together have only some 8 per cent of the votes in a process that now makes most of our law. So the European Parliament is a democratic sham, and was designed to be so by the founders of the project of European integration.

It is safe to say yet again that our membership of the European Union has removed our democracy; it has taken away the right of the British people to elect and dismiss those who make their laws. Our system of representative parliamentary democracy, for which millions have died over hundreds of years, has been frittered away. It no longer serves the people. That is why the time has come to give power back to the people. They deserve it anyway; it is their power and it belongs to them. Before long their anger will overflow if they do not get it back.

The only adequate safety valve in these circumstances is the system of binding national and local referendums envisaged in my noble friend’s Bill, or something very like it. But I suppose we now have to listen to the Front Bench speeches telling me that I am wrong and why it is perfectly okay to have more of the same from them and the rest of the political class. Let us not trust the people, whatever we do. I hope that I am proved wrong.

The Bill’s proposal for referendums is very like the Swiss system which works so well there. When I mention Switzerland, I should be grateful not to be told “cuckoo clocks”. The cuckoo clock actually comes from Bavaria. Switzerland is a wonderful country with a very similar, if smaller, economy to our own. Its system of referendums and its free trade with the EU are pretty much exactly what we now need here. Compared with us, Switzerland is also a happy country and its referendums will keep it that way.

Our EU membership is also colossally expensive. According to the much respected TaxPayers’ Alliance, our EU membership may be costing us some 8 per cent of GDP, or £120 billion per annum. Our main political parties are vying with each other to cut some £7 billion or £8 billion from public expenditure; yet what is the sum of cash that we send every year to Brussels? It is £16 billion. Our EU membership is the elephant in the room when our political class talks of our dreadful economic position and wonders what we can do about it. It is a no-brainer: get out of the EU, as the UK Independence Party will no doubt explain during the forthcoming election campaign.

Let us not forget that getting out of the EU and continuing in free trade with our friends in Europe would lose no jobs here at all. In fact, it would create them, as we throw off the shackles of Brussels’ overregulation at home and take our rightful free-trading place with the rest of the world, outside the decaying economies of Europe. That is where the action is, and we are mad to stay on the “Titanic” when we can see what will happen to it.

Clause 17 of my noble friend’s Bill deals with another area of colossal waste, which it politely calls a “review of public bodies”. Again, I quote the TaxPayers’ Alliance, which recently teamed up with the Institute of Directors to produce an analysis called, How to Save £50 Billion. As one looks down the little list of savings which they recommend, one can hear the squeals of indignation from Whitehall, local government and the quangocracy, but most real people would welcome them, and the life of the nation would be quite a bit cleansed if they were made. I say “quite a bit” because I understand that the TPA has just about identified a further £50 billion of similar cuts that could also be made without losing any of our vital services, but I suppose that I had better not frighten your Lordships too much just now.

I confess that I get slightly lost among all the statistics on our squandered squillions and the dire financial straits into which our political class has allowed us to fall, although I have just mentioned £170 billion a year to be saved, and perhaps another £50 billion on top of that. With the annual deficit standing at £176 billion and public sector debt at 56 per cent of GDP, or £793 billion, I would have thought that those were useful figures.

My noble friend’s Bill makes most of these savings possible and restores power to the people. It leaves the House of Commons to deal only with genuinely national issues—everything else goes local—and it requires the House of Commons to be inhabited by real people who do real jobs in the real world, just as Swiss parliamentarians do. I fear that this Bill will be hated by our political class, but it is the Bill that the people need, want and deserve, and that is why I support it.

My Lords, whenever I listen to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, I recall a character on “ITMA” who always used to finish his litany of woes by saying, “It’s being so cheerful that keeps me going”. I am sure that there is a lot wrong with our country, but I can tell him that, for the folks from whom I came, the past 60 years have not been an unmitigated disaster or decline, which should put some of what he said in proportion.

I entirely support the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, of a holistic, deliberative and coherent approach to this Bill. The only thing I note as a student of these issues is that the great constitutional advances have been made not by committees sitting endlessly around tables—we have been doing that for the past decade and made very little progress—but by people who believed in certain changes and fought for them. We fought a civil war, a king lost his head, another king lost his throne, we frightened the establishment by revolution to get an 1832 Act, and women chained themselves to railings—one woman spectacularly died—to get votes for women. The idea of constitutional reform being a matter for gradualism and rational debate is true up to a point, but constitutional reform is also made by people who believe in it.

I draw the noble Lord’s attention to a point that is well made by Robert Stevens in his book on English judges. The reforms about which the noble Lord is talking have been won from things that have indeed been fought for, but in recent years we have dealt with several reforms that, in combination, have fundamentally affected the nature of our constitution. That is why we need to look at them holistically; they are distinguishable from the early atomistic changes that we have seen, vital though each one has been.

Indeed—and whenever you challenge an academic, he immediately gives you a reading list. Interestingly enough, I sat on the Cook-Maclennan committee, which looked at reform. At one stage, we looked at a coherent great reform Act to deal with these matters, but we did not anticipate in 1996 the deep-rooted, almost immovable, conservatism that was to be found in what became the Labour Cabinet and that has resulted in constitutional reform being left dead in the water for the past decade.

There are signs of progress with regard to the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke. Debates on the 1910 reform of this House show that one of the last-ditchers who fought to the very end against that reform was Lord Willoughby de Broke: not our present incumbent but, I suspect, a great-grandfather—perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby, will elucidate. The de Brokes fought Lords reform until, as I have pointed out before, they gave up on 10 August 1910, and noble Lords can judge for themselves why the de Brokes had to leave this House on that date to get back to their estates. Anyway, this is certainly progress in the Willoughby de Broke family.

We on these Benches have made it clear that if we ever come to the point at which this country wants an “in or out” referendum, we will be there to contest it and to argue for our continuing membership. In that respect, there is a certain respect for the UKIP position. What I find contemptible is the attitude of the Conservative Party, which longs to wound but fears to strike. In constituency after constituency, it presents its candidates as being as close to the UKIP position as it dares to get.

Will the noble Lord clarify the position of his own party on a referendum on whether this country should be in or out of the European Union? Did not his leader, Mr Clegg, flounce out of the House of Commons because he was not going to get an “in or out” referendum on our membership? When I moved a suitable amendment here, the noble Lord’s party failed to support it, so it would be very helpful to your Lordships to know whether the Liberal Democrats now support an “in or out” referendum on the European Union. If they do, they would be with us, of course.

First of all, Mr Clegg has never flounced anywhere in his life. We have said time and again that the Lisbon treaty, as the Conservative Party knows well, was a series of adjustments to EU arrangements to take account of the increasing membership of the EU. It was not the new constitution on which we had pledged a referendum. We have said consistently that if the EU comes forward with major constitutional changes, we will support an “in or out” referendum. It would be dishonest to keep suggesting referenda on changes, which, if they were carried, would cripple the EU, without having the courage to argue the “in or out” case.

As for the Bill’s other provisions, we vigorously oppose the clause on human rights and at a suitable time would seek to delete it. We on these Benches are proud that we played our part in passing the Human Rights Act into law. It has set a high bar for civil liberties and human rights of which we should be justly proud. As for the provision on international treaties, we agree: like the provision on military action, these are important powers that should go to Parliament.

We think that 250 parliamentary constituencies would be too few. However, 650 is too many, just as 740 for this House—or perhaps the figure will be 800 or 900—is absurdly large. Both Houses should get down to the figure suggested by Cook-Maclennan: about 450 in each. We agree about fixed parliamentary terms. If the number of sitting days was limited to 100, the Daily Mail would have editorials about lazy MPs taking long holidays. So you will not win on that one.

I assume that the salary of £30,000 was set at about the rate that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, pays his valet.

It was set to ensure that real people doing real jobs could go up to Parliament to talk about truly national interests and nothing else.

I agree that it is better to listen to real people doing real jobs than to some of the bankers who pay themselves amounts that look like telephone numbers. Perhaps we agree on that.

On reform of the House of Lords, given the current impasse in which we have a House of Commons that wants a directly elected House and a House of Lords that has voted consistently against such a House, I am rather attracted to the idea of putting a multi-choice proposal to the electorate. Such a decision from the electorate would, one hopes, finally end the resistance of the refuseniks in this House. I am confident that in such a referendum we would get an overwhelming vote for a directly elected House of Lords.

We are at one on local authority powers. We are a party of subsidiarity and want to see powers moved to the right level. As we believe that the right level in some cases is Europe, we would perhaps part at that point. As for getting powers out of Whitehall and Westminster and back to local authorities, we agree. We also agree on local authority funding. Indeed, in the provision on local taxation I thought we might even be seeing something on local income tax—but perhaps not. On quangos, £43 billion is a worrying figure which requires eternal vigilance.

Does the noble Lord agree that the EU currently has 29 meteorological services? If the EU was properly united then we might, like America, have one meteorological service. The EU can reduce quangos but all these tiddly little states across Europe can duplicate them. I therefore support the noble Lord’s view.

I have run a little over the amount of time taken by other speakers but I have been interrupted by perhaps provoking the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, which was thoroughly intentional. That example is very good. Perhaps a united European meteorological office might even get the weather forecast right.

However, I put one warning. Although I have said that I support a referendum on this place, I belong to a generation who perhaps believes that the retreat to referendums is a weakening and diminishing of our parliamentary democracy. I still believe that the liberties talked about by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, are best guarded by an efficient and functioning parliamentary democracy. I hope that when the new Parliament is elected, Parliament in both Houses will recover its confidence and ability to speak for the people.

My Lords, I intend to be fairly brief because I think that the House is itching—if I may put it that way—to hear the Government’s response to this major Constitutional Reform Bill. I also admire the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in taking the trouble to go through this Private Member’s Bill clause by clause and give his party’s views on various parts of it. Since we heard references to the fact that there might be a Committee stage, he will have further opportunities to put forward amendments to the Bill when it comes before the House.

I accept that every private Member has a right to bring forward a Bill in this House or in another place. I would not want to restrict that in any way. But occasionally, possibly, there is a small element of abuse in bringing forward a Bill, right at the end of a Parliament, which has no prospect whatever of coming into law. It will waste our time on a number of Fridays or whenever when we have to deal with its Committee stage. Its sole purpose seems to be UKIP’s general election manifesto.

Will the noble Lord make the same strictures about the Government’s Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill?

I would make the same strictures about quite a number of the Government’s Bills that are coming before us; for example, the Fiscal Responsibility Bill and the constitutional renewal Bill—or whatever it is called. There are a number that the noble Lord knows have no chance of getting on the statute book. They were brought forward at the Queen’s Speech purely as an early edition of the Labour Party’s election manifesto. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for reminding me of that. But no doubt we will have to deal with those Bills and this Bill in due course. Again, I am amazed at the tolerance of all Members of the House who have listened with avid interest to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, and his noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch as they have argued the case for this.

All we can say is that we are very grateful that my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth added his name to those speaking today. We were able to hear from him his profound thoughts on how constitutional reform should take place and be managed. For that, I think that we are all grateful. I will now sit down and leave the Floor to the Minister. I do not exactly look forward to Committee stage, but no doubt there will be one when we will have further opportunities to discuss this Bill.

My Lords, we are without doubt living in a time of great enthusiasm for constitutional reform. All the major parties have brought forward proposals for how our constitutional systems, conventions and laws should be changed to bring about what is, in their view, the proper constitutional balance. The Prime Minister set out on 2 February his vision of the new politics that is necessary to take our country forward in the new decade.

We have this Bill, put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, to add to the mix. The Government, however, are taking steps to rebuild confidence in our political and constitutional arrangements through measures in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, setting up the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, and our ongoing programme of constitutional reforms, including our proposal to offer the people an opportunity to vote on whether we should replace our present electoral system with the alternative vote.

The noble Lord’s Bill is, in all but one minor detail, identical to his Bill of the last parliamentary Session. As some will recall, on that occasion the Bill did not make it to Second Reading. However, we debated it under the cover of a Question for Short Debate tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. In that debate, the Government expressed considerable concerns about many of the measures in the Bill. Noble Lords will not be surprised to learn that the Government’s position has not changed.

Let us consider what each element of the Bill does. First, and perhaps least surprisingly given the noble Lord’s membership of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Clause 1 would withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union. The Government believe that our membership of the European Union has brought real benefits to the United Kingdom through jobs, peace and security. Through our membership, we belong to the world’s biggest trading bloc. Over half of the United Kingdom’s trade is within the EU, with an estimated 3.5 million British jobs linked to it. Our membership allows us to live, work and travel across Europe.

I wonder if the noble Lord could explain how leaving the political construct of the European Union and continuing in free trade with our friends in Europe would have any effect on jobs whatsoever.

My Lords, I do not think that it would be sensible to stray into an answer that would last for several hours. The realities of living within the European Union and the value it brings to the citizens of this country are self-evident to most of us, as are the mechanisms. This Government are proud to continue their support for the European Union and grateful for the widespread support we have in that continued membership.

The European Union also allows member states to co-operate effectively in tackling issues like organised crime and climate change, which do not stop at national borders.

Clause 2 would repeal the Human Rights Act. Again, it will come as no surprise that the Government take a strong and contrary view on this matter. The Government are proud to have introduced 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. We are clear that any attempt to reverse the incorporation of the European convention would prevent our judges applying the convention in a way that is specific to the United Kingdom. It would also stop us contributing to the development of the interpretation of the European convention in the international arena. We on these Benches are crystal clear that we 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.

Interestingly, we come next to two areas of the noble Lord’s Bill which have some commonality, of general intention at least, with government policy: Clause 3 on international treaties and Clause 4 on military action. Clause 3 is very straightforward. It states that,

“neither Her Majesty, not any Minister of the Crown on Her behalf, may enter into treaties, agreements or other binding international instruments without the prior authorisation of Parliament”.

The intention is very direct, but I think the drafting may need a little further thought if it were to achieve its aim. For example, the clause makes no mention of the process for how Parliament’s authorisation would be sought. Would the process, whatever it might be, apply equally to all treaties however significant or minor and technical, or would the process vary from case to case? Would all treaties have to be debated, for example, or would they be subject to some form of negative or affirmative procedure? Most treaties, after all, are essentially routine or specialist and do not attract much interest in Parliament.

There are around 30 treaties each year. Under the Government’s detailed proposals in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, it would be for Parliament to indicate where and when it would be effective to debate a treaty. Our reforms not only formalise the arrangements for giving Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise treaties, but allow Parliament to prioritise certain treaties for debate and voting. Rather than press ahead with the approach set out in the noble Lord’s Bill, I would urge him to support the Government’s proposals when they come before this House.

Next we come to Clause 4 on military action. The Bill proposes the prior authorisation of Parliament for declarations of war or the engagement in hostile military action by the United Kingdom. The Government too believe that, in a modern representative democracy, Parliament should be allowed a substantive vote before our Armed Forces are deployed into military action. Indeed, the Government believe that the current position, whereby the prerogative power can be exercised to deploy the Armed Forces without requiring any formal parliamentary agreement, is an outdated state of affairs in a modern democracy. While the Government do not rule out legislation in this area, we prefer the approach of taking this forward through a parliamentary resolution rather than in statute. Indeed, we were pleased that the Joint Committee on the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill supported the draft resolution as a well balanced and effective way of proceeding.

Clauses 5 to 7 deal with reform of the House of Commons, reducing the number of constituencies and sitting days, fixing the term of Parliaments and setting MPs’ salaries and system of expenses. While the Government are not against keeping the size of the Commons under review, we should remember that it has already been reduced in size since 1997; and that since 1950 the average number of electors that individual MPs represent has increased by over 25 per cent. We believe it is important to maintain the link between people and Parliament. Similarly, we welcome the discussion of wider parliamentary reforms such as the idea of a fixed parliamentary term. Such a move would, however, mark a significant shift in our constitutional and political arrangements and the consequences would need to be examined very closely. Again, the relevant clause is drafted very simply and does not allow for any number of unusual circumstances whereby it may be necessary to dissolve a Parliament before a five-year term has been completed. The Government have no plans to reduce the number of days on which the House of Commons sits, however. Indeed, public criticism is generally that Parliament should sit for more days, not fewer.

On setting salaries and allowances for Members of the House of Commons, only this week the Government took steps in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill to implement recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. This builds on the decisive action that the Government took to tackle concerns over MPs’ expenses by introducing the Parliamentary Standards Bill in the last Session.

Clause 9 requires a referendum on House of Lords reform within seven years of its passing into an Act. The Prime Minister announced on 2 February the Government’s intention to reform this House into a democratically accountable second Chamber. We published a White Paper on reform of your Lordships’ House in July 2008, which was informed by cross-party talks. There followed 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 this debate and discussion. This fully considered and comprehensive approach to the issue is one way in which the Government are working to promote and restore trust in politics and our political institutions. The Government intend to publish draft legislation setting out the framework for a fully reformed House of Lords soon.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is talking about the 2008 White Paper being widely debated. It has not even been debated in your Lordships’ House.

I note that statement. As everyone knows, it is the usual channels who determine what is debated and when. I defer to their wisdom on this matter.

My Lords, is it not true, however, that the principles set out in the White Paper have been debated ad nauseam in the House?

I am going to avoid any comments about nausea.

Much of what remains of the Bill is concerned with what it defines as local matters and the redistribution of power to local authorities. On the government Benches, however, we are proud of our achievements in devolving power to legislatures and assemblies in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. The Government believe that devolution has delivered real benefits to people across the United Kingdom, providing the right balance between responsibility, accountability and representation. Devolution in England has been significantly advanced by the introduction of the local performance framework, including local area agreements agreed between local authorities and their partners and central government. The Smarter Government White Paper has set out how we will go even further to help citizens to drive further improvement and ensure that they have the necessary tools to hold government to account.

Within England, the Government believe that a regional approach is necessary to analyse and address the causes of economic disparity, to ensure that planning and investment decisions are properly integrated and to co-ordinate issues which extend beyond the boundaries of even the largest local authority. The Government do not, however, believe in the prescriptive one-size-fits-all approach. Respecting the outcome of the November 2004 north-east referendum, they have no further plans for directly elected regional bodies. Our Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 includes provisions that set out the next stage in devolution, from all layers of government to local bodies such as neighbourhood and community groups and to individuals.

To return to the overall theme of the Bill—constitutional reform—earlier this week the Prime Minister gave a speech in which he observed that the current movement for constitutional change and new politics is of historic importance. He said:

“If we the people want a politics that is more open, more plural, more local, more democratic, and more responsive to our underlying British liberty, then we will need to have the strength to make these changes because the only way to ensure that politics serves the people’s values is to make all those who wield political power genuinely accountable to the people”.

I do not believe that the measures in this Bill would do that.

The Government wish to express their strong reservations about the noble Lord’s Constitutional Reform Bill. I urge him and all those in the House today to favour instead the reforms proposed by the Government and support the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill when it arrives shortly for consideration in this House.

My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate and I am pleased to have given the noble Lord, Lord Norton, the opportunity to rehearse his own constitutional reform Bill and to dig a few barbs into the Government’s side.

I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who obviously spent time looking at the Bill and researching the Parliament Act 1911. It was my grandfather who led the last ditches in opposing the introduction of the first Parliament Act. In fact, it was not a given that he was going to lose at that time. I have looked at the reports of those debates in some detail; and he lost in the end by 17 votes on 10 August. The reason he lost—I am pleased that there are no Bishops on their Benches at the moment—is because the Bishops, who had undertaken to abstain, in the end voted with the Liberal Government and the Bill was duly passed by 17 votes. So that was down to the Church.

I was grateful for the thoughtfulness with which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, went through my Bill. I am glad he agreed that Parliament is probably too large, both in the Commons and the Lords. I can tell him that the Lords is twice the size of the next biggest Chamber in Europe, which is the French Sénat. If we have even more Peers here, people will start asking what on earth we are going to do. However, I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for taking such a thoughtful and sometimes—not always, I understand that—supportive approach to what is contained in the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, seems to think that everything is hunky dory as it is and that there is no point in talking about constitutional reforms and referenda. He did not answer the point about the Human Rights Act, on which I asked him to enlarge, and say whether or not the Conservatives support its abolition or repeal. But there we are; we can live with his remarks quite comfortably.

I am grateful to the Minister for his thoroughness in going through the Bill. I want to remind him about one point. He said that in the provisions for a fixed five-year Parliament there was no provision for changing it. However, there are two. One, which is not yet in the Bill, it is true, would allow for prorogation during those five years should a Government lose a vote of confidence in the Chamber. Secondly, if people felt that the Government were doing so badly at any point in the five years they could, through a referendum, demand a general election.

I understand that the Bill does not meet everyone’s desires but it is useful to talk about ways in which constitutional reform can be brought forward. There is no doubt that people are dissatisfied about the way in which we are governed at the moment. As the Minister said, a large constitutional Bill is coming through. On the points he made about declarations of war and signing treaties, I shall certainly look at the measures the Government are proposing before we move to Committee stage. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.