[Continuation of Official Report from col. 486, of Wednesday, 19 January 2011.]
Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill
Committee (11th Day)(continued)
Wednesday, 19 January 2011
I think that we regard you as at best temporary occupants of the Spiritual and Temporal Benches on the opposite side.
As I look to the opposite side, I see many people who, like me, have enjoyed a career as a result of the great focus of skill that we have in the City of London. I look to those who have represented the City of London, such as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, who was for many years my Member of Parliament—I may not have agreed with his politics, but he was an extremely good constituency MP—and to the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, who was a City editor.
Without wishing to inflame the views of those behind me, I would say that the City is the City of London. We do not use the term “the City” as shorthand for Birmingham, Manchester or Truro, where I come from. The City is the City of London—the square mile—which is a source of great excellence and a centre of economic prosperity. Of course, some firms based in the City have experienced recent difficulties, but we must not forget that many sectors of activity conducted within the City of London, under the supervision of the Corporation and the guidance and framework that the City of London provides, have continued to prosper. I think here particularly of fund management and of insurance.
The City is the square mile, and we cannot see this great centre of excellence divided as part of a rounding error to make weight for adjacent constituencies with wholly different profiles. To ensure continuing effective liaison among Guildhall, the City Corporation and Parliament, it is important that the City resides within a single parliamentary constituency. That is why I support the amendment of my noble friend Lady Hayter.
I was fortunate to be offered a ministerial position in the previous Government. My formal title was Financial Services Secretary to the Treasury, but the office was commonly referred to in the press and elsewhere as “the City Minister”. I endeavoured at all times to recognise that I had a particular responsibility to speak for the activities that took place in the City. Other centres such as Edinburgh, Manchester, Norwich and Bristol also have great centres of excellence and skill in financial services, but above all else that exists in the City of London and the square mile. I urge the Minister to recognise in this amendment that the City is a very special place. Frankly, it will not be understood in the City or elsewhere if the City is just parcelled out among other constituencies.
I wish to speak to Amendment 81, on Argyll and Bute. I make no criticism of the other House when it debated this matter—far from it, as I served in that House for 30 years—but the different practices that exist in the other House are such that perhaps constituencies and the problems of them in legislation like this are not always highlighted in the way that can happen in this Chamber. Please be assured that bringing up Argyll is not a reason to delay. I just want to explain that Argyll should have the special consideration that the Minister’s former constituency is to be given because of its vastness.
I asked the Library to look at the size of other constituencies along with Argyll and Bute. Penrith and The Border was represented by David Maclean—Lord Maclean as he will now be, as he is about to come here—whom I considered a good friend regardless of the fact that we belong to different political traditions. Penrith and The Border covers 113 square miles. Anyone who has been in that part of the world will acknowledge that Penrith and The Border is a very big constituency, but in comparison Argyll and Bute is 2,751 square miles. Westmorland is 61 square miles compared with the 2,751 of Argyll and Bute.
My noble friend Lord Robertson—an Argyllshire boy, born and bred—tells me that, if you were to measure every inch of the Argyll coastline, the distance would be such that it would take you from Glasgow to New York. The islands are not small by any means. There is Mull, Jura, Islay, Colonsay, Tiree, Gigha, Coll and the beautiful and ancient Iona, where Columba brought Christianity to Scotland.
For the local Member of Parliament to travel in Argyll, from Oban he would need to travel by car 68 miles to get to Campbeltown, not by motorway but by old-fashioned, traditional roads. To get to some of the islands, the Member of Parliament would have to take a ferry to one island and, if he wished to go to another island, he would have to take another ferry. As my noble friend Lord Foulkes will know, when you get to Campbeltown and the famous Mull of Kintyre, you are to the south of Ayr and the constituency that he represented—although you are separated by a vast amount of water.
I will take the noble Lord’s word for that.
If the boundary commissioner was to look only at numbers and close proximity, there could be some strange notions because places such as Campbeltown are geographically closer to Ballycastle in Northern Ireland than to Glasgow and other parts of neighbouring constituencies.
I have been neutral for 10 years. When I took the great office of Speaker of the House of Commons, I gave up my membership of a political party, as other Speakers did. Being in a political party is an enjoyable experience. It is not only about political belief, but friendship and kindredship, going to conferences and meeting friends, who are like family. I have given that up, and I know that people would argue that I was in the Labour Party at one time—I do not deny that, and am proud of the membership that I had—but I am arguing for a constituency that, to my knowledge, has never been represented by a member of the Labour Party. In fact, one of the great offices of state—that of the Secretary of State for Scotland—was performed by Michael Noble, who was a Conservative Member of Parliament for Argyll. As a Peer, he then served this House so well after he left the House of Commons—he was a Chairman of Committees—as did the late John Mackay, who had also been the MP for Argyll.
A lovely lady whom we all got on with was Ray Michie, who served the House of Commons so well and also came to this House and served so well here. She used to regale us with the stories of how, when she had to go and see her constituents on some of these islands, she had to get on to an old trawler ship and share the accommodation with cattle.
As an aspirant politician in 1992, I had the temerity to take on Ray Michie. When I took over the candidacy, the Labour Party was fourth of four parties in the constituency. When I handed it on to my successor, we were fourth of four parties in the constituency.
I endorse all that my noble friend has said, but I could not pass up the opportunity to pay tribute to Ray Michie and, in particular, to her husband, who campaigned for her assiduously during every election by going round the constituency, knocking on doors and encouraging people not to vote for her so that he would not have to make his own tea as she was absent in London. He charmed constituents into voting for her.
I agree with the noble Lord. She was a lovely lady.
Of course, there is fantastic compensation in a Member representing a constituency like Argyll. My fondness for the music of the Highland pipes comes in part from the fact that there are so many tunes, Strathspeys, reels and marches that are named after the romantic places of Argyll and the beautiful islands there.
At the moment, the seat is represented by Alan Reid. I have not spoken to him recently, but I received a note from him in which he encouraged me to highlight my amendment. What is significant is that, when I met Alan, serving in the House of Commons as Speaker, I was a Member of Parliament in my own right. Every Thursday I headed north, as did every other Scottish Member of Parliament. Many a time we shared the rooms at Heathrow airport waiting for a plane. I used to say to the officials of the House of Commons when they annoyed me on a Thursday, “Leave me alone. The call of the north is coming upon me. I don’t want to be bothered”; the only Thursday that I did not leave London was in preparation for the Cenotaph. My duty in that travel was to attend to my constituency in Glasgow North East. I was conscious that, when I would meet Alan at the airport—we took the same plane—within half an hour of my arriving at Glasgow airport I could be at a constituency meeting, yet he had a journey of three hours to get to his constituency. After travelling from Westminster to Heathrow, he would need to fly to Glasgow and then drive for three hours more to get there. I could easily have been at a surgery or attending a parents’ night at a local school while he was still travelling.
There is unfairness in that. With a vast area of mainland, the Mull of Kintyre, Oban and all the other areas and then out to those beautiful islands that I have inadequately described, a boundary commissioner would then have to go landward, further into Scotland, to get the numbers up. That would be extremely unfair on any Member who had to take in Argyll. I know that the term “special case” has been bandied about for several days now, but Argyll should be made a special case.
I support my noble friend’s case about Argyll. I have had a home in Argyll for almost 30 years. The issues that he raises about the complexity of travel cannot be overstated. Most of the roads in Argyll and Bute are single-track roads with passing places. I used to travel up on a Thursday night with Ray Michie. As I pointed out the other night, I would be home in bed before she had even managed to get her car defrosted to do a journey of up to two and half hours to get to Oban in Argyll.
I travelled around the islands a lot, particularly as Secretary of State for Scotland. There are many islands that it would be impossible for the Member of Parliament to visit and come back from on the same day, so the MP would have to remain overnight on the islands.
The unfairness of the way in which Argyll and Bute is being treated in this legislation gives me cause for alarm. The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, represented a constituency that was a series of islands. He, more than anybody else, knows the complexity of representing islands. It is an oversight of overwhelming proportions that Argyll and Bute should not be given special status in the Bill. If a boundary commissioner were even to visit the islands and look at their complexity, the commissioner would probably be lost for a month.
The noble Baroness is perfectly correct. She reminds me about the single-track roads. The difficulty is not only in getting around the islands but in getting around the great sea lochs of Argyll, such as Loch Goil. For getting landward from these, it would be easier to go by boat because of the single-track roads.
No noble Lord should be thinking “Well, this is a nice, rural area and it will be just rural problems that have to be looked at”. There are pockets of poverty in these areas, because people cannot travel to their work. There is also a great whisky distilling industry on Islay, which gives a great deal of money to the Exchequer. The present Member of Parliament would have to take representation from the whisky industry and come to this House and the other place to highlight the difficulties that that industry has.
I thank your Lordships for listening to me. My case is not selfish but, knowing the constituency as I do, I think that some special pleading should be made.
My Lords, I speak to Amendment 85A in my name, which adds to the list of preserved constituencies the constituency of Telford, which I represented in the other place. The immediate reaction of the House, I am sure, when anyone starts his or her remarks with something like that is to say, “Oh, this is a purely parochial point, and we can think about breakfast or whatever takes our minds off the passing speech”. That is not the case. I am doing so because it illustrates at least three serious weaknesses in the Bill. I do not need to repeat that I think that this is a very bad Bill with little support in the House of Commons, despite the votes which in no way reflect what members of all parties in the House of Commons are actually saying about it.
I will admit five seconds of self-indulgence. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to put my former constituency on the Marshalled List. I would love to see it in Hansard, and so I will have to mention it: the constituency of Telford, comprising the wards of Brookside, Cuckoo Oak, Dawley Magna, Horsehay and Lightmoor, Ironbridge Gorge, Ketley and Oakengates, Lawley and Overdale, Madeley, Malinslee, The Nedge, Priorslee, St Georges, Woodside, Wrockwardine Wood and Trench. No doubt that will be interpreted as gross filibustering; I point out to the House that it took about five seconds.
On the substantive point—much encouraged as I am by the decision of the House to add one more name to the list of preserved constituencies, which gives me a bit more confidence in making my point—the Bill proposes boundary redistributions every five years, which is a bad decision in any case. It was only at the 1997 general election that at long last we got five Members of Parliament for Shropshire. There was a pretty overwhelming case for that happening over a longish period of time. We had always had four, but we were given five. That was welcomed across the political spectrum and by representative bodies across the country. If this Bill becomes an Act we will undoubtedly go back down to four constituencies.
I issue a gentle piece of advice, if not warning, to the government Front Bench. While they may find large numbers of people and Members of Parliament who are in favour of, and can argue the case for, reducing the number of MPs by maybe 50, I challenge them to find any substantial local government area, town, city or county across the United Kingdom that says, “We want fewer Members of Parliament representing us in Westminster”. They never say that, and they certainly did not say it in Shropshire. It will come as no surprise to the House that when a draft set of constituency boundaries under the Government’s proposals was published, goodness knows why, by the Electoral Reform Society—other Members may have seen this; they drew a map of how the country might look if there were 50 fewer MPs—they predictably enough gave us four MPs in Shropshire. If someone had drawn pretty randomly on a map, they probably would have made a better job of it.
I simply mention this to remind the Government of the reported reaction of local MPs and their parties. My good friend David Wright, who succeeded me as the Labour MP for Telford, said:
“The speculative proposals by the Electoral Society are nonsense–and the danger with the Government’s approach is that local communities will not be allowed to have any input in the process”.
If your Lordships are tempted to think that he would say that as a Labour MP, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury and Atcham, Daniel Kawczynski, said that it would be,
“an outrage and simply unacceptable”,
to cut the number of seats in Shropshire, and that:
“The county is actually under-represented in Parliament”.
The Conservative MP for Ludlow, Mr Philip Dunne, said that he supported a reduction in the number of MPs to make Parliament a fitter, leaner place, but added:
“I am firmly of the view that Shropshire deserves five MPs. The county’s growing population justifies five MPs”.
I do not ask the Government to tell me the result of their survey, but I put it to the Liberal Democrats that they should consult their own Members of Parliament as to whether they favour their constituencies being made bigger and, in particular, ask them whether they think that in their own county or city, or wherever the happen to live, there should be a smaller number of Members of Parliament. It would be wonderful if they did that and reported it to the House, but I predict that they will do neither. They would not like the result that they got.
The disadvantage from our point of view, having argued long and hard for five MPs and now being told that we are almost certainly going to get four, and the knowledge that right around the United Kingdom there will be people making points of this kind—“By all means get rid of a few MPs, but not in our area”—should be taken into account by the Government if they have any sense. I have always known that there is a big majority of Members of Parliament, particularly Conservative Members of Parliament, who are totally opposed to Part 1 of the Bill. I increasingly realise that there is a large number of Conservative Members of Parliament who may be in favour of Part 2 of the Bill for everyone else, but not for their own area.
I conclude with this appeal. The three exempt constituencies so far are Orkney and Shetland, which is Liberal, the Western Isles, which is SNP, and the Isle of Wight, which is Conservative, so perhaps in the mood of generosity that we have noticed once or twice in ministerial responses today the Government will take the magnanimous decision, in the interests of harmony right across the House, to exempt a constituency such as Telford, which is, of course, a Labour seat.
My Lords, I have listened to this debate with great interest. I listened with great sympathy to the paean of praise for Telford by my noble friend Lord Grocott. I happen to know Telford because, when I was Defence Procurement Minister, among the agencies for which I was responsible were the Defence Support Group and the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency. I visited them in Telford on more than one occasion. I watched them doing superb work repairing vehicles that had been repatriated from Afghanistan after having been extremely seriously damaged by improvised explosive devices. I was immensely moved—that is the only word that I can use—not only by the skill but by the extraordinary dedication of the people who were working on that job. They knew how enormously important it was for the military and they were proud to do the job, which they did with absolute perfection and dedication. If any group of men and women in this country deserves special electoral recognition, I should find it hard to deny it to the people of Telford.
Apart from that consideration, I had no idea that anybody was thinking of making a special concession to Telford. Neither was I aware of the attractions of the Scottish islands off the coast of Argyll. Having heard the idyllic descriptions of them from several quarters of the House this evening, I shall certainly make it a priority to visit that part of the country.
With the leave of the House, I will revert to the City of London and speak in support of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, who spoke with the historical erudition that the House will associate with him. I also support the equivalent amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Hayter, which would have a similar, although slightly more forceful, effect. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, made a case for the historic privileges of the City and for the City of London’s right to continue to be recognised as a constituency, or as part of a constituency with that name included in it, as has been the case since Parliament existed.
I follow my noble friends Lady Hayter and Lord Myners in making a more pragmatic case. I am in no way detracting from the historical case, but I think that there is an important practical reason for continuing to ensure that one individual—one man or woman—can be described as the Member for the City of London. So that I do not get into trouble, I had better declare an interest, although it is not really a current interest. Before I entered politics, I was engaged full-time in the City of London, latterly as a director of a merchant bank. I was a colleague of the noble Earl, Lord Home, with whom I shared an office at one time. I saw him in his place a moment ago, although he has now left the Chamber. Even after I had been elected to Parliament as a Back-Bencher, I continued my role in the City and subsequently, before entering the Government, I was on the council of Lloyd’s of London, which is one of the biggest insurance and reinsurance groups in the world. However, I have no current financial interest in the City of London. I am a liveryman of the Goldsmiths’ Company, which is one of the ancient City companies, but I do not know whether that in any way constitutes a material interest.
Having said that, I recognise that it is difficult to say anything favourable about the City at the present time. Bankers and politicians are the two most unacceptable groups of humanity at the moment in this country and, indeed, elsewhere and we just have to accept that for the time being. As I have said in the House, there is no doubt that in commercial banking, which is just one area of activity that takes place in the City, serious professional mistakes were made. An awful lot of the criticism and, indeed, vituperation has, I am afraid, been all too well deserved.
Nevertheless, the City of London is much more than commercial banking or investment banking, which is my field. The City of London involves stockbroking, securities trading, fund management, international fund management—an enormously important field of activity, as my noble friend Lord Myners said—commodities trading, insurance and reinsurance, both the company market and the Lloyd's market, and shipping. The Baltic Exchange is the world's greatest centre of trading in ship charters. I do not have the figures in my head, but we all know that the City generates an enormous proportion of gross domestic product. Some people may say that it is disproportionately great, which may be true in the sense that it would be nice to have a more balanced economy, but the solution to that is not to run down the great asset and generator of wealth that we have, it is to nurture it and ensure that we are in no way inhibiting the development of other sectors of economic activity.
The City is an enormous national asset. It is the envy of Europe that we should have achieved here in London, in this time zone, far and away the greatest financial market in the world. It is a great source of employment. The latest figure which I have, which may be out of date but it sticks in my mind, is that half a million people work in the City every day. The vast majority of them come into the City. We have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, that only about 4,000 or 5,000 people live in the City and some of them do not work there, so it is an enormous generator of wealth and employment.
I think that the House is familiar with the importance of the City to the national economy and will therefore bear with me when I say that it would be an enormous mistake to deprive the City of a representative in Parliament who is explicitly that, who is the Member of Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster, or whatever the name might happen to be. It clearly needs to be for the City and somewhere else, and Westminster seems to fit it very well, but it must be a single Member of Parliament for the City. If the City was divided between two, three or four constituencies—the neighbouring constituencies at present—that responsibility would not fall on any one man or woman. We would not have a clearly defined interlocutor for government who could say truthfully that he or she represented the City; we would not have one person to whom the City could appeal.
Before I give way to my noble friend Lord Myners, perhaps I may say that he was an enormously distinguished Minister for the City. We need a Minister for the City and it would be nice if we could again have such an able and effective Minister as my noble friend, but the Minister for the City, by definition, is not a representative of the City; he is a member of the Government constrained by collective responsibility. There may be occasions when the Government want to do something that the City does not want, or the City wants to make representations to the Government to do something else. In those situations, it is necessary that the City has a genuine representative in Parliament in the form of a man or woman who has in his or her title the phrase “Member for the City of London”.
I am grateful to my noble friend for his correct anticipation of my point. It is disappointing that we no longer have a City Minister. We no longer have in government a Minister who is seen to have specific responsibility for the City. Instead, the responsibility is divided between Mr Mark Hoban in the other place and the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon, in your Lordships' House. It is clear that there is a dispute between the two of them as to who speaks on behalf of the City; they fight for the juicier parts of the responsibility and eschew the more burdensome ones. The need to have a powerful voice for the City should be reflected in the constituency structure. Also, I urge the Government to designate one Minister as the City Minister. That has gone unnoticed, unnoted and uncommented on at a time when the City needs representation and a direct dialogue between the Government and the City.
I am so glad that I gave my noble friend the opportunity to make that point, a very important point indeed. It is an extraordinary piece of neglect on the part of the Government that they have decided not to give that explicit responsibility to a single Minister. He will acknowledge—I think he did in his intervention—that quite separately from that, it is equally important that the City has some individual to go to who actually sits in the House of Commons and has constituency responsibilities, including the City. That cannot possibly be an effective role if it is divided up. We all know that a responsibility divided is a responsibility that gets neglected. It is impossible for an individual, if he or she were just to represent one corner of the City, to go to the Government or—a point very well made by my noble friend Lady Hayter—to go to the European Commission or anybody else and say, “I am speaking on behalf of the City”. It is equally important that people in the City—it may be the different trade associations or individual firms—are able to go to someone in Parliament who understands the City, who, as a matter of professional integrity, has made sure that he or she is well briefed, even if they do not have a financial background, on the major issues in the City, whose door is open and can understand representations on City-related subjects and can take them up. That is a great strength in Parliament; that is a great strength for this absolutely key economic sector in our economy. That is an asset which would be destroyed if we do not retain the City as a specifically demarcated parliamentary responsibility. So I very much support the two amendments that have been moved tonight, and I hope the Government will take these points on board and accept those amendments, or at least give us some assurance that whatever comes out of this Bill will not enable any future Boundary Commission simply to allow the City to disappear as a parliamentary responsibility.
I rise briefly to supplement the remarks of my noble friends Lord Martin and Lord Foulkes in relation to Amendments 80 and 81 in respect of the city of Edinburgh and the area of Argyll and Bute. I speak on both from a personal viewpoint: I should declare an interest, albeit a rather removed one, in respect of Argyll and Bute. My great-grandmother came from there in the 1880s as an impoverished Gaelic speaker with no English. It is quite moving to read her Poor Law application, of which I have a copy, which she signed with just a single X—one of many thousands of islanders forced from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland by the appalling Highland clearances. An example of that is that the island of Islay, from which my great-grandmother came, once had a population of 15,000; that was in the 1830s. It is now 3,500: it dropped dramatically throughout the latter years of the 19th century, with many people going to Canada, the USA and Australia.
My wife and I regularly keep in touch with developments in our extended family through the various websites of Islay people. I think it would be wrong to say that Argyll and Bute is only about Islay—of course, that is a small part and the part I know best. But the Gaelic tradition of Islay and other islands, as well as the Western Isles, is an important consideration when it comes to parliamentary representation. Islay itself was one of the earliest islands settled. It was the home of the Lord of the Isles; it has the Gaelic Islay Columba Centre, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, specialising in Gaelic. It is important that that is recognised in terms of its representation. Argyll and Bute itself, as a constituency of about 67,000 people, would fall short of the arbitrarily chosen figure of 75,000, give or take. As my noble friend Lord Martin said, with about 2,700 square miles, it is a massive area to be covered, and that has to be given consideration in terms not only of the coastline, which was referred to, but also of the very specific interests that have to be looked after. There are special islands allowances given by the Scottish Government to reflect that.
My noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke mentioned the fact that, in terms of travelling to and from those islands, it is rarely a simple matter. Some of them, including Islay, you can fly to, but mainly you have to go there by ferry. It is very difficult to get there and back in a day; if a parliamentary representative went to one island but wanted to go to more than one, they would not be able to get back to their base on the same day. In many cases, if you go to an island on one day by ferry, you cannot get off that island for a couple of days until a ferry is going on somewhere else.
It is important to recognise that fact, and to lump Argyll and Bute together with some other part of the mainland would be unfortunate. I have to recognise—it would be unfair not to do so—that Helensburgh is part of the Argyll and Bute council area. That only came into effect some five years ago, but by and large, it is a collection of islands needing specific representation. With an electorate of 67,000, it is more than capable of qualifying for that. I hope that that will be borne in mind.
Finally, I would like to say a few words about Edinburgh. I should also declare an interest as a constituent in Edinburgh North and Leith, admirably represented—as my noble friend Lord Foulkes said—by Mr Mark Lazarowicz. The decline in the number of Edinburgh constituencies from seven to six and now to five has been against trends. We know that the most recent reduction was a reflection of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. That has some validity on its own, but it means that the city, at a time when its population is growing, has seen a reduction in its constituencies. As things stand, if the 75,000 quota were strictly adhered to, it could well lead to Edinburgh being, in effect, farmed out to bits of Lothian—East, West and Midlothian—to make up the required figure. That is why, as my noble friend Lord Foulkes said, the 10 per cent figure would be far more valuable and would help Edinburgh maintain those five constituencies.
Although I live in the area which is part of Leith, I will not tread, either literally or figuratively, on the territory of my noble friend Lord O’Neill, who knows these matters much better than I do. As an incomer, however, I say that the people of Leith have their own pride and that must be respected. Equally, the people of Edinburgh as a city have their own pride. The historic significance of Edinburgh, not only as the capital city of Scotland but also as a major tourist attraction for all sorts of reasons at all times of the year, has to be given some consideration and not treated by the blunt instrument approach, which could well see the number of constituencies reduced from five. I very much hope that will be taken into account by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, when he responds to this debate.
My Lords, I intervene when anybody mentions the word Islay, since my family comes from Islay. With a name like McEacharn, one of the biggest whiskey producers in Islay for many years, with a black labrador called Islay and with a great-grandfather who was Lord Provost of Edinburgh, I have to support the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie. But he is making a few mistakes. We, in the McEacharn family, created the Scottish Line—the only shipping line allowed to carry the Scottish flag. As things became bad, we migrated and helped the migration of people all over the world. My other great-grandfather was the first Lord Mayor of Melbourne, and one of the first Members of the Parliament there.
Therefore, what the noble Lord says now strikes a chord with me. I support him fully, but he must accept that, over time, there have been movements and migrations and changes in the economies of the various countries. If he speaks of Leith, where my family came from as well—the shipowners and others—then I congratulate him on promoting the part of Scotland that I love.
I welcome those remarks, but at some future stage it might be possible to have a discussion on the item to which I think the noble Lord was referring when he said he disagreed with me—the Highland clearances and their effects. That would be a very interesting and worthwhile debate for some future time. He says he has relatives who come from Islay, as I do. I cannot claim to trace mine back to the Lord of the Isles, but perhaps he can.
I shall make a brief contribution and acknowledge that a number of very succinct and relevant points have been made in this debate, which contrast with the way in which the argument was taken forward earlier in the week. I do not in any way disrespect the cases that have been made on behalf of specific areas of the country, because I took great pride in the constituency which I had the pleasure of representing for a number of years.
I want to make two general points about this whole group of amendments. Incidentally, I understand that the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Teverson is now in a different group, so I will not address that. First, there have been a number of occasions when those who have direct experience of urban areas have suggested that somehow rural areas do not deserve the same amount of attention and that their Members of Parliament do not have as much work. Since I was the representative of a very big, scattered rural constituency during the period of both foot-and-mouth and BSE—and I know that there other Members who had this experience—I have to say that a Member of Parliament can be on 24-hour call in a rural constituency. I do not wish to pursue that. Indeed, I know of the long distances and the difficult topography in the particular case of Argyll and Bute, which I had the pleasure of visiting when I was responsible for rural policy for my party in the other House. It is important in this House that we do not create an artificial distinction between urban and rural constituencies.
I am trying to be brief.
We welcome all contributors to this debate. Having sat through many hours of debate, I cannot remember anyone, certainly on my side of the Committee, saying that Members representing urban constituencies have a greater workload than those representing rural constituencies. We have said that they are different, but the workload is not necessarily greater. Since I represented a large rural constituency for 26 years, as I said at six o’clock in the morning the other day, I know the workload of rural constituencies. The noble Lord is falling into the trap of forgetting that many rural constituencies throughout the whole of Britain have been represented for years, and represented well, by Labour Members of Parliament.
Does the noble Lord accept that some of us would contest the contribution of my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock? The noble Lord will remember from stories told by secretaries in the House of Commons during the period when I was there that there were often conversations between Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative secretaries in which they discussed workload. It very often surfaced during the conversations that Labour Members in inner-city seats had a far bigger workload than other Members of Parliament. My noble friend obviously contests this, but he had a secretary who I am sure was involved in those conversations as, indeed, was the noble Lord’s. It was well known.
I apologise to the noble Lord because I do not understand what he is saying. All I am saying is that I think we should all accept in all parts of the House that both those representing rural constituencies and those representing urban constituencies can have an enormous workload. The way in which they respond to that workload is not something that I want to pursue.
I want to make another general point about this whole group. I am not a lawyer, but I am uneasy about too many special exemptions in any legislation. I think it is much better if you can design legislation so that you incorporate sufficient flexibility so that you do not have to have, in the words of this Bill, too many preserved constituencies. I understand the arguments—
Surely that is exactly the point about Boundary Commission hearings. You do not have to write it in the Bill because that will be allowed to come on later. I put down the amendment for the City of London because I would have expected that consultation with the Lord Mayor of London and others would allow that. That seems a much better way. Will the noble Lord accept that we are making special cases only because we know that Boundary Commission public inquiries will go so we will not be able to make them there?
The case for the City of London is not what I am referring to. I am referring to those constituencies in particular parts of the country where it is being argued that they should be preserved constituencies in their present entirety. I shall make a general point because I think it is right to do so within the context of a group of amendments. I accept that it is not easy, particularly when we have such a wide range of different circumstances, but I think it is better legislation so to craft the Bill that there is general flexibility that accommodates more special circumstances within the general range of the Bill rather than a longer and longer list of preserved constituencies. I think there is general agreement across the House on that. If we can work towards that, that is preferable and leads to better legislation. Therefore, I have listened with great interest to the special cases that have been advanced within this group, but I hope that we will find a better way of dealing with them.
First, I endorse the first of the arguments the noble Lord has made so eruditely and accept it as a good definition of what should be the form and nature of Bills, particularly constitutional Bills, and most particularly Bills that affect the way in which the people of this country are represented. That being the case, does he not agree that the system we have employed for many decades to establish constituency boundaries and ultimately, therefore, as a product, the size of the House of Commons, should be retained? While general principles that permit flexibility are set down by the legislature, the execution of those principles should be in the hands of an independent body, the Boundary Commission, subject to sensible local appeal. On that basis, we would certainly have the breadth of principle that he calls for, and I agree with, and we would also be sensitive to the realities of parliamentary representation, community integrity and the relevance of local government boundaries that are in danger of being lost if this Bill is accepted without the amendments being put by my noble friends and which are now the subject, I hope, of productive joint consideration.
I am not sure whether that was an intervention or an extension into a new speech. The noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, has agreed with the principle I have advanced, but he has taken it into a different development. I accept that, in his inimitable way, he has made a speech to develop the point I was making. I accept too that he has a perfect right to do so, but although it was very interesting, it was not exactly what I wanted to say.
I am not intervening on the noble Lord and I do not expect him to respond, but we are in the Committee stage and he has raised an issue that lies absolutely at the heart of one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Bill. I could not believe it when I saw that a paragraph in this Bill is headed “Exempt constituencies”, although the word used may be “Excepted”. Without any attempt to relate them to any other part of the Bill, two constituencies were going to be exempted just like that. As soon as I saw that, I must say that I and a number of noble friends thought, “This Bill has a very big piece of hybridity in it”. It has all the basic characteristics of a hybrid Bill because one group is being treated separately for no discernible reason. The Bill gives no explanation of why it is being made into a category.
That is a weakness in terms of how Bills ought to be drafted. Here let me say quite clearly, especially knowing that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, is to wind up the debate, that I do not object in the least to the Western Isles or to Orkney and Shetland having their own constituencies because of their characteristics. I fully support that and think it is absolutely right, but as soon as you trespass into that kind of territory when drafting legislation, it is obvious that there is not a single constituency in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland that could not make a case for their unique characteristics to be treated as a constituency in its own right and being one of the excepted cases. It is bad drafting and bad politics because it would be so easy to put down an amendment for every single constituency.
I am sure that, at his convenience, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, could draft a clause that would allow for Orkney and Shetland quite properly to be a constituency in its own right. He could write it in general terms, which is how you should write legislation, and it would probably include a number of other exempted constituencies, but at least there would be some rationale for what is being done. There is none in this paragraph as it stands. It is yet a further example, but a particularly glaring one, of why this is a bad Bill that has been badly drafted.
My Lords, that exchange at the end goes to the heart of the issue in relation to these amendments. I should indicate which amendments I understand we are considering, starting with Amendment 78B, the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, that argues for a classification of constituencies that fall in the special authorities category. I think the name of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, is on that, as is that of the noble Lord, Lord Newby. We are considering Amendment 80, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, which says that there shall be five constituencies in the city of Edinburgh. We are considering Amendment 81, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, which argues that a constituency called Argyll and Bute should be preserved. We are not, obviously, considering Amendment 82, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, which is in the group, because it is about the Isle of Wight. We are not considering Amendment 85 because it is about the Isle of Wight. We are considering Amendment 85A, which is my noble friend Lord Grocott’s amendment dealing with Telford. We are considering my noble friend Lady Hayter’s Amendment 85C, which argues that there should be a constituency that includes the whole of the City of London. We have not had argued my noble friend Lord Liddle’s amendment in relation to Cumbria. I will only deal with the amendments that I have just referred to, going through the list.
The Government have consistently argued that the core principle underpinning their proposed new rule for drawing parliamentary constituencies is equality. The Bill is designed, within a very narrow tolerance, to create equal-sized seats. As we have said repeatedly, we on this side of the House agree with the principle of creating more equal-sized seats but, as we have consistently pointed out, the Bill sets out this objective in a clumsy and unfair fashion. As we have heard, and will continue to hear, it aims to equalise seats on the basis of an unequal electoral register and it aims to do so in a way that will override all other factors such as geography, community and history, which ought to be taken into account in some way when designing patterns of representation. Yet, a curiosity about the Bill is that while the principle of numerical equalisation is deemed to be the trump card in almost all cases, there are some places and some circumstances where the iron law of uniform statistics has been disregarded.
For example, a new rule on the maximum territorial extent of a constituency has been invented, accompanied by a “get out of jail” free clause for at least one Scottish Highland seat from the requirement to adhere to the electoral quota. Alongside that, in new paragraph 6 in Clause 11 is a further exemption from the electoral quota, which we have heard a lot about, for two Scottish island seats—Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles are to be preserved, as it were, in aspic. Despite having substantially fewer voters than the proposed new quota of 75,000—in the case of Orkney and Shetland I think the electorate is around 37,000 and in the Western Isles it is just 21,000—these constituencies are deemed to warrant a special status in the Bill. I completely agree with my noble friend Lord Grocott that it is obviously sensible—but I also strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that where you are dealing with any public Bill, but most especially when you are dealing with a constitutional Bill, there must be some principle involved. What is the principle involved such that these two should be preserved constituencies? Is it that they are island constituencies? That cannot be the Government’s principle, because the Government explicitly rejected exemptions for both Anglesey and the Isle of Wight. Is it unique geographical circumstances? It cannot be, because there are more islands that are populated in Argyll and Bute than there are in either the Western Isles or Orkney and Shetland. Is it because of the particular historical status of these two constituencies? It cannot be, because the City of London has been mentioned in electoral legislation for more than 100 years and the Western Isles was first mentioned in electoral legislation only 70 years ago.
Without a principle, it is very difficult to understand why special favours have been granted. I do not know whether noble Lords remember—many noble Lords were not in the House when it happened—but at the very beginning of this process I admitted to the House that this is a hybrid Bill because two constituencies were being taken out, not on the basis of principle, but on the basis that they were being treated differently from the rest of the country. I do not want to go over the argument of whether it is hybrid. My own view remains that it is hybrid and that it is absolutely clear that hybridity can come not just from property interests, but from interests such as a desire to live in a particular place, as occurred in the previous case concerning Gatwick Airport. Put all that to one side. The consequence of the Government resisting the hybridity Motion and the consequence of there being no principle underlying these two exceptions mean that we are now in the position that we are in.
Distinguished Members of this House, such as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, make persuasive arguments for special treatment for other places. The argument that he makes, that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, makes for the capital city of Scotland or that the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, makes are all incredibly persuasive. With respect to my noble friend Lord Grocott, I am not sure that the argument for Telford was quite as strong as the others, but those ones were very persuasive and that is because there is no principle that one can legitimately identify. There have been a lot of attempts to identify a principle. I have distilled the two that have been given so far by Mr Mark Harper in the other place and by Mr Nicholas Clegg and I understand them to be island communities, geography and history. They just do not stack up as an explanation.
I understand the foundation of the Bill to be a pamphlet written by Mr Andrew Tyrie, Conservative Member of Parliament, who is described as the brains behind the boundary review policy. In his pamphlet, Pruning the Politicians, Mr Tyrie wrote that special considerations,
“should be abolished … The principle of equal representation is too important to be compromised by get-outs”.
Not for the first time, I disagree strongly with Mr Tyrie. Although we should create more equal-sized seats, we should do so in a way that, in special cases, continues to allow factors other than pure statistics to influence the shape of constituencies. The best solution would be for the Government to bring forward the proposal that some independent body identify a very small number of exceptions to preserve the principle of equality, rather than the situation we have at the moment, where two political parties have come together and agreed these two exceptions.
I do not know the basis on which these two exceptions were agreed. Were they agreed in the coalition agreement talks? Were they agreed separately? What was the basis on which the agreement was reached? I think that one is a Scottish National Party seat and one a Liberal Democrat seat. I think that the exception in relation to size particularly helps two Liberal Democrat seats in the north of Scotland, so it would appear that two of the exceptions help the Liberal Democrats.
There is a problem with that. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, in all his dealings in relation to all of this, is only motivated by a proper constitutional settlement. However, if you have two political parties in a five-day haggle reaching agreement on exceptions and it is impossible to identify any intellectual basis upon which exceptions are to be agreed to, naturally, in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, people will press the Minister for an explanation and it is on the basis of the quality of that explanation that people outside will judge whether or not those exceptions are justified. If the Government are serious about this boundary review—and by serious, I mean not just that they want to get it through, but they want it to last as a constitutional settlement—they should be thinking about legitimacy. The idea that exceptions can be simply plucked out of the air with no principle and no justification seriously undermines the durability of this settlement.
I will be listening very closely to what the Minister says was the basis upon which these two exceptions were chosen. Also, if it is geography and history that are the two criteria, what about the geography of Argyll and Bute? Let us remember that there are parts of that constituency which could not be reached except by trawler. My noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke said yesterday that there were some parts of the constituency that the late Ray Michie could only visit one day in a year. If history is a criterion, I thought that the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, was a pretty strong case. It is a pretty bad idea to spread the City of London over three constituencies; it should be kept in one. That sounds perfectly sensible to me; it is the sort of argument that I would have thought would appeal to a Boundary Commission and would not offend against the numerical quota that has been put into the Bill.
This sequence of amendments is obviously important in relation to the individual places to which they refer, but they demonstrate absolutely the utter unthought-out nature of the Bill and demonstrate that this is not a valid piece of constitutional change; it is a political horse-trade which is difficult to defend on constitutional terms. That does not mean that this side of the House does not want more equal constituencies—we do—but we want it done in a durable way and we think that this sequence of amendments is important and requires answer.
I shall deal, finally, with the amendment of my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, which says that there should be five constituencies in Edinburgh. I declare an interest—I was born and brought up in Edinburgh. I can think of no place that is more deserving of five constituencies, whatever the population of Edinburgh, than Edinburgh, so I particularly support that amendment.
Does my noble friend agree that once again, as we consider these amendments, we see that the Bill is strategically flawed? The British public, the electorate of the whole United Kingdom, have not seen the case for the change, let alone the details proposed for the change. In a democracy that was really sound, there would be an opportunity for an expression of opinion by the electorate of the whole United Kingdom on what was being proposed. If we are taking upon ourselves the responsibility for making the change, it is more important than ever that all the rationale for what is being done is absolutely explicable and spelled out. What I fear is that, at a time when public confidence in the political system is at a pretty low ebb, this will again be seen as arrogance on the part of a closed political community in Westminster.
I agree with every word of that. The detailed point is that, if you were minded to have exceptions, surely the starting point would have been a public consultation in which people who thought that their area was entitled to special favours could have put their arguments, which could then at least have been seen by the public. However, because this Bill has had no public consultation and no pre-legislative scrutiny, that opportunity has not existed.
My Lords, I come now to address the series of amendments that have been spoken to or moved. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, about which amendments we are dealing with, except to say that the initial amendment, which was moved by my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, was Amendment 66C. Linked with that was the amendment that relates to the exceptions or the preserved constituencies, to which the noble and learned Lord devoted most of his remarks. However, we are on common ground as to which amendments we are discussing.
On numerous occasions during the Committee stage of this Bill, I have spoken about the principles behind the Government’s approach and our belief in equal votes—one vote, one value. As my noble friend Lord Tyler indicated, that is the principle and it is important that the exceptions to it are limited. I shall therefore deal with the exceptions first. They are the constituencies of Orkney and Shetland and what used to be referred to as the Western Isles—I am not a Gaelic speaker and I do not want to disgrace the Gaelic language by even attempting the Gaelic name.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, echoed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, again raised the question of hybridity. Noble Lords who were present at the outset of these debates, before Second Reading, will recall that that matter was thoroughly debated in this House. The Clerks gave the advice that the Bill was not hybrid and the House had its say on the matter, rejecting the argument, however eloquently and persuasively put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that the Bill was hybrid.
The noble and learned Lord asked why the Bill makes the exceptions of the two preserved constituencies. For anyone who has looked at a map, the reason is probably blindingly obvious. The constituencies are at the most extreme parts of our United Kingdom. If anyone has any doubt, let me say that Orkney and Shetland are at the very top and go far north; they are not in a box somewhere in the Moray Firth—my former constituents used to be very irritated when it looked as though the distance between Shetland and Aberdeen was very small. Indeed, the fact that they are so far away is a factor. We are talking not just about geography but about extreme geography, where the dispersed island groups cannot readily be combined with the mainland. It takes 12 hours by ferry from Lerwick in Shetland to Aberdeen on the Scottish mainland. By any stretch of the imagination, that situation is extreme.
We could contrast that with other islands that are already combined with mainland constituencies. Argyll and Bute is one example; it comprises a substantial mainland area together with islands. The constituency of St Ives, which is represented by my honourable friend Mr Andrew George, includes the Scilly Isles. The constituency of, I think, Cunninghame North, which includes Arran and, I suspect, the Cumbraes, is represented by—I am sorry, I cannot remember.
I have no reason to doubt that. These are examples of island communities which are linked to and can readily be combined with the mainland.
We took extreme geographical circumstances into account. If the preserved constituencies were linked and combined with part of the mainland, their surface area would almost inevitably be larger than that of the largest current constituency. In the course of our debates in Committee, concerns have been expressed by many noble Lords about the distances which people have to travel. I recall in one debate—I cannot remember which of the many—someone talking about the possibility of having to drive for two-and-a-half hours to get to a place. In Orkney and Shetland, it can require two-and-a-half hours even to get to one part of Orkney, let alone travel from Orkney to Shetland—you can travel from Orkney to Shetland by plane, but you then have to go very much further again.
The Minister is giving us not a principle but a geographical description, and saying that those places are geographically different. But so is Argyll; so are many of the other examples given. So I have to ask the Minister again: what is the principle by which these places are being distinguished from the other examples being given? The distances are similar to those in Argyll; the size of Argyll is some 2,000 square miles.
I rather suspect that the noble Lord was not listening as attentively as he would normally do, because I said that those constituencies had been excepted because they were dispersed island groups which could not readily be combined with the mainland. By definition, Argyll and Bute is already a set of islands which has been readily combined with the mainland and which over many decades has been represented by very distinguished, hard working Members of Parliament—I think back to Michael Noble and my late noble friend Lady Michie of Gallanach. It is now represented my colleague and honourable friend Mr Alan Reid. The two preserved constituencies are not readily combined with the mainland. If they were to be so combined, they would be part of constituencies whose surface area would be larger than the largest constituency. Let us remember, when we talk about surface area, we are not talking about areas of sea as well, which would not be counted into surface area. The most recent judgment of the Boundary Commission was that the maximum size of a constituency should be what was manageable for constituents and MPs. That is why we brought forward the other rule, rule 4, which sets a physical, geographical size limit, just by sheer reference to manageability. It perhaps cannot stand as a legal principle, but trying to make sure that you do not go beyond a certain extreme of manageability is surely in the interests both of the Member, of whichever party, and the electors, who have to make contact with their Member of Parliament.
I think that it was being implied by the noble and learned Lord that there is some political motivation behind the proposal. As I have said, it is obvious from the extreme geographical position of the two constituencies why they have been exempted. Although Orkney and Shetland has been represented by a Liberal or a Liberal Democrat for the past 61 years, I am sure that the noble and learned Lord will acknowledge that, until 1997, the Western Isles had a Labour Member of Parliament—indeed, until 1970, when the late Donald Stewart won the Western Isles, it had been represented by the Labour Party from the 1930s. I am sure that his colleagues in the Labour Party in the Western Isles have no intention of giving up their aspirations for that seat. Our approach is in no way partisan; it is a recognition of geography.
I was not in the front line, but I have no recollection of these specific seats ever being mentioned in the coalition talks during the famous five days in May. If they were mentioned, they were not mentioned in my hearing in any of those negotiations. I have no reason to believe that they were mentioned. They are self-evidently at the extreme end of geographical considerations.
It was not the 1986 legislation. Let me put it on the record that Orkney and Shetland is under present legislation outwith the purview of the Boundary Commission for Scotland. Orkney and Shetland is preserved as a Westminster constituency by virtue of the Scotland Act 1998, which was passed by the previous Labour Government. It was outstandingly passed as it was a very good piece of work. It was whipped through by the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy. It gives the constituency of Orkney and Shetland preserved status. It was not done by this party but by a Labour Government. I congratulate them on it. It seemed logical that the Western Isles should be treated in a similar way in this Bill.
The Minister has forced me to break my self-denying ordinance about intervening on Ministers. However, he will recall that in a previous discussion about Orkney and Shetland both getting MSP seats he said that one day he would give us details of the deal he struck with the late Donald Dewar to get that. Who did he do this deal with to get preserved constituency status?
I did not do a deal with anyone with regard to this. I have just paid tribute to the party opposite which recognised the importance of Orkney and Shetland by giving them separate seats in the Scottish Parliament and preserving the Orkney and Shetland Westminster seat. I hope that noble Lords will think that it is not unreasonable that, given the similar circumstances of the Western Isles, they should be included.
There were some important contributions in this debate about the City of London. The amendment was spoken to by my noble friends Lord Brooke and Lord Jenkin, the noble Lords, Lord Myners and Lord Davies of Stamford, and, very persuasively, by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town. I think the important role that the City of London has in the history of this nation is well recognised across the Committee, as is the important financial contribution that the City makes.
As I have indicated, the primary concern of the Bill is to create more equal-sized constituencies, and that is best achieved by keeping exceptions to the minimum. As a result, the Government do not believe that the City of London should appear as an exception. While it is not for me to say what the Boundary Commission for England will do, I hope it might reassure noble Lords to know that the 25 wards in the City of London have fewer than 7,000 electors, which is smaller than some individual wards elsewhere in the country. I therefore suspect that it is unlikely that the City will be split between two constituencies. This is a very obvious case where the rules, particularly rule 5 about where special local ties would be broken by changes in constituencies, would be highly relevant in addressing the Boundary Commission.
The question was raised with regard to the historic nature of the City. The position, as I understand it, is that while Magna Carta protects certain privileges of the City of London, paragraph 628 of volume 12(1) of Halsbury’s Laws of England lists customs of the City that have been certified by the Recorder and recognised by the courts, but does not include anything on Parliament or constituencies. However, there is considerable history here and I would want to do better justice to this issue. I hope that I shall be able to write to the noble Baroness who raised this matter, addressing the point that she made concerning the history of the City as a parliamentary constituency, and I shall seek to do so before Report. As for the name of the constituency, again, that should be a matter for the Boundary Commission. However, I have no doubt that those who feel strongly about any proposal from the commission that affects the City of London will be able to make representations to it. I certainly recognise the importance of the name of the City of London, and we believe that this strikes the best balance between respecting the history of the nation’s communities, including the City of London, and providing equal weight to the votes of those who live in all our communities.
I turn to the question of Edinburgh—
No, I think that we have heard quite a bit on this matter. I turn now to the other capital city, Edinburgh, which was referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Watson of Invergowrie, and indeed, with due deference to his native home, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, declared his interest as a supporter of Heart of Midlothian Football Club—perhaps he just took it that it is a well known fact. If the additional five constituencies all contained in the Edinburgh council area were to be excepted, which would be the consequence of the amendment, from the 5 per cent above or below the rule, they would be projected to diverge on average from the electoral quota by just over 12,300 electors—that is, just over 16 per cent. Again, I do not think that that ties in with the concept of fairness and equal votes, as we believe that constituencies should be broadly of equal size.
I do not believe that there are the geographical challenges that we find in the two constituencies that have been preserved. I know Edinburgh reasonably well and I do not think that there are geographical challenges there that would make it particularly difficult for MPs to see their constituents or for constituents to see their MPs. Nor, indeed, is this a case in which there is an issue of sparsity of population. The noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, mentioned that, for the Boundary Commission, the Edinburgh East constituency had sometimes included and sometimes excluded Musselburgh, which I believe lies administratively in the county of East Lothian. Therefore, Edinburgh has expanded its boundaries in the past for parliamentary purposes.
Ultimately, it will be for the independent Boundary Commission to take account of all the factors. I say this only because I think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, said that in every circumstance he would want Edinburgh to have five seats. If Edinburgh, in order to thrive and flourish, as we would all wish to see, merited six seats, I am not sure why in statute we should restrict the number to five. There is a problem in going down that road. However, I have no doubt that the Boundary Commission will be able to secure equality of votes between constituencies within the 5 per cent margin and that Edinburgh’s standing as Scotland’s capital city will in no way be impaired.
I turn to the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, and supported by others, including the noble Lord, Lord Watson, on Argyll and Bute. As I have already indicated, Argyll and Bute already combines islands and the mainland, which I think distinguishes it from the two that are reserved and which, as I have already indicated, we do not believe could incorporate part of the mainland very readily. Argyll and Bute is already very close to the range that will be required under the Bill. Although I recognise noble Lords’ concern about large areas, I have already referred to the fact that there are rules in the Bill that would ensure that the size did not become unmanageable. It is not just at 13,000 but at between 12,000 and 13,000 square kilometres that there is a sliding scale.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, mentioned Helensburgh, which is currently part of the Argyll and Bute constituency. I believe that in parliamentary terms it is a recent addition, although in local government terms it has been part of the Argyll and Bute council area for some time. Helensburgh, of course, is historically part of the ancient county of Dunbartonshire, so its boundaries have already changed and it is now familiar as part of Argyll and Bute. I was a sufficiently political anorak in my youth that I can remember when Argyll and Bute did not have Bute and that Bute was part of a north Ayrshire and Bute constituency, so Bute has migrated backwards and forwards. In areas such as these, there has been no fixed boundary. Therefore, given the safeguards to prevent its size becoming too great, and the fact that the islands are already incorporated in the mainland, it would not qualify for a preserved constituency in the same way as the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland do.
As to the island area of Telford being surrounded by the rest of Shropshire—
As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, says, the Labour island. He referred to this because it gave him an opportunity to make some important points, but he will readily recognise the arguments for preservation. I do not think that even he would start to claim that it has a special extreme geographical situation. I understand what he is saying, but a Boundary Commission will be able to devise and recommend seats within the parameters of size defined in the Bill that give proper and fair representation and a fair vote and fair value to the people of Shropshire, including the people of Telford.
In any of these matters, we should not lose sight of the fact that while, yes, primacy is given in the legislation to securing fair votes and fair values as best we can, the Boundary Commission still may—I acknowledge that the numbers within the margins take primacy—take into account, to such extent as it thinks fit, special geographical considerations, including the particular size, shape and accessibility of a constituency; local government boundaries as they existed at recent ordinary council election days; and any local ties that would be broken by changes in the constituencies. These are important factors, which will help to address a number of the concerns that have been raised not only in this debate but in other parts of the United Kingdom.
In these circumstances, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment. We are certainly conscious of the concerns expressed and we recognise the strength of feeling, but we are confident that the variation of up to 10 per cent between the biggest and smallest constituencies will lead to a reasonable balance between equal value votes and have proper regard to locally meaningful boundaries.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords and Baronesses who have spoken in this vigorous debate, especially my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding. I admire the spirit of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, even if I cannot support the precise wording of her amendment because it seeks, beyond peradventure, to avoid the hybridity issue. I appreciated the quotation given by my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding—as, no doubt, did the Opposition—of the resonant 1944 voice of the Home Secretary, Mr Herbert Morrison, who is of course the grandfather of the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Myners, for his kind words.
I have heard what my noble and learned friend the Minister said, and I thank him for what he said about the Magna Carta, about which he offered to write to both me and the noble Baroness. I understand the Government’s overall position, as he has indicated it, but before I contemplate whether to beg leave to withdraw the amendment, I hope that the Minister will agree to a meeting with us to discuss this issue before Report, based on the strength of the case presented on all sides of the debate. I remind him quietly that at the time of the 1948 Act, the Governor of the Bank of England, the chairman of Lloyd’s insurance and, I think, the chairman of the Stock Exchange accompanied the Lord Mayor of London to the Bar of the other place to present the strength of the City’s case. If my noble and learned friend the Minister nods his head to my request for a meeting in such a way that it can been seen by the Hansard writer, I shall—
Perhaps I should put this beyond peradventure in case the Hansard writer does not see my head. I am sure that I would be willing to meet and I am sure that the representations made by my noble friend will be every bit as powerful as those that were made by the various dignitaries to whom he referred.
Amendment 66C withdrawn.
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resume. We had, as everyone in the Chamber knows, 21 hours of debate on this issue on Monday and Tuesday, stopping at 1 pm. We then had another few hours on Tuesday evening and, through Wednesday night into Thursday morning in this sitting, we have now had between seven and eight hours on the Bill. Between now and the date by which the Government have said that the Bill has to be out of Parliament, there are nine legislating days in the Lords. The Bill has been listed for Monday and Wednesday of next week for the Committee stage, making a total of 13 days in Committee.
On the basis that the Report stage takes between a third and half of the time taken in Committee, there are to be between four and six Report days. On the basis that Third Reading takes between one and three days and, because this is an important constitutional Bill, there are the usual gaps between the two stages yet to come—Committee and Report, and Report and Third Reading—there is absolutely no prospect that this Bill will come out of the House on 16 February.
We have offered for the Bill to be split to allow the referendum to go ahead on 5 May, which the Government have said is their desire. We have no desire to stop the referendum. That offer has been rejected by all, up to and including the Prime Minister of this country, and therefore some other solution is required. It is a solution that needs to be negotiated between the parties. The sooner serious negotiations start, the better. I make it clear on behalf of the Labour Party and the Opposition that we are keen to engage in serious negotiations.
This process of going deep into the night should be brought to an end. As I look across the Chamber, I must say, with the greatest respect, that half the people on this side and half the people on the other side are half asleep; probably half the people who are supposed to be negotiating are getting more and more exhausted. There should be an adjournment and cool heads should start to kick in. The way in which the House of Lords always pulls back from the brink is by negotiation. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, urged earlier in the day, as the noble Lord, Lord Low, urged during the 21-hour session and again today, and as is the view of many on all sides of the House, we should stop what has been described as legislating until we drop and show some leadership by starting to negotiate. For all those reasons, I urge the House to resume.
I support that strongly. I have watched with growing concern the way in which this has been handled by the Government. It is mind-blowing that the Government, and the two political parties that make up the Government, are prepared to do so much damage to the reputation of the House of Lords.
I ask Members to think about this. They know, I know and everyone in this House knows that this is an important constitutional Bill. They also know, as was pointed out a number of times in the debate, including in the debate on the amendment that I moved a couple of days ago, that it is extremely unusual—in fact, I know of no other case of this in a modern parliamentary democracy—for two parties forming a Government to force a decision on the number of seats in the House of Commons where there is neither all-party agreement nor an independent assessment of the needs of Parliament. The Government are not just breaking the rules of normal constitutional procedures; they are breaking the rules of what is normally done in modern democracies. That is why, as I pointed out a few days ago, we look very carefully when we conduct investigations on elections overseas at how those Parliaments are constructed. If they are constructed by one or more political parties trying to dominate the others, they invariably run into trouble and damage the reputation of the whole country.
I say again to noble Lords that there have been plenty of opportunities for serious negotiation. A number of people on this side of the House have made it clear that there is a willingness to accept the referendum; some people are for the alternative vote and some people are against it. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, and I, as well as a number of others, have made the point that we are willing to negotiate quite happily on the number of seats, because we take the view that the House of Commons is too large, just as the House of Lords is too large. But what you cannot do, should not do and should not try to do is to force a position on the constitution with far too little thought and no agreement between the political parties and organisations that are part of it.
My Lords, I have found that the last few amendments that we have discussed in this House have been dealt with remarkably constructively. However, while on the whole I am a great admirer of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, I think that his intervention at this point is starting to pull things apart again. I ask noble Lords to think again before they intervene at this point.
I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I am quite happy to accept what he is advising me to do. I simply say, as I said a few moments ago, that the House is doing itself no favours and the Government are doing themselves no favours by not negotiating.
It seems, on the basis of the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, that the style of what has been happening contradicts what I heard the Prime Minister say some hours ago. I thought that I heard him say that the beauty of the coalition was that it was not ideological and that it could do things differently. That was said not in the context of this Bill, by the way; it was in the context of another part of government policy. However, the impression that I get—the noble Lord’s intervention has justified this—is that the coalition has locked in the two parties. I am not party to any discussions, but it seems that even in the face of the evidence neither of them can move, because they are locked in to what they decided.
Noble Lords can deny it all they like. I am just giving my view. I am entitled to my view. I am just saying that that is the way it appears. We do not have the flexibility because of the way in which the coalition was put together. I am not complaining about that. In five days, the parties had very little choice and the numbers did not make any other coalition viable. I have said that before; I do not argue about it. But the reality now is that the position is more locked than it would have been if we had had single-party government. That is the impression that I get. We have to be able to free the situation up. What my noble and learned friend said is the reality.
As for the last few amendments, I have sat through the lot. I have made only two brief interventions—they have not been speeches—but I am wondering why. If we had discussed that last group of amendments in Monday’s style, we would have decoupled them all. I kept saying to myself, “Why are we not decoupling these? Why are we doing it all sweet and light?”. But it made sense to do that. That is what has happened in the last few hours.
My noble and learned friend has made the point that it is time to take a break; it is time to take a breather. After that, let us continue in the way that we have been in the last few hours, rather than going back to the way we did it on Monday. The choice is there for everybody. In the past 48 hours, the amendments have not been loaded up on the Marshalled List. No one has gone away and shovelled a barrow-load of amendments on. That could easily have happened, but it did not. There is a great deal of material that could be amended, particularly, I think, in Schedules 8 to 10 on the voting system, which we have not dealt with yet; we have dealt only with Schedule 1. That has not been done. I am saying that there ought to be a better way of doing this than the one that we are being driven towards. My noble and learned friend has made a very good suggestion and it would be wise for everybody to accept it.
Amendments 67 to 67B not moved.
67C: Clause 11, page 9, leave out lines 29 and 30 and insert—
“( ) Each constituency shall be wholly in one of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or England together with the home and overseas dependent territories.”
It is a great privilege to speak to such a full House at such a time and to move this amendment—which would leave out lines 29 and 30 on page 9. It is in order to make the purpose of the amendment clear, and important to look at the lines that are deleted. Those lines say:
“Each constituency shall be wholly in one of the four parts of the United Kingdom”;
and they then describe the four parts:
“England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland”.
Under the present provisions, each constituency would have to be in one of the four countries that currently comprise the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
However, under the Crown there are more dependent territories than the four countries of the United Kingdom. I am talking not about independent countries but about Crown dependencies—home and overseas dependencies, and overseas and home territories. I am suggesting that each constituency should be wholly in one of Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland, so that they should each comprise a whole number of constituencies, while the fourth area that would comprise a whole number of constituencies would be,
“England together with the home and overseas dependent territories”.
This is a radical change from the current position, as noble Lords will immediately recognise, with three particular motivations or inspirations behind it.
The first inspiration is the former Member for Thurrock in the other place, Andrew Mackinlay. Noble Lords who knew Andrew, who served in the other place or who heard him speak will have heard him argue again and again that the home and overseas dependent territories should be considered and should be involved in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. He argued that very strongly and very forcefully. He raised it with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association on a number of occasions. He went a little further and said that the whole of Ireland should be reincorporated into the United Kingdom, which was a step too far in many ways. However, he is the first inspiration.
The second inspiration behind it is the example of Gibraltar. Gibraltar is already included with part of the United Kingdom in a constituency for the European Parliament, so that the south-west of England and Gibraltar together form a constituency. Gibraltarians vote along with people of Devon and Cornwall and other parts of the south-west in one constituency to choose a Member for the European Parliament.
The third inspiration behind it is from France, a country that I am getting to know quite well. As the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, will know—I see him regularly either on his way over there or on his way back—and as others will know, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who is a Minister for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, France has two types of overseas territories—TOMs and DOMs: territoires d'outre-mer en France and départements d’outre-mer. The territoires d’outre-mer are like our dependent territories, but départements d’outre-mer are integral parts of Metropolitan France. They vote in the parliamentary elections, they have representatives in the assembly in Paris and they have representatives in the senate in Paris as well.
We should look at the example of départements d’outre-mer and consider the possibility of incorporating, first of all, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, giving them the opportunity to vote in our elections and incorporating them into some of the constituencies here. Let them come to Westminster, argue their case and put their arguments before Parliament. Against that proposal, the Minister and others might argue that these territories have had what they would describe as independence for many years. However, their constitutional situation is very similar now to the situation in Scotland, in particular, but also in Northern Ireland and, to a lesser extent, in Wales, in that they have control over their own domestic affairs. However, in foreign affairs, defence and international treaties, the United Kingdom still has responsibility for the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
The other territories that I am suggesting could be incorporated are the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat and the others—I may have missed out one or two. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, will know only too well the problems that have currently arisen, for example, in the Turks and Caicos Islands, where we now have direct control through the Governor of the Turks and Caicos Islands because of difficulties that have occurred there. There is a strong argument that if they were involved in decisions and discussions here in Westminster, their home arrangements would be less likely to get into difficulties. They could get help from our legal system and financial structures and a number of other areas by incorporating them like, as I say, the DOMs are incorporated in the French state.
As I say, this is a radical proposal. I am not expecting the Minister to agree to it straight away; it needs discussion over a period of time.
I have been trying to follow my noble friend’s argument and I think that I understand what he is saying, but perhaps he could explain something to me. My geography may be fading at this time of night, but how could a constituency in Northern Ireland go outside the boundaries of Northern Ireland? My geography is not up to answering that question.
I do not think that the question arises. I am not suggesting that a constituency in Northern Ireland should go outwith Northern Ireland. I am suggesting that the Isle of Man could be incorporated in a constituency either on its own or together with part of the mainland of England, and it would then have a representative in the United Kingdom Parliament. There is an argument for the Isle of Man to be a constituency on its own, as we have just discussed for the Isle of Wight, or for the Channel Islands to be a constituency on its own, or Orkney and Shetland. I am suggesting that they should be considered by the English Boundary Commission so that Scottish constituencies are dealt with by the Scottish Boundary Commission, and the Welsh and Northern Irish by their Boundary Commissions. The English Boundary Commission should look at the overseas and home dependent territories.
I understand what my noble friend is saying but I am reading his amendment and trying to understand what the argument is. The amendment says:
“Each constituency shall be wholly in one of”—
and includes Northern Ireland. I do not see how a constituency could be other than within Northern Ireland.
I think that my noble friend is missing out on the commas. Each constituency has to be in Scotland wholly, Wales wholly, Northern Ireland wholly and either in England wholly or in England together with one or more of the home and overseas dependent territories. Those territories would be allied only to English constituencies, not to Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish constituencies. I checked all the punctuation with the office to try to make it clear that that is how the amendment would be interpreted. My noble friend Lady Ramsay, who has long experience in the Foreign Office one way or another, has said from a sedentary position, although she might like to say it from a standing position—
It is very clear what the amendment is trying to do. It is trying to incorporate the idea, which the French have employed for a long time, that their overseas and dependent territories can be in some cases considered part of mainland France. My noble friend is trying to extend that principle to our similar dependent territories, but it should be extended only into England and not into the others. It is quite clear.
Before my noble friend leaves this point, is it not the case that it would not be impossible—unless this amendment was passed—for Argyll and Bute to be linked to a constituency in Northern Ireland? After all, until fairly recently there was a short ferry service between Argyll and the Mull of Kintyre and the north of Ireland. Therefore, this is not beyond the bounds of possibility. The draconian powers with which the Boundary Commission will be endowed would enable it to play ducks and drakes with all parts of these islands. While it might be mutually beneficial for Scotland and Northern Ireland and a number of areas to get closer, it is not necessary for them to enjoy the same parliamentary constituencies. Without this amendment, we might well have that.
I am grateful to my noble friend. I know a lot about the Ballycastle to Campbeltown ferry, which my former honourable friend Brian Wilson tried to reinstate. When the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell of Coatdyke, was Secretary of State and I was Minister of State at the Scotland Office, we also tried to reinstate it, with some difficulty.
The noble Lord will be aware that, within the European constituencies, Gibraltar is within the south-west of England. So there is, in a strange way, some sort of precedent for the radical, reforming idea that he wants the beginnings of a debate on. I remain sceptical, however. Has he spoken to the Gibraltarians, for example, about whether they want representation in this Parliament?
I have spoken extensively with people from the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and most of the dependent territories about a number of issues, including this one, over a long period. I must say that I am not the most popular person in some of our dependent territories. I would not claim that I was, but I wanted this matter to be raised because it is important. There are precedents. However, I do not want to go on too long. I have argued the case—
I know that my noble friend always takes a very responsible view of the implications of any legislative proposals for the public purse, and he will be aware that, very virtuously, it is part of the Government’s intention to reduce the cost of politics. Has he conferred with the IPSA about the implications of his proposals, and can he give the House an estimate of what might happen to its budget?
Anything that causes problems for the IPSA seems like a good idea to me; my former honourable and right honourable friends down the Corridor are plagued by it at the moment. However, there are a lot of possibilities for revenue to come in, particularly from islands such as the Cayman Islands if we were to do this, which would far outweigh the IPSA costs.
I do not often disagree with my noble friend, but I am always sceptical when he advises me about football, and I am similarly sceptical about these matters. The point that my noble friend Lord Dubs makes about the possibility of part of Northern Ireland being included in a Scottish constituency would be quite apposite for Rathlin Island, which is physically closer to Scotland than it is to Northern Ireland. Is my noble friend aware that the Italian Senate has provision for expatriates? Indeed, there is an Italian Senator who actually comes from Melbourne and has to commute to Rome to sit in the Italian Senate. We might consider that when we look at the form of the House of Lords.
That is a very interesting argument. Of course, in the European Union it is perfectly open for us to stand for constituencies in any country. In fact, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, stood for an Italian constituency. He did not do very well. I think the fact that he could not speak a word of Italian did not help.
How do you know?
Well, I have parlayed with him about it.
I wanted to raise this matter, but it has taken a lot longer to move the amendment because of the interventions. I am deeply worried about the health of some Liberal Members, who get so agitated when I and others go on for too long. I do not want to be responsible for the death or even the grave illness of any of the Liberal Members, who clearly—
I am not quite sure that I fully understand the proposition. Should representatives from the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man sit in the UK Parliament and vote on UK tax matters, for example? Does my noble friend seriously think that they would be inclined to do that? We might want some reciprocity.
Yes, as my noble friend Lord Knight says, no representation without taxation—to turn something on its head.
Noble Lords have rightly pinpointed some of the practical difficulties. There is an argument in principle for it. Some people, particularly those in the Overseas Territories, find the present arrangements somewhat patronising. We send out middle-rank diplomats to be Governors and lord it over the elected representatives of the islands. Those Foreign Office officials are often insensitive to the concerns of the elected representatives. A number of them have said that they would perhaps prefer independence, or incorporation into the United Kingdom. The proposal has been suggested by some people in the many discussions that I have had, although others are not as enthusiastic about it.
My noble friend has shown generous sensitivity to the concerns of the residents of those islands and recognises that they may indeed resent the fact that in some ways we lord it over them, but if his proposal were to find favour with both Houses of this Parliament, does he not foresee a possibility that they might actually lord it over us? If we were to have a hung Parliament, I think the quite numerous representatives of those territories could in fact be in the position of being able to determine who should form the Government of this country. They would then probably negotiate a coalition agreement far more rigorously and effectively than the Liberal Democrats have.
They would certainly do it more effectively. However, that situation exists at the moment. The SNP, for example, is committed to the total separation of Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom. It has said that if it held the balance of power in a hung Parliament, it would push hard on the interests of Scotland in particular. We are already facing that kind of situation, but of course it would be exacerbated.
I have been trying to draw my remarks to a close for some time.
I am most grateful to my noble friend for giving way. He has put a very interesting proposal to the House, but it is regrettable that we are discussing it at almost a quarter to three in the morning. If we had a Green Paper and White Paper that were properly subject to scrutiny, we would be able to explore it in a much more sensible way.
I agree completely with my noble friend. He has just reminded me that not all that long ago, within my lifetime anyway, we appointed the Governor-General of Mauritius. He was a distinguished Governor-General who had previously been General Secretary of the Labour Party. If my noble friend had moved on in the Labour Party, he might have had that opportunity rather than coming here. The Governor did a very good job, but I am trying desperately to remember his name. My noble friend has reminded me that it was Len Williams. He proved to be an excellent Governor.
Is it not a fact that we have present in the Chamber tonight two former high commissioners to Australia? I refer to my noble friend Lady Liddell in front of me and the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, opposite. They represent another fine example of the Prime Minister of the day doing the right thing and appointing the right people.
My noble friend Lady Liddell never thought it, but some people thought she had been appointed Governor-General of Australia. I know that she would have made a very good Governor-General, and indeed she and the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, were excellent high commissioners in their time.
I had better bring my remarks to a close. I am deeply worried about the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. He is someone for whom we have the greatest of concern and care for his future, his health and everything else. Earlier we saw him nearly have a paroxysm or a heart attack because I and others went on for too long, so I am anxious that he and the other Liberal Democrats are allowed—
I say that with the greatest respect. As I understand it, Amendment 67C proposes that every constituency shall be in either Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or England. The words,
“together with the home and overseas dependent territories”,
mean either that a constituency also has to be completely within the home or overseas dependent territories, or that when you add the people to a constituency in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or England from the home or overseas dependent territories, that constituency is wholly in one of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or England. It leaves open the question of how you identify the people from the dependent territories, whether by connection with a constituency in the UK or by reference to their dependent territory.
The current position is that if you are from a home or overseas dependent territory and you are resident in the UK, and you have either leave to remain or do not require leave to remain, you can vote in a UK general election. What my noble friend is in effect suggesting is that we should by this Bill, without consultation and almost certainly against the wishes of the majority of most of the members of the home and overseas dependent territories, absorb them into the United Kingdom. The current position is that while many of them have allegiance to the Crown, they are not governed by our Executive or our Parliament. From my experience—I was the Minister responsible for the home dependent territories for a considerable period—they would be outraged by the suggestion of such a change being made in this way. I know that my noble friend wished only to raise a debate on this matter but from their point of view—they will read Hansard—it is absolutely critical that we make it clear what the effect of the amendment is, and I make it completely clear that we on this side of the House oppose it.
May I give my noble and learned friend an example from one of my former ministerial roles that comes to mind? I have never been to the Isle of Man, which is not a member of the EU. I did not realise that, during the 10-year ban on UK beef, beef grown in the Isle of Man was exported through England to Europe because it was not subject to the beef ban. It was not a member of the EU so it was not subject to the ban. It would not have wanted to be subject to it either. There must be other complications in other areas of policy that would have the same disastrous consequences. I agree with my noble and learned friend that the amendment would lead to incorporation into the UK, and consequently membership of the EU. The Isle of Man might not want that, given all its ramifications. I give that practical example as that 10-year ban would have destroyed its beef trade, as it destroyed that of UK farmers.
My noble friend Lord Rooker gives just one example. From my experience of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, the idea that they could suddenly find themselves in the European Union, with ramifications not just for the sale of beef but, for example, in relation to imposts in the form of tax and VAT, would be for them a major issue and, I anticipate, something to which they would object.
My Lords, would my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer care to ponder whether the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who is on record in Lancashire as being totally opposed to people interfering with the boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire, has been consulted on whether the Isle of Man could suddenly be added to the county of Lancashire?
I have not had the opportunity of discussing this matter with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, but I imagine he would oppose it.
My position is clear on Amendment 67C. As to Amendment 77A, the proposed new paragraph 5(2) on page 10 of the Bill states that under the new arrangements the Boundary Commission for England,
“may take into account, if and to such extent as they think fit, boundaries of the electoral regions specified in Schedule 1 to the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002”.
It then states, in brackets, that when having regard to that you should ignore Gibraltar. Obviously the reason you should ignore Gibraltar is because it has no part to play in elections to our national Parliament.
The second amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, suggests that we should have regard to Gibraltar and European parliamentary boundaries when considering what the national constituency boundaries should be. For example, the Boundary Commission might consider that a European Parliament boundary here would be a good place for a constituency boundary. I do not object to regard being paid to the European boundaries but, because I oppose the first part, I think they should be kept separate—this applies to Gibraltar as much as to everywhere else—and we should not have regard to Gibraltar in paragraph 5(2). Therefore, on behalf of the Opposition, I also oppose Amendment 77A, which I am sure was only a probing amendment.
My Lords, it is an interesting probing at this time of the morning. I am sure that it will come as no surprise to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that the Government do not support his amendment because there are both principled and practical objections to it. The principled objection is that these territories are separate from the United Kingdom—their people are represented by legislatures in their own territory—and I certainly join the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, in saying that I suspect there would be considerable opposition for such an incorporation without any consultation.
The practical difficulty is that residents of the overseas territories may not be on the United Kingdom parliamentary register on the basis of an address in these territories. The noble and learned Lord indicated the basis on which people can be registered to vote in the United Kingdom. It is formed of British, Republic of Ireland and qualifying Commonwealth citizens aged over 18 who are not subject to any legal incapacity. Anyone resident in the territories who is entitled to register in a parliamentary register would do so from a UK address, not from an address in the territory itself. As Gibraltar is not part of the United Kingdom, I also do not understand why the Boundary Commission should have any regard to it. I therefore share the opposition to that amendment.
The noble Lord has raised an interesting issue, and he may wish to return to it on a more appropriate occasion, but I am afraid that I can give him no comfort if he seeks to pursue the amendment. I ask him to withdraw it.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lords, Lord Falconer of Thoroton and Lord Wallace of Tankerness, for their replies. I was expecting the reply from the noble and learned Lord Falconer of Thoroton because I remember discussing this with him briefly and so I knew he was sceptical about it. In spite of the fact that both of us are avid supporters of Edinburgh’s greatest football team, the Heart of Midlothian, I could not find any way of bribing, cajoling or encouraging him to go along with the amendments.
However, given all the strange and daft things that Mr Nicholas Clegg, as my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer described him, has adopted over the past few months, I thought there might have been some encouragement from Members on the other side to pick this up and run with it; they might have seen it as a good idea.
It is certainly a probing amendment. Although there have been one or two light-hearted interventions, there are some serious issues to it. The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are looked after by us and my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer was not absolutely correct when he said that this Parliament did not have responsibility for them because we do. When we sign treaties such as those on human rights, we do so on behalf of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. This Parliament has some responsibilities. Ultimately, although it is not a power we would wish to exercise, the United Kingdom Parliament technically has the back-stop legislative responsibility for those territories. My noble friend Lord McKenzie will know that, although there is a lot of independence in terms of their financial regimes, we have made it absolutely clear—and the territories have accepted this—they have to get their acts tidied up in relation to offshore finance. They have not done it as much as I would like, but we have certainly had some influence on them.
There are also anomalies whereby, for example, all over the south of Spain there are people from the United Kingdom who have been there for 10 years or more and are still able to vote in UK elections. They live in Malaga or other parts of the south of Spain. I remember when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister, her husband, Denis Thatcher, went out there to recruit more and more people to the Tory party and encourage them to register to vote in the United Kingdom. It seems strange that these people now have no connection with the United Kingdom, but can vote in elections here. Yet the good people of Gibraltar are unable to do so, although a lot of the decisions made by the UK Parliament affect them. Some of my noble friends will remember the effect on Gibraltar’s port when we pulled out our Navy.
There are some serious arguments on this and there are many more examples I could give if I had the time. However, I keep worrying about the health and strength of noble Lords opposite. I listened very carefully to the Minister and he said that I might wish to return to this matter on an appropriate occasion. I was wondering whether that might be Report stage. I shall consult the Minister. In fact, I shall have a meeting with him. I know that he is keen on having meetings. He has already offered a number of meetings. Perhaps before I bring back the amendment, I should visit these islands and talk at greater length to the people of Cayman, Anguilla and Montserrat. I visited Montserrat just after the volcano erupted. Some noble Lords will remember that when my then Secretary of State, Clare Short—who did not have the sagacity, wisdom and intelligence of my other Secretary of State who is with us today, my noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke—first met the Chief Minister of Montserrat, who was asking for help with the reconstruction after the eruption, she said in a fit of pique, “They’ll be asking for golden elephants next”.
I shall come to that in a moment. I was sent out, not by the Secretary of State but by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to Montserrat to calm things down. The airport had of course closed and I arrived by helicopter—I am not an inconsiderable figure, as noble Lords will observe—clad in a very large, bright orange outfit. I disembarked from the helicopter and saw all the cameras.
My Lords, I think the noble Lord has the opportunity of moving his amendment and seeking to test the opinion of the House or of withdrawing his amendment. I think it would help the House if he gave an indication of what he would like to do so we can carry on with business.
I am grateful to my noble friend. I call him that because I got a bit ratty with him the other day, and he is a good friend. He and I meet together—I cannot remember if he bought me a glass of wine or if I bought him one. I was just coming to the punchline and then I was going to sit down. David Brandt was standing there and I could see as I jumped out that he was furious about what was happening. I remembered what they are like in the Caribbean and how they are friendly, so I went straight up and gave him a big bear hug. He had to do the same and all the cameras were taking pictures. So it was that I solved the problems of the Caribbean by getting this warm welcome.
My Lords, I really wonder at this hour of the night whether the taxpayers of this country, who are paying for these facilities to be kept open, would wish to be entertained by the anecdotes of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. Does the House not believe that we need to get to the business of the House instead of being entertained in this manner because the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has been carousing in the bars of this Palace?
Amendment 67C withdrawn.
House adjourned at 3.03 am.
House of Lords
Thursday, 20 January 2011.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Wakefield.
Introduction: Lord Fink
Stanley Fink, Esquire, having been created Baron Fink, of Northwood in the County of Middlesex, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Harris of Peckham and Lord Howard of Lympne, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Lord Stoneham of Droxford
Benjamin Russell Mackintosh Stoneham, Esquire, having been created Baron Stoneham of Droxford, of Meon Valley in the County of Hampshire, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Rennard and Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Baroness Berridge
Elizabeth Rose Berridge, having been created Baroness Berridge, of The Vale of Catmose in the County of Rutland, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord McColl of Dulwich and Baroness Morris of Bolton, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
My Lords, we are clear that the status quo in Gaza is both a tragedy and unsustainable. We continue to call on Israel to ease restrictions on access to Gaza. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visited Israel in November. My ministerial colleague, Alistair Burt, is currently in the region and discussed Gaza at length with the Israeli Co-ordinator for Government Activity in the Territories, General Dangot.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is not the real problem the restrictions on the import of building materials, which are necessary to build and rebuild houses, schools and medical facilities in Gaza? We all utterly deplore the acts of terrorism directed at Israel but do not restrictions of that kind, affecting thousands of ordinary people in Gaza, gather in support for extremism rather than cutting it off?
Yes, my noble friend is completely right. The problem is obviously the lifting and easing of the blockade. We have had some small success: the Israeli authorities have agreed to shift from a total block on progress to a list of very limited permitted goods and are moving to a blacklist of goods that cannot go in. They have announced that they now are happy to allow in things such as steel-ready concrete, asphalt and cement for Palestinian Authority-approved civilian projects that are under the supervision of the UN.
There is, of course, a long list of ifs and buts. Frankly, we have not found that any of this so-called easement has yet made much difference on the ground but it is a slight move forward. Of course, consumer goods are allowed in. We will continue to press extremely hard to get a much more expansive and open regime to allow in the reconstruction items and materials to which my noble friend refers.
Opposed as I am to Netanyahu, is it not right to recognise that in recent days there has been a considerable relaxation over the movement of construction goods from Israel to Gaza? Is it not also right to recognise that there is currently recognition by the United Nations that Hamas is not exactly performing well? Does it not altogether oppose the United Nations regime?
I say to the noble Lord that no one on any side is really performing fully in the way that we want. The relaxation has been announced and we are watching to see whether it has an impact on the ground, although, as I said earlier to my noble friend, our analysis suggests that that impact is not very great so far. However, it is at least a step in the right direction, although we have to go further, as there are so many qualifications and safeguards. I also say to the noble Lord—and it is a perfectly fair point with which I know he will agree—that rockets are raining down all the time on Israeli territory from Gaza. Therefore, the Israeli authorities have to have some safeguards with regard to equipment going into Gaza, which might be used merely to develop aggressive military weaponry for use against them. There is a balance to be struck, and I think that sensible people all round have to recognise both the difficulties and the possibilities on all sides.
Is my noble friend hopeful of a resumption in negotiations between the immediate parties as soon as possible, despite the enormous difficulties that that would involve? Such a resumption would help to end the prolonged collective oppression of the long-suffering Gazan population.
I live in hope, otherwise I would not be doing what I am doing. Of course we want to see talks between sensible and responsible people, and of course the quartet wants to carry these things forward. We are working very closely with the quartet, as well as through the UN and the EU. However, particularly if Hamas is to be involved, the requirements are that it recognises Israel and that there is some sign of that going forward—we may hear about that in a moment. It must also renounce violence and abide by previous agreements. That is what the quartet requires to get things going again, but so far we are not quite there.
My Lords, two years ago the UK Government were co-sponsors of the text of UN Resolution 1860, which, among other things, emphasised the need to ensure a sustained and regular flow of goods and people through the Gaza crossing. Is it not now time for the Security Council to review the full implementation by all parties of those high-meaning and well-intentioned words?
The right reverend Prelate is of course right that this is what we want to see and what we want to press forward. In a sense, these matters are under review all the time. We are working very closely with the UN and the quartet, through DfID, our own aid department, and through constant dialogue with the Israeli authorities about getting the blockades lifted and getting some enterprise going. The Israelis have also announced—this may be a tiny glimmer that we should hang on to—that they will allow some exports from Gaza. Of course, that is essential if the economy is to begin to move forward. If we are to get people out of massive and miserable poverty there, the Israelis must allow business to flourish. Therefore, yes, there must be a review but a review is going on all the time and we must continue to be vigorous in our efforts.
My Lords, despite the terrible antipathy between Hamas and Israel, does the noble Lord agree that we should build on the many positive grassroots interactions which exist between Gazans and Israelis? In the medical field, for example, there are many Gazan patients in Israeli hospitals, as well as doctors in training there, so should we not be building on those positive grassroots efforts?
Yes, that is perfectly true, and very high-quality treatment has been, and is, available in Israel to meet certain urgent needs from Gazan citizens. One could go further and say that it would be good if the tens of thousands, if not a hundred thousand, Gazans who used to cross the border every day to work in Israel were allowed greater movement on that front as well. I agree that there are things on which to build but overall we have to get some sense of agreement and understanding between Israel and the Palestine authority as a whole to get things going forward. We are just not there at the moment.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the head of the Shin Bet security service said this week that al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are behind a lot of the Gaza violence? Is he also aware that the same Shin Bet security service is saying that Hamas wants to achieve its aims through charity organisations, while other, more radical groups want the same goal through violence? Will the Minister agree that, this being the case, we should be talking to Hamas and including it in all our negotiations with Israel to protect Israel and prevent the situation deteriorating further?
I understand that from my noble friend, who has been absolutely tireless in pursuing these matters in great detail, and I congratulate her. Of course, accusations fly around and, as she knows better than I do, there is more than one aspect or wing and more than one associated policy within the Hamas group. There are people in Hamas for whom it would be invaluable to find common ground and to meet the conditions that the quartet requires, as I described earlier. However, I am afraid that there are also people in Hamas who are not interested in that but who are interested in violence and, indeed, presumably organise the rocketry into Israel every day. Therefore, we somehow have to find a way through this maze, and I think that my noble friend understands that very well.
Disabled People: Transport
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will support the recent compromise agreement reached through the conciliation procedure on the proposed European regulation on bus and coach passenger rights, and what further steps they are taking to meet the United Kingdom’s obligations under Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
My Lords, the UK Government intend to support the compromise agreement reached by the Conciliation Committee in respect of the EU regulation on bus and coach passenger rights when it is put to the Council for formal approval. The UK Government are currently preparing a report on what the UK is doing to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. As regards the provision introducing mandatory disability awareness training for personnel dealing directly with the travelling public, will the Government take Transport for London’s current approach of training all staff in disability awareness as the benchmark for all bus operators? Cannot the five-year exemption for drivers be viewed as unnecessary?
My Lords, I am not aware of precisely what Transport for London is doing, but clearly training for drivers and all staff involved in the transport system is nothing other than good practice. If the operators are not doing that now, they should be. On the point about seeking an exemption, we will be consulting on the implementation of any exemptions but will grant them only if necessary.
My Lords, is it the Minister’s understanding that the Government wish to persist in the abolition of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, which is listed for abolition under the Public Bodies Bill? If so, can he explain why the Government want to persist with its abolition? The problems of disability and accessibility to transport crop up so frequently that it is very difficult to understand the Government’s position and reasoning.
My Lords, the Department for Transport will continue to ensure that transport policies promote equality, and these important issues will continue to be mainstreamed in departmental policy and delivery. The department will consult on the successor arrangements later this year.
My Lords, when I asked a Question on this subject last week, we had very good answers, but other points were raised by Members of the House. In particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, made the point that when she and her husband travel together, one on a disability scooter and one in a wheelchair, they are told that they cannot travel on the same bus. Therefore, there is a point in training bus drivers to be aware of the situation and to make all possible efforts, just as they do with enormous prams and buggies—they take two of them at a time. Obviously, if the places are already taken, no one would expect them to be offered. However, if there is space, would it not be logical to have two spaces for wheelchairs?
My Lords, my noble friend said there was some point in having training for drivers. Training for drivers is vital, as I am sure she would agree. The last time that we discussed the issue, I pointed out that there are costs associated with leaving unused spaces on buses for wheelchairs and mobility scooters. We must be careful not to take out too many seats from buses while ensuring that we make proper provision for disabled travellers.
My Lords, this is a shared competence, and the EU is bound by the principle of subsidiarity. EU actions should not be taken unless they are likely to be more effective than actions at national, regional or local level. We believe that member states are best placed to deal with local bus services.
St Lucia: Hurricane Tomas
My Lords, HMS “Manchester” provided power, clean water and food to the towns of Soufriere and Morne Fond St Jacques immediately after Hurricane Tomas. Crew also fixed the roof in Soufriere hospital. The Department for International Development has agreed to pay £212,845 to re-establish water, sanitation and health services in St Lucia and St Vincent. The Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility, which DfID supports, also made a payment of $3,214,000 to St Lucia after the hurricane.
I thank my noble friend for that comprehensive answer. The devastation caused by Hurricane Tomas last October, which had practically no media coverage in this country, is still having an effect on the people—and on their financial well-being—of St Lucia and the neighbouring islands, St Vincent and the Grenadines. Lives have been lost and it is estimated that £500 million-worth of damage has been done to roads, agriculture, buildings and infrastructure. Thankfully, the United Nations made a plea for international financial assistance. What financial assistance will the British Government give to these wounded Caribbean islands, and will the Government of St Lucia be expected to pay back any funds provided to them—and, if so, when?
My Lords, the Government of St Lucia are leading the assessment of the damage caused by Hurricane Tomas and setting reconstruction priorities. A full report is expected later this month. Early damage estimates following hurricanes are often radically revised, so we cannot speculate on the extent of the damage until we analyse the report.
My Lords, given that more than 60 per cent of the GDP of the island is generated by tourism, would it not be extremely helpful to abolish the APD to St Lucia and the neighbouring islands? I declare an interest as a residual beneficiary of an estate on the island.
My Lords, the Government cannot change the rules for Caribbean countries without objective justification. The APD on a return economy ticket typically represents a small percentage of the price. However, we are exploring changes to the aviation tax system, including a per-plane tax. Of course, any major changes will be subject to consultation.
Is my noble friend aware that, as a result of World Trade Organisation restrictions on EU trade preferences, St Lucia and Windward Island farmers can no longer compete with the industrial-scale banana production of Latin America? What measures are the Government taking to assist the Windward Isles to diversify and revitalise their fragile and struggling economies?
My Lords, I declare an interest because my daughter is resident for much of the time in the Caribbean. Does not this episode underline the importance of a continuing, frequent and regular Royal Navy presence in the area, in order to give immediate assistance on such occasions?
My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. However, our DfID programmes are concentrated mostly on a regional presence and are there to assist in climate change, disaster and risk management, and to tackle crime and insecurity. I will take back my noble friend’s question. However, we are doing quite a lot of constructive work through multilateral agencies.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that we should acknowledge the importance of €200,000 in humanitarian aid that the European Union is contributing, the considerable funding that goes towards disaster preparedness in the Caribbean, and the disaster management programmes there?
Health: Influenza Vaccination
My Lords, the Government’s policy on flu vaccination is informed by the expert advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. The JCVI last met on 30 December to review the latest evidence. The committee decided that there were no grounds to change the risk groups that are offered vaccination and recommended that efforts be focused on maximising vaccine uptake among all those in the risk groups. As with all vaccination programmes, the JCVI will keep this matter under review.
I thank the noble Earl for his response. The latest figures show that approximately 780 people are in critical care, and there is still a long winter ahead of us. What steps are the Government taking in case the numbers continue to rise? Secondly, what steps have been taken to address the reported shortages of flu vaccines in some areas, with GPs and pharmacies running out of stocks?
My Lords, the noble Lord’s figures are slightly historic. Figures due to be published today will give a better picture. I spoke yesterday to the Chief Medical Officer, who told me that the rates to be published at 2 pm today will show a decrease from the figure that he mentioned. There has also been a further decrease since the new figure and it appears that the worst is over as regards the incidence of flu. On the second question, there have been reports of vaccine shortages. We have taken steps to address that by releasing stocks of the monovalent H1N1 vaccine from our national stock. That system is working well. There is an online ordering system, which GPs are using. They are also ordering stock directly from the manufacturers and we understand that that system is working well, too. The reports of shortages are, I hope, a matter of history.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware—I am sure that he is not—that over Christmas I presented myself at my GP’s for a flu vaccination? There was no vaccine in the surgery. He gave me a prescription, but there was no vaccine in the pharmacy, where I was informed that the general flu vaccine in this country had run out because the suppliers had run out of stock. I am delighted that the swine flu vaccine is still available, but surely that does not help any attempt to be vaccinated against general flu.
My Lords, we are very clear that the amount of vaccine produced for this season’s flu to address the probable need for vaccination was more than adequate. It is up to GPs to order the quantity of vaccine that they see as appropriate for their patients. That is what has happened over the past couple of years. Supplies are also ordered independently by private pharmacies. As regards my noble friend’s point on the H1N1 monovalent vaccine, I am afraid that 90 per cent of deaths have been from what is called swine flu, so that is a very appropriate vaccine to use in these circumstances.
My Lords, almost all vaccines, except the seasonal flu vaccines, are procured centrally because central procurement provides a cost-effective arrangement that can take account of the variation in supply and demand. It also gives us the ability to track where the batches of vaccine have gone. We are therefore looking at taking into the department the procurement of the seasonal flu vaccine.
Last time we discussed this subject, I asked the Minister why the advice given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States was so different from the advice from our committee on vaccination. My question this time is: is the Minister sure that the advice that he gets from our committee takes into account evidence that other countries gather and on which they base their advice? The CDC’s advice in the United States is to vaccinate everybody over the age of six months.
Yes, I am satisfied. The expert advice provided by the JCVI takes into consideration first and foremost the epidemiology of the disease in the UK, which may well differ from that in other countries. The noble Lord may be interested to know that, while the UK is experiencing H1N1 as the most prevalent flu strain, the prevalent flu strains in the United States are H3N2 and influenza B, so a very different situation applies in that country.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of an at-risk group who got vaccinated fairly early at the request of his doctor, which I acknowledge was based on expert advice. To follow on from the previous question, the plain fact is that that expert advice proved, in effect, to be politically unsustainable in one way or another. I think that that needs to be taken into account when we look at what we do next year.
My Lords, the main lesson is one to which I referred a minute ago. We are considering bringing back into central procurement the purchasing of the seasonal flu vaccine, which is an exception to the normal rule. We purchase most vaccines centrally, apart from that one. There is a lot to be said for changing the ordering system so that we can keep better track of supplies and, perhaps, have more cost-effective procurement at the same time.
My Lords, I read a report in the media last week saying that, in light of the high incidence of children under five contracting flu, the Government are preparing to examine new evidence from the advisory group that could allow for all under-fives to be vaccinated. Have the Government reached a view on this?
We have not reached a view on this because the JCVI’s advice remains unchanged. In fact, current evidence shows that children under five are not the age group with the highest risk of death. The age group with the highest risk of death from the flu that is circulating currently is middle-aged adults. Nevertheless, those with risk factors have the highest risk of severe disease and death from flu compared with healthy age groups. However, I can tell my noble friend that nothing is set in stone. We do not wish to constrain the JCVI in any way and we will listen to its advice, as we always do.
My Lords, during the H1N1 pandemic, two organisations stood out as being essential to delivering a pandemic strategy: the Health Protection Agency, for its science, strategic planning and advice; and the PCTs, for their support and co-ordination on the ground. Both are due to be abolished in the next two years. Can the Minister inform the House about the Government’s pandemic plans, including, for example, the ordering of sufficient vaccine, both after the abolition and during the transition?
The noble Baroness asks an important question. The Government’s plans are to create what we are calling Public Health England, which will be the new public health service based centrally, linked closely to public health efforts in local authorities with local directors of public health. A pandemic vaccination campaign would be mobilised through those channels. I am clear that we have proper plans for the transition, which the noble Baroness rightly mentions as being a time when we need to have a specific focus on public health protection. The present plan, as she knows, is to bring the Health Protection Agency functions within the Department of Health so that there is a clear line of accountability from the Secretary of State downwards. I am clear that that is right. We will still have the expert advice that we do now from the people who are currently employed in the Health Protection Agency. That is an additional safeguard.
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
My Lords, when I tabled this debate, I, of course, had no idea that it would take place against such a tumultuous parliamentary and constitutional background as we have seen in the House this week. I thank all noble Lords who are here today, particularly those who put their names down to speak. As it happens, the timing of today's debate could hardly be more apposite: if anyone wishes to see the parliamentary and constitutional effect of a coalition Government, they need look no further than what we have experienced in your Lordships' House this week.
This is the first peacetime coalition in this country for more than 70 years. Of course, coalitions are more familiar elsewhere. They are familiar in Scotland and Wales now and in many local councils. Coalition Governments are both commonplace and widespread beyond these shores and the experience of such coalitions has helped coalition government specialists to characterise coalition Governments as of particular kinds. There are coalitions of conviction formed on specific issues such as the Conservative/Liberal Unionist coalition in 1895, which was formed to resist Irish home rule. There are coalitions of necessity, brought about by specific external circumstances, such as the wartime Lloyd George coalition of 1916 and the Churchill coalition of 1940, and there are coalitions of convenience, determined by the politics of the parties involved.
We on these Benches would argue that the current coalition in Britain is of the third kind. On the other hand, the Government seek to argue that it is a coalition of an entirely new kind: one of co-operation, whereby two parties with different political views agree to co-operate for limited purposes and for a limited time in order to ensure effective Government. What is clear is that this coalition is different from previous ones in this country in a number of important respects. The first and most important is that this coalition has not been voted for as a coalition by the British people. In the past, the peacetime coalitions of 1918 and 1931 were endorsed by the country—with landslide majorities. But this coalition is born out of an indecisive election. Labour lost. The Liberal Democrats did not do very well and lost a few seats, and the Conservatives did best, but not well enough to win. On that basis, the Government have embarked on major constitutional change.
Of course, constitutional reform was a major feature of the Labour Government, of which I was proud to serve as a Minister. But there are significant differences from the constitutional reforms under Labour and those being pursued by the coalition. The first rests on the lack of a clear-cut mandate for the reform programme that is fundamental to the coalition. The Labour Government signalled the vast majority of their reforms well in advance—although not all. We were rightly challenged in this House. Indeed, proceedings came to a complete halt as I recall over the reform of the Office of the Lord Chancellor. But virtually all our other reforms were heralded in our manifesto. On the whole, we did what we said we were going to do.
That is not so with the current coalition. Both parties have manifestos and campaigned on them. The Liberal Democrats even went beyond their manifesto undertakings in making specific and individual pledges over the issue of tuition fees. Liberal Democrat MPs signed a pledge not to increase fees, clearly implying that a signed pledge was somehow more secure; a better promise than a mere manifesto. So, for example, the 7 per cent more 18 to 24 year-olds who voted in the 2010 election, and voted Liberal Democrat, gave their support on the basis of that promise, which in the end turned out to be a false prospectus.
In the event, the formation of the coalition saw both parties in the coalition having to ditch their manifestos, first, in favour of an outline agreement between the two parties published on 12 May and then in a fuller document called The Coalition: Our Programme for Government, published on 20 May.
My Lords, I was not going to dwell on the five days because, as the noble Lord will know, many thought that it was rather a rushed job.
The document was published by the Cabinet Office rather than by the parties concerned. Of course, it was a legitimate and sensible course of action to take for the coalition, but it has never been endorsed by the electorate in this country. I make that point as clearly as I can, because many people believe that we are likely to have more coalitions in the future, partly because of the breakdown of traditional voting patterns in this country and because there will be many more coalitions if a system of AV or proportional representation is introduced, as the Liberal Democrats want. However, it means that there are serious questions about how far any coalition government can rest on the old conventions of parliamentary practice.
The coalition has recognised that. The nature of its constitutional programme seeks to alter our institutions. So does its practice in government. For example, the Cabinet has been significantly altered by the coalition removing, in effect, the powers of the Prime Minister on the appointment and dismissal of Ministers and placing those in the hands of others on a party political basis, and by the explicit abandoning of the constitutional doctrine of Cabinet and ministerial collective responsibility in a range of policy areas, such as the crucial decision on the renewal of our nuclear defence system.
The proposal for a referendum on AV directly addresses the Westminster electoral system, while the rearranging of constituencies proposed in the Bill that we have debated this week will fundamentally alter Parliament in a way not done since the 1832 Act. I am not seeking to argue the merits of the Bill but merely to argue that, if enacted, these proposals will permanently alter the way in which Britain is governed. Given the fundamental point that no one voted for this programme, the constitutional ambitions of the coalition are bound to raise some very difficult questions.
The nature of the coalition Government has particular implications for this House because of the Salisbury convention, the best and most recent definition of which—best because it was agreed by all parties in both Houses—is contained in the report on the conventions of the UK Parliament from the Joint Committee on Conventions chaired by noble friend Lord Cunningham of Felling and on which I have the privilege to serve. The Joint Committee laid out that the convention means that, in this House:
“A manifesto Bill is accorded a Second Reading … A manifesto Bill is not subject to 'wrecking amendments' …; and … A manifesto Bill is passed and sent (or returned) to the House of Commons, so that they have the opportunity, in reasonable time, to consider the Bill or any amendments the Lords may wish to propose”.
The standing of the Salisbury convention is clear. Where a proposal from the coalition Government was contained in the 2010 general election manifestos of both the political parties in the coalition, that proposal would rightly be subject to the Salisbury convention. But it is those proposals alone that are subject to the convention and not the proposals in the coalition document, except where they appeared in both manifestos.
Of course, I recognise that there is a strong counterpoint to be put here, although I do not believe that it is an overriding one. That is, in being asked by Her Majesty to form a Government, the coalition enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons, meaning that what the Government do in the Commons and in this House must have commensurate authority. However, that does not detract from the legitimacy gap at the heart of the coalition, particularly in relation to constitutional reform.
Neither manifesto proposed a referendum on AV and neither proposed the reduction in the number of MPs proposed in the Bill discussed this week. Therefore, the Bill is not a manifesto Bill and not subject to the convention. The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, which we shall debate shortly, was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto but not in that of the Conservatives, so, again, the Salisbury convention will not apply.
The House of Lords Reform Bill was in both manifestos. We will judge on their merits the proposals for reform when we finally see them, but we on this side of the Chamber are determined to give the proposals the scrutiny that the issues merit, just as we have given proper scrutiny to the coalition’s proposals to change the voting system and the number of constituencies. We believe that the entire issue of further House of Lords reform should be put in a referendum to the people of the country. If a voting system which benefits the Liberal Democrats is worthy of a referendum, surely one of the key checks and balances in our constitution, this House, is equally worthy of a referendum.
The coalition has produced a number of other significant constitutional innovations. There is the Cabinet manual, at which I am sure many of your Lordships will have looked, but none of us has yet debated it. It was written by a small group of senior officials in consultation with some clever academics, but neither House has debated the full document. What is the status of the document? Can the Leader of the House tell us whether it is the first step towards a written constitution, as accepted by the Cabinet Secretary, or is it, as stated by the noble Lord in reply to a Question in this House from my noble friend Lady Royall, of a rather different nature? If it is of the importance and enduring significance implied by Sir Gus O’Donnell, surely we should debate it fully and soon.
Of course, some reforms are welcome and very helpful; for example, revealing the date of the Budget. Once, that was a sacking offence, but it is a sensible and right move. Similarly, setting out the dates of Recesses is laudable and, frankly, I wish that my party had done it years ago. But sadly, such a sensible approach is not applied elsewhere. Since 10 January, coalition Peers have joined us so fast that, including today’s Introductions, the coalition majority is 71. It has risen from 54 to 71 in just seven working days. We have to ensure that this House remains a revising Chamber, not an approving Chamber. In effect, we have returned to the pre-1997 position. The Conservative-led Government have an unassailable majority in both Houses, not because of a landslide victory in a general election, but because of a coalition agreement. If, for example, the Conservatives had won a landslide victory at the 2010 election, they would have a majority in another place, but certainly not in here. By performing worse in the election than predicted, they have gained a stranglehold on both Houses.
That has serious implications because an important part of the role of this House is the role of the Cross-Bench Peers. As independents, they listen to, assess and make judgments on the arguments they hear, and they vote accordingly. They are a huge asset to us and a huge constitutional asset to the country. But that important constitutional role in this House as the provider of checks and balances is under threat with so many coalition Peers coming in.
The conventions on how we operate are indeed important. The Companion tells us that there is a firm convention that from Monday to Wednesday, the House will rise at 10 pm. The Companion describes a closure Motion as “a most exceptional procedure”—very strong words—but it has been deployed twice this week. That has been done because the Government really believe that it is fair to use it on an issue which is not the subject of the Salisbury convention, which has had no pre-legislative scrutiny and no public consultation. We disagree. What is clear is that the application of closure Motions in this way is tantamount to a guillotine. Of course it is not a guillotine on the whole Bill, but it is clearly a guillotine on individual amendments. It is a guillotine that I do not believe is appropriate in this House, and I hope that it will never be appropriate.
What is clear is that this kind of parliamentary innovation is of a piece with similar innovations in the coalition. I refer to the use, for example, of framework legislation, which is similarly problematic. The Public Bodies Bill has been extensively criticised on constitutional grounds. As has been well put in this House, in the Bill the Government are seeking to use Henry VIII powers on an industrial scale. That is just plain wrong. It is not a correct use of such powers, and those powers were rightly criticised by many constitutional experts as being something inapplicable in a modern democracy. Moreover, coalition Ministers have questioned the decision in this House to seek to vote down secondary legislation, specifically on tuition fees. There are clear provisions in the terms of the Cunningham committee—
I have been listening to the noble Baroness with great attention because she always speaks in a very reasonable way, so will she give a reasonable answer to this question? She has talked about a number of things she considers appropriate and a number of things that she considers inappropriate. Does she consider a filibuster to be appropriate or inappropriate?
My Lords, there will be different views. I have endeavoured in my remarks so far to put my points as reasonably as the noble Lord has expressed, but I should not have thought that jeering was quite the way we would want to conduct a serious debate of this nature. However, the noble Lord may think differently.
The Cunningham committee report stipulates precisely how attempting to vote down secondary legislation can be legitimately done. We stayed wholly and completely within the terms of those provisions, and we did so because they had been explicitly agreed in both Houses.
On Bills of constitutional importance, the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House has taken a very firm line. It says that,
“it is a matter of principle that proposals for major constitutional reform should be subject to prior consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, unless there are good reasons for departing from this principle”.
On the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, it said that:
“Pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation would have enabled a better assessment of whether the new rules as to equalisation are overly rigid”.
It had similar criticisms to make of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and the Public Bodies Bill. Those criticisms were pungent and forthright. I just make the point that six members of that committee are coalition Peers. Two are Cross-Benchers, and only four come from the opposition Benches.
Coalition is different. This coalition is different from all previous coalitions. It is different in origin. It was different in its formation. It is different in its purpose. And it is different in its effect. We believe that many of the steps the coalition is taking in terms of the constitution and in terms of Parliament are wrong. Wrong in policy terms, yes, of course; but that is not the point that I am arguing. I mean wrong in terms of Parliament and wrong in terms of the constitution.
We believe that we are acting properly in defence of the constitution, as this House is meant to do. Do not just take my word for it. Think about what Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, Member for North East Somerset, and indeed the son of a distinguished Member of your Lordships’ House, said in another place this week in the final stages of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. He said of our all night session that,
“it is notable that their lordships sat throughout last night, fulfilling their proper constitutional role of ensuring that a serious constitutional change is properly debated and reviewed”.
He said that the Peers were,
“battling for the great British constitution, which has served us extraordinarily well for hundreds of years”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/1/11; col. 708.]
Let me quote from another very strong Conservative supporter, Mr Simon Heffer of the Daily Telegraph, whose piece on the coalition’s constitutional reforms in December contained, yes, very many sharp criticisms of my own party, but he went on to say that,
“the Coalition has chosen to ignore or contradict parts of the parties' respective manifestos, which raises the question of who actually voted for what we are being offered now; it has chosen to try to gerrymander parliamentary boundaries, without any sort of mandate to do so; it has chosen to try to change the voting system, without any sort of mandate to do so; it has chosen to try to have fixed-term parliaments, without any sort of mandate to do so; and for good measure there will be no Queen's Speech next year, because it would be an inconvenience for the executive”.
Not my words, but the words of the Conservative commentator. He also said:
“It seems to regard its creation as some sort of miracle, and a miracle requiring all the rules to be bent, twisted and otherwise mangled to keep it intact”.
Discussions on coalitions in British politics cannot avoid including reference to Disraeli’s famous comment. As the first speaker in the debate, I claim the right today to deploy the comment first. In a speech in the Commons on 16 December 1852, Disraeli said:
“But coalitions, although successful, have always found this, that their triumph has been brief. This too I know, that England does not love coalitions”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/12/1852; col.1666.]
In the fullness of time, we will see how prescient Disraeli was about this coalition in overall terms. But in terms of parliamentary and constitutional impact of the coalition, we on this side of the Chamber would contest that Disraeli’s prediction is already true.
My Lords, the first thing I would like to do is to congratulate the noble Baroness on proposing the Motion in, as we would have expected, a vigorous and forceful way. She may have been a bit luckier than she anticipated in exactly when her Motion came to be debated, but nevertheless it was a forceful speech. This is the first opportunity that I have of saying publicly to her, since she was very helpful to me on the committee we had dealing with expenses, how much I enjoyed working with her on that occasion. Once or twice I was not quite sure whether she was on my side but nevertheless she always made a constructive contribution to it and very much helped in producing the final result.
I want particularly just to talk about the parliamentary aspects of a coalition. Much has been written about these things, and the noble Baroness has added a number of things to it. As for her quotations from the Joint Committee on Conventions that she did with her noble friend who was around a few minutes ago, I think that she perhaps chose that part which suited her arguments best. Indeed, in its report the committee says it believes that the Salisbury convention has changed significantly and does not believe that it should be called the Salisbury convention any more. At paragraph 102, it also indicated that,
“evidence points to the emergence in recent years of a practice that the House of Lords will usually give a Second Reading to any government Bill, whether based on the manifesto or not”.
So we are in a new situation here. I do not want to dwell on the events of the past few days—except to say, if I may, that the exchange between my noble friend the Leader of the House and the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition, exactly a week ago today at Questions, was extremely helpful and was one which many of us appreciated.
It is more than 30 years since I started to be involved in the management of parliamentary business. I cannot see that the management of parliamentary business or the rules that govern it have altered substantially since then. Of course, there have been changes. The noble Baroness talked about the number of new Peers who have come into the House. At the beginning of this Parliament, I think that I am correct to say that more than 50 per cent of the House had been created under the Labour Government, so a number of new Peers have been brought into this House by both Governments. The main problem now is to find a seat to sit on, but we all share in that responsibility—and of deciding how we will go on in this place.
In the 30 years during which I have looked at parliamentary procedures, things have substantially deteriorated. To be fair, the rot set in in the House of Commons. I believe that the automatic timetabling of business was a great mistake. I very much regret that the present Government have not felt able to remove that from the House of Commons. Timetable Motions are, of course, sometimes necessary; in my experience, in many cases the Opposition want the timetable Motion because it is a very practical way for them to show complete opposition to a Bill. They would much sooner have a guillotine to demonstrate that point and then have some orderly planning of the rest of the debate than what has been going on in the past few days—I said that I would not talk about the past few days, so I will not.
I certainly have no desire for a timetable Motion in this House. I will try to explain why I think that it would be extremely undesirable. That is not to say that it might not be necessary, but I very much hope that it will not. The whole of my political career in, if you like, business management, has been to avoid such things, except, as I said, on certain occasions where both sides reckoned that it was the best way forward. I never reached the point that the dear man, Michael Foot, did when he moved four timetable Motions in one day in the House of Commons and, when pressed, said that the reason why he was doing it was that the Government had such a small majority that that was the only way to get the legislation through. Some of us agreed that that was probably right.
The basis on which I have felt that parliamentary business should be conducted is as follows. First, a Government who have a majority in the Commons are entitled to get their business through. It is not, in principle, the job of Oppositions to seek to frustrate the will of the Government of the country. Secondly, Oppositions should never lose sight of the fact that they will be the Government one day. That has always been the position, and therefore Oppositions should never do anything that they would disapprove of if they were in government. That is a proper constraint on Oppositions at all times. Thirdly, Oppositions have their rights in political debate, and it is the responsibility of the government Front Bench and government business managers to deliver to the Opposition the rights that they reasonably should have. That always has been, and it always will be.
Fourthly, in this House it is not always sensible to press matters to a Division when there is absolutely no possibility of the House of Commons agreeing with them. This House is a revising House and is at its best when it seeks to ask the House of Commons to look again, particularly where the House of Commons is singing—if I may say so—an unclear note on an issue. That is where this House is right. I can remember, when I first got here, first Lord Callaghan and then Lord Whitelaw each saying, “Of course I respect the right of your Lordships to press this amendment, but the question is: is it wise? Is it a sensible use of time to seek to pass amendments that have no prospect whatever of ever being taken up by the House of Commons?”. That is something that we should bear in mind when we are doing it.
All of what I have been saying to you is, in fact, “the usual channels”. That is how things should be negotiated. From time to time in our history it is impossible to negotiate a satisfactory arrangement. There is then no alternative but for the Government to do something—the Government have to get their business. So I am 100 per cent in favour of negotiations and I want to see them going on all the time. If it does not happen, then it is the Government’s responsibility to propose a solution for which they will have to get a majority. I finish by saying that the sentence that I like best in this subject was said in a speech by the late Lord Biffen, who many of us were great admirers of, in which he said that the agenda for political debate needs to be fixed, so that the discussions can be fierce and competitive.
My Lords, I broadly agree with everything that my noble friend has just said, but that is not surprising because he speaks with almost unique experience of both Houses of Parliament. I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, on a very timely debate, because we are after all in a different situation so it is good that we take this time. However, I have to say to her that, when a Labour supporter quotes Mr Simon Heffer, I tend to discount some of the rest of the argument.
Ever since the 1920s, when the Liberal Party descended into the doldrums, an almost total political duopoly has grown up in this country, at parliamentary level at least, between the Labour and Conservative parties. In 1951, we should recall, when Labour and the Conservatives won 96.7 per cent of the vote, the Liberals won only six seats. The electorate was largely settled in its political allegiance, often along social and economic, and even hereditary, lines. I recall in my first successful election in 1964—I was very, very young—banging on doors and often getting the response, “Oh, my husband is a union member, so we are Labour”, or, “We are in business, so we are Conservative”. Occasionally, people said, “We have always been Methodists, so my family are Liberals”. Allegiance was automatic, but that is no longer the case.
Dramatic changes have taken place over that period, but Britain nevertheless got used to a stable two-party pendulum. Up till 1979, the pendulum moved fairly regularly and fairly modestly; then came the minority Governments of Thatcher, Major and Blair. Curiously, as the pendulum swung less often—but often with more force—the mandate for Governments with large Commons majorities declined. Thatcher had a 43-seat majority in 1979 on only 43 per cent of the popular vote. She then got a majority of 144 seats on a lesser vote of 42.4 per cent in 1983 and a 102-seat majority on a very similar share in 1987. Then, in 1992, John Major won more votes than any Prime Minister before or since, yet he was returned with a smaller Commons majority of just 21. In 1997, Blair won only 43 per cent of the vote—far fewer votes than Major—but Labour won a majority of 179 seats.
All these capricious, irrational results can be explained by the gradual pluralisation of political choice, constrained by an intrinsically binary political system. However, just as people had begun to demand more choices as consumers, so they wanted to exercise more choice in their politics. The situation that we now face—so well described earlier—is that the parties and Parliament are having to catch up with where the people have already led. By 2010, the total vote for Labour and Conservatives had declined to less than two thirds—fully one third went to parties other than the big two.
So what does this mean? It means that, in the context of this debate, the public as a collective are quite clear that they want more than two answers to any given political question. Voters are no longer wrapped up in red cloth, blue cloth or even a golden sash. Party and class alignment are all but dead as voters float among the parties between elections and even during election campaigns—what psephologists refer to as “churn”.
The verdict of the most recent general election was clearly that no one had really won. In the most propitious circumstances, the Conservatives could not defeat Labour, and despite astonishing scaremongering in the media about the dire effects of a hung Parliament, more people voted for the Liberal Democrats—and indeed for other, smaller parties—than at any time since the party’s inception in 1989. It hardly betrays any secrets to say that the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition was thought to be an impossible outcome. To their credit, however, the Conservatives were more prepared to embrace the facts of modern politics—that coalitions may be necessary to make government work—than were their Labour counterparts.
The coalition was a popular change: 59 per cent supported the coalition after the election and many—contrary to the hopes and assumptions of noble Lords opposite—still do. People like the idea of politicians working together and putting aside the pantomime partisanship that they see so childishly displayed in Prime Minister’s Questions. Despite the popularity of the concept, of course, there has been disquiet about the consequences, to which the noble Lady has referred. The consequence is simply and inexorably compromise. Just as in every boardroom around the country, and in committees of all the organisations that we are all involved in, accommodations and common decisions are reached from different perspectives, so that now happens around the Cabinet table. Indeed, there is more open discussion of issues, as we understand it, than under the Blair and Brown regimes.
Again, the public seem to be relatively relaxed about that. Only the media—the square mile of the Westminster village—hanker for times when things were simpler, when one party would win perhaps 35 per cent of the vote, gain a big majority of seats and do what it liked. That was all very straightforward, but it no longer works for the public.
Manifesto commitments have been jettisoned in the past by majority Governments—for example, on electoral reform, tuition fees and privatisation proposals under the previous Government—whereas, with the coalition, the process is actually more transparent. The coalition agreement contains strands of policy that are clearly from one manifesto or the other. Indeed, those who were close to the negotiations—I was not there—can tell us that they usually chose the best policy of the two parties rather than attempt simply to water down either one or the other. Any dispassionate person can now look through that coalition agreement and see the Liberal Democrat parts, the Conservative parts and the parts that represent a blend.
It has been argued, and it was hinted at earlier, that a coalition Government is one that nobody has voted for. Technically, I suppose that that is true. However, what is also true is that the electorate has a much more likely prospect of seeing a broad preference than a wholesale endorsement of any one party’s manifesto. Indeed, one thing that deters people from joining parties is that they think that all party members must share the same detailed commitments. That is obviously not true, but it puts people off. Sensible people think it weird, frankly, that anyone should say that they must wholeheartedly sign up to the policy platform of one party without a scintilla of qualification. With coalitions, there is a natural tendency to get what people want. That certainly happened to a very large extent to the voters of 2010.
We all face a difficulty in adjusting to this situation, but I think that the public have adjusted better than either the media or many in politics. Sensible people respond well to this spirit of compromise and to the sense that, where there is no winner, no one should take all. We had better get used to it. As Professor John Curtice has pointed out—I have not the time to go through all his reasons—the hung Parliament that occurred after 6 May was no one-off aberration. He has outlined three specific reasons why—even under first past the post, if that continues—we will have more hung Parliaments, so it is important that we in politics should adjust to that and respond to what the public clearly wish to achieve.
It is extremely important that the factors to which Professor Curtice refers, which make hung Parliaments a regular reality, impose some new disciplines on all of us involved in Parliament and in politics. Frankly, it is a good thing that we move towards where the public have already led. I do not accept that negotiation and agreement between adults should be painted as somehow grubby or as horse trading. At least the negotiation is a great deal more open than what happened in the elective dictatorship of recent so-called majority Governments.
All of us who are involved in the profession of politics—it is a profession—have a very important opportunity to respond to what the public are asking us to do. The Westminster establishment may not be used to these questions or such realities, but to my mind they now broadly reflect the enlightened view of the British public. Politicians should talk to each other more often. There should be no one monopoly on rectitude. It is one of the great features of this House that we never assume that we are the only ones in the right and that all those over there are inevitably wrong, which tends to happen at the other end of the building. That is the best hope for good government. The best hope is plural government, and that may often mean coalition government.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness for giving us an opportunity to debate these matters. The other place has been despatching to us near-JCB quantities of earthmoving constitutional legislation, which naturally has been absorbing a great deal of the time, attention and nervous energy of your Lordships’ House. Relatively unnoticed among the rumble of these great Bills, however, the Cabinet Office sent us shortly before Christmas 148 pages of an entirely new constitutional document: the draft Cabinet manual, as minted by officials, defined by the Cabinet’s Home Affairs Committee and approved at full Cabinet level by the commission.
It is, in my judgment, an artefact of considerable constitutional significance, although it is not, nor is it intended to be, the core of a written constitution. Essentially, it is the Executive’s operating manual, describing those moving parts of the constitution and associated procedures that the Executive, both Ministers and officials, believe impinge currently on their work. To their credit, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary wish to have our views on the Cabinet manual before it hardens into a first edition. As it does not, in my view, embrace certain constitutional questions central to the work of your Lordships’ House, it deserves serious attention, and I know that shortly the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House will give it just that.
Before examining some of the detail, I must declare an interest. I, with other outsiders, helped the Cabinet Office a little with chapter 2 of the Cabinet manual, on elections and government formation, particularly its section on the hung Parliament contingency. I warmly welcome its publication, not merely because of the clarity that it adds to the delicate matter of the Sovereign’s remaining personal prerogative of appointing a Prime Minister, but generally as a substantial step towards greater transparency in the engine room of central government.
On the appointment of a Prime Minister in hung circumstances, the draft manual refines the earlier version of chapter 2, which was given to the Justice Select Committee in the other place at the end of February 2010 and on which that committee reported before the election. With the experience in mind of the five days in May that led to the coalition’s eventual formation, paragraph 50 of the draft Cabinet manual now makes explicit what was only implicit in the February 2010 version:
“The incumbent Prime Minister is not expected to resign until it is clear that there is someone else who should be asked to form a government because they are better placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons and that information has been communicated to the Sovereign”.
The overriding requirement here is that the Monarch is not drawn into the appearance, let alone the reality, of political partisanship, an impulse I profoundly share.
The original unrevised draft was of critical use for those of us who sat in television and radio studios, for nigh on the whole five days in May, attempting to impersonate the British constitution and being asked constantly what should or should not be happening in constitutional terms. Chapter 2 of the manual generally will be of central use to all concerned if future general elections produce an inconclusive parliamentary arithmetic.
I turn briefly to what is not captured in the 148 pages of the draft manual. There are two important omissions on the national security side: the placing of all the secret agencies on a statutory footing with the Intelligence Services Act 1994, and the associated parliamentary oversight arrangements, which are not covered. Also not covered are the conventions about how and when Parliament has a say in decisions of war and peace.
However, the most striking gaps, on the work of your Lordships’ House in particular, are the lack of any interpretation of what constitutes a money Bill in the minds of the Executive and of any description of the current reach and vitality of the Salisbury/Addison convention of 1945. As a still recent arrival in your Lordships’ House, I respectfully suggest that, from what I have observed here so far, both those questions are of real and immediate concern to many of your Lordships.
I do not think that we have had an executive view of the condition of Salisbury/Addison since Mr Jack Straw, as Leader of the Commons, gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Conventions, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, which reported in 2006. Both Houses debated that report and it was noted with approval in each case, but the Cunningham report’s recommendation that Salisbury/Addison should be the subject of a resolution in your Lordships’ House, subsequently communicated to the other place and renamed the “government Bill convention”, was not acted on. Given that, until last May, Salisbury/Addison was never faced by the political ecology of coalition and the question of what trumps which manifestos or coalition agreements, the time is right for a serious re-examination of Salisbury/Addison and its replacement with a Strathclyde/Royall/McNally convention.
The draft Cabinet manual lacks poetry. Not one of its phrases is likely to cling to the Velcro of memory. It is a very British document: a bundle of laws, conventions and procedures, just like the constitution itself. It is also, in parts, what these days we would call “aspiration”, especially its chapter on the indispensability of proper collective Cabinet government. The Civil Service, being almost entirely herbivorous, to a man and woman, in its approach to government, must have purred with pleasure when Ministers endorsed this section. Whitehall’s herbivores never enjoy command premierships, where collective corners are cut. Cabinet government has enjoyed a revival since last May, possibly because coalitions require higher levels of collegiate spirit and practice. As a fully paid up herbivore myself, I can only welcome this recognition by the coalition of the importance of being collective.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for this debate. The American political theorist Mark Hetherington observed:
“When government programs require people to make sacrifices, they need to trust that the result will be a better future for everyone. Absent that trust, people will deem such sacrifices as unfair, even punitive, and, thus, will not support the programs that require them.”
The election process of 2010 left voters in no doubt that, because of the financial crisis that faced this country, sacrifices would have to be made by the population. They expected whatever party or parties were elected to have to do difficult things. The outcome of the election indicated that the electorate was unsure which Government would be best able to offer the best return on the sacrifice of jobs, homes, financial security and much else that might have to be made.
It is in the nature of coalition government, as the excellent Library Note prepared for this debate indicates, that manifestos upon which parties seek election, have to some extent to be set aside. As the noble Baroness has already pointed out, on previous occasions when coalitions have been formed, elections have followed in order to achieve a mandate from the people. This has not happened with the current coalition, and while such a process is not essential, what becomes important is that, constitutionally, the Executive do not take powers to themselves that do not represent the will of the people.
At the same time, it is in the nature of all Governments, coalitions or otherwise, that they be seen to govern. This means that a hierarchy of priorities has to be established, given the limits of elected time, fixed or otherwise. This Government, as the people expected, have had to make difficult decisions in respect of national debt. Inevitably, this has impacted upon the lives of many ordinary people, who, up until the point of receiving their redundancy notice, believed that the work they were doing was valued and worth while.
Many people see the present circumstances exacerbated by the failure of the market. Harvey Cox, a professor at Harvard, has observed that the market has been treated as omnipotent, possessing all power; omniscient, having all knowledge; and omnipresent, existing everywhere. When the market was in crisis, the Nobel Laureate, Paul Krugman, described it as, “a crisis of faith” and the financial journalists, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, in their book The Gods That Failed, spoke of the market as promising,
“paradise if only we would obey and pamper their hero-servants and allow their strange titans and monsters to flourish. We did as they asked, and have placidly swallowed the prescriptions of the lavishly rewarded bankers … hedge fund managers and private equity tycoons, while turning a blind eye to the rampaging of the exotic derivatives, the offshore trusts and the toxic financial instruments … These gods have failed. It is time to live without them”.
Whether or not such analyses are accurate, they reveal the dilemma for Government. To tackle such godlike powers holds many risks. The temptation therefore becomes the greater to return to those areas where some evidence of government can be seen; areas such as education, social welfare and healthcare. Legislation made in these areas does not exceed manifesto commitments made by either of the participating parties in the coalition. It cannot simply be a choice of the best parts—after all, who decides?
I have recently been in conversation with many of the heads of schools in my diocese. They and other teaching professionals speak of themselves as being exhausted by the relentless stream of legislation, jeopardising their fundamental vocation as teachers of the young. On health, I had a meeting this week with local GPs and, while seeing some merit in the proposals for consortia, they were, nevertheless, concerned about the top-down nature of it and the lack of public consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. One observed to me that, if it is to be managed well, many who now serve the PCTs will walk out of one door and in through another, but probably only after the trauma of job loss, with its attendant anxieties and financial insecurity. Why not a process of evolution rather than revolution, they ask?
I make these points in relation to the NHS first, because prior to the election, the Prime Minister observed:
“There will be no more pointless reorganisations that aim for change, but instead bring chaos. Too often ministers have rearranged the NHS like they’re shuffling a pack of cards … It reveals an attitude to the NHS that sees it just as a bureaucratic machine to be taken apart and put together again”.
Secondly, its not being a manifesto commitment means that the Executive have again decided upon a policy without the consent of the people, thereby undermining one of the fundamental principles of democratic government. The Prime Minister has asked the public to place their trust in the future in terms of what he has called the big society. It is a bold concept, but one still largely undefined, and at risk of seeming hollow in the light of the loss of jobs and security and the sword of Damocles of much top-down change.
It was the late Lord Devlin who observed:
“Society means a community of ideas; without shared ideas on politics, morals and ethics, no society can exist ... If men and women try to create a society in which there is no fundamental agreement about good and evil, they will fail; if, having based it on common agreement, the agreement goes, the society will disintegrate.”
Society is based upon relationships, not on contract. There is no justified government without the consent of the governed. In society, we do together what we cannot do alone. There must be joined-up thinking that ties the aims of a big society together with the realities of a mandate from the people in respect of changes as radical as those currently being proposed. Government are required to seek common good under a mandate from the people and common good is the facilitating of society doing justice to the whole as well as to the parts.
My Lords, let me join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, on introducing this timely debate. I declare my membership of the Select Committee on the Constitution, but today, of course, I speak in my personal capacity and not on behalf of the committee, although I shall draw attention to several of the committee’s reports in recent years when it has discussed the constitution. The first is the 14th Report of the 2003-04 Session entitled Parliament and the Legislative Process. That report noted a concern that a growth in the volume of legislation was not being matched by Parliament’s capacity to scrutinise it effectively. It therefore put forward a number of recommendations aimed at improving matters, including a move to publish more Bills in draft, far greater pre-legislative scrutiny and an emphasis on evidence-taking and consultation.
It is a self-evident truth that the scrutiny of legislation is fundamental to the work of Parliament and subjecting legislation to rigorous scrutiny is an essential responsibility of both Houses of Parliament if bad law is to be avoided and the technical quality of legislation tested. It is also important that those affected by, or with knowledge of, or having an interest in, proposed legislation should have an opportunity to make their voice heard while legislation is being considered, rather than after it has taken effect. Parliament’s influence is usually greater before a Bill has been introduced because Ministers will be more likely to accept change when a Bill is not in a settled state and the Minister is not at the Dispatch Box defending his position. That is why pre-legislative scrutiny is so important and why so many who gave evidence before the committee, including many members of today’s coalition, some of whom are speaking in the debate today, were keen to emphasise its importance.
The committee was aware that not all measures of high political contention have been published in draft in the past and subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, but it did not necessarily regard this as a category for exclusion. As Dr Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit put it, such Bills,
“are arguably the bills that most need proper scrutiny”.
The committee stated, in paragraph 30:
“However committed a Government may be to a measure—and however opposed other political parties may be—that does not necessarily mean that the technical elements of its provisions cannot be improved through early debate and objective scrutiny”.
These points are of even greater importance in the case of Bills which seek to change the constitution. In my view, such Bills should always be the subject of full consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny; subsequent committee reports have continually emphasised this, no matter which party is in power. For example, in the 17th report of the Session 08-09 on the Parliamentary Standards Bill, the committee said,
“The way policy-making has been rushed, the lack of public consultation and the limited opportunities given to Parliament to scrutinise the bill all, in our view, fail to meet the minimum requirements of constitutional acceptability”.
In the 11th report of 2009-10 on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill the committee said,
“The House may take the view that the consequence of the Government tabling so many late amendments to the Bill is that the parliamentary consideration given in both Houses to the important aspects of constitutional reform which this Bill is likely to effect has been substantially curtailed. ... This is no way to undertake the task of constitutional reform”.
When it came to a consideration of the Constitutional Reform Bill—which I remember very well because I was standing next to the bomb when it exploded—and the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, there were many, now to be found on the coalition Benches, who protested that insufficient scrutiny had been given to the Bill’s contents and that in the case of the Constitutional Reform Bill, it should be directed to a Select Committee. A delay of three months, they said, was nothing if it meant that the Bill was got right. The present Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, thought the Bill could be a candidate for carry over, with the delay that that entailed. So it is in this context that I come to consider the coalition Government’s series of piecemeal Bills for constitutional reform.
This is not the place for a detailed consideration of the issues that each raises but it should be noted that they are the product of a coalition agreement produced at speed over a number of days. They clearly represent both the cement to hold the coalition together and the desire to show a determination to get a legislative programme under way with speed and vigour—to hit the ground running, as the Prime Minister so often puts it. Each has been criticised, however, not only by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution but by the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. The Commons committee regretted that the AV Bill was,
“being pushed through Parliament in a manner that limits both legislative and external scrutiny of its impact, and may consequently undermine the Government's intention to restore the public's faith in Parliament”.
The committee said that for primarily political reasons the Bill links two sets of provisions which could have been considered separately and,
“does not include proposals on reforming the House of Lords which would have allowed the composition of Parliament to be developed in the round.”.
The House of Lords Select Committee regarded it,
“as a matter of principle that proposals for major constitutional reform should be subject to prior public consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. We recognise that there may exceptionally be good reasons for departing from this principle, but the perils of doing so are well illustrated in the present Bill. The case for proceeding rapidly with one Part of this Bill is far stronger than for the other”.
Both committees also censure the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill in a similar way in respect of the speed, the lack of consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny.
The report in the House of Commons said:
“It is acutely disappointing to us that we have needed to criticise the Government for the process it has chosen to adopt in the passage of its first two constitutional Bills, the other being the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. While we understand the political impetus for making swift progress in this area, bills of such legal and constitutional sensitivity should be published in draft for full pre-legislative scrutiny, rather than proceeded with in haste. We intend to inquire very soon, in co-operation with the Procedure Committee if possible, into how proper pre-legislative scrutiny of such Bills can best be ensured in future, whether through the House's Standing Orders or otherwise”.
The reasons for pre-legislative scrutiny are of course obvious. Taking evidence and soundings allow arguments to be tested and developed. Issues which seem to be based on arbitrary opinions can be explored and explained. Consensus can be reached and alternatives discovered. In short, argument can be reduced to a smaller number of points and time can be saved.
In this context, the procedures of each House are complementary, one to another. In the other place, as everyone knows, Programme Motions and guillotines mean that scrutiny is curtailed. In this House, the Government have no formal control over parliamentary time, and all amendments tabled must be called and debated. That is precisely what has been applauded by many Members of the other House. In the other place, Report and Third Reading are almost always taken on the same day. In the Lords, Report and Third Reading are nearly always taken on separate days, and amendments may be tabled and considered at Third Reading. Any suggestion that the procedures of this House should be adapted to model the other place would point a dagger at proper scrutiny, and yesterday’s debate highlighted the very real and present danger.
I conclude by saying that it should be axiomatic that every constitutional Bill be published in draft, consulted upon and subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny, with evidence being called and tested. Only the most exceptional circumstances should dictate otherwise, and there is none to justify the two Bills now before this House. In my view, gluing the coalition together for short-term political convenience and an early start on legislative programmes are not exceptional reasons. For the reasons I have given, many of the problems of the past few days could have been avoided if this process had been followed, and the issues hammered out by testing and looking at evidence to prove the propositions being put forward.
By definition, it is unlikely that coalitions will produce joint policies which will have been the subject of identical but separate manifesto commitments. Those policies will not have received public endorsement. On the contrary, they will be a mix and match to bind the parties together in their desire to push forward with a legislative programme to seek to justify the creation of the coalition. That is perfectly understandable, but it is not an excuse and does not justify the promotion of constitutional Bills and claiming for them a special status that exempts them from proper consultation and scrutiny. To do otherwise would lead to all coalitions wanting to adopt a similar course, thereby doing enormous damage to Parliament and its task of full and proper scrutiny.
My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, for introducing this extremely timely debate and enabling this House again to reflect in particular on the possible impact of coalition government on its deliberations. However, I take some issue with two assertions that she made, the first being that the coalition Government have a stranglehold on this House. It is very apparent from the proceedings on the Public Bodies Bill that the coalition has been able to dictate neither the content nor the timing of that deliberation. Indeed, there have been significant amendments passed by this House, against the wishes of the coalition, for the improvement and revision of the Bill.
The second issue that the noble Baroness raised, which is also questionable, is that legislation of Government is legitimate—and I think that she was speaking here about constitutional legislation—only in so far as it is reflected in advance by the manifestos of the parties putting it forward. She admitted the exception to that rule, which occurred in the lifetime of her own Government—the Constitution Act, which dispensed with the role of the Lord Chancellor historically, separated the Judicial Committee from this House and set up the new Supreme Court. That cannot be an absolute rule, and it is not a desirable rule. Manifestos by their nature express broad goals and certainly not detailed methods of implementation of those goals. Furthermore, there are occasions when Parliament must move with a degree of rapidity to respond to situations. I think, for example, of the embarrassment of this House when certain of its Members were considered to have behaved in a manner totally inappropriate to their positions of responsibility. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, gave his advice on the responsibilities and capabilities of this House, but it was by no means an open-and-shut case, and it required a response to the circumstances. Some of the matters being considered for constitutional reform at this time would have been strengthened by prelegislative scrutiny. In that respect, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hart. It is not impossible for this House to express its views on these measures as they are presented to us.
The second point that I would wish to make about the history of the coalition Government is that it is very easy to overlook, when one is concerned with what is admittedly a new situation in modern terms, the extent to which Cabinet Governments have not been monolithic, although they may have been single-party Governments. I go back as far as I can recall, to the Attlee Government. The Bevanites and Gaitskillites were in constant tension with each other. They were not reflecting on the manifesto; they were reflecting different ideologies and practical approaches to the achievement of their respective goals. There was always a tension. Similarly, there was a tension—and the Government of the day did not speak with one voice—when Barbara Castle published her document, In Place of Strife. A minority of the Cabinet, including the Prime Minister and Roy Jenkins, supported her.
Within single-party Governments there are shifting alliances. Perhaps it may be considered that there is some attractiveness in the fact that in a coalition the differences of opinion are sometimes rather more clearly recognisable and understood and made more explicit. I hope that will be so. The coalition partnership agreement refers to that point in its foreword, written by the two leaders. It says:
“So we will extend transparency to every area of public life”.
I very much hope that that includes transparency in respect of the work of the coalition Cabinet and of the two leaders themselves. Their position as a coalition will command greater public trust if it is recognised that the differences of opinion are real and that the contribution to debate is not one of parties entrenched and firing against each other but a genuine part of the democratic debate.
We have had other examples of Government in which differences of opinion have been recognised in modern times—perhaps most notably in respect of the referendum on our membership of the European Union in which Tony Benn and his colleagues were permitted to speak out against the view of the majority of the Cabinet. That was a coalition in all but name. I prefer the version that we have now.
The major issue raised by the coalition’s existence is whether it will confront what was recognised before the election as the biggest problem about the British constitutional arrangements—the overmighty power of the Executive. The Better Government Initiative, created by a number of former civil servants, focused clearly on all that. To my mind, there is some opportunity here again to address those problems more easily in a coalition than in the autocratic single-party leadership that we have faced over quite a long period of the last generation. What will reinforce the public’s trust is the sense of the Government being more deliberative and seeking properly to consult. That does mean having prelegislative scrutiny in constitutional Bills and putting out Green Papers to give the public a proper opportunity to debate and contribute their informed evidence on the issues under discussion. There have been good examples of this from the coalition, noticeably in the Green Paper that has come out about electricity, brought out by Mr Chris Huhne, which sets out what the issues are and how the Government’s mind is moving and gives a proper timetable to enable reactions to come in. Similarly, the Minister of Justice, Mr Kenneth Clarke, brought out a first-class paper on penal matters. That allows the transparency that we require to know what the Government’s thinking is about these issues and the opportunity to participate in the decision-making.
The foreword to the coalition manifesto spoke of the time having come,
“to disperse power more widely in Britain today”.
I am very much in agreement with that overriding rubric, but I hope that the agreement includes recognition of the power of Parliament in respect of the coalition, and that Parliament’s dialogue with the Government will become more than advisory and will, indeed, be informative and creative.
My Lords, I too congratulate and thank my noble friend for proposing this important and timely debate and, indeed, for her skilful analysis of all the issues. It is a pleasure to follow the important and thoughtful speeches that have been made, including the one we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan. I very much look forward to hearing the rest of this debate.
Coalition government is a novelty in the recent history of this country but it is already becoming clear that it has significant constitutional and parliamentary effects. Some are inherent in the nature of coalition Governments; some are the result of the particular circumstances of this coalition Government. It is clear that these effects are likely to develop and evolve further in the months and years ahead.
I want briefly to rehearse what seem to me to be some of the most significant effects so far of this coalition Government and then to make a suggestion to the Government on how they might respond. These are clearly uncharted constitutional waters. Parliamentary conventions, for example, that depend on the primacy of the manifesto commitment have been cast into doubt by a coalition agreement that has jettisoned election commitments made by one or other or both of the parties to the coalition agreement precisely in order to secure that agreement. I make no judgment on this, I simply remark on the fact. Again, the doctrine of collective responsibility has been called into question by the coalition agreement, which sunnily asserts that it continues to apply, except when it does not. In this House, again, for example—I will not dwell on this—we have seen how difficult this new world can be with the bitterly contested PVSC Bill.
In the past, one important way that your Lordships' House has tackled contested and contentious legislation is through negotiation and compromise. But this Government—again, I make no judgment on this; I simply remark on the fact—have clearly found great difficulty in reaching for this solution with this Bill. I do not think that that is because these are unusually stubborn Ministers; rather, it seems to me to be a product of the origins of the Bill in the coalition agreement.
We can all read daily in the media reports of deep unease among Back-Benchers in both parties to the coalition that their interests are somehow being sacrificed to those of the other party. This is inevitable when there is no history of co-operation between the two parties and there has not yet been any time for these parties to build up any real trust between them. This is only to be expected when a coalition has to be put together so quickly and unexpectedly.
Such suspicions may be understandable but when the Bill yokes together two different political agendas, with Part 1 representing, as it were, the Liberal Democrat part of the Bill, and Part 2 the Conservative part, it makes it very difficult for the Government to adopt obvious solutions such as splitting the Bill into two and adopting different timetables for the two parts, which would remove a lot of the problems that we have seen over the past few days. Compromise in one part of the Bill but not the other would inevitably lead to significant unrest in the parliamentary party whose agenda had been compromised and would weaken the coalition. It is this, in my view, which helps account for the unusual inflexibility of the Government over the Bill. Again, I am not seeking to pass judgment but merely to understand what is going on here.
Governments who are the product of a deal clearly find it difficult to do deals. It appears on the basis of this admittedly limited evidence base that if the deal that sets up a coalition is particularly rapid and pressurised, the more difficult it is for the Government to do a deal with the Opposition over legislation. As a result, there have been all-night sittings and passionate complaints from both sides of this House that the proper role of your Lordships' House has been sabotaged by the other side.
I am sure that as today’s debate continues we will hear further examples of the effects of this coalition Government but I conclude my remarks by making a suggestion to the Government about one way they could begin to respond to these new circumstances for our constitutional arrangements. The Government have not rushed to recognise that their formation raises significant constitutional issues. In so far as they have done so, it appears that their actions have been piecemeal and reactive. They have been making it up pretty much as they go along. Again, I am not seeking to criticise the Government. It is perhaps inevitable that that should be the case in the light of the general absence of significant constitutional discourse on these issues in our political culture and in our media. Nor do I think that this is axiomatically a problem. I have long believed that it is generally better to approach constitutional change rather as a physician healing what needs to be healed than as an engineer constructing radical new structures from a blueprint. However, there is much to be said for a systematic examination of these issues that places them in the broader context of the state of our constitution.
Noble Lords have said that this may well not be the last coalition Government that we see in our lifetimes, and that the coalition is as much the product of political change as the cause of it. The politics of our democracy are clearly changing. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, set that out very well. The consequences of these changes need a properly informed debate that is not confined to the committee rooms of Westminster and Whitehall and should not necessarily be confined to the specific issues generated by the coalition Government. For example, how far would a move to a fully codified constitution help tackle these issues? Reference has been made to the Cabinet manual. That seems to me to be part of the creeping codification of our constitutional arrangements, and it should surely be scrutinised in the light of that wider debate. This debate should not be dictated by the Executive. It should start with the people whose constitutional arrangements we all seek to serve. Their views should be solicited through a range of mechanisms including deliberative exercises, such as citizens’ summits, which should inform any policy formulation by the Executive before they present any proposals to the legislature.
This discourse needs to start with a set of rigorously researched, independently validated propositions. At the risk of repeating myself from previous debates, these could be provided by the working group on the constitution established by the previous Government. That included distinguished and expert Members from all sides of this House—lawyers, prominent academics and others—but, despite repeated requests from me, the Government have still to convene it. I am unclear why the Government are so slow to do that. It is a modest proposal, not in the sense that Jonathan Swift meant a modest proposal but a genuine modest proposal. It is as much in the interests of the Government as of everyone else that our discussions on this issue should be informed by such expert deliberation.
I would be grateful if when he winds up the Minister could give some indication of whether he will get this group—or a similar group; he does not have to accept it exactly as it was constituted by the previous Government—under way and, if he will, when. If the Government are not proposing to do that, I would be grateful if he could give some indication of why not.
My Lords, some time between 5.30 and 6.30 yesterday afternoon, it became apparent to me that your Lordships' House had entered a serious constitutional crisis, and I have decided to make that the centre of my speech today.
What has happened is that it has become apparent that a minority of the Members of your Lordships' House can use their power to block legislation that has been introduced by the Government and has been supported by a majority of your Lordships' House. The minority can do this by a large number of Members making speeches that are of great length and repetitive and by not accepting groupings. The only weapon now available to the majority of your Lordships' House in the battle that seems to be happening is closure, but that weapon was designed for other purposes and is not very efficient in stopping the tactics of the minority. In the long run, the House of Commons can, of course, overcome the blocking of Bills in your Lordships' House, but only by the use of the Parliament Act, and that means a delay of a year or more. The Parliament Act was created to allow the House of Commons to override decisions taken by the majority in your Lordships' House, not to deal with the actions of a minority. Having separate actions by a minority was, no doubt, hardly foreseen in 1911.
The use of minority blocking has not previously been seen in your Lordships’ House, at least during the 13 years during which I have been a Member. At the time of the debate on the House of Lords Bill in 1999, it was rumoured that the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury—then Lord Cranborne and the Conservative Leader—had persuaded the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, to agree to the retention of 92 hereditary Peers by a threat to upset future government timetables in your Lordships’ House. Whether that would have happened if there had been no retention of hereditary Peers, I do not know, but that was a case that involved a majority and not a minority of the Members of your Lordships’ House. The problem now is that the powers of a minority in the House have been displayed to all who may become interested. That could well apply to other legislation at a later date, and particularly to legislation for the reform of your Lordships’ House, where some Members may well wish to frustrate or delay reform in all or some of its steps.
Of course, the powers of minority decisions could go much wider than that. There could be frustration of almost anything. To my mind, the use of delaying tactics by a minority, whatever that minority may be, is damaging to the constitution and to the future of your Lordships’ House. The Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, calls,
“attention to the constitutional and Parliamentary effect of coalition government”.
I believe that this is not in fact the issue. The problems have been created by Labour-Party delaying tactics. Those delaying tactics could arise whether the majority was a single party or a coalition, so it is not the coalition that is the significant issue here—it is the Opposition, the Labour Party itself. The real issue is the behaviour of a minority Opposition.
Some of the speeches made during the debate yesterday after the closure vote think that the problem can be settled for good by friendly negotiation. Negotiation is now undoubtedly desirable, but it is not enough for the future as a whole. The action of the Labour Party has, I believe, opened up possibilities which may well reappear later, perhaps to its own detriment. What can we do to meet this problem? For the present, it looks as if we have to leave the matters to negotiation, but for the longer term we are going to need legislation, which may have to be passed under the Parliament Act. We need that in your Lordships’ House.
I would hope that any such legislation would act in a way that prevents anything like we have been facing for the last couple of weeks happening again. It must not allow for the guillotine because it is central that we do not have a guillotine in your Lordships’ House, and it must also prevent the misuse of time for debates. What has happened over the last two days is seriously damaging to the future of your Lordships’ House and is something that is going to concern this House not just for the next few weeks, but for a very considerable time.
In making comparisons between what is happening now with what has happened in the past, has the noble Lord not excluded or failed to mention one very important factor? Now, the coalition Government have what is really an effective majority in your Lordships—an effective majority, not an arithmetical one—where the last Government were clearly in the minority? That is the very fundamental difference.
My Lords, that is perfectly true. However, for centuries—for decades—before 1999, the Conservative Party had a clear majority in your Lordships’ House.
After 1999, or after 1997 perhaps, the then Prime Minister said—I think he was right—that the two largest parties should have an equal number of Members and the third party, which was, of course, my own, should have a proportionate share. The meaning of “proportionate” was never quite worked out. All that has happened here—and what happened between 1999 and now does not make any difference—is that two parties are on the side of the Government rather than two parties being on the side of the Opposition. We have to prepare for situations where one or both of these events may happen.
I have said all that I intend to say. I hope that we will see something that will get us around the serious position we are now in. It will need very careful treatment to get us out of it.