House of Lords
Thursday, 10 May 2012.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Blackburn.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will make a short statement about business. It is usual to do so at this time in a new Session, to try to give the House a flavour of what the next week or two may hold. I know that, with the assistance of the opposition Chief Whip, Forthcoming Business will shortly be available to the House.
All of what I am about to say will be set out in our first edition of that Forthcoming Business. However, in summary, the debate on the Motion of my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty in reply to the gracious Speech will continue until the end of Thursday May 17—one day more than usual. I expect that the slightly, but not wholly, unusual amendment to the humble Address, in the name of the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition, will be both moved and, if necessary, divided upon on Wednesday, with the debate concluding on Thursday.
The following week, we will take a debate on the Olympics and two Second Readings. On Thursday, the Session’s series of Back-Bench debates will start with two balloted debates. I understand that the ballot for those debates will be drawn in the Minute Room next Tuesday, 15 May. It is possible to continue tabling Motions for that ballot until that time.
The following week, commencing 28 May, we will take a further Second Reading and a day of one-hour Questions for Short Debate, subject to a Motion later this week. I know that noble Lords are very keen on Questions for Short Debate and that it is an important matter for Back-Benchers. We will then adjourn a day early for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Recess.
The week of our return from the Diamond Jubilee Recess will be devoted to the Second Readings of the Bills carried over in the other place last Session, and a Thursday debate.
Trusts (Capital and Income) Bill [HL]
A Bill to amend the law relating to capital and income trusts.
The Bill was introduced by Lord McNally, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill [HL]
A Bill to set up a groceries code adjudicator with the role of enforcing the groceries code and encouraging compliance with it.
The Bill was introduced by Baroness Wilcox, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
European Union (Approval of Treaty Amendment Decision) Bill [HL]
A Bill to make provision for the purposes of Section 3 of the European Union Act 2011 in relation to the European Council decision of 25 March 2011, amending Article 136 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union with regard to a stability mechanism for member states whose currency is the euro.
The Bill was introduced by Lord Howell of Guildford, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Crime and Courts Bill [HL]
A Bill to establish and make provision for a national crime agency; to abolish the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the National Policing Improvement Agency; to make provision about the judiciary and the structure, administration, proceedings and powers of courts and tribunals; to make provision about border control; to make provision about drugs and driving; and for connected purposes.
The Bill was introduced by Lord Henley, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Inheritance (Cohabitants) Bill [HL]
A Bill to make provision about the property of deceased persons who are survived by a cohabitant.
The Bill was introduced by Lord Lester of Herne Hill, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Company Remuneration Bill [HL]
A Bill to make provision about companies’ remuneration policies.
The Bill was introduced by Lord Gavron, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill [HL]
A Bill to make further provision about arbitration and mediation services and the application of equality legislation to such services; to make provision about the protection of victims of domestic abuse; and for connected purposes.
The Bill was introduced by Baroness Cox, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Online Safety Bill [HL]
A Bill to make provision about the promotion of online safety; to require internet service providers and mobile phone operators to provide a service that excludes pornographic images; and to require electronic device manufacturers to provide a means of filtering content.
The Bill was introduced by Baroness Howe of Idlicote, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Business of the House
Motion on Standing Orders
To move, pursuant to the resolution of the House of 28 March, that in the event of a Trusts (Capital and Income) Bill being read a first time in the same form as it stood at the end of the last session of Parliament, Standing Order 46 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with to enable the Bill to be read a second time pro forma.
Trusts (Capital and Income) Bill [HL]
Debate (2nd Day)
Moved on Wednesday 9 May by
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:
“Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament”.
My Lords, I am very pleased to be able to open the days of debate ahead on the humble Address. I spoke yesterday on a Motion to adjourn the House, and I said then that I would be speaking today to put some flesh on the bones of some of the constitutional announcements made in the gracious Speech.
We have agreed through the usual channels that for today and Monday the principal topic for debate will be constitutional affairs. I know that this is a subject which the House takes very seriously and is in many respects uniquely placed to comment on. I am pleased to see so many speakers signed up for this debate and I know that we will benefit from the expertise available in this Chamber.
We are an outward-looking and inclusive nation, and we adapt inevitably to the world changing around us. That is why the Prime Minister announced last year that we will reform the rules governing royal succession. With the agreement of 15 other Commonwealth realms of which Her Majesty is also head of state, we will bring forward proposals to ensure that a daughter will be treated the same as a son in the line of succession. Once we have agreed the way forward, we will bring forward legislation when parliamentary time allows. The detail is of course still the subject of discussions, but agreement in principle to take forward these changes has already been secured at the very highest level, as the Prime Minister and other Commonwealth Heads of Government made clear in Perth last year.
The Government will also bring forward legislation to tackle electoral fraud, by introducing individual electoral registration requiring electors to register individually rather than by household. In doing so, individuals will have to provide information to verify their application. This will update our electoral registration system, making it easier and more convenient for people to register to vote. New methods of registration, such as online registration, will also be looked at and our aim is to tackle electoral fraud, increase the number of people registered to vote and improve the integrity of the register. By 2015, every individual’s entry on the register will have been verified.
I am of course aware that the most significant change to our constitutional arrangements which was announced in the gracious Speech, and perhaps that of most interest to many speakers today, is the proposal to change the composition of this House. I know from a most useful and meticulous debate last week that noble Lords are fully appraised of the contents of the draft House of Lords reform Bill and the Joint Committee’s report on that Bill, and indeed the alternative report on it. In summary, the draft Bill proposed to change the way in which people come to this House. Nearly all are currently recommended by leaders of political parties. The Bill would change this so that most Members of the House of Lords would be elected directly by the people. In doing this, the Bill would bring democratic legitimacy to the reformed House of Lords. For the first time, the people who obey the laws of this country would be able to elect the people in the second Chamber who helped make those laws. The second Chamber will have a democratic mandate with which to do its work.
Furthermore, the size and membership of the House of Lords would be substantially reduced, and elected Members would come from all regions and nations of the UK. The House of Lords would also, for the first time, be able to expel Members who have committed serious offences. We intend to bring this Bill forward now because we believe the time has come for Parliament to take a view on what has become a well rehearsed issue. All three major political parties agree that reform of your Lordships’ House is needed. We all recognise the importance of bringing increased democratic legitimacy into our second Chamber. Now is the time to start taking actual decisions on how to make it happen.
There is not a single person who has joined the House of Lords since 1997 who cannot have been wholly aware of the proposals for change. Indeed, change has rightly been a feature of this House during this transitional phase, as the membership of this House has continued to evolve. Nor have our customs and conventions been set in stone over that period. Indeed, over the course of the last Session alone we set many uncomfortable precedents. By September last year, the proportion of Bills sent to Grand Committee in a full-length Session had fallen to a 10-year low, prompting a vote on the commitment of the Welfare Reform Bill—which, incidentally, turned out to be a resounding success. We witnessed the longest Committee stage of a Bill since the early 1970s and more Bills taking longer than eight days in Committee than did so over the entirety of the last Parliament.
We saw Third Readings of Bills take ever longer, with many important votes and amendments unnecessarily postponed until later stages or amendments being brought back time and again that had already been properly disposed of. We broke with convention by pressing amendments rejected by another place on the grounds of financial privilege. Even the Leader of the Opposition absurdly voted against the advice that she had previously given as Leader of the House. This suggests that, irrespective of the progress of proposals for reform, the House is already more assertive, more willing to challenge the primacy of the House of Commons and, on occasion, prepared to test the conventions around reasonable time.
The future of this House has been hanging in the balance ever since we embarked on the first phase of reform that the Labour Party started in 1998. It is now time to move on to the second phase. It seems so long since 1999, when the Labour Party said that the transitionary House would exist for only a very short period. That party promised us early reform, and in government it accepted by-elections to replace dead hereditary Peers because stage two would come along so soon. I very much hope that noble Lords opposite who are due to speak from the Front Bench will be able to explain Labour’s failure over the past 12 years, and why it never delivered the promised democratic legitimacy that Tony Blair yearned for in 1997—yet another failure.
I am most grateful to my noble friend for giving way. Is he aware that when Tony Blair made his last appearance before the Liaison Committee in another place, he made it abundantly plain that he did not think that this place should be subject to direct elections?
My Lords, I am aware of that. I am particularly impressed that those questions were aimed at those in the Labour Party and my noble friend is now answering questions posed to them. I want the Labour Party to tell us whether it agrees with Tony Blair last year or in the late 1990s. That is the question we need to get to the bottom of.
The reform Bill that we introduce in this Session will take account of the work done so far. It will build on the commissions, White Papers and cross-party working groups, most of which were chaired by senior members of the Labour Party in government pleading with us to create a consensus so that they could get on with stage two of reform. When we come forward with our Bill, it will take account of the Joint Committee’s report and conclusions on the draft Bill, which will no doubt leave their mark on our proposals. I say, with the noble Lord, Lord Richard, in his place, that we are very pleased that the Joint Committee has broadly confirmed its support for a mainly elected House of Lords and are reassured that the Government and the Joint Committee agree on so many of its key elements.
I do not underestimate what a task it will be to resolve those issues that remain outstanding, nor to come forward with a Bill that will gain support across the parties in both Houses. We wish to proceed by consensus, and we recognise that that will be achieved only by bringing the Front Benches of all three parties with us—and, I hope, their Back Benches too. We do not expect simply to stumble upon a consensus; we have to build it. So the Labour Party will have to make up its mind what kind of second Chamber it is supporting, and will have to choose whether it is going to be part of that consensus.
No, my Lords. However, I think that my explanation of a consensus was misunderstood. Any student of this subject, as I have been over the past 15 years, will know that there is no consensus in the House of Commons without that consensus being made from all three main parties. That was the point. Unless there is a majority in the House of Commons, the Bill will not get passed, and unless it is supported right across the main parties, there will not be that majority in the House of Commons.
No, my Lords. It would be very nice to have a consensus between the three Front Benches. I think that that is a condition of being able to create a consensus in both Houses of Parliament.
A moment ago, I said something extremely important that the Labour Party and the House need fully to understand. Consensus in Parliament will be impossible without the support of the Labour Party. The Government’s latest brave and sensible proposal is built on the White Paper by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, the White Paper by Mr Jack Straw when he was Lord Chancellor and the consensus created by my noble friend Lord Wakeham when he chaired the royal commission 10 or 11 years ago. If this Bill founders now, having had all this work done on it, then I am utterly convinced that it will be entirely due to Labour’s conniving and collective spinelessness. The spines are already quivering.
I am interested in what the noble Lord said about consensus and take account, particularly, of what the Joint Committee recommended. One of its recommendations—and this concerns consensus—was that there should be a referendum of the people about this. Will the Bill that will be presented to Parliament contain a clause insisting on a referendum before any reform for an elected House?
My Lords, we have not taken a final view on the Joint Committee’s report and proposals. We are working on that now. I do not really see the case for a referendum any more than the Labour Party did in 1999 or when it kicked out the Law Lords or for most of the other constitutional changes that it made, but more of that in a moment.
The Leader seems to be making great play with his accusation that the Labour Party is not united on this issue and that we are therefore responsible should the Bill fail. Can I take from that that he is confident in his defence of his own position that there is complete unity on the Conservative Benches?
My Lords, the noble Lord forgets that he and I have been debating this issue for very many years, I rather longer than him, and my position has been utterly simple and consistent, unlike the Labour Party’s. I have never believed that there was a consensus within the Conservative Party. There has not been one in the past 120 years, and there is not going to be one over the course of the next 10 weeks. That is precisely the point. What I want the Labour Party to do in a few moments is to tell us on what basis it will support this reform. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will do so.
That is the point: the commitment was to build consensus across the parties to see whether Parliament would agree to reform. That is precisely the point and I thank my noble friend Lord Forsyth for saying that. The commitment was never to create consensus within the Conservative Party. Why on earth would I have bothered to try to do that?
However, there was consensus—on any of the noble Lord’s definitions—in relation to the Steel Bill. When he says that he will give that Bill a fair wind, what does he mean? Does he mean the original Steel Bill or the one that was heavily truncated?
My Lords, the only Bill emanating from my noble friend Lord Steel that has passed through this House was the one that languished in another place at the end of the previous Session of Parliament. I think it extremely likely that the Government’s proposals will include aspects of my noble friend’s Bill, and they should be discussed in that context.
I move on to the next part of this speech in support of the gracious Speech. I hope that, in a moment, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, will speak with his usual clarity. Out of nowhere, Labour now says that it will support a Lords reform package provided the Cross-Benchers are removed. I wonder what the Cross-Benchers did to deserve this. There has been no mention of it over the past 10 years, but suddenly the Cross-Benchers must be flung out of this House before the Labour Party will support the consensus. I say to the Cross-Benchers that they need to pick their friends rather more carefully.
Secondly, there is the codification of powers so that the newly elected House will have less power than the existing appointed House. This is a new sort of rich absurdity that has crept into this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, shakes his head; is he saying that he does not want codification of powers? The other day he seemed very keen on it. He will be able to reply in a moment.
It is a great pleasure to intervene in the noble Lord’s remarkable speech this morning. The issue of powers, which has now been fully explored by the Select Committee and the alternative report, is very clear. With two elected Houses, there is a great danger of gridlock and a fight for legitimacy. That is why some codification is necessary. The issue of an elected House having fewer powers than this House is a red herring because this House does not use all its powers since it is not elected.
My Lords, the noble Lord has responded to my invitation to speak with clarity. Labour will support only a 100% elected House with a codification of powers that means that the elected House will have less power than the existing one. The noble Lord can quiver and quibble—he and his noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton can do all those things—but in the end they need to be clear on all this. I wonder where all this nonsense came from. Throughout the past 10 years, no Joint Committee, White Paper or any aspect of this has ever mentioned that Labour was in favour of the codification of powers.
I will tell the Leader where it has come from. We want to make the primacy of the elected House a reality. You cannot make the primacy of the Commons a reality unless you do something about codification of the powers here. The refusal to take that seriously, as was shown by Clause 2 of the draft Bill, shows that the Government still have not got it.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was a distinguished Minister with the previous Administration. At no time did he make those points in Parliament or within his Government, in all the Joint Committees that met or the White Papers that were published. They did not start quibbling about the primacy of the House of Commons then. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, in his Joint Committee has made an entirely sensible, reasonable and well argued case about the defects of Clause 2, and we will take those up. However, the Labour Front Bench in this House and, I suspect, in another place, has decided that it does not want to create a consensus, and that is why it has come up with these conditions.
I wonder whether the noble Lord has forgotten the establishment of the committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, to look precisely at the powers, and so on, of this House before further action was taken on the composition of the Lords.
I am well aware of that, but it is pretty rum that the report from the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, laid out a whole bunch of conventions that in the past two years the Labour Party, which supported it, has been very happily breaking.
What else have we got? Suddenly, in 2010, the Labour Party says that there needs to be a referendum. There is no explanation of what kind of referendum. I see that the Leader of the Opposition is now talking to her noble friend Lord Hunt; I hope that they are going to explain what they mean.
Let me bring this to a conclusion. The Labour Party’s position is that there should be no Cross-Benchers but codification to reduce the powers and a referendum before it wishes to create a consensus. Will the noble Lord and his noble and learned friend confirm that these are the Labour Party’s conditions and that it will block any consensus without them? The House will expect the noble Lord to give an answer.
The Leader of the House has not yet mentioned another little time bomb that is ticking away—a committee that has been set up under the chairmanship of Bill McKay to look at how votes are carried out in the House of Commons and to exclude Northern Irish, Welsh and Scottish Members from voting on matters that are purely English, or designated as such. That is an important matter that relates to the reform of the House of Lords, but no mention has been made of it or how it fits in. Has the Leader of the House thought of that? Have the Government thought about it, and what are they going to do about it?
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, refers to the West Lothian question. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, said that it was a question that was better not asked. In the House of Commons—and it is entirely a matter for them—they are looking at it to see what solutions they can bring. Those are solutions for another place; they are not for us.
The noble Lord is entertaining the House with a fascinating speech, but could he say whether, were the other place to change its voting on the basis of country of origin of the Member, he would expect this House to continue in the current way? Secondly, I have listened very carefully to many debates. It surprises me that the noble Lord the Leader of the House does not seem to recognise that the position on our Benches and around the House has always been a recognition of the primacy of the House of Commons. He maligns Members of the House by implying that the primacy of the House of Commons is a concern only on our Benches. Around the House there is a fear of a constitutional gridlock, not least because many members of the public and the media keep referring to this House as a legislature. It is not—it is a reforming Chamber.
The Leader did not answer my question, which is a very important one. Let us suppose that the West Lothian question commission, which is chaired by Bill McKay, recommends that Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not vote on purely English matters in the Commons, and then we have an elected House of Lords. What would be the position of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Members in the newly elected Senate?
I am most grateful to the Leader for giving way. However, on reflection, does he not consider it a little wrong that the whole burden of his speech, to which I have listened with great attention, is that he admits, with his characteristic honesty, that there is no consensus or agreement on the Conservative Benches either in this place or in the other place, and that therefore it is the duty of the Labour Party—the Opposition—to rescue the Government from their folly in putting forward this proposal at this time?
My Lords, I do not think that it was particularly candid of me to express a view that there was not much unity on this proposal in the Conservative Party in this House, or, indeed, in the Labour Party in this House. Anyone who has read the debates that we have had over the past 10 or 12 years would have to be completely bonkers not to recognise that. However, that is not so true in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons have largely unified around all this. However, the point that my noble friend Lord Lawson makes is that we would not be in this position if, over the past 10 years, the Labour Party had not sought to reform this Chamber and make it more democratic. That debate must now come to an end. We cannot keep on talking about this. We have had enough of Joint Committees looking at draft Bills and of endless White Papers and royal commissions. We now need to move forward and make a decision. That is what this Government are going to do over the next few months.
My Lords, before the noble Lord the Leader of the House sits down, may I ask him a question not about who did what when, or whose fault this is, but about the Joint Committee report? A little earlier he said that the Joint Committee supported a mainly elected House of Lords. However, he omitted to say—I will quote from what the Joint Committee actually said—that it agreed that the reformed second Chamber of legislature,
“should have an electoral mandate, provided it has commensurate powers”.
The noble Lord might acknowledge that this is not just about an elected second Chamber. The phrase,
“provided it has commensurate powers”,
is a very important one. I hope he will acknowledge that that is what the Joint Committee said, as opposed to what he omitted to say.
My Lords, that was a remarkable speech by the noble Lord the Leader of the House. It was a remarkable display in which he sought to wash his hands of any responsibility for the Government’s failure to get anywhere with Lords reform.
As regards my party’s work in relation to reform of your Lordships’ House, it is widely acknowledged that the reforms which took place in 1999 improved the effectiveness of this House and that it is held in high regard because of the quality of its scrutiny and revising work. We should not underestimate the esteem in which your Lordships’ House is held. Of course, we wanted to move forward on the path of reform and we tried to seek consensus. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, knows, consensus on reform of your Lordships’ House is a jolly hard thing to achieve. I suspect that the noble Lord’s blustering this morning, in which he sought to frame the Labour Party for his own Government’s failures, was an attempt to disguise a fact: I wonder if they have a Bill prepared to present to Parliament at all, because on all the substantive questions put forward by the Joint Select Committee and in the alternative report we have yet to receive any answers. I hope that as we go through this debate—and when the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, winds up—we might actually get answers to some fundamental questions about the relationship between two elected Houses, which goes to the heart of our debate.
This is a curious debate to have when the country is in such a critical moment—is it not?—with the economy in recession, unemployment high and investment depressingly low. We have a Government who, having produced a tax cut for millionaires, are now watching passively as millions live in fear of unemployment and are forced to pay more in bills, fares and petrol prices. We desperately needed from the Queen’s Speech a policy for growth to create jobs, halt fare increases and tax the banks. But from this laissez-faire Government we have nothing. It is no wonder that business leaders this morning expressed their dismay at the lack of any positive budgetary proposals.
We have had the thinnest of Queen’s Speeches, which is wholly irrelevant to people’s lives—nothing on growth and nothing on jobs. Even on the biggest social issue that we face—care for older people—all we are to get is a draft Bill, with no guarantee to implement the much-needed Dilnot proposals. There is no high-speed rail Bill and no development Bill. Instead, there is a hotchpotch of a programme in which Lords reform was originally intended to be the focal point. Then we had the elections last week and the panic in the other place on the Back Benches of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. Lords reform has clearly been downgraded to reserve status.
Yet, in your Lordships’ House, we are now to enjoy two full days debating constitutional affairs. We will no doubt have a stimulating debate. I have no doubt that much that is new will be brought to that debate, but I wonder what the public will think of that sense of priorities when so much of our economy is at stake. I wonder what they will think of the Government and their endless tinkering with our constitutional arrangements. Already we have had legislation on fixed-term Parliaments and a reduction in the number of MPs. We have been gifted politicised police commissioners, with elections in November and real concern about the low turnout expected. England’s biggest cities were forced to have referendums on elected mayors and, even though the Government got a big raspberry for their pains, Ministers now want to implant mayors on regions and unwilling populations. A referendum on Scottish independence is to come. There is a huge amount of churn but very little coherence in these stand-alone measures.
I get no sense that this will enhance public confidence in our democracy. I get no sense that we are anywhere near increasing public involvement in our democratic processes. Voter turnout gets ever lower, and people’s interest in politics gets lower still. Nowhere is this piecemeal approach more neatly expressed as in the approach to House of Lords reform.
It is worth waiting for, my Lords.
Let us pick up the point made by my noble friend Lord Foulkes. We have a government commission considering the West Lothian question and the place of Scottish MPs at Westminster voting on laws that apply only to England. The current terms of reference apply only to the Commons, but surely the same issues would apply to an elected second Chamber. That is readily apparent when one considers the potential referendum on Scottish independence. Independence for Scotland would of course be a game changer. Carwyn Jones, the First Minister for Wales, has argued that if Scotland were, unfortunately, to leave the UK, and fearing English domination of what is left of the UK, there should be a new Senate in which Wales, Northern Ireland and England should enjoy equal status. You do not have to agree with the First Minister to realise that we may well be heading for a new constitutional settlement of major proportions in which the second Chamber ought to be a constituent part. I put it to the noble Lord the Leader that the place of an elected second Chamber has to be considered as part of a more fundamental question about the future of our United Kingdom and its democratic arrangements.
The alternative report recommended a constitutional convention to look at the next steps on House of Lords reform. That is an excellent suggestion but I wonder whether the remit should not be widened to look at these pressing constitutional issues that we face as a United Kingdom, and perhaps we have a little time to do so.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, talks about the Labour position on Lords reform but what is the Government’s position? Briefings emanating from Conservative parts of the Government in the past day or so have suggested that the importance of reform has been downgraded. Threats to use the Parliament Act seem to have faded a little and there is even talk of a search for consensus. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was at it again today.
Significantly, the Prime Minister’s call to arms in the Telegraph on Monday made no mention of Lords reform. On the same day, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Osborne, said that it was absolutely not a high priority. Even yesterday, Mr Cameron seemed rather lukewarm when it came to the debates in the other place. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, rather gave the game away over the weekend. In his fascinating article in the Sunday Telegraph, he proclaimed, as usual, his belief in an elected Chamber but then predicted that the Bill might get killed off in the Commons. Indeed, it seems that that is the option of choice for most Cabinet Ministers, at least on the Conservative Benches. Yesterday the noble Lord went further in the Financial Times and said that an elected House would be more aggressive in challenging the decisions of the Commons. Of course it will, but I suspect that the noble Lord was just giving a signal to MPs of his own party in the other place and perhaps an invitation to ditch the Bill.
In contrast to the voices emanating from the Conservative Party, we have had the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Clegg, signalling his determination to press ahead with Lords reform, while his right honourable friend Mr Cable said, in a moment of supreme optimism, that we should get on with it quickly and quietly.
So what are the Government intending? What is their priority? Yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, talked of adapting the proposals in response to my noble friend’s Joint Select Committee report. The choice of wording in the Queen’s Speech, describing the Bill as being concerned with composition, is intriguing. The noble Lord said this morning that it means that the Government will bring forward proposals that have elected Members and a smaller House at their core. Therefore, I ask him or his noble friend Lord Wallace: have the Government decided to ignore the Joint Select Committee’s report and the alternative report on the inadequacies of the crucial part of the Bill—Clause 2? Has the wording in the Queen’s Speech been couched in neutral terms to allow for a discussion on reaching a consensus? That would be welcome but, as we have discovered, more meanings are involved in that than “consensus”. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, defines consensus as what the Commons thinks, although he now sees himself as being rather misunderstood. Mr Clegg thinks that consensus is what he thinks, but Mr Clegg is Deputy Prime Minister and is in a position of some influence. Why is he so reluctant to have a proper conversation about Lords reform? If consensus breaks down, look no further than Mr Clegg and the fact that when we had joint talks at the beginning of this Parliament, the moment substantive issues were raised by the Opposition those talks broke down and we were never invited to them again. Do not lecture this party on consensus. We stand always ready to talk to the Government about Lords reform. We will do everything we can to help reach consensus, but consensus is a three-way process in our current political system. So far there is no sign that the Government are prepared to listen.
I am intrigued by the wording on the Bill. I wonder whether it is cover for eventual government support for the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. Perhaps, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has a plan B for a Steel-plus Bill to deal with the size of the House. The briefings from different parts of the Government have been confusing, but I want to be clear and I accept the invitation offered by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to say that if the Government press ahead with proposals for an elected House, it is inescapable that unless they can articulate the role, functions and powers of both Houses and their relationship with each other, the Bill will fall at the first hurdle. It would deserve to do so. That goes to the heart of the arguments put forward by the Joint Select Committee and in the alternative report.
My Lords, we will of course have to see what is in the Bill. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, we have been told by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the Government are busily pondering how to adapt their proposals in relation to the report of the Joint Select Committee. It is not unreasonable to say that we should see what is in the Government’s Bill, particularly given the ambiguity of the wording in the Queen’s Speech.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his patience. Anyone listening to his previous statement would have concluded that it would be a condition for Labour to have those powers defined before it supported the Bill. It is nice of him to tell us that that is not a condition. Clarity on this matter really would be useful.
I am slightly confused. The noble Lord asked me whether the Labour Party would support the Bill. I said that we had better see what is in it. I can tell the noble Lord that it is an inescapable conclusion and quite clear from my reading of the workings of both the Select Committee and the alternative report that, unless we are clear about the respective powers of both elected Houses, it will be very difficult indeed to make progress.
I thank the noble Lord for giving way and I understand the importance of the issue to which he has just alluded. However, I suggest that another very important issue that might be a way of resolving these problems is to look more closely, which unfortunately the Joint Committee did not do, at procedures to resolve disputes.
That is a very helpful suggestion. One way or another with two elected Houses, whatever is in the legislation on the respective powers, there will always be a need for procedures to deal with the situation when both Houses disagree with each other, particularly if both Houses claim equal legitimacy, as is likely to happen, and particularly if the upper Chamber were elected on a different system of voting where the arguments for legitimacy will be legion. The noble Lord is quite right to suggest that reconciliation machinery must be part of the package, but I do not think that that can substitute for absolute clarity about the respective powers and the role of both Houses if they were both elected.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, is widely liked and admired in your Lordships’ House. In his wind-up speech last week, he apologised for not answering all the points made, but he did not answer any of them. These points go to the heart of our debate. He was asked whether a second Chamber elected by proportional representation would not claim greater legitimacy than the Commons. He was silent. Asked about the applicability of the Parliament Acts, he was no more forthcoming. Instead, he said that the Government would set out their legal reasoning on the application of the Parliament Acts if a Bill were included in the Queen’s Speech. A Bill was included in the Speech. Will the noble Lord now tell me when the advice will be made available?
The advice must answer two questions. The first is on the use of the Parliament Acts in relation to a Lords reform Bill. The second is on their use more generally in application to an elected second Chamber. I remind the Minister that both my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said that the drafters of the 1911 Parliament Act did not intend its provisions to apply in the event of a second Chamber being constituted on a popular basis.
On the question of cost, the Minister said that no estimate could be given because a final decision had yet to be made on the number of Members. However, there is nothing to stop the Government coming up with a series of different options based on different sizes.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, suggested that the primacy of the Commons was a wonderful obstacle against which one kicked. Of course it is, but primacy is at the heart of our constitutional arrangements. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, talked about involving conventions and of the House being more assertive, which I fully acknowledge; it is one reason why many people think that the House of Lords has become a more effective Chamber in the past 10 or 12 years. However, on the balance of power, the arguments between two elected Houses will be much greater than those caused by a non-elected House exercising a small degree of assertiveness.
My Lords, we are in favour of a 100%-elected House. We debated hybridity last week. Our view on a mostly elected Chamber is that the 20% non-elected element would not feel confident about making a positive contribution in a House that would be much more political. One has only to think of what happened with hereditary Peers. I well remember, when my party was in government, that when we lost votes we counted up the votes of hereditary Peers, and if it turned out that we had lost because of their votes we made a great play of it. The same thing would happen with Cross-Benchers. They would be in an impossible position because it would be argued that because of non-elected Cross-Benchers the will of the elected majority in the second Chamber had been thwarted. In a non-elected House, I pay tribute to the great contribution of Cross-Benchers. However, a hybrid 80%-elected House would not work.
I have listened to the noble Lord’s very important and interesting speech. Does it follow from his argument that the Labour Party’s position will be that because of the West Lothian question and the examination of it, and because of the Scottish referendum, it would be more sensible to postpone consideration of parliamentary reform so that options such as a Senate and indirect elections from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England should be contemplated—or is that simply a debating point?
My Lords, it is an interesting idea. If we face huge constitutional change in the affairs of the United Kingdom because of the referendum and the potential of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, one should at least put on the table the fact that there might need to be some kind of constitutional convention to consider what impact that would have on Westminster and certainly on the second Chamber. In the mean time, if a Bill is brought forward we will of course give it every consideration. None the less, it will have to deal with the issues of powers and relationships—we believe that it should be 100% elected—and one cannot duck the fundamental positions that my party has adopted.
Perhaps I may give my noble friend another example. We did not develop this matter in the Joint Committee, but it was raised. If we were to have a second elected House—80% or 100%, it does not matter—it would leave the United Kingdom as the only country in the world with two elected Houses and no written constitution. If you looked at the matrix of those with unicamerals and those without written constitutions, and then look at those with elected second Chambers, you would see that we would be unique. In other words, there is nowhere else we can go to learn about how you work with two elected Chambers without a written constitution for settling disputes. That is a barmy position in which to put ourselves.
I agree with the noble Lord. He is absolutely right. Of course, this is not new. One has only to go back to the preamble of the 1911 Act because the drafters of that Act knew that too. That is why they said that if a Chamber were constituted on a popular basis—and noble Lords on the Lib Dem Benches frequently remind us of the distance between 1911 and 2012—new proposals would be needed for limiting and defining the powers of the new second Chamber. The position in 1911 was exactly the same as the one pointed out by my noble friend today.
We are on a truly uncertain journey. Last week, in a notable intervention, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, asked how the public would feel about a constitutional change, which is really a deal got up by the two political parties in the coalition, whereby the Conservatives get extra Members in the Commons and in return the Lib Dems get control of the balance of power in the House of Lords. I wonder how the public would feel—as has been briefed in the past few days by a number of people close to the Conservative Party—if, in order to save the immediate future of the coalition, another deal might be got up in which the Conservatives do not get the extra seats after all and in return the Lib Dems drop their passion for Lords reform. What would the public think if that were to happen?
Indeed, how do the public feel about Lords reform? As a Birmingham resident, last week I took part in a ballot to decide whether we were to have an elected mayor, and I wonder why the people of Birmingham are not to be given a say on whether we should have an elected second Chamber. There is only one answer: Mr Clegg is frightened of a referendum and what the public would say.
The Government owe it to the nation to think very hard about the substantive issues that are likely to be raised in our debates on the Bill. I hope the Government will listen carefully to the words of the Joint Select Committee and the alternative group. I also hope that the Government will in the end realise that they owe it to the British people to decide and will agree that, whatever proposals come forward, there ought to be a referendum of the people.
My Lords, for the last 20 minutes or so, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, has been busily rewriting his 2008 White Paper, and some would say tearing it up. I thought that it was rather a good White Paper, but I do not propose to follow him down that route. The 11 hours of debate devoted to the reform of our House persuaded me not to concentrate excessively on that issue today. Indeed, I want to try to avoid yet more incestuous self-congratulatory introspection. Instead, I want to look at the wider context to which the gracious Speech rightly drew our attention, that of political disengagement, which is the context for all the proposals that have come forward.
I have been involved in party politics for more than 40 years, in common, I suspect, with many other Members of your Lordships’ House. Party politics has a place in binding together people of similar persuasions and allowing them to act in concert and to get things done. It is easy to malign political parties, but I would suggest that they are very necessary. Yet the ebb and flow of electoral fortunes, and the ability to throw the scoundrels out, are surely no longer sufficient to persuade people that our country is genuinely democratic, that it is a place where power is shared on an open and equal basis, and where citizens can influence the course of events by the strength of their vote and the power of their voice.
We should take some examples, notably the corrosive effect on public confidence of a series of scandals like “Cash for Access” and, before that, the “Loans for Lords”. The Government are again working to look at the issue of party funding, but to solve the problem, we need to be bold. It is all very well to search for consensus, but one day someone is simply going to have to take a decision. I trust that that will be done in this Session of Parliament, and I hope that it will form part of the other measures mentioned in the gracious Speech which are to be put before us. For my own part, the Kelly proposals to spend 50p per elector on removing the big donations from political parties should be a good starting point. Everybody understands that finding extra money for politics now has implications for public confidence, but surely it is urgent to look at the ways in which present funding is distributed so that we can avoid buying influence for the disproportionate sway of the few and instead buy equal influence for the many.
In the Queen’s Speech, as the Leader of the House has said, the Government have promised an electoral registration Bill. That may seem rather unimportant to many in your Lordships’ House, but in fact it is the bedrock of our democracy: those who are entitled to be on the register have a civic duty to be on it, and they need to be there. Since recent research by the Electoral Commission shows that we are failing to register nearly one in five people in this country—and disproportionately so in some inner city areas, of course—this is a very serious issue that demands the immediate attention of the Government. I am only sorry that the previous Government did not make more progress on it. In previous debates in this House we have heard of the potential risks associated with individual registration, but I think that we should consider this as a great opportunity to engage more people, particularly younger and more mobile people in inner cities. I strongly support the efforts of my noble friend Lord Rennard to ensure that registration—not voting, but registration—remains a civic duty backed by a financial penalty, as it always has been.
With that firm backstop, there are also opportunities to engage military service personnel in their barracks, students directly in their universities and other colleges, and 16 year-olds in school. That happens to have been the experience in Northern Ireland which has moved on most successfully to individual registration and where the legal requirement has been retained. Voter registration in school is an obvious corollary for the citizenship curriculum rightly introduced by the last Government. In Northern Ireland, it is a natural continuum and has been very successful.
However, there is still more to do to persuade people that their role in a democracy can make a difference. We live in a world where interaction across great geographical and social chasms is instant: students chat to their tutors online; consumers email chief executive officers and get a reply; and, crucially, people can see the value as an end in itself of open dialogue around the issues of the day. Across counties, countries and continents, people show that they are far from disinterested in policy and politics, but for all that technology, no citizen has been brought closer to Westminster, which remains a world apart. Individual politicians try to engage as best they can, but the system itself seems “sludgen” and inert to the public. Parliament is a paradox: manifestly, it is a seat of power and yet not obviously a place that appears to get things done.
Of course, there are no easy answers about how to strike the right balance between maintaining the principle of representative democracy—one person, one vote—and bringing the process of decision-making closer to where people now do their politics; if there were, they would have been produced many years ago. If political debate generates more oxygen on Facebook than at the ballot box, we have to do more than simply lament that fact; we have to work out how to persuade people that issues worth entering into a dialogue about—perhaps with a perfect stranger—are the same matters in which we in this Parliament are also engaged.
Liberals have always believed in the power, agency and freedom of individuals. Before our eyes, society has become more content to develop its own structures and conduct its own rules and proceedings, disengaged from the institutions of Parliament and party politics. Of course, at the same time, society is more sceptical—more frustrated—by the democratic apparatus prescribed for it by the state. These changes may fit our philosophical mould, but they are difficult to deal with outside the abstract. It is a challenge for all of us, the whole political system, in the coming years.
Of course, as we try to meet that challenge, we have the benefit of some direct, personal, overriding experience. When people know that their participation in a democracy makes a difference, they are more enthusiastic and more numerous. I hope your Lordships will forgive me a personal reflection. When I was first elected to the other place in 1974, my majority was just nine votes. The very perceptive electorate in Cornwall, on a very wild and wet February day, saw that the result might be close and so the turnout was 83%. In 2001, when I was defending a majority of over 13,000, the turnout collapsed to 63%. I am sure that many of your Lordships have similar personal reflections. There are similar stories in other countries too. The recent turnout in the second ballot of the French presidential election, over 80%, showed that people really felt that that election would make a difference and they could make a difference within that context.
The conundrum is in trying to maintain that interest and participation by maintaining the reality and perception that people can make a difference to what happens in their democracy. Reform of the party political financial situation and better, modern arrangements for the enfranchisement of potential voters are all important to that end, but we must also recognise that the present situation, when this half of Parliament is so very unrepresentative in terms of age, background and geographical experience, does nothing to persuade people that their political system is, or even can be, capable of listening to them.
We have heard much this week about “bread and butter” issues. What can a Chamber whose average age is 70 and where a clear majority of active Members come from London and the south-east know about the problems of working families in the north of Scotland or the west of Cornwall?
In the coming years, there will be changes that will be difficult for Parliament to accept. We should start with the modest changes to this House and its practices proposed by the group of the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad—I am disappointed that these have not been put before us as a package. We will have to do much, much more as we adapt to a world where people want to speak to us and see very quickly indeed that we are listening to them.
Let us make no mistake: economic crisis can reflect as well as magnify political dysfunction, when people feel that they have no capacity to influence or change decisions that affect them personally. In Greece, Italy and Spain, this very fact has caused desperate problems already, as we are witnessing again this week. In politics, as in economics, we must always be vigilant to make sure that we do not fall into the same trap. If we are out of touch as party politicians, as Members of your Lordships’ House and as a Parliament, we risk encountering that same dreadful fate—that the public simply wash their hands of us.
My Lords, I wish it were so, but I am afraid that the latest analysis shows that it is not, particularly in terms of age, of geographical basis and—I have to say—of background. It does a disservice to the other place to pretend that it is somehow totally unrepresentative and that your Lordships' House, particularly its active membership, is above all that and totally independent of party politics. I wish it were so, but it is not.
My Lords, I wish to do no disservice to the other place whatever, but the noble Lord should not do a disservice to this place either. Geographical representation is varied, but, of course, that is what the House of Commons is there for—lower Chambers are there for representation by population. It does a disservice to the diversity and expertise of this House not to think back to the Welfare Reform Bill debates in this House and to our hearing from Members who worked in voluntary organisations for the elderly, from Members with disabilities—who offer huge expertise—from the ex-director of the Refugee Council and from people who have worked for the Child Poverty Action Group. To say that they did not understand the problems being described in welfare reform seems a grave disservice to this House.
My Lords, it is entirely appropriate that the debate on the humble Address should begin on constitutional affairs. I will try to step aside from the party political flavour that has just occasionally crept into the earlier contributions. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will excuse me if I make just one comment on something he said—I hope that I heard him right and apologise if I got it wrong. He said that to build a consensus on the future of this House, it is necessary to seek agreement with the three political parties. Well, there are some others of us in this House. I hope that the noble Lord will feel that those of us who do not belong to a political party might have a contribution to make on matters of this kind.
My Lords, I am delighted to respond. The noble Lord will recall that in the cross-party talks which my own Government instituted, we had strong representation from the Cross Benches and the Bishops’ Benches. However, it is an inescapable fact that, in the wider scheme of things, if consensus is to be reached, we need the Deputy Prime Minister first of all to recognise that there has to be discussion on issues other than composition and membership. Essentially, that was the point that I was trying to make.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord. Therefore, before we go, perhaps we may just make a contribution to this debate.
Constitutional affairs might seem dry to some people but, as has already been demonstrated across the House, they are immensely important to the well-being of our society. During the past decade, which is what I have been particularly interested in, there have been many changes. Even during the previous Session of Parliament legislation was passed that might have a marked effect on our arrangements for the governance of the United Kingdom. Some commentators seem to believe that for more than 1,000 years there has been little change, especially in your Lordships' House. That is manifestly not so. Every Member of this House will have direct experience of substantial changes in both local and central government. Even last week some of these changes were experienced for the first time, in the form of referendums for mayors, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned.
Time does not allow for—nor does there need to be—a rehearsal of the many changes that Parliament has enacted, both centrally and locally. However, whatever view we take of the merits of those changes, we can at least agree that the catalogue of change has been substantial. Of course, that is the way it should be. If our legislative institutions are to keep pace with the changes in society and remain relevant to the needs and aspirations of our fellow citizens—and, indeed, if they are to understand the concerns that have just been referred to—then of course change must be a constant in all our arrangements for government.
I recognise that there are many in this House who are better qualified than I to speak on these matters, so I will be brief. I shall therefore just pose three questions for consideration, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. First, does he agree that during the Session that finished only last week, the Bills that came to this House, having previously completed every stage of consideration in the other place, were without exception, once again, greatly improved during their passage through this House? Thanks to the conscientiousness, skill and hard work of Peers across the whole of the House, the quality of scrutiny resulted not only in many sound amendments being made to those Bills but in the Government, having listened to your Lordships, very wisely bringing forward many amendments to their own legislation.
I hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, responds to this debate, he will begin by agreeing that this House conscientiously fulfils its responsibility to scrutinise and improve legislation. It is dangerous to raise that point, as there will be those who think that it is just another piece of self-congratulation; but I do not raise it in that spirit, nor do I do so with any notion of complacency. On the contrary, I have in mind something that I regard as much more important: the fact that many of us have a real concern about the effectiveness of the other place in scrutinising legislation and holding the Executive to account. Our society depends on a very strong House of Commons that fulfils its unique role in holding the Executive to account. I hope that when the noble Lord responds he will recognise that it behoves us all to ensure that Parliament is as strong as possible, and that our endeavours should be directed to the whole of Parliament and its standing in the community. It is vital to the well-being of our society that Parliament as a whole commands the confidence of our fellow citizens.
My Lords, that is a very important question. My own view is that I would like to see both Houses being more effective, particularly the House of Commons. I have a real concern about the position of the House of Commons, for reasons that noble Lords across the House will understand.
Secondly, many of us are very familiar with elections: elections to town councils, district councils and county councils, elections to the European Parliament and for Members of Parliament, not to mention elections for mayors and, soon, police and crime commissioners—and then, of course, there are the arrangements in the other countries of the United Kingdom. At first glance, that seems to be a model of democracy at work, an exemplar, but further examination reveals serious shortcomings. Does the noble Lord share my concern and that of many of us in this House about the extremely low turnout in almost all those elections? One commentator described the low turnout last week as nothing short of dismal. Another said that the British people have lost confidence in politics. We ought to take that matter very seriously indeed.
All of that has been set out even more effectively in a recently published audit report by the Hansard Society, which shows very well the lack of interest of our fellow citizens in engaging in the political system. It is incredible to think that around the world millions of people are denied a vote and that millions more may vote but know that their vote is a sham. Therefore, I hope that we all agree that if our democratic processes do not engage the active participation of our fellow citizens, they are seriously defective. This House is only part of a much bigger issue that we need to tackle. We need to ensure that our political and governance arrangements engage our fellow citizens and that they believe that casting their vote is of immense importance. There have been many criticisms of the low turnout in votes by trade unions. We should not be complacent about the low turnout in votes in our democratic processes. Very important constitutional issues are at stake. They should not be taken piecemeal. We ought to take this opportunity to look more widely and ensure that our processes of governance are, to use the common parlance, fit for purpose.
My third point is that we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and his committee and to those who produced the alternative report. Both those documents repay careful study. I suggest that timing is important and will need to be handled sensitively. I suspect that, at this time, most of our fellow citizens are primarily concerned about jobs, the cost of living, the care of elderly and disabled people, further cuts in public expenditure, the National Health Service, and so on—not to mention the fact that our troops remain in considerable danger. There is to be a referendum in Scotland that has the potential to put at risk the integrity of the United Kingdom. Therefore, I suggest, not out of complacency but out of opportunity, that we ought to avoid taking up chunks of parliamentary time on matters that are of little concern beyond Westminster and take the opportunity to look again, to do an audit of our systems to ensure that they are as effective as possible.
Our discussion has acknowledged that there is a wide measure of agreement that our procedures can and should be improved. We all agree that the House is too large. We all agree that that ought to be rectified, along with a number of other matters, not least issues of discipline. As has already been referred to, recommendations of the Leader’s Group report chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, are outstanding.
With boundary changes affecting the other place, the referendum in Scotland, the review of the powers of other assemblies, there are major upheavals ahead of us. Let us improve, where we can, the workings of this House. There is much that we can do, and we should do it, but let us also recognise that our constitutional arrangements are matters that go wider than this House. I hope that we will take this opportunity, because those arrangements are important to the well-being and health of our democracy.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure for me to follow the Convenor of the Cross Benches. I have always had great respect for Convenors of the Cross Benches. I remember that when I arrived in the House as Leader the Convenor of the Cross Benches was Lady Hylton-Foster. I consulted her on the appointment of someone to an important position and said that there was a question as to whether they might be a little too old because they were 75. She looked at me as if I was absolutely out of this world. She told me how old she was and that was the end of the discussion. I have always treated Convenors of the Cross Benches with considerable respect.
Your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that I want to say a few words about Lords reform. As has been mentioned by both Front-Bench speakers, some 10 years ago I was the chairman of the royal commission which produced a report on Lords reform. Everyone will probably have forgotten what we said, but it was that the Lords should continue to be mostly appointed but that there should be a significant proportion of elected Members, particularly because we thought that the regions and nations of the United Kingdom were not well represented there and that that would be a way to increase the spread of membership. We recommended what is now, in common parlance, the 15-year non-renewable term.
I have to say that our report got an extremely bad press. A number of people said that it was an interesting report, well argued and everything else, but that it had come to the wrong conclusions. We did not mind that it got a bad press, because we expected that, although it was slightly embarrassing to me because it was at the same time as my youngest son was taking his A-levels and he had to write an essay on an article by a Guardian reporter which referred to the timid and cautious report of Lord Wakeham. When I saw the paper afterwards, I said, “I hope you told him that it was an extremely bold report”, to which he said, “No, Dad, I said that it was timid. I want to pass the exam”. That was the sensible thing to do.
The one bright spark at that time was the Labour Party, because it put in its manifesto that it had accepted the Wakeham report and would implement it. It was slightly embarrassing for me to have my name in a Labour Party manifesto, but it was encouraging. When the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, tells us about the need for a 100% elected House, I can remember a time when that was not quite the Labour Party’s position. That is not my recollection.
It is another story as to why the noble Lord did not get anywhere with it. I will not bore the House with it now, but he and I know many of those reasons.
The main lesson of my report has not been learnt even to this day. Our report recommended a compromise, and that is why people did not like it. Everybody compared their ideal solution with our compromise, and our compromise looked weak and wishy-washy compared with what they wanted. We talked about a compromise; in the modern jargon, that is a consensus, but it is the same thing. We did not reach our consensus easily, I can tell you. One of my noble friends who was on the commission told me privately when we started, “I have already been party to a published document that said that there had to be an elected element in any reform of the House of Lords”. One very distinguished Labour Member of Parliament—a good many noble Lords will guess who I mean, but I shall not mention his name—came to me to say, “If the commission so much as discusses elected Members, I will not attend any more of the meetings”. I persuaded them both to stay. They both signed the report, and we got consensus. It is therefore possible for people of goodwill to get consensus.
What do I mean by consensus? I mean that all our preconceived positions, both of and within the parties, have somehow to be melded together in a form of compromise for a way forward. As my noble friend the Leader of the House has acknowledged, as a result of the Joint Committee report the Government have to think again about a number of the things which they are doing. If I may say so to the Labour Party, it, too, has to think again about the idea that it can have a 100% elected membership. It is quite simply unrealistic. A consensus outcome will not produce that. We have in Parliament a very big responsibility to get this right and to get consensus because, as people have frequently said, outside this Chamber there is no great interest in what goes on in here. They are not interested in what we do and for us therefore to try to put through a solution that was highly controversial within the House would be a grave dereliction of our total responsibilities as a Parliament. Consensus is therefore what we have to achieve.
Let me say three things about the position as I see it. First, the Government are right to try to see whether they can find a consensus. This issue has been hanging about long enough, and if it is possible to find consensus, we ought to move forward. Secondly, in my view a consensus will involve a partly elected and a partly appointed House. There will be some very tricky negotiations as to how they are going to achieve that. An issue which is now highly relevant, but was not realised 10 years ago, is the effect that that will have on the House of Commons. It has to be thought about very carefully. Thirdly, and of this I am quite sure, if the House of Commons reaches a consensus and sends us a Bill that reflects that consensus, the responsibilities of this House are clear. We should treat the Bill like any other coming before the House. We should give it a Second Reading, try to improve it in Committee and give it proper scrutiny in the normal way. This applies, I am afraid, particularly to noble Lords who do not like things going on as they are. All of us have a responsibility to act in accordance with our precedents.
Finally, I have been in this House for 18 years and was also in the House of Commons for 18 years. I had the honour of being Leader of each House. There are still Members of this House in all parties and of none who are of great distinction, but the place has changed in the 18 years I have been here—and not for the better. When I first came here, I remember Lord Callaghan and Lord Whitelaw getting up time and time again when their Governments were in difficulties to say, “I completely accept the right of your Lordships to pass this amendment, but is it wise?”. They were really saying that there is no point in a revising House passing series after series of amendments which will just be reversed when they get to the House of Commons. A revising House should be looking at the legislation that has come forward and seeking to improve it, particularly where the House of Commons is singing on an uncertain note. That is the moment to make amendments towards effective legislation, rather than sending back hundreds of amendments. I hope that people will not be offended if I suggest that we use with some humility the position that we are somehow superior in public perceptions and in our judgment of the public good. The House of Commons is the elected House, its Members accountable to their electorates, and we should not live in a world of wishful thinking, make-believe or has-beens.
I will be frightfully indiscreet and say that if I were still in charge of business management, I would be 100% in favour of my noble friend’s Bill but probably would still not have given it government time to get it through, because I know perfectly well what happens. Every single amendment you can think of would have been added to it, and the timetable of the Government would have been lost. I have no idea whether that is the Government’s view, so while I am in favour of what he wants to do and think it a disgrace that we have not found the time to do it, I can see the difficulties of business management if you bring in a Bill of that sort when there is no consensus on the way forward.
My Lords, unlike some other speakers, I think that constitutional affairs merit parliamentary time, even in a recession. Constitutional arrangements matter because, in the end, they reflect the distribution of power in our society and that perhaps matters even more in a recession. I welcome the Government's commitment to maintaining the impetus for reforming the arrangements for royal succession. That is very desirable, as the noble Lord the Leader of the House said. I had hoped that I could welcome the other constitutional measures proposed in this Queen’s Speech. I was the Minister responsible for the legislation which introduced individual voter registration in the last Government and I still support it, and I have long been in favour of a democratically accountable House of Lords. Yet I fear that the approach the Government are taking to both these measures not only weakens the case for them but is in danger of sacrificing the health of our constitution in the interests of short-term political manoeuvring.
I suspect that electoral registration will not feature much in the discussions over the next two days. It is a technical issue of interest to few voters but it is, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has already said, a matter of real significance because eligible voters cannot exercise that precious right to vote unless they are on the register. Individual registration is a desirable principle—citizens should be responsible for their own eligibility to vote—and can help tackle fraud, although the extent of electoral fraud should not be overstated. I note that the noble Lord the Leader of the House did not mention any judgment on the extent of fraud. He said that it had to be tackled, as of course it should be, but, as I will say later, it is not prevalent as he was suggesting. Nor, even when it exists, can electoral fraud be tackled entirely by individual registration. That is not a panacea.
Whatever the merits of individual registration, it carries with it the severe risk that significant numbers of people who are eligible to vote will disappear from the register and so be unable to vote. That was the experience in Northern Ireland when it moved to this new system of registration. More recently, the Electoral Commission has said that the introduction of individual registration, under the measure proposed by the Government, could mean that,
“the register could go from around a 90% completeness that we currently have to around … a 60% completeness”.
The fall-off in registration is likely to be particularly marked among young people and students, people with learning disabilities, people with disabilities more generally and those living in areas of high social deprivation. There is already a serious problem with the electoral register in the United Kingdom. The latest estimate from the Electoral Commission suggests that at least 6 million people who were eligible to vote were not registered to do so in December 2010. The introduction of individual registration risks making a bad situation significantly worse.
The previous Government tried to tackle that problem by tying individual registration to the achievement of a comprehensive and accurate register by 2015. In the last Parliament, the Front-Bench spokespersons in the other place for both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats approved and supported this approach. This Government could have continued with that approach but have chosen not to, for reasons that they have never adequately explained. They are rushing forward individual registration while removing the key safeguard of linking it to the achievement of a comprehensive and accurate register.
Why might they have done that? Why might they abandon the careful non-partisan approach of the previous Government to this issue? The Leader of the House suggested today that threats to the integrity of the register were the reason for their haste, but the independent bodies that we have tasked with safeguarding the integrity of our electoral system do not share that assessment. Analysis carried out regularly by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission found,
“no evidence of widespread systematic attempts to undermine or interfere with the May 2010 elections through electoral fraud”.
So why the rush? It is hard to avoid concluding that it is being driven by the pursuit of party political advantage. Most people agree—this is not really a matter of dispute—that those eligible voters who are not registered to vote are most likely to vote Labour when they do vote. The evidence suggests that the party that will suffer least, if at all, from any fall-off in registration is the Conservative Party. Electoral registration is only 90% complete in Labour seats; it is 94% complete in Conservative seats. That partisan effect will be amplified considerably by the boundary reviews in 2015. If conducted on the basis of such a flawed register, they will have the effect of increasing the number of Conservative seats and decreasing the number of Labour ones.
I ask your Lordships again to consider carefully the impact on our democracy if it turns out that the outcome of a general election has been determined by the fact that millions of eligible voters could not vote because they were not registered to do so and that this was the result of a government policy, deliberately pursued despite all the evidence that it would have precisely this consequence. I hope that the Government will think again about their approach and might be prepared to accept any amendments that might come forward to once again tie the desirable introduction of individual registration to the achievement of a comprehensive register.
Then we come to the proposal for House of Lords reform. This proposal is not being driven by partisan self-interest—it has become a prisoner of it. I do not want to say very much about this; I am sure other noble Lords will have a lot to say about it. In my view, though, and I speak as someone who supports reform, many of the arguments against it—the cost, the assumed excellence of the current arrangements, the paramount importance of achieving consensus as opposed to simply striving for one—could all have been produced to resist every advance in the democratic accountability of Parliament over the past 200 years, and often have been. In the complaints about there being too many politicians, I sometimes hear antidemocratic undertones that I personally find disquieting.
For all that I wish to see your Lordships’ House elected, though, there is one criticism of the Government’s proposed legislation with which I agree, and it is fundamental. When the White Paper was published, I and many others criticised it for its inadequate approach to the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament that would result from reform. Clause 2 of the draft Bill is clearly inadequate to achieve its objective of preserving the primacy of the House of Commons. Such criticisms have been powerfully reiterated by the Joint Committee report and the alternative report.
An elected House of Lords does not inevitably mean gridlock in our constitutional arrangements, but work has to be done to find solutions to this potential problem and the Government have failed to do it. There is no shortage of proposals—a concordat between the two Houses, for example, or some form of codification of the functions—and you cannot reform the composition of the House without also looking at the functions. Why have the Government rejected this approach and refused to look at it up until now? I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House said that the forthcoming legislation would take account of the criticisms of Clause 2, but the flaws in that clause have been manifest at least since the publication of the White Paper, and should have been foreseen before it was even published. Why have the Government left it so late? All the solutions to this problem, and there are several of them, have advantages and disadvantages. They need to be debated and the public need to be engaged in a discussion on this, but the Government have done absolutely none of this.
This Bill is recognised as coming from the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition. Why are they pushing forward with such a flawed proposal? I am afraid that it is hard to avoid the suspicion that they want to use what might be only a temporary position in Government to engineer a constitutional reform that, with proportional representation, would be likely to secure for them an influential position in Parliament for the foreseeable future.
Such a partisan approach would be bad enough but in the past few days, if we are to believe the heavily briefed stories in the press, the electoral problems of the Government and the need to appease Conservative Back-Benchers are going to cause reform of the Second Chamber of our Parliament, something to which all three main parties are committed by their manifestos, to be delayed, abandoned or, as I saw in one report, made subject to a post-legislative referendum—incidentally, a process hostile to the representative democracy that participants on all sides of this debate profess to support. That is all being brought into play by the short-term political difficulties of this Government.
It is disappointing that the Government’s proposed legislation on an issue of such profound constitutional importance should be so inadequately prepared. It would be shameful if such a lack of preparation were the result of the self-interested haste of the Liberal Democrats. It is an indictment of the Government that the future of this important constitutional reform now appears to be held hostage by the short-term political manoeuvrings of an unpopular Government.
Something could still be salvaged from this mess if the Government would only think again about their approach, accept that they need to do more work on securing the primacy of the House of Commons, use independent experts to advise them on this—something, as far as I am aware, that they have not yet done; certainly not in public—and then of course consult the public on possible solutions in a properly deliberative process, as I have talked about many times before in this House. Then, and only then, should the legislation be finalised before it is returned to Parliament with an adequately worked-through proposal. I hope that they will do that and ensure that Parliament does not once again turn its back on this long overdue advance in democratic accountability.
My Lords, I welcome the fact that we are having a discussion at the beginning of the Queen’s Speech debate on constitutional reform. I am, however, immensely surprised by the prioritisation in this galère of measures of the reform of the House of Lords. I accept that reform sometimes takes a long time. Indeed, what has been notified to us about the possibilities of changing the succession to the throne is very delayed; it has been more than 300 years since the Act of Settlement. I hope that that part of the Government’s programme will be concluded with all appropriate celerity.
It is also right to recognise the need for change when it arises in a conspicuous fashion. Perhaps the case of electoral fraud, of which the noble Lord, Lord Wills, spoke, is such an example. I, too, have some concerns about non-registration, which my noble friend Lord Tyler has already mentioned. It is important that people are notified of their opportunities and responsibilities, and that should be part of the legislation.
At this time, questions have to be raised about the traditional methods of constitutional reform in this country. Incremental change has a pretty good name among constitutional lawyers, and I understand why: it enables the elected Parliament and legislature to give detailed consideration to what is proposed. However, it has to be said that, at this time, when the future of the United Kingdom is under attack, to have an incremental response to the possibility of the nations of this country falling apart is not wise or sufficient to deal with the constitutional crisis in which we are placed. We have to consider as the top priority whether or not Scotland will remain part of the United Kingdom and the other constitutional changes that might be necessary in either circumstance. It is not only Scotland that would be affected by independence being sought and won but also Northern Ireland, Wales and England.
I think there is a need to recognise that all the constituent nations and, for that matter, regions of the United Kingdom need to rearrange their relationships whether or not independence is achieved. A step in that direction has been taken by the Scotland Act, but the fallout from that is considerable and we ought to be looking at the coherence of our constitution and the ways in which we can involve the public in influencing the direction in which that coherent constitution ought to go.
I am conscious that consensus may be difficult—indeed, impossible—to achieve, but public understanding of and assent to the rationality of what is proposed is vital. Consequently, I want this House to look more widely at the challenges that we face at this time. In his opening speech for the Opposition, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, recognised the impact that certain changes might have on other aspects of the constitution. What is quite wrong is to seek to bounce the citizens of this country into fundamental changes. The citizenry may reject such opportunities or challenges if they are offered a referendum, and in any event the example of the referendum on AV seems a classic case of how not to proceed with constitutional reform: there was no extensive publicity for what was involved; there was no consideration of what the alternatives were; and there was only about two weeks’ notice in some media and even less in the press. A referendum is not necessarily the answer for dealing with the complexity of the structure of government in this country.
We have been too complacent about the structure over a long time. I think that many of the reforms that were achieved at the beginning of the Labour Government’s period of office—which had been discussed with other political parties, including my own, and which, to some extent, were a result of cross-party agreement—were valuable. It was possible to achieve the introduction of the Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act and, later, the establishment of the Supreme Court, although it had to be delayed, as it should properly have been, to enable full discussion to be held about its structure and contents, without affecting the whole structure of governance in this country. I can support that kind of incrementalism, but I find it very difficult to support a proposal that one House of the legislature should be reformed—and by that I mean re-formed, not necessarily improved—without looking at the relationship with the other House, considering whether it should be more representative of the nations and regions and without providing for the proper accountability of its Members. The notion of electing people once for 15 years seems to be remote from the idea of accountability. The proposal that the House of Lords should be in some way secondary to the House of Commons is neither secured not justified. There is a case for recognising that in the modern age in which we live, with the huge volume of legislation that is normally brought before Parliament, there could be some spreading of the load across two democratic Chambers, but that apparently does not form any part of the Government’s thinking.
I consider this House of Lords reform Bill to be ill-conceived, and I am not persuaded that the attitude that I am taking is letting the best be the enemy of the good. I do not regard it as good to have a hotchpotch of a Chamber that serious politicians would be very unlikely to want to be elected to when their careers would be cut back after one term at whatever age they chose to go in. I do not think that the position of the appointed people would be strong in such a situation, and the debate that followed would seem to be likely to be not whether the House should be further reformed but whether a second Chamber was necessary at all. We have seen that in other Commonwealth countries, including New Zealand, and in other European countries, including Sweden. I want a second Chamber. I have always advocated 100% elected, and I have always wanted to see it have much greater power over the Executive than the current Chamber has. That would consequently be a very considerable rewriting of the constitution, but none of that is appropriately achieved in this kind of step-by-step way which has none of these objectives in mind.
My view is that the country needs to have a much more extensive national debate involving the citizenry. The Scottish Constitutional Convention worked to unite the Scottish people. Unfortunately—we can see this with the benefit of hindsight—it did not include the impact on the rest of the United Kingdom as part of its mandate, and that impact has been real and is evident. Consequently, I would favour the establishment, in due course, of a convention that enabled the restructuring of our constitution to be deliberately conceived and involved not just articulate and already determined politicians.
I think the noble Lord was just about to come on to my question. There has already been quite a lot of discussion about a constitutional convention—I have been in favour of one for many years—but there is a key question about its composition. The Scottish Constitutional Convention was largely constituted of the great and the good. I notice that the alternative report of the Select Committee also suggested already established figures in our society. Does the noble Lord see any merit in broadening it to include a demographically representative swathe of the British people to participate in discussions about the future of their own constitution?
I certainly want to see the convention being fully representative. Maybe it would operate differently in different parts of the country. Different public discussions should take place before any decision-making. This is immensely serious because the British public are so disengaged from politics and so disenchanted with their politicians. The convention should not necessarily be dominated by politicians. Representatives of all the civic organisations and different interests of our country ought to be considered in that context.
The convention in Scotland was not particularly dominated by politicians; representatives of the CBI, the church and the trade unions were involved. However, we cannot allow this simple debate between unionists and those who support Scottish independence to go forward without giving a clear indication that there are alternative opportunities to bring our system of government more into tune with the needs and dispassionate desires of the different parts of the country.
Does the noble Lord not think it interesting and disappointing that we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who is the principal spokesman on this matter for the Liberal Democrats, and not once did he mention the federal solution? I understand that it is still the policy of the Liberal Democrats. If it is looked at properly in the round, it ultimately provides a much neater solution for the second Chamber than the one that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, advocated.
I agree with what the noble Lord says about a federal solution probably being best. However, it would have to ensure that the considerations that my noble friend Lord Tyler mentioned about underrepresentation in the second Chamber were taken into account. He spoke of Cornwall and the north of Scotland in his remarks. As it happens, he is from Cornwall and I am from the north of Scotland so we have some voice. However, the reality is that this should not be done in a rush. We must consider the very different priorities of people living in Northern Ireland, people living in Wales and people living in Scotland. Subsequently, maybe people living in different parts of England will take a view. However, I cannot believe that it makes sense simply to consider the West Lothian issue, which has arisen as a result of devolution, by itself. It needs to be considered as part of the solution of the whole. Therefore, I hope that the Government may take longer to consider the broader issues of constitutional reform to which the Leader of the House did not refer today.
My Lords, having listened to the debate so far, and thinking back over the discussions about this Chamber over the past 14 or 15 years, I cannot help feeling—I am sure noble friends will feel the same—slightly giddy. I have fortified myself with some water to keep me going.
I start by saying that I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Maclennan, and my noble friend Lord Laming that there is a serious gap between the electorate—the public—on the one hand and Parliament and governmental institutions on the other. There is no excuse whatever for complacency on our part in this Chamber, let alone in the House of Commons. However, knowing what the coalition Government’s proposals are, I find myself strongly in favour of a substantially reformed appointed House. Therefore, I do not support the coalition’s proposal.
The coalition has stated that it wants the role and function of the House of Lords to remain unchanged as a revising Chamber, which persuades Governments and the House of Commons to think again. Since that is the coalition’s objective, the task would be far more effectively performed if we were a substantially reformed appointed Chamber. On the other hand, had the coalition said that it proposed a second Chamber that was commensurate, or possibly even equal, in powers to the Commons, we would of course need to consider an elected Chamber, whether directly or indirectly elected. However, the evidence is absolutely clear that, although the Government want no change in the role of the Lords, the effect of their current proposals would be to undermine that very objective.
The arguments are borne out not only by the Joint Committee but by the alternative report, which make it plain that the Chamber, if elected, would be bound to be more assertive, and that the natural restraint that this House normally exercises would be unleashed. We can add to that the fact that the conventions of the two Houses would have to be reviewed along with a whole range of issues such as the level of expertise; the partisanship of the House; whether elections would produce a B team; whether there would be more constituency rivalry; whether there would be gridlock, as there so often is in the United States, and finding ways to deal with it; cost; hybridity; and many others. All those could be overcome if we were rightly going for an elected House, but I do not believe that that is the right way forward.
I have two reflections to make. First, we all know that our constitution has evolved over centuries. As has been said by other noble Lords, in our experience of how we do things, the best way forward is the pragmatic one and incremental reform. Looking at the Lords over the past 100 years, there was change in 1911, 1949, 1958, 1963 and 1999. More recently, there was further change with the introduction of the Supreme Court. In the words of Lampedusa in The Leopard, if we want to stay the same, things have to change. I hate the word “change”. “Things have to improve” would be a better way of putting it. That is the British way of tackling these issues.
Secondly, in recent years—certainly over the past 14 years—successive Governments have not been sensible in how they have proposed radical, big changes. That started in 1998 with the plan to abolish hereditary Peers without producing any coherent plan or cohesive approach to replace them in the Chamber. It was almost a flippant approach to the role of the House of Lords, with little sense of history. Since then, we have debated this issue until the cows come home. The Wakeham report and many other reports have stimulated that debate. However, in my view, which I think goes along with some of the views expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Maclennan and Lord Wills, we have not debated these issues in a sufficiently coherent context. That seems to be the heart of the problem. We cannot look at one arm of the constitution without considering the effects on its other parts. The interrelationship is of great importance.
I am glad that the coalition has reiterated that its overwhelming priority is to put the economy of this country straight. However, if that is, rightly, its priority, I submit that it is very dangerous to divert and dissipate its efforts on issues such as an elected House of Lords, for which there is no consensus. I propose a way forward to the Leader of the House and I put it in two categories. First, to give more coherence and consideration to the substantial constitutional issues, we should pick up the recommendations in the alternative report on the case for establishing a constitutional convention, but I suggest it as a permanent framework for the consideration of major constitutional issues, in which constitutional developments of major importance in either Chamber would be considered. The future proposed referendum in Scotland would be a major factor; the level of devolution would have a major impact on the constitution. Any changes to EU treaties and any referendums that flow from them would also be relevant, as well as whether there should in the longer term be an elected Chamber. All that should be embraced within a permanent framework of a constitutional convention.
I hesitate to keep intervening, as I have had my say already, but I am very interested in what the noble Lord has just said. When I was the Minister for Constitutional Affairs, I was very attracted to exactly that idea of a constitutional council. It is desperately needed, and I very much welcome his suggestion today, but as soon as I raised the idea officials got extremely anxious and worried about the threats to Parliament, and the pre-emption of the Government of the day and Parliament in proposing these measures. Has the noble Lord given any thought to those sorts of concerns, which will inevitably be brought forward in response to the invaluable suggestion that he has just made?
My suggestion is that we approach this in two ways. The big issues on constitutional aspects should be embraced in the constitutional convention, which should be a permanent framework. Secondly, having said that there is no room for complacency, I think that we should now get on with the pragmatic incremental changes that command a large degree of support—or many of them do, at least, and many were put forward by the Wakeham commission—while the broader constitutional issues are being looked at in order to improve the effectiveness of this House. As noble Lords know, there is no shortage of sensible recommendations, from the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, to the proposals from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, on working practices. On many of those I believe that there could be common ground. There is already common ground that the appointments commission should be on a statutory basis and there are already discussions on the need to reduce the size of the House. There are plans and thoughts emerging on the retirement scheme for noble Lords and policies on disqualification and expulsion. We should look at fixed terms. The recommendations from the Goodlad committee have not been properly considered, but the proposals for improving the scrutiny of legislation and strengthening topical debate procedures, for example, would undoubtedly improve the strength of this House.
I believe that we have a forum in the Chamber, through the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, which could act as a forum for these pragmatic views to be drawn ahead and to try to achieve a consensus. That is the constructive way forward and an alternative way forward. When I last spoke on this subject last year, I said that, if the House did something like this, I would offer to resign as an incentive for the House to get on with it. If the House is prepared to do that, I am prepared to retire.
My Lords, the Queen’s Speech contains a number of important constitutional matters. The matter of the royal succession is important and requires to be carefully negotiated with all members of the Commonwealth so that the unity of the Commonwealth, which has been so conspicuous under Her Majesty’s reign, may continue. There are also the proposals on electoral registration. I am disturbed by any suggestion that that should be motivated otherwise than by trying to achieve the fullest possible registration of voters in a proper way. I hope that that would be the motivation of any reform that is put forward. We are faced also with a major constitutional matter in relation to the independence of Scotland and possibly of other parts of the United Kingdom if that should occur. We need to consider those matters with great care.
However, I intend to restrict my remarks specifically to the House of Lords proposals and the proposal to deal with its composition. When William Hague was leader of the Conservative Party, he invited my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell and me to consider options for reform of the House of Lords with a view to achieving some kind of consensus. That is now rather a long time ago. I invited, as I was empowered to do, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and the late Lord Russell to join us, but neither felt able to do so, with Lord Russell explaining that the leadership of his party at the time felt that it might not be desirable. I can well understand those responses because we had been appointed by the leader of the Conservative Party, which had recently suffered a rather severe defeat in the general election. But my noble friend and myself, with the help of Douglas Slater, a clerk here with great experience, considered the various options. The report has been published for a long time and was available to the Government and the Joint Committee, and was no doubt carefully considered.
My central point relates to the relationship between the two Houses. I have no doubt whatever that the primacy of the House of Commons, recognised in taxation particularly since 1671 or so, is founded on the fact that the House of Commons has over the years been elected—no doubt with a rather restricted electorate to start with, but gradually evolving into a general electorate over the whole country. That has given the House of Commons the responsibility, in accordance with the maxim that there can be no taxation without representation, for full control of taxation matters.
Since 1911 and 1949, the House of Commons has also achieved a primary position on general legislation. The true position now is that the elected House can prevent anything going on the statute book with which it does not agree and, after a reasonably short delay, can put on the statute book anything that it steadfastly believes should be there. Sometimes, as we know, as a result of consultations and consideration in this House, it wisely decides not to proceed further, as happened in relation to the process whereby people were detained without any particular procedure being followed. That process was eventually abandoned. However, generally speaking, the House of Commons—the elected House—gets its own way on posited legislation and prevents the enactment of any measure that it does not want. Therefore, I do not see that the undeniable governance difficulties in our country have anything to do with the democratic deficit, as it is sometimes called, whereby ordinary people cannot exert influence through their representatives on the laws which govern them.
The proposal for a fully elected second Chamber requires that the second Chamber, being fully elected, should have democratic accountability and democratic legitimacy. Therefore, I do not see why it should not be given the same authority as the other House, which is directly elected. That seems to me a fundamental point, which is well made by the Joint Committee. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who is now in his place, that I very much appreciate the clarity of the Joint Committee’s report, which constitutes an important development. The same sentiments apply to the alternative report, which was compiled by members of the same committee. It is not possible to print it as a government paper because of the desire for unanimity by the House of Lords, if possible. However, it was printed using government resources and is available in the Library. It seems somewhat unnecessary to make a distinction in this regard. Indeed, my remarks about the clarity and utility of the main report apply also to the alternative report. We are all extremely grateful to the members of the committee for giving a great deal of their time, effort and expertise to frame the report.
The report records the opinion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that the Parliament Acts would not affect the situation if the House of Lords—the second Chamber—became a fully elected Chamber. I firmly agree with that opinion as you have only to read the preamble to the 1911 Act to appreciate that the House of Lords did not operate on a popular basis at that time. I have no doubt that if it were fully elected it would operate on a popular basis, and we would have two fully elected Houses with full democratic mandates, given that we have universal suffrage throughout the nation. The Joint Committee recommended that if this were to happen it would be right to introduce legislation to distinguish clearly between the powers of the two Houses. I entirely agree with that but legislation needs to be based on reason. I see no reason for legislating to restrict the democratic authority of the second House, if it has a full democratic mandate, but to leave untouched the democratic authority of the first House.
I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. If you accept the primacy of the Commons as the first base of the constitutional arrangement, it would still be possible to have two elected Houses provided you were able to set out their respective powers. However, inevitably, despite the universal mandate that would arise from the fact that people can vote for the second Chamber, it would none the less still be secondary to the primary Chamber, if it were so ordained through legislation.
I am saying that the legislation needs to have a reason behind it. It is all very well to legislate, and I know that from time to time we see legislation which some of us think does not have much reason behind it, but on the whole we regard it as rather important that legislation which reaches our statute book should be grounded in reason. If the democratic mandate is the same for both Houses, it is difficult to see a reason for distinguishing between their democratic authority.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. Is it not possible to conceive of a democratic mandate for a revising and scrutinising Chamber? That is precisely the reason for it. It is not necessarily an inferior role, just a different role. That is what needs to be placed in the legislation. I think that most noble Lords who have spoken so far agree with that.
That is tantamount to asking that the second Chamber be elected not to exercise full democratic authority but to have the authority only to do certain restricted things. That is not exactly an issue although it is certainly a possibility. I have never stood for election on the basis that we are discussing so I do not speak from great experience. However, I think that it must be a little difficult to stand for election if your election would result in your having very restricted authority. One could say, “My policies will not matter tuppence because the policies will be determined by the other electorate”. Such an outcome is possible in theory but would be difficult in practice. This issue has to be faced at some point and dealt with either by restricting the authority of those elected to the second Chamber in some way or by some other method. The other method one could use is that of introducing arbitration between the two Chambers, which has been hinted at in previous speeches. This is the absolutely fundamental and central point and has to be dealt with before we seek consensus when we are not sure what the consensus is supposed to be about.
Health Transition Risk Register
Mr Speaker, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place earlier today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health on the subject of risk registers. The Statement is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a Statement on the publication of the Department of Health’s strategic and transition risk registers check.
In November 2010, the right honourable Member for Wentworth and Dearne submitted a freedom of information request, asking for the publication of the transition risk register relating to the planned Health and Social Care Bill. A similar request by Nic Cecil, a journalist with the Evening Standard, for the publication of the Department of Health’s strategic risk register, followed in February 2011.
The Government refused both requests on the grounds that the risk registers related to the formulation and development of policy and, as set out in the Freedom of Information Act 2000, were not required to be published. Appeals were then made by the applicants to the Information Commissioner. In both instances, the Information Commissioner ruled against the Government, arguing that the balance of the public interest lay in public disclosure. The Government’s view, to the contrary, is that the public interest is best served in this instance by officials and Ministers being able privately to consider such issues, including any risks. We therefore appealed the decision of the Information Commissioner, under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, to the First-tier Tribunal. The tribunal was asked to consider whether the Information Commissioner was correct to find that, on balance, the public interest required disclosure of the risk registers.
On 5 April, the tribunal made public the reasons for its decision. For the department’s strategic risk register, it found in favour of the Government and so did not order its disclosure, but it came to the opposite conclusion with regard to the transition risk register. I have carefully considered the tribunal’s decision and have discussed it thoroughly with Cabinet colleagues. Following these discussions, I have decided to exercise the ministerial veto, as allowed by the Freedom of Information Act, in relation to the disclosure of the transition risk register. This decision represents the view of the Cabinet.
I have decided to veto, rather than appeal, the decision to the Upper-tier Tribunal, because the disagreement is on where the balance of the public interest lies and is a matter of principle and not a matter of law, as would be the focus of any further appeal. I recognise that this is an exceptional step. It is not one that is taken lightly.
There is no doubt that reform of the NHS has attracted huge public interest. But my decision to veto, while an exceptional case, is also a matter of wider principle and not just about the specific content of the transition risk register. In all departments, Ministers are required to balance the public interest in terms of disclosure with the need properly to consider complex areas of public policy. Good government demands that the analysis and management of risk is thorough and robust, whichever party is in power.
It is an essential aspect of good government, in the formulation and development of policy, that officials have a ‘safe space’ within which to formulate sensitive advice to Ministers, and that they feel free to use direct language and make frank assessments—and that the Government should, in exceptional circumstances, have the ability to reserve such privacy absolutely.
As the right honourable Member for Blackburn said in his evidence to the Justice Select Committee only last month, on 17 April:
‘There has to be a space in which decision makers can think thoughts without the risk of disclosure, and not only of disclosure at the time, but of disclosure afterwards’.
He also said there have been,
‘some rather extraordinary decisions by the Freedom of Information Tribunal, in which they suggested that it’—
by which he meant the exemption—
‘can apply only while policy was in the process of development but not at any time thereafter. That is crazy and it is not remotely what was intended’.
The Freedom of Information Act was drafted specifically to allow for a safe space for the development of policy, and I have acted throughout in strict accordance with the provisions of the Act.
The risk assessment process, carried out by civil servants and detailed in these registers, is an integral part of the formulation and development of government policy. It is strongly in the public interest that this process be as effective as possible. At the time the request for the transition risk register was made, many aspects of the policy were still at an early stage of their development. The Command Paper responding to the consultation had not been published. The Bill had not been published. It is therefore incorrect to say that the transition risk register does not relate to the development of policy as it fed, and continues to feed, directly into advice given to Ministers.
The Bill may have become an Act in March of this year but we are still in the process of policy development at the next level of detail. The value of risk registers is directly linked to the form and manner in which they are expressed, with the use of direct language. They do not, however, show the benefits of a policy. They are not, as impact assessments are, intended to reflect considered calculations of both costs and benefits. They are simply about identifying possible risks, in order to stimulate action to mitigate them.
If such registers are disclosed at sensitive times in relation to sensitive issues—as would have been the case here—it is highly likely that they would have been open to misinterpretation and misuse. The impact of this would be that future risk registers become anodyne documents of little use. Potential risks would be more likely to develop without adequate mitigation. That would be detrimental to good government and very much against the public interest.
Reflecting this, a detailed statement of reasons for my decision to exercise the ministerial veto in this case has been laid before Parliament. This decision to veto the disclosure of the register is not in any way a criticism of the Freedom of Information Act. The Act always envisioned that there would be times when the Government would need to protect the process of policy development, and this is one of those times. The Government’s right to make just such a veto is written into and is a proper use of the Act.
We have always been as open as possible about the risks and issues engaged in the modernisation of the NHS. First, there was the full public consultation, then the thorough examination by the NHS Future Forum, and the 50 days of detailed debate in both Houses, in addition to the detailed risks published in the impact assessment. Very few pieces of legislation have ever received this degree of public and parliamentary scrutiny. And on Tuesday, I went further and published a separate document that includes the risk areas covered in the transition risk register. This document also includes the actions taken to mitigate those risk areas. I have also published a scheme for publication, which sets out our proposals for reviewing and releasing material relating to the transition programme in future. Both of these documents are available in the Library and on the Department of Health’s website. These documents further confirm that the purpose of the veto was not in any sense to restrict public access to relevant information. It is to establish that publication of the risk register in December 2010 would have been contrary to the public interest.
This Government, more than any other before them, are committed to openness and transparency. Across government we publish business plans, departmental staffing and salaries, full details of departmental contracts and summaries of departmental board meetings. In the NHS, we have published more information about services than was ever previously the case—information that is not only shining a light on poor performance, but actually helping to root it out.
We now publish the NHS Atlas of Variation, exposing the variations in outcomes across the country. We have published data on mixed-sex accommodation, leading to a dramatic 95% fall in breaches. We have invested in new information collections—on A&E performance, on ambulance performance, and on clinical audits.
The decision to veto is about long-term principle and good government, not about limiting in any way scrutiny of NHS reform. Information relating to much of the content of the risk registers is now in the public domain. However, the important principle of the right not to publish has been maintained. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for repeating the Statement on the health transition risk register. I should start by declaring an interest as chair of the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust and as a consultant trainer with Cumberlege Connections.
As we have heard, the First-tier Tribunal, on appeal from the Government, found against them and ordered the disclosure of the register. The Government have decided not to appeal to the Upper Tribunal but, instead, a ministerial veto has been exercised since, as we have been told, Ministers regard this as a matter of principle, not law. I must say to noble Lords that I very much regret that decision.
The noble Earl, in repeating the Statement, made reference to what was intended when the legislation was brought in, but I have to say that we regard this as a major change of policy from the precedent set by the previous Government. Use of the ministerial veto in the past has been reserved only for issues of national security and Cabinet discussions. Applying the veto to what are essentially day-to-day matters of domestic policy is a step back towards secrecy and closed government. It is also a major change of policy in relation to publication of risk registers. The previous Government, under similar circumstances, released the risk register on the third Heathrow runway after an order from the Information Commissioner. This veto is very much a matter of regret, and I should like to ask the noble Earl a number of questions.
Can he explain to the House how the use of the veto in this circumstance meets the exceptional criteria that government rules require? Can he say whether it is now government policy never to publish risk registers, even if ordered to do so by the courts? In repeating the Statement, the noble Earl claimed that civil servants should be allowed to have frank and free conversations. However, this matter was considered in detail by the tribunal. Does he not think that the tribunal has therefore come to an entirely reasonable conclusion on that matter? Does he accept that the recording, reporting and treatment of risk are not optional activities but core responsibilities for any government department?
I should also be grateful if the noble Earl could clear up a number of confusions over statements made in the past 24 hours. In the blog post for Liberal Democrat Voice yesterday, the Deputy Leader of the other place wrote that it would also be right to publish much of what is contained in the risk register as soon as possible. Can the noble Earl explain exactly what that means? The noble Earl himself was interviewed on yesterday’s Radio 4 “Today” programme and it seems that he was really implying that the case for vetoing the release of the NHS transition risk register was a general and not an exceptional one. He said in the interview:
“It is about allowing civil servants to have frank and free conversations, uninhibited by the thought that those conversations are going to be made public”.
When it was put to him:
“You could apply that to any single freedom of information request of government discussions”,
the noble Earl confirmed:
“The effect of the judgment, if we had not vetoed, would be that Governments and civil servants shouldn’t be allowed to talk about key aspects of policy formulation, including the risks”.
I do not see how that could be said to come within “exceptional” criteria, and I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify the matter for the House.
The noble Earl also said at the end of the interview:
“We have every intention of publishing the risk register in due course, when we think the time is right”.
It is 22 months since the Government’s reform policies were published in the White Paper, 19 months since my right honourable friend Mr John Healey, to whom I pay great tribute for his persistence in this matter, put in his FoI request, and a month since the Health and Social Care Act received Royal Assent, so I ask the noble Earl when the time will be right for the risk register to be published. Although this is a matter of principle and therefore Ministers are not going to appeal again, apparently the veto is of only a temporary nature, and therefore it would be good if the noble Earl could explain to us exactly what was meant by his final comment.
Will the Minister come clean on the real reason the Government will not produce the risk register? The fact is that they had a huge amount of warning from people in the NHS, echoed by officials in private, about the impact of their very misguided changes to the NHS, and the reason for the register not being published is very simple: it is political embarrassment. Will the noble Earl also acknowledge that the Government have put the health service through an extraordinary amount of turmoil? Thousands of people have lost their jobs and fundamental change is taking place at a time when the real issues for the health service are meeting the Nicholson challenge of efficiencies, major reconfiguration and improving the quality of primary care. That latter point has been neglected in our debates and I think that it goes to the heart of many of the problems in the health service.
When the Government inherited the NHS, it was in a very good condition. Waiting lists had been cut dramatically and there had been huge investment in the infrastructure. The Government could have chosen to build on that; instead, they adopted fundamental change, pulling the NHS up by its roots and causing major confusion. It is a change that enjoys very little support within the health service.
Perhaps I may now take the noble Earl to the judgment itself, which I think goes to the core of this argument. It says:
“From the evidence it is clear that the NHS reforms were introduced in an exceptional way. There was no indication prior to the White Paper that such wide-ranging reforms were being considered. The White Paper was published without prior consultation. It was published within a very short period after the Coalition Government came into power. It was unexpected. Consultation took place afterwards over what appears to us a very short period considering the extent of the proposed reforms. The consultation hardly changed policy but dealt largely with implementation. Even more significantly the Government decided to press ahead with some of the policies even before laying a Bill before Parliament”—
I repeat: even before laying a Bill before Parliament. It continues:
“The whole process had to be paused because of the general alarm at what was happening. The public interest in understanding the risks involved in such wide-ranging reforms of the NHS in the circumstances just described would have been high, if not exceptional in this case. Risk registers would have provided the public with a far better understanding of the risks to a national institution which millions depended on”.
Yes, indeed. The argument for publication of the risk register when this House and the other place were considering this legislation is overwhelming, and I think that the use of the veto in this case is shameful.
My Lords, I begin by welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, to his new responsibilities with the health portfolio. It is very nice to see him in that post but I pay tribute to his predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, whom I think we would all agree fulfilled the expectations and requirements of her office with great distinction.
First, perhaps I may make a very emphatic statement. The use of the veto by my right honourable friend was not in any way an act that indicated political embarrassment. The reasons for the use of the veto were those that I read out in the Statement. Furthermore, the noble Lord’s point that this represents a fundamental change of policy is quite invalid. As he knows, the veto was used by the previous Government in matters of cross-government importance. In this instance, the Cabinet considered that the principle of “safe space” for civil servants was a matter of cross-government importance. Had it not taken that view, my right honourable friend would not have been able to exercise the veto.
The previous Government took a very similar stance in relation to risk registers. Indeed, they refused to release the Department of Health’s strategic risk registers in response to three requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Therefore, I suggest to the noble Lord that the position adopted by the Government of whom he was a member was not at all dissimilar to the one that we have taken.
The noble Lord asked why the Government consider the current circumstances to be exceptional. He himself read out a section of the tribunal’s reasons which uses the word “exceptional”. The tribunal and indeed the Information Commissioner regard this case as exceptional, as do we. It is important for me to say that the reasons why those views are taken may be different in each case. Nevertheless, both sides classified this as an exceptional matter. From our point of view, it is exceptional not only because these were highly sensitive issues for which a request for disclosure was made at a very sensitive time—namely, when policy was still in the process of formulation—but because of the wider considerations that I mentioned that run across government. For those reasons, above all, we believe that this is an exceptional case.
It is not true that the Government have said that the transition risk register will never be published. All documents, as long as they form part of the national archive, are published in the end but, quite apart from that, we have undertaken to review at regular intervals the sensitivity of this document and to judge whether the current circumstances still pertain. That is right and proper. It is very interesting that over the past few months my department has received no fewer than 546 requests for release of the transition risk register. I think that that is an indication of what departments would have in store for them had the veto not been exercised. I repeat that it must be possible for civil servants and Ministers to have private discussions without the fear that literally every week, or even more frequently, the public would wish to be told the exact nature of those conversations.
Do we consider the tribunal’s decision to be reasonable? I will not criticise it on grounds of reason but we fundamentally take issue with its conclusions. We believe that the balance of public interest most definitely lies in non-disclosure in this case. It is interesting that the noble Lord has given the House to understand that the Government are not keeping a close eye on the performance of the NHS. Of course, we are doing that. Indeed, as I hope the noble Lord knows, the performance of the NHS has not only been maintained since the 2010 election; in many respects it has improved. We have made efficiency savings through the Nicholson challenge. We have maintained financial control and low waiting times for elective treatment. The transition is being managed very effectively. I say that with great tribute to those in the National Health Service who have had a considerable burden of work to undertake to ensure that these changes take place in a structured way. It is proceeding well. The noble Lord failed to acknowledge that the NHS is basically in very good heart indeed.
I hope that that answers the noble Lord’s questions. I know that he will come back to this subject, perhaps even next week, but I do believe that the Government’s decision is the right one and, indeed, the only one.
My Lords, whether this is a discreditable attempt to cover up something that is embarrassing for the Government, I do not know; that is for others to decide. The Statement represents quite a significant change in the Government’s position towards the use of the veto. Everybody in this House would agree with the noble Earl that there needs to be a safe space in which policy is formulated. Safe space means that you can talk to your civil servants, they can talk to you, and it will not be disclosed. That was fully reflected in the Freedom of Information Act, which allowed for that safe space. Again, as the noble Earl rightly says, there is a balance to be struck between preserving that safe space and the interests of openness.
The importance of the Freedom of Information Act was that, instead of it being decided by the Government or officials, it would be decided in accordance with the law and enforced within the courts. I understood the noble Earl to say that the Government have no complaint with the application of the law by the First-tier Tribunal and that is why they are not appealing. The position, therefore, is that the law was properly applied by the tribunal and the statute said that it would be the courts that determined where the limits were to be drawn. Everybody recognised that, in very exceptional circumstances, the veto would be used. Ministers at the time referred to such circumstances as, for example, when an informer would be inadvertently named if there was disclosure or if our foreign position would be damaged in a way that people could not work out. What has happened here—the noble Earl was frank about this—is that the Government simply disagree with the courts about where the balance should be struck. What does the noble Earl feel that that says about the Government’s view of the rule of law?
My Lords, the law governing the release of government documents is the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Act specifically recognises that the Government are entitled to consider all aspects of policy formulation in private. It provides an exemption to allow that, but it also allows Ministers to exercise a veto on the release of information if they have reasonable grounds for doing so. We believe that we do have reasonable grounds for doing so.
My Lords, will my noble friend accept that, in trying to find a balance between disclosure and transparency on the one hand and long-term good governance on the other, he has made the right judgment? Will he accept that good governance cannot be traduced or undermined in any way because it is at the very heart of the legitimacy and credibility of what happens here and in another place? Will he accept, finally, from a noble friend, who was occasionally—only occasionally—a constructively critical friend during the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill that the openness with which he handled that Bill will add credence to the judgment that he has announced today?
I can do little but thank my noble friend for his kind remarks. Indeed, if I may say so, during the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill, I always attempted to be as open as I possibly could with the House on all the matters that we debated. I think that that resulted in a much better Bill. I hesitate to do this, but it is instructive to look at the evidence given to the Justice Select Committee in another place last month by Jack Straw. He put the case that we are making in very graphic terms with which I agree. He said:
“If you talk generally about risk registers, it has to be possible for officials to say to Ministers that there are these risks without these going public. Given the assiduity of the British press, if you publish a raw risk register without any more information, you will set all sorts of hares running, but the document was not designed or prepared in that way. You have to say, ‘We think that we could be at risk here. We think we could be at risk there. Have you thought about this?’ In my view, that sort of information must be protected”.
I could not have put it better.
My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for his helpful Statement. The whole House agrees totally with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that officials must have their private space to make their frank comments. Does the Minister agree that you have to draw a distinction between those frank comments and the risk register itself, which is something of a more formal document? The risk registers that I have seen lay out formally whether the risk is high, medium or low, and you could publish the risk register without at the same time publishing any frank advice that was given. Because the risk register has not been published, does that not itself give rise to possible misrepresentations? There is always the possibility of misrepresentation. If it is published it will possibly be misrepresented; if it is not published, it could also be misrepresented. Finally, I ask for further clarification about the noble Earl’s remark that if the risk register had been published that would set a precedent for the future so that advice would all be anodyne. That was the word the Minister used. Would not the opposite be the case? Officials who were trying to make their judgment about possible risks would be more likely to exaggerate the risks. If the risk register was published and it was discovered that proper risks had not been identified, those officials would be held responsible for not identifying those risks and weighing them with due seriousness. I was slightly surprised by the use of the word “anodyne”.
If you talk to any Permanent Secretary in any department I guarantee that they would take issue with the noble and right reverend Lord on his final point. It is firmly the view of departments across government that if civil servants believe that what they say will reach the public domain immediately, they will not wish to embarrass either themselves or their Ministers by expressing their concerns in graphic language. I understand the noble and right reverend Lord’s point, but I disagree with it for that reason.
He made a distinction between certain parts of the risk register—between the nature of the risks described, their ratings and so on. He was perfectly right to make that distinction. We reviewed the content of the transition risk register following the tribunal’s decision and decided that it would be possible to publish material taken from the register to inform both Houses, and members of the public, about as much of the content of the register as we could. That is why the document that we published on Tuesday, which I commend to the noble and right reverend Lord, included key information relating to the risk areas in the register, an explanation of why we considered that to be a material factor, and the actions taken to mitigate those risk areas. We were as candid as we could be, given the decision of principle that I outlined.
My Lords, perhaps I may take a stage further the point of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. Is there not a converse argument that where civil servants feel strongly, one way or another, about whether there is a risk inherent in a policy initiative, there should be a mechanism whereby that view can enter the public domain so that the public should be informed of strong divisions of opinion, even between civil servants? Is not the risk register on this Bill precisely one of those areas where strong views may have prevailed?
The noble Lord may correct me, but he seems to be advocating a world where all disagreements in private between civil servants become public property. With respect, I disagree with that point of view, which would be the consequence of his position. Section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act explicitly allows for those disagreements to be kept private. There is no doubt about that. Both the Information Commissioner and the tribunal agreed that Section 35 was engaged in this instance, and was there for a reason.
There are several other reasons why we felt that there was a need to withhold information. The need for candour was one. I referred to the risk that publication of the content of the risk register would distort rather than enhance public debate. Another reason was that disclosure could in some instances—including in this case—increase the likelihood of some of the risks happening. Some risks in the register were theoretical rather than real. If people had thought that the risk was real, they might have taken action that would have made the risk a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody wanted that.
My Lords, having been heavily involved in debates on the Health and Social Care Bill—a Bill of extraordinary complexity and vast in its range—I find it very easy to see how civil servants involved in the handling of the Bill might well have been able to identify substantial potential perceived risks of proceeding with it at earlier stages of its development. However, as the noble Earl said, it is perfectly clear, first, that the Government had the right to keep information of such a nature confidential, even though at the end of the day it appeared that they were flouting a legal decision in order to do so. It was absolutely right that the Secretary of State had the right to impose a veto. In the circumstances, it was absolutely acceptable. Therefore, it is right that the matter should proceed as the noble Earl said.
However, will he not express just a little surprise, in the light of the massive clamour by the public and professional bodies during the passage of the Bill—which has all settled down now that the Bill is an Act—that there are those who perceive in this government decision the possibility of a slightly Machiavellian desire to suppress information that could in the ultimate be somewhat embarrassing? Having said that, I believe that the decision was obviously correct in the circumstances.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his support—as I was throughout the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill. It would be wrong not to acknowledge that, to the outside world, the decision to employ the veto looks suspicious. Of course, Governments of whatever party are the subject of suspicion. I am sure that it is well known to noble Lords who served in government that there is very little one can do to dispel impressions of that kind, other than to stand up in Parliament and in public to tell the world what is true. I can only say to the noble Lord that I recognise that those who might take issue with the Government’s decision are entitled to a measure of disappointment, considering that we proclaimed from the rooftops our commitment to transparency. We believe in transparency, and this is apparently an instance where we are not doing what we said we would do. However, there are overriding reasons why it was important for us to take this position.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Walton. As I understand it, the Government’s position on the disclosure of risk registers is a matter of principle. It is clearly crucial that an assessment of risk or a risk register should be comprehensive and candid if it is to be of any use. If it is not comprehensive and candid, and if those who compile it are prevented or discouraged from making it comprehensive and candid by having to look over their shoulders in the fear of premature publication, the risk register’s value will be reduced—and there will be a further risk that the Minister will say later, “Why wasn’t I told?”.
The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, with his immense experience at the top of government, is very familiar with decisions of this nature, and I am grateful for what he said. Perhaps I should make it clear that the decision the Government took was not a blanket decision about all risk registers. The law requires the Government to look at each case on its merits. We believe that a risk register of this particularly sensitive kind is an exceptional matter. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, pointed out instances of risk registers that might be less sensitive. He mentioned the one relating to Heathrow’s extension. I suggest that that was a less sensitive case. The matter was clearly on a smaller scale; it was less political; and it became an issue after the project had been closed down. Therefore, the release of the register was perhaps not altogether a surprising decision by the then Government.
My Lords, I apologise to the House for not being in my place when my noble friend read the Statement. However, I read the Secretary of State’s Statement in full. My noble friend mentioned that the previous Administration refused freedom of information requests for disclosure of risk registers on three occasions. Will he tell the House how many times risk register disclosure has been refused by both this and the previous Administration? Does he know that in Wales the Labour Administration have also refused disclosure of a Department of Health risk register? Does he discern any difference of approach to the disclosure of risk registers between this and the previous Administration?
I am grateful to my noble friend. The answer to his final question is no, I do not believe that there is a difference of approach. I do not have data relating to all government departments but, as I said earlier, the previous Administration refused to release the Department of Health’s strategic risk registers in response to three freedom of information requests. Indeed, one of those was responded to by the right honourable gentleman Mr Burnham in language not dissimilar to that which I have used today. A search of my department’s freedom of information database indicates that, since the Act came into force in January 2005, the department has received six specific requests for risk registers. In no case was the request granted. My noble friend also referred to the Welsh example, which is a very interesting one. In April of this year the Labour Assembly Government in Wales refused to disclose a risk register, and it was a health register. The reasons given for withholding that register mirrored exactly those that we are using currently.
As the legislation focuses so much on GPs, can the noble Earl say whether the risk register made an assessment that there would be increasing delays for patients in getting to see their GPs during the transitional period and that those patients would be put at risk? Given that the Government abandoned the previously set targets for the time limit in which GPs have to see their patients, is he aware that patients in London have faced longer waits to see a GP, let alone the GP of their choice? Is that point covered in the recently published documents in the Library? If not, will he make sure that it is?
There are two points in answer to that. I am aware that in London, in particular, there is an issue for some patients wishing to see their GP; indeed only two days ago I had a useful conversation with the Royal College of GPs about that very matter. However, that particular issue has nothing to do with the reforms that the Government have just enacted, but relates to the supply of GPs. We have many more GPs than we had 10 years ago. Unfortunately, however, we need more. There is a target every year for recruiting GPs but we have not quite reached that target in the past three years. We need to do something about that. Action is in hand to address the issue that the noble Lord has raised. However, I would impress on the House that it is not a reflection of the reforms. The reforms have only just been enacted, and we are only now just rolling them out.
Defence: Carrier Strike Capability
My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Guardsman Michael Roland of the 1st Battalion, the Grenadier Guards; Corporal Andrew Roberts of 23 Pioneer Regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps; and Private Ratu Silibaravi of 23 Pioneer Regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps, who were killed on operations in Afghanistan recently. My thoughts are also with the wounded and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude in which they face their rehabilitation.
The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the carrier strike programme.
The strategic defence and security review considered the carrier strike programme, put in place by the previous Government, as part of a wide-ranging review of options for delivering effective future defence while dealing with the black hole in Labour’s defence budget and the unaffordable ‘fantasy’ equipment plan bequeathed to us by the party opposite. While the review confirmed that carrier strike would be a key capability in delivering Future Force 2020, it also recognised the unsustainability as a whole of the defence equipment plan we inherited.
The strategic decision on carrier strike which emerged from the SDSR process was to convert one carrier with catapults and arrestor gear to operate the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, facilitating greater interoperability with allies, with a decision on the future use or disposal of the second carrier to be taken at the 2015 SDSR. The decision was also taken routinely to embark 12 fast jets while retaining the ability to surge up to the previously planned level of 36 aircraft. As the House would expect for such a complex and high-value project, the strategic decision taken at SDSR was followed by the commissioning of a detailed programme of work to look at the costs, risks and technical feasibility of all aspects of the proposed solution. That study was expected to take 18 months, completing by the end of 2012.
Since I took on the role of Defence Secretary in October last year, my overriding concern, after current operations and the welfare of our Armed Forces, has been to ensure the deliverability of the MoD’s equipment plan and the achievement of a balanced and sustainable budget. That will give our Armed Forces the assurance they need to carry out the massive transformation that will deliver Future Force 2020—the concept for our Armed Forces set out in the SDSR. The carrier project is a large element of the equipment programme and I have worked closely with the new Chief of Defence Materiel, Bernard Gray, to assess the technical and financial risks involved in it.
It quickly became clear to me that a number of the underlying facts on which the SDSR decision on carriers was based were changing.
First, as the programme to convert a carrier to operate with a catapult system has matured, and more detailed analysis has been carried out by suppliers, it has become clear that operational carrier strike capability, using the ‘cats and traps’ system, could not be delivered until late 2023 at the earliest, considerably later than the date envisaged at the time of the SDSR of ‘around 2020’. Because Britain’s carriers will have all-electric propulsion, and therefore do not generate steam like nuclear-powered vessels, the catapult system would need to be the innovative electromagnetic version being developed for the US Navy. Fitting this new system to a UK carrier has presented greater design challenges than were anticipated.
Secondly, and partly as a result of the delayed timetable, the estimated cost of fitting this equipment to the ‘Prince of Wales’ has more than doubled in the last 17 months, rising from £950 million to around £2 billion, with no guarantee that it will not rise further. Technical complexity and the cost of retrofitting ‘cats and traps’ to the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ would be even higher, making it unlikely that it would ever, in practice, be converted in the future.
Thirdly, at the time of the SDSR, there was judged to be a very significant technical risk around the STOVL version of the JSF and some commentators were speculating that it could even be cancelled. Indeed, the STOVL programme was subsequently placed on probation by the Pentagon. However, over the last year, the STOVL programme has made excellent progress and in the last few months has been removed from probation. The aircraft has completed over 900 hours of flying, including flights from the USS ‘Wasp’, and the US Marine Corps has a high degree of confidence in the in-service date for the aircraft. The balance of risk has changed and there is now judged to be no greater risk in STOVL than in other variants of JSF.
Fourthly, further work with our allies on the best approach to collaborative operation has satisfied us that joint maritime task groups involving our carriers, with co-ordinated scheduling of maintenance and refit periods, and an emphasis on carrier availability rather than cross-deck operations, is the more appropriate route to optimising alliance capabilities.
When the facts change, the responsible thing to do is to examine the decisions you have made and to be willing to change your mind, however inconvenient that may be; doing what is right for Britain, not burying your head in the sand and ploughing on regardless, as the last Government so often did. A persistent failure to observe this simple principle is at the root of many of the MoD budget problems that we inherited from the party opposite. I do not intend to repeat its mistakes. The decision taken in the SDSR to proceed with a carrier strike capability, despite the massive challenges we faced with the MoD’s budget, was the right decision. The decision to seek to contain costs by going for ‘cats and traps’ on a single carrier with greater interoperability with allies, and the cheaper CV version of the JSF aircraft, was also the right decision based on the information available at the time.
But the facts have changed. I am not prepared to accept a delay in regenerating Britain’s carrier strike capability beyond the timetable set out in the SDSR, and I am not prepared to put the equipment plan which will support Future Force 2020 at risk of a billion pound-plus increase in the carrier programme and an unquantifiable risk of further cost rises. So I can announce today that the National Security Council has agreed not to proceed with the ‘cats and traps’ conversion, but to complete both carriers in STOVL configuration. This will give us the ability to use both carriers to provide continuous carrier availability at a net additional operating cost averaging about £60 million per year. As we set out in the SDSR, a final decision on the use of the second carrier will be taken as part of SDSR 2015.
We will switch the order for JSF aircraft from CV to STOVL, which we can do without delaying delivery, and by making this announcement today we can plan on the basis of the first operational aircraft being delivered with a UK weapons-fit package. We expect HMS ‘Queen Elizabeth’ to be handed over to the Royal Navy in early 2017 for sea trials. We expect to take delivery of our first test aircraft in July of this year, and we expect the first production aircraft to be delivered to us in 2016, with flying from the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ to begin in 2018 after its sea trials are complete.
We have discussed this decision with the French Government and with the United States. The French confirm that they are satisfied with our commitment to jointly planned carrier operations to enhance European-NATO capability. The United States, on whose support we would rely in regenerating either type of carrier capability, has been highly supportive throughout this review, and I would like to record my personal thanks to the Secretary of Defence, the Pentagon, the Navy and the Marine Corps for their high level of engagement with us. I spoke to Secretary Panetta last night and he confirmed the US’s willingness to support our decision and its view that UK carrier strike availability and our commitment to the JSF programme are the key factors. The Chief of the Defence Staff and his fellow chiefs of staff—all of them—endorse this decision as the quickest and most assured way now to deliver carrier strike as part of an overall affordable equipment programme that will support Future Force 2020.
This was not an easy decision to take, but our responsibility is to make the right decision on the basis of the facts available to us. Neither I nor any of my colleagues came into government expecting decisions to be easy or pain-free. I have a responsibility to clear up the financial mess we inherited in the MoD, just as we are clearing up the mess we inherited across government as a whole: to set a balanced budget and an affordable, deliverable equipment programme with manageable and bounded risk. This decision addresses one of the last impediments to me announcing the achievement of those objectives to the House, and I hope to be able to do so very soon.
But it is not just about balancing budgets, critical as that is. It is about the UK’s defence, secured by having an appropriate and sustainable military capability. This announcement delivers an affordable solution to securing that capability and, with two useable carriers, gives us the option of continuous carrier availability. It confirms the expected delivery of the first test aircraft this summer; of the first production aircraft in 2016; of the first carrier into sea trials in 2017; and of the first flight of the JSF from the deck of the carrier in 2018, with an operational military capability in 2020. It confirms the support of our principal allies, the United States and France, and that of the defence chiefs. It shows that we, at least, are not afraid to take difficult decisions when they are right for Britain. I commend this Statement to the House”.
First, I extend our sincere condolences to the families and friends of the three members of our Armed Forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf in the service of our country.
I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in the other place. Yesterday we had the Queen’s Speech, which contained no direct reference to our Armed Forces or to defence. Today we have found out why. Defence policy is today an embarrassment for a Government who acted in haste when they came into office and were more interested in trying to score points than in embarking on a measured and considered strategic defence and security review with time for full and appropriate consultation before final conclusions and decisions were reached. They are a Government who were more interested in making unsubstantiated claims about an alleged £38 billion unfunded liability over the next 10 years, and judging by the Statement just repeated by the noble Lord, the Government’s approach has not changed on that score. They have withheld information from the Commons Defence Select Committee as to how that figure was calculated, and the National Audit Office figures did not support their claim either.
A key reason why money is now in short supply is because the growth in the economy which this Government inherited had been thrown away by them six months after they took office, has never been restored, and we are now in a double dip recession. The rushed strategic defence and security review made no real reference to north Africa, yet a few months later our forces were involved in action in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. In their foreword to the strategic defence and security review, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister had declared, as they decommissioned HMS “Ark Royal” and sold off the Harriers at a knock-down price, that:
“In the short term, there are few circumstances we can envisage where the ability to deploy airpower from the sea will be essential”.
Fortunately, that view was not shared by those nations which did have an operational aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister went on to assert that the previous Government,
“committed to carriers that would have been unable to work properly with our closest military allies”.
They said that they would “rectify this error” by fitting,
“a catapult to the operational carrier to enable it to fly a version of the Joint Strike Fighter with a longer range and able to carry more weapons”.
Indeed, the Prime Minister asserted that the previous Government had got it “badly wrong”. The Government’s rushed strategic defence and security review then told us:
“Installing the catapult and arrestor will allow the UK to acquire the carrier-variant of Joint Strike Fighter ready to deploy on the converted carrier instead of the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant. This version of the jet has a longer range and greater payload: this, not large numbers of aircraft, is the critical requirement for precision strike operations in the future”.
Do those words I have just quoted from the SDSR now represent government policy or not in the light of the Statement the Minister has just repeated, which says that the Government will switch the order for JSF aircraft from carrier-variant to STOVL? In view of the penultimate sentence in the foreword to the SDSR by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, which says:
“We must never send our soldiers, sailors and airmen into battle without the right equipment”,
has the Prime Minister now changed his view? Does he now accept that the STOVL-variant rather than the carrier-variant of the JSF is the “right equipment” for our forces?
The Prime Minister has now come to the conclusion that the previous Government’s policy is right. However, the Statement repeated by the Minister seeks to hide behind a claim that the facts have changed. Apparently it has now been found out that the “cats and traps” system cannot be delivered until late 2023 at the earliest. Partly as a result of the delayed timetable, the estimated cost of fitting this equipment to the “Prince of Wales” has apparently more than doubled in the last 17 months, and the cost of fitting cats and traps to the “Queen Elizabeth” would be even higher. Perhaps a little more time spent on undertaking the strategic defence and security review and consulting more widely would have drawn attention to these problems of timescale and cost that the Government say have caused them to rethink their approach.
The Government had clearly decided that there was no likelihood of a problem with cost and timescale, because the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister said in their foreword to the SDSR:
“We will fit a catapult to the operational carrier to enable it to fly a version of the Joint Strike Fighter with a longer range and able to carry more weapons”.
There is nothing there about any possibility of a problem over timescales or costs, or a need to look at timescales and costs. We were also told that,
“at the time of the SDSR, there was judged to be a very significant technical risk around the STOVL version of JSF”.
The technical risk was apparently so significant that it does not appear to have been referred to in the strategic defence and security review as a reason for the Government’s decision to switch the order for JSF aircraft, a decision they are now reversing.
The fourth reason given for the change of approach is that,
“further work with our allies on the best approach to collaborative operation has satisfied us that joint maritime task groups involving our carriers … is the more appropriate route to optimising alliance capabilities”.
Surely that is the kind of issue that should be considered at the time of a strategic defence and security review, not immediately after it. No doubt it could have been considered as part of the SDSR if the Government had not been so determined to rush it through and end up with the policy U-turn that we are being told about today.
The Minister has told us in the Statement why the decision made by the previous Government on carrier strike capability was right and why the present Government’s policy has had to be abandoned. Perhaps the Minister can tell us the cost to the nation of the Government’s U-turn, and when the Government expect to make further announcements on their equipment programme in the light of Future Force 2020. Can the Minister also take this opportunity to put the record straight and confirm the National Audit Office finding that cancelling both carriers would have saved £1.2 billion but that, in government, his party agree that it is not in the national interest to do so?
At a time when cuts are having to be made, at the very least our Armed Forces deserve clarity and certainty of decision-making by the Government. On the subject of carrier strike capability that most definitely has not been the case. Since the Prime Minister took personal responsibility for this key decision in the strategic defence and security review, it is the Prime Minister’s competence that has been found wanting.
We support the policy U-turn announced today, which accepts that the previous Government’s decision was correct, but we do not support the taking of the wrong policy options previously by this Government under a rushed SDSR or the resultant waste of time and money. Let us hope that the decisions announced today will now provide our Armed Forces with the much needed clarity and certainty they deserve as far as carrier strike capability is concerned.
My Lords, it is a bit rich for the Opposition to criticise when it was they who scrapped the Sea Harriers, a decision that a senior naval officer described as,
“one of the most disastrous military decisions ever undertaken”.
It was they who pushed the in-service dates of the carriers back two years, which drove £1.6 billion of costs into the programme with no capability gain, a decision which the Public Accounts Committee said set,
“a new benchmark in poor corporate decision making”.
I could go on.
I may not be able to answer all the noble Lord’s questions but I undertake to write to him. First, he asked if the Prime Minister felt that the STOVL was the right aircraft. I can categorically say the answer is yes, under the changed circumstances since we made the decision in the SDSR. The House should be aware that we are talking about a very capable aircraft. We have spent a lot of time debating Harriers. The STOVL-variant is a very much more capable aircraft than Harrier. It has a genuine day and night capability; it is bigger, faster and can fly higher for longer, and can carry more weapons. It has low observability—that is, stealth—and greatly improved survivability. It is a fifth generation technology and its sensors and systems integration make it a high-performance tactical ISTAR asset. JCA places the UK at the forefront of fighter technology.
The noble Lord said that he felt that the SDSR decision was wrong. The SDSR was about setting a strategic direction and we remain committed to reintroducing a carrier strike capability around 2020, but the Government made clear then that if costs—or facts—changed, we would not just plough on regardless. We said that we would spend time and money examining the option of carrier conversion and that is what we have done. A “main gate” decision will necessarily be the subject of a much greater level of analysis than that conducted for the SDSR.
The noble Lord pointed out that the B aircraft was on probation for a time. That is correct. As was said in the Statement, the STOVL programme was taken off probation in the United States in January 2012 after successful sea trials in November 2011 on board the USS “Wasp”. I have photographs here of the B-variant taking off from the USS “Wasp” which I am very happy to hand out to any noble Lord who would like them. The STOVL-variant is also required by the US Marine Corps and the Italian Navy. We are very grateful for the assistance that we have received from both the US Navy and the US Marine Corps.
The noble Lord asked how much money we had wasted. As of the end of April, we had committed £39 million on conversion investigations and a further £1 million on an air-to-air refuelling study. We do not consider this money to have been wasted. Changing the variant was considered the best course of action at the time of the SDSR and these costs were necessarily incurred. Without a detailed investigation of the impact of carrier conversion, we would not have been in the position today to have identified the significant rise in estimated costs and made the decision to call a halt to this programme. I think that I have covered all the questions, but if there were any others, I will check Hansard and write to the noble Lord.
My Lords, I join these Benches in the earlier tribute. Today’s Statement marks another sad chapter in the saga of the aircraft carriers. It ill beholds the Opposition to crow and to adopt the pose that they did today in their heavy questioning.
I have three questions. First, there appears to have been some change of heart or change of plan over the second carrier. My understanding was that the second would be mothballed, or possibly even sold; now it seems to be planned to be operated much more in tandem with the first carrier.
My second question is about the overall cost of the carriers. Where are we up to with our latest forecast of the cost of the two carriers? Thirdly, will my noble friend say a little more about interoperability, particularly with the French carriers?
My Lords, we have an aspiration to use the second carrier, but this will be an issue that the next SDSR, probably in 2015, will have to consider, particularly in the light of the cost of crewing it, which we estimate to be about £60 million a year. I can assure my noble friend that it is our aspiration to have the second carrier ready to assist when the first carrier goes in for a refit, or for any other reason.
I feel uncomfortable giving my noble friend figures for the overall cost of the carriers. We are in discussions with industry and it would be wrong to reveal too many of those figures.
My noble friend asked finally about interoperability. The key intention agreed by the UK and France, which my noble friend mentioned, has always been to co-ordinate operations to ensure that when one country has a carrier in maintenance, the other has one available. Our ability to deliver this assurance will be enhanced should we ultimately decide to bring the second carrier into service. The US has made it clear that carrier availability, rather than cross-decking or the capability of aircraft, is the key issue for it.
My Lords, in welcoming this decision, which is not only the right decision but, realistically, the only possible one, could I for the sake of clarity ask the Minister to confirm three points? First, will he confirm that the initial Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to be delivered to the United Kingdom, which will be instrumented aircraft for test and evaluation flying, will be STOVL variants and that this has always been the case, because, at the time of the SDSR, it was too late to change the choice of variant for those aircraft? Secondly, will he confirm that the first carrier, now in build, is being built without cats and traps and, again, that this always has always been the case, since, at the time of the SDSR, it was too late to change that? Thirdly, will he confirm that, as a consequence, the timescales for the delivery of the aircraft capability and the carrier capability have not changed from the pre-SDSR assumptions as a consequence of this excursion into carrier variant?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord for his support. He and I sat through all the SDSR meetings and had to make the original decision. I can confirm to him that the first B-variant will be delivered in July this year and that the second one, I understand, will be delivered in October this year. They are both B-variants and both test aircraft. The third one, which will be delivered within 18 months, is also a B-variant—so all the first three aircraft are B-variants.
The noble and gallant Lord then asked me to confirm that the first carrier was being built without cats and traps and that the time when it would come into operation would not change. I can confirm that that is the case.
My Lords, I, too, welcome this Statement, which must have been very difficult for the Minister to deliver. It took him 13 minutes to read out the Secretary of State’s Statement, and all he had to do was get up and say, “Sorry, you were right; we were wrong”, but he did not do that. But that is where we are.
Leaving aside all that fog about changed circumstances, I was very interested in what he said about a refuelling study. Why on earth did the Ministry of Defence need to engage in a refuelling study? It was buying the plane from the Americans. Why did not just ask the Americans what arrangements they had or did not have? I suspect that the plane will not have any refuelling capability because it will probably do damage to the stealth of the aircraft.
While I greatly welcome this decision, I still do not think that we out of risk and danger completely with the B version of this aircraft. Less than a year ago, Rear Admiral Venlet, the officer in charge of the whole programme in the United States, said that, so far, the F-35B is using more runway than desired in its short takeoffs and landings and that it cannot land vertically with as much payload as customers would like. I would be grateful if the Minister could speak to those two points. I am not too concerned about the second one, because you can always drop off fuel and ordinance that you have not used when you are trying to land, but concerns about the takeoff distance need careful attention and the Minister should explain to the House where we stand.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his measured welcome of the Statement. I have far too much respect for him to criticise him for his subsequent comments. I am not briefed on the refuelling study with the Americans; I will write to the noble Lord and put a copy of the letter in the Library of the House. I am not aware of the problems of runway and takeoff associated with the B-variant. All the briefing that I have had on that from Royal Naval officers and civil servants has been very positive. They are all very happy with the plane’s performance, but, again, I will write t the noble Lord on this issue of runway and takeoff.
I can assure my noble friend that we are doing quite a lot of work on this issue. Previous studies have shown that this decision may offer great flexibility in the employment of the carriers in other roles, particularly amphibious roles. The carriers are central to our amphibious assault capability and are a leading example of the expeditionary forces that underpin the core principles of the SDSR. I can assure my noble friend that there is plenty of room on the carriers to embark a good number of Royal Marines and to operate helicopters to support them. The B-variant can land on austere runways on land in support of ground troops.
My Lords, the Minister rather led with his chin on occasions in his Statement when defending his predecessor’s decision. I am going to resist the temptation and keep my hand rather firmly in my pocket. I very much welcome the Statement made today by the Secretary of State, not least because it has reverted to a decision that was taken by the last Government on perfectly rational grounds and in which I played a minor role at the beginning. My colleague the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, who is here today, played a much more major part.
The truth of the matter is that it is the easiest thing in the world for a new Minister, in a fresh dawn, to overturn the recommendations and decisions of their predecessor. A lot of political kudos can be attracted to that—a degree of bravura, a sense of decisiveness, ruthless leadership and so on. It is much more difficult for a Minister in a Government to overturn completely the decision of their immediate predecessor, and it takes a great deal of courage to do that. There is no political kudos—all that can be anticipated is criticism, “egg on face” quotes, and so on.
I congratulate the Government and the Secretary of State on having made the right decisions for the right reasons this time. This is right for the Armed Forces, for the security of the country, for the Navy and above all for the people who serve in the Armed Forces. In passing this commendation to the Secretary of State, will the Minister urge him to apply the same scrutiny and rationale to various other aspects of the SDSR, which, on the evidence of today’s decision, have been taken more in haste and in the pursuit of kudos than in the interests of national security of the country?
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his welcome. This was a very difficult decision but it was right for the Royal Navy and for the country. In taking this decision, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made no criticism of his predecessor’s decision. Things have dramatically changed over the cats and traps, and obviously with the B-variant. I will take the noble Lord’s other point, on bringing the same scrutiny to other aspects of the SDSR, back to the department.
My Lords, I do not think that anyone is going to be deceived by the attempts by the Secretary of State to make party political points or to make people see this as anything other than a discreditable shambles. It is very unfortunate. The Government would have done better to have come forward with a slightly more humble line and to have confessed that they had made a mistake.
Can we hear how many aircraft the Government are now proposing to procure? We still have not heard that. Does the noble Lord accept and acknowledge that, because the B version carries a lot of its weight in the form of its own lift fan, its range is much less—400 miles against 700 miles for the CV version? Its payload is similarly reduced, and therefore more aircraft will be required to give a similar military effect. Are the Government planning to purchase more aircraft to procure the same military effect? Will the Minister also recognise that if we simply restrict ourselves to purchasing the F-35B, we will have no deep-strike bombing capability at all once the Tornados have been withdrawn? Do the Government have any plans at all to replace that lacuna in our capability, which will emerge by the end of the decade?
My Lords, again I resent this criticism. I feel that it is the noble Lord who should be a little humble, particularly when the party opposite’s last single year in office saw a staggering £3.3 billion increase in the total cost of the 15 largest defence equipment projects. The noble Lord asked me how many Joint Strike Fighter B-variants we are going to buy. In the first instance we intend to buy enough Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to build up our initial carrier strike capability. We do not intend to make final decisions on JSF numbers until our next strategic defence review, in 2015 at the earliest.
I will just re-emphasise what the Statement said. We are getting our first and second aircraft this year. We are getting the first production aircraft in 2016. The first aircraft trials at sea, when we will have three aircraft, will be in 2018. The initial operational capability will be in 2020, when we will have eight useable aircraft. This is three years earlier than would be possible with the C-variant.
My Lords, I accept that it must have been a very difficult decision to take, but clearly the sums involved point us in that direction. However, I thought that the most intriguing part of my noble friend’s Statement was that the Chief of the Defence Staff and his fellow chiefs,
“endorse this decision as the quickest and most assured way now to deliver carrier strike as part of an overall affordable equipment programme”.
I wonder what the advice to the Secretary of State from the chiefs was when he came in in 2010. I suspect that my noble friend will not illuminate that point right now.
My other point is about the question of interoperability versus collaboration. This is clearly a setback to our co-operation with the French. The lessons of Libya will have told us that it is vital that we continue to collaborate with them. Will he reassure us that we will continue to work with them to optimise our joint capabilities?
My Lords, taking my noble friend’s second question first, I can reassure her on that point. I have had a number of discussions with the French military at all levels, and am very keen on pushing our relations with it. As for the chiefs giving their support, I understand that they all put their support in writing to No. 10. I cannot answer now the question about the advice that the Secretary of State received in 2010, but my noble friend might want to have a word with the noble and gallant Lord afterwards.
My Lords, this is clearly the correct decision, but I have two questions for the Minister. The first continues the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lee. The decision that had been taken before was that we were going to have STOVL and run two carriers. Looking at this Statement in detail, it is not at all clear that we are really going to run two carriers. It would be dreadful if, after all this going round in circles like an oozlum bird for two years, we end up with only one carrier running. I hope that we can be more positive about the fact that we will run two in order to ensure that we have a carrier 100% of the time, because that is good for the nation and for the defence of this country.
My second point runs on from that. Perhaps the Minister could get across to the Secretary of State, and to the rest of his Front Bench, that this is good news. We have a 65,000-tonne ship because if you surge 26 Joint Strike Fighters, of whatever variant, it has to be that size. It is not because some admiral woke up and thought, “Gosh, I’ll have a big ship”. It is done for a reason. We should be very proud that this nation is building two of them. Let us get a bit of whoomph and say, “Right, we’ve made a decision, this is a fantastic thing, tens of thousands of people are working producing these things and they will protect and look after our nation for 50 years”.
My Lords, the second carrier is, as I said, an aspiration and we very much hope it will be possible. We will certainly always have one carrier at sea. The decision on the second one will have to wait until 2015, but it is our aspiration that it is going to happen. As for the noble Lord’s point about it being a good news story, of course it is a good news story and we are very proud of British industry. I was up in Rosyth and Govan a couple of weeks ago and saw the work. I am enormously proud of what we are producing up there.
My Lords, I hope there is time for one quick question from a mere accountant. Can my noble friend confirm the wise words of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, about the effectiveness and competence of the new STOVL version? I believe that we shall make a major saving in the cat and trap system, although there may be some shortfall in deliverability of the particular weapons system in the distance. Can he write to me, or let me have this afternoon, a quick sum on the saving of the cat and trap system, not least the time and availability in 2017-18 of the new version?
My Lords, I will be happy to write to my noble friend. I have a lot of figures here with which I shall not weary the House. I can tell him that to convert the “Queen Elizabeth” to cats and traps after she is built would cost between £2.5 billion and £3 billion.
My Lords, are we not in danger of short-termism? Following what the noble Lord, Lord West, just said, we will, we hope, end up with two immensely useful platforms that will last for 40 or 50 years and that will be able to take all sorts of strange aircraft about which we do not yet know. Therefore, the project going ahead as it is now is most useful.
No, my Lords, I do not think that it is short-termism. We are in very good company with the B-variant. The US Marine Corps uses it; it is buying a lot of Joint Strike Fighters. The Italians are also going to buy them for their carrier. It is not short-termism at all.
My Lords, I have already given an answer to the second question. I will read it out again, but before I do I must say that I am very grateful to the noble Lord for assuring me that we are on the right track. I said that at the end of April we had committed £39 million to conversion investigations and a further £1 million to an air-to-air refuelling study. We do not consider that money to have been wasted. Changing variant was considered the best course of action at the time of the SDSR and those costs were necessarily incurred. Without a detailed investigation of the impact of carrier conversion, we would not have been in a position today to identify the significant rise in estimated costs and to decide to call a halt to the programme.
Debate (2nd Day) (Continued)
My Lords, we are in something of a cleft stick when it comes to reform of your Lordships’ House, and that is never a comfortable place to be. I think it is open to a Cross-Bencher to suggest a different way to move forward. It seems to me that it might even be a way that could be the focus for some consensus.
In the gracious Speech, the Government’s proposal has been definitively set down as changing the composition of your Lordships’ House but not its function. Of course, that invites the question: how do you change form without function? How do you alter the composition and leave the function intact? That goes to all the questions raised about greater legitimacy. It seems that people still aspire to more legitimacy—oh yes—but please not too much because then your Lordships’ House would question the primacy of the other place.
There may be a way through this. I offer it just as a suggestion, but it might even attract some consensus—without going into the different meanings of consensus, about which we heard a good deal this morning. First, we could have a statutory independent commission, but it should be a nominations commission rather than an appointments commission. Its task would be to nominate candidates to stand as independents. It would have to have a carefully drawn remit. Having done that, we would have a national election: one person, one vote, with people voting either for the party-political candidate of their choice or for the independent list. In that way, the proportion of your Lordships’ House consisting of independents could rise or fall. It might fall very low if the electorate felt that they wished to support the parties of their choice, not the independent list; or it might rise, reflecting the democratic will, if electors decided that they would prefer to support the independent list, not the parties not of their choice. Given the sad decline in enthusiasm for party-political politics, on which several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, have commented, which I take very seriously, one way to regenerate enthusiasm for electoral politics might be to put a little distance between choice and choosing a party.
The independent commission would of course have to have a careful remit. I suggest that the following points might be important. First, it should take a serious view of what is independence. As your Lordships know, not everybody who sits on these Benches is an independent Cross-Bench Peer. The commission should try to maintain that these Benches consist only of those who have not and have not recently had any party-political affiliation or supported any party financially. One would need that criterion.
An independent nominations commission could also take account of the spread of current expertise of various useful sorts in your Lordships’ House. After all, it would know who was retiring, who was stepping down. It would have a broad view of the composition of the House for the next period. Given that broad view, it could ask the following serious questions. Do we have in this House enough industrial experience? Do we have enough doctors? Do we have enough engineers? Do we have too many Members—or, let us say, a great wealth of experience—of other sorts? In short, the independent list would have to be independent and contribute something distinctive to the House. That might work. It might allow us to have a House of which every Member had been nominated and every Member had been elected, but it would not allow any pure appointments.
I do not imagine that in the end the composition of your Lordships’ House would be so different from what it is today. In fact, it might be an advantage in that, in many ways, it would mirror diversity. It would achieve the separation of two functions, with those representing constituencies more deeply anchored and more expert in the regional basis on which they were elected, and those on the independent list being there only because they brought something distinctive in their combination of experience and expertise, preferably one that was up to date, and preferably a trade or craft that they practise.
This may not commend itself in the middle of the present debate because we have rather got ourselves impaled on the idea that, whatever else, a hybrid House is a nice looking compromise and people will stand for it. A hybrid House has great risks, which were mentioned this morning by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and a House without independence has some risks. I want to say a little about that.
If we assume that the function of your Lordships’ House remains scrutiny, it is not merely an activity that we undertake. It is underpinned in the process of the House by the possibility that the Government may not win every vote. They may either agree to bring forward an amendment that captures the spirit of the amendment that is then not pressed, or they may lose the vote on an amendment. That process of check and challenge is fundamental to scrutiny. There has been reference to the days before the 1999 reforms, when it was the self-restraint of the large number of Conservative hereditaries that allowed check and challenge to happen—a clearly unsatisfactory position. However, we could institute adequate check and challenge, and thereby retain our function of adequate scrutiny, if we could ensure a House that was composed in a more diverse way. I do not believe that that has to be at the cost of an electoral mandate.
Finally, would this House not be too legitimate—the other problem that all proposals hitherto would, in effect, have faced? It would be regarded as having a lesser and certainly a different sort of legitimacy from that of the House of Commons. It would probably be one in which the primacy of the other place could be preserved. There is my proposal: keep the primacy of the Commons, keep the function of scrutiny, have a wholly elected House and diversify the methods of election.
My Lords, when on Monday and Tuesday of last week your Lordships debated a Motion not dissimilar to today’s, most noble Lords opened their remarks by saying that in their view this House badly needed a reform, but not that one. Much the same could be said about today. I confess I am somewhat surprised by this sudden passion for more reform. At the time I made my maiden speech in your Lordships’ House some 60 years ago, the composition of the House had remained unchanged for decades—if not centuries—but this state of affairs was not to last for long.
First came the Life Peerages Act 1958, which allowed Peers to be Members of this House for their own lives only and opened the way for those who did not wish to saddle their heirs with obligations that some of them would wish to avoid. The same Act brought in women as sitting Members of the House for the first time. This was followed in 1963 by the admission of female holders of hereditary peerages in their own right. At some point around this time, by tacit agreement between the parties, the creation of new hereditary peerages except in special circumstances began to be phased out. Then, of course, in 1999 came the cull of nine-tenths of the hereditary Peers of both sexes. Those are only the major changes that have taken place. Now, along come Her Majesty’s Government, asking your Lordships’ House to throw the whole thing away and start all over again. This House has already been reformed up to its eyebrows. It has been reforming itself, and it will continue such reforms so long as it is left by Her Majesty’s Government to do so.
My Lords, I rise with some trepidation to follow someone who, I now understand, entered this House before any women were allowed. That was in 1948, when I was probably about two and a half, so the noble Lord’s experience in this House is, I suspect, longer than that of almost anyone else here today. Experience is an important thing; however, I am sure he will understand that I do not agree with everything in his speech.
This debate is in the wider context of yesterday’s Queen’s Speech. I felt a sort of enormous disappointment with it, because coalition government may be something that we have to learn and understand—and progress in future—but we got the lowest common denominator of coalitions yesterday: it was about what little they could agree on rather than what hope and aspiration they could come to by getting the best from both parts.
As I come from the north-east, your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that my main anxiety was that there was little hope to give regarding the devastation in that region. I have tried at Question Time to make sure the House knows about the increasing joblessness and the effects of the recession there. I think that it is our role to give hope and optimism to the public but, try as I might, I find little comfort, let alone optimism, for the north-east to draw on in yesterday’s gracious Speech.
I also regret the lack of clarity around social care. We were disappointed by how little the health Bill delivered a way forward for social care, and there was much debate from these Benches about the need for much more clarity and a way forward. There is very little prospect of much progress on that coming out of the Queen’s Speech.
To come to the issue of the day, however, all of us who want and strive to be part of a vibrant democracy know that there are huge challenges. I hope that what has been going on in the rest of Europe over the past week, as well as the very low turnout for our own democracy, tells us that we are walking in very difficult waters, with many people who we depend on for a democracy—the electorate—becoming very disillusioned. We saw that in the low turnout last week.
The proposal to move to individual registration is one that I understand. It is important to keep our system intact and without fraud, but I suspect that what the Government bring forward will smack far more of seeking political advantage than of putting the system right. My noble friend Lord Wills talked about this from his experience in the previous Government. I started the journey in the previous Government when I was Local Government Minister in the 1997 Parliament. At that stage, voting systems and elections were the Local Government Minister’s responsibility; they moved after that. I got very interested in this subject and encouraged local authorities to look at how they could encourage more people to vote. There were some useful experiments around the country, although often they became very difficult to do because they needed a national register. I still think that we need to think about that and not wipe it off the agenda.
As we live in an increasingly mobile society, knowing who is entitled to vote and enabling them to vote where they are, rather than where they happen to have been on a particular day, is something that we need to look at. I am sure that I will be very unpopular on both sides if I say, “If we had maintained getting an identity card that really did tell you who was who, we would be able to eliminate fraud without some of the concerns and proposals that people are going for”. I will look at the Bill carefully, but I am concerned that if it comes forward in the way in which it has been talked about, it will lead to a reduction in registration rather than an increase, and that will not be in the interests of democracy.
Everyone has said a great deal on Lords reform, and I do not want to repeat it. The main justification for the Bill is that we should be democratic. My problem with the proposals is that I do not believe that the Bill will support the aim of a vibrant democracy. Indeed, I fear that if it were introduced and agreed in its present form, it would increase cynicism about democracy. We have a constitution that evolves and changes. The Government are wrong to think only about composition, or that composition can be sorted out effectively without dealing with the other aspects that are so important to our democracy and governance.
I fear, as I say, that the proposals would increase cynicism in the electorate. We cannot really tell people why we want reform, other than that we want to introduce a democratic element. We also cannot tell them what balance we are seeking between the two Chambers or what they can expect from the House Lords. Indeed, we are even saying that they cannot expect anything from us: once someone is elected for the 15-year term, they will not be supported in engaging with the electorate at all because that might disturb the balance with the House of Commons. When you try to explain this to teenagers, they look at you with incredulity. They simply do not understand it. I feel that the Government have to turn things round, look at the fundamentals and deal with them. Then they will be able to talk much more easily about the way forward.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, about the risks of a hybrid House. I started by supporting a mixed House, but the more work I did on it and the more I looked at other Parliaments and legislatures, the more anxious I became.
I want to make a point that I do not think has been raised before; I certainly have not heard it, but that might be my fault. Many countries that have a bicameral legislature in which both Houses are elected not only have a written constitution, as my noble friend Lord Rooker said earlier, but separation of the Executive and the legislature. In the distant past, I read an old Liberal Democrat document that espoused that. I am not saying it is their policy now, but if you embark on a course where you are very hazy about the outcome, you will often end up with unintended consequences. I make that point about electoral registration, but I also make it about Lords reform. We are far too cavalier in simply saying, “Let’s introduce democracy; everything will be okay”.
I believe very strongly in our system because I think the British people appreciate being able to see their Member of Parliament have a go at the Prime Minister or at Ministers. Ministers never like it, but it is a very important part of our democracy and our democracy would be much less without it. We must not embark on something that has a logical end in which you would separate the Executive from the legislature. There is that danger in some of the proposals before us, partly because they simply have not been thought through enough.
That interaction between the two Houses and the accountability of the Executive are at the heart of our democracy and our constitutional settlement. Trying to deal only with the composition of the Lords, without any consideration of its effect on the other two parts, is very short-sighted and may well be dangerous. It could end up with those unintended consequences.
In all these things, we need to work very hard on what the proposals mean for the constitution and governance of our country as a whole, and then we should put whatever we come up with to a referendum.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong. She said that the noble Lord, Lord Denham, came into this House when she was two and a half, but I remind her of a much more recent date: 25 years ago, nearly to the day, she and I entered the other place as newly elected Members.
I declare an interest as a member of the Joint Select Committee on Lords reform. I am also one of the 12 members of the Joint Select Committee who produced the alternative report. Regrettably, I was unable to take part in last week’s debate as I could not stay until its conclusion, so I am grateful to have the chance to speak today in the light of the inclusion of Lords reform in the gracious Speech. I would like to pay tribute to chairman of the Joint Select Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who is not in his place. He guided and cajoled the committee to produce a very creditable report, despite our many different points of view on every issue. I would also like to thank my fellow committee members and, of course, the 11 committee members with whom I worked to produce the alternative report.
There are some 20 legislative proposals in the gracious Speech; Lords reform appears at number 18. The language that the Government have chosen to describe their intentions for Lords reform is, to say the least, delphic, referring to a Bill to change “the composition” of this House. What does it mean? With great respect to my noble friend the Leader of the House, who is also not in his place at the moment, I would not say that his contribution this morning, masterly though it was, was designed to be less delphic. Indeed, he is probably an oracle in his own person. However, if I were to use that kind of language, I think I would want to reassure constitutional reformers that I was with them, while at the same time indicating to voters that I understood their immediate concerns— the economy, jobs, social care, pensions, crime and border security—to be rather more pressing than constitutional change. If I had wanted to indicate those things, I might have used that language.
No doubt the Government are asked, as we all must frequently be, exactly what problem reform of the House of Lords is intended to fix. In fact, usefully, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister answered that question in the White Paper and draft Bill. They said that the objective of the draft Bill was,
“to change the House of Lords into a more democratically elected second chamber”.
They added that the proposals would “strengthen Parliament”. These are fine objectives. I have sympathy with them and doubt that anybody would not.
I rather welcome the opaque nature of the Government’s commitment to Lords reform, as revealed by the gracious Speech, because I hope and believe that such opacity may buy some time, in the event of reform going ahead, to improve the proposals in the White Paper and the draft Bill before they are presented to Parliament. Last week’s rehearsal in this House of the arguments for, but mostly against, the proposals revealed not only that the Government’s analysis of the problem was flawed but that their proposed solution does not meet its own objective. The Government now have the opportunity, which I hope they will use, to take note of and act on the work of the Joint Committee, the alternative report and the many expert and experienced points of view expressed last week in this House to improve any future Bill.
In particular, they must accept that Clause 2 of the draft Bill is a nonsense. Clause 2 asserts that Commons primacy would be unaffected by an electoral mandate for the Lords. That was torn apart by the Joint Committee and the alternative report, and during last week’s debate. It is obvious that any proposals for elections to this House must perforce affect the House of Commons and, hence, the efficacy of Parliament as a whole. The clause was revealed as an assertion—nothing more—unsupported by any evidence to the Joint Committee, save that of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister, Mark Harper. Indeed, worse than that, as has been touched on by several noble Lords today, it was revealed as an attempt to reassure House of Commons colleagues that they would have nothing to fear from the presence in their constituencies of paid, elected party Senators, elected for long, non-renewable terms by a different voting system but to the same Parliament, dealing with the same policy issues.
The Government must understand that one consequence of such a proposal would be a weakening of electoral accountability, and another the likelihood of conflict between the two Houses that the Parliament Acts could not resolve—grave consequences indeed of a measure that they claim would strengthen Parliament. If they are to proceed with this constitutional reform, they must find a means of solving the dilemma that has bedevilled reform for the past century: how can you achieve greater legitimacy for the Lords without challenging the primacy of the Commons? That matter was just raised by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill.
The Government claim that people are in favour of Lords reform because the three main party manifestos favoured it at the last general election, but that claim will not wash. Not only is it a stunning non-sequitur but it also ignores the obvious differences in the manifesto pledges, the fact that no party actually won the election and the fact that because all three parties offered Lords reform it was not possible to vote against it.
The issue is not distinguished by its salience in the public mind, then or—for that matter—now. The public say, backed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and all three main party leaders in the other place, that constitutional reform is anything but a priority. Indeed, that might have been the message from the eight major cities that last week rejected through referendums the proposals for elected mayors. Maybe voters were not attracted by the idea of more paid party elected politicians. Of course, for now anyway the Government have rejected, as we heard again this morning, the idea of a referendum on Lords reform on grounds of cost, while at the same time promising a referendum on Scottish independence and apparently being unable to tell us the cost of electing, paying and maintaining another 450 Westminster politicians. I believe that the public are unimpressed by those inconsistencies, and that does not help the Government’s case either.
I began my remarks by saying that I have sympathy with the objectives of the White Paper and draft Bill and I will conclude briefly by suggesting ways in which the Government might advance their cause. They need to understand that there is absolutely no consensus on their draft Bill within parties, in the academic world, between the two Houses and within them, or even on the need for a draft Bill. My noble friend the Leader has had a lot of fun with consensus and my noble friend Lord Forsyth had even more fun last week. But there are issues that need tackling, and which could be tackled now with a good degree of real consensus as identified in the Steel Bill and in the evidence to the joint Select Committee from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and others, for Lords reform—issues such as the size of the House, retirement, dealing with misconduct, the separation of honours from membership of the House of Lords, means of appointment, and so on. Those issues have been considered by the Joint Select Committee in the alternative report, and the Government could make progress and achieve some reform by pursuing them in a way that would rightly be seen as beneficial.
The Government’s aim to strengthen Parliament through constitutional reform is a worthy one, but if they wish to succeed on the larger questions of election and conventions between the Houses, they must accept that their draft Bill as it stands does not meet their own objectives. They must think through the vast practical and constitutional implications of what they propose. In other words—and I cannot put it plainer—they should do the work, possibly through a constitutional convention or the like, before they seek to legislate. They must understand that if they present to Parliament half-thought-out constitutional reform, they will throw into chaos the very democratic machinery that is their only means of delivering other legislative change. Above all, since they claim to speak for the people, because Parliament is the voice of the people, they should give the people the chance to say what they think in a referendum. The price for democracy of getting it wrong is just too great.
My Lords, I wish to speak about what I believe is the biggest constitutional crisis facing this country, and it is related to the eurozone. There is a feeling, which I think is profoundly mistaken, that somehow we can isolate ourselves from the constitutional changes that are being suggested for the eurozone. It is to the credit of the Government, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer that throughout this eurozone crisis they have been ready to accept that in order to get the crisis eased, or at best overcome, there will have to be substantial changes in the eurozone.
There is no point spending time arguing about what has been; the milk has been spilt and this fatally flawed eurozone design is with us here and now. It is in all our interests—that of the United States economy, the British economy, obviously the European economy but also the global economy—that this eurozone crisis is resolved. However, the greatest danger would be for us in this country to think that we can go on watching the eurozone crisis unfold and the constitutional changes which are being made, and not recognise that it has deep and profound consequences for the constitution of this country.
In today’s opening business the European Union (Approval of Treaty Amendment Decision) Bill was announced. It sounds very technocratic and would effectively mean accepting changes in the European treaty to create the European stability mechanism. I strongly support that. Europe needs that mechanism. We need this legislation to be passed and I am sure that we will try to ensure that that happens. The mechanism is meant to be in place by 1 July but today the leader of the Christian Democratic Union in the Bundestag warned that not only is the fiscal compact, which was due to be ratified in May, now likely to be postponed until June, and perhaps to the summer, but that it is not even certain that the ESM treaty will go through. There is profound unease about the piecemeal legislation being undertaken by Germany and the commitments that it is making. Finland is also causing great anxiety in that regard.
On top of this, it appears that there is now parliamentary deadlock in Greece. Today, Bloomberg calculates that Greece’s overall debt to private bondholders, the IMF and the ECB amounts to something like $517 billion. A default on that scale would have repercussions throughout the world economy, and could happen very quickly. If it happens, there will be immediate demands on this country to tackle a range of issues which affect the running of the eurozone. The UK has to have a position on this. That position will be all the stronger if it can be said to be that not just of the Conservative Party, or even its Liberal Democrat coalition partners, but of the Labour Party in opposition.
It is one thing for us to have good will towards the eurozone and to try to help it emerge from its current difficulties but quite another to think that we can make a massive concession, whereby we effectively accept a degree of integration which nobody in this country would contemplate for any part of the eurozone, without asking ourselves where it would leave this country. This very big concession would comprise far greater integration than there has been hitherto; in effect, it would create an economic government based on many of the proposals put forward for the medium term by Angela Merkel and Gerhard Schroeder. Those two German Chancellors—one current, one former—have said openly that the fiscal compact is just the beginning. They know that the German people will be persuaded to fund the eurozone and to put substantial sums of money behind it only if far greater integration is involved.
If that is the course that they wish to follow, we should wish it well but we need to extract a price from that negotiation whether as regards unanimity within the EU or an arrangement whereby the fiscal compact is introduced outside the European Union treaties but has within it a pledge that it will become part of those treaties within five years. We are told—I do not know whether it is true—that the deputy leader of the coalition, Nick Clegg, was behind that addition. That has considerable and profound implications.
There is a growing view, most recently expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, in a speech in Oxford, that a referendum on the European Union is inevitable. I believe it to be inevitable and it should happen fairly quickly. What are we going to say in that referendum? At the moment, if the referendum question was put in this country, it would be for a simple withdrawal. Can that be in the interests of this country? Consider the issue of the single market, for example. The Conservative Party, through all its long disagreements over the Common Market, the European Community and the European Union, never doubted that it wanted to be a member of EFTA. The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, when Prime Minister often claimed, rightly, credit for the single market and our influence on the EU.
Are we ready to withdraw from the single market? Even Angela Merkel has said that if she, as she envisages, is to make these changes in 2013-14—changes that are far-reaching in their political consequences—there would need to be, for example, direct elections for the President of the European Council, which is an intergovernmental appointment that was agreed only recently after years of negotiation, first through the constitutional treaty and then the Lisbon treaty. Are we suddenly to have that position elected? Schroeder, with all the strength of a Chancellor who did actually introduce competitiveness into the German economy without devaluation within the European treaty and has a right to be heard, has made it clear that the European Council must give up powers and be transformed into an upper chamber with similar functions to the Bundesrat in Germany. They want economic government, far greater European integration and they see that as the way to rescue the eurozone.
We need to say what we want. What is the minimum that we want out of the European Union? My view is that an essential element is the single market and we cannot just be part of the European Economic Area, which is a sort of hand-me-down of single market provision in which Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are involved. Are we ready to set our sights much higher and involve Turkey in a single market? There is absolute silence in Europe about the British position. It is not enough for a view on that to come just from the Prime Minister. I earnestly hope that just as this country is approaching the issue of a Scottish independence referendum with a recognition that the parties must get together and have a common view in this country—my understanding is that the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats are starting to have detailed conversations about how to deal with that deep constitutional challenge—so they should be looking at the question of how we deal with saving the eurozone.
I notice also that a former SPD Finance Minister said only yesterday that if he was in his former position, he would want a plan B to deal with a situation in which there might not be 17 countries in the eurozone. What will the British position be? It simply cannot be to concede just one more little treaty amendment as being made here on the ESM. We have already conceded that a treaty should be considered outside the European Union treaties on the fiscal compact.
The Government, particularly the Prime Minister, have learnt from the totally mistaken stance that he adopted in December. I was travelling around Europe talking to Finance Ministers in EU countries and no one knew what the British Government’s position was. It is not enough to go into these negotiations without it being well known where your bottom line is, what you are prepared to stick on and what your principles are. I say this: this big change in Europe cannot take place—an integration far greater than we have ever contemplated before for the eurozone countries—without we in this country having a clear line defining our constitutional bottom line and what we are rightfully to demand. That should not be done in a sort of “Flashman” way, thrust at people right at the last moment, but in a deeply concerned and considered way. We are part of these treaties. They belong to us as much as they belong to everyone else. Hitherto, they have always been based on unanimity on treaty amendment. Giving up unanimity on treaty amendment is a vast concession for us to make. I think we should be ready to do it if it accords with our view of how the European Union can be restructured; otherwise, we will watch, wait and slowly wake up, and before we know where we are we will have seen in front of our very eyes in a substantial part of the European Union the creation of a country called Europe, and we will say to ourselves, “How did we allow this to happen?”.
Our negotiating position must be reasonable and, as I said, it ought to have all-party agreement. It needs to be sustained up to and beyond a 2015 general election and it needs to be accepted by the people of this country. It is a long time since we had wholehearted consent in this country to our position in Europe, and then we kept it for only a very short time. In my view, such consent can be forged out of the present situation. I do not think that over the coming decades the people of this country will accept going into the sort of integrated eurozone that is now not only on offer but necessary. I would not accept it myself, but that does not matter. The people of this country have to be given the choice in a structured referendum and we must have a position in Europe that we can stand up for and negotiate for. There must be no flouncing off, no walk-outs and no empty chair. We must sit there with a view of how we will be Europeans and how, at the very least, there should be a single market involving far more than the existing countries in the EEA. It ought to involve Turkey, which is a substantial and major country.
If we could produce such a concept, it would be greatly welcomed in Europe, where people are only too conscious that they are being shunted from pillar to post as circumstances change. The most recent event is the Spanish banking crisis, which has the potential to cause a very serious crisis for the eurozone just because of the size of the country and the fact that it has 25% unemployment with youth unemployment at 50%. We are seeing more and more undemocratic measures taken to stoke up the system and keep it going. It is not pleasant to see interventions such as the forcing of technocratic Governments, first in Greece and then in Italy.
I dare say that these are bigger constitutional issues than have been debated in this House so far. I may be in a minority of one but I believe that the parties and leaders in this country, and particularly the Prime Minister, have a responsibility urgently to develop over the next few months a serious negotiating position for the United Kingdom and to stick to it in Europe over the next few years.
My Lords, in the time available I wish to focus on constitutional affairs from two perspectives—those of process and substance.
I had the honour to be the first chairman of the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House. One of our first reports was on the process of constitutional change. That was in 2001. A decade on, the committee returned to the subject. Its report was published last July. In 2001, we expressed concern at the lack of a culture within government of dealing with constitutional issues. There was no coherence in the process by which constitutional issues were considered. The committee in its report last year—and I was again a member—noted:
“The evidence we have received points to this lack of coherence remaining a serious problem”.
Not only was there no coherence to government policy in constitutional affairs but there was no coherence to the process by which the policy was generated within government. As the report recorded:
“It is of particular concern when this inconsistency appears to derive more from political considerations than any sense of constitutional principle”.
It went on to note:
“There is a risk that changes to the constitution may be rushed through without any pause for thought as to their desirability or otherwise”.
The Government’s response to the report failed to assuage the committee’s concerns but rather reinforced them. The response demonstrated a failure to appreciate the qualitatively distinct nature of constitutional change. There was no grasp of the fact that the constitution stands apart from other legislative change. The constitution is not the creature of the Government to be changed at will on the basis of political whim. The Government are the creature of the constitution rather than the other way round. We cannot afford to follow the Government in the way in which they deal with constitutional matters. Parliament has to adopt procedures that ensure that attempts to change the constitution are subject to scrutiny of a different order from that of ordinary legislation and, indeed, subject to a much higher order of justification. There needs to be a compelling case for change and not simply an arguable case. On such matters one cannot afford simply to give the Government the benefit of the doubt.
As Sir Jeffrey Jowell told the Constitution Committee:
“The time has come to simply take a little more care with constitutional reform”.
We need, in particular, to be able to do what the Government are not doing: address how a change to one part affects other parts of the constitution. The academic and former Liberal Democrat MP David Howarth told the Committee that,
“we have no structural thinking going on about the interaction between the composition of the Houses … the electoral systems, the courts and so on. We have no thinking about how all this fits together into a system of government”.
We need to look holistically at our constitution and to understand the extent to which change does not take place in a vacuum. If you make major change to one part of our constitutional framework it has implications for the rest of that framework.
That brings me to the Government’s proposals for reform of this House. We are told that a Bill will be brought forward. I served on the Joint Committee examining the Government’s draft Bill and I have made the point before that we were limited in our examination. We addressed the Bill before us rather than looking at its wider implications. We looked at the relationship to the Commons and got rather bogged down in that exercise. We did not tackle the wider picture, nor for that matter did we address the principles underpinning change. We need to address the way in which change to one House affects the rest of our constitutional arrangements. The Government’s stated proposals are flawed in that they derive from no such consideration. In short, the process is flawed.
I turn to the arguments that are advanced for an elected House. To listen to those who advance the case for election, one would think that the case is self-evident: that there is an unanswerable democratic argument for change; that in having an elected Chamber we should be following virtually every other second Chamber in the world; and that there is overwhelming popular support for change. Let me deal with each of those claims. One can indeed make a case for electing the House on democratic grounds. However, one can make a case on democratic grounds for not electing the second Chamber. Democracy—demos kratia—is about how people choose to govern themselves. In a representative democracy, accountability is fundamental. In our system, Governments are chosen through elections to the House of Commons and collectively are answerable to the people through the House of Commons. There is core accountability. There is one entity—the party or parties in government—responsible for public policy and the electors know who to call to account at the next general election.
Knowing that, the Government tend to be responsive to the mood of electors in between elections. As long as the final say rests with the House of Commons, the Government are able to govern and remain accountable to the electors. Electing the second Chamber would not necessarily produce co-equal Chambers. What it is likely to generate is a House with more powers and/or a willingness to use extant powers to a far greater extent than at present, and it would be in a position to frustrate on occasion the will of the first Chamber and, in effect, the capacity of government to govern. Accountability would be fragmented. There is an argument for that. My point is that there is, equally, an intellectually coherent case—I believe a compelling case—for maintaining the core accountability at the heart of our political system. One cannot proceed on the basis that what is being proposed by government is self-evidently the sole democratic option; it is not.
Some advance the argument that those who make or help make law must be elected. One can make that case, but it is not as clear cut as those who advance it appear to believe. They are in effect prioritising the accountability of individual Members over the collective accountability of government. I prefer to maintain the accountability of government to the people.
What about the claim that if we move to an elected second Chamber we will bring ourselves into line with other second Chambers around the globe? If we sought to follow the global norm, we would vote for abolition; most legislatures are unicameral. Bicameral legislatures adhere to no clear norm. Of the 76 second Chambers that exist, only 21 are wholly directly elected. Seventeen are indirectly elected, 15 are wholly appointed and the rest are selected by a variety of means.
The powers of second Chambers are also difficult to classify, as Meg Russell records in her article in the January issue of the Political Quarterly. She records the number of elected second Chambers with an absolute veto power over legislation and states that it is inaccurate to claim that in no single case does an elected second Chamber challenge the primacy of the first Chamber. In some systems, such as the presidential system of the United States, the concept of primacy is irrelevant. In parliamentary systems where the first Chamber can override the second, it is, as Meg Russell says,
“relatively common ... for this to require some kind of special majority”.
The information that my noble friend gave was very interesting, and new to me. Does it not contradict the mantra that we heard from my noble friend Lord Ashdown—sadly not in his place—who compared us to Belarus and others? Was he mistaken about that?
My Lords, the simple answer is yes. Meg Russell’s article explains directly in what way the noble Lord was mistaken.
There is an additional point germane to the present case that is rarely mentioned. We are not working on a blank canvas. We are not establishing a second Chamber from scratch. We cannot simply take an extant second Chamber and transpose it to the United Kingdom. The Government’s proposals embody transitional arrangements, but there is no evidence that they have examined experience elsewhere of fundamental changes to second Chambers, and of transitions from one system to another. There has been some academic research, but relatively little. In the Joint Committee, I asked the Minister what study the Government had undertaken. A response in writing was offered, but as far as I am aware nothing was received.
I turn to public opinion. If people are asked whether they favour an elected second Chamber, they tend to say yes. My noble friend Lord Tyler reminded us of the figures last week. He included data reproduced in the Joint Committee report. He cited footnote 22 but did not report everything contained in it. What it showed was that it is quite possible to hold contradictory positions. In a Populus poll, 72% of respondents thought that at least half the Members of the second Chamber should be elected, while in the same poll 75% thought that the Chamber should remain largely appointed. It depends on how you ask the question.
We know from the Ipsos MORI poll of 2007 that electors privilege some of the functions of the present Chamber above the principle of having some Members elected. When one factors in options, that of election falls down the list. There is also evidence to suggest that the more people know about the House of Lords, the more they switch to favouring the existing House over an elected one. The picture is not as unambiguous as some claim.
On the argument that the issue has been discussed for more than a century, I made the point last week that the debate has been sporadic and rarely pursued at the level of first principles. Succeeding White Papers simply took the normative case as given and made no principled argument for change. The Joint Committee was limited by its terms of reference and did not address the case from first principles.
It has been argued that the Government’s proposals are a distraction from more important issues. This claim is made in respect of the economic situation. I wish to make it in respect of a more basic point about our political system. Last week, my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in responding—or, rather, failing to respond—to the debate on the report of the Joint Committee, drew attention to the lack of trust in politics. It is a serious concern. My noble friend did not address the fact that the Government’s proposals for the second Chamber—no accountability through re-election and no resources to respond to electors’ pleas for assistance—would do nothing to restore faith in politics.
What he missed was where the problem lies. It is not in the structures and processes of our political system: the problem is with those who run the system. Arguing the case for structural reform is a form of displacement activity, a way of shifting responsibility elsewhere: “It is not us, it is the system”. We will only restore trust in politics when we restore trust in politicians. That must be our principal focus. Without restoring that trust, there is no point in messing about with structures.
In short, we need a fundamental refocusing of our priorities. We need to consider what will restore trust in our political class. Changing our constitutional framework in an incoherent and ill-considered manner will do nothing to achieve that. If we are going to consider constitutional change, we need to begin by looking at our constitution holistically and making sense of where we are before deciding where we should be going. I have argued the case before for a constitutional convention and I reiterate the point I made last week that, if the Government really wish to take our constitution seriously, that is the route we should follow.
Yes, we can consider reform of this House—that is, reform within our existing constitutional framework. Changes to that framework are of a totally different order. The case for change has to be argued and its consequences fully explored. Assertion is simply not enough.
My Lords, my comments today on constitutional reform relate solely to Lords reform. The issue of Lords reform has been with us for many years and has been addressed and enacted in a measured way over recent times, and quite rightly so, but now we have a proposal in front of us for a radical change—namely, an elected Chamber—which we must consider thoughtfully and seriously.
A committee was set up to consider the proposals and our thanks go to those Members who took part, particularly as the committee was put under time pressure to produce its report now when more time was needed. That is why I wish to thank those Members who got together to produce their well thought out and extremely valuable alternative report, which has drawn attention to aspects of the proposed reform which do not stand up or add up. It has demonstrated the need for more constructive consideration to be given to the impact and implications of the reform as proposed.
How can it be right that reform is proposed without clearly examining the relationship between the two Chambers and how they will be affected? The alternative report recommends that this issue must be addressed. Surely none of us embarks on a journey or a change without working out the destination or how things will change. This is a major fault in the process.
Perhaps I may mention at this stage why I was asked to join your Lordships’ House. Although I had been an MP for eight years, I was asked because of my particular experience in the business world—I have been in business all my life—and, one hopes, to add something to my party’s business team. There is one thing I know: if you are in business, you do not embark on change without first working out what the end result will be. That is just common sense. To me, this is a gaping hole in the proposed process for reform; it does not make sense.
A further point made in the alternative report is on costings. This area is equally important—in fact, surely it is vital. The wider public are entitled and will want to know what the costs will be for the elections and for the salaries, expenses and costs of the representatives—the Senators, as they may be called. The public must know what costs they are going to have to bear. Are we to throw all the balls in the air and hope that they land in some order, or will we examine things in more detail?
One of the problems is that people do not understand what we do here and how we do it. The noble Lord who has just spoken made that point, as have others, but I wish to make it again. In my short six years in this place I have been impressed not only by the expertise but by the esprit de corps of this place, where people work hard to improve legislation. For eight years I was an MP just along the corridor, only 100 yards away, but did I understand what this place was doing? No, I did not. Moreover, I think that many MPs would agree with that comment. It is ridiculous that we did not appreciate the work being done here. Now I do, however, and that is why I say that we have a vital and important role to play. Our elected Chamber is under government pressure because Governments of all colours want to push through their legislation quickly. That happens in an elected Chamber, and there is a danger that with a second elected Chamber, that sort of pressure will be put on it as well. I hope that we may now be better able to put the message over to the other place about what we actually do, and indeed to the public themselves.
I can truly say that I have been accosted in the street many times by ex-constituents of mine who tell me how much they appreciate the work being done in the House of Lords and the measured way that we approach and decide things. That has happened in the street, on buses, in trains and so on. I do not think that anyone has ever come up to me and said, “You are a whole load of rubbish”, far from it. Colleagues have referred to the various ways of assessing opinion, and I shall quote just one example from the debate last week. My noble friend and colleague Lord Phillips referred to a public meeting he held to consider whether to elect this House or not. At the start, quite a number of people were in favour of election, but after all points of view were fairly represented there was a complete switch to acceptance of the House of Lords as it is. That emphasises the need for us to get the message out about what we really do here.
I can personally attest to my admiration for the work that is done in this Chamber. I can well remember that not long after I joined the House, in the spring/summer of 2007, the Government of the day were trying to press forward with the corporate manslaughter Bill. All parts of this House, as well as people elsewhere, wished to see that legislation become law because of its importance. However, resistance in this House ensured that there were five rounds of ping-pong on that legislation, right up to within hours before we were due to go into the Summer Recess. The Government kept saying no, but at the last minute they changed their mind on what was a small but very important issue. Surely we must all also accept the fantastic role recently played by the House of Lords when it came to assessing the Health and Social Care Bill. I sat on our Benches and looked at people opposite and around the Chamber and listened to people who had experience in the health field and really knew all about it, and it really impressed me that we were producing such a strong case for reconsideration of that Bill.
Just the other day, a small issue came up. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, is not here today, but he supported my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and others, as they raised a very important issue with regard to those who have been affected by asbestos. It was a small but very important issue of compensation. Fortunately, the argument was made well here and the Government conceded the point, and I was delighted to hear that. There are many other occasions that people who have been here longer than I can relay as well. Somebody is nodding their head; I think they did.
The expertise of this House is based on the wide experience people have. I could not do better than refer those who may have missed it to the intervention by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, earlier in this debate. With great clarity—clarity I can never achieve—she spoke about the breadth and quality of experience this House brought to consideration of the Welfare Reform Bill, as an example. She was so clear, it is worth rereading.
I realise that I have repeated some points made by others. This is usually not considered to be a very good thing to do, but on this occasion I think it is, because those of us who have concerns need to reinforce each other. The more who stand up to say they are concerned the less those who are going to be ticking the boxes afterwards will have to say, “Mmm, yes, right, whatever”. So I have no hesitation in having repeated points made by various colleagues.
The Government have quite rightly said that we must concern ourselves with growth and the economy, and we all agree on this. This is another reason I believe that we should not embark on such a radical proposal as an elected Chamber at this time, particularly since so much time will be needed, with so much still to be resolved. We all know, whatever is said to the contrary, that the public are not having sleepless nights worrying about constitutional reform. No, they worry about jobs, their families, education, the NHS—the issues that really affect them—and it is our duty to address those issues.
I am speaking today because the proposed reforms are contentious, not properly worked out—as has been said by many colleagues—and could be contrary to the public interest. Like others, I want to devote my time to doing all I can, with colleagues, to address growth, business and the economy, to ensure that our youth and all people get the education and help they need to get the jobs they need. We need passion and determination to be directed to the real issues of the day: our people’s needs and their wishes.
My Lords, this Queen’s Speech has been delivered against a deeply troubled global economic and social background, for which there is no clear, universally accepted, credible remedy. Although the precise nature of the crisis varies between continents and countries, there are unifying threads and common themes. We all want a return to growth, higher employment and prosperity, but the ways of achieving these desirable ends differ among economists and political leaders.
So much that was achieved in the past was financed by debt and resulted in unsustainable deficits, making reductions in public expenditure and austerity our first priority as a sound basis for an eventual return to sustainable growth. I am glad to see that that is noted in the Queen’s Speech. But, of course, austere measures are as popular as public flagellation and result in mass protests, strikes and violent expressions of public anger. When a return to high spending is hoist as a banner before the public as an alternative way out of trouble, social unrest translates itself into a will to political and governmental change. We have seen such changes in Europe recently and are likely to see more. Former President Sarkozy was the 11th European leader to fall since 2008. What happens if and when the higher-spending policies fail for one reason or another is anybody’s guess, but we bear our memories of the 1930s in Europe and the rise of the dictators very much in mind. Who can deny that the extremist clouds are already gathering? However stormy the outside world becomes, we in this sceptred isle want above all else to maintain and preserve stability. It is against that criterion that I judge the measures proposed in the Queen's Speech and what the Government will do.
Compliments to the coalition Government have been few and far between in the fraught weeks behind us, but their steadfast adherence to the policy of deficit reduction is truly commendable. The policy may not be radical enough to eliminate the deficit in this Parliament, but it is on the right lines and must be stuck to come what may. Austerity does not rule out positive measures to stimulate growth—far from it—and there is much that can be done to encourage growth. We should talk more about such measures—do austerity, talk growth; one leads to the other.
We need a wide-ranging change of ethos in our society—a reassertion of our traditional principles and values derived from our Judeo-Christian, classical cultural inheritance—to restore our British national spirit to its strength and vigour. We must express these principles and values, embody them in ourselves and encourage their embodiment in the work of other people.
Attacking our long established institutions in the name of reform and modernisation is not part of the change required and will contribute nothing to the country’s well-being—quite the opposite, it is an irrelevance that will add to the nation’s discontent. The draft House of Lords reform Bill, which we have referred to today, falls into this category. Mercifully, it was holed below the waterline by both reports discussed at the end of the previous Session. An elected House of Lords cannot be reconciled with the primacy of the House of Commons. I said that the Bill was holed below the waterline; after the speech of my noble friend Lord Norton, I think that it was blown out of the water, sky high, by salvo after salvo fired from cross-party lines.
One aspect of that earlier Bill which escaped close examination was why the Government were so badly and so persistently in need of it at this critical time of all times. There were a number of superficial answers that did not stand up to scrutiny, relating to party manifestos and coalition commitments and so on, but is the real reason that an elected House clears the way for greater executive power? It is part of the continuing battle between Crown and Parliament, as my noble friend Lord Elton pointed out in our debate on 30 April.
My noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury highlighted in the same debate the fact that the previous Labour Government were defeated only six times in the Commons during 13 years, compared to 528 times in your Lordships’ House. He went on to say that:
“In the nearly two years of the coalition's term in office, there have been no defeats in the other place but 48 in this House”.—[Official Report, 30/4/12; col. 2066.]
Those 48 defeats may be taken as a tribute to the principled robustness of your Lordships compared with the docile diffidence of the other place but I doubt whether the Government view it that way—Governments do not like defeats. In the course of that fascinating debate, there were a number of deprecatory references to the extensive use of the guillotine procedure in the other place. Few of us would be surprised if an attempt was made to establish a similar procedure here to limit time for debate. It would be strongly resisted, on all sides, because we are aware that we are among the last bastions of the citizen’s rights and liberty, if not the last. If this was to become an elected House, we may be sure that such pressures would be brought to bear on Members that the Executive’s ambition to establish guillotine procedures would be forced through. In that dread event, the oligarchy that is the Cabinet and its head, the Prime Minister, would rule supreme, without let or hindrance, short of an outright rebellion by elected Members.
Without being mildly paranoid about this possible change in the nature of our democracy, allow me to remind your Lordships, yet again, of the precarious, perilous situation that the western world is in. We were certainly reminded of that by the noble Lord, Lord Owen, just earlier this afternoon. We are reminded time and again of the 1930s and the rise of the fascist dictatorships. Could a time come when very firm government is necessary in this country and the services of a Napoleon of Notting Hill, with Cromwellian propensities, are required? Of course, it is a fanciful notion and we are not there yet.
However, I do not rely on history not to repeat itself. The constitutional convention proposed in the alternative report has listed among the issues it might consider:
“The relationship of the House of Lords to devolved assemblies, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”.
As one of only two parliamentary Conservative Peers with a home in Wales, a Minister of the old Welsh Office for more than 15 years and an MP for a Welsh constituency for 27 years, I wholly approve of that convention proposal as it applies to Wales. It is high time to examine not only the relationship between the National Assembly for Wales and this House, but the entire relationship between that body, its Assembly Government, and this UK Parliament and its Government. The truth is that there is little cohesion between the devolved and centralised bodies. I sense that the same is true of Scotland and Northern Ireland in different ways and to different extents. We have all drifted apart. It is no wonder that there is deep concern about the future prospects of the union.
The coalition Government have pursued a helpful, indeed promotional, role towards devolution in Wales. They held a referendum last year to confirm, or otherwise, the grant of additional powers to the Assembly under the 2006 Act. The referendum affirmed the grant of those powers, on a fairly low turnout. Subsequently, the coalition Government established a commission, chaired by Paul Silk, a former parliamentary official here at Westminster and a highly respected officer of the Assembly, to examine how the Assembly Government might be made more accountable, a transfer of selected fiscal powers to the Assembly, and what further constitutional changes might be appropriate. Wales is thus being encouraged to follow the path already taken by Scotland—a path eagerly sought by some leading members of Plaid Cymru for some years. Whether the Welsh electorate are tempted to seek independence depends on circumstances: the leadership they are given and their response to it.
Much depends, too, on the regional policies pursued by the United Kingdom Government, which are less favourable to Wales both as regards representation in the other place—to be reduced by 25%, if the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act comes into force—and, I suspect, as regards economic development in the broadest sense. Since the advent of devolution, the focus of UK government policy has, understandably, been on England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been left to do their own thing, especially in the devolved areas of government. That is not always for the best in terms of results, and that begins to show over time.
Ardent pro-devolutionists continue to sing the praises of the achievements of their cause, but the outcomes are not always as good as they would have us believe. In education, health and employment, for example, Wales visibly lags behind. The National Assembly’s early ambition to raise Welsh GDP above the UK regional average has totally failed. Unemployment is high, which was to be expected because so much employment was created in the public sector and is unsustainable in austere conditions. Devolution is indeed a process and, like all processes, it will come to an end in time if it fails the people whom it is intended to serve.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy. We entered another place on the same day in June 1970 and have been friends ever since. I am also delighted to have been able to listen to the novel but extremely important speech of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, who, unlike most of us, did not talk about reform of your Lordships’ House but with expert knowledge drew our attention to issues on which it is surely important that the Government should focus. I could not help but think during his speech that there is probably no other forum in this country—certainly not at the other end of the Corridor—where a speech based on such knowledge and expertise could have been delivered. The noble Lord will forgive me if I do not follow him; I am not equipped to do so. I want to talk on the subject on which we have focused our attention today.
There was a very interesting moment when the Deputy Prime Minister and Mr Mark Harper went to give evidence to the Joint Committee. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is not in his place, because I wanted to pay him a tribute—or at least to quote him. In the inimitable way in which we all know that the noble Lord speaks, he looked at the Deputy Prime Minister and, very respectfully, said: “Mr Clegg, are you a House of Commons man or are you a man from the House of Commons?”. There was a look of blank incredulity on the Deputy Prime Minister's face. He really had not a clue what the noble Lord was talking about. Therein lies so much.
I like to think that I was a House of Commons man. I sat there for almost exactly 40 years, and I shall always look back on those years with great affection and a feeling of real gratitude. As Horace Walpole once said, there is no greater honour that any British—he actually said English—man could enjoy than being elected to represent a constituency in the House of Commons. A century or more later, Anthony Trollope said something very similar.
I still believe that. It is not that I do not enjoy this place; I do. I feel proud and honoured to be here. I believe that this place has a collegiate atmosphere that the other place does not and, indeed, never could have. It brings together a group of men and women of real, varied experience and expertise such as you would find in no other parliamentary assembly in the world. However, I still look down the Corridor to the place where there is an unambiguous democratic mandate. That is the great thing about our system: we all know where the buck stops.
Not everything is perfect in the House of Commons. My noble friend the Leader of the House, in a remarkable and frank interview that he gave to the FT earlier this week, talked about the elected second Chamber inevitably becoming far more assertive, and that is right. I would like to see the House of Commons become far more assertive, because it has become far too much the creature of the Executive. That is partly the fault of having had in recent years Governments with enormous majorities. If any man ever said a true thing, it was the late Francis Pym—Lord Pym—when he said in 1983 that he did not want the Government to have too big a majority. He was sacked for his pains, of course.
The trouble when you have a big majority, be it Mrs Thatcher’s majority of 1983 or Mr Blair’s of 1997 or 2001, is that it is very easy for Parliament to be the creature of the Executive. That is added to by the fact that the Executive are drawn from the legislature, and therefore there are always a fair number of very ambitious young men and women who are a little reluctant to cross swords with the powers that be. That is part of our system, and we all accept that, but I would like to see the Commons become more assertive. Through its new Backbench Business Committee, which seems to have got off to a very good start—I am delighted about that—I would like it to tackle the Government head-on on the subject of the timetabling of Bills, because the programming of Bills is inimical to true parliamentary democracy.
We do not have that here, and it is one of the greatest attributes of this place. We cannot, of course, veto ultimately but merely hold up. We can delay, at the most, for a year but we can and do say, “Think again”. When your Lordships in this House look upon Bills—we have seen this happen recently, because not all legislation presented to us by the coalition Government has been impeccable in its drafting or in anything else—we have seen what was the Health and Social Care Bill improved beyond measure. We have seen the Welfare Reform Bill and the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill improved in this place, while at the same time Members in this place have recognised that they cannot stop the will of the elected House. I believe that we do not sufficiently accept, or many of us do not, how crucial to our unwritten constitution and our democracy that is.
I was talking recently to the ambassador of a major European country. He said to me, “We do not have a House of Lords and we would not invent one, but you have this assembly of extraordinarily varied and talented people, drawn from all walks of life and all backgrounds. Why are you thinking of getting rid of it”? It is not hampering democracy but buttressing democracy. It is adding to our system, not detracting from it, and we all ought to recognise that.
If it ever came to a referendum, I have absolute confidence that if these things were truly explained from public platforms around the country—colleagues have referred today to people perhaps not fully understanding how this place works—and the alternative of, as my noble friend Lady Shephard of Northwold said, 450 paid politicians were offered in exchange, I think that we would have a result similar to the one in the north-east when the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, then Mr Prescott, was confident that there would be an elected assembly, people were given the chance and they said no. Last week we saw something of the same in the series of referendums on mayoral office in many of our great cities. In the second city of our land, Birmingham, candidates were already lining up but the people said, “Hold on a minute—we don’t want that”. I think that they would say much the same in a referendum on the future of this place, but I hope that it does not come to that.
We will have before us a Bill to do with composition. Earlier today I sat in, as I am sure some of your Lordships did, on the Statement on the aircraft carriers. The Minister presented it very effectively and was congratulated in all parts of the House—some of the congratulations were slightly barbed but that is only to be expected—but he made the point that the Government recognised that a change of course and of policy was necessary. I hope that when they have listened to this debate and they come to draw up the Bill, they will realise that a change of policy is necessary here too.
The Government should focus on the word “composition”. What does it mean? It refers to those who are here and perhaps to how they get here. We know that there are issues on which there is a degree of true consensus—and how that word has been distorted—right across the Benches in this Chamber. We all recognise that we have to look at such things as size, retirement and expulsion—a range of things that the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, in one of his speeches on his Bill, referred to as “housekeeping issues”. That is partly the case, but they are more than that. There are things that could make this Chamber so much more effective than it is already.
This morning I was talking to a Minister who said to me, “I hope you will make the point about the committees on Europe”. I promised that I would, so I will do so. In the House of Commons there is one committee dealing with European matters, chaired by the redoubtable Mr William Cash, whose views on Europe are of course entirely neutral, who has no fixed aim or agenda himself, and who chairs that committee with a draconian aplomb of which only Mr William Cash is capable. What do we have in this House? We were reminded yesterday, when the noble Lord, Lord Roper, stepped down from the European Union Committee and my noble friend Lord Boswell of Aynho was appointed to take over. There are eight sub-committees dealing with a range of issues, so effectively that there is no other country in the EU that produces reports of rival quality. That seems to be acknowledged whenever one talks to politicians and commentators in this country and beyond. Does that not add value to our system? Would it be possible to find the people for eight committees at the other end of the Corridor, taking into account their myriad responsibilities in their constituencies? Do not let us forget that because we do not have constituency responsibilities, we can bring to our work a degree of objectivity. We also do not have to face elections, and that brings objectivity too. We can bring that to our work, as well as more time to study and to take part in deliberations.
Last week I talked about form and function. If we are to look at the future of our parliamentary system, it is terribly important that we look at the function as well as the form—who can do what best? Although this place is not perfect, and no human institution ever was or will be, I believe that we have here an assembly of real worth and real renown, and I believe it would be a constitutional tragedy to get rid of it. The Business Secretary, Mr Cable, said we should do it quietly and quickly—my noble friend is nodding at me from the Front Bench, and I shall sit down in just a moment—like burying Sir John Moore at Corunna:
“We buried him darkly at dead of night”.
They are not going to do that here. We have got to be prepared to put up a real fight if it is necessary, but I beg of my noble friend on the Front Bench that it will not be necessary so that we can reform this institution constructively and properly without creating unnecessary competition with the other end of the Corridor, creating a House that is not complementary but in conflict, because that is what we would do, and in the process exposing something else. Yesterday in this Chamber Her Majesty read the Speech from the Throne. That is what this debate is all about. Do we really want to suggest by implication that one has to be elected in order to be legitimate? I think not.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, who I have exchanged views with on many occasions in the House of Commons. A number of the things that he said today I readily agree with. The thing that saddens me about the Queen’s Speech on this issue is that there was not a very simple line saying, “My Government will bring forward a Bill to set up a constitutional convention to look at the wider aspects of the constitution”. That way, I line myself up very solidly behind the alternative report on the draft Bill. The alternative is a constitutional one.
It is often said that we have been promising this for a hundred years and should get on with it. The reason we have been promising it for a hundred years and the reason it has not happened is a lesson worth learning, and it is one I had to learn over several years. It is this: you cannot reform the House of Lords on its own. As the noble Lord, Lord Cotter, said, people regard the House of Lords as something rather untidy hanging off the body politic. It is a bit like a long, dragging thread from a well knitted, attractive jumper. You feel you ought to pull it off and get rid of it because it is unattractive, but if you do so, you might end up with a very attractive jumper or you might end up with a tangled mass of wool with no recognisable purpose or pattern.
One of the things we sometimes forget, which has been touched on a number of times, but let me say it again, is that in a strict sense this House is not a legislature. We do not legislate. In a way, we have adopted what Walter Bagehot in the 19th century would have called the monarch’s role to advise, to warn—in our case, to revise—to be consulted and all those things, but we do not legislate because the House of Commons, quite rightly as the elected Chamber, can reject virtually anything that we do. In that sense, we are not legislating. If you believe we are, then any civil servant who suggests that certain clauses go in a Bill that were not envisaged in the original Bill—and it has been known to happen on many occasions—is legislating, but the clause gets passed into law only if the Minister and the House of Commons agree. We advise, warn and revise, and that is a very important role. Unless we ask ourselves the key question about the purpose of our second Chamber, it becomes a bit of a nonsense to try to decide who should be in it because our problem is that to change that without changing anything else is, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, very effectively said, not to recognise the complexity of a constitution. It will change the way that other parts of it work.
If we decide to go down the road of election, we will end up, in effect, with a written constitution, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, put it very well. There is a case for a written constitution. However, any Government who set out to write one will find that the rest of their programme goes out of the window as they spend the next four or five years trying to decide what should and should not be in it. The very least that you would need to do is write down a clear set of rules on the respective powers of the two Houses. However, you would have to do much more than that. You would also have to decide the role of the Church of England—the role of the bishops—in relation to the state. A whole range of other things come into it. Therefore, a wholly elected House, although a perfectly legitimate idea, is one that you cannot just put forward without recognising that you are changing everything else. As has been suggested by a number of people, a partially elected Chamber raises as many problems as it solves.
As a one-liner, I say that the idea of having people elected for a long period—say 15 years—is a nonsense. Bear in mind that the reason for it is to discourage someone from then going into the other Chamber. If you are a 25 year-old who is elected to this Chamber for a 15-year term, you might well think of going into the other Chamber when you are 40. That is a good age to go into it. I went in at that age so there must be something to be said for it.
The key issue here is, again, scrutiny. If the House of Commons did scrutiny well, it would call into question the role that this House has now. Scrutiny is what this House does best. If the House of Commons suddenly started doing scrutiny well, you would have to ask, “What is our role?”. The House of Commons is the political cockpit of the nation and it is important that that is so. However, inevitably, the political cockpit on the Floor of the House of Commons translates to a large extent, although not wholly, to the committees of that Chamber. That means that the detailed scrutiny of Bills will be different from what it would be if that were not the case, which raises a second question. If you elect the second Chamber, why will the political cockpit not be on the Floor of that Chamber and translate into its committees? Then you ask the key question again: what happens to scrutiny? It is the scrutiny role of this House that sets it out as being very effective and important. I would have no objection to certain changes if we were clear about what we would put in place instead.
Embarking on Lords reform without taking into account the impact on the rest of the constitution is a very serious matter. As I have said on several occasions in this place, the United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union that the world has ever seen. I feel very strongly about this issue. Union was brought about to deal with the fighting that was taking place in England, Scotland and the other parts of the United Kingdom. It ended up being, in effect, a federal system without a federal structure. In recent years, we have quite rightly devolved power to Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the great cities. We have elected mayors and we will now elect police commissioners. I am not opposed to that, although by having more elections we will not get rid of the apathy of which we rightly complain, and about which the noble Lord, Lord Laming, spoke eloquently. If people are to identify with elections, it is important that they feel that they are relevant to them and their lives. Incidentally, that is not just about the role of the elected person. It is also about something that troubles all western nations, not just the United Kingdom. It is not just about the allegations of lining our own pockets or whatever. It is also about the relationship between the media and politics, which makes it very difficult for individual politicians to establish any reputation other than a bad one. It is very easy to get one of those.
What I am trying to say is that, if you are going to devolve power, as I think we will continue to do, you have to put that in the context of constitutional change. If you just embark on looking at the structure of this place—the House of Lords—what are we going to do if the Scots vote for independence? As I have indicated, I very much hope that they will not, and I do not think that they will. I have enough confidence in the people of Scotland to see the disadvantages of it for them and for everyone else in the United Kingdom. But let us suppose that 30% vote in favour of independence and it becomes something of a running sore, and that a similar development happens in Wales, which is already there to some extent. One option that you have to ask yourself, as well as looking at the West Lothian question, which is being examined elsewhere at the moment, is about the possibility of a second Chamber that represents a federal United Kingdom. It should not be ruled out. But if you are going down the road of increased devolution, we have to address where we pull the United Kingdom back together. It is all very well devolving power, and I am in favour of it, but devolve it too far and you end up with a splintering and breaking up of the union. You need somewhere you can bring it back together again.
It is true, therefore, that you could consider a second Chamber that reflected the federal structure of the United Kingdom, which came about in theory when we united with Scotland 300 years ago. I am not suggesting that we do that, but it would be an act of lunacy to just look at the structure of the House of Lords without being aware of all the other things that we ourselves are doing in devolving power in both Chambers, and what both Chambers are doing. That brings me right back to the beginning of this argument that there is a case for a constitutional convention that can take this process step by step, looking at it in relation to what is happening in the other Chamber or other parts of the United Kingdom. You do what we have done very successfully in this country for 100 years and evolve the constitution. It has worked very well for many years, and I hope that it continues to do so.
My Lords, in the debate last June on reform of this House, I made clear my total opposition to an elected House and the wholly unnecessary destruction of a great British institution. Nothing that has happened, certainly not the Joint Committee report, has altered my view. Indeed, what has been confirmed is that any fundamental change will lead to endless arguments and uncertainty on primacy, coupled with all the disadvantages of hybridity. I said in that debate that there was near zero public support, near zero media support and near zero support from serious political commentators for an elected House. Nothing has changed.
I certainly support evolutionary change, very much on the lines of Steel mark I; at least we have more consensus there. I have an open mind on variations to the existing methods of appointment. But no one can seriously believe that the knowledge and experience within your Lordships’ House can be matched by senators elected on the lines proposed. Let us be absolutely clear that the drive for an elected Lords is Lib Dem driven. I fully respect my party’s long-held view that in this day and age anyone involved in the legislative process should be elected by the people. That is an entirely legitimate position, but please do not try to convince us that it has any practical merit or, indeed, accountability.
The gracious Speech talks of reforming the composition of the Lords, but the long grass is growing longer. The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and others are falling over themselves to emphasise that Lords reform is not their top priority. Even my noble friend Lord Tyler, perhaps the arch-zealot for an elected House, did not over-focus on Lords reform today. But with Tory MP after Tory MP denouncing an elected Lords post appalling election results and with considerable unease in Tory ranks, is it not obvious to all that the only reason why this measure is being pursued at all is the Lib Dems’ coalition lock?
I have to say that I question the morality of this. It is one thing to negotiate changes or improvements to normal proposed legislation; indeed, that is a legitimate part and parcel of coalition political life. But is it right that a minority coalition party, indeed a partner with only 9% of the total seats in the Commons, should effectively blackmail—that is what it is, and I take no pleasure in saying this—the clear majority partner to drive through major constitutional change on the flimsy pretext that this was in the three parties’ manifestos at the last election? The issue comprised 116 words out of a Labour manifesto of 60 pages; 43 words out of 118 pages of a Conservative manifesto; and only 19 words—yes, 19—in a 103-page Lib Dem manifesto. Who seriously believes that anyone voted at the last general election because of these thin references to Lords reform, as my noble friend Lady Shephard said earlier?
I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I sincerely respect the sincerity and consistency with which he has advanced his views and hope that he will do the same for me. However, I must draw his attention to the fact that not just at the election but in the discussions that were held after it there was absolute unanimity between the two parties in the negotiations on the coalition agreement that this issue was to be part of the programme. Everybody involved in those discussions agreed to that. It was not a case of the minority party blackmailing the majority party, to use his term. That simply was not the case and I hope that he will therefore withdraw that word.
I will not withdraw that word. I hear what my noble friend says, respect his sincerity and accept what he says about the original composition and agreement of the coalition. However, I suggest that the situation has radically changed. I do not believe that the Prime Minister has any real commitment towards, or belief in, an elected House.
Recent quotations from senior members of my party are, frankly, a mixture of the naive and the bizarre, with our president, Tim Farron, quoted in the Observer saying that Lords reform could be got through in two weeks were it not for,
“a few Right-wing extremists”.
I have been called many things in my time but never a right-wing extremist. Vince Cable, quoted in the Guardian, apparently told Sky that the Government should implement Lords reform “quietly and quickly”—some hope of that happening. Nick Clegg himself, in his article in Monday’s Guardian entitled “The Centre Will Hold”, said that,
“the third mid-term lesson is that we can only build a better economy with a better politics”.
He went on to urge injecting democracy into the Lords. I confess that the relationship between the economy and House of Lords reform is a total mystery to me.
I firmly believe that any major constitutional change should be decided by a free vote in both Houses and a referendum of the people. Pleasingly, the Joint Committee also favours a referendum. How my party—the party of localism and community politics—whose policies are decided by party members who argued strongly and campaigned for a referendum on AV, can oppose a referendum is beyond me. To argue that we need elections to give this House legitimacy, as my leader does, but to resist allowing the people to have a say on the policy that would bring this about is surely an absurd and questionable stance. I hope that my party will reconsider its attitude to a referendum. Indeed, I heard my noble friend Lord Ashdown support a referendum in an interview yesterday.
As a democrat, I believe that if Parliament on a free vote and the country in a referendum vote for an elected House, then so be it. However, what I will oppose all the way is an unwanted and unnecessary Bill that is driven through on a whipped vote, possibly using the Parliament Act, and without consulting the people. That was described by my noble friend the Leader of the House in Wednesday’s Financial Times as “the nuclear option”. For me, the future of this great and effective House, which is part of our national heritage, transcends party politics.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Lee, not least today when he produced a very brave speech, as it is not always easy to criticise your own party. He did it with finesse but with a thrust of the sword getting through to the heart.
The gracious Speech is clearly the most important speech made by the Government of the day. This one falls into three parts. I greatly welcome the first, the primacy of trying to get growth in our country and continuing to reduce the deficit. Some Bills in the gracious Speech will help that, including the energy Bill, provided that we as a nation face up to the increasing cost of nuclear fuel. There is the banking Bill, although we have to be rather careful not to make banking such a difficult profession to follow that we undermine credit to small and large businesses in the United Kingdom. However, what is missing from the tenor of the gracious Speech is a real crusade to achieve the real and necessary objective. I am very conscious of what is happening with the business rates of small businesses and retailers up and down the country. I hope that those on the Front Bench will listen to the suggestions in today’s Financial Times from the chief executive of Sainsbury’s.
The second objective listed in the Speech is tackling crime. I say, well done. There are huge threats to our country from very nasty people out there. We all know about al-Qaeda in a lot of detail. I happen to know in great depth about the Tamil Tigers, and there are other equally nasty factions out there, all of which wish to undermine society, whether it be in the West, the Middle East or Asia.
The third objective is, needless to say, the one that we have all focused on, which, frankly, sticks in the gullet: reforming the composition of your Lordships’ House. It is totally irrelevant to the needs of our country today. Our Leader of the House, my noble friend, much to my surprise, gets on the front page of the Financial Times, where he suddenly changes tack. He admits that such reform will create a much more assertive House. I have again read his speeches, and this is the first time, as far as I can see, that he has openly come out and made it clear that the result, if the reform were to happen, would be a highly assertive House.
I do not want to go back over what I said the other day on the committee report, but I have to repeat that were I fortunate enough, and some 15 years younger, to stand for the half million electors of Northamptonshire, I could hardly turn around, if elected, and say, “I am terribly sorry, but I can’t have anything to with matters of supply”. Even more importantly, if the nation is considering whether or not to go to war, I can hardly say to the half million people of Northamptonshire, “I am terribly sorry; I am not allowed to do that bit”. That is not tenable and it is high time that someone somewhere understood that point.
The Leader stated that he wanted a consensus. I have commented on that in some depth. There is a simple answer: call my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood into the Leader’s study and say to him, “We the Government are prepared to resurrect your Bill and see it through”. That is quite simple. Send my noble friend Lord Steel a message, sit him down in the study, give him a drink and tell him that that is the way forward. At the same time—this is probably the more difficult bit—the Government have to be honest with the people of the country and say, “That is the end of discussion about reform of the Lords”. It is a bit like killing a rabbit. You have to do it properly to ensure that the animal does not suffer.
At the moment the animal, the body politic, is suffering. If that approach is not to be accepted, all the issues of cost, representation, primacy of the Commons and the daft idea of being elected for 15 years will come swelling back for discussion on the Floor of your Lordships’ House. Do we really want to spend hours, days and months bogged down in a mire of a debate on issues that we have discussed so often and for so long? Perhaps I may emphasise my point of view. Nearly 40 years ago I had the privilege of being elected for the constituency of Northampton South by the princely majority of 179. I came into politics with a certain conviction, which I admit was influenced greatly by my readings of the Civil War, as some of my colleagues will know well, and over the years I grew more and more conscious of the importance of the primacy of the House of Commons and the sanctity of the role of MPs in that House.
Therefore, if push comes to shove and we are to have this lengthy debate, I shall move amendments, speak at great length and vote. I am prepared to work very long, very late and very often, and I shall go as near to a filibuster as I can under the rules of this House. I do not want to do that but I will do it to frustrate a Bill of the nature that I have just talked about.
I finish on the thought that there are huge problems out there, as every Member of your Lordships’ House knows. We are all tuned in to what is happening—we are not in a Chamber that is cut off. Not least, all of us are very aware that families and businesses, young and old, are facing great difficulty, and they are all looking to the politicians for leadership. I suggest that in this Chamber we should be putting forward proposals, suggestions and policies that will help the economy; that is where we should be assertive. The depth of experience across this Chamber in commercial, industrial and financial matters is second to none in the nation and there is certainly a great deal more of it than is to be found in the other place.
Therefore, in the months ahead let us spend our time helping our nation to get out of the difficulties that we are in, rather than reflecting on the whims of a few politicians who believe that somehow or other making this Chamber democratic is going to help our nation.
My Lords, before I begin, it is my duty to apologise for the fact that I was not here when my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the House, opened the debate this morning. Indeed, I missed a tiny bit of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who is sitting in his place, but I shall read Hansard. I am afraid that my absence was absolutely beyond my control. I was stuck not in traffic but in a position that prevented me from being here. I hope that the House will forgive me.
I now ask forgiveness for something else. I shall return to the subject of the House of Lords, of which I think we must all have had enough today, and I have been rushing through my notes to see whether I can take out the bits that have already been covered.
Yesterday, Her Majesty announced:
“A Bill will be brought forward to reform the composition of the House of Lords”.
My noble friend has already mentioned the use of the word “composition” and my noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley, in his excellent speech yesterday proposing the Motion for the Loyal Address, described this cryptic term as “opaque”. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, made a similar complaint in her speech on the same Motion, and I, too, have no idea what the Government, or the coalition, have in mind. I felt very bad about that until I heard my noble friend Lady Shephard say that she did not know what it meant, and then I thought, “Well, if she doesn’t know, it’s not quite so bad if I don’t know either”.
Nor do I understand, considering all the publicity that there has been on the subject in the past few weeks and the forest of conflicting kites that have been flown, why the Government have been so coy about spelling out their plans in a little more detail for the purposes of the Queen’s Speech. As we have been left to speculate on the Government’s intentions on this important constitutional topic, I am going to make just a few points of my own in the hope that when the Bill finally emerges I will not need to address your Lordships in any detail at its Second Reading.
First, perhaps I may point out that, contrary to the mantra repeated by numerous speakers in debates in your Lordships’ House and the other place, as well as in talk shows and discussions on television, reform of the House of Lords was not—I repeat emphatically, was not—in the manifestos of all three parties at the last general election. The Conservative manifesto, which I shall quote precisely, said:
“We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber”.
In producing a draft Bill that was thoroughly examined by a Joint Committee of both Houses and rejected by it, and then by the alternative report written by half of that committee, and effectively demolished by the 74 speakers on the debate on the reports, the Conservative Party has fully and effectively honoured its election promise. It has established beyond question that whatever number of votes constitutes consensus, one is not even on the horizon on this subject. Moral obligation met: move on.
Why is this veiled threat about the constitution of your Lordships’ House still hanging over our heads? Is it because of the pact with the Liberal Democrats in the programme for government,
“to establish a Committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation”?
As I have pointed out, a draft Bill was published and the Committee was established. It has duly reported and it rejected the coalition’s manifesto-based proposals. I repeat: moral obligation met, so we should move on, especially as the electorate was not even invited to vote on it. More than that, last year the electorate, in an entirely democratic referendum, roundly rejected the idea of introducing proportional representation into elections for one branch of Parliament. Why, if it is not suitable for the House of Commons, should it be suitable for the House of Lords?
I remind the leaders of my party, in case hidden in the enigmatic announcement in the Queen’s Speech there is some intention to agree with the Liberal Democrat request for a PR election, that our 2010 manifesto said:
“We support the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections”.
I believe that we are entitled to expect the Government to adhere to this and to honour what they promised.
In a television interview last Sunday, the Chancellor proclaimed the need to focus on what is relevant, and on Monday the Prime Minister, in an article in the Daily Telegraph, repeated that. In the Daily Mail published yesterday, only hours before the Queen’s Speech, he said:
“I must focus on what can be done, what must be done now”.
I say with all the respect in the world to the leaders of my party, what the country does not need now, and what does not need to be done now, is to tie up both Houses of Parliament in hours, days and weeks of a long drawn out sterile argument about an elected Chamber, for which it is clear that this Government have absolutely no mandate, and for which there is absolutely no consensus among the parties, or between the two Houses, or even within the parties themselves.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no call for it by the public. If your Lordships were to ask the next thousand persons walking past the front of the Houses of Parliament, “What are your political concerns?”, we can be sure that it would be the economy, unemployment, housing, immigration, and the cost of fuel. It would not be the composition of the House of Lords.
Let me make it clear that I am not implacably opposed to any change in the composition of your Lordships’ House. I believe that the process of electing replacement hereditary Peers now has to cease. It was intended as a temporary measure after the 1999 Act, during the final stages of which I wept in this Chamber—I am doing it again; noble Lords must not laugh at me as that will make it worse—at the wanton and partisan destruction of more than 800 years of our history. The present hereditary Peers have earned their places for life at least as much as some Members whose qualification for membership has been that they are chums of one of the Prime Ministers—the present one or one that went before. That is not very satisfactory.
I agree with the rejected draft Bill and with the Joint Committee that there is a case for limiting the size of your Lordships’ House. In recent times, under the successive leaderships of the major parties, like Topsy “it just growed”. It is clear from the difficulty in finding space on these Benches in the Chamber, or in the car park or the Peers’ Guest Room, that we must limit our numbers. Some anomalies were recently resolved by the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood, to which I trust the Government will now give fair passage in the other place—despite the mysterious proposed new Bill that they are talking about. This will allow Members to retire.
The United Kingdom is not the only country with a legislature that includes an appointed second Chamber. The Canadian Senate—sometimes called the Red Chamber—is wholly appointed, but with a term limit based on age. I declare an interest here. I know that I am not as young as I was, but fortunately, in my opinion, I am in possession of all my marbles. Black Rod and his staff would have a very hard job pushing me out of the door if it were decided that in future age was the criterion instead of the ability to do the job and contribute to the working of the House.
Finally, I turn to the future problems that any act of purposeless political correctness would create. At the time of the campaign to eject the hereditary Peers, I warned that it was one step on the slippery slope to salami-slicing our constitution and electing the second Chamber. I looked at my speech to make sure that that was what I said. I was right, and here we are. Therefore, I now warn any of those gullible enough to swallow the specious, pseudo-idealistic argument in favour of such a Chamber that the road on which the Bill is embarking will inevitably lead to calls for an elected head of state. Why would we risk unleashing anything like that? We should think carefully before taking forward any of these dreadful proposals.
My Lords, like most if not all speakers, I came with a prepared speech. However, this is a debate so I will start by acknowledging and expressing appreciation for three speeches. The first was that of the noble Lord, Lord Owen. He raised sombre, significant, far-reaching and urgent points. I very much hope that the Government will address them in the depth that they deserve before the debate on the gracious Speech winds to a conclusion. Secondly, the House is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for his insightful and true criticisms of the House of Commons scrutiny procedure. The third speech that I acknowledge with appreciation is that of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, who set out a compelling intellectual case. I say to my noble friends on the Front Bench that no Bill will go anywhere unless the points raised by my noble friend Lord Norton and the noble Lord, Lord Laming, are addressed to the satisfaction at least of this House.
The convention is that we are debating the constitution, and I will do that. However, as this is my only chance to speak on the gracious Speech, I will very quickly say how much I welcome the proposal to legislate on adoption. It is high time that Parliament put in its place political correctness at the expense of children. Secondly—this may differentiate me from a few Members on these Benches—I compliment the Government on their continued commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on aid. No matter how difficult times are—and I acknowledge them to be very difficult—the truth is that we are all better off than the poorest in the world, and it is appropriate for a British Government to recognise that reality. The Government have to do more about the effective delivery of that aid, but I welcome their acknowledgement of the need for it.
As to the constitutional aspects of the gracious Speech, I wish to refer to two of them. At the heart of our constitution is free speech, and I welcome the Government’s commitment to bringing forward legislation to improve and modernise the laws of defamation. Some noble Lords will know that I have to declare an interest because I had the privilege of chairing the Joint Committee on the draft Defamation Bill. I have some reason to believe that the Government found our report helpful and I look forward to reading the Bill to see just how helpful they thought it was. However, there are big issues in the constitutional position of freedom of speech: the “chilling effect” that takes place at the moment; the need for mediation and arbitration as an alternative to rushing off to court; the cost of defamation proceedings; and the need to address the anonymous contributions on the internet. This is an important constitutional Bill and I welcome it.
On House of Lords reform, I have to be honest with the House and say that, as a former chairman of the Conservative Party, I am a little surprised that we are addressing such a Bill from a Government in which our party has a majority, given the history of the Conservative Party and its relations with your Lordships’ House. But there you are: life continues to be surprising. If my noble friends were trying to surprise people, at least they had a success with me.
I go back a long way with the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, from when we were both kid MPs. We have a friendship that dates back a long way and I pay tribute to the bravery of his speech. This was also acknowledged by my noble friend Lord Naseby. It brought to mind something which I read in the Independent the other day, which was a Lib Dem spokesman saying that even on the doorstep in the local elections, Lords reform was not raised. If Lib Dem campaigners cannot get people on the doorstep to talk about Lords reform, then there really is no interest in the country about doing anything.
We hear that something has to be done because there are 800 of us. I would gently remind your Lordships that that is not because of some divine intervention—unless Tony Blair has a status of which I am unaware. He flooded the place, and an incoming Government who needed to have some balance for legislative reasons had to respond. There is no argument that the numbers need to go down; it is the proposal at the heart of the proposed Bill which is the problem.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Solely; we are not legislators but revisers and reviewers. If we were legislators our will would prevail, at least some of the time, but ultimately our will does not prevail. I, for one, utterly reject the idea that we have to be democratically elected because we are not legislators in the pure sense of the term.
As someone who has in his time drawn up election addresses on behalf of the party, I am hugely unimpressed. Never mind what the words say—the noble Lord, Lord Lee, has given a helpful indication of their importance—the truth is that the party’s election address is not a matter of great consultation among the party, and not even among the MPs. I know that because I have been there, done that and got the T-shirt. For those of your Lordships who have never stood for election, I can tell you that the party’s election address arrives long after individual candidates have written their own local election addresses. To suggest that what is written at party headquarters and released half way through an election becomes a binding commitment on every candidate is nonsense. It is not even worth the time to argue about it.
Then we move on to consensus. I was intrigued by the speeches of the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and indeed by that of my noble friend—and personal friend—Lord Wakeham. I am more confused than I was when this debate started. I have no idea what “consensus” means. Is it Front Bench/Back Bench? Is it the majority? Is it arm twisting to get a deal somewhere in the middle? Is that what consensus is? I have to say to your Lordships that if I had used language as loosely as that when I was seeking to get my university degrees in science, I would have failed, and if I had done that I would not be here today. Let us talk about what it is we actually mean, because if we try to conduct this debate on the basis of jargon, the country will suffer.
Let me add my support to something that others have said: this issue needs to focus on structures, on relationships and on primacy. It needs to outline the difficult questions and to find broad agreement on what are and should be the answers to those broad questions. I hope that my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth will forgive me because I think I have said what he said, but not with the elegance or the intellectual rigour. However, the point is well made and I want to support it.
The public priority was mentioned at the very beginning of the gracious Speech in the words:
“economic growth … reduce the deficit and restore economic stability”.
That is what the public are focused on at the moment: jobs, investment and small businesses. The gracious Speech acknowledged that and then moved on. Perhaps I may say to my noble friends on the Front Bench that for public confidence, competent delivery and persuasive communication are the essence of good politics. I can speak from experience as the Conservative Party chairman in the run-up to the 1997 general election. If the public lose confidence, it is virtually impossible to get it back, and it is against that background that this debate needs to be conducted.
My right honourable friend the Prime Minister said something the other day which I cannot have been the only one to have noticed. He said, “I believe that Parliament can handle more than one thing at a time”. Parliament can handle more than one issue at a time but, if that issue is trying to get people elected into this House, it may just be that the Prime Minister will need to revise his judgment.
My Lords, before I begin I would like to apologise to the House for the fact that I, too, was unable to be here for the beginning of the debate this morning. I was unavoidably delayed in the course of my journey here.
I wish to speak on the issue of the reform of the composition of the House of Lords, on which Her Majesty informed your Lordships’ House that a Bill will be brought forward. The final days of the previous Session were marked by lengthy debate in your Lordships’ House on this matter, and the one point on which there appeared to be wide-ranging consensus, using the commonly understood meaning of the word, was that the draft House of Lords Bill presented during the previous Session was not capable of enabling the complex processes of legislative enactment and all the other functions of the current parliamentary system in a way that would allow the proper development of the law. Indeed, a risk that the parliamentary system would become deadlocked by virtue of the opposing democratic mandates of the two Chambers was regularly identified. This is happening again today.
What the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said this morning indicates that there has been little change from the Bill with which we were presented in the previous Session, despite the valiant efforts of so many Members of this House. The noble Lord told us that Members will be directly elected; the second Chamber will have a democratic mandate; size and membership will be dramatically reduced; elected Members will come from all regions and nations of the UK; and we will be able to expel Members who have committed serious criminal offences.
Millions of words must have been written and spoken on this topic over the years and I almost hesitate to add to them. There clearly is no consensus on the matter between the parties currently in government. A report published in April 2012 by Mr Oliver Heald, a Member of the other place and chairman of the executive committee of the Society of Conservative Lawyers, with a foreword by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, chairman of research at the Society of Conservative Lawyers, stated that the Government’s proposals would,
“jeopardise the Government’s ability to govern effectively … weaken the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament … blur the constituency link between MPs and their constituents and lead to conflicts at local level … reduce the quality and extent of the pool of talent available for the Second Chamber … increase election costs by at least £100 million and add to the complexity of the voting system and … increase the cost of running the Second Chamber by tens of millions of pounds each year”.
This was a fairly succinct statement of the flaws in the Bill that was presented to us in the previous Session.
I do not speak in favour of the existing system of appointment to this House by the parties. The reality is that of our 830 Members, all but about 80 were either appointed by the parties or are Peers by virtue of heredity. Twenty-six are here because they are the current holders of office in the Church of England. We have a number of former Speakers of the other place. Only 50, I believe, have been appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission since its creation in 2000. They are appointed as non-party political Cross-Benchers. So 90% of our membership is party-appointed or government-appointed. One hundred and ten have been appointed since the election in 2010, despite both the Government and the Opposition having articulated their concerns about the number of Peers in the House. Actually, there is a simple solution to this: stop appointing for a while.
I support the proposal for a statutory appointments commission, particularly one that would include transparently appointed members of the public. I heard with interest the views of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, on the contribution—and indeed the value—of the Cross-Benchers. It continues to be my view that there must be space in any second Chamber for the views of those who, like me, could not subscribe to party politics, and who are not prepared to find themselves being whipped into Divisions, saying to one another, “We should not be doing this”.
It would seem unlikely that a 100% elected house could deliver the diversity and range of experience that exist in the Chamber. Current processes provide diversity in this place. We have 22% women. We have 5.8% ethic minority Members—2.1% higher than in the other place. We have representatives of all the established Christian churches and the non-established Christian churches, and members of the Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and Buddhist communities. We have gay Members. We have very active and effective Members with disability.
Combined with the range of expertise in the House—which, despite protestations to the contrary, is extensive and significant—this diversity facilitates the work of the House well. As other noble Lords have said, we saw this in the previous Session in the amendments that were made to the Welfare Reform Act, the Health and Social Care Act, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, et cetera. We need more diversity but at least we have some. Given that election to the other place has not produced such diversity, one must ask whether election to this House would preserve the levels of diversity that we currently enjoy.
It is this system that the parties now seek to change. More than this, we have the frequently articulated problem of those who would wish to resign or retire, for a multiplicity of reasons—not least that having reached a distinguished age, and having made a significant contribution over the years, they now feel that they must continue to serve because that is their duty as a consequence of the honour that was bestowed on them by Her Majesty when their peerage was created. We have also the issue of dealing with those whose conduct is not commensurate with membership of the House. The Bill presented by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, which passed through this House during the previous Session, dealt effectively with these issues. The Bill was not given parliamentary time in the other place. The passing of a Bill with similar provisions would enable both a more effective Chamber and proper consideration of the impact of the creation of a second elected Chamber.
As one who came to this House only two years ago, I have observed the workings of the Chamber with interest and, on occasion—I have to confess—with some mystification. However, it has been almost always with a great admiration for those who play their part in the legislative process and who work very long hours debating word by word the content of legislation which has very often gone through the other place without proper consideration. Indeed, on occasion, I have asked Members of the other place how it was that legislation came to us in the form in which it did and why there had been no challenge to very obvious inconsistencies, or to provisions which would either produce manifest inequity or create a situation which would not enhance the law. They have often answered either that they expected the Lords to do it or that there was no time in the Commons. This was in spite of the fact that, having rushed draft legislation through the other place without proper consideration, Members of the other place complained that they then had no work to do while the painstaking work was being done in this House.
All this leads me to believe that reform of the parliamentary process is multi-faceted, involving not only consideration of matters of election or appointment, the conventions applicable to the relationships between the two Houses and the balance of power but also the way in which the other place functions and the impact of that on any reform of this House. Reform must deal with the presenting problems and the underlying issues, which are not just those of patronage and competition between parties but of the way in which our laws are made and our Governments scrutinised.
We are now in a double-dip recession. It could be a decade or more before we emerge, as we will, from it. At such times, one of the aims of governance must be to limit public spending and public borrowing requirements while protecting our existing constitutional rights. During the previous Session, for example, we agreed processes for the costly election of police commissioners who would be very well paid. I fear that we will come to regret those measures, particularly if the consequence of the election of police commissioners is even the perception of the politicisation of policing, which this country has managed to avoid since the establishment of policing as we know it in the 19th century. Now we are being asked to contemplate elections to this House. The question in these constrained times, when the general view is that there is no major interest in changing the House of Lords, must be what the cost would be. No figures were provided by the Government during the previous Session. Comparisons with the cost of elections to the European Parliament may be relevant here. Seventy-two United Kingdom Members were elected at a cost of £103 million in the previous election. We are proposing to elect some 300 or 400 Members of this House. In the absence of detailed costings in the alternative report on House of Lords reform, it is difficult to envisage how the election of 300 or 400 members from constituencies across the United Kingdom could cost only £113 million. If one were to extrapolate it, the cost of an election to this House could presumably be in the order of at least £200 million. If the UK is to spend £200 million per election, the process must be right, but, more importantly, the outcomes in terms of saving expenditure at a time of grave economic distress must be proven. It would be unacceptable, to say the least, were the Government to refuse to produce any risk register on reform of this House in all its elements.
The Government did not produce any prediction of the cost of an elected House whose Members would be paid a salary which would probably be at least twice the national average salary but slightly less than the income paid to Members of the other place. We know that the cost of Members in terms of Peers' expenses and financial support amounted to £18 million in the financial year 2010-11. In the other place, £185 million was spent on the pay, staffing and expenses of Members. So the membership costs of other place are 1000% of the cost of this place. At a time of financial stringency, when questions are legitimately to be asked about how public money is spent, it is hard to justify an increase from £18 million to the suggested £300 million or £400 million that it would cost to run an elected, paid House.
With an ageing population, requirements for NHS care for such disabling and restrictive conditions as osteoarthritis and sight loss will inevitably increase. For the cost of elections only to this House, we could currently provide 1,000 cataract operations. For the projected cost of an elected Chamber, the NHS could liberate at least 650 individuals from severe pain and mobility problems consequential upon osteoarthritis of the knee, with consequential savings for health and social care services. I acknowledge that it is inevitable that a second Chamber will cost money. My sole question is how the Government can assure us that what they are planning will actually work in terms of the delivery of parliamentary services to the people who pay for them. Until such time as we can assure the public that any proposed system would work, would produce the requisite 1evel of commitment and debate and challenge to government, and would ensure that it was democratic, we surely have a duty to be cautious.
I would now like to revert to the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, about the loss of confidence of people in politicians and hence, I would suggest, in democracy. The Committee on Standards in Public Life survey in 2011 showed that the percentage of people who think MPs are dedicated to working well for the public dropped from 46% to 26%. We now have organisations like Citizens UK and London Citizens, which are mobilising to identify key issues and to try to compel candidates for election to commit to making specific changes.
The people are rejecting the processes through which we are moving at present. Creating more elections will not solve the deficit in confidence. This confidence is earned as people see politicians of this Chamber and the other place actually working for the benefit of the people. What is undoubtedly required is transparency as to the process of how people come to membership of the House. There is an overwhelming need for the ability to demonstrate why the proposed arrangements could work as suggested.
Finally, I have referred to any risk register on the issue. If one does not exist, then as any Bill is drafted it should be accompanied by a serious analysis of the risks and necessary controls to secure a viable working Parliament. The operation of the current conventions, the presumption of the primacy of the other place, the consequences of the responsibilities of an elected Peer to their constituents, who will want accountability if they are to be required to pay £300 million or £400 million a year for it—otherwise there will be talk of another gravy train—cannot facilitate such a viable Parliament.
The starting place for this debate must be consideration of how the whole Parliament works, or does not work, and what is necessary to make it capable of serving the people better.
My Lords, in expressing pleasure at following the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, I wish to follow up her theme of the loss of public confidence in our political system. Before that, I reflect that if this were a two-day cricket match and I could dictate that stumps are drawn at 6 pm, I would be able to continue on Monday afternoon, as I would not be out. However, it was not to be. I did not speak in the Richard report debate; nor do I want to refer to composition today, except to say that I may be an early example of indirect election. I was re-elected to this House by a vote of the whole House, and in being re-elected, I showed that you can be elected and enter this House twice, and can achieve sufficient accountability to get in the second time.
However, my interest is much more in the wider issue of public disenchantment with our political system. Turnout in the local elections was 31%. It was 24% in Nottingham, where there was also a referendum on whether to have a mayor. As has been pointed out, maybe that referendum was lost simply because of the thought that a mayor would cost money. It could of course be that the electorate could not see that the benefits would outweigh that cost.
In pursuing these matters, we within the Westminster system seem to think that changes to the constitution will work the oracle. That may well be the wrong target. It might be that it is not the structure which is at fault—here I follow my noble friend Lord Norton—but behaviour within the structure. As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, said, the public may want more democracy, but they do not want more party politics. I just add to that, more three-party politics, because I defer to those who would like to analyse the BNP and UKIP, which I do not want to add in.
The question is: why do the public dislike the present three-party politics and are they sensible to be doubtful about it? I wish to make the case that they are sensible to be doubtful about it. The first thing that they see is that the possibilities of our political system have greatly changed. The big things have gone. We do not declare world wars any more. We do not have an empire. Instead, we see the global economy, the fall of communism, the rise of China and India and, as the noble Lord, Lord Owen, said, Europe. If I was a member of the voting public without the special ability to look at things in depth through the benefit of the committees of this House, I would say that we are in a dead muddle about Europe. We do not know what we think about Europe. That will not do, but that is the perception of a large proportion of the electorate.
As politics is about power, and as our power has been eroded in the past century, it is not so surprising that people get more doubtful about our political system. However, all the while, knowledge has expanded; all the while, science has marched gone, delivering material progress of an unprecedented kind. The average per capita income in real terms in the United Kingdom today is four times what it was in the depression of the 1930s. At the same time that the big canvas, the larger, simpler canvas, has shrunk, the smaller, much more complicated canvas has taken its place. The canvas of economic and social issues, human rights and all sorts of other issues has become much more complicated. We could not envisage making the simplicity of the speeches of, for example, Mr Gladstone or Mr Disraeli.
The electorate know that it is not the political system that has driven that material and scientific change. It may at times have added to it by being a bit clever here and there; or subtracted from it by being a bit silly here or there; but that has not been driven by the political system, because many political systems have achieved the same sort of material progress.
The majority, who are doing all right in general, who are not doing too badly, who are not the disadvantaged or—like me, by definition—the vulnerable, are uncertain about the political system and think that its propensity to make mistakes may outweigh its possible benefits. As there are always many things on which public money could be spent, there is one unforgivable achievement. That is to manage the national finances and run out of money. Is it any surprise that there is a degree of genuine and justifiable disillusion out there?
Of course, there has been another major change—the fall of socialist economics and the disappearance of Clause 4. The media still talk about right and left¸ but we talk about the centre ground. I do not know, in this muddle in the middle, where right or left are in our political system now. None of the three parties seems to have a unique set of core values that identify it as either right or left. The overlap is continuous, and you will find people all around this House and in all parties who have a value that they share. The electorate recognise this; they do not want politicians to keep talking to them about core values, because they do not believe that in any real sense they exist.
To return to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, what is the role or relevance of adversarial party politics? I do not think the public value it. Instead, they value sound management and administration—if I may say so, the politics of Boris Johnson rather than the ideology of democratic legitimacy. While the political elite enjoy argument, mostly based on theory—in the elite I include think tanks, lobby groups and special advisers—the public look for consensus solutions to mundane matters, such as which drugs the NHS should be prescribing and which it should not, the queues at Heathrow and even aircraft carrier decisions, and all to be done without running out of money.
What has Parliament’s response been to date to this pragmatism and common sense? Masses and masses of legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, reminded us in the debate on the report of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that 10,000 pages come in and only 4,000 go out. That is an unsustainable trend. You cannot go on like that; it makes no sense to anyone. The assumption in the system is still that we can impose change, and changed behaviour, on the electorate. That assumption is out of date and the electorate do not believe it can be done, nor do they believe that that tax capacity is there to pay for the programmes. As we add to the law, we need Bills about litigation because there is more of it, which is hardly surprising if you have more law.
Are there any hopeful signs? We seem to be moving towards pre-legislative scrutiny and draft Bills. We are a long way from stabilising the length of Halsbury’s Laws of England or Tolley’s Tax Guide, but then politics is always the art of the possible, and maybe we recognise that we need a much deeper understanding of what realistically can be done and of how best it can be done. We need to slow down and deepen that dialogue because the centre ground, which I am sure we all agree we should be on, implies a search for consensus, whatever you may want that word to mean. I would want it to mean that something came through this House and the vote was not called, because everyone knew that if it were called it would be lost. In that search for consensus, it may be that there is not much wrong with our constitution—it is probably the behaviour within it that needs to change.
Debate adjourned until Monday 14 May.
House adjourned at 6.05 pm.