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Mr. Allen: I understand that the Minister has generously allowed me to speak for 26 or 27 minutes. I should be pleased to take my seat if the Minister says that he is desperate to answer any of the questions that I am posing.
The perspective on which we would make a decision in the referendum on the first Chamber would be different from now. It would be an important decision for people to make on the basis of rational criteria.
Many people argued to Professor Plant that one needs a first-past-the-post system for the first Chamber to deliver a strong Executive. That argument may not be shared by everyone but people should certainly consider it. If people believe that both political parties supporting the first-past-the- post system in a referendum will make the result a foregone conclusion, they should look to New Zealand, where people were given a unique opportunity, if I may put it bluntly, to put two fingers up to both main parties, which were telling them that the first-past-the-post system was a good idea. People rejected that in New Zealand. People would have the option to do so in the United Kingdom.
Electoral systems are part of the Labour party's package for a new democracy in the UK and for a new constitutional settlement. People are ready for it. They are sick not only of the Government, but of the sleaze, of the inadequacy of this institution, the House of Commons, and of many other institutions that pretend to support our democracy in the UK.
The battle ahead is a philosophical battle between those who believe in plurality and in many independent and diverse institutions competing and conflicting, and those who believe that centralism, the unitary state, where one person or one institution can deliver the answer, is appropriate. More and more Labour Members are looking to pluralism as the way forward and the way to answer some of the economic, social and political questions that beset our nation.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Nicholas Baker): I congratulate the hon. Member for NottinghamNorth (Mr. Allen) on securing this debate. Since he came into the House, he has been a doughty campaigner on procedure. He has made a special study of procedure and constitutional matters. It was no surprise that he became the Labour party's constitutional affairs spokesman, although he no longer has that responsibility. He does, however, speak for the Labour party.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, North gave us a warning of some of his views in the Thomas Paine memorial lecture in January this year, when he said:
"I want to lead a Labour government"--
I do not know whether he gave notice of that to the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair).
"I want to lead a Labour government that will introduce the most radical package of constitutional reform ever proposed by any major political party. This, I believe, will be a key battleground of the 1990s as we define the new politics of a new century."
Radical words indeed. I notice that, at the lecture, he also said:
"The Commons is currently held in contempt by the electorate." He has echoed that view this evening. It is one of a number of points on which he and I will be unable to agree.
The Government are not opposed to any constitutional change. If one considers some of the changes that have happened under the Government, particularly in relation to the House, I think that one can see clearly that the contrary is the case. I cite the examples of the Select Committees, which were set up by the Government, and the Jopling Committee, which was set in motion to make considerable changes to the way in which we conduct ourselves and which now seems likely to make more progress given that the Opposition parties agree.
In reply to the hon. Gentleman's points about local government, he may or may not be aware that a local government review is now taking place. That review takes a radical look at how local government conducts itself and at the basis for our local democracy. Although we may disagree strongly with his call for regional government, we do not suggest that any of our institutions can be immune from change. Change should be evolutionary. Our great institutions should be improved, but they should not be redefined in some of the ways that the hon. Gentleman has suggested. He has outlined a fairly radical package. I notice that, only this week, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) recommended fixed-term Parliaments, which the hon. Member for Nottingham, North did not mention. Of course, any system of fixed-term Parliaments would still have to allow for the early dissolution of Parliament in some circumstances.
Column 291There is nothing to gain and much to lose from prolonging unnecessarily a Government or Parliament which is discredited or which has simply reached the end of its natural life. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Labour Government who were defeated in, I think, 300 votes. They were clearly a Government who had reached the end of their natural life, and I should have thought that a fixed-term Parliament would be inappropriate in such circumstances. The ability to decide when a general election is to take place is a tactical advantage but I note that no Opposition have ever sought to relinquish that advantage when they have taken office.
I said that the hon. Gentleman's package was radical. He mentioned the redefinition of the monarchy, which his party announced only this week. Our electoral system has at its apex the monarchy. The monarchy is the oldest institution of government in Britain; it has
Column 292existed even longer than Parliament itself. It is a vital element of our present constitution and representative of centuries of history and tradition.
The monarch personifies national and Commonwealth unity but has continued to develop and evolve during the present monarch's reign: the size of the civil list has been reduced; the monarch herself has proposed the payment of tax on her income and capital gains and undertaken to publish detailed accounts of expenditure. In short, we have a monarchy that has made changes and for that reason, as much as its long history, we are extremely fortunate in that institution. The monarchy is part of our national heritage. The hon. Gentleman is a Labour spokesman on national heritage but now tells us that this part of our heritage is to be redefined. What else is to be redefined--Westminster abbey, the Speaker or the House? Perhaps we shall learn the answer from next year's Thomas Paine memorial lecture.
The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order. Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Twelve o'clock.
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