Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady has had her time.

2.38 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I should like to deal with several themes, although 10 minutes is not long to cover them. My remarks must therefore be brief, broad and impressionist. For all that, I hope that they are worth while.

First, I want to consider constitutional affairs and especially the abolition of hereditary peers. There is no doubt that the old system was irrational. However, in a strange way, it worked, perhaps because the weight of tradition was behind it. There is no evidence that the new system, which is based on the Canadian Senate, will work any better. That Senate, which is entirely appointed, is probably the weakest and least well regarded upper Chamber in the world. We are creating an upper Chamber of the great and the good and, of course, the party faithful—and perhaps some of the small and the bad. It is not clear to many of us that what we throw out will be worse than what we gain.

Let me try, in a spirit of being positive, to take up some of the wise remarks of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley). I hope that I can support him. We will not achieve consensus on a big bang solution. Although it may be desirable to have a wholly democratically elected upper Chamber, we shall not achieve that. We have to proceed by small steps.

The first step we might take could be a moderate injection of democratically elected Members. In the modern world, I suppose that they would have to be elected by proportional representation—I hope under an open list system, so that individual characters could

2 Dec 2003 : Column 408

break through from the party ranks. I hope also that when elected they would be in place for at least a couple of terms. This is a well-worn debate, however, and we are going to get no consensus this afternoon, but what a pity that in the Queen's Speech we do not at least have some road map—some way forward—that would give us hope for the future of achieving an upper Chamber that we could all be proud of.

I want to make one point that I think is particularly important, but which is not often made in debates on reform of the upper Chamber, although it interests me and therefore I want to stress it. Were we to proceed down the route of injecting democracy into the other place, there would be no point in creating elected clones of Members of Parliament. There would be no point in having in the other place people who are young, ambitious would-be Ministers controlled by the party Whips. Therefore, there is a lot to be said for learning from the American experience of a Senate that is there to advise and consent.

People who are placed in that upper Chamber cannot become Ministers. Once we had that simple device in place for elected Members of our upper Chamber, they would instantly become more accountable to the electorate, more democratic and more able to take a wider and broader view. There we are—we must wait for progress to be made. Of course, there are some who argue against a democratically elected upper Chamber, saying that it would somehow affect the dominance of the lower House, but what dominance? We have one of the weakest Parliaments in the western world.

This year, I would also like progress to be made on lessons to be learned from the Hutton inquiry, when it finally reports. Eventually, we may have to pass legislation on that. The Hutton inquiry has shown up the weaknesses of our Select Committee system. The way in which Hutton was able to require whatever persons and whatever papers it wanted to achieve a first-rate investigation of a national issue will be taken up by the media. When there is a similar disaster, the media will ask for—demand—a Hutton-type inquiry under an independent judge and will reject the predominance of our own elected Chamber.

We should reassert the predominance of the elected lower Chamber, and I speak as a Select Committee Chairman. A lot of progress needs to be made in reviving and reinvigorating the Select Committee system to give the Committees real powers to conduct Hutton-like inquiries.

Mr. Garnier: If the Hutton inquiry has shown up those weaknesses, has it not also shown up the strength of the way in which we select our judges? Lord Hutton is a product of that judicial selection system, and does he not demonstrate precisely why it should remain as it is?

Mr. Leigh: My hon. and learned Friend speaks on those matters with a great deal of personal experience, and I would not want to deny for a moment what he says. The fact is that our judicial system is second to none in terms of skill. There is no question of it being corrupt and no question of people being appointed for political reasons, as happens, for instance, in the United States. We are embarking on a very dangerous course indeed.

2 Dec 2003 : Column 409

Enough of constitutional affairs. May I turn to home affairs for a moment and support what the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) said, particularly on prison overcrowding? The Public Accounts Committee paid a visit recently to Her Majesty's prison Altcourse, which happens to be a private finance initiative prison, but that is irrelevant to the point I am making. The fact is that it is one of the best-run prisons in the country, and prisoners there are given time to exercise, train, study and be rehabilitated.

I do not know how many Members have walked round a prison recently, as we have, to talk to prisoners. They refer constantly to the other prisons in the Liverpool area, where people are banged up for 20 hours a day and where there is no prospect of training or rehabilitation. That leads directly to these appalling reoffending figures—over half the people who pass through our prisons reoffend. Members on both sides of the House have to ask the Home Secretary whether we really think that a prison population of more than 73,000, rising to 78,000, in ancient, underfunded, overcrowded prisons where people simply learn to reoffend is the best way forward. I put that question and hope that we might get an answer.

On another Home Office point, we have heard today from the shadow Home Secretary about the call for more policemen. Of course, there is one type of policeman who is very cheap indeed, although we hear so very little about him. There is a need for new special constables. I wish the Government would offer more incentives to encourage special constables. I favour a Territorial Army-type system, whereby people would be given a payment to encourage recruitment, which is a problem.

May I put one idea of my own to the House? Some people wish to serve as special constables, but in their own area, their own village or their own community. We should create a new type of special constable who is not required to serve in the wider community, but will serve in his own village.

Turning from home affairs, may I make one comment about the civil partnerships Bill, which I do not think has been mentioned but which we will consider later in the year? I do not want to say anything about gay marriage, but I want to say that the fact is that traditional marriage has been supported because it is a unique institution designed to nurture children. If we are to make special rights in respect of gay marriages, what about other co-dependants? Should we not also bear in mind examples involving a daughter with an infirm mother whom she looks after for many years, a disabled person with a friend carer, and two sisters? Under the Bill, they will have no rights whatever. One does not need to make any statement on gay rights or not to raise this question: if we establish new rights for particular people in society, we have to consider the denial of rights to other, very worthwhile people.

In my remaining minute or so, let me say a word about health and education, on which the Government are somewhat schizophrenic. On the one hand, they pay lip service to local action and local democracy; on the other, a blizzard of targets is tying our education and health systems up in red tape. The PAC has studied the French and German systems. I do not believe that there

2 Dec 2003 : Column 410

is any big bang solution that we can impose, but we can have confidence in local decision making in our schools and hospitals.

We must try to free local democracy, especially local government, from ring-fencing and targeting, which are destroying and inhibiting it. Therefore, we must have Bills to create schools, and perhaps hospitals, that straddle the public-private divide and perhaps Bills to enable universities to charge different fees, as long as that is not a hidden tax on middle class people. We recently visited Ravenscourt Park hospital, which is an NHS hospital that is dedicated to one type of operation. That is what we do in our own lives—mix and match, jumping from the private to the public sector—but what is so sad and disappointing about the Queen's Speech is that there are no dynamic proposals to make that possible in our legislation this year.

2.48 pm

Anne Picking (East Lothian) (Lab): It is the Government's intention, as outlined in the Queen's Speech, to open up and amend the Scotland Act 1998 to retain the 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament. That, I fear, could open a political Pandora's box. I do not wish to refer to the issues that may or may not arise on opening up the Scotland Act, but rest assured that many will see this as an opportunity to amend other aspects of it.

The emphasis of my speech will be on maximising voter participation and the direct consequences for the United Kingdom of retaining 129 MSPs while simultaneously reducing the number of Scottish Westminster MPs from 72 to 59. I fear that everything is undermined by the unnecessary haste in implementing changes to an already unwieldy, confusing and inefficient collection of voting systems. The way in which we organise and set up our constitution and methods of election strengthens and secures our commitment to democracy. It is the responsibility and duty of this House to use all the powers at its disposal to ensure that democracy prevails over hereditary patronage and privilege.

An ever-decreasing number of people are exercising their right to vote, at a time when the number of voting systems in the UK and of ways in which people are expected to cast their vote is ever increasing. Voter participation is low, and voter apathy high. We must act to put matters right.

Next Section

IndexHome Page