Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4.16 pm

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South) (Lab): I apologise for having been absent from the Chamber at 3 o'clock. Unfortunately, I will not be here for the winding-up speeches, either, as I have another appointment at 6 o'clock, but I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate.

If we compare reactions to the Queen's Speech, we find that the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) was very positive, while official Opposition Members constantly carped about everything that is wrong with the Government and what they have delivered. That seems incredible when one looks at the record of this Government and contrasts it with 18 years of previous Tory Administrations. There is just no comparison.

I note that the Scottish National party tabled an amendment, yet not one SNP Member is here. Even though Mr. Speaker decided not to select it, that is rather sad.

Last Wednesday, a Member asked whether anyone could name a single Act from last year that has made a difference. Given that the Fireworks Bill passed through this place, I must admit that I was terribly hurt by that, but I got over it.

To be serious, we should consider what the Government have delivered on employment and the economy. We should consider European Union expansion and what that will mean for the future of Europe. We should consider the rail accident investigation branch, which was recommended by Lord Cullen. We should consider the new powers given to the police in respect of antisocial behaviour: that is a major problem, but we are dealing with it, and it is important that we continue to do so.

I welcome the measures that the Government have put forward for this year. Unfortunately, much of the media focus has been on negative aspects, and some of my own colleagues have concentrated on the more contentious parts. Although that is understandable, it obscures the real strength of the proposals. The Government have done much in the past six years, and the Queen's Speech represents a continuing commitment to stability, fairness and a bright future for all, building on what has already been achieved. I want to refer especially to the employment relations Bill, which, I hope, will make a genuine difference to trade unionists in this country.

2 Dec 2003 : Column 436

Under the heading of constitutional affairs, I should like to focus on the implications of what has been announced for Scotland. Given the sniping of the past few weeks from English nationalists and Scottish nationalists on the Opposition Benches about the role that my colleagues have played north of the border and in this place, I should like to comment on their perceptions. The Westminster leader of the Scottish National party—I keep mentioning that party—and his colleagues voted against the Government, yet criticised 43 Labour Members for voting with the Government. Their argument would have more credibility if the SNP had decided not to participate, then criticised Labour Members for voting.

There are rumours—I do not know whether they are true—that one lone Tory, whom I regard as a friend, despite his political persuasion, was put under tremendous pressure by the Tory Whips to participate in the vote. If there were 10 Conservative Members of Parliament and an opportunity to defeat the Government, I wonder what sort of pressure would be put on them.

We must consider where we are and how we shall develop. I reject the notion of two-tier, in-and-out Members of Parliament. I was elected as a UK Member of Parliament.

Mr. Evans: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we already have two-tier Members of Parliament? Scottish Members of Parliament vote on English matters but cannot vote on the same issues as they affect Scotland. The West Lothian question must be answered. Is not it time that we ensured that English Members of Parliament determine English matters?

Mr. Tynan: I shall deal with that point shortly.

It is disturbing that the hon. Gentleman's argument ignores the fact that 6,000 Scots a year are admitted to national health service hospitals in England. I therefore believe that I have a right to participate. The Standing Committee that considered the Health (Wales) Act 2003 was populated by English Tory Members of Parliament, and they were also involved in the Sunday Working (Scotland) Act 2003. They accept that, yet claim constitutional outrage when others are involved. I accept that the West Lothian question poses problems, but we will reduce the number of Scottish Members of Parliament from 72 to 59.

Mr. Evans: That is not the answer.

Mr. Tynan: The Scotland Act 1998 provides for that, and I accept its terms. I hope that, long after I am gone from the House, the majority of hon. Members will acknowledge that there is a role for Members from all parts of the United Kingdom in determining the way in which we deliver for the people we should represent.

The Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill was announced last week. The devolution settlement remains under discussion and is evolving. As such, I was not surprised but a little disappointed that we decided that we would change the Scotland Act 1998 and retain 129 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. That will be discussed on the Floor of the House. Although I was not privileged to serve in the House at the time, I found the debate on amendments Nos. 62 and 63 to the Scotland

2 Dec 2003 : Column 437

Bill on 12 May 1998 most illuminating. The Government argued strongly against the proposal that is now in the Queen's Speech. Those arguments will be developed over the coming weeks and months.

I do not wish to marshal arguments on that basis here today, but there is an issue as regards the Scottish Parliament. I am worried that we will disconnect its work from the interests and aspirations of the electorate through a rather confusing electoral system and will also risk contributing to the campaign to undermine the Scottish presence in this place, which is being orchestrated vocally from the Opposition Benches. I am much more enthusiastic about the European elections pilots Bill, which I raised today at Question Time. We may have the opportunity for a fully postal vote in Scotland for the European elections, and I certainly would welcome that.

Let me turn to another issue in Scotland. I want to talk briefly but more widely about the situation as regards manufacturing industry. Time is running out, so I will get to the point quickly. I was going to say that I worked in a Hoover plant, but I was employed there as a trade union official—a full-time convener. The plant is under threat, and we are going to lose about 300 jobs, some to China. I do not know the answer on how we compete with the wages that are being paid in places such as China, but I commend the intelligent campaign being led by the convener there, young Edward McAvoy. It has the support of Amicus and of the area's MP and MSP.

One of the issues is that 70 jobs would move to Wales. I hope that the Minister will get involved in that discussion and that campaign and try to ensure that we are in a position where we do not lose those 70 jobs. This is a crucial manufacturing industry for Scotland, and we must ensure that we have as much support as possible.

I will finish on that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have had a good-humoured debate, and I hope that my contribution has added to that good humour.

4.26 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): One advantage of failing to catch your eye until this stage of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is that I have been able to listen to every word that has been spoken from Front and Back Benches. Two particular speeches drew themselves to my attention. One was that of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), who made a critical and devastating analysis of the Government's proposals with regard to asylum. She is to be congratulated on that. I could see that she was very angry and she is justified in that. I trust that the Government will have the common sense and decency to listen to such speeches.

The other speech to which I listened with rapt attention was that of the Home Secretary, because the poverty of his language—he used such expressions as that he could not give a toss about others' opinions—demonstrates to me the poverty of his thinking on home affairs and constitutional affairs. I contrast that with the speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the shadow Home Secretary, and, if I may say so, of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who made a thoughtful contribution.

2 Dec 2003 : Column 438

I am particularly attracted to the argument that the hon. Gentleman made in relation to the absence of legal aid in matters of asylum cases. If we fail to allow those involved to get the proper advice they need, we will simply bung up the system later on. The Government's attitude towards the whole issue of legal aid was touched on by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who reflected all that I said in the debates on the Access to Justice Act 1999. It demonstrates the futility of much of what the Government have done and the damaging effect that it has had on that area of public policy.

In the few minutes that remain, I want to concentrate on one aspect of the constitutional affairs debate—namely, that regarding the Lord Chancellor's office and related subjects. On 12 June, the Government announced their intention to abolish that office and to establish a new supreme court to replace the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords. They did not do that after consultation and open debate. Those policies were put forward in the context, as many have said this afternoon, of a Cabinet reshuffle that had been derailed by the resignation of the then Secretary of State for Health and the refusal, it appears, of the then Lord Chancellor to resign. There is no doubt that the announcement was scribbled on the back of an envelope, and in a hurry. It was opportunistic and ill thought out. The Government's cavalier attitude to such important constitutional reforms meant that the principles underlying them were overshadowed by criticism of the way in which they were presented. The haste and secrecy with which the programme was announced were as unnecessary as they were counterproductive. However, that fits the pattern of the Government in most matters of public policy, and especially in matters affecting our courts, judges and constitution.

Thrashing around to catch a populist headline is not a good way to reorder the British constitution, any more than the Home Secretary's crashing about like a bull in a china shop on matters to do with the arrest and investigation of suspected terrorists is sensible. In fact, the Home Secretary's recent outburst illustrates a theme behind these reforms. The Government do not trust the judges to bring in judgments that reflect their political opinions and aspirations. They, and the lawyers who argue their clients' cases in court, are in the way and must be tamed. Any objections put forward by those who disagree will be written off as lawyers' whingeing and the wailings of vested interest groups.

That demonstrates a total failure to understand the delicate balance that any democracy that survives through respect for the rule of law needs to maintain between Parliament, the judiciary and the Executive. For six years now, this Government and the Prime Minister have enjoyed more or less opposition-free supremacy, both here and in the country. So over-confident and arrogant with unchecked power have the Government become that they have begun to resemble, and to sound like, the strutting rooster on the farmyard midden. However, may I remind the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, that today's rooster is tomorrow's feather duster?

The Attorney-General is right to be concerned about the Home Secretary. His is an office that does not fit the strict concept of the separation of powers. He is a member of the legislature, the head of the state

2 Dec 2003 : Column 439

prosecution service, the Government's chief legal adviser, and the protector in the courts of the public interest. That is not very neat and tidy, and his office must be in danger now that the Government have arbitrarily decided that the office of Lord Chancellor must go.

As recently as 4 December 2001, the Government offered a robust defence of the office of Lord Chancellor in this House, but how things have changed now that Lord Irvine has gone! It was not difficult to poke fun at Lord Irvine: even the Prime Minister resorted to some childish criticism of the office-holder's uniform, as though he had made not only a highly amusing point but also an unanswerable constitutional point. However, the attacks on Lord Irvine were based as much on ignorance of the man as on ignorance of his office. He acted as the lightning conductor for criticism of the Prime Minister that came from those who did not dare attack the latter directly.

If Lord Irvine was the catalyst for discussion about his office, that discussion has been misguided, and has led to the wrong answer to the question of whether that office could be sustained, especially in the light of the European convention and its application to this country through the Human Rights Act 1998. There is, in my judgment, no provision in European Union law or under the European convention on human rights that requires any of the changes that the Government propose to the office of Lord Chancellor, the removal of the Law Lords from the House of Lords, or the creation of a judicial appointments commission.

It is undeniably true that the Lord Chancellor's Department has taken on many new responsibilities since 1997. Until June of this year, it was headed by a man who was not known for his political skills and sensitivity. The new Department for Constitutional Affairs covers the courts and tribunals, freedom of information and data protection, human rights, Lords reform and other constitutional reform, judicial appointments, party funding, electoral law and policy, civil and criminal law, legal aid, and royal, Church and hereditary issues. Its budget is measured in billions of pounds and, like all spending Departments, it is now a resource-hungry leviathan. Increasingly, it is moving into the executive and political arena. That shift means that, more and more, the Department's executive responsibilities are being carried out by an unelected Minister, whose territorial boundaries are imprecise and subject to adjustment at his and the Prime Minister's diktat.

One of the strengths of our constitution is that it is different from every other constitution and yet is completely capable of protecting the rights and interests of the citizen. We live by what is reasonable, not by what is necessarily rational. The common law has provided as much protection—if not more—for the individual against the over-mighty state as have the judgments of the supreme courts of other countries with written constitutions. No amount of fiddling with the role of the Lord Chancellor or the Law Lords will make a worthwhile difference to that.

I accept that the Lord Chancellor untidily bestrides the constitution. We do not have a Minister of Justice. A judicial appointments commission does not appoint our judges—a politician does that. An unelected legislator exercises executive power. Are we the worse off for that?

2 Dec 2003 : Column 440

Is our democracy the feebler for that? Are our judges Government stooges, who do no more than the bidding of the politician who appointed them? Are they appointed for their political or legal expertise? How many times since—let alone before—the enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998 have the courts decided cases against the Government? Does not the Home Secretary fulminate against the judiciary for applying against the Government the very laws that the Government passed? Do our courts never award damages against the police or Departments? Has not a private citizen been granted £1 million in compensation against the Ministry of Defence for nuisance this year—while our troops and the Royal Air Force were engaged in the Iraq war—because of noisy low-flying RAF fighter jets passing over his house near Stamford?

Is not the right to strike and to demonstrate protected by the courts? Has the current Lord Chancellor, the previous Lord Chancellor or any other Lord Chancellor given judgment in the House of Lords on political as opposed to strictly legal grounds, or ever threatened the legislature that, unless it did his party's bidding, he would give judgment to redress the matter upstairs? On all those questions and many similar ones, the previous Lord Chancellor—a man with the political sensitivities and diplomatic skills of a rhinoceros—can justly claim to have behaved entirely properly. Like him or hate him, whether he made us laugh or cry, he was subject to the control of Parliament in all that he did as Lord Chancellor.

Speaking at the Council of Europe in 1979, one of our former right hon. Friends, the late Lord Hailsham of St. Marylebone, said:

I accept that politics is a business susceptible to fashion; the names and remits of Departments change as frequently as their political masters. However, the vital and central role of the Lord Chancellor, which requires him to tread carefully along the three parallel but invisible lines of the British constitution, is justified and justifiable, even in the face of demand from the political fashionistas.

Next Section

IndexHome Page