Previous Section Index Home Page

Indeed, it could be argued—my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was on the cusp of making this point and other hon. Members have alluded to it—that one of the problems of this House is that because the Government’s existence depends on the confidence of this House, it is very poor at scrutinising and modifying legislation. A defeat for the Government in this House—I have seen a few, but not very many since being elected last year—threatens their existence. That is why the convention—another interesting one—developed that, to avoid the immediate consequence of the resignation of the Government, a vote of confidence had to be called
10 May 2006 : Column 471
after a serious defeat, whatever that might mean. In any case, there is a relationship between the legislative function of this House and the confidence that the Government need to remain in existence.

Mr. Cash: Is not taxation another source of primacy? There are many reasons why it is asserted that this House has primacy, but one prime reason is the right to tax. However, the right to tax comes from the fact of election. Democracy, as in the case of no taxation without representation, is the key factor.

David Howarth: That is right and the same point applies to the mandate theory. That theory works because of election, and if the House of Lords were elected, it would have the same sort of legitimacy on that point. The fact that there might be a conflict between the two Houses on their different electoral mandates could not automatically be resolved in favour of this House. In those circumstances, there would be a conflict of democratic mandate, with each House having its own. It follows that it is impossible to derive a meaning for primacy from the relationship between the two Houses as it will be when the House of Lords is predominantly elected that leaves it even close to the situation that we have now. That is the fundamental problem with the motion. It is equivocal about the meaning of primacy.

For some hon. Members, primacy means the situation we have now, based on the difference between an elected and a non-elected House. For others, it means primacy regardless of the end of that situation in the future. The former assertion is legitimate, but the latter lacks any reason.

9.29 pm

Mr. Straw: With the leave of the House, I shall attempt to sum up the debate and respond to the points raised.

First, this intelligent and thoughtful discussion has reminded me of what I missed during my otherwise fascinating five years as Foreign Secretary. Nothing is more important than this subject, and the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) was right to say that any significant change towards election in the other place would be bound to change its sense of power. Although getting elected is the easy bit—getting re-elected is always more difficult—any such change would alter the other place’s relationship to this House. House of Lords reform is not a discrete matter that is separate from what happens in this House or from our democratic arrangements as a whole. It would change altogether the nature of governance and democracy in this country.

Mr. Cash: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: No, as I want to respond to the debate rather than take further questions.

I am not opposed to changing this country’s governing arrangements—far from it, but the House should be aware of the enormity of the task. I know that the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and all those attending this debate are aware of that, but I
10 May 2006 : Column 472
am not sure that the same is true of everyone who has taken a position on the matter but who has not been present today.

Secondly, one party has now been in government for the relatively long time of nine years. I am returning to a debate like this after an interval of five years, but I had a domestic portfolio in the first Parliament of this Labour Government. I am struck by how Labour and Conservative Members see our constitutional arrangements almost entirely through the prism of whether they are in government or opposition. That is an obvious danger.

I hope that I may be able to bring to these debates the experience that I gained through serving in opposition for 18 years. I am glad now that I had that experience, although I did not entirely enjoy acquiring it. In the dog days of the 1980s or the depressing days of the early 1990s, there was a real tendency among hon. Members to think that the constitution should serve only the party to which they belonged. We must think about what best serves effective and accountable government—with a small “g”—in this country.

The hon. Member for Cambridge made a very interesting contribution and knows a lot about France. In that connection, I emphasise that we must make sure that the rush to secure more accountability through more democracy in the other place does not make governing through this House almost impossible for whichever party is in power.

I turn now to what my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said. I absolutely accept that this is not a zero-sum matter. I am not giving away any official secret, as I have said this often: other Ministers may have found the experience comfortable enough, but I found it irritating to have to come back and deal with amendments that I thought had been sorted out either here or in the other place. But that is not a bad thing; in aggregate, it is a good thing because it keeps Ministers on their toes. Moreover, as there are no more than six or seven Ministers in a Department, but thousands of officials, being the subject of such scrutiny enables one to keep control of the Department on behalf of Government and Parliament, so it is in no sense a zero sum—nor is additional scrutiny from the other place. However, everybody must understand that just as in the end it is for Ministers to propose but for Parliament to dispose, Ministers have a responsibility to ensure that government continues, so there has to be a balance.

I want to deal with some of the specific points that were raised.

Mr. Cash: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will not because, although I love him to bits, I know that he has an unrivalled ability to keep the House for a long time, which does not necessarily lead to the approbation of his colleagues.

I thank the right hon. Member for Maidstone—[ Interruption.] I am sorry, I meant the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was very effective in holding me to account when I was Home Secretary, which was good for me, although it did not always feel like that.

10 May 2006 : Column 473

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead asked whether the Committee could produce an interim report. My understanding is that it cannot make an interim report to the House without first coming back to the two Houses to change the 21 July deadline. It could then produce an interim report if it wanted to do so. We have debated the timetable and I hope that members of the Committee will be able to complete their work by the 21 July deadline, but if that is not possible the Chair of the Committee can come to see me and I shall do my best to respond positively to the Committee’s requests. I cannot say more than that.

The right hon. Lady’s second point was about Lord Falconer’s proposals for consensus. As the House knows, I have had responsibility for House of Lords reform and other easy matters, including party funding, only since last Friday, so Members will forgive me if I take a deep breath before looking at my noble Friend’s proposals. I will take the opportunity to consult representatives of Opposition parties about what they feel to be the appropriate way forward before making decisions about how we progress the commitments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said that we needed a second Chamber that was neither a replica nor a rival. I agree, but the devil will be in finding a Chamber that complements the role of this place. The hon. Member for Cambridge suggested that it would not be a bad idea if the second Chamber were seen as a rival, but that would have serious problems for governance.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) used the word “concordat”, which was probably right. Governance will work better, and always has worked better, when there is consensus about the balance about powers between each end. We must have that, whatever the composition and powers of the other place; otherwise, there really would be gridlock. On this occasion, it is for the Committee to consider whether it is possible to describe that concordat—that consensus—without turning it into the straitjacket of a Napoleonic code. If we get a draft recommendation that begins with the words “whereas” and “if”, we know that the task is impossible.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) may be suspicious about many things, but I would not be suspicious about this one. We have a manifesto commitment. This is a very tricky but very important issue. We must take it stage by stage. Perhaps I should not have set the hare running on how to codify the issue. I was simply describing, for the sake of completeness, what form codification could take. Of course, I will consider any recommendation from the Committee with very great care. Subject to that, the idea of legislating for the balance of powers between the two Houses would probably be the worst option, rather than the best.

I hope that I have responded to the points made by the hon. Member for Cambridge.

As for the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), I was about to say that he turned up like a bad penny, when I was dealing with Europe and followed me around on Europe. I finally ensured that the Government served up what he was demanding in respect of Europe—a
10 May 2006 : Column 474
referendum on the EU constitution—and no sooner was that over and we dealt with that, he turns up here. I wonder whether the Bruges group and all the other flat-earth societies to which he belongs on the issue of Europe had any idea whatsoever that he was, figuratively speaking, in bed with the French, with the Québecois. I also wonder how the devil William Cash & Co.—a very distinguished firm of lawyers—was instructed by the Québecois, rather than other perhaps more obvious firms; but perhaps for that, we can wait until the next debate. Meanwhile, I recommend the motion to the House.

Question put—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I think the Ayes have it.

Hon. Members: No.

Division deferred till Wednesday next, pursuant to Standing Order No.41A (Deferred divisions).


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9)(European Standing Committees),

co-operation on asylum policy and practice

Question agreed to.


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Premier Aggregates Ltd

9.43 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I have pleasure in presenting to the House a petition signed by almost every resident of the villages of Finmere and Mixbury in north Oxfordshire—villages of some substantial size.

The petition states:

10 May 2006 : Column 476

To lie upon the Table.

10 May 2006 : Column 477

Matthew Marsden

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Heppell.]

9.44 pm

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Matthew Marsden, a two-year-old boy from Buckley, Flintshire, tragically drowned while on a family holiday in August 2004. He drowned after falling into a duck pond that was just 18 in deep at Greenacres holiday caravan park near Porthmadog. The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death. He described the death as a tragic accident and said it was natural for youngsters to show interest in water. He did not back calls from safety campaigners to fill in ponds on public sites such at this.

That was not the first incident at the caravan park. A risk assessment was carried out in September 2003, but only after a four-year-old boy was saved from drowning in the same pond. People should clearly be aware of the dangers of water, but we need to take the appropriate action. I am not advocating a ban on all water features, which are part of the attraction of a park or leisure centre, but they need to be safe. Lessons have to be learned and action taken. We all know that water holds a particular fascination for young children—particularly under the age of five. Whether the water is held in a garden pond, a rainwater butt, a paddling pool or a bucket, a young child will always tend to want to investigate.

Between 1 January 1993 and December 2003, 342 children under the age of 15 drowned in small bodies of water, canals, lakes, rivers and swimming pools in the UK. That figure does not include those who drowned in the bath at home or at coastal locations such as the beach. The highest single number of fatalities occurred among those aged about two. At that stage, toddlers have increased mobility, but their stability and co-ordination are still undeveloped, so they tend not to be able to help themselves if they get into difficulties. Some 111 children under the age of five have drowned during the last decade. That is within the space of a few minutes of the supervising adult being distracted for any particular reason.

We need to readdress what constitutes a water hazard or danger. As adults, we tend to think of deep ponds, lakes, rivers, swimming pools and even the sea, but the facts tell us that young children can drown in as little as 1 in or 2 in of water. Wherever water can collect is therefore a potential hazard or danger. As children do not learn the concept of danger until they are about four or five, the onus is therefore on us to take appropriate action.

The Marsden family know that they cannot turn the clock back, but they do not want their tragic loss to be another headline in the papers, forgotten the next day. They want lessons to be learned from it and action to be taken so that no other parents suffer as they have suffered and continue to suffer. Many would find that approach difficult to follow, but it is their hope and desire that nobody else will go through what they have experienced.

The coroner’s view, in essence, is that nobody was to blame, but, ultimately, we are all responsible because we have done little to protect children from water, or, at best, minimise the risk. Accidents will always happen,
10 May 2006 : Column 478
but our job and duty must ultimately be to minimise that risk. As a parent, I know that it is nearly impossible for any parent to supervise a young child 100 per cent. of the time, but action can be taken to lessen the risks, particularly in the case of water.

Let me go into a bit of detail. There is no specific legislation regarding pond safety of this type. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents provides safety advice about ponds in schools, which are common-sense guidelines on how to supervise children near and around water and which apply to parents, teachers and guardians. Again, we are presuming that particularly young children have that common sense in the first place. But what of legislation for water safety? The Health and Safety Commission, which deals with the workplace environment, is the only relevant body on this issue. Its regulations are enforced by either the Health and Safety Executive, or local authorities, depending on the type of workplace. Although the Health and Safety Executive has not produced specific legislation or guidance on ponds in public places, the following legislation applies to leisure parks.

Section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc., Act 1974 places requirements on employers with regard to members of the public using workplace facilities. The section only sets down a goal—it is not specific. Subsection (1) states:

Likewise, subsection (2) covers the same area with respect to self-employed persons. Subsection (3) states:

Next Section Index Home Page