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7 Mar 2007 : Column 1520


Pensions (unclaimed Assets)

Mr. Frank Field, supported by Dr. Tony Wright, Derek Wyatt, Kate Hoey, Sandra Osborne and David Taylor, presented a Bill to establish an Unclaimed Assets Agency; to confer powers on the Agency to obtain information from banks and building societies relating to unclaimed assets; to make provision for the transfer of a proportion of unclaimed assets to the Agency for distribution among certain members of occupational pension schemes; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 June, and to be printed. [Bill 74].

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Rural Tranquillity

12.35 pm

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): I beg to move,

In the past week, I have distributed tranquillity maps to every Member of Parliament in England. I hasten to add, Mr. Speaker, that you were not discriminated against because you are a Scottish Member; nor was I discriminating against the Welsh. It is simply that the Bill would apply only to England—unless a Member of either the Scottish or the Welsh Executive has the wit and intelligence to take up the issue, as I hope one of them will.

The maps that I distributed did something that was both new and importantly different. For the first time ever, they provided a quantified, logically evidenced and robust way of measuring tranquillity across the country. I should pause here to record my thanks to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which, in concert with some heavyweight academics, has done an enormous amount of work to quantify tranquillity and to provide us with a robust and logically sensible evidence base on which the Bill can be built.

Before we become too caught up in pretty tranquillity maps, however, we ought to ensure that we understand precisely what “tranquillity” means. Put simply, it is peace and quiet. It is the ability to find a part of the country that is free from intervention by man. Let me give some examples. If you go out at night and look around, do you see street lights or starlight? If you go out looking for peace and quiet, what do you hear, jumbo jets and juggernauts or birdsong? If you want to find a beautiful view and you go out and lift up your eyes unto the hills, do you in fact see hills, or high rises? If you take a deep breath of fresh air, do you smell wild flowers or the kebab van on the corner? That is what tranquillity is all about, and why it is so important. It is not just about preserving green spaces; it is about the way our country feels. It is about why it is good to be in our country. It is about the quality of life and the quality of our environment, and that is why it is important to preserve it.

It is important also to bear in mind that while there is more tranquillity in the countryside, it is not exclusively a countryside issue. There are significant pockets of tranquillity in our towns and cities as well. Urban parks and suburban gardens are essential green lungs which make our urban environments better to live in than they would otherwise be. They deserve protection just as much as green belts and areas of outstanding natural beauty in the countryside as a whole.

I am not saying, and the Bill is not saying, that everywhere must be tranquil. There are plenty of places that we want to have bright lights and loud music. If we go out on a Friday night to meet our friends, we probably want to go somewhere that has a buzz and an excitement to it. In my constituency, the seafront on Friday and Saturday nights is vibrant and exciting, and full of people enjoying themselves. We do not want to
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change that, but—particularly if we have had a very good Friday night—on a Saturday morning we may be in search of a place where we can find some tranquillity. It is therefore important for the country to contain both types of place: places that are lively and vibrant, and places where tranquillity exists. We need a Britain where wildlife and nightlife can co-exist.

The crucial point is that tranquillity is fragile. The pace and the hustle and bustle of modern Britain destroy tranquillity; the two cannot coexist.

There are some very startling and frightening statistics on the extent to which tranquillity is on the retreat throughout the country. The statistics on road transport show that that is projected to increase by between 20 per cent. and 30 per cent. in the next eight years. In the last 15 years, air travel has exploded and it is expected to continue rising for many years to come. The worst statistic I saw is that in England alone we are every year concreting over an area of land the size of Leicester. Clearly, we cannot carry on doing that indefinitely. Also, light pollution rose by 24 per cent. between 1993 and 2000, and the sad fact is that in only 11 per cent. of England’s land mass is it now possible to go outside at night and see a sky that is lit only by the moon and stars, as opposed to by man.

What is to be done? The Bill is very simple—and, I hope, the more powerful because of that. It has only two clauses, the first of which says that the Government should report on and publish the results of the measurement of tranquillity, probably along the lines of the system that I have just described which has been put together by the Campaign to Protect Rural England. That will allow us to track tranquillity to see where it is strong and where it is weak and where it is advancing and where it is retreating. Having tracked and measured tranquillity effectively, the second clause is equally simple. It says that the Government should put a duty on planning authorities to protect, preserve and enhance tranquillity in every decision that they take.

The good news is that the Government should be onside on this issue. They have been using the word “tranquillity” in approving tones since as long ago as when the rural White Paper was produced, in 2000; they have mentioned it several times since in many different sorts of official environmental documentation. I therefore hope—even expect—that the Government will be able to support the Bill either by providing it with time or by picking up on this issue and including measures to address it in some of their future legislation. I certainly hope that we will be pushing at an open door, and I encourage Members of all parties to take them at their word: they say that tranquillity is important, so let us give them the chance to act on their words.

If there is only one reason why Members of all parties choose to support the Bill, let it be the following one. I have said that tranquillity is under threat: it is retreating throughout the country. If we do not act now, tranquillity will soon be nothing but a folk memory. All those wonderful quiet places free from human interference that everyone knows of will be gone—all Members probably have places near our homes in our constituencies where we like to go. If for no other reason, we owe it to our children and grandchildren to turn from merely uttering warm words to taking action to preserve tranquillity. If we do
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not act now, the things that we take for granted today will be denied to them tomorrow. Tranquillity is important, and it is in trouble. It deserves our attention and requires our help and protection. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by John Penrose, David Taylor, Mr. John Gummer, Mr. Nick Hurd, Norman Baker, Derek Wyatt, Mr. Philip Dunne, Mr. John Whittingdale, Mr. Frank Field, Kelvin Hopkins and Jeremy Wright.

Rural Tranquillity

John Penrose accordingly presented a Bill to provide for the establishment of an indicator for rural tranquillity; to provide for the protection of rural tranquillity in the planning process; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 18 May, and to be printed [Bill 73].

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Orders of the Day

House of Lords Reform

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [6 March], That this House supports the principle of a bicameral Parliament.


Question again proposed.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): It is something to speak following a speech on tranquillity, given that that word will probably not be used to describe this particular debate. That said, yesterday’s debate was very entertaining, and since it took place my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has been described as having the courage of 300 Spartans. Whether that makes the rest of us part of the 700 Thespian volunteers, I do not know.

Yesterday’s debate reminded me of the football pools: one could perm any eight from 10 in terms of the views expressed in the House. As we know, this is a debate of two halves, and it falls to me to blow the whistle to start the second half today. The House will forgive me if I express the hope that the second half does not last quite as long as the first, not least because there is another game of two halves in which I have a great interest: Celtic versus AC Milan this evening. [Interruption.] I hope that that sedentary intervention was said with the light-heartedness with which it appeared to be said.

Mr. Speaker, the House will be grateful to you to know that when the votes take place, the monitors will indicate exactly which motion Members are voting on. That is already a break with the past, and one which I hope will help to steer Members into the appropriate Lobby for each vote.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): If the monitors are going to indicate which motion we are voting on, that will be very helpful to Members. However, can we be assured that, when reference is made on the monitors to “the appointed House”, the word “reformed” will be included?

Bridget Prentice: The title given on the monitors will explain exactly what each motion is on. I hope that the situation will be sufficiently clear, but I am sure that there will be plenty of Members in the Chamber and elsewhere guiding their friends and colleagues into the Lobby.

A considerable amount of work has already been done on this issue. There is the excellent report of the Joint Committee on Conventions, chaired by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Cunningham of Felling, and, of course, the substantial work done by the cross-party working group, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I hope that today’s debate will be another major step in a century’s-worth of steps on the road to reform. Members will be relieved to know that I will not be giving them a year-by-year account of the history of reform—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”] Well, otherwise, there will be no time for any of this evening’s votes, and as I have said,
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I must get away in time to see Celtic defeat the mighty AC Milan. However, there are some points along the time line that I would like to highlight.

The first such point was the Parliament Act 1911, which was a response to the crisis arising from the Lords’ rejection of the 1909 Budget. That Act ensured that money Bills could receive Royal Assent without the approval of the other place, and it shortened the maximum length of a Parliament from seven to five years. Public Bills, with some exceptions, were to receive Royal Assent without the consent of the Lords if they had been passed by this House in three successive Sessions. The Parliament Act 1949 reduced that period to two Sessions, and reduced the period between the first Second Reading and the final passage of a Bill to one year. Those Acts are key pillars of the primacy of this House and they are fundamental to its relationship with the Lords.

Then there was the development of the Salisbury-Addison convention. The 1945 general election produced a Labour Government with a massive majority of 156, but of course, at that time there was only a small number of peers—16 out of 831—who took the Labour Whip. That imbalance had to be addressed. The then Viscount Cranbourne, Leader of the Opposition in the Lords and fifth Marquis of Salisbury, and Viscount Addison, the Labour leader in the Lords, came to an agreement that we now refer to as the Salisbury-Addison convention. They agreed that, because major Government legislation had been put before the country at the general election, and the people, with knowledge of those proposals, had returned a Labour Government, the Government had a mandate to introduce their key proposals, and the Lords should not oppose them.

The Joint Committee on Conventions has given an excellent description of the convention as it stands today and I commend its report to the House. That Salisbury-Addison convention gives effect to the primacy of this House, and it is vital to how the other place responds to manifesto legislation. Parliament would be very different without it.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the primacy of one Chamber over the other is as much about perception as about legislative framework, and that it is for that reason that many of us feel that a largely or wholly elected Chamber would claim a degree of legitimacy that the present Chamber could not, which could be to the detriment of the Chamber? Does she agree that the Salisbury-Addison convention was a voluntary arrangement between both Houses, and that a completely different House at the other end of the corridor may wish to seek another sort of convention?

Bridget Prentice: I have much sympathy with what my hon. Friend says; politics is very often about perception. But I should say to him, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said yesterday, that should the House decide to go for a partly or wholly elected second Chamber, whatever it decides it will also decide the rules by which that Chamber is governed, so I hope that my hon. Friend will accept, as I do, that it would be for the House to decide what those rules are likely to be.

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Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD) rose—

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab) rose—

Bridget Prentice: I shall give way just once more.

Sir Robert Smith: The hon. Lady said that perception is extremely important. It should be remembered that there is a perception in the country that gradually over the years—especially in the last 10 years but also before then—the Executive have been seen to grab more powers to the Executive and become less accountable to Parliament as a whole, and that the reform of the House of Lords is part of the process of giving more accountability again to the Executive, which in the long run will benefit the Executive as well by keeping them more in touch.

Bridget Prentice: I can agree with the hon. Gentleman in one sense: I agree that making these reforms will make the Executive, and Parliament as a whole, more accountable. I would say to him too, however, that over the past 10 years the Executive have probably been more accountable in many ways than any previous one, so I would not accept his point on that.

I want to move on to the third key point along the timeline—the Life Peerages Act 1958 and the Peerages Act 1963. They allowed life peers to sit in the other place; the Lords would no longer be limited to those with an hereditary title; and they even allowed women to sit there too. The 1963 Act also famously allowed hereditary peerages to be disclaimed for life or relinquished for a period of time.

Fundamental and far-reaching reform did not come, however, until this Labour Government came to power in 1997. The House of Lords Act 1999 removed the majority of peers who sat in the other place as a right of heredity. It was an absurdity in a modern democracy and it had to go. I see from yesterday's debate that both sides of the House agree that this should be so, although I do recall the campaign literature for the Conservative party in 1997, drawing attention to the advantages of the hereditary peers.

Our job was incomplete, however. Running through these parliamentary reforms demonstrates that which is obvious but which may also be so close to us that we miss it. Those reforms are now embedded in our culture and conventions. The Salisbury-Addison convention, the introduction of life peers and women peers and the removal of the majority of hereditary peers have all strengthened the other place, and in so doing have strengthened Parliament as a whole. It is quite clear that where reform is necessary, the Houses do not crumble but are reinforced.

This history demonstrates something else, loud and clear. Reform of the second Chamber has been on the agenda for too long. We must now today have the courage of our convictions, as our predecessors did. We must today complete that to which our manifestos commit us. It is time to complete the job that the Government started in 1999. I therefore urge Members today to remember that, and not to allow the fine detail of reform, which there will be ample time to debate later—

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John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The hon. Lady mentioned convictions and I am hugely interested in hers. My recollection is that she was not in support of election last time. If I am wrong, I am happy to be corrected, but I do not think that she supported the election options last time. Will she, like the sinner that repenteth, her right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, support elected options this time?

Bridget Prentice: I am perfectly happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that last time I voted for abolition and for a fully appointed second House. I shall do the same this time. However I will, in order that we do complete reform of the House of Lords, vote for a 50 per cent. elected House should we get to that stage. But I urge Members today not to allow the fine detail of reform—which we shall be able to debate in due course—to get in the way of the important decision on the composition of the other place. That is why I shall be voting in the way that I shall tonight.

I am now going to blow the whistle, step back from play and let the second half commence.

12.55 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Yesterday we had a very long and very interesting debate. Some of the issues that were not clearly in focus at the start of it actually emerged during the debate, which was an unusual process in the House. I want to dwell on what I think we learned from yesterday's debate, and address some of the points that hon. Members made.

Interestingly, yesterday’s debate was not a debate about a principle; there was a clash between two principles. Many Members, mainly on the Labour Benches, although there were one or two on my own side, argued that we should have an elected or largely elected House of Lords on the grounds of the principle of democratic legitimacy. They argued that it was necessary for a group of people who had an influence on law making to be democratically elected. Interestingly—I was here for the great bulk of what happened yesterday and I read the report of the remainder—no voice was raised against that principle. On reflection, that is not terribly surprising; anyone in the House who objected to the principle that law should generally be made by those who have been elected would find themselves in an odd position, as they are here by virtue of having been democratically elected themselves. So that principle was accepted on both sides.

The other clash centred on the principle advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and some of my other hon. Friends. In a very eloquent speech, my hon. Friend, who is not in his place now but was present for yesterday's debate, argued persuasively that we should not worry about whether an item conforms to a general democratic principle, but should worry about a different question—whether our constitution works and whether it is calculated to deliver results that are in the interests of our people. The clash between those two principles—the principle of democracy and the principle of what works—formed the basis of much of yesterday’s debate.

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