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26 Jun 2008 : Column 550

The marine and coastal access Bill has been a long time coming. We generally welcome the idea of greater structure in marine planning, but are concerned that the marine management organisation might not be adequately funded to deliver the intentions of the Bill. Reassurance is needed that the means will be willed as well as the ends. The marine and coastal access Bill in this Parliament would govern all the waters off the shores of England and Wales, as well as all the waters around Scotland outside the territorial limit. How will co-operation and co-ordination be ensured between the two authorities with regard to installations and wind farms that cross the border between territorial waters in Scotland and territorial waters covered by UK legislation?

The Education and Skills Bill could go further in giving full independence to the education standards authority, because the Department still has control over the appointment of its chair and setting directions. That does not create independence from political interference in educational standards. I very much welcome any attempt to improve the apprenticeships scheme, which is also long overdue.

The welfare reform Bill will operate in a growing economy, with increasing numbers of jobs. Trying to get those who could work back into employment can be quite a positive message to give out. But if we are entering a period of growing unemployment, especially in certain regions, the challenges faced by those who cannot find jobs, because there are not jobs to be found, must be handled sensitively and carefully.

The Government have referred to directly elected representatives in connection with the policing and crime reduction Bill. We should like some reassurances about the role of those people and their relationship with day-to-day policing. I should be seriously worried if the Government adopted the American model of elected sheriffs to direct policing. As a councillor, I was a member of the Grampian joint police board. We were able to work with the police, but it was the responsibility of the chief constable, as head of the local police force, to deliver day-to-day policing. It was not for politicians to tell him how he should do that job. We do not want a vigilante-style model to be developed in this country.

A transport security Bill would provide some reassurance, especially if it went further and ensured that foreign workers would be checked for criminal records, given that they would be working in such secure environments. We have severe reservations about the communications data Bill and its intrusion into private life. There is a danger that by continually producing anti-crime legislation in order to be seen to be doing something, the Government will make the state’s role in our private lives far greater than it needs to be unless there are proper checks and balances.

As we heard in the statement earlier, the issue of victims’ anonymity is to be revisited more fully in the law reform, victims and witnesses Bill. I welcome that. I also welcome the creation of a sentencing commission, which will take sentencing out of day-to-day headline party politics. Sentencing should involve long-term understanding of deterrence, reform and effectiveness, and should not be judged on the basis of day-to-day interference by politicians.

May I make a plea for proper funding for those who must implement the immigration Bill? There is nothing more frustrating for a Member of Parliament than
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dealing with casework involving individuals who have themselves been frustrated by the operation of the immigration and visa system, which has forced them to surmount many hurdles and experience much delay before they are eventually found to be entitled to what they set out to obtain in the first place. Many of my constituents in north-east Scotland work in the oil industry and move around the world a good deal. Their lifestyles do not fit the simple models used by those who are trying to police the immigration and visa service. It is important to recognise that marriages can be genuine even if they do not accord with the idea of a genuine marriage that someone in London may have.

One of my constituents who had married in Malaysia was transferred to Angola, and wanted his wife to stay at home. He was told that she must go and live with him in Angola, because that was where he would be working. That is not the way in which people in the oil industry work: their families stay at base, and the breadwinner goes out to the more hostile countries where life is more difficult. Eventually the couple won their case on appeal, but the most frustrating aspect of the case, highlighted by the judge, was what had been said by the immigration authority: if the couple had filled out the form in this country, there would have been no problem. At that point the judge said, “I have been told that I must go away and consider the case, but I want to make my judgment now.” Bureaucracy should not be allowed to destroy people’s lives, or take years out of their lives, when immigration measures could be implemented so much more effectively.

The coroners Bill is long overdue. As for the constitutional renewal Bill—a rather grand title—I share the view of the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) that individual voter registration should be introduced. Eleven years ago the Government embarked on quite a strong path, recognising that changes to our constitution can greatly benefit and influence our way of life. They delivered on their early promises—on, for instance, their commitment to devolution in Scotland and, perhaps to the despair of many Members of Parliament, on freedom of information legislation—but they lost momentum when it came to recognising the fundamental importance of the constitution and the way in which we are governed to the effectiveness and accountability of the country.

I still strongly feel that the Government should deliver on reform of our election system, so that every vote in the country counts once again, and people can get engaged. In a politically evenly balanced nation with a two-party system where votes are spread evenly across the country, first-past-the-post can work, but when geographical concentrations of support for parties start to develop and there are many safe seats and only a few marginals, there is disfranchisement, because the political parties all have finite resources—albeit some have greater resources than others—and they decide to engage their campaign resources in those parts of the country where they think they can make a difference to the result. As a consequence, the party message and resources are targeted at those living in marginal seats; and the situation is, in fact, even more serious than that, as the parties work out that only certain people are likely to switch votes. Therefore, very few people in the country are actively engaged in general elections. If they live in what the parties consider to be a safe seat, they are less engaged
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in the debate and in having a say in the result of the election. Changing our electoral system so that every vote counts is, therefore, not just about altering the balance in Parliament so that it reflects the views of the country more accurately and therefore holds the Government to account more effectively, but about ensuring that, because their vote counts, every voter is seen to be valued by all the parties as someone who has to be influenced and engaged with at election time.

In 1987, I stood for election in Aberdeen, North, which was considered a safe Labour seat. Frank Doran was the Labour candidate in Aberdeen, South, which was considered a marginal seat with the Conservatives—he is now the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North. Money poured into Aberdeen, South; leaflets cascaded out, and people living there had a real sense of being part of a general election. In Aberdeen, North, my Labour opponent put out a wee postcard saying, “The Labour candidate is Rob Hughes”. He was so well known and popular that that was all he needed to do. I remember that I was outside a polling station on election day and a Labour activist said to me, “I’m awfully worried; we’ve put all our troops into Aberdeen, South,” and I thought, “Well, I’m going to come second here, so I don’t quite see why you’re so worried.” They won both seats. The north half of Aberdeen had no engagement on the doorstep with the election, but the south had every engagement. That highlights an important reason why we need to reform our voting system.

On constitutional renewal, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said at business questions, I would have thought that the Government themselves had started to see that fixed-term Parliaments have benefits, as having them would have avoided a very messy situation last year. It would give Members and those in the outside world a date that they can plan around, too. Having a fixed term for the life of a Parliament also fits in with the idea of pre-legislative scrutiny and of having a draft legislative programme, because it gives a natural cycle to the political process, which cannot be interfered with on a day-to-day basis by the Government.

I reiterate that although this debate is about the legislation, the delivery is about much more than that. It is time that the rest of the House was allowed to know how long the year will be in which we are planning to legislate. It is time that we had far more foreknowledge of the Government’s thinking on the programming of legislation. The Government should reinvigorate themselves to be ambitious about constitutional renewal, and should not forget that there is still much to be delivered if we are to have an effective modern democracy that engages all our citizens in the day-to-day life of the governance of our country.

2.54 pm

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): I, too, welcome this innovation of a prior debate on the Government’s draft legislative programme. It is worth while, so it is disappointing that so few Members are present, but I hope that when it becomes a permanent fixture that will begin to change. I welcome it not least because it is an opportunity for Members to raise our eyes to the bigger picture—to see the wider landscape. We find it so easy in this place to be borne down on by the relentless treadmill of nitty-gritty legislation. To
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look at the themes behind the Government’s intentions for the next year, and perhaps beyond those, is very worth while.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality on her statement about the equality Bill, which is excellent and much-needed legislation. There are several items in the draft legislative programme that I strongly welcome, but I want to measure it against the problems that we in this country actually face, which seems to me the relevant index.

Three major breakdowns in the British state are seriously threatening both our economy and society. One could probably say that of any year that one is discussing, and I want to discuss the issues in this particular year. One is the over-centralisation of power and the virtual collapse of accountability in this country, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) eloquently referred; he was absolutely right. The second is the breakdown in financial markets and the manifest and comprehensive failure in banking regulation. The third—there is no originality in any of this, of course—is the collapse of the housing market, which will deprive perhaps up to one fifth of the population of any reasonable opportunity of getting a decent home for the foreseeable future. I am pleased to see and welcome the fact that there are items in the draft legislative programme that touch on all these points, but none of them adequately addresses the depth of the problems.

I turn to the first of my three issues. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) spoke about constitutional renewal at some length and ended his speech on it, and he was absolutely right. He did so in the context of preparing for opposition; I do not accept that point, but irrespective of a party’s being in opposition or in government, it is for the whole House—all of us have an interest in this—to strengthen the procedures of Parliament. Parliament is weaker today vis- -vis the Executive than at any time in my political memory, and I have been here quite a considerable time.

It is proposed in the draft legislative programme that Parliament be given the final say in ratifying treaties, which is obviously right, and—I am very pleased to see this—that the civil service should for the first time be put on a statutory basis. There has been a great deal of discussion in the past about Governments and Ministers overstepping the line of propriety between politics and the civil service. To clarify the position is very helpful. However, on the wider constitutional issue, that is hardly even skirting the problem. There is a huge democratic deficit in this place and outside. Within Parliament itself, a whole series of reforms is urgently needed to redress that imbalance of power between the Executive and the legislature. Let us not forget—I am sure that none of us does—that this programme was the centrepiece of the Prime Minister’s first major statement to Parliament after he became Prime Minister in July of last year. I think that we all thoroughly welcomed it, and I still welcome it, but the heady atmosphere of ambitious reform that it generated has yet to be realised.

I want to make some proposals that I hope will command support across the House. Members of Select Committees should be elected by secret ballot of all non-Executive Members of the House in accordance
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with party quotas and should choose their own Chair. That would give Select Committees an independence and standing that would greatly improve the scrutiny of the Executive by the House. In addition, the Prime Minister’s nominations for the Cabinet should, as in the US Congress, be subject to ratification by the appropriate Select Committee.

The terms of reference and membership of committees of inquiry, an extremely important part of the power of a Prime Minister and of enormous relevance to Members of the House and the wider public, should be ratified by Parliament. I am sure that in the vast majority of cases they would be, but there should be that ratificatory process. In addition, Parliament—this would be an innovation, and an important one—should be empowered and funded to set up its own parliamentary commissions of inquiry where it believed it necessary. That is not a radical proposal. I remind hon. Members that that is exactly what the Victorians did, and it is only to return to some of the excellent scrutinising work that Parliament did more than 100 years ago.

The Liaison Committee should have the right—again, not an original idea of mine; it happens in the French Assembly’s equivalent of the Liaison Committee—once a month, or at some other agreed interval, to table a motion for debate and a vote on the Floor of the House. That would make a great deal of difference, whether we are talking about Select Committees or the Liaison Committee. Such a debate should not be on the Adjournment of the House, a mere discussion shop or an Oxford union-style debate, but for a vote of the House, decided not by the Government but by the House, and once a month is not an unreasonable proposal.

I could go on, and I hope that others will do so, but perhaps we should also have a Select Committee on the democratisation of the House. Others may say that we have the Procedure Committee, which I am perfectly well aware of, but what I mean by a democratisation Committee is that its terms of reference, membership and Chair would be elected by the House, not by the Executive or the Whips. It is our House and we should treat it as such, and we should take upon ourselves the rights and responsibilities that that entails.

Reform is also just as necessary in the wider society outside the House. We are regaled with the evidence for that virtually every day in the newspapers. In the last few months alone, I have kept a record of several events that are linked by one common thread. Discs containing the sensitive personal details of 25 million people were lost by a private contractor in transit. Metronet’s tube refurbishment programme went bust, leaving the taxpayer with a £2 billion bill. A disc containing DNA profiles of more than 2,000 people linked to serious crimes abroad went unchecked for a year by the Crown Prosecution Service. The rescue of Northern Rock, as everyone knows, has cost the taxpayer some £25 billion—I have lost sight of the exact figure—but the former chief executive has walked away with a bonus of £750,000. The National Audit Office recently found that the Ministry of Defence had spent at least £400 million on eight Chinook helicopters that were still not airworthy 13 years after being ordered. I could go on, because there are many more examples.

What is the link between those examples? It is that nobody was ultimately held responsible. That is what I mean by the collapse of accountability, and it is very
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unhealthy. I am not being punitive: I am simply saying that we have to consider the negligence, the mismanagement and the other causes. People have to understand that rights and power carry with them responsibilities.

Why has that collapse in accountability occurred? There are several reasons. Civil service liability is shielded by the myth that the Minister is always responsible. The Minister should be responsible for all things political, but the ambit of responsibility often goes considerably wider and we need to recognise that. Another reason is regulatory capture by the vested interests. One worrying example, which I noted yesterday, was the announcement that an ex-private equity chief has been selected to head up Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. That is an instance of regulatory capture that I find disturbing.

Another problem is that the regulators, especially in the Treasury, are given too little staffing and funding to be really effective in pursuit of the endemic culture of tax evasion and avoidance. In the unfettered neo-liberal economy in which we live, the big companies and the big financial institutions have largely captured the state—as we repeatedly see. Whatever they demand, they usually get, as is laid out in the newspapers for us week after week. That is where constitutional reform is needed, because the big companies have too much power relative to the democratic forces in this place that are supposed to hold the ring in managing the state.

The Government like to talk about empowerment, and I am pleased about that. They talk about empowering the citizen, whether through citizens’ juries or participatory budget making, but the key is that the Government have to mean it. It does not happen all that often, but when consultations of public opinion take place—notoriously on nuclear energy, genetically modified foods or the third runway at Heathrow—it only generates cynicism when most people give one view and the Government still go ahead with their predetermined view.

My hon. Friend the Minister may share some of these views, although perhaps I should not say that. It is very difficult to make the case for constitutional renewal when only 24 hours ago the Planning Bill removed all democratic accountability from the licensing of nuclear reactors, incinerators, airports, large road-building schemes and waste dumps. In my view, it is just as difficult to make the case for constitutional renewal when, under the draft legislative programme, the Attorney-General, although he or she will be less able to direct prosecutors, will still be able to prevent prosecutions, as was the case in the recent BAE corruption investigation. I cannot see how that cannot be a conflict of interest. I hope that when we come to debate the matter the House will examine it very carefully.

The second area of major breakdown concerns the neo-liberal economic order that, as I said, has been dominant in this country and throughout the west—in the US and Europe—for the past three decades, together with the light-touch regulation, which is fairly unique to London, that has always accompanied it. The proposed Bill on banking reform, which I welcome, will make it easier in future for the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority to intervene when a bank gets into difficulty. That is fine. It will also strengthen the financial services compensation scheme. No one would disagree with that. It is perfectly sensible, good stuff, but it does not begin to address the fundamental underlying causes of the banking crisis.

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