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We have made it absolutely clear that if there is an opportunity to have a referendum on the Lisbon treaty before ratification, we will do it. The
Government promised to have a referendum on the Lisbon treaty not after, but before ratification. I hope very much that we can honour the pledge that the Government will have broken.
We support measures to remove the Prime Minister from the process of appointing judges, and magistrates from the very complex processes of the Judicial Appointments Commission. That seems to be a step in the right direction. I also say to the Secretary of State that I look forward to the review of the operation of the commission, and whether a simplified process could be provided. I listened very carefully to what he had to say about that. As I think he knows, he will have our interest and co-operation-in so far as we can clearly maintain judicial independence-if there are ways of improving the existing system.
We support measures to reform the National Audit Office and to amend Government accounts. However, with the Prime Minister's once golden rules not just broken but shattered, surely the real problem lies not in disjunctions between departmental expenditure limits and resource accounts, but goes much deeper; it is one of fiscal credibility. That is why we propose an independent office of budgetary oversight to oversee compliance in connection with the Government's economic promises.
Then we come to the House of Lords. Just to make our position clear-yet again-the Conservative party supports the creation of a predominantly elected House of Lords. But there is nothing about that in the Bill. It contains two measures that will fundamentally change the nature of the House of Lords, without making it one ounce more democratic. First, the Justice Secretary wants to remove the remaining hereditary peers. The Government agreed to the retention of the hereditaries as a mark of their good faith-good faith creeps into consideration of the Bill quite a lot-that further reform to put the House of Lords on a democratic footing would follow. It was said at the time that if those hereditary peers went, real reform would never happen-and it has not. As the late Member for Livingston, Robin Cook, said, all that has been achieved so far is to replace a 15th-century principle of hereditary peers with an 18th-century principle of patronage.
The Justice Secretary has made democratic reform of the House of Lords a fourth-term issue-something else for Labour's manifesto. He promises a Bill on the House of Lords, which he says is imminent, so why is he trying to remove the remaining hereditaries in today's Bill, before that Bill is published?
Sir Alan Beith: I wonder whether the hon. and learned Gentleman could clarify the confusing Conservative position on that point. There are increasing indications that if there was a Conservative Government, people would be appointed to the House of Lords so that they could become Ministers, albeit perhaps temporarily, as suggested by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie). Why is that step being resorted to if the Conservatives' clear intention is to legislate immediately on reform of the House of Lords? I suspect that it is not their intention.
Mr. Grieve: Well, Parliament can legislate in a day; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to pick me up on that. How many times have we legislated in a day, and always regretted it bitterly afterwards? We have usually regretted it most bitterly when we have all agreed on something. I still remember a dreadful piece of legislation that we passed after the Omagh bombing; fortunately I was able to get leave of absence to disappear and not support my party. That was a dreadful piece of legislation, but everybody signed up to it and it went through in one day. However, wisdom suggests that we should not legislate in a day.
Reality also says that were we to be elected to government, we would have considerable problems in respect of our representation in the House of Lords, as would other parties, because of the age profile of our party's membership and because of the paucity of appointments that have been made available to us over recent years. Those are factors that we cannot ignore. For those reasons we would have to make the House of Lords operate. I hope that that answers the question asked by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith).
Mr. Straw: Let me press the hon. and learned Gentleman on the right hon. Gentleman's point. All three parties are signed up to reform of the House of Lords, to put it on a wholly or mainly elected basis. The hon. and learned Gentleman just repeated that pledge. Will it be a pledge that any future Conservative Administration would implement in their first term, bearing in mind that the legislation would be pretty straightforward? [Hon. Members: "You're on your fourth."] What we have achieved since February 2007 is a clear consensus and lots of complicated detail, which were not there before. Now that the hon. and learned Gentleman has the template, will he implement it?
Mr. Grieve: We have made our commitment and made it quite clear. The order in which we decide to prioritise legislation if we win an election is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, particularly in view of the economic mess that we are going to inherit. Yet again, the Secretary of State is descending into a series of nitpicking issues-
Mr. Grieve: If I may say so, it is nitpicking, particularly coming from the Secretary of State, given the Government's consistent pledge over a long period to get rid of the existing House of Lords and complete its reform, and their not having completed it, or even started its completion. I am prepared to take lessons from some quarters, but on this issue I am not prepared to take them from the Secretary of State.
Of course the remaining hereditaries are an anomaly, and of course they are undemocratic. I accept all that, but they are no less democratic than the appointees who will replace them. Furthermore, why are there measures in the Bill to allow peers to resign or retire? Are those measures intended for the reformed House or are they supposed to cover the transitional House, or are they for the halfway house that we have at the moment?
Remove the anomaly-that is, the hereditaries-and the prospect of reform will recede. Only last year, the Prime Minister said that there would be no by-elections among hereditary peers during the transition to the fully reformed second Chamber, but that transition has not yet begun. Only last year, he said that he would avoid gratuitously cutting the Conservative party's representation in the House of Lords, but now that stance is being reversed. As I have explained, although Conservatives are only the third largest grouping in the House of Lords, more hereditaries are Conservative than belong to any other party.
The Prime Minister's naked partisanship in those utterances is laid bare for everyone to see. The proposals are not about making the upper House more democratic or more representative, but about shifting the party balance still further in favour of the governing party. Frankly, that is a pretty dangerous and unwelcome precedent, but one that ties in with the entire way in which the Prime Minister has treated Opposition parties over the House of Lords since he took office.
This is a question of trust. The Secretary of State's predecessor Lord Irvine made a promise-I remind him of this, as he referred to Lord Salisbury and all those great moments in the first Parliament after 1997. What did Lord Irvine say? He talked about
"a compromise...between Privy Councillors on Privy Council terms and binding in honour on all those who have come to give it their assent."-[ Official Report, House of Lords, 30 March 1999; Vol. 599, c. 207.]
One of the people who participated in that assenting process, as it were, was the Secretary of State for Justice. He was one of the Privy Counsellors who gave his assent to that compromise, and so was the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister has broken his promise on the Lisbon treaty and now I think that he proposes to break another promise. I therefore ask the Secretary of State again: why should we see the proposals as a way of restoring public trust in the political system? I want proper reform, but the relevant clauses make this less likely, not more likely. For that reason, we will oppose the measure to prevent hereditary peers from being elected.
I do not want to see life peers in this House either. The Secretary of State is right that under the Peerage Act 1963, peers who swiftly choose to forgo a hereditary peerage should be free to stand for election to this House, just as it is right that peers who were removed in 1999 should now be free to seek election here. If Parliament allows the House of Lords to expel Members for misconduct, they too should be free to argue their case in public and, indeed, stand for election to this House, because their peerages will effectively have been removed.
However, the position is very different for those who have chosen to accept a life peerage in the full understanding that they will forgo the opportunity of standing for, or for that matter returning to, the House of Commons. In a reformed House of Lords, that would lead to that House becoming a stepping stone to a career as an MP-and in an unreformed House, it would put the Prime Minister in charge of that stepping stone and vastly increase his patronage. That step would turn the House of Lords into the departure lounge for special advisers.
Yet again the Justice Secretary, who as I recollect went from arch-Blairite to the present Prime Minister's campaign manager, finds that the tectonic plates are shifting, when suddenly such proposals come up. I suspect that whichever way he looks is uncomfortable: one way lies Foy in the county of Herefordshire and the other way Hartlepool in the county of Durham. So let me make it easier for him. We will table an amendment to give effect to the Government's policy on the issue. I look forward to the Secretary of State, and perhaps even the Minister of State, joining us in the Lobby on that.
In his White Paper last year, the Justice Secretary proposed a cooling-off period of five years between someone ceasing their membership of the second Chamber and their being eligible for election to the House of Commons. That would prevent membership of the second Chamber from being used as an immediate launch pad for a career as an MP. We support the Justice Secretary's policy on that, although his Cabinet colleagues do not seem to be very enthusiastic.
There is much in the Bill that we can support, but what we have is trimmings and not very much meat. What is missing is genuine constitutional reform and the transfer of power to the people, so let me make some suggestions of what the Justice Secretary should add to the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has laid out a series of proposals that would really change the relationship between citizen and state. If the Justice Secretary is serious, he will follow our lead and introduce citizens' initiatives and a right for local residents to veto excessive council tax rises, allow 100,000 voters to demand a debate in this place on any issue, let 1 million citizens table legislation in Parliament, and introduce a public reading stage for Bills.
The Justice Secretary could follow our lead and let local communities elect police commissioners or give voters the right to recall their MP where serious misconduct has taken place, regardless of any penalty imposed in the House. If he really wants to improve the audit of Government accounts, he might like to start by publishing every item of Government spending over £25,000. He would be amazed at the number of people who would spend hours trawling through those accounts to supply their MPs with ammunition with which to ask questions. And if he is serious about public engagement, will he follow our lead and ensure that any treaty to increase the powers of the European Union will be subject to that referendum?
The British public have had plenty of broken promises from this Government. They certainly want reform. The evidence from opinion polling shows that this place is held in very poor estimation generally, and that there is a deep desire to see our legislature function properly and for confidence in the way in which government is conducted to be restored. We will give the Bill its Second Reading, but if the Secretary of State thinks that these measures alone will restore that trust, I have to say to him that he is deluded. That is not something that I would ever say of him, however, because I think that he knows the reality very well. He knows that, at the moment, our political system is broken up, and that this Bill does not begin to scratch the surface of the change required-because I am afraid that the Prime Minister will not let him do that.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I was interested to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State begin his speech by telling us that Her Majesty was pleased to allow the House to consider the prerogative powers, as it will do in parts of the Bill. I was interested, too, to see that just a few days ago, the Government issued a paper called "Review of the executive royal prerogative powers: final report". The Select Committee that I chair asked for that report in 2004, and it is good at last to have a comprehensive account of what we think those prerogative powers are. It gives us an agenda for much work. At the end of that interesting paper, we find this sentence:
"Our constitution has developed organically over many centuries and change should not be proposed for change's sake."
It is certainly true that, for the past three centuries or so, we have not had what we might call a great constitutional moment. We have not had a moment when we have had to consider what kind of system of government we would like. We have been spared the kind of revolutionary moment, or moment of foreign occupation, that necessitates constitutional moments in which that process has to take place. So, as is often observed, we have more or less muddled along, making it up as we go along. We have taken what is sometimes called a back-of-an-envelope approach to constitutional matters.
I am not sure, however, that the process has been quite as organic as that sentence in the report suggests. We have had some pretty inorganic moments, too. I do not think that the vote to get suffrage for working men was an organic moment. That involved a pretty titanic struggle against the people who said that our constitutional system would collapse if we went down that route. I do not think that the struggle to extend the franchise to women was an organic moment, given that people said that our constitutional system would collapse if we did anything so dangerous. Nor do I think that the struggle against the House of Lords to assert the supremacy of this House at the beginning of the 20th century was an organic moment. That involved a pretty vigorous constitutional struggle to assert a new primacy in our political system. So we should not get too carried away with the idea of an untroubled organic process. There are moments when we have to do things that change the balance of the system, and that usually requires significant political action.
I am not going to claim for an instant that this Bill represents such a moment. Seen from a broader perspective and taken in the round, however, the measures that the Government have taken since 1997 represent an extremely important constitutional moment. I am not going to recite them-my right hon. Friend mentioned most of them-but there is no doubt that, over this period, something very important has happened to our established constitutional arrangements. I do not think that that has been part of a grand plan, or that there has necessarily been a consistent sense of direction, but there have been some important achievements.
The reason we are having all the troubles with our expenses at the moment is that we introduced a Freedom of Information Act. As long as we had no such provision,
we thought that we could do things in secret. The introduction of the Act has had a transforming effect on our whole political culture, and, indeed, on the way we do business in this House. Some might say, "That is not a very good thing; look at the consequences." Had we had such legislation in place, however, the trouble that we are now in would never have happened. If we had had the complete transparency over our expenses that freedom of information brings, and if we had known that we had to submit our expenses to the scrutiny of our electors and everyone else, the difficulties and abuses that we have seen would not have taken place.
In area after area, we can see how these important changes have altered the way in which government is organised in this country, and the way in which we do politics. There will be a lasting imprint from this period. People will look back on it as a moment of significant constitutional change. The implications of the Human Rights Act 1998, for example, are transforming-so transforming, in fact, that the Opposition would like us to have another one. Indeed, perhaps the Government would, too.
The most remarkable thing about all this constitutional reform is how it has become accepted and settled-even provisions that were strongly contested at the time. I remember John Major, when he was Prime Minister, predicting that the House would come down if we moved in the direction of serious devolution. It was a political necessity, however; the system had to respond to the pressures, particularly from Scotland. This has changed the way in which we do politics.
It is remarkable that no one now seriously wants to undo what has been done. No one is queuing up to say, "Let's sweep away the Freedom of Information Act", "Let's sweep away devolution", or "Let's sweep away the independence of our national statistics." All these things are now an accepted part of our political arrangements, and they are all for the good. Not even the Conservative party, in its more esoteric moments, has suggested that any of these measures should be unravelled. We should therefore at least mark the fact that, although the Bill itself might not be momentous or represent our great constitutional moment, it forms part of a significant constitutional journey over the past 12 years.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Yet again, my hon. Friend is making an intelligent, interesting speech, and everything that he says is absolutely right. However, the key development in recent decades-not just under this Labour Government-has been an intensification of power at the centre, relative to the legislature. That is what is wrong with our politics, and that is what we have to change. The Bill ought to be addressing that, and I hope that he will say something about it.
Dr. Wright: My hon. Friend tempts me to go wider than I am already going, and I think that I am going quite wide enough. Some little plans are being hatched to do something else about the balance between Parliament and the Executive, however, and I hope to be able to say more about them in the near future.
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