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8.3 pm

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): This debate, I believe, illustrates what is so wrong with our constitution and demonstrates how dire things are, not because of anything that is being said, but by the manner of the exchange. Look how barely attended the Chamber is! We debate our constitution, yet the people's tribunes are not here. Whips scurry around outside desperate to gather enough speakers to try to keep things ticking along and running until 10 pm. The agents of the Executive try to create the illusion of debate-a debate with all the spontaneity of a Latin Mass. So moribund is our constitution, so monumentally useless our legislature, it is reduced to a talking shop, and it cannot even do that until 10 pm without prodding from the Executive. So much for our proud tradition of Parliament, so much for this legislature.

There is much that is wrong with our constitution-a deep, deep malaise. The Justice Secretary galloped through some of the changes of the past decade, which he proclaimed as a blueprint for change. It is more like a blueprint to replace democracy with quangocracy. Power has shifted from those we elect to unelected officials.
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Those whose names actually appear on ballot papers no longer seem to have much actual say over public policy. Instead, key matters are decided, for example, by activist judges adjudicating on the basis of a bogus Human Rights Act. Public policy is formulated by an alphabet soup of quangos. We have the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Child Support Agency and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency-the QCA, the CSA and the DVLA. In fact, there are so many quangos that they have run out of letters of the alphabet. FSA stands both for Food Standards Agency and Financial Services Authority; a food quango and a financial service quango.

Nothing in the Bill will put any of that right. There is nothing to rein in the Executive, its agencies or the quango regime. There is nothing to restore purpose to this Parliament and nothing that will return dignity to politics. No wonder turnout has fallen in each election and no surprise that fewer bother to vote. It is not that the people are apathetic, but that the public have correctly clocked that our democracy is broken.

The Bill ought to contain measures to renew our political system. What about a right of popular initiative? If people had a direct say over what the House debated, there would be fewer debates like this. There would be more time to consider issues that actually matter to people. Our agenda would be less the smug musings of a self-satisfied tribe in SW1. The Bill should contain provision for people's Bills to be included in each Queen's Speech. New Zealand has a right of popular initiative. It is compatible with, and complementary to, a system of parliamentary democracy. MPs would be obliged to vote for what people wanted them to debate, but they would no longer be able to ignore popular concerns.

Constitutional change needs to include the power to recall MPs who are guilty of wrongdoing. I proposed a Bill to that effect last week, but the Justice Secretary did not actually support it. For all his smooth words, nothing happened.

The Bill should address the balance-or, rather, it should address the imbalance of power-between the Executive and the legislature. Fiddling about with a Ponsonby rule will not do. We need to recalibrate the relationship between the legislature and the Executive-fundamental, radical change. It is not the Ponsonby rule that most explains how the Executive dominates this legislature, but the abuse of Crown prerogative over money and estimates, and over appointments and patronage. That is what has reduced the House. It has diminished hon. Members to being puppets of Whitehall and Ministers to being apologists to the Sir Humphrey Applebys.

The House was given to understand that the legislature would approve key Executive appointments. Amid much fanfare, we were told how pre-appointment hearings would help to democratise the quangos. Yesterday, we saw a Secretary of State ride roughshod over legislative oversight. The Select Committee recommendations were just ignored. Pre-appointment hearings are, frankly, worthless. The Bill ought to provide for full confirmation hearings for quango officials and senior civil servants. No approval, no contract: that would rein in the quango state. Until that happens, there will be no meaningful scrutiny over Executive appointments.

Likewise, we need in the Bill to reform how the House oversees finances. Estimates days are a charade. Supply estimates need to be more than just changed, as the Bill
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envisages. There is currently too little debate, too little oversight and too little scrutiny. Instead, Select Committees should be required annually to approve the expenditure of their respective Departments and the non-departmental public bodies associated with them.

Proper legislatures in other parts of the world properly scrutinise tax revenue and how it is spent. Committees of Congress can go through budgets item by item. If we had that, those whom we elect might at last be able to make good on the tax-and-spend promises that they pretend are in their gift now. Giving Select Committees real power and independence, power to oversee finance, and one even to confirm ministerial appointments, would lead us towards the separation of powers that we urgently need.

The Bill does little to improve our constitution. It is a product of SW1. Is it not the proud boast of the British left that they were once the party of English radicalism and the party that dispersed power away from unaccountable elites? The Bill focuses instead on the petty concerns of those elites in SW1-demonstrations in Parliament square and such like. There is nothing in this Bill that invokes the spirit of the Levellers or the Chartists. It will do nothing to fulfil the incomplete English revolution. It will do nothing to provide us with the far-reaching radical reforms that we so urgently need.

8.10 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I wish today to address the proposals in the Bill to remove the hereditary principle of the House of Lords. The wish to remove peers is based on the seemingly arbitrary principle of how they were ennobled. That is a worrying portent for the future. It takes another step towards the Government's stated goal of a democratic second Chamber, and it is another example of the Government's scattergun approach to Lords reform. What is one day deemed valid is the next day cast aside. Though the remaining hereditary peers were retained in 1999, the Government now wield grand claims of democracy to advance the case for their removal.

The argument over the future of the second Chamber is composition versus effectiveness. That is certainly the correct way to address this. However, viewed from the House of Commons, the wrong question is presented-the question of popular accountability. The House of Lords is built not upon the legitimacy of election, but the legitimacy of knowledge. The level of experience and expert opinion in the Lords cannot easily be reproduced through election. However keen the minds of those in this Chamber, few of us are held to be leading authorities or globally recognised figures on even the subjects that we hold dear. The experience of decades of work cannot be picked up from simply studying an issue-it must be lived. Peers contribute to a body of knowledge unique in the world.

Therefore, the removal of the House of Lords would damage both the quality of legislation and the quality of government. The rush of legislation through this Chamber already leaves a mountain of details to be amended by the Lords. Without the revision that the Lords provides, we have a choice between significantly reforming this Chamber, and allowing the quality of legislation to diminish rapidly.

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The second part of this point is that the creation of an elected second Chamber would also undermine the quality of government. Many members of the other place have served with distinction. Ridding ourselves of such a pool to satisfy the demands of democracy is one thing, but ridding ourselves of individuals is utterly self-defeating. I think of the Marquess of Salisbury, the first Prime Minister of the 20th century. His Government passed, for example, the Naval Defence Act 1889, which ensured the Royal Navy's pre-eminence. I think of Lord Carrington and his integrity. He ended a lifetime of service by resigning on a point of responsibility which, sadly, does not echo as often as it should. I also refer to Lord Mandelson, who has sought so animatedly to reinvigorate this Government. Indeed, it is the appointment of Lord Mandelson and others that betrays the inconsistency at the heart of the Government's approach. They cannot, on the one hand, endow an unelected person with a senior position in the Government, and on the other, decry the same system that allowed them to do so. They cannot have it both ways. Is it not contrary to use such a wonderful resource while seeking to do away with it for future Governments? Does the willingness of this Government to use the Lords not legitimise its existence-an existence that the Labour party has lived with for 12 years now?

As the Government are keen to point out, peers may not be accountable to the nation. But they are free from the concerns of keeping their seat. This independence would not be retained with an elected membership. Such a Chamber would simply end up mirroring the arrangements and partisanship of the Commons. Two Chambers, in which a Member's allegiance is as much to his party as to his conscience, would not be conducive to reasoned debate. Two Chambers, in which the Government command the majority and the timetable, would certainly not be conducive to effective scrutiny.

Hereditary peers are, if anything, the epitome of independence. They carry with them a duty and a sense of loyalty that exists outside politics. I am very sad that the majority of hereditary peers have gone, but gone they mostly have. This Government, and Tony Blair's before them, have sought to end generations of successive service and instead replaced it with partisan appointment as and when they saw fit. To say one type of patronage is wrong, while promoting another, is nonsensical. More than 600 hereditary peers were removed because of their perceived lack of democratic credentials, but almost 400 life peers have been created since 1997, with the same apparent deficit.

The proposals for an elected House simply advance this contradiction. Holding elections once every 15 years would simply create life peers who are willing to stand-once-for election. These people are likely to be picked or at least pushed by parties. If that were the case, all that the Government would have accomplished would be to create a new system of patronage after they had abolished the present one. Furthermore, I fail to understand how an individual's actions can be held to account if they serve only one term. How is a term of such length any more responsive to the will of voters than the lifelong terms at present?

Ending the by-election of hereditary peers and beginning the sapping of their number represents a step toward an unknown constitutional settlement. I believe that it
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would insert more uncertainties and undesirables into the constitution than it could ever hope to remove. What is needed is not rapid change, but simply a limit on the size of the Lords, perhaps no larger than at the present level. That would curtail the power of patronage over successive Governments, with peers replaced as and when necessary. As Lord Hugh Cecil MP said, in early 20th century, on the subject of Lords reform:

Finally, I would like to draw attention to the title of this Bill-the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. It contains very few provisions for the administration of this House. I question whether the Government are simply trying to win a symbolic victory outside this Chamber, when what is required is a substantive reassessment of what goes on inside it.

8.18 pm

Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Second Reading of this Bill. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) that I am genuinely here to speak on the Bill and under no other pretence. I wish to touch on two parts of the Bill in particular-part 1 in respect of the civil service and part 6 on courts and tribunals.

First and foremost, however, I want to develop some of the arguments made already this evening about the omissions from the Bill, many of which are extremely significant. It is fair to say that the Bill has received rather muted applause. It has been described as lacking in real zeal, as a mouse of a Bill, as trimmings rather than meat and by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) as a pathetic little Bill. I shall be more charitable and call it a modest Bill, although the original constitutional reform plans have clearly been watered down since last year.

The question is more what is not in the Bill than what is in it. Clearly the seeds of the Bill lay in the idea that there was a deep fracture at the heart of our democracy and that restoring public trust in the political system was a priority. For me, the heart of that is ensuring the independence of this House, and the genuine purpose of its power is to hold the Government to account.

On 27 May, the Prime Minister said that one of his main priorities was the

I am still a relatively new Member of this House, but I have been exposed to the system of Select Committees, in which one of the first innovations in trying to provide greater scrutiny of the Executive through public appointments has been tried out. Sadly, I can feel only dismayed by the process that has been played out in the Children, Schools and Families Committee this week and last. I was led to believe that we, as Committee members, had a responsibility as well as a mandate to ensure that those public appointments, through the pre-appointment hearings, were genuinely in the interests of the public and that our word would be taken not for granted but with great seriousness and care by the Executive making the appointment.

Despite the noises from the Government about wanting to open up the scrutiny of the Executive, we are left essentially with a charade in which Committee members-I include myself in this-feel no more than spectators of
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an Executive sport. It raises the question whether what the Government want to achieve is what we want to achieve. There is no point in holding pre-appointment hearings unless they have meaning. How can a unanimous decision by a Select Committee not to endorse a candidate for a prominent and important public post-the Children's Commissioner-not even be given a second thought by the Secretary of State when deciding on the correct person for the appointment, and simply be brushed to one side without any consultation?

That is a huge disappointment, which reflects in many ways my concerns about omissions from the Bill. Where in the Bill will the patronage of the Prime Minister be cut? Where does the Bill address the Prime Minister's power to destroy or create Departments by subjecting it to parliamentary approval? Where in the Bill is the power for the introduction of annual debates in the House of Commons on all Departments' plans and objectives? We have heard from both sides of the House the desire to introduce greater scrutiny of the Government, particularly through the legislature, but we see in the Bill very little attempt to bring that about.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman is talking about scrutiny of the Government. Does he share my concern that scrutiny is moving further away from Parliament, through the creation of quangos, which are growing like Topsy, employing more and more people, spending more and more public money and circumventing the normal democratic routes and controls? I know that he, like me, wants smaller government. Does he think that the Bill misses an opportunity in not setting targets to reduce the number of quangos and the amount that the chairmen and boards of directors of quangos can be paid-for instance, to the maximum of an MP's salary, which I think is a perfectly good salary? Would he agree with such a move? Would he like to debate that during consideration of the Bill?

Mr. Timpson: I could not agree more on the proliferation of quangos, and also on the control that they exert and the lack of transparency within them. The point was made earlier that there are now so many quangos that they have to share the same acronyms. We need to look at where power lies. We need to ensure that the public not only have confidence in where power lies, but have trust in those who hold that power. With the current system of quangos, which is prevalent in many areas and particularly in education, not only is it impossible to hold the Government to account, but where quangos are seen to be at fault the Government can say that they are arm's-length bodies and absolve themselves of all responsibility.

We heard from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) about the 12 areas of power that the Government were looking to shift. He could name only two-bishops and quangos-that had been affected and suggested that in fact the figure was perhaps only one and a half or one and a quarter, the half or quarter being the quangos. I would go further and say that the figure is just one, because the Bill does not deal with the power that quangos still hold or with our being able to hold them to account. My experience on the Children, Schools and Families Committee is an illustration of exactly how the Executive are still trying to hold close to their chest the power that we know should be much more readily accessible to us as both members of the public and Members of this House.

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There is more that we can do with Select Committees. We could have elected Chairmen. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich said, we could also open up Departments' finances to Select Committee scrutiny. That would send a clear message that the power of the Executive needs to be far more measured against the power of the legislature.

Let me move on to some aspects of the Bill that, in the main, I welcome. I start with part 6, which deals with courts and tribunals. We have heard from other Members, particularly the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), about the judicial appointments system. It is clear that the process of judicial appointments has been subject to substantial change in recent years, as the Lord Chancellor acknowledged when he mentioned that judicial appointments would be best left as they stood because the system had been changed only a couple of years ago.

However, there is a deeper issue than that in judicial appointments: how the current system is working. Only recently, we have seen substantial changes, with the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which introduced a new Supreme Court and established the Judicial Appointments Commission. We then had the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, which made changes to the eligibility criteria. Now we see another, more symbolic change, in clause 35, with the Prime Minister being removed from the process of appointment to the judiciary in England and Wales.

However, there is still a fundamental problem at the heart of judicial appointments: the backlog that has developed in the appointment of judges and recorders in particular. We know that there is a shortage of judges in our courts, particularly in the family division. I declare an interest as a non-practising barrister at the family bar. It is clear that we are short of good, well-qualified family judges, but we are also just short of family judges. The slowness of the process has dragged things out to the point where a lot of extremely high-calibre candidates are waiting to go through the selection process to be appointed to the bench. If things are not brought forward, they may feel frustrated and we would miss out on their great service.

Mr. Straw: I should like to say two things to the hon. Gentleman about the judicial appointments process, one of which I should perhaps have said earlier. Although there have been criticisms, which I have echoed, about the process and about the lack of diversity, I think that everyone accepts that the quality of the selected candidates is as high as it ever was. That is of critical importance.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman obviously has experience of the family Bar, and if he has reasonably good evidence-it does not have to be cast-iron evidence-of delays or of how the system has operated unacceptably or been disruptive in the way that he has suggested, I would be pleased to hear from him. The chair of the Judicial Appointments Commission, Usha Prashar, is concerned-as are the Lord Chief Justice and I-to ensure that, even though the system has certain delays built in, we must make it work as swiftly as possible to avoid all the frustrations to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

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