Mr. Leigh: I support at least one of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), namely amendment 5, which would require the Secretary of State to take action on each proposal within six months.
I mean no criticism of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), the movement or the Bill because it is no doubt entirely worthy. However, there is a regrettable tendency with legislation, particularly Back-Bench legislation, for grandstanding to take place and for worthy causes to be trumpeted by the Government when they could take action by other means. We already have an Act that was passed in 2007. The Government could have taken action, had they wanted to. We are now told that another Bill is necessary to make things more flexible so that action may be taken.
The House owes my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch a service. But for him, such Bills would go through on the nod and with no proper scrutiny in the wash-up. The House listened carefully to his remarks on a series of amendments relating to proposed new section 5B(3). We are told that we have to make things more flexible, but subsection (3) will introduce all sorts of regulations that put more onerous burdens on local government. In a powerful point, my hon. Friend referred to the extraordinary paragraph (h), which states:
"Regulations under this section may, in particular, include provision...enabling the Secretary of State to specify one or more persons who must be consulted, and with whom the Secretary of State must try to reach agreement, before making a decision in relation to a proposal".
When I spoke on the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill yesterday, I drew the House's attention to a clause that was gobbledegook and paragraph (h) is another example of that. It means nothing. The Secretary of State, in one of the most centralised states in the western world, can do what he or she wishes.
We are, willy-nilly, on a quiet Thursday morning, passing meaningless legislation that gives the Secretary of State powers that he already has. Why are we doing that? We are supporting a Bill not to achieve something, but to make a point. We all believe in sustainable communities and want local councillors to be given the powers and individual responsibility that they had many years ago. If the Bill will achieve that, I wish it well. In the meantime, I hope that my hon. Friend will at least press amendment 5, as it will put the Government on the spot. It says to the Government, "If you really believe in this, when you receive this proposal you should take action within six months." I hope that my hon. Friend will press the amendment to a Division so that we can make that powerful point.
Mr. Deputy Speaker:
I apologise to the House. I took the Chair during the debate and had not been able to appreciate the batting order that had been followed. I called the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh)
without being aware that the Minister had spoken earlier or that, although there had been Front-Bench contributions, she had asked to make further comments. I hope that within the three minutes that are left the Minister will, with the leave of the House, make a brief comment so that the hon. Member for Christchurch can conclude. I am sorry about that, but if the Minister will co-operate, I would appreciate it.
With the leave of the House, I would like to reiterate the flexibility that the Bill gives us to carry out this important work, and the fact that the amendments would reduce that flexibility and make that work more difficult.
Mr. Chope: May I thank everyone who has participated in this debate? I thank my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) for their generous comments. I am not sure that they are well deserved, but there is something to be said for looking at these Bills in some detail, which is what we have been trying to do today.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough for what he said about amendment 5. Whether we trust the Government is a topical question at the moment. Yesterday we debated why we are not going to have the Back-Bench business committee. We trusted the Government and were let down. I propose to divide the House on amendment 5 because it will put pressure on the Government to come forward within six months with answers to the bids made, often with tremendous effort and time, by members of local communities. I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment 1.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): We come to Lords amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, which have been received and printed. A grouping is also available. Under the order of the House of yesterday they may be considered forthwith without any Question put. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that financial privileges are involved in Lords amendments 37, 41, 42, 44, 46, 48 and 67 to 69. If the House agrees to any of the amendments, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the J ournal.
The Secretary of State has tabled a manuscript amendment that is consequential to Lords amendment 20, which leaves out clause 57. Copies are available in the Vote Office. The amendment has been selected and placed in the group led by Lords amendment 16.
Mr. Straw: It might be helpful if I begin by explaining to the House the conclusion that was reached in the other place last night. As colleagues of some antiquity will appreciate, the wash-up, by definition, inevitably involves a compression of the legislative process, and business can get through only by agreement. In their lordships' House, that agreement requires not only a majority vote but widespread consent across the Chamber. We were faced with a situation where a number of Back-Bench Members had tabled amendments to delete every single clause. As a consequence, we were faced with difficult but inevitable choices that involved discussions with those Members, party leaders and the leader of the Cross-Bench group to arrive at an accommodation.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): It would have been better if the Secretary of State had initiated discussions with all those parties, rather than launching into an agreement with one party alone, which then came unstuck yesterday in the Lords.
The right hon. Gentleman is of even greater antiquity than me and he will know that there is a great deal of inter-party discussion all the time. For as long as he and I have been in the House, formal negotiations during the wash-up have taken place between the official Opposition and the Government of the day, but there was no suggestion whatsoever that the Liberal Democrats should be excluded from that process, and I do not believe that the conclusion would have been any different. We will come in due course to the removal of clauses in part 3 relating to a referendum on the voting system, and of clause 53 relating to the ending of by-elections for hereditary peers. We were in exactly the same place
as the Liberal Democrats, but the official Opposition were not. The simple truth, which would have been the case had all three parties been formally in the room, is that during the wash-up, the Opposition have a veto. That is always the case-I was party to wash-ups when in opposition. It is straightforward. That is the reality and there is nothing one can do about it.
The choice we faced, which would have been the same for the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) had he been in my seat, was that we should not make the best the enemy of the good. We would not have got any part of the Bill through had we not been able to reach an accommodation, and, because of external realities, I do not believe that the result would have been any different had there been earlier discussions. As hon. Members will know, we offered the Conservatives what I thought was a good way of squaring the circle in their opposition to the alternative vote and to Liberal Democrat and Government support for it. We said that we would introduce measures and were ready to table amendments that would subject that part of the Bill to an automatic sunset clause. The clause would have stayed on the statute book and, if within six months the Government of the day had taken no action, it would have fallen. If the Government had introduced affirmative resolutions in each House, the legislation would have come into force. We offered that to the Conservative party, but it decided for its own reasons that that was unacceptable.
Mr. Straw: I will give way in a moment. We therefore had no alternative but to withdraw the provision, and I am not giving anything away if I say that we will undertake to reintroduce it as soon as we are re-elected, as I hope we shall be.
Mr. Cash: On referendums on reform, does the Minister for Justice accept that, historically, the Liberal Democrats-Lloyd George, for example-or indeed any other party were in favour of proportional representation when it suited them and went into reverse when it did not? At its heart, that has little to do with the sense of fairness that they try to generate and much more to do with whether they can secure political advantage at any given time.
Mr. Straw: May I bring to the House's attention an almost historic first for the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great affection? This is the only occasion I can recall when he has not brought the European Union into an observation on any issue whatsoever.
It is a matter of historical record that until late 1923 the Labour party was the third party, and was in favour of proportional representation. The Liberal party-as it then was-which was the first or second party, was in favour of first past the post. In 1924, Pauline conversions both ways took place. The Labour party suddenly decided that it saw every merit in first past the post, and the Liberals, who slipped into third position, where they have remained ever since, were suddenly in favour of proportional representation-interesting conversions! However, although the alternative vote is an improvement to the system we have, it is not proportional representation.
I greatly regret the fact that we have had to remove certain aspects of the Bill, particularly on the alternative vote and the removal of hereditary peers. To accommodate the Conservative party, we offered an arrangement by which all existing hereditaries would in addition be deemed life peers, and a provision whereby, on the death of a hereditary-cum-life peer, the leader of a party or group-this mainly applies to the Conservative party-would have a right to nominate a replacement. There was, therefore, no question of any gratuitous reduction in their numbers. That, however, was not considered acceptable.
Given the constraints on each party, I thank the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and his colleagues for the constructive discussions that were held, and place on record my appreciation of the co-operation of the leaders of the three parties, the Cross-Bench groups and a number of individuals-Members and peers-with whom I met and talked all through last night.
The first group of Lords amendments is on the public service. We got the civil service changes through, which was very important. Lord Norton of Louth tabled a series of amendments. I accepted amendment 1, and did my best to accept the others where possible. The amendment sets out that in managing the civil service,