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There is nothing yet on control orders-another measure inimical to British traditions, using house arrest and effective internal exile for suspects rather than for the
convicted. There is still nothing yet-I hope we will see it and I hope that the Home Secretary will respond to the point when she concludes the debate-on reduction of the 28-day period for which prisoners can be held without charge. We fought over 42 and 90 days, but 28 is still too many, and I hope that the Government will take that on board. I trust that these are deferrals, not oversights, by the Government.
Another issue for the Government to think about in connection with the great repeal Bill is the need to revisit the Digital Economy Act 2010. It was passed in the final stages of the previous Parliament, and it was an error for us to allow it through, as we did in the wash-up.
Mark Lazarowicz: Like the right hon. Gentleman, I voted against the Digital Economy Bill on Third Reading, before Dissolution. Given that the Liberal Democrats also voted against that Bill being given a Third Reading and given that the Secretary of State now responsible for that measure is indeed a Liberal Democrat-the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable)-would it not be particularly appropriate for the Liberal Democrats now to act on this issue in the way that both the right hon. Gentleman and I would like?
Mr Davis: The hon. Gentleman restates my wish for the Government to take that issue on board. I hope that they do, and that they do so in the great repeal Bill as part of a process that the Deputy Prime Minister quite rightly laid out-a process in which the Government were listening for proposals on things to be repealed.
The trouble with the Queen's Speech from my point of view rather coincides, I am afraid, with some of the comments made by the shadow Lord Chancellor, particularly when he quoted from an article that I wrote for the newspapers about the 55% proposal. Indeed, I have problems with three elements of the proposed Bill. One element is the alternative vote, which is no surprise; one is the issue of recall, which I believe the Deputy Prime Minister has gone some way to meeting. However, the 55% requirement is undoubtedly a significant constitutional change. We cannot sidestep that fact. It was not in a manifesto, so the proposal is, by definition, likely to be ill thought through and to require greater consideration by the House.
The issue has been represented as one that is a necessity for fixed-term Parliaments. I am in favour of fixed-term Parliaments and I have absolutely no problem with the Prime Minister giving up his right to call an election at any point in time. He can do that and I am happy that he has done so; it is entirely proper. By contrast, altering the circumstances under which Parliament can dismiss a failing Government is a massive constitutional change, which goes to the heart of Parliament's ability to hold Government to account. One of the leitmotifs of this Government, I hope, will be giving Parliament more powers, not fewer. Such a major change would normally involve prior consultation, a prior manifesto commitment, a White Paper and ideally both the
acquiescence of the Opposition and a referendum. That is the sort of pattern that should precede a major change in the constitution.
Let us think about what the proposal entails and whether we can give it the sort of scrutiny and reform that it needs. For a start, it has not been very clearly explained and it may have changed to some extent in the course of negotiations, but it is basically in two component parts. One part-and I do not think that the shadow Lord Chancellor understood this-is that a vote of confidence will still exist at 50% plus one. What usually happens now under such circumstances is that the royal prerogative is exercised to judge whether to have a Dissolution thereafter or to allow a reforming of some other Government. That is the current situation. What is being proposed, I think, is replacing that system with a Scottish-type situation under which if, 28 days after a vote of confidence, no Government can be formed, Dissolution will then automatically occur. That is my understanding of the proposal as it now stands, and it is based on what happens in the Scottish Parliament. However, I have to say-and the Scottish nats will have to forgive me-that the Scottish Parliament does not represent an independent state. For the Scottish First Minister not to exist, or to be a lame duck or retired and not replaced for 28 days, would be a problem for Scotland, but it would not be a disaster internationally.
The nature of confidence votes is that they happen only four times a century. That is the first point. Secondly, confidence votes almost always happen under circumstances of crisis-wars, depressions, breakdowns in society. Under such circumstances, for us not to have an effective Prime Minister for 28 days seems untenable. Let me say to the Deputy Prime Minister that I hope those on the Front Bench will take that point on board, because as it stands, what is proposed is not a zombie Government, but at least a zombified country for 28 days, and possibly at a difficult time.
What is the other part-the 55%-for? It is for dissolving the House without the embarrassment of a vote of confidence and for the Executive, effectively, to use their power-their whipping capability-to dissolve the House. That does not seem to be a proper thing for us to do as a Government. It is not the sort of approach that I would expect from the new politics, frankly. That is why I have some sympathy for the suspicious view that says, "Why 55% and not 66%?", when the Government have 56 or 57% of the vote. That approach diminishes the proposals and it diminishes the Bills that the Government are bringing before the House. In truth, I would like to see my Government-because that is how I see them: as very much representing my views-putting that aside and recognising that it is something that the House will not take.
Hazel Blears (Salford and Eccles) (Lab): I am a little worried that the new politics might be encapsulated by the fact that I find myself in agreement with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), and particularly on the 55% rule. Perhaps that is a sign of how we will go forward.
I am a little worried by the debate today, because there has been no mention of what is supposed to be one of the coalition Government's fundamental propositions:
the ideas that have been set out about the big society. The issues that have been discussed today-high-level constitutional reform, reform of the second Chamber, boundary changes, the right to look at alternative voting systems-will merit discussion, and I have no doubt that, in endless sittings in this Parliament, as has happened previously, we will go over that ground. I hope that we will resolve some of those issues in the next period. However, unless those high-level constitutional changes are underpinned by empowered citizens who really feel connected with their political system, we will end up talking to ourselves, and we have done that for far too long in previous Parliaments.
I sought guidance from Mr Speaker about when I could raise issues to do with the big society. In five days of debate on the Queen's Speech, there has been no appropriate point at which those issues could be properly debated. That worries me enormously, because those issues are not easy to solve, but they should be permeating every Department, and they should become cross-departmental. I want to say a few words about how important it is to reconnect ordinary people with the political process at local and central Government level.
The issues that will be important for us fall into three categories. In the time that I have this evening, I want to set out three big tests for the Government. If they are really serious about the big society and about how reconnecting people with politics is about establishing trust and establishing a new relationship between politicians and the people in this country, they will have to make that real, because otherwise the whole agenda will be rhetorical. It might be full of great slogans and great ideas, but unless there are three things in place, it will simply not work.
The first test for the Government that I would like to set out is on funding. It is all very well to talk about involving people in decision making, or about having a new big society bank, as I think it is called, and community organisers active in every part of the country, but how much money will be in the big society bank, for instance? Nobody is telling us where the funds will be available. Why do the 5,000 new community organisers have to raise their own salaries and their own funding? We have genuine concerns, in that if the idea of connecting people to politics, sharing power, devolving power and involving citizens is to be made real, the funding has to be put in place. However, I am very sceptical indeed that the Government will prioritise the funding to enable that to happen in the current financial climate. I therefore seek some reassurance from the Government on that point.
The second serious test is whether there is a proper framework for setting out the ideas around the big society. Are the Government going to say to local government in particular that it has a responsibility to devolve power to citizens and neighbourhood organisations, to people who want to take over assets and run services in their communities? That will be a big political test. Are the Government prepared to create not just a national framework, but a local framework that works?
The third test concerns fairness. There is a massive gap between the capacity of people in better-off, more affluent areas and people in poorer areas to step forward and take positions of responsibility. I do not think for a
moment that that disparity should be used in a patronising way-that it should be suggested that poorer people cannot do that-but our Government must give an absolute commitment to providing the capacity building, the funds, the support and the organisation that will enable people from those communities to take advantage of some of the devolutionary powers that will be created.
The issues involved in those three tests-funding, a proper framework, and fairness-are the issues on which the Government's real commitment to devolution and involving people in their communities ought to be judged.
I want to be a constructive critic of this agenda. It is something in which I have believed throughout the 30 years that I have been involved in politics, but I know from engagement in my own community that it is not easy. We cannot simply shout the slogans about community engagement and hope that people will step up to the plate. We must back them up. We must say that ours is a long-term commitment, and that we will not move the goalposts halfway through the process when people have given their own time, commitment and, in many instances, their own resources and money to make projects work in their communities.
I think that this issue, just as much as the big, high-level constitutional issues, will be the test of whether we are really serious about new politics. New politics is about trust, but at the moment hundreds of thousands of people in the country feel utterly excluded from the political process. They do not know where the levers are, or what they should press to make things work. How can they ensure that the projects that are important to them come to fruition?
We miss a huge opportunity if we simply talk to ourselves about how we will rearrange the constitution. The way in which we run our democracy is hugely important, but unless it is underpinned by people who are genuinely empowered and feel that they can make a difference, that the Government are taking them seriously, and that local government is prepared to support them with money and practical help so that they can turn their projects into reality, we shall break that trust.
There is nothing worse than setting people up to fail. This whole area has been littered with the shattered dreams of people who have stepped forward and been prepared to put their families and communities on the line. They have not been given backing, and their projects have foundered. I do not want ever to see that happen again. We need a real commitment to building a big society in which citizens have more power and influence over things that matter to their lives. This will be an incredibly important test of the Government's commitment to ensuring that they really mean what they say-that it is not just words, slogans and rhetoric-and that they really mean to make a difference.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con):
It is a pleasure to speak after the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears). I am sure that she means what she says; I am sure that she wants to see the changes of which she spoke, in her constituency and throughout the country. It is just a great pity that the Government of whom she was a member for 13 years spent all the money. She says that we have ideas for the big society, but the money is not there to do it. She is right. The
money is not there because of the mismanagement of her colleagues for the past decade and a bit, and the country must remember that.
I want to make three brief points about constitutional reform. The first concerns the electoral system itself. As the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw)-I am so used to calling him the Lord Chancellor-rightly said, some good and worthwhile changes are already in the pipeline. Individual voter registration is a very important change, because it will improve the integrity and the comprehensiveness of the electoral register. It will also improve the accuracy of the ballot. However, other matters also need to be dealt with.
We need a total overhaul of the electoral system, as we discovered during the debacle about the timing of counts at general elections. I am glad to say that once again the right hon. Gentleman and I are in complete agreement on that: I tried, and he succeeded, in changing the law on it just before the general election. We discovered that there is no clear line of accountability for returning officers. That is wrong. We also discovered at the general election the disgrace of people being denied the vote as the polls closed at 10 pm. That occurred partly because many returning officers think they are a law unto themselves. Under the current system, it is impossible to ensure consistency. This matter requires attention, and when the Government bring forward proposals on it-as I am sure they will-they will have support from both sides of the House.
Mr Straw: I rise just to put it on record that, yes, it was I who legislated for early counts wherever possible, but that that was on the basis of amendments that the hon. Lady had moved and it would not have happened without them. I entirely accept what she says about the lack of accountability of electoral registration officers and returning officers and the need for change, but does she accept that ring-fencing of the funding for electoral administration would inevitably go with that-that is a conclusion that I reluctantly came to-and that whatever other arguments there might be about ring-fencing, we have to see this as part of a national system?
Mrs Laing: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point, and it gives me great pleasure to be able to say for the first time in a long time what I actually personally think, because as a Back Bencher I am bound by no collective responsibility. I agree with him entirely. I personally believe that those funds will have to be ring-fenced and not simply put into the local government pot, because some local authorities, such as Epping Forest district council, handle these matters extremely well, whereas others do not do so quite so well. I therefore agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the funds will have to be ring-fenced, and also that that review of the electoral system must be undertaken as a matter of urgency.
The issue of a fair electoral system is also important. There has been much talk this afternoon about the alternative vote or AV, but there is a far more glaring anomaly, because as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned in his remarks-I think I mean my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, although that is also quite difficult to say-constituencies should, of course, be of the same size. Every vote cast in a general election should be of equal weight and value. Some Opposition Members talked about the size of certain constituencies in terms of square miles, yet we are elected to represent
not pieces of land but people. What matters is the number of people in a constituency, not its geographical size. Every vote should be of equal value, but the argument over the alternative vote is a red herring-
Mrs Laing: Yes, I will accept that. AV would not create fairness; it would be even less proportional than first past the post. I ask the House to consider this: why should someone who supports a minority party effectively get two votes in an election, whereas someone who votes for a mainstream party have only one vote? More importantly, although I understand why my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench have agreed to a referendum on AV, the facts have not changed since we debated this matter only a few weeks ago, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn said. A referendum will cost in the region of £80 million. How many special needs teachers, how many cancer nurses, could we employ for £80 million? How many serious matters could be dealt with in this country for £80 million-matters of far greater importance in the current economic climate than arguing about how people are elected? The fact is that the British people do not care about or want a referendum on AV. If they did, they would have voted for it. Far more people said at the general election "I don't agree with Nick" than said that they do.
The third point concerns the principle of fixed-term Parliaments, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) dealt with extremely well. The general election has changed the political picture, but it has not changed the constitutional principle. I cannot speak here today from the Government Back Benches and say something fundamentally different from what I said at the Opposition Dispatch Box only a few weeks ago. My principles have not changed and I do not believe that the constitutional principles of this House should change. I am very concerned about the proposed imposition of a 55% threshold, which takes power away from Parliament and gives it to the Government. Perhaps I will be persuaded in due course, but principle does matter. It is the duty of elected Members of this House to do not what is popular but what is right.
I should like to begin with a few words about a young woman, Ashleigh Hall, who lived in my constituency. Ashleigh was 17 years old and lived in the ward that I represented on Darlington borough council-I was lead member for children's services-when she made one fatal error in her life. She was groomed on Facebook by Peter Chapman, who, it transpired, was a 33-year-old registered sex offender from Merseyside.
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