There are other points to be taken into account. I am very happy with the argument advanced by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister that we should have more equality, for who could be against more
equality? But what sort of equality are we to have? I want to ensure that my constituents experience the same equality of quality of service that they can expect from their Member of Parliament. In an average weekend, I spend four, five or six hours in a car in order to see my constituents-because why on earth should they come to me?-as well as the 12 hours that I spend commuting to and from this place. I should not be penalised for that. I must tell my right hon. and hon. Friends that a constituency that stretched from Shetland to Argyll would be utterly unworkable. It must be possible to take account of the differences, and to achieve a proper balance between numbers and size.
Mark Lazarowicz: The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of maintaining the constituency link, but would not including the option of the AV-plus system proposed by the Jenkins commission in the proposed referendum on the electoral system make it possible to maintain that link while at the same time adopting a fairer voting system? That would give us a real choice, rather than our being limited to an option that neither of the governing parties support.
John Thurso: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, but I must not become involved in a discussion on the subject. I am looking at the clock, and thinking about House of Lords reform. I can usually bore for Britain about House of Lords reform for hours on end, but I see that I have only four minutes and 48 seconds left. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but perhaps we could discuss it on another occasion.
I want to talk first about the "why" and then about the "how" of House of Lords reform. For me, reforming the House of Lords represents the linchpin of constitutional reform. Without a legitimate upper House, we do not have a legitimate Parliament. It is unacceptable for one half of our Parliament to debate, with quality, and reach a decision, and for that decision to be rejected by the other half, simply because it is not legitimate-and it is not legitimate because it is not elected.
There are many countries in the world where appointment is regarded as legitimate, but in this country-given the way in which the media in particular, but also this place, have discussed the upper House-the other place can be considered legitimate only if it is either wholly or in very large part elected. When that happens, and it has legitimacy, it will become the true check and balance on this place that it ought to be.
I am not the slightest bit worried about this House losing its primacy. A strong House of Lords, properly elected on, I suggest, a different model from this place-a fully proportionate model-and operating in the way in which it should, would complement Parliament. A strong upper House means a strong Parliament. I believe that much of what has happened in the past could have been avoided if Parliament had been strengthened to allow two functioning Houses to hold the Executive to account, each undertaking its separate functions.
That brings me to the "how". First, we must consider the strengths of the House of Lords, of which there are many. The quality of debate is tremendous. The House has no instructions from the Chair, and Report stages and Third Readings proceed in a timeous manner. We could learn from those examples in this place. The quality of the scrutiny given to legislation, and of
debates, is very high in the House of Lords, and the lack of a constituency link is essential: we cannot allow a competition with a Member of Parliament representing a constituency. It is traditional for peers to discuss their regions, but they do not become involved in constituency cases. I have long held the view that a House based on large regional constituencies, with one third elected at each election for a longish period with no re-election, would capture the majority of the benefits that currently exist in the upper House. It would become both a smaller and a stronger House.
I want to say a little about what has been called "grandfathering". High principle and low politics are involved. The interesting thing about life peers is that they all go native. It seems that the hereditaries are the only ones who are happy to leave. Life peers are seduced by the glories of the place. I propose that they should all be allowed to stay there, and that we elect the first third, the second third and the third third. We will get there eventually. The grim reaper will take care of quite a lot of them, and I suspect that if-as I suggested on Second Reading of the Bill that became the House of Lords Act 1999 when I was in another place-we make it possible for them to retire, a great many noble Lords who have served for a long time and in an illustrious way will take that opportunity.
There is also a high principle, however. The high principle is that much of what is good about the House of Lords, and is in its DNA, needs to be passed on. If the House of Lords as it is today were changed completely and became wholly elected, that would be lost. As I have said, there is low politics, but there is also that high principle.
As the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) said at the outset, it is nearly 100 years since my party started this process off. Would it not be a fitting tribute if we celebrated the hundredth anniversary by completing it?
Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): Thus far, today's debate has been elegantly poised between rhetoric and reality. The reality we all face is the economic situation, which has been mentioned, and some Members-even among those of us who are not born-again cynics-might wonder whether some of the rhetoric coming from the coalition Government is intended to mask some of the reality of the pain they are currently proposing. I felt that somewhat when I heard the Deputy Prime Minister's speech, with its silken strangulation of the public sector: "I feel your pain."
Let me turn, however, to some of the specific issues, especially voter registration, electoral reform and equal boundaries. We have heard in contributions from both sides of the House about the disadvantages of sweeping away all consideration of natural and constituency boundaries, and I very much welcome and admire the remarks of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) about getting the balance right, but we all draw on our own circumstances, and I want to say tonight that behind the rhetoric of individual registration and equal constituencies lies the reality of the existing situation in constituencies such as mine
where there is under-registration. There has been talk about the need to have equalised constituencies, but not so much emphasis has been placed on equalised registration. In Blackpool and many other seaside towns, and many urban centres as well, the issues of transience and of areas of higher deprivation are key, too. If we are truly concerned about that process, we need to heed what the Electoral Commission has said about the matter. If we are truly concerned about connecting with people in a practical way in addressing voting reform, we ought to return to the issue of weekend voting, which has gone around this place like a miasma, although nobody has ever actually focused on it.
Despite the elegant attempts of some Liberal Democrat Members to defend the indefensible, I must say that they have been sold a pup. They have been given a referendum on the alternative vote, which the Prime Minister and most of the Conservative party, and, sadly-I say that as a supporter of AV-a significant proportion of my party, will campaign against. Its prospects of getting through in a referendum are therefore relatively small. In return for this, there will be a gerrymandered system that will hit hardest at the Liberal Democrats. The Prime Minister gets the gain, and the Liberal Democrats get all the pain.
There were two interesting quotations when the 55% agreement emerged-I think that is the best way to describe them. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), was a leading participant in the Liberal Democrat discussions that led to the creation of the coalition, and he said on Radio 4 on 14 May:
"It was a small matter for us to say we accept"
the Conservative party's "concerns" and agree to this. The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who was serving on the Conservative team, had a different take, however. He said it was a "considered constitutional innovation". Clearly, he had not been in the same early-hours cabal as the Under-Secretary. It has been said that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills made his reputation by referring to the former Prime Minister as having gone from Stalin to Mr Bean. I say that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove went from Mr Bean to Stalin in an instant.
Whether we have, for good or ill, an unwritten constitution, we have it, and custom, practice and precedent are weighty matters. In that constitution, prerogative issues and the fact that the House cannot bind itself because of parliamentary sovereignty to future things, the fact that the 55% figure would insulate the Executive against Parliament and the unease that the convention of dissolution would be eroded are all significant issues. That is why there has been a chorus of protest and concern in Parliament and outside.
"It looks as if you are priming the pitch, doctoring it a bit. Not good. It's meant to be a different politics, new politics."
We have heard today of the reservations of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), and the hon. Members for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) and for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), and there is a degree of sublime humbug about a Conservative leader who hammered away week after week in a general
election campaign about the effect on markets of the uncertainty of a hung Parliament, but who now as Prime Minister blithely proposes to impose a system that, if it led to a lame-duck Government under the 55% rule, would create weeks of turmoil in the markets.
"I'm the first Prime Minister in British history to give up the right...for a dissolution of Parliament...Others have talked about it, people have written pamphlets and made speeches...I have made that change."
It is, however, very much the 21st-century equivalent of Louis XIV's "I am the state"-he is, of course, the monarch who was associated with the story of the emperor's new clothes. We should not take forward the innovation-on-the-hoof that this Prime Minister is proposing, and the naivety of the Deputy Prime Minister in that respect in talking about verdict first, trial afterwards, because he had not worked out the details in the debate today, is a telling observation for all of us.
I do not have the time to talk about the broader issues, but they were touched on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears). If we do not look at the broader issues of connecting with people, which would require reforming local government, bringing in the third sector and so forth, we will lose the plot. Substituting the coalition's rhetoric for the hard practice of what connecting with local people actually means is a big issue.
Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to speak in today's debate, and I congratulate the other Members who have made their maiden speeches as they have raised the bar. I also thank the people of Amber Valley for electing me as their Member of Parliament. It is a tremendous honour and privilege to serve them, and I will do my utmost to live up to the trust they have placed in me.
The seat of Amber Valley was created in 1983 and was previously represented by Phillip Oppenheim, whom I am sure some Members will remember, and since 1997 by Judy Mallaber. I would like to take this opportunity to thank her for her work on behalf of the people of Amber Valley. She can be rightly proud of what she achieved, especially on the introduction of the minimum wage, on which she worked before entering the House as well as while she was here. It is a tribute that something that was originally a political controversy has become accepted on both sides of the House. I wish her well in her future endeavours.
Whatever our differences on political issues, we have been in agreement on the need to address the support for the British National party in Amber Valley; it had two councillors elected in 2008. I am sure the whole House will share my relief that we are not joined in this place by any members of that party. I suspect that that concern is part of the reason for the conversion of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) to thinking the European list system we currently use is a bad idea.
It is, however, incumbent upon all politicians of the mainstream to address constructively the issues that have been taken up the BNP. Immigration was the issue most often raised in my seat, and I am pleased that the
Gracious Speech includes our pledge to introduce the annual cap on immigration from outside the EU-and I am a little surprised that, as today's Opposition amendment highlights, they are still concerned about that measure, which, as I have said, had widespread support in my seat.
My predecessor referred in her maiden speech to the importance of putting Amber Valley on the map. I think I can best describe that as a work in progress. This may be the only case that data protection rules allow me to take on from her. The seat is in Derbyshire-not in Wales, as some appear to think-running from the Nottinghamshire border to the edge of the Peak district, and includes the towns of Alfreton, Heanor and Ripley, and many surrounding villages. It is a former mining area, which has developed diverse industries since the closure of the pits in the 1960s.
The seat shares its name with a borough council, although that borough council of about 100,000 electors now has three MPs. Perhaps certain measures in the Gracious Speech will reduce some of that confusion, although I will take care in saying that, as part of the council area is also represented by my Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Mr McLoughlin), and I would hate to be seen to be trying to steal part of his seat.
While some Members might not have been able to place Amber Valley on a map, I am sure they are familiar with some of its businesses. These include Denby pottery-and I disagree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) in that I claim it as the producer of by far the best pottery in the country, and I am disappointed that I have not as yet found any of its products in use in the House. They also include Matthew Walker Christmas puddings and Thorntons chocolates. If I indulge in too many of their products I can avail myself of the services of another local business, Slimming World.
Of great concern in my constituency is the need to provide good-quality jobs for local people. A recent sadness has been the final closure of the Butterley plant, in Ripley. My two predecessors referred to the great steel work made there that forms the roof of St Pancras railway station; at least they had the pleasure of the business still being around at the time. Part of the Butterley site has already been replaced by houses, much against the wishes of the local council. I therefore welcome our proposal to change the planning system to allow local people to have far more of a say not only in protecting brownfield sites on which we would like to keep manufacturing businesses, but in preventing houses from being built all over our green belt.
I turn to the issue that prompted me to speak in today's debate. While the tragic events in Cumbria were unfolding last Wednesday, there was also a tragic event in the peaceful village of Holbrook, in my constituency, where a young woman and her two-year-old child were stabbed to death by her estranged partner. My thoughts are with the family and friends of the victims at this difficult time. This case is made more difficult by the fact that the alleged perpetrator of these offences had been arrested twice by the police the week before, following accusations of domestic violence, and had also been receiving treatment for mental illness. I therefore welcome Derbyshire police's calling in the Independent Police Complaints Commission to review their actions. I in no
way wish to pre-judge the outcome of that review-it is easy to do so with the benefit of hindsight-but I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will closely follow the progress of this case. If any lessons need to be learned, I hope they can be learned to ensure that the risk of such tragic events happening again is as low as possible.
It is at times like these that we come to appreciate the difficulty of the job carried out by our police, and I would like to pay tribute to the courage of the officers who broke into the house to try to stop those tragic events. I wish them all the best as they come to terms with the awful situation that they found.
We know that the size of the budget deficit run up by the previous Government means that difficult decisions need to be taken, and Derbyshire police will have to take their share of that pain. I note that the amendment that bears the name of the right hon. Member for Blackburn contains a request that the cuts do not damage the number of police officers. I point out to the Minister that the police funding review carried out some six years ago noted that Derbyshire police needed a significant increase in funding, of approximately £5 million a year. However, that funding has still not been provided to this day, due to the damping mechanism. I urge the Government to have a full review of the allocation of funds for police forces, to ensure that Derbyshire police-who are currently being deprived of the 100 officers whom those funds could be used to provide-get the fair funding they are entitled to for the level of crime in Derbyshire. Only by ensuring a fair allocation of funding can we make sure that we have police services that are both effective and efficient.
Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) on an excellent maiden speech. It is with some trepidation that I rise to address the House to make my maiden speech, conscious as I am of the esteem and veneration in which it is held in all corners of the civilised world, of the very high standards set by previous maiden speakers in this debate, and of the very great honour that is mine in representing the people of East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow.
Before I tell the House a little more about my constituency, let me pay a warm tribute to my predecessor and friend, the right hon. Adam Ingram. Adam was a trade union official and local councillor before he was first elected to this House in 1987. His talents were soon recognised by Labour Front Benchers, and he served in various positions in opposition, working hard with others for the election of a Labour Government. It was in 1997, when Labour finally took office, that Adam took his first ministerial position under Tony Blair, as Northern Ireland security Minister.
Some Members may have seen the award winning Channel 4 drama "Mo" at the end of January, in which Adam was portrayed by the actor Gary Lewis. Adam explained to me that had Gary Lewis not landed the part, both Brad Pitt and Sylvester Stallone were keen to play the role.