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The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. I understood it to have nothing to do with that at all. I understood that it was designed
Viscount Astor: My Lords, I do not believe that it has succeeded at all. I am afraid my noble friend was under an illusion and seems still to be under it. The Government have said that the remaining hereditary Peers must go and we must accept the principle of that decision. However, this time we must have a proper debate on future composition, function and powers before we finally agree a Bill.
I am afraid that I am a cynic. I do not believe that the Government want anything other than a permanent majority in this House. This Government centralise power and almost want presidential powers. The Cabinet Office becomes more powerful every day. Devolution and regional assemblies give the illusion of regional power, but, when devolution does not provide the majority that the Government want, they seek to change the rules. For example, the Government are considering changing the regional list system in the Scottish Parliament because at the moment it does not provide the majority that they want. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that to do that a Bill would have to pass through the Westminster Parliament. I understand that the Government are also considering a cut in the number of Scottish MPs. Perhaps, when he comes to wind up, the Leader of the House can say something about that. What are the Government's plans for directly elected regional government? We have heard the principles but no details about the proposals have emerged.
Just consider what a second-stage reform of this House might look like. Some Peers--not that many--will be appointed by the independent commission. So far it does not appear to have appointed anyone who would not have got here anyway by one means or another. Certainly, it has not appointed a group of more "representative" Peers--that is a word that is popular with the Government--than we could have had in any other way. One would almost have preferred appointment by the Prime Minister. In the past the Prime Minister's appointments have been rather more interesting and diverse than recent ones.
The hereditary Peers will go and perhaps 80 or so new replacements will be elected on the basis of a party list system or perhaps euro constituencies. That will not be a major change because the Prime Minister will still have power to appoint the bulk of the Members of this House via patronage. As we have seen, the Prime Minister is already happy to bypass his own rules on appointments when it suits him; he has just done it. This House will finally become dominated by cronies and its role as a revising Chamber will diminish. The House will have the figleaf of respectability. It will be partly elected, partly appointed by the independent commission, partly appointed by Prime Minister's patronage and partly based on recommendations by the parties, but fundamentally the Prime Minister will control who sits in this House. The ability to delay and
The Government have promised consultation, and we shall certainly hold them to that. However, we do not have the details of how consultation will work and will be managed, what body will carry out the consultation and how long the process will last. To make my position clear, I have never been able to argue that one version of patronage is better than another. I do not believe that either is satisfactory. I favour a largely elected second Chamber.
The recent election showed the will of the people and that the Government had a mandate to get through their business. However, it also showed that only 25 per cent of the voting population of this country voted for the Government based on a 59 per cent turnout, which was the lowest. The Labour Party polled 3 million votes fewer than 1997, which is hardly a ringing endorsement. It is true that the Government have a second chance to get it right, but there will be no excuses and no blaming of the previous government. This time if they fail they will be out.
I cannot let the moment pass without a quick swipe at the Liberal Democrats. There appears to be an increasing, but rather bizarre, claim by them that they are the real opposition. One can look at the number of seats or the percentage of the vote. The Conservative Party polled 31.8 per cent, the Labour Party 40.8 per cent and the Liberal Democrats only 18 per cent. If one looks at party membership, each of the two main parties has about 350,000 members and the Liberal Democrats have only 76,000. That is hardly "the real opposition". It is quite clear from the election that the Liberal Democrat vote is still a protest vote. The Liberal Democrats are always in favour of regional assemblies and government partly because their policies tend to vary so much in the regions. One has different policies in different regions depending on which Liberal Democrat candidate one listens to.
I should like to say a word about changes in the government departments, some of which I welcome. For example, I welcome the creation of the department dealing with the environment and rural affairs. I regret that neither "Food" nor "Agriculture" appears in its title. I hope that the Government will take note that the farming industry is still in dire circumstances. That department may find itself at odds with the new Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. As the new department will become the advocate of urban and rural development with its responsibilities for planning, house builders must be eyeing greenfield sites with a hungry appetite.
The Home Office, which is the former department of the Leader of the House, has lost many of its responsibilities and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has gained some. That department that has not been particularly successful, and we look forward to it making its mark in government rather better than in the past. It now has racing within its responsibilities. That is a sport about which the new Minister said he knew nothing. At least he comes to the
The Home Office will have limited responsibilities, which means that it will be able to concentrate upon, and put its resources into, the police. To confront crime is a question of manpower. There are now fewer policemen than four years ago. If one looks at the statistics outlined by the Police Federation recently, the reason why crime in New York is now one third less than in London is that that city has a much higher ratio of policemen to the population. Numbers of policemen work and cut crime. I also regret that the Government have dropped their plans for the reform of pub licensing laws. Even the former Home Office Minister Mr O'Brien has condemned the Government for that U-turn.
In this Parliament we shall continue to hold the Government to account, and we have plenty of targets. The Dome still stands empty as a rotting monument to the vanity of this Government. In 1997 the Prime Minister said that there were 24 hours to save the National Health Service. In four years the National Health Service has not improved; it has become worse. Where have those promises left us? The Chancellor of the Exchequer has introduced 45 stealth taxes, which perhaps equal 10 pence in the pound, and the cry "Education, education, education" rings very hollow round the country. Sleaze has not gone away, Formula One is still protected and there are no plans for a ban on tobacco advertising. The Government promised to be tough on crime. They have been quite tough on crime, unless one is the Home Secretary's driver, in which case one is allowed to drive on the motorway at 103 miles an hour.
The Government have a second chance, but it is also their last chance. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde described the opening speech of the noble and learned Lord, who I am sorry to see is not in his place, as a eulogy. I gain great comfort from the words of my noble friend because eulogies are normally given at memorial services.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I begin with a brief comment on the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. While I wholly agree with what he said about police numbers, I point out two inaccuracies in his remarks. First, I understand that the title of the new department is "Environment, Food and Rural Affairs". Therefore, "Food" is in the description. Secondly, the noble Viscount is wholly inaccurate about the Liberal Democrats. Our claim to be the effective opposition is based on quality, not quantity.
I turn first to some of the constitutional matters which have been discussed in this excellent debate. I shall return to the issue of the reform of Parliament. I begin by saying a word or two about an interesting aspect of the debate which shows the great value to this House of the Bench of Bishops; namely, devolution. We had an eloquent description of the work of the Welsh Assembly by my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford. We also heard some extremely interesting remarks on the same subject by the noble Lord, Lord Morgan. Clearly, of great interest is the way in which the devolution of power to both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly unlocks a whole area of enterprise, ideas and innovation which brings a new vitality to those great nations. I believe that they see only the very beginning of it. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that Westminster has much to learn already from these devolved Parliaments, not least in the way that they conduct their business, in the way their Members represent the people and how they have regenerated interest in what happens in those assemblies. We have a great deal to learn from them.
I should like to comment very favourably on the speeches of the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of Portsmouth and Bristol who both brought out the weakness of the Queen's Speech in making no further reference to devolution of the English regions. Anyone who knows the North East well--the reference was to the remarkable debate opened by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham--will know how strong the pressure is on the ground for some kind of convention leading on possibly to a regional assembly. Anyone who looks across the Channel to Europe--I hope the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, will forgive me for this brief reference to that other place across the Channel--will see the way in which, in particular, devolution in Spain has brought a whole new kind of democracy to it. It is a grass roots upwards democracy, and one from which the Spaniards are already greatly benefiting.
Perhaps I may also refer to the moves to increase representation of women. My noble friend Lord Goodhart referred to the unquestionably simplest method of proportional representation. However, if that is not available, other measures are obviously wiser than doing nothing at all. It is a great pity that after the recent general election representation of women in another place has fallen at a time when many people thought it was likely to increase. That greatly undermines the concept of the representative nature of Parliament.
The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor made a brief reference to the fact that we are becoming a multi-ethnic society. Many of us greatly welcome that. In that context, it is extremely important that we do our best to increase the representation of ethnic minorities in both Houses of Parliament, and to address the remaining discrimination in some public services. I refer to yesterday's disturbing King's Fund health report about discrimination in National Health Service staff appointments. That matter needs to be addressed if we are to have a modern democracy.
Finally, I turn to the matter of Northern Ireland mentioned by another noble Lord. I shall not go into detail. There is not enough time. Given that this House will not meet again until that decision is made, I simply want to put on record that many of us recognise that we owe a great deal to the courage of the First Minister for Northern Ireland, whatever our own particular religious position may be. All of us would like to wish him well in what is likely to be an extremely difficult period of time.
I turn to the second phase of the House of Lords reform. In particular, I should like to press the new Leader of the House, whom I have already congratulated on his elevated position, on the issue of what was meant in the Queen's Speech by the two rather distinctive words "following consultation". The right reverend Prelate referred to five little words that would make a great deal of difference to democracy in the United Kingdom and particularly in England. I should like to know the meaning of the two little words "following consultation".
I thought I knew. Most of us recognise that the Government have been intent on removing those who have a right to sit in the House of Lords simply because of their hereditary nature. At least on these Benches, we support that. We recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, said in his speech earlier in the debate, that many of the most outstanding members of that group, and there are some extremely outstanding contributors to the debates in this House, would be likely to return as elected Peers. Some of us would very much dislike to see them go as they make great contributions. But their claim on this House is one of quality and not one of being the son or grandson of someone who by sheer chance, and in some cases by the payment of money, preceded them as a Peer.
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