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Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I am glad to see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, back on the Woolsack, despite being a Lord and a lawyer. I am also glad to see the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, back in their previous offices. I have had a happy working relationship with all three of them in recent years. I also appreciated the work of the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, when he was a Minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

There are many speakers in the debate. I look forward in particular to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Alliance. I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has not had time to put down his name as a speaker, because he could have added much to the debate from his experience as Chief Inspector of Prisons. No doubt he will do so in the future.

The agenda includes at least nine Home Office Bills, at least four Department for Constitutional Affairs Bills plus others from the Cabinet Office and the Northern Ireland Office. There are also Bills outside today's agenda that raise important legal issues: notably the Equality Bill and the Mental Health Bill. I want to concentrate on constitutional issues, as that is my main field. Most of the Home Office Bills will be dealt with by my noble friend Lord Dholakia and by other noble friends who will be speaking later.
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However, I must mention the counter terrorism Bill, which continues unfinished business. We welcome the proposal to introduce a new offence of carrying out acts preparatory to terrorism. We will need to be satisfied that the Bill does not contain excessive restrictions on freedom of speech and we will renew our efforts to ensure that all control orders are made by judges and require at least a balance of probabilities as the standard of proof. We will try to modify the special procedure for control order cases, so that as far as possible defendants are made aware of the evidence against them.

I note also the absence of a corruption Bill. The Government have had more than two years to consider the criticisms made by the Select Committee that reported on the original draft Corruption Bill. When can we expect to see a Bill on that important issue?

The electoral administration Bill is intended to deal with justified public concern over postal voting fraud. I will leave my noble friend Lord Rennard to deal with the Bill in more detail—he is a world-renowned expert on the subject. I will just say that while increase in voter turnout is highly desirable, it must not be achieved at the cost of loss of confidence in the fairness and safety of our electoral system.

We also need, but will not get, a cap on the amount of money that can be donated by any one individual or corporate body to a political party. Huge donations made by a single person are a serious abuse of the political process. On judicial pensions, we will need a great deal of persuasion that judges need special treatment for tax purposes.

The Criminal Defence Service Bill will deal with what is unquestionably a serious problem with criminal legal aid: the fact that 1 per cent of cases are responsible for 49 per cent of the total cost of criminal legal aid. For that reason we support steps such as better case management to shorten long trials and the withholding of legal aid from defendants who can afford to pay. But that must not be achieved by methods that will reduce the fairness of trials or deny access to justice. We have particular concerns about the proposal that criminal defence work should be put out to tender. My noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford will say more about the Criminal Defence Service Bill later.

I note the plan to introduce a draft Bill to implement the Clementi report. In general that is a matter to be worked out between the Lord Chancellor and the legal profession, but we are concerned with the proposal to allow outside ownership of legal practices. We believe that that risks turning legal advice into a commercial commodity. We are concerned about the development of a compensation culture, but we are also concerned about possible denial of legitimate access to justice. We will therefore hold our fire on the compensation Bill until we see its terms.

I add a brief coda before moving on. Ten organisations concerned with the law, including the General Council of the Bar, the Law Society, Citizens
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Advice and Justice—I must declare an interest as vice chairman of its council—have published what they call "A Manifesto for Justice", in which they say:

I say, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, that we sign up to those three basics and we sign up without hesitation or qualification.

I turn to the constitution. In their first term, the Government introduced some constitutional reforms of great importance. They included devolution to Scotland and Wales, the Human Rights Act, the first stage of reform of your Lordships' House and the Freedom of Information Act. We not only supported those reforms, but they were part of a common programme of reform agreed by Robin Cook and my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart.

In the Government's second term the pace slowed down. There was only one major piece of constitutional legislation: the Constitutional Reform Act. That had been our policy long before the Government adopted it, and of course we supported it. For their third term the Government have effectively abandoned constitutional reform. There is no mention in the gracious Speech of a Civil Service Bill. It has been on the agenda since the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1853. It has therefore been unfinished business for more than 150 years.

A Civil Service Bill is needed to protect the independence and integrity of the Civil Service. Such a Bill has been proposed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life—of which I was a member at the time—and by the Public Administration Select Committee in the other place. A draft Civil Service Bill has been placed before your Lordships' House by my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, but the Government have found no place for a Civil Service Bill among the 50 Bills proposed for this Session, many of them far less important.

But even more important than that, the Government have refused to tackle the single worst aspect of our constitution: the untrammelled power of a Government with a working majority in the House of Commons to impose their will on the country. Sixty-six is a working majority that many previous governments would have welcomed with enthusiasm. But what kind of mandate do a government have when that majority of 66 is based on the support of less than 36 per cent of those who turned out to vote?

Surely the result of the election has made an overwhelming case for an electoral system that will produce a House of Commons truly representative of the people. Once again, we have the absurd situation that membership of the unelected House represents more accurately than that of the elected House the true balance of party support in the country.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor referred to the views of my noble friend Lord Oakeshott. I remind him that similar views were expressed by his noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, in an article printed in the Guardian last week.
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Admittedly, it was a reprint of an article written in 1998—I would be interested to know whether the noble Lord's views have changed since, and if so, why. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has won the ballot for a debate on Thursday, when we can return to the issue in more detail.

Finally, there is the future of your Lordships' House. Of all the checks on a Government with a working majority in the other place, your Lordships' House is—perhaps with the exception of the judiciary—the most effective. With an elected majority of members it would be even more effective in exercising that role.

What do the Government suggest about reform of your Lordships' House? They talk about a free vote on its composition some time in the future. Will that vote be any more free than the farcical vote in the Commons three years ago when the Prime Minister made his position all too clear for the benefit of those who wished to remain in his favour?

We have made it clear that we will not support half-baked changes to the composition of your Lordships' House, such as the removal of the remaining hereditary Peers, except as part of the introduction of an elected majority of members of this House and we stand by that commitment.

Meanwhile, the Government want to curb still further the powers of your Lordships' House. We are to have a Joint Committee to consider the conventions governing the relationship between the two Houses. Will that committee accept that the Salisbury Convention is long out of date and should be scrapped? It will not. I believe that the committee's real purpose in the Government's eyes is to give its blessing to the report of the Labour Back Bencher's committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, in the previous Parliament. The report contained some acceptable proposals but also several that are unacceptable, such as the removal of the powers of your Lordships' House to reject secondary legislation or even to delay it for more than 24 hours. On top of that, there are apparently to be time limits on the passage of Bills through your Lordships' House; a proposal that threatens our essential task of giving proper scrutiny to Bills that do not receive that scrutiny in the Commons.

Your Lordships' House was described by David Lloyd George in 1907 as, "Mr Balfour's poodle". Today it faces a future as "Mr Blair's chihuahua"; and just in case it should forget itself, the chihuahua is to have its teeth extracted. If the Government are prepared to talk seriously about real reform of the composition and powers of your Lordships' House, we will be more than happy to talk to them. But the omens do not look good.

4.10 pm

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