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The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, before turning to what I most want to address this afternoon, I will make two comments on the speech made by the noble and learned Lord. When we have previously discussed incitement to religious hatred, we on these
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Benches have raised the implication of such legislation for the blasphemy laws; and that must be borne in mind. Secondly, if we are to drive such behaviour to the margins, it lays important responsibilities on people in our position—we on these Benches and other religious leaders—so to conduct themselves and so to present the faith that such behaviour is driven well outside the boundaries of religious communities and religious belief. Is that not a more effective way of dealing with the issue?

Without commenting on the content and purpose of a large number of Home Office Bills, might we not all of us in the House say that we need to have a modest understanding of what the law can do to improve public behaviour? I have sat on a probation committee, and I remember being on the receiving end of legislation when Members opposite were in government and noticing how little effect it had on the issues that confronted us. I hope that the legislation that appears before the House has a genuine purpose and effect.

Parliament has a special duty to protect and nourish our constitution. It is the bedrock of the preservation of the liberty of our people and the peace and security of our society. Therefore, when Parliament is called on to consider measures for reform, it needs to exercise great care, lest in adjusting some aspects of the constitution it inadvertently collapses other parts of the building. The British constitution is unique, both in the values that shaped it and in the history of its development. In any proposed reforms we must hold on to those values and take full account of where we have come from.

We have a different constitutional history from that of our friends in the United States and even a different history from that of the continent of Europe. Indeed, it was John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the American constitution, who said of the French, "I know not what to make of a Republic made up of 30 million atheists". In other words, he saw the 18th-century French revolution as being detached from religious belief and moral values and saw that as being dangerous for democracy.

We have an unwritten constitution and a unitary structure for our constitutional life held together in Parliament, which represents the people in a variety of ways. It considers the nature of our common life; where necessary it legislates; it holds government to account; and it brings together the Crown, the government, the representatives of the spiritual life of the people, the law, and those elected to give direct voice to their constituents' needs. The form and character of those relationships and their institutional provision are always evolving and changing. I remind the House of Edmund Burke and of his contribution to constitutional reform. He managed effectively to combine a deep commitment to the liberties of the people—he was opposed to discrimination against dissenters, Roman Catholics and people of no faith and committed to their equal liberties—and at the same time he was hostile to the constitutional reform going on in his time that to him seemed to pull down
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the foundations and structure of our common life. He believed that constitutional reform should build on those foundations and not undermine them.

I am arguing this afternoon for a number of principles without commenting on particular solutions. First, there is a need for consistency. There seem to be two conversations going on in parallel. One conversation concerns the powers of this Chamber; the other the structure of this Chamber. There is a danger of them contradicting one another. One moves in the direction of reducing the powers of this House; and the other of increasing its credibility as we ensure that its membership has full public support. If we are able to agree how the House is to be constructed and find good public support, how then can we reduce the powers of the House? If we reduce those powers, are we not saying that we are giving up on the issues of credibility? We must be consistent.

We also need to be coherent. For too long, we have focused debate on this Chamber, but the issues that confront our parliamentary democracy affect both Houses in their capacity to represent the nations and their internal procedures and conduct of business. We cannot treat this House in isolation from a proper consideration of the form and powers and expectations on both Houses, and we cannot evade the questions raised by the result of the general election. Governments need not just majorities in Parliament but manifest public support. It ought to be of concern to all of us here that we have a Parliament that has delivered the Government a comfortable majority in the other place on the basis of the lowest popular vote since 1832. Those things ought to be of concern to us all, whatever solutions we find.

That coherence must deal with any proposals for change. Supposing it was agreed, for example, that it was in the interests of our constitutional life for there to be an elected element in this House. Supposing it was further agreed that that should happen by a different electoral system, which we thought to be fairer. We cannot forever elect in one place by one system and in the other place by another system. There must be coherence. Those questions inevitably draw together the whole of our parliamentary life.

That leads me to my last point. We must proceed as far as we can and, as the noble and learned Lord has suggested, by consensus; I know that he thinks that. From these Benches, we want to encourage debate and work on these matters by mutual consent. I hope that the noble and learned Lord and the noble Baroness who is to make the winding-up speech will give us some encouragement to believe that we on these Benches might be involved in the discussions about the future constitutional shape of Parliament. Might we dream of Parliament working as a whole and with consistency on such matters?

At a time when our world is in a fragile state and our country is passing through deep social and cultural change, we need real strength and confidence in the people in our constitutional life. If we are to make changes, let them build on the good foundations that are in place, nurturing our history, holding to our
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values and building fresh confidence in our politics. Anything less and we shall have failed in our duty to the people.

4.19 pm

Lord Sewel: My Lords, noble Lords will not be surprised that I wish to say a few words about devolution, but they might be slightly surprised that they are about Welsh devolution rather than Scottish devolution. I scoured through the gracious Speech, and I found the reference to the intention to give the Welsh Assembly transport-related powers. That is a bit timid; a bit too timid. We could move a little faster, to be honest, building on the work led by my noble friend Lord Richard, whom I hope will soon join us in his place again after his illness.

Although it is not necessary to have a "one size fits all" approach to devolution across the nations of the United Kingdom, the case has been made well that Wales should move away from an assembly towards a parliament and have primary legislative powers. I have to admit—I do it with some trepidation—that, way back in 1997 and 1998 when I had something to do with these matters, I did not grasp the underlying principle that informed Welsh devolution. I thought that the slogan "A Welsh assembly for secondary legislation" was hardly the clarion call that would set the populace alight.

The case has been made; let us move on and head towards full-blooded devolution in Wales. So far as I can see at the moment, we have a hangover from the old approach that said, "The Scots are getting a strong form of devolution because they're consistently in favour of it. The Welsh are a bit more dodgy, so we'll give them a weak form of devolution". That was not a logically coherent argument, so let us move forward appropriately. I hope that, if and when that is done, it will be time to review the future role and even existence of the post of Secretary of State for Wales, and possibly that of the Secretary of State for Scotland.

I notice that, while I was talking, I got a number of nods from across the Chamber on that issue. However, in some sections of what I shall say, I shall not get any nods at all from the Liberal Democrats.

I move on to reform of your Lordships' House. I very much welcome what is in the gracious Speech and what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor had to say. It is right that we move towards the elimination, once and for all, of the hereditary principle as a basis of composition of a legislature. Of course there are different ways of doing that and, now that the hereditary principle does not underpin a total distortion in the political composition of the House, there may be room for a greater generosity of spirit than, understandably, there was previously. I hope that we move forward, and do so in a generous and sensitive way.

I am slightly concerned about the general process of reform. I fully accept—some of my friends and I have argued it long and hard—that there is an inevitable interaction between composition, function and powers, and you cannot get those out of balance and
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alignment. I am concerned that composition will be dealt with through the process of a free vote and then a Bill implementing that free vote. I do not have a great deal of confidence in that procedure. I would have thought that, on a major issue of constitutional reform—it is such an issue—it is the responsibility of the Government and other parties, after reflection, to put their proposals before the electorate and seek a manifesto endorsement.

Something as major as that requires a manifesto endorsement, if only to avoid what is at least a possible outcome, to judge from conversations that I have had with some past and present Members of the other place—that there would be great support for an elected House and for a House with diminished powers. Honestly, I think that it is difficult to square those two components of the argument. It is the responsibility of parties to bring coherent and comprehensive proposals before the electorate.

There is a need to codify and reform our conventions, understandings and practices, in terms both of our relationship with the other House—in the context of Parliament as a whole—and of how we work in this Chamber. Looking back over the nearly 10 years that I have been a Member of this House, I see that it has changed and is changing very quickly. We have a larger almost full-time House—not larger in number overall, but there is a larger component of Peers who see themselves as full-time Members of this House. They are younger. I mention softly that they tend to be more ambitious as well. That all changes behaviour. I am afraid that the poor old Companion, although not totally ignored, is often slightly fudged in relation to how things go and what is spelt out in it as to how they should go.

I remember coming into this place 10 years ago and being rather apprehensive in my first meeting with the then Scottish spokesman, the late Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove. I was apprehensive because I came from a different wing of the party from him; back in those days our party was allowed to have different wings, but that is all over now. I came in during the lead-up to a general election. Poor old Neil had been doing all the hard work and I thought that my coming in was not going to be particularly easy, but he looked at me and said, "John, thank God you're here; I can have a rest". There was not that degree of seeking for office that may be more present now. If there is ambition and that changes behaviour, I suppose that soon we will have thwarted ambition, which is likely to change behaviour even more.

I now turn to the bit where I shall run into trouble with the "Benches diagonal". It is on electoral reform. I am enormously pleased that there is no mention of electoral reform in the gracious Speech—no mention of proportional representation in general or of STV in particular. I am content with that. Of course there has been some increase in the public debate. It is interesting that very few people who favour proportional representation pray in aid the ideal typical example of it, which is the Israeli Knesset. It is a single list proportional system that, in the formation
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of the executive and government, hands power to the smallest, most extreme and most unrepresentative parties in the state. That is the important point.

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