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Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords—

Lord Sewel: My Lords, I shall not give way if the noble Baroness does not mind; I am running out of time. If fairness is defined only in terms of electing representatives, it misses the important fact that under our system we elect not only representatives but an executive and government. There is a clear and close relationship between the individual voter and the composition of the government. That is important because, whatever the failings are, the electorate have a say. Without it, government formation is put in the hands of a small party elite, and I do not like that one little bit.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, is the noble Lord referring to the Scottish Parliament when he talks in that way? Having regard to his views, which I have heard in extenso, I would have thought that he would have been supportive of the Scottish Government.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, the noble Lord will be fully aware that the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament, with which I was involved to some extent, is not based on a strict PR system or STV. It is based on a more proportional system than "first past the post", which is the additional member system. That system is now being attacked by his noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood.

My closing point is that although there is no reference to STV in the gracious Speech, we must ensure that we do not sleepwalk into it. In Scotland, there is, effectively, STV for the European elections; STV has been agreed for local government; the Arbuthnott commission is sitting and, apparently, wishes to set aside the present additional member voting system for government—and there is some evidence to suggest that the committee is coming round to the idea of STV in Scotland.

That would mean STV for Europe, local government and the Scottish Parliament. Westminster elections would be the anomaly in Scotland. I am concerned about how long that anomaly would be sustainable and there would be pressure for us to sleepwalk into STV for Westminster. That would put real power into the hands of small party elites.

4.30 pm

Lord Higgins: My Lords, as this is my first speech as a Back-Bencher in your Lordships' House, I should crave the indulgence that is customarily extended to those making a maiden speech. I hope that that will not be necessary. In all events, I shall listen with interest to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alliance, who will follow me.

I have been on the Opposition Front Bench for some eight years, dealing with social security and work and pensions, opposite the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of
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Heigham, who is now on the Back Benches, too. We have had to deal with a mass of statutory instruments, Statements and Bills during that period. However, despite our varying views on the merits of this or that piece of legislation, we have both done everything possible to improve them—in the tradition of your Lordships' House. I would not like to leave that picture, which we built up over time, without expressing appreciation for the manner in which she has worked. No one knows more about work and pensions issues than the noble Baroness and she must be congratulated on her work as a Minister.

I also extend my best wishes to my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, who has succeeded me, and to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who has succeeded the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. They have a difficult task ahead of them regarding work and pensions. Indeed, the Labour Party started the general election campaign by doing everything possible to avoid mentioning pensions at all. It said it would rely on Mr Adair Turner's report in due course. Within a matter of days after the election, Mr Blunkett, the new Secretary of State, said he was considering the introduction of compulsory saving for pensions. Perhaps he should have said that a few days earlier, so that the electorate could have taken it into account.

Since 1997, the Department for Work and Pensions has been, effectively, a branch of the Treasury. Mr Gordon Brown took it over almost from the beginning, when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, with an ever more complex system of tax credits which were increasingly incomprehensible. He now appears to be in conflict with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

We have reached a stage of crisis in the pensions industry, since the moment the Chancellor introduced his change to advance corporation tax, which took £5 billion away from pension funds, and triggered with the advent of FRS 17, the accounting standard, which made the implications clear. If one looks back, most of the legislation of the past eight years has been a disappointment at best, and disadvantageous in many ways. The stakeholder pension was introduced with a great flurry, but only some 20 per cent of the schemes have any members at all—and cover less than 2.3 per cent of the workforce. Almost everyone feels that the state second pension needs radical change. Some one-third of those entitled to the pension credit are not taking it up.

Regarding the Pensions Act, the effect of the Pension Protection Fund is further to deter companies from having final salary schemes. The sum announced by the Chancellor for the financial assistance scheme, to buy off a rebellion in another place, was totally inadequate to provide any reasonable help for those who have suffered from the collapse of their company schemes.

We tried to improve all such proposals during the progress of the legislation. But it has been increasingly clear that successive Bills that have arrived in this House from another place have not been properly
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scrutinised. Programming in another place means that the Commons is virtually castrated in dealing with legislation. That is extremely dangerous. We must try to deal with that and it is a heavy burden. It relates not only to work and pensions, but right across the board. Once upon a time, if you wanted to curtail debate in the Commons, half a day's debate on a guillotine Motion was required. That happened once or twice a year and if there was a filibuster or the matter was urgent, it would go through. That is different from what is happening now with programming in the House of Commons.

The worst example was when the Prevention of Terrorism Bill returned to the Commons with a mass of amendments. The programming increasingly provided that only some three hours' debate was allowed on our amendments—all of which were taken together—and the Secretary of State's speech took about an hour, a third of the total time available.

All of that is dangerous. The constitutional issues that we are debating need to be considered in that context. I agree with my noble friend on the Front Bench and my noble friend Lord Strathclyde regarding the suggestion made in the Labour manifesto that debates in our House should be curtailed to 60 sitting days. That is extraordinary, as it is not the type of proposal that should be put in a manifesto. Presumably, the intention was that one could invoke the Salisbury convention. That would be wholly inappropriate for a matter which governs the procedure in your Lordships' House.

In fact, the debates on the Pensions Bill went way beyond that limit, but no one could argue that there was any unnecessary debate in improving that Bill. Yet, that was only one Bill which went over that limit. Many such Bills went over the limit due to procrastination at various stages by the Government themselves. It is wrong that any such limit should be imposed and wrong that any legislation should be passed in another place, given the Government's now-reduced, but large, majority, which would alter our proceedings, because Bills would not properly be debated in the other place and we would be limited in our ability to put them right in this place.

The other extraordinary passage from the Labour manifesto states:

As I have said, we are not replicating, we are doing it instead of them. Therefore, that proposal seems strange. The manifesto goes on to state that,

That was not in the Queen's Speech, which made little reference to this matter, and we must rely on what the Lord Chancellor has said to give us an idea of the Government's intentions. This matter is of the greatest importance. If the committee—which, I understand, will not consider composition—is to be set up, it must look at the legislative process that takes place in both Houses. It would be quite wrong if it were confined to
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this House. It needs to look at the other place as well where the traditional system has been virtually wrecked by the way in which the Government have organised business.

On the composition of the House, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor was inclined to attribute views to the Conservative Party. We need to consider that issue carefully. On the last occasion, when we debated five options, among Conservative Members of this House there was an overwhelming majority against an elected Chamber, and a majority of Conservative Members in the other place was against an elected Chamber.

We do not know what view the new leader of the Conservative Party may have on the issue. We also do not know what view the new Members in another place will have. After 33 years in the other place—I have to say that I rarely came to the Bar of this House—perhaps I might presume to express the hope that those new Members will come to the Bar to examine the way in which we do our business and how we flourish as a self-regulating body without a Speaker.

4.41 pm

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