Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Alliance: My Lords, my first remarks in the Chamber are ones of immense gratitude to the people of this country and to its system of democracy.

More than 50 years ago, I arrived in Manchester—the home of textiles—as a teenage Jewish immigrant with very little English and only a few pounds in my pocket—the princely sum of £14 to be precise. The generous, warm-hearted Lancashire folk welcomed me, a stranger, and helped me to get started. Before long, I began to repay my adopted country by making an increasing contribution to its industrial and commercial life—as well as to the Chancellor's coffers. Over the years, I have realised many times how fortunate and privileged I have been to benefit from the democratic traditions of this nation and the tolerance and friendliness of its people.

Let me take the opportunity to thank noble Lords for their kind welcome and, of course, I must not forget the officers and staff who have given me such gracious help since my arrival—again as a stranger, but now in this place.

Being a stranger is one of my topics today. In the past century, Britain has undergone enormous social change. One aspect of that change has been the arrival of some 3 million immigrants. That is the greatest influx in our country's history—a country whose welcome of immigrants has not only benefited it but has helped to shape its history.

Such an inflow is bound to put social strains on any receiving society. It is comforting and a great tribute to the British temperament that tensions have not been more marked. In fact, the influx of immigrants can be seen as complementing our society in helping a growing economy and, with a falling birth-rate, providing much-needed additional manpower.

It goes without saying that if newcomers, such as I once was, are to achieve a better life, they must have a positive attitude towards their adopted society and a
 
23 May 2005 : Column 262
 
willingness to fit in. They need to respect the traditions, values and the way of life of that receiving society. There are huge opportunities here in the UK, and newcomers should not expect the British to change their way of life for them.

The very act of migration is an act of compromise. Leaving something behind and seeking a new life is a difficult journey, but it must include a willingness to change—a willingness that I sometimes had almost too much of when I first started to make my living in the UK.

As a young man, recently arrived, I was taken by a fellow immigrant—a so-called friend—to an impressive building in Manchester. He informed me that it was the headquarters of a major textile manufacturer. Imagine the excitement in the eyes of a young man, hungry for business. He said, "If you open an account there, you are made for life". What a fool I felt when I discovered that I had walked into a university. As it happens, my connection with the University of Manchester continues to this day. Indeed, the warmth of the welcome that I received leads me to believe that textiles may, after all, have found their way into that seat of learning.

Like me, many immigrants have taken the opportunities that this country offers and have blossomed in British society. They are now making great contributions in many walks of life. Indeed, many sons and daughters of immigrants are making contributions in both Houses. Let us not forget the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition in the other place.

In the past, immigrants came mainly from Europe and the empire, making adjustment somewhat easier. But when newcomers began to arrive from societies with few, if any, links to Britain, handicapped by a lack of English—as I was—they naturally had more difficulties in adapting.

Those difficulties must be recognised and faced. There will be conflicts of allegiance, morality or equality as well as problems of communication. So let us not be deterred by notions of political correctness. We need to do everything possible to support the leaders of our ethnic communities and to support all those of moderate persuasion as we reinvest in our common purpose.

As I look ahead, I want to do all that I can to help in creating a better climate of understanding with all the different countries, cultures and religions of the Middle East, as I know the area well. Some 2,500 years ago, Cyrus the Great in Persia—the land of my birth—introduced a new concept of benevolent government. He is hailed as having written the first charter of human rights—a concept that was discussed here only recently. He was renowned for showing great respect towards the religious beliefs and cultural traditions of other races. For the first time, power was used to protect—not to degrade—the human condition.

Cyrus's standards are close to my heart. They are also close to the hearts of all the people of modern Iran. I hope that noble Lords will continue to encourage those who seek dialogue with the land of my
 
23 May 2005 : Column 263
 
birth—Iran—as such dialogue can only be advantageous to all in helping to bring peace and sanity to the region.

I know my countrymen. We should be under no illusion. There will be lasting peace and therefore true democracy in that region only with the support and endorsement of the people of Iran. I intend to do all that I can to play my part.

4.50 pm

Lord Owen: My Lords, I am sure that I speak for all Members of this House in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Alliance, on both the style and manner of his speech. I declare an interest: I have been a friend of his for 25 years.

He has had an amazing life, coming to this country at the age of 17 and within 40 years building up a huge textile business. He was chief executive and later chairman of Coats Viyella after it merged with Tootal, a company which employed 75,000 people and operated in 50 countries. As a member of that board, I watched the care and deliberation with which he discussed some of the difficult stages, such as when he had to downsize that industry, always trying to carry the trade unions with him. I watched while he dealt with the difficult problem of having to reduce activity in Northern Ireland and how he held out, during difficult political times, to keep jobs and opportunities there.

As Chancellor of Liverpool University, I watched with envious eyes the way in which he helped the University of Manchester and brought together those universities. He has made a formidable contribution to the north-west. We all look forward to hearing him speak on many subjects, not least on Iran. Many people in this country have had long and personal association with that country and it has been a tragedy to see our relations dwindle and diminish to their present state. I agree with him that there must be patient, hard-headed negotiation, as we heard during Question Time today, between Iran and the European Union—the three countries leading for it—and the United States. It will not be easy, but eventually that country will be restored to former glories and to a proper democracy.

I turn to the subject of our debate. I have been in Parliament for almost 40 years and I have watched many elections. I have been kicked out of government twice—it did not seem a good choice at the time, but in retrospect I think it was right. Despite the vagaries of our electoral system, I have watched the British people get it right in 10 elections as a parliamentarian. I believe that they got it right this time, but it was not easy.

The Government have a sizeable majority; a majority which I, when in government, would have given my eye teeth to have. But it is a fact that the people—not just the commentators and journalists—feel that this country has given a message to the Government and that they do not have the authority normally given to a government with a majority of
 
23 May 2005 : Column 264
 
more than 60 in the House of Commons. They would be very wise to recognise that. In handling legislation, listening and governing, they should never forget that they were unable to get support from even 36 per cent of those who voted.

Electoral systems come and go, but, on the timetable, measures and inter-relationships about which the Lord Chancellor spoke, I would be surprised if we saw a reformed House of Lords in this Parliament. But I expect that the Government will try to engineer a solution which will come before the electorate again.

Irrespective of the outcome, we will have to discuss our democracy in the round. That must take account of what has happened in the House of Commons and the half-thought-out legislation which comes to this place and is revised, time after time, in a major way. It must also take into account electoral systems and the low voting and lack of appetite for politics among the people of this country. Powers and composition will have to come together. If I had to bet, I would say that the next change in the voting system will come when we elect at least a portion—I would be content for it to be the whole—of the membership of the House of Lords. It will come through proportional representation, which will be another change in the voting system. My view, long held, is that this is a unique place. That uniqueness can be established by having some members who are appointed, but I would be happy for them not to have a vote. I believe that the voice in this Chamber has been and remains extremely powerful. We should not necessarily feel that the voice and the vote must go together.

Be that as it may, those changes must take place. I warn the Government only that it would not look sensible to the electorate if they first peel away the power of the House of Lords and then allow it to be elected. The powers as they exist are perfectly adequate, but I see only their erosion. We should be extremely careful about that.

Who knows what the French will do in their referendum on Sunday and what the Dutch will do a few days later. My personal hope is that they will vote down this European constitution and that we will hear no more of this model produced by the convention under the chairmanship of Giscard d'Estaing. It has good points, but, like the curate's egg, it also has some bad ones. I do not believe that this constitution should be continued with and I am confident that it will not be. If the French and the Dutch vote it down, it would seem senseless to go on with the procedure of ratification, but we may have to do so. That is the logical fact. If only the Dutch vote it down, as I would expect, we may be forced to go through our own legislative process.

I gather that the European Union Bill is being re-presented to the House tomorrow and that it is unlikely to be changed. With that legislation, and as part of this constitutional discussion irrespective of the vote in a referendum, we have the opportunity to look at some fundamental constitutional questions. It is also easier to do that because the Supreme Court has
 
23 May 2005 : Column 265
 
been established and the Conservative Opposition, who opposed that court, can look at the reality of where we are. One of the biggest problems we face is that there is considerable doubt about the exact meaning of words in the European Union treaties and now in the constitutional treaty. That doubt has been developing over the past 10 to 15 years and we are faced with a treaty, were it to be ratified by all 25 parliaments, whose wording would on some interpretation be acceptable and on others not so.

Perhaps I may give two examples. It is not understood by constitutional lawyers, who have no axe to grind on the agreement, whether the common foreign and security policy is under the European Court of Justice. Under some interpretations of the constitution, the European Court of Justice cannot involve itself in foreign policy and I see the Minister nodding her head. However, there has been drafting which leaves that case open to question. I believe that before any legislation is passed by this House, we should make our own interpretation of it. I urge the House to look at attaching to the EU Bill an interpretive declaration, which is the legitimate way of dealing with a treaty. One cannot change the language of the treaty, but within the Ponsonby procedure one can use an interpretative declaration.

In a strange way, the Government have already moved towards that by producing an explanatory memorandum. In that, they deal with another area on which there is dubiety about the exact words of the treaty. They state unequivocally that in their judgment it is not possible to double-hat the post of president of the European Commission and the new post of president of the European Council. I welcome that as I have urged it on everyone and tried to alert the House to its great danger. Bringing the executive powers of the president of the Commission into the same office as, and aligned with, the president of the European Council would be a massive integrative step.

I have no doubt that for some time no British government would contemplate it, but it is a fact that the Dutch, who have a remarkable reputation and tradition in international law, have told their Parliament that double-hatting of the presidents of the Commission and the Council would be possible. They have not changed that view, despite amendments made during the governmental phase of examining the legislation.

Again, experts argue about whether this is possible. We should make it beyond doubt. The only way to do it is to take the same wording from the Explanatory Memorandum, which has no legislative impact at all, and put it in an interpretive declaration, in which case, it could be appealed up through to the Supreme Court.

I know that there are people who do not want this Supreme Court—and I am one of them—to develop into the United States model of the Supreme Court, which interprets the law. But there is a very big difference between that and interpreting or making judgments on what Parliament meant at the time when it has bothered to add to a treaty an interpretive declaration.
 
23 May 2005 : Column 266
 

I know that the spokesman for the Opposition is very experienced in these matters, having been in the European Parliament and looked at these issues for a long time. However, irrespective of the position one adopts on the constitutional treaty and of one's views on the European Union, we need to grapple with this issue. It is not satisfactory that the interpretation of what this House has believed words to mean can be changed by the European Court of Justice. That is not an acceptable situation.

Other European countries have constitutional courts. Adjusting the Supreme Court in this way, by giving it the chance to rule through an interpretive declaration, is the sort of evolutionary way in which our constitutional developments have moved. We may not be faced by the constitution at this stage because it will be rejected, but that sort of legislation and those sorts of powers are coming in. No longer can we look on European legislation and constitutional European treaties as Foreign Office issues. They are at the heart of our democratic life. They involve all departments of state. That is why I decided to raise this issue here in a debate on the constitution and not on foreign affairs.

Two other areas of the European Union Bill deserve serious examination. The first concerns the right, by a unanimous decision of the European Council, to create a European Union common defence. Irrespective of one's opinion on that, that decision should not be able to be made by Ministers, perhaps supported by whipped vote in the House of Commons. It should be made by primary legislation in both Houses.

The same applies to changes to qualified majority voting, which can involve taxation. Any such changes to the legislative framework of a treaty should be brought about by legislation and not by unanimous decisions of Ministers, voting on a decision of a government. We should insist that one cannot make changes through the simplified revision procedures as envisaged in the constitution. We should stick to the basic principle, which was, after all, upheld by previous Labour governments. In 1978, when we legislated for the European Assembly, now the European Parliament, that Labour government insisted that no changes in the powers of the European Parliament could be made without primary legislation, because we were aware of the fact that you could have made changes by ministerial decisions. We deliberately ring-fenced that aspect and said that changes in powers had to come back for primary legislation.

It is in that spirit that I make my observations on the constitution. It is part of the overall question of the relationship of the powers of this House with the powers of the House of Commons.

5.4 pm


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page