Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Of course, we welcome the offer of discussions on security. This is a change, and I congratulate the Prime Minister on it. We also welcome the noble

11 July 2007 : Column 1398

Lord, Lord West of Spithead, who will take legislation through this House and whom I promise very detailed and constructive scrutiny in Committee. However, may I say how disappointing we on these Benches—and, I suspect, the Liberal Democrats—find the new Prime Minister’s parroting of his predecessor’s obsession with the costly folly of identity cards? Again, there is talk of a Constitutional Reform Bill. As there have been no proposals since the conflicting votes in both Houses earlier this year, will the noble Baroness confirm that this will not include legislation to alter your Lordships’ House? The Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill might be an ideal vehicle for the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Birmingham, whom we also welcome, for putting his deregulatory stamp on legislation and reducing the burdens on employers that have piled up in recent years. The whole House looks forward to his piloting of the Employment Simplification Bill, given the CBI’s trenchant observations in the past on the national minimum wage. Will the noble Baroness confirm that Professor Sir Ara Darzi will lead on the Health and Social Care Bill? The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, was a truly outstanding manager of legislation, and of much else besides, and we will miss him; but Sir Ara’s fame goes before him, and we must assume that the Prime Minister hand-picked him for this role.

It may surprise the noble Baroness to know that we on this side of the House see no need for a debate on this mishmash. If the Government are offering time, let us have debates on specific aspects of policy, such as family breakdown or further change in the health service. Certainly, in due course, we should have a debate on housing, on which the Statement majored. That is a crucial question in which are wrapped many complex questions that go beyond housing into planning, the environment, immigration and family life. That would be far more useful than bringing into this place the kind of general political debate that the other place relishes. After all, we will have due time to discuss these and other proposals in the debate and actual programme of the actual gracious Speech.

I conclude by saying that sadly obscured behind this gimmick is the germ of a good idea; that Parliament should have more time, both before and after legislation, to scrutinise. There are proven mechanisms for that: the Green Paper, the White Paper, the draft Bill, and the kind of pre-legislative scrutiny that is proving to be so valuable on the deeply controversial Human Tissue and Embryos Bill. Those things can take place at any time of the year. We do not have to wait for a Prime Minister’s speech, any more than we have to wait for the gracious Speech. Wrapping it all up in a cocktail risks losing the clarity, distinction and focus that are Parliament’s duty and, if I may say so, this House’s strength.

Sadly, there is nothing in all of this about one glaring lack in our system; that is, post-legislative scrutiny. Would not a bit of time given to post-legislative scrutiny avoid many of the administrative follies and failures that burden our citizens and inform better legislation in the future—for instance, the Licensing Act and the Gambling Act? All I see here is a pig in a poke. While I would welcome any

11 July 2007 : Column 1399

measure that would genuinely improve parliamentary scrutiny, I regret that there is nothing in this pre-planned presentational gimmick that will do anything for that.

3.55 pm

Lord McNally: My Lords, I thought that it was particularly cruel for the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to refer to all the new Ministers on the Government Front Bench because it is a sad truth that not a single Labour Back-Bencher was promoted to the Front Bench in the recent reshuffle, in spite of the fact that my own Benches were ravaged by the Prime Minister looking for advice from this galaxy of talent I have behind me. I am not as harsh as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, about the Statement, which was foreshadowed in paragraphs 100 to 102 of The Governance of Britain. It has some welcome initiatives and puts forward ideas about how Parliament and the public can discuss plans and priorities. I also disagree with the noble Lord about a debate in this House. I understand that the Conservatives pressed for a debate at the other end. I hope that we will have time for a debate. On the regions, the Statement says that “region by region” they will be consulted. Perhaps the Lord President will explain how this regional consultation will work and whether any of the consultations will be able to change plans and priorities.

The danger is that the Prime Minister is raising expectations about his style of government. Is this a genuine sea change in terms of avoiding legislative overload and knee-jerk reactions? Is it a real commitment to move power out of Whitehall, to work out a new concordat between central and local government, and to transfer real power, including financial responsibility, for delivering local services? Is it an end to the micromanaging of health and education from the centre? These are the real tests against which these proposals will be judged.

On terrorism, I share with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the willingness to explore how we keep together an all-party consensus. I notice that the Prime Minister was rather coy when he said in the Statement that,

The paper is more blunt. It states:

If the woolly words in the Statement mean that the Government are coming back to extend the 28 days, I can say only that from these Benches such a proposal will be vigorously tested and vigorously opposed.

I shall not try to cover all the issues, but I look at the housing commitments with some enthusiasm as a vice-president of Shelter and as one who came into politics at a time when housing was at the top of our agenda. Harold Macmillan made his reputation by building 300,000 houses a year. It is perhaps an example of how housing has dropped off our radar

11 July 2007 : Column 1400

that 50 years later the aim is for 240,000 houses. I would ask the Leader of the House to remember that in the south-east of England, particularly in places such as Hertfordshire, there is a real concern that the green belt will be gobbled up and that local opinion will be overruled by new planning laws.

On education, I welcome the commitment to educate more young people until they are 18. I think that there is a special role for FE colleges to play in this. Many young people who drop out of school do not take kindly to formal academic education, but I am consistently impressed during my visits to FE colleges at how they provide both academic and vocational education which is tailored to that age group and to those who may not have stayed in education.

A little nugget to which I am very attracted is the use of unclaimed assets for youth facilities. Again showing my age, I belong to a generation that benefited from youth clubs and a whole network of youth provision. Research studies show that there is a link between good youth facilities in local areas and tackling vandalism and youth crime. If this is a way of putting money into those areas and providing facilities, that is to be welcomed.

At the heart of this, there seems to be a wish to see an end to over-legislation. My right honourable friend Sir Menzies Campbell referred to the 29 criminal justice and related Acts of the past 10 years, which have produced more than 3,000 new offences. We are looking for quality, not quantity, in legislation. On the constitution, I should like to ask the Lord President of the Council where this is going to go. We have been promised a Constitutional Reform Bill. Does that rule out any proposal for a constitutional convention or a wider consultation on constitutional reform? The lessons of the past show that the broader the consensus, the better the chance of carrying constitutional reform through.

We are not as sceptical as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, but we are looking for delivery as well as promises. We are looking for a greener, fairer, freer society to come from these measures, and we will judge them on their merits.

4.02 pm

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I thought that I detected the nugget of a congratulatory note in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, particularly—and rightly—in the context of seeking all-party consensus wherever possible on the issue of terrorism. Indeed, I am delighted that both noble Lords have endorsed the approach, if I may put it as strongly as that.

The purpose of what we have before us is very important. Noble Lords will know that I have spent a huge amount of time in this House on legislation—seven Bills last year and goodness knows how many the year before. One of the issues that always arises both in your Lordships’ House and in another place is the opportunity to be able to consider the issues coming to us in legislation before they are turned into legislation itself. By giving the House the opportunity now and each summer hereafter to consider the sorts

11 July 2007 : Column 1401

of proposals being put forward by the Government, it will be more able to carry out its work as a revising Chamber.

Both noble Lords have asked about regions and road shows. We have identified regional Ministers in the other place who will play a major part in taking forward how we develop this, but we are looking at how best to make sure that we do have the kind of local and regional discussions noble Lords wish to see, particularly on issues such as development in Hertfordshire. The noble Lord and I both live in St Albans and are very mindful of the green belt and the issues surrounding affordable housing at the same time. It is important to take this to the regional and local level.

I teased the noble Lord as he spoke that it would take two minutes before he got to the referendum. No doubt it will re-emerge and I will be able to deal with it in our future discussions on the Statement. The noble Lord also spoke about the National Health Service and was kind enough to remind me about the numbers of Bills and reorganisations. I was chair of a health authority and so I, too, have been involved on the ground. It is important that we look carefully at the National Health Service. I am delighted that my colleague will be leading the review and that we have the expertise of such an eminent individual to take us forward on that.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to being ravaged by these Benches. I should say to the noble Lord that we may not be done yet. We are seeking to draw on the talents of your Lordships’ House and beyond to work with the Government, without prejudice and with great independence, to ensure that we get for this country the best possible people able to work. That is a worthy aim. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, is keen to have a debate in your Lordships’ House. We will listen to the House. We will certainly make time available if that is what the House wishes but I am keen and interested to know what noble Lords feel about this and will respond accordingly.

Are we raising expectations in what we are doing? Yes. It is right and proper for the Government to raise expectations of what we are seeking to achieve, not for the Government but for the country. Within the programme we have put forward we have laid out some very important forward-looking approaches to tackle some of the difficulties that still remain.

Housing is a key area. We have said that we will protect the green belt vigorously—“robustly”, I think, was the word used by my right honourable friend—and we will. We shall look to see how best we can provide accommodation and housing for the different and varied people who wish to have accommodation, single people being a particular concern.

I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said about young people and about further education colleges. Those issues are being looked at so that the offer for our young people is as good as it should be. I think the proposal to use unclaimed assets offers an opportunity to create the kind of services the noble Lord, Lord McNally, remembers and—again I declare an interest with teenage children—would

11 July 2007 : Column 1402

enable us to provide opportunities for our children, the vast majority of whom are absolutely wonderful. We need to remember that they are deeply involved in their communities, hard working and attempt to do their very best.

We will be embarking on consultations and looking to see what more we can do. I hope we will have the opportunity, both today and on other occasions, to discuss with the ministerial team who are with me today on the Front Bench and others outside how best to take forward this programme to the great benefit of our nation.

4.07 pm

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, at least in relation to the timing, this is a completely new approach to the announcement of legislation proposed for the next Session of Parliament. Unlike in recent years, we shall have a period from now of a form of pre-legislative scrutiny as the proposals can now be the subject of widespread and informed public consultation; and later this year, of course, we shall have some days of debate on the Address after the programme is in a more specified form in the Queen’s Speech.

The earlier statement of government intentions will be very welcome if it enables draft legislation to be better and more sensitive to parliamentary and public opinion expressed in the interim. That is the intention, it is possible to do it and it would be very welcome. But, of course, for informed public consultation at least some of the proposals may need more supporting information, greater definition of the purposes and coverage and, perhaps in the autumn, the first results of consultation.

For example, this splendid book showing the carbon footprint of the Palace of Westminster on the front cover contains an enormous amount of useful information. The Constitutional Reform Bill is of real interest to Cross-Benchers, and the document states that the draft legislation and the main elements of the Bill may in many cases depend on subsequent consultation exercises. So the handling of the Bill is going to be quite difficult and will be of considerable interest to us.

Finally, there is a sentence about inviting debate on these issues in both Houses this month. I heard what the noble Baroness said but, in the light of the Prime Minister’s Statement, the Cross-Benchers would need to be kept closely in touch with what is proposed for discussion in this House.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, for his welcome. This opportunity will enhance our ability to look at legislation and consider the issues that noble Lords and people throughout the country feel are important. We will end up with a better legislative programme, and noble Lords will be more familiar with the legislation by the time it arrives in your Lordships' House. Many noble Lords over the years have raised with me the importance of that.

11 July 2007 : Column 1403

My noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath will lead on the Constitutional Reform Bill and is leading for the Ministry of Justice on Lords reform. There he is in an important new guise. He will bring all the skills that he has available to him to deal with these matters. I know that he will be bringing forward his own views, but, within the Constitutional Reform Bill, there will not be provisions for Lords reform—I did not answer that question directly. Of course, I will keep the Cross-Benchers closely in touch with our discussions.

4.10 pm

Lord Waddington: My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware that the latest projections produced by the Government Actuary’s Department show that between 2004 and 2031 the population of the United Kingdom will rise by 7.2 million? Nearly 6 million of that 7.2 million will be due to immigration. That is enough to populate six or seven cities the size of Birmingham. Does not the Leader of the House think that it is odd to talk, as the Prime Minister has, of the need for millions of new houses without acknowledging the strain that mass immigration puts on services such as housing and on the very fabric of society? Surely it is time that the Government address the need to restore some semblance of immigration control. That should be at the forefront of the Government’s thinking when they are considering what should be in next year's programme.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I would signal to the noble Lord the massive contribution made over the generations by people who have come to this country, settled here and developed their businesses. The work that they have done in this nation has helped to make it as great as it is. That has happened generation upon generation, and some of those people, I am pleased and thrilled to say, are represented in your Lordships' House. That contribution brings benefits. It is right and proper when considering our housing policy that we are mindful of the range of different people within our country, not least, as I have already indicated, the needs of single people.

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Baroness about the status of the speech today and the document that is before us. We have heard before about pre-legislative scrutiny. Are we now talking about something different in that we are looking at a summer of reflection?

This booklet is detailed. I have always thought of a Bill as a piece of concrete that is very nearly set when it is brought before us. Instead, will we have a jar of putty? This is an important point. On the penultimate page of the booklet, there is an item referred to by my noble friend, the Unclaimed Assets Bill, which is significant. There may be such things as orphan shares, orphan insurance policies and unclaimed moneys in the Co-op. On the other hand, it occurs to me that these assets have been built up in the specific communities where these banks and building societies are based and they should have a claim rather than the country at large. Can such matters be raised and placed in the Bill or is the die cast?

11 July 2007 : Column 1404

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord has set out perfectly why this is an important Statement and an important moment in the life of this Government. For precisely the reasons he mentioned with regard to that particular proposed legislation, we should be discussing these issues not only in your Lordships' House but around the country, in regions and with organisations that have those assets.

Lord Soley: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the pace of social change in this country is so fast that people demand to be informed much more effectively by politicians? If politicians do not rise to that challenge, we are all in trouble. I very much welcome this approach, because it opens up the possibility of more people being involved in discussing legislation before it reaches this House. That is one of the other reasons why I have always supported both pre- and post-legislative scrutiny. I believe, particularly having heard the Leader of the Opposition here, that any politician or political party that keeps to its current position will stay in the past. It will be a party not of the future but the past.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. It is right for people to expect us to keep them better informed of our proposals, and this is part of that process. Obviously, I am interested as well in what noble Lords say about both pre- and post-legislative scrutiny, important issues that no doubt we will discuss in your Lordships' House very shortly.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, like others in the House, or certainly on these Benches, I very much welcome my noble friend’s proposal for a more inclusive approach towards the Queen’s Speech. She will not be surprised if I ask her about one Bill that she mentioned for next year, the pensions Bill. She will know that, for the personal accounts in that Bill to be safely bought and sold, they must be underpinned by a complete basic state pension. Will my noble friend give the House warm words on the amendment that the whole House supported just a week ago today, which would make that possible and thus deliver the Bill much more securely in next year’s Queen’s Speech?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, my warm words will be entirely reserved for my noble friend, who has been a champion on the issue of pensions and women for many years. I pay enormous tribute to her. However, my noble friend Lord McKenzie, to whom I also pay tribute for the incredible amount of work he has done in this area along with his honourable and right honourable colleagues, will deal with the issues on the current Pensions Bill later today.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I wish to press the noble Baroness the Leader of the House a step further about the constitutional reform Bill. If we are to have the widest possible consultation, as she suggests, that legislation would be a prime candidate for pre-legislative

11 July 2007 : Column 1405

scrutiny of a draft Bill by a Joint Committee so that both Houses can be fully involved. There are five pages on this Bill in the document produced by the Government to accompany the Statement, but frankly it is still very sketchy. That would surely be a very admirable way in which to pursue the objectives to which the Prime Minister and the noble Baroness referred.

Is there any significance in the fact that the picture on the front of this document appears to show the sun setting over the Houses of Parliament?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: Maybe just the House of Lords, my Lords, who knows?

Noble Lords: Ha!

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, that was a joke. I think that it is a beautiful picture, chosen because it shows off to great effect the beauty of the building that we are privileged to sit in. I hope the noble Lord will see nothing more significant in it than that.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page