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Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, does my noble friend intend that some part of this scheme will give those whose portable valuables have been stolen and exhibited anywhere in the country the means to recover them?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that question. The question is not directly related to the work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, but it an issue that the Government take seriously. It is not the function of the scheme itself to address itself to those issues.

Benefits: Strike

11.34 am

Lord Skelmersdale asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, our contingency plans, which are flexible and proven, include prioritising our resources to ensure that our top priority—to make payments to our customers—is maintained throughout any strike action by staff. We will also maintain access to our services by telephone and, wherever possible, face to face.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, many of the people to whom this Question refers will be financially challenged. Will the noble Lord give an assurance that his Answer covers access across the country to the social fund?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, 100 per cent of existing customers will not have their payments affected by the strike. BACS and posted giro payments will continue as usual and 98 per cent of our customers receive automated payments. On the social fund, Jobcentre Plus managers have planned extensively, using the experience from previous strike days, to put in place robust crisis loan arrangements for next week. Examples of these arrangements include the prioritisation of crisis loan payments above other benefit processing and the provision of special contact numbers in our benefit delivery centres, which job centre workers can use if they are approached by a vulnerable customer.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, will my noble friend tell the House something about the nature of the dispute? From the little I know about it, it seems strange that the excellent offices of ACAS could not be used to find an agreed settlement, rather than the action which is, understandably as I know it, proposed by the trade union.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the department would be keen to engage with anyone to resolve this issue. We should recognise, of course, that the staff are the most important resource that the DWP has. This

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dispute is about pay. There were very protracted discussions—28 meetings, I think, since proposals were first advanced. It is within the context of needing to bear down on inflation generally, and public sector pay is clearly a component of that. But the way in which the offer has been structured and implemented seeks to address the issue of the lowest-paid people in the department. For those who are not on their scale maxima, the award will deliver a minimum pay increase of 3 per cent a year over a three-year period. Around one-third, those at the bottom end of the scale, will get more than 5 per cent a year. But we remain open to continuing discussion and dialogue with the trade unions and others on this.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, does the Minister agree that this unfortunate strike reinforces the view that staff morale in the Department for Work and Pensions is dangerously low? Given that, how does he see this affecting the drive for increased staff productivity and the delivery of government policy?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the staff are a most important resource and there is no doubt that they are operating in challenging times. But they have already delivered in terms of staff productivity, which is up at least 8 per cent over the past three years. Again, because of significant investment of £2.8 billion over the past two spending rounds, the department has been able to restructure and re-engineer its business processes. The latest head count for January 2008 is 104,000 full-time equivalents, which is 30,000 fewer than three years ago, so the staff have engaged and co-operated. As the noble Lord said, this is against a backdrop where major changes are yet to happen; for example, the introduction of the employment and support allowance, the introduction of PADA and all the issues around the recasting of the CSA.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister further on access to emergency loans. I think he said that there were special contact numbers in job centres for staff if they are there to contact, but the people who need these emergency loans cannot get through to the job centre in the first place, so that will not help. Given that there is a very poor record anyway of answering the phone in job centres, how will the Minister protect people, particularly young families and mothers in desperate need, from what, if they cannot get through, will be a really dismal Easter?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I think the noble Lord knows from when we discussed an order recently that telephony has increased significantly in recent times because of the changes that have been put in place. The approach to handling this strike is obviously to prioritise payment of benefits, as I have said, and to switch resources, including managerial resources, to answering telephones to make sure that the capacity is there to deal with people who are in real need and to make sure that we continue to service them. People have been working hard to clear outstanding work so that the decks are as clear as they can be for facing the issues over the next couple of days.

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Business of the House: Debates Today

11.40 am

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debates on the Motions in the names of Lord Tyler and Lord Wallace of Saltaire set down for today shall each be limited to two and a half hours.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Companies Act 2006 (Consequential Amendments etc.) Order 2008

Companies Act 2006 (Consequential Amendments) (Taxes and National Insurance) Order 2008

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 (Prescribed Criteria) (Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2008

Sex Discrimination (Amendment of Legislation) Regulations 2008

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I beg to move the four Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft orders and regulations be referred to a Grand Committee. 12th and 13th reports from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, I apologise, but perhaps I may detain your Lordships for a moment about the first Companies Act order. It concerns its availability. I preface my brief remarks by saying that I have no criticism of our staff, who are and have been, as usual, most helpful, as all noble Lords know and would expect. I must say a word about this Companies Act order, which I had great difficulty in finding yesterday evening, and even this morning as I came into the Chamber. It is a document of some importance because it has 72 pages of schedules, which provide amendments not only on Companies Acts and so on, but on statutes as diverse as the regulation of pig production, horse racing and chiropractors, who seem to enter into the same category through their Act of 1994. It takes a little time to read those 72 pages. Before we pass orders it ought to be possible to have them in time to do so. Could my noble friend kindly mention the matter to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform? I am sure that more contact from the department would be very helpful in having greater notice of this very weighty document.

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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. My understanding is that all the documents are in the Printed Paper Office and we will be debating the order in Grand Committee on 18 March. My noble friend makes an important point and I will indeed raise it with the Secretary of State in the department.

On Question, Motions agreed to.

Elections: Voting Systems

11.42 am

Lord Tyler rose to call attention to the Review of Voting Systems: The Experience of New Voting Systems in the United Kingdom since 1997; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have just been in a country where less than 2 per cent of those entitled to vote seem to decide which party forms a Government. As a result, this tiny elite has huge power, and special financial interests can exert disproportionate influence behind the scenes. Millions of voters, on the other hand, never have any impact at all on the outcome of parliamentary elections. Many of them, indeed, now recognise that and are frustrated by their lack of electoral influence. Naturally, the political parties, which are hardly national any more, concentrate all their campaign cash and effort on targeting this tiny group. As a result, fewer citizens, especially young ones, now bother to vote at any level of governance. The whole legitimacy of their democracy is called into question.

Members of your Lordships’ House will immediately recognise that I have not been in Russia or Kenya; I have been in the United Kingdom. That is now the situation. Estimates vary, but the consensus is that perhaps 8,000 people in a maximum of 80 marginal constituencies now decide which party wins most seats in the House of Commons and forms a Government. That is about 1.8 per cent of the registered electorate, or about 3 per cent of those who actually vote.

Worse still, this elite is totally unrepresentative of the country as a whole. It is likely that the Conservatives would have to gain 42 per cent of the total popular vote to obtain an overall majority in the other place, while Labour could probably do so on 35 per cent. Very few MPs can now claim to have the support of the majority of those voting in their constituencies. In 2005, only 34 per cent were elected with over half the vote, the lowest proportion in British history. And none, not a single Member of the other place, actually achieved a majority of the total electorate in their constituency. At both the national and local levels, therefore, the legitimacy of the outcome of a general election is bound to be challenged, and I believe it will be at the next election in particular.

The contrast between 1955, which was the first election I was interested in—as a schoolboy, of course—and that of 2005 is very instructive. Fifty years ago, the turnout even with what were then relatively difficult postal votes was 76.8 per cent, and just under a half, 49.6 per cent, supported the government that resulted. Fifty years later, in 2005, the turnout even with much easier postal voting had dropped to 61.4 per cent,

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while the Labour Government, with only a 35.2 per cent share of the poll—much less than a quarter of those registered to vote—gained a majority of 66 seats. There is an illusion, which may be shared by some noble Lords, that the Celts, the Scots, the Welsh or the Cornish caused the trouble, but that is not true. The distortion was most marked in England. In 2005, the Conservatives gained some 650,000 more English votes than Labour, but had 92 fewer English MPs. In short, first past the post worked in the bipolar situation of 1955, but is was no longer fit for purpose in 2005 and is not now, as the well-researched government report we are debating today explains so well.

Why, then, did Ministers sit on its conclusions for a full month? Ministers here and in the other place told us that it would be completed and available before Christmas. It was ready on 17 December, but only published on 24 January. The only possible explanation is that the analysis was so uncomfortable for the Government that they had to spend a month spinning their way from that analysis. The report itself is remarkable for its freedom from partisan bias, but not so the ministerial spin. Mr Michael Wills, the Minister responsible, immediately rubbished reform by reinforcing the case for doing nothing. He then suggested that any attempt to make the Commons more democratic should await the parallel but very slow progress to reform your Lordships’ House. It is as though turkeys at either end of the building are curiously anxious to force those at the other end to face an early Christmas first.

Clearly, Lords and Commons reform should not be allowed to delay each other. I know that my noble friend Lord Goodhart, who is in his place, will examine more specifically appropriate electoral systems for a reformed second Chamber, but perhaps I may concentrate on the democratic legitimacy of MPs and Governments. Others, I hope, will look at the democratic deficit in relation to other levels of governance in the United Kingdom.

First, I shall give a little background history to the argument. In 1996, Mr Tony Blair published a book called, New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, in which he said:

In the same publication he committed any Government he led to,

That was followed by the Cook-Maclennan agreement, led by Mr Robin Cook and my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart, who unfortunately cannot be with us today. Again, a firm statement was made in an agreement between the two parties in preparation for the 1997 election as follows:

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The manifesto commitment Labour then gave in that year was as follows:

Part of that commitment was fulfilled when Lord Jenkins produced his 1998 report, but 10 years on there is no legislation. A promise unfulfilled or a promise broken?

There was renewed emphasis and hope among reformers when on 3 July 2007, in his first major speech in the House of Commons on becoming Prime Minister, Mr Gordon Brown said:

High hopes. Sadly, when we come to the report before us, many of the myths about PR have been dispelled but there is no sign of any government action to fulfil those promises.

The first major myth is that somehow all PR systems destroy the connection between the constituent and the representative. Not so. The report says, at paragraph 6.113, that first past the post,

I illustrate that point with the example of my own county, Cornwall, which is now a Tory-free and Labour-free zone. It is entirely represented in the other place by Liberal Democrats. If you are a Labour or Conservative supporter in Cornwall, you have no direct representative who fulfils your requirement of representing your political views, because the system of first past the post simply does not provide them. STV, of course, would.

The second myth is that somehow PR always leads to instability. As the report says at paragraph 6.168:

Indeed, the report goes on to say at paragraph 6.50 that it,

Another myth is that PR does not give people any better choice. The report says, at paragraph 6.169:

Then there is the allegation that somehow voters cannot cope with the system’s simplicity. At report 6.170, the report says:

Contrary to media belief, Scottish voters last year—I am sure other noble Lords will refer to this—had no real difficulty with STV. The problem lay with an oversimplified combined ballot paper for the Holyrood election. I hope my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood will make reference to his unique experience in Scotland.

On diversity, the report says at paragraph 6.172 that,

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While it is important for all parties to improve the balance, especially among ethnic minorities, it is true that lists may not help—but STV certainly would.

The report says, at paragraph 7.92, that internationally the turnout under proportional systems is on average about 5 per cent higher than for majoritarian systems. That is logical; whenever your vote can be seen to count, there will be more interest, but where there is a foregone conclusion it is more likely that people simply will not bother. Let me take my own personal experience. When I was first elected in Cornwall in 1974, the electors there were very shrewd and knew it was going to be close. Indeed, I had a majority of just nine. They turned out in force: 83 per cent. In 2001, however, in the last election I stood in—unfortunately for them, or perhaps for me—it was seen to be more of a foregone conclusion as I had a majority of nearly 10,000, and only 63 per cent turned out. If you see that your vote is going to count, it is worth turning out.

Few Labour Members in the other place have been looking seriously at this but fortunately one Member of the Cabinet has: John Denham. In a recent publication, he talked about,

He says that PR is the only system to break that unfortunate situation. Elsewhere in the same report, his co-author demands a change from what he describes as the postcode lottery that is the voting system. Therefore, we have to move from the present system, which is effectively a tiny minority sport, to national public engagement.

That, of course, was the purpose and value of the Power inquiry, led by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. Others have been dismissive of its conclusions, but it was, I believe, a very successful attempt to get beyond the Westminster bubble and to listen to what people out there believe—the customers, if you like, of our democratic system. Not surprisingly, their response was that the current electoral swindle is explicit.

This week, we have been told that there might be oaths of loyalty to demonstrate how we take value from our citizens. The only way for our citizens to demonstrate that they have value is if all votes are equal. At the moment, all voters are equal, but some are more equal than others.

I do not subscribe to the magic-wand approach to electoral reform. All problems of effective governance are not soluble just like that—with one reform—certainly not. All public disenchantment and disillusion with our political institutions will not suddenly disappear when all votes count. However, ending the perpetual distortion of the public will is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for constitutional renewal.

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