|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
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.
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 priorityto make payments to our customersis 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
13 Mar 2008 : Column 1577
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.
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.
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.
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 inas a schoolboy, of courseand 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,
13 Mar 2008 : Column 1580
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.
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:
A commission on voting systems for the Westminster Parliament should be appointed early in the next Parliament to recommend the appropriate proportional alternative to the first past the post system ... legislation to hold the referendum would then be proposed and the choice placed before the people.
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.
Contrary to media belief, Scottish voters last yearI am sure other noble Lords will refer to thishad 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.
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 inunfortunately for them, or perhaps for meit 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.
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 believethe 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 thatwith one reformcertainly 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.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|