|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The prerogative has some undesirable effects. The first of these, which I mention because no one else will have heard of it except possibly the Minister, is the Ram doctrine, propounded by Sir Granville Rama great Trollopian nameafter the Second World War. The doctrine is that Ministers and government departments can do whatever they like as though they are private persons unless Parliament has said to the contrary through legislation. I came across this when I discovered that the Cabinet Office, some years ago, was suggesting that, on the basis of the Ram doctrine, data could be transmitted from one department to the other with no legislative or other standards whatever.
11 Jun 2009 : Column 772
Another, much more scandalous example was what happened to the Chagos islandersthose dispossessed people who were removed from their homeland and dumped in the Seychelles and Mauritius on the theory that the Queen can do no wrong in the colonies. When the courts said that that was a gross abuse of power, Mr Blair, the Prime Minister, and Mr Straw, the Foreign Secretary, did not clothe themselves in primary legislation but overturned the courts judgments using prerogative powers. In my view, that was a disgrace, but a disgrace about which our constitution had nothing to say. Regulating the prerogative and transferring the source of prerogative powers, which we need, from the monarch to Parliament are a necessary part of constitutional reform.
All that was when the tide came in, as I said, in 1997. I commend the Government for the way in which they carried out what constitutional reforms they did. When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, the tide came in again briefly. It looked as though on the basis of the Governance of Britain Green Paper we could have a second and more profound reform. I willingly accepted becoming the unpaid independent adviser to Mr Straw and Mr Wills in the Ministry of Justice because I really thought that there was the political will to carry out those reforms. I was most impressed by the high standard of work done by the civil servants engaged on the constitutional renewal Bill. However, I was disappointed that, whenever Ministers had to make choices, they always chose the lowest common denominator of agreement across departments, never the highest common factor. Therefore, when I left the departmentresigning on the basis that I was serving no value to it and wasting its time, because we did not really agreethere was a constitutional renewal Bill that could have been published the next day.
That was eight months ago. The Bill would have been weak, but it could have been published and I do not know why it has not been since. I have heard no good reason. I am sorry that it has not happened, particularly given the Civil Service reform that the Bill contains. Noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, and I have been pressing for that for years and years. The Cabinet Secretary did an admirable job, in my view, in producing perfectly sensible arrangements within the Bill. It still has not happened, the Bill still has not been published and we are getting near the Recess. I simply do not understand why that is so.
On the human rights side, I have some slightly unfriendly words about the position of the Opposition. So far as the Government are concerned, we have the Human Rights Act, for which I campaigned. It is a good thing. It has worked with judges and lawyers, but it has not worked with the wider public, partly because it has been blamed by Ministers for their own default, partly because the media do not like a right of privacy that they think comes from the Human Rights Act
11 Jun 2009 : Column 773
We ask a very odd question in this country. In the rest of the democratic world, people say, Does this misuse of power violate the charter of rights and freedoms?. We do not. We say, Does it violate a convention right?. In looking at the abuse of powers, the ordinary woman or man in the street finds that an unattractive question to be answered. The Government were mistaken in trying to deal with the unpopularity of the Human Rights Act by cobbling together another suggestion side by sidea Bill of Rights and responsibilities that created no new rights and no new responsibilities. I regard that as farcical and am sorry that so much time was wasted on it.
I am afraid that I also find the statements made again and again by David Cameronthat he will tear up the Human Rights Act if and when the Conservatives win powerto be a dismal response. I believe that the Irish will vote yes to the Lisbon treaty. If the Conservatives then win, they will be looking for bones to throw to their Eurosceptic right-wing and they might believe that tearing up the Human Rights Act is politically attractive.
That really would be a stupid thing to do. Why? Because we need effective remedies in this country, in British courts, for violations of our fundamental rights and freedoms. The more you tamper with the Human Rights Act as its stands and weaken the remedies that British courts can provide, the more you lead to our having to go to Strasbourg and a European Court of Human Rights that already has 100,000 pending cases. I do not believe that politically, legally or sensibly it is other than constitutionally illiterateto use Ken Clarkes moderate languageto think of tearing up the Human Rights Act and weakening the effective remedies that we already have. Those remedies are quite moderate. They do not allow the courts to strike down Acts of Parliament; they allow the Executive a breathing space in giving effect to the judgments. We have won great respect in the European Court of Human Rights through the jurisprudence fashioned by our courts, which makes the British legal influence in Strasbourg much stronger now than that of any other European state.
I can only hope that sensible people such as Dominic Grieve QC MP, who will have responsibility for this if the Conservatives win power, will drop the idea of scrapping the Human Rights Act and weakening our effective remedies. I hope that they will instead move toward a charter of rights and freedoms, protecting fundamental law and the citizen against the misuse of power. None of that can, I am afraid, be done by this Government; the tide has now gone out for that kind of thing. We will have to hope that, after the next election, we will get towards the written constitution that other countries have and we deserve.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, I am in awe of the psychic powers of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who was able to put down a Motion that is being debated the day after
11 Jun 2009 : Column 774
My general points are the framework within which I would look at proposals for constitutional reform, and a number of speakers have touched upon them already. The first for me, and in many ways perhaps the most urgent, is that on this, of all subjects, we must move in step with the public. It is no use conjuring schemes for constitutional reform that bear no relation whatever to the issues that interest the public. We suffer from the same condition as any institution that I have ever had anything to do with, in that we are much more interested in talking among ourselves about ourselves than we necessarily are in talking about our responsibilities outside the structure of our own institution.
Does it surprise anyone that there are twice as many people down to speak on this debate as on the other? If we asked the people outside this House which of those two subjects they think should attract the most attentionand to which we should devote the most timethere would be absolutely no doubt whatever about the response. It would be the latter.
We know that from opinion polls. I am wary of them, but I checked a fairly regular MORI poll that comes out on the issues that concern the British public, which they list in order of the subjects that the public raised in a poll of 1,000 people. Again, there were no surprises there: 59 per cent raised the economy, 30 per cent raised race relations and related matters of immigration and asylum, 30 per cent crime and law and order, and 20 per cent unemployment, factory closures and lack of industry. The only point at which any reference that could in any way be considered as constitutional reform comes is 26th on the list, at 1 per centjust behind bird flu. Now, that should be a sobering thought to us when we debate these issues. I am not saying that we can never do anything that the public are not demanding instantly, but it should put these discussions into perspective.
On the same subject, salutary lessons come from the European Union which, time and again, seems to spend far more time talking about its structures and modes of operations than in dealing with the issues that the people in Europe seem to want it to discuss. I am very wary, then, when there is a disconnect between the things that we are discussing and those which people in this country think are important.
I will give one last bit of evidence on this particular theme. It is well known to anyone who has been a Member of Parliament that there are a number of occasions when, during the week, both Houses are debating particular issues that seem to be of monumental significance when you are taking part in them. You
11 Jun 2009 : Column 775
That is a salutary lesson. This is addressed perhaps more to the Conservative Front Bench than anywhere else, but because of the fundamental importance of the link between politicians and the publicthe link between the individual Member of Parliament and the publicI am sceptical about suggestions for reducing the number of MPs. It is a nice little headline, but I do not see how you enrich our democracy and get closer contact between people and MPs in Parliament by reducing the number of MPs, and I am not so sure that it would be so popular if suggested in individual parts of the country. We must keep in touch with the public.
The second thing that I want to say at a general level, and it might sound rather conservative, is that I am not one of those who take the view that the British system of government and our constitution is something that we should be ashamed of or is beyond repair. I do not think there is any serious evidence for that. There are numerous things that need to be done and I am happy to participate in them, but does it sound too much like Land of Hope and Glory to say that ours is a constitutional system that has been copied, usually in the Commonwealth, by many other countries in the world and has operated successfully in many other countries? For all the day-to-day complaints, on any international comparison we are one of the freest countries in the world for freedom of expression and we have one of the easiest mechanisms of access to the people in powerthrough our MPs returning each weekend to constituents and connecting them to the Government.
There is a level of intimacy and access in our country which we should be proud of and we should cherish. I have come across that in my own experience on a number of occasions. When you talk to parliamentarians abroad, they are amazed at the extent to which the lives of MPs in this country are dominatedquite rightlyby the needs of their constituents. MPs need to ensure that meetings are held regularly in constituencies, which is never the same in other countries, particularly those that have systems of proportional representation, to which I will return in a moment.
My third general principle is this: in all aspects of constitutional reform, and this is certainly true of Lords reform, we should beware of what the right reverend Prelate referred tothe law of unintended consequences. That applies to Lords reform. I find it difficult to take seriously the argument that you can have a massive change in the way that this House operates that has no real significance in relation to the rest of the constitution. Perhaps this is mildly insulting to this House, but my concern throughout with Lords reform has had less to do with the effect on this House than on the whole of the constitution, particularly in the way that it would inevitably diminish the power and authority of the House of Commons. Coupled with that, any change in this House would look to the relationship between the two Houses. I would be very
11 Jun 2009 : Column 776
I now come to the two specifics, and one of those may not be supported by colleagues and friends of mine in the Liberal Democrat Party, although others may be more sympatheticthe issue of voting reform. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will remedy this when he comes to speak, but we have had three Liberal speakers so far and not one of them has referred in any size, shape or form and certainly not with any real acclamation to the one real example we have of proportional representation in this countryelections to the European Parliament. That is from a party that is passionate about proportional representation. That is a system that is already in existence.
I do not like proportional representation. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, suggested that self-interest motivated all the actions on this issue of the two big parties, as he described them. I can only plead in mitigation that I have had the same view throughout my political life. Within the Labour Party, it has sometimes been very popular to advocate electoral reform, and at other times less so, but that has always been my view. The noble Lord needs to acknowledge that when the Liberal Party advocates electoral reform, it could be argued that it is not entirely without party self-interest being somewhere in the background. As far as I know, the various mechanisms that are recommended would all probably result in increased representation for the Liberal Party. There are elements of self-interest, but we should not dismiss arguments on the basis of whether they are self-interested or not.
What makes me so worried about the prospect of electoral reform, certainly for the House of Commons, is the fact that it destroys the link, which is fundamental to our democracy, between a Member of Parliament and the constituency. I know that I will be told that there are lots of other forms of electoral reform. That is why it is such a difficult argument to have from my perspective. If you say that a system is wrong it is like saying that the wrong kind of leaves are on the line and that there are lots of alternatives to deal with the various problems. But we should be honest. As far as Europe is concerned, the system there has not delivered on some of the things that its proponents said that it would. I had these arguments long before the European PR system was introduced, but we were told that electoral reform would increase voter interest and turnout because it would liberate all the Conservatives in the north-east and all the Labour voters in the south-east who never had any possibility of representation under first-past-the-post. There is no shred of evidence for that. The turnout at European elections has certainly not improved since we moved from first-past-the-post to proportional representation.
Without going into any further detail, if we are to have a debate on electoral reform, please let us have it with our eyes wide open and include in it an honest appraisal of whether the system as it exists for the European elections has been a success. I am well aware that there were many criticisms at the time, and that it
11 Jun 2009 : Column 777
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that the fair comparison is not with the European elections, with all the problems of huge constituencies and other matters that give rise to where we are now? Should we not look at different national systems, whether in the Republic of Ireland or New Zealand, for example, to see exactly how they work in practice? Would that that not be a better comparison?
Lord Grocott: My Lords, I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that I feel very strongly that there comes a point when a system has to be defended. You cannot have an argument or a debate where people like me who favour first-past-the-post are defending a system that is well known, and tried and all its faults are knownI acknowledge its faultsand the other side of the argument is saying, Well it's not that system. Its this other system, and somehow there is a perfect system. It is wishful thinking to think that there is a perfect electoral system. The minimum should be the least bad electoral system.
The other specific point is Lords reform. This House owes the noble Lord, Lord Steel, a debt of gratitude for his work with his Bill on Lords reform. It is a model Bill that deals with two or three specific problemsthe point of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong. It is short and can be picked up by noble friend Lord Bach and incorporated in full into the constitutional renewal Bill just like that. It has an enormous amount to recommend it.
We should all welcome the opportunity to take part in what is a never-ending process of trying to improve our constitutional arrangements. Our constitution is not broken beyond repair. We do not need a clean sheet of paper. We need to identify improvements as and when we see them. I am happy to take part in that debate and hope we approach further discussions of this sort with that kind of framework in mind.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we are going to discuss constitutional change and renewal over the next year and beyond. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has just said, it may be the case that this is not the sort of thing that really excites people on a local level. Yet all of us who went back to our local areas in the Recess the week before last caught a strong and palpable sense of public disillusionment with politics. I had only to walk down the main street in Saltaire to get a handful of it. Talking to our councillors in Bradford, I got a real sense of what people thought was wrong about London, politics as a whole, the political class and, in some ways, democracy. That is deeply worrying and we have to respond to it.
The noble Baroness, Lady ONeill of Bengarve, said yesterday that this is a crisis of public trust in politics, not just the political class. We have to treat it
11 Jun 2009 : Column 778
We also need to recognise that this is not just a British problem. There is to some extent a collapse of trust in the political elite across the whole of Europe. We are in a slightly happier position than Italy, at least in national politics. In Italy, the level of trust in local politics and your city remains high. Part of what has gone wrong in Britain is that we have destroyed local representation and trust in local politics. We are faced with a much weaker position than some of those in other European countries. Again I am struck that the one country in Europe where the crisis of politics seems to be least acute is Germany, where church-going, the small town and small company remain strongest and the local bank still remains. These are all the things we have lost and are going to find hard to regain.
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. One of the glories of this country is that we have not actually lost the local church. We have lost the local just-about-everything-else, but the church is hanging in there by its fingernails. I know that is much valued.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I take that view. When the local church is also becoming the local Post Office and local shop, there is much we have to thank the church for and I strongly support that.
I felt puzzled as I listened to some of the earlier speeches. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, could have been made about political reform in 1831and probably waswith its Burkeian approach to politics: slow growth, deep conservatism, not sure whether the French Revolution was a good idea and opposed to the guillotine. The noble Lord at least recognised that the Liberals have been interested in reform for a considerable number of years. I remind him that it is 150 years, with an interest in Lords reform for 98 years so far. We are not wishing to push things too fast, just a little faster than we thought when we first met in the 1850s to talk about a party based on peace, retrenchment and reform.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, calls for a commission on the constitution and that really took me back. You will find in Volume 9 of the collected papers of the Kilbrandon commission on the constitution, which met between 1969 and 1973, a memorandum which I wrote as a young academic. It is just next to the memorandum on the constitutional relationship between the United Kingdom and the Crown dependencies, which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, knows well. It is the only thing on the subject. As he has said to a Commons committee, it still leaves the relationship deeply ambiguous so that we do not quite know where we are on that. I recall, in the middle of that commission, my wife and I being invited into the Treasury to talk to the constitution unit then headed by Sir Michael Quinlan, whose requiem mass, sadly, I shall be attending
11 Jun 2009 : Column 779
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that the one real example of proportional representation in this country is for the European Parliament. In the United Kingdom, we have a different system of election in Northern Ireland, in Scotland, for Scottish local government and in London. I have even voted in the London elections. Last week, Alex Salmond splendidly talked about the advantages of a minority government through a different electoral system which, he pointed out, has to negotiate with its opposition parties and has to persuade, not bully, bluster and force things through. I understood the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, as being strongly in favour of government that can force things through and does not have to negotiate or persuade. That for me, and others, is part of what is wrong.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|