|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
What worries me is that we have already had a bellyful of constitutional reform over the past 12 years. In practically every Session, we have had constitutional reform. Most of the hereditaries have been banished from the House of Lords. The Lord Chancellor's powers have been very much reduced. He has been removed from the House of Lords and sent along to the House of Commons, of all places. The Law Lords have been banished to a place across the way. It is ridiculous now to talk about the High Court of Parliament. We are no longer the High Court of Parliament; the Supreme Court sits outside this place and that is, in my view, an absolute disgrace. There has been a decline of Cabinet government and the House of Commons has been sidelined and muted.
Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, on raising this Question. I shall focus on the Government's proposals for constitutional change. They may be somewhat less radical than those proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, but they may, arguably, stand a greater chance of getting enacted.
As the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said, we have seen several major constitutional changes since 1997. As I have argued before, they have not derived from a clear view of the type of constitution that the Government wish to achieve. Rather, they have been brought forward as freestanding measures, with little obvious thought given to the relationship between them. However, taking them as freestanding measures, it should at least be the subject of thorough planning within government.
In its fourth report of the 2001-02 Session, the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House published a report entitled Changing the Constitution: the Process of Constitutional Change. In evidence to the committee, the then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, explained in detail how Bills of constitutional significance were subject to a rigorous process of discussion within government, especially through the medium of a Cabinet committee. He produced a clear diagram detailing the process. He told the committee the number of times the relevant Cabinet committees had met. A great deal of preparation clearly took place before the legislation on devolution, for example, was brought before Parliament.
How, then, does this relate to proposals now being pursued for constitutional change? Last year the Government published a draft constitutional renewal Bill. The draft Bill was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. A Joint Committee was appointed-I served on it-and it undertook a fairly exhaustive examination of the measure, publishing its report in July of last year. There are various criticisms that can be levelled at the Bill and the process to which it is subject. The Bill is not a constitutional renewal Bill-it is, in essence, a constitutional renewal (miscellaneous provisions) Bill. The Joint Committee was not given the time recommended for pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government have yet to respond to the Joint Committee's report. None the
6 July 2009 : Column 525
In short, the Government appear to be in a position to introduce their constitutional renewal Bill. They have said that they plan to do so before the Summer Recess. They have been saying that for some time. The Summer Recess gets ever nearer. However, they have introduced the Parliamentary Standards Bill. This has not been published in draft. It has not been subject to the structured process of deliberation within government that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, explained was the expected process for dealing with such Bills. Rather, it has been rushed within government-reflected in the poor drafting-and rushed through the other place in three days.
When a Bill of constitutional significance is brought forward without having been through the process that the Government have stipulated, there should be an expectation of thorough parliamentary scrutiny. If that is to be departed from and the Bill given an expedited passage, not only must a case be made for that but the case has to be compelling.
We seem to be in a perverse situation. A Bill of constitutional significance which has been subject to consideration within government and subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, containing provisions, as on the Civil Service, that all parties would like to see on the statute book, has not yet been brought forward. Yet a Bill which has been produced in haste and which was friendless among Back-Benchers when debated in the other place, is being rushed through, a Bill that would seem premature given that the report of the Kelly committee is expected in the autumn.
We shall return to the arguments on the Parliamentary Standards Bill on Wednesday. My main concern this evening is the opportunity cost-that is, the introduction of the constitutional renewal Bill. I have three questions for the Minister. First, does the process adumbrated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, remain the one to which constitutional Bills should be subject? Secondly, when may we expect the Government's constitutional renewal Bill to be introduced? Lastly, what was the process that determined the relative priorities of the two Bills? Answers to these questions will, I believe, be helpful in clarifying the Government's approach to legislation effecting constitutional change. As it stands, that approach is far from clear.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, the Bill to which the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, referred in his opening comments has 25 clauses and provides for major local government reform, major House of Lords reform, major House of Commons reform, the repeal of the
6 July 2009 : Column 526
I can see attractions in the fixed-term Parliament-one is the predictability of political life. We would know that there would be a general election in 2010 and every five years thereafter. We would know that there would be one in 2110, 2210, 2310, and so on; despite floods, famine, war, global warming, the elections would be held at fixed intervals. That is the attraction, to make life predictable; it has some problems.
The other attraction, which is harder for me to acknowledge, is that it is said to remove power from the Prime Minister. It is argued that it is very unfair that a Prime Minister can determine when the election will take place, despite the fact that over the years, Prime Ministers of all parties have frequently got that date wrong. It is not quite the golden advantage that it is sometimes characterised as being.
I object to fixed-term Parliaments because I think they would make Parliament-the House of Commons itself-weaker. It certainly makes it a less dramatic place. I offer in evidence the most dramatic debate since the war. It took place 30 years ago this year and resulted in the loss by one vote of a vote of confidence of the then Labour Government and a general election. I put it to this House that if it had been known that whatever the outcome of that vote, there could not possibly be a general election, it would have diminished the drama and significance of the occasion. I think that is bad for Parliament; it weakens Parliament, because the knowledge that Parliament can cause a general election is one of its great strengths and why it is taken so seriously. My other objection to fixed-term Parliaments is that I dread the thought of the American-style electoral cycle, where you know a year in advance precisely when a general election will take place. There is a year's electioneering involving-it goes without saying-colossal sums of money. It does not appeal to me one iota.
I come now to the question of fewer MPs. I think even the proposer of the Bill would think that it goes too far in saying that the number of MPs should be reduced to 250. What worries me about this is not so much the reduction in MPs, but the increase in the size of constituencies. It would mean something like 250,000 constituents per MP. All I can say to that, to anyone who has been an MP-or who has not, but knows the political system well enough-is, "Just try representing that group of people". I had the good fortune to be an MP twice, both times with very large constituencies of around 90,000 people. The idea that they should have been trebled fills me with deep concern, to put it mildly. Although it is superficially attractive, since MPs-as we know-are no more popular than journalists
6 July 2009 : Column 527
The relationship between an MP in the United Kingdom and their constituents is, in most cases, a very close one. The constituencies are small enough to enable that to happen. It may be popular globally to say, "Let's reduce the number of MPs", but not in individual areas. If you told some counties of Britain that they would have only one MP after this reform, I am not sure that there would be quite such support for the proposal. It goes without saying that constituencies would be colossal geographical areas, which is another big disadvantage.
Those are the two parts of this legislation that I would suggest treating with extreme caution. As I have said, the Bill is imaginative and well worth debating. However, one part-fixed-term Parliaments-would, in my view, weaken Parliament. The other- reducing the number of MPs-would reduce the strength of the relationship that exists at the moment between Members of Parliament and their constituencies.
Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Pearson for so eloquently introducing the Bill in my name, which had its First Reading about a month ago. In the time allowed I will touch briefly on only three points. Since both the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Stoddart, have been rather exercised about the number of MPs, perhaps I could make one or two points on that. Yes, of course, constituencies would be larger; I do not necessarily accept that that is a bad thing. My Bill will, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, wished, give far more power to local authorities. At the moment, I think it is fair to say that some MPs do a lot of work that might normally be done by local-whether district or county-councillors. They take on quite a lot of local work, which could better be done by their much more local representatives. As for making Parliament weaker, my feeling-which I hope is not unfair-is that Parliament is weak enough as it is. The other provisions in the Bill will strengthen it. Of course, this is a sighting shot. These proposals could be discussed later in Committee and amended if that was the wish of the House.
On fixed-term Parliaments, I take the point about the dramatic impact of a vote of no confidence, but it does not happen very often. Certainly, it is outweighed by the advantages that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was kind enough to enumerate; namely, certainty and the inability of a Prime Minister to call elections, even if they get the timing wrong.
Turning to the Bill itself, the principle of Clause 1 -withdrawal from the European Union-is a sine qua non because otherwise all or most of the provisions would be unachievable, so that is where we start from. Whether we agree with the exact numbers or not, it seems to be common ground that we have too many legislators, who are certainly passing too many Bills.
6 July 2009 : Column 528
It is not just the expenses scandal which has so outraged people and, I am afraid, brought Parliament and its denizens into contempt; it is the sense of powerlessness that is important here. Surely it is time for a transfer of power away from the centre to people. I remind noble Lords that 1 million people marched in London against the Iraq war, and half a million people marched against the proposal to criminalise hunting. Were those voices listened to? No, they were not, so people naturally feel powerless. People care about politics but if they feel that they do not have a voice, they will not vote and that is what has happened. In the local elections, European elections and general elections there has been a successive and increasing loss of interest. That must be unhealthy.
The solution, as my Bill makes clear, to a working democracy in practice, is referendums, such as are held in Switzerland-arguably the most democratic country in the world-where referendums work very well at both national and local level. Their great advantage is that they give people a say in what is happening. They give people a real feeling that they have had a proper input into the laws that affect their lives. My Bill makes provision for referendums to be held at national and local level, as in Switzerland, initiated either by the Government or the required qualifying number of voters, who sign a petition for a referendum to be held.
Many of us in this House will have heard the patronising arguments against referendums, advanced by some of your Europhile Lordships during our debates on the Lisbon treaty; that is, people are too ignorant or too irresponsible to be granted the power that is given by a referendum. I do not accept that for a single moment; that is an argument against democracy itself. We should really have none of it. Sir Francis Bacon said:
Lord Tyler: My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, for this debate, not least because the title gives us an opportunity to speak about all sorts of issues, rather than simply concentrate on the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke. I feel that I should allow other speakers to
6 July 2009 : Column 529
Reference has been made to the extent to which regulation in this country originates in the EU. In a very interesting document published in May this year, entitled The EU and British Regulatory Systems, the British Chamber of Commerce pointed out:
Therefore, I am afraid that some of the rationale for the Bill that has been put forward to the House, and in speeches this evening, does not stand up to scrutiny. In any case it surely is not the number of legislative proposals that is important, but their significance. There is an important issue-this has been referred to briefly this evening-regarding the extent to which British Governments of both colours have tended to gold-plate in Whitehall and Westminster what has come from the EU.
In the other place I held responsibility for shadowing the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as it then was, in the 1992 Parliament. I can tell your Lordships that a vast amount of addition was extended to the regulations that came through MAFF during that period. Yes, they originated in Brussels but by the time they reached the poor benighted farming community, or those seeking to sell or process home-grown food, they were quite unrecognisable from what had originated from the EU. If one compares-as I did during that period-the way in which abattoirs were treated in Germany, France, Scandinavia or this country, it was totally different, not because of anything that came out of Brussels or Strasbourg but because of Whitehall imposing much more stringent restrictions on small throughput slaughterhouses in this country. Other countries, notably the Scandinavian countries but also Germany, are meticulous in implementing EU directives, but take the opportunity to vary them and to use derogation. There is substantial variation all through the EU. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, that we are woefully overcentralised in Whitehall and Westminster. However, you cannot blame the EU for what we do in Whitehall and Westminster.
Proposals are already before your Lordships' House that fall within the title of this debate. Two of my noble friends have Bills already in Committee before
6 July 2009 : Column 530
The serious issue here is that we are packing into a few days before the Summer Recess extraordinarily important proposals for the British constitution. I cannot think that it is appropriate to do so, or of any time over the 60 or so years of my interest in politics when so much has been crammed into the last few days before the Summer Recess. I understand-I do not know whether this is a well-founded rumour-that the Government are considering re-establishing September sittings to deal with this problem. I do not know whether the Minister can confirm that. When I worked with Mr Robin Cook when he was Leader of the other place and I was his shadow, I recall that we produced what we thought was a very sensible bargain; namely, that Members with families should have half-term recesses in the spring and autumn in return for the two Houses of Parliament coming back in September. I think that would be a very sensible way to deal with this matter. It would be a parliamentary scandal if we are kept up all night on Monday 20 July for ridiculous ping-pong, ill-considered amendments and a revision of amendments to deal with this Bill. It would do nothing to reconnect people with their Parliament or give them more confidence and assurance that Parliament is dealing appropriately with the great issues of today. I hope that we will be reassured that that will not happen.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that it is difficult to do justice in six minutes to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, which is probably the biggest constitutional Bill that we have seen in our lifetime in terms of what it covers. I remind him, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has done, that the subject of this Question for Short Debate is,
We have to remind ourselves that not just this Bill but a whole host of other Bills are before us. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, has a Bill before the House. We have the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, government Bills of one sort or another, and other government Bills are promised. We cannot debate these things in the dinner break on a Monday evening and do justice to them.
That said, I will go through the usual forms and congratulate my former noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, on having introduced such
6 July 2009 : Column 531
Fair enough. We then move to Clause 2, which repeals the Human Rights Act. I do not wish to put questions to the Government, but I have to ask the noble Lord who introduced this Bill: do we, when we repeal the Human Rights Act, pass over the judgments on these matters from British courts to the European Court of Human Rights?
The Bill moves on to "International treaties", "Military action", the "Number of Parliamentary constituencies" and so on. It deals with local government and referendums-or referenda, as many prefer to describe them. Interestingly, while I appreciate that such people are good Latinists, the drafters of the Bill have used the word "referendums".
Having made it clear that I do not think that it is appropriate that we should debate that Bill at this stage-no doubt, we can debate it later-I conclude with just one question. It is not one that the Government can answer, but the promoters of the Bill-and it is an interesting question. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, when introducing the Bill, mentioned that there would be a sunset clause in it and that it would expire after 10 years, beginning on the day it was passed. We on this side have always been very much in favour of sunset clauses; there is a lot to be said for them.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|