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UK: Tolerance, Democracy and Openness


3.06 pm

Moved By Lord Harrison

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Lord Harrison: My Lords, in this bleak midwinter, I offer some reasons to be cheerful. Indeed, I celebrate and suggest that in the past long decade, we have become a more tolerant, more mobile, more open and, indeed, more democratic society.

In the forthcoming general election, the parties will divide on the economy, the NHS, education, housing and the reform of Parliament, but the parallel-indeed, complementary-agenda, so much of which helps people in some modest or targeted way, will scarcely be heard beneath the raging political arguments about those big issues. I regret that. There is much that an incumbent Government can do to improve people's lives, even at the margins. Whoever wins the general election must be alive and alert to mobilise that parallel agenda. Paradoxically, during these tough economic times, that agenda can flourish and help to mitigate some of the hardships.

In drawing attention to that parallel agenda, I do not claim that Labour has got everything right-it has not-but I assert that much has been done for the good and should be acknowledged. Let me offer some examples of our fostering a more open, democratic and tolerant Britain. The right to roam Acts applicable to the countryside and our coast have been a tonic for all of us who cherish the opportunity to walk and enjoy tracts of our beautiful countryside previously just talked about but, sadly, not walked about. Painstaking consultation with landowners has resulted in pleasure and leisure for the many, not just the few. Those of your Lordships who watched "Countryfile" on Sunday will have learnt of the farmer who changed his mind about access to the countryside. He found opportunities to offer tea to walkers coming through his land, make a bob or two and, as he said, meet people literally from the other side of the fence, perhaps promoting tolerance. The Act liberating the half of our coastline previously closed to the public was equally welcome, restoring to our people a national treasure. Indeed, we are all bonny beachcombers now.

The groundbreaking Hunting Act 2004 has also helped the countryside as well as establishing a decisive step in favour of animal welfare. The fear that the economy of the countryside would implode has been exploded. It has been quite the reverse. Drag hunting has attracted new enthusiasts who love the joy of horseriding. Rural industries and jobs there have been strengthened. Infractions of the hunting law have been limited, as the vast majority of riders have been keen to observe the law-yes, the law of the land.

But what of the countryside's future and the parallel agenda for rural Britain? The Government's recent pledge to bring broadband to rural Britain is essential for a living and active countryside as it confers on the remotest SME or individual the right to roam all modern communications. I hope that we can enable our rural towns and villages to strengthen local communities by collocating essential services in the local shop, pub or, indeed, parish church. We need inspired responses to the changing countryside. Farming is a life-saving industry for our nation, but it is no longer as job-rich as the extractive industries, tourism or the countless small businesses that have been helped by the establishment of first-class broadband facilities.

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Benign legislation has also allowed Britons the right to roam our national museums and art galleries free of charge. Free access brought in many more visitors, often for the first time, for whom entering a museum was as forbidding as unlocking Fort Knox. The profile of visitors to the excellent Museum of Liverpool shows that there are higher numbers drawn from social classes C2, D and E, which more than satisfies our hopes that our national treasures are thrown open to the people. As democracy comes to the arts, coupled with government-sponsored free access to our national museums has been huge capital investment in this sector, which has revived older museums, such as my own first museum, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and built new, such as Merseyside's outstanding International Slavery Museum where we democratise the art and history of our country. Perhaps the parallel agenda can next liberate the 90 per cent of holdings in our museums hidden away from the public eye for want of exhibition space.

The Government have, post-millennium, stimulated new investment in exciting new public architecture, often generating enormous civic pride. Antony Gormley's "Angel of the North" reflects the pride of the north-east's industrial steel heritage. The millennium celebrations in London saw innovative public architecture, embracing not only the quickly popular wobbly bridge and the London Eye, but the Millennium Dome, now the world's most successful entertainment venue. In future, I believe that local and private museums should be helped and linked with local industry and the national curriculum. They are palaces of wisdom and knowledge as yet untapped to the full extent, like too many of our private and public libraries. We should open up the former and repair the latter. Why not give free access to our unparalled theatres? London theatres prosper, but we could subsidise free entry, say, on a one-week-of-the-year basis, to our regional repertory theatres or provide free entry to groups such as the young and the jobless. The recession offers new opportunities for fresh thinking when judiciously encouraged by the Government.

How can one get to the local theatre or museum or the coast, countryside or England's beautiful cathedrals, now spruced up by plentiful public grants? Free bus passes for pensioners have been a winner and are another right to roam. I remember pensioners enthusiastically planning routes to roam Britain by linking up local bus services. Some plotted journeys as far as from John o'Groats to Land's End. London's Freedom Pass incorporates the Underground. The right to roam TV channels through free TV licences for 4.5 million people over the age of 75 has proved a bonus, as has the extension of the winter fuel and cold weather payments schemes, which have saved lives as well as cheering everyone up in snow-bound Britain. These added extras supplement the substantial rise in pensions that secures real dignity for those in retirement.

The Disability Discrimination Act has strengthened the dignity of those who are less physically able, many of whom are pensioners. The Act not only outlawed obvious discriminatory practices but changed the whole atmosphere of how society values and cherishes all our citizens, whatever their level of mobility. I am a

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passionate bus fan, and I notice the kindness and tolerance that people have to less mobile fellow travellers on buses. Many people call for the return of the old Routemasters, but they were intolerant of women with children and older people.

A propos a more open society, I point to the liberalising of Britain's antiquated licensing laws. It was controversial to some, but it is here to stay, meeting, as it has, the general public mood of exercising freedom of choice on where and when to drink. Related to this is the brave introduction of the ban on smoking in public places. Its successful implementation has astonished all but the most optimistic. Indeed, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" is now imprisoned in the gastropub's jukebox and is no longer blown across the dining table to the discomfort of us all. Many habitual smokers welcomed the fresh opportunity to give up. In time, the evidence will show the enormous health benefits to our nation of this bold move. Perhaps excess alcohol consumption will be the next target of bold thinking.

A more tolerant society is a more open society and, in turn, a more democratic society. The change in mood in modern Britain towards women, members of the gay and lesbian communities and our ethnic communities strengthens our democratic roots. Increasingly, we are becoming a nation at ease with itself. The Civil Partnership Act epitomises this change of mood, as our gay and lesbian colleagues can now, with pride, express, at long last, their open love for and attachment to a companion human being of the same sex before a wider and more tolerant community. I remember learning to my delight from a senior marriage registrar of her staff's visible pleasure in presiding over such happy civil partnership ceremonies. The Evening Standard's recent uplifting report on the conference of gay armed services personnel held in the Victory Services Club in central London was unusual in itself, but the event was blessed by a personal message of welcome from Her Majesty the Queen. How welcome, and how heart-warming.

Similarly, on women in Britain today, I remind noble Lords of the song "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass". There are examples here in this House of breaking the glass ceiling. Your Lordships' House has had five Leaders since I arrived. Four have been noble Baronesses, each here on merit. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is our first Lord Speaker, and nowadays all the Front Benches boast gifted women in substantial numbers. Tokenism is unwelcome in your Lordships' House, as it is when it comes to our valued ethnic communities. John Denham and the noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, on this morning's "Today" programme, recognised a decade of achievement in this respect. We still have much more to do to sweep out prejudice in all its debilitating forms, but progress is real and we should celebrate it while remaining vigilant.

The Government's parliamentary reform agenda has been substantial, and many parliamentarians are ambiguous about the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act, but despite the media's often selective approach to this new freedom, the Act will be seen to endure. So, too, will be the profound reform of the British constitution, including the sensible divesting from our once multitasking Lord Chancellor his many

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incompatible roles. The Supreme Court will prove to be a worthy development and a wise surrender of excessive powers. No future Administration will undo it.

Similarly, on devolution, who now argues the status quo ante for the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, or indeed the coming together of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which are improved equally with a flourish of architectural development that rightly follows those changes?

There is an example in your Lordships' House of how we have moved forward, becoming a more tolerant and more open society. We were the first House in these Houses of Parliament to welcome a youth parliament into our Chamber, which I celebrate. It is right and proper that we who are the responsible politicians of the day pass on the good news to our younger people.

In conclusion, there will be a clash of the mighty in the forthcoming general election, but there is a parallel agenda and there are ways in which enlightened and thinking Governments can help the lives of many of our other citizens. We should not miss those opportunities.

3.20 pm

Lord Patten: My Lords, I wish to concentrate my remarks on the "T" word-"tolerant"-in the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. While I recognise that there have been advances in tolerance in recent years, I have just begun to perceive that some advances in tolerance have led to intolerances in other areas, which I regret. In particular, I regret the creeping intolerance towards religious faiths of all sorts in this country.

It may well be necessary, sooner rather than later, for this House and another place to consider the introduction of legislation to protect religious freedoms in this country. It is about the one area that has not seen such legislation in recent years. This may cause the lips of self-styled liberals to curl a bit in scorn-I am rather careful about complaining about the work of liberals, who have indeed advanced matters quite considerably-but illiberalism is increasingly creeping into liberalism. There is a problem if people do not subscribe to this or that tenet of the fashionable liberalism of the day, whatever those nostrums are. Perhaps now is not the time to discuss this, and we do not have the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, that great grammarian, here to help us, but if you use some bits of language in a particular way, they are correct in the liberal canon, whereas if you use them in other ways, they are incorrect in the liberal canon.

Also creeping into modern and contemporary liberal thought is the clear view that the European Convention on Human Rights should drive how we behave and, much more than that, that the convention is all about the individual and not at all about the communities to which individuals belong. Therein, in some interpretations, we have seen some of the drive that has been pro the individual and anti groups, which include religious faiths of all sorts in this country. There must surely be some recognition that a pluralist society is not merely a collective of individuals-an idea that leads to totalitarianism-but a community of communities, as one wise person once observed to me.

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It is very good that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has promoted this debate. He is an original thinker and I have enjoyed earlier debates that he has promoted in your Lordships' House. In no way could he ever be accused of being a party hack. For fear that the Hansard writers who assiduously record our proceedings missed this, let me state that the person who said "Hear, hear" after the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, opined that the Labour Government have not got everything right was me.

It is good to have this debate before there is further progress on the piecemeal legislation in front of this House in the shape of the Equality Bill and other legislation. Seeking to help, perhaps for the best of reasons, toleration of this or that group, or this or that individual, may at the same time create a new and diminished understanding of the human and move against the interests of church and faith groups in this country.

I have not taken part in the proceedings on the Equality Bill. I am not trying to read across anything that I have said or will say in those debates, but I am interested to note that in our present piecemeal legislation representations are coming thick and fast from faith groups. I do not think that anyone should curl their lip at faith groups-churches, Jews, Muslims and others-feeling alarmed. In the area of long-term care for people with learning disabilities, for example, people living in such communities have got used to turning to a care worker and being able to say, "Please help me with this scripture. Please pray with me", always knowing that there will be a Christian context. Faith groups are extremely concerned that the Bill might make it impossible to ensure that that is the case.

I do not think that the Government understand the role of the clergy. They now require proof that a protected job involves leading worship or teaching doctrine, wholly or mainly. Most pastors-I use that term generically, whether they are in the Jewish faith or the Muslim faith, or are Catholics or Protestants-are greatly involved in pastoral and administrative work. They probably could not demonstrate that they are mainly or wholly involved in leading worship or teaching doctrine.

The results of this sort of legislation could be disastrous. The Roman Catholic view-I am one of those who hold it-is in general that the new wording may outlaw its male-only clergy policy. I am not on direct drive from the Vatican. His Holiness has not instructed me to say this. No one from Archbishop's House in Westminster has sent me the Roman Catholic equivalent of a three-line Whip, which is much tougher than any three-line Whip that we have ever seen in your Lordships' House, to say this. I believe that non-Christian religious groups are also very concerned.

The time has come for religious groups and faith groups to make quite sure that they are not walking away from their ground in front of the little intolerances that are being brought in as a direct result of trying to promote tolerance. We do not have any Roman Catholic religious representation; we do not have any cardinals in your Lordships' House. Recently, we had the very welcome introduction of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, who I hope will speak out in favour of religious freedoms.

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We also have a Bench of Bishops. I have a story from a few years ago, which has the seal of the confessional as to who it involved. I met a Bishop as we were going through the Lobbies on one of those great life issues that exercise us all in this place and on which we all get together to vote one way or another. Very few Bishops were in the Lobby voting the same way as me. The Bishop involved was not the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester. In answer to my question as to why there were so few Bishops about, the Bishop said that the Bishops had between them, in a very real sense, taken the view that they did not want to be seen to be coming here and swamping the House in this Division. If churches vacate the ground, they cannot complain if an increasingly secular society moves its tanks on to the ground that they have vacated. I should like to see a terrifying figure, such as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, nipping at the heels of the Government on these issues to ensure that we do not vacate the ground of defending ancient religious rights and freedoms. An Act of Parliament will shortly be needed to protect what many churches have thought was theirs, but which many churches, faith groups, Muslims and Jews are ceding.

3.28 pm

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, I am tempted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Patten, in my role as a mere Methodist in this House, but that is not the direction in which I want to go today. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison, my travelling colleague from Crewe and Chester to London, for initiating this debate. I should like to stress again the democratic element in his Motion. The Government have moved, and we must express gratitude to them, to fulfil the pledge that they made in 1997 to establish a Parliament for Scotland and Assemblies for Northern Ireland and Wales. That has brought about a transformation in the way in which legislative programmes are considered in Wales and Scotland and, over time I expect, Northern Ireland. Instead of a Secretary of State dictating what is to happen, the elected Assembly or Parliament has a voice and makes the final decision. This is growing and improving as the years go by and we are grateful for it.

I want to mention the revolutionary change that was made to the way in which we elect Members of the European Parliament, so that we now use a form of PR list, for which, again, I am most grateful. However, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, when speaking in a debate a couple of nights ago, suggested that the next Conservative Government,

Others participating in the debate will have listened to that statement with a wee bit of alarm. Democracy cannot stand still and the systems of yesterday are not necessarily fit for purpose today.

Perhaps I may repeat what I have said a number of times. Around 200 years ago, there were uncontested, unopposed returns in many constituencies. Even as recently as the general election of 1900, there were some 243 unopposed returns. We had only the Whigs

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and the Tories and later the Liberals and the Conservatives. With only two candidates from each of the parties fighting for most of the seats, it was easy to achieve over 50 per cent of the vote for one of the candidates. But that has changed over the years. In Scotland and Wales, with nationalist parties and others having come into the ring, we now have three, four or five candidates for each seat. It is therefore often the case that a Member is elected with under 50 per cent of the votes and thus does not represent the majority of the constituents. Yesterday's system does not work today and, as I have said, it is not fit for purpose.

We have seen changes over the past century such as votes for women, who achieved the same status as men in 1928, and, from 1960, votes for those aged 18 and over. We have also seen the growth of postal voting on demand. This is a move that we on these Benches regard with a bit of suspicion. This is the only country in the world that has postal votes on demand and the whole field has been opened up to the possibility of fraud. In Birmingham and other places, there have been court cases to decide on this element of democratic change.

Postal votes have changed everything. In 1997, 2.1 per cent of the electorate had a postal vote, which represented 937,205 votes. In 2001, the figure had risen to 1,758,055, representing 4 per cent of the electorate. By 2005, 12.1 per cent had the postal vote-5,362,501 people. For the European elections last year, 14.2 per cent of the electorate-6,318,501 people-had a postal vote. It is quite possible that in the election in May this year we will see 8 million postal votes. In Newcastle upon Tyne, for example, some 31 per cent of the electorate has registered for a postal vote-some 67,000 applications.

However, the election timetable remains the same. For parliamentary elections, close of nominations and close of postal vote applications occur only 11 days before polling day. When the number of postal vote applications has increased tenfold, an intolerable burden is placed on returning officers in the constituencies, which can lead to serious errors being made. When you do something under pressure, mistakes can be made.

I am pressing this in various ways, but what I would like is for us to look at the timetable. In local elections, 19 days are allowed between nomination day and polling day. Why do we not allow an extra week for people to register for postal votes in general elections? Once nomination day is reached, the electoral registration officer has 24 hours in which to send by Royal Mail all the ballot papers. There will be immense pressure this year if the general election is held on the same day as the local elections, which are being held in England on 6 May. It will be a recipe for disaster unless the Government move to extend the time allowed.

It is bad for us at home in this country, but are there not also great difficulties in trying to get postal votes returned from those in Afghanistan in 11 days? It cannot be done. One local authority informed me that it did not have one return from Iraq at the time of the last general election. By limiting the period to 11 days, we are disfranchising those young men and women who are putting their lives on the line for us. If we expect them to do that, the least we can do is make sure that they have the opportunity to vote in a general election.

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I say 19 days, but the Electoral Commission says 25 days and has urged the Government to increase the period to that. There is time to do it. You can sometimes get a Bill through the House of Commons and the House of Lords in a matter of a day or two. Why are the Government not responding to this need and, at the same time, undermining the democratic ideal?

3.36 pm

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Harrison on a wonderful, non-partisan survey of the triumphs of the Labour Government over the past 10 years. I also congratulate my tribal friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno on his speech. Like many Liberal Democrats, he believes that all roads lead to electoral reform. I shall say a little more in tune with what the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said in a moment as a corrective to what I agree was a grand and comprehensive speech. I was going to adopt most of what my noble friend said, in particular in relation to the smoking ban, until I noticed my noble friend Lady Farrington on the Front Bench and I thought it prudent not to follow him down that path.

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