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House of Lords

Friday, 5 February 2010.

10 am

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Norwich.

Terrorist Asset Freezing (Temporary Provisions) Bill


10.06 am

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, with the leave of the House I will make a Business Statement about the Terrorist Asset Freezing (Temporary Provisions) Bill. On 27 January, the Supreme Court gave a judgment on the legality of the Orders in Council that the Treasury uses to freeze terrorist assets. Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that it will not grant a stay of its 27 January judgment. The effect of these rulings is to quash with immediate effect the Terrorism Order 2006 and all designations made under it. As a result, the Government are today introducing a short Bill in the other place, designed to prevent these assets being unfrozen and returned to terror suspects.

The intention is to fast-track the Bill to ensure Royal Assent before the House rises for the half-term break. In line with Constitution Committee recommendations on fast-track legislation, the Explanatory Notes to the Bill will contain a full explanation of the case for fast-tracking, and will address the key questions set by the committee. The provisions of the fast-track Bill, if enacted, would expire on 31 December 2010; so today the Government are also publishing a draft Bill modelled closely on existing powers under the Terrorism Order 2009. This is intended to provide a durable legal basis for the UK to freeze the assets of suspected terrorists and maintain an effective, proportionate and fair terrorist asset-freezing regime that meets our United Nations obligations, protects national security and safeguards human rights. The draft Bill has been published to ensure that the substantive piece of proposed legislation can be subject to rigorous pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation before being introduced to Parliament.

I return to the fast-track Bill being introduced in the other place today. The intention is for this House to take all stages of the Bill on Tuesday 9 February. This will mean making changes to other business next week. The Third Reading of the Bribery Bill and the remaining Committee stage of the Digital Economy Bill will be brought forward to Monday; the Second Reading of the Financial Services Bill will be postponed until Tuesday 23 February; and the Financial Services order scheduled in Grand Committee on Tuesday will be taken in the Chamber on Wednesday.

My noble friend the Leader of the House will shortly move three Business of the House Motions to allow business to be rescheduled, and I hope that the House will give its approval. If the arrangements are approved, the list of speakers for Second Reading of the fast-track Bill will be opened in the Government Whips' Office, and the Public Bill Office has agreed to

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accept amendments in advance of Second Reading. All the changes are published in an updated edition of Forthcoming Business, a document that is now available in the Government Whips' Office and the Printed Paper Office. This approach has the agreement of the usual channels and I hope that the whole House will support it.

Lord Morris of Aberavon:As a former member of the Constitution Committee, I express my thanks to the Government for the statement that we have heard on fast-tracking. It is precisely the kind of case that the committee discussed, and the justification is obvious and paramount.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, for some time, we have been looking at other legislation that could be fast-tracked in view of the coming general election. In 1997, there were fewer than 1 million postal votes; this time, there will be 8 million, yet the timescale remains the same: 11 days. I have been told time and again that it is too late to ask the House to agree to a Bill to fast-track legislation in order to extend the timetable for postal voting so that, for example, the military in Afghanistan and others can cast a vote. Why is it not possible to bring forward such a Bill?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, this morning I have made a statement that refers to very urgent and serious matters relating to national security and terrorism. I think that the point that the noble Lord is making relates to what one might ordinarily describe as Business of the House. If the noble Lord has some concerns about that, he will be quite right to raise them through the usual channels, and I am sure that it is a matter that we can discuss off the Floor of the Chamber.

Business of the House

Motion on Standing Orders

10.11 am

Moved By Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

Motion agreed.

Business of the House

Timing of Debates

Moved By Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

Motion agreed.

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Business of the House

Motion on Standing Orders

Moved By Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

Motion agreed.

Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (Regulated Activities) (Amendment) Order 2010

Order of Referral to Grand Committee Discharged

10.12 am

Moved By Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

Motion agreed.

Constitutional Reform Bill [HL]

Bill Main Page
Copy of the Bill

Second Reading

10.12 am

Moved By Lord Willoughby de Broke

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Constitutional Reform Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest so far as they are affected by the Bill at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I am grateful to the Government for giving me the chance to present this Bill to the House. I remember that when the Bill had its First Reading on 19 November and I read out its first provision to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, there was a rather tolerant gust of laughter around the House. I was slightly surprised but did not mind at all; I have got used to the fact that certain noble Lords in this House find it difficult to understand that there can be any suggestion of life outside the EU. My reason for including this apparently laughable measure-the repeal of the 1972 Act-is that it is fundamental to the Bill. Without it, I submit that there is little point in talking about constitutional reform. Successive Governments and successive Parliaments have, through successive treaties, given ever more of their rightful powers to the EU. There can be no meaningful reform without claiming back those powers for Parliament and for the voters who elect that Parliament.

Clause 2 of my Bill repeals the Human Rights Act 1998. This Act has undermined the Government's ability to deal effectively with terrorism, crime and illegal immigration. The Government have repeatedly found themselves in some difficulties over this Act. For example, the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security

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Act 2001 was found by the courts to be in breach of the Act, and the Government were forced to repeal part of this, their own Act, which had been passed only a few months earlier. Equally, the Human Rights Act has given them difficulty over control orders; because of that Act, they were unable to deport the nine Afghanis who hijacked a plane at Stansted in 2006. These difficulties led the then Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, to call for a rebalancing of this legislation. I am not quite sure what "rebalancing" means; I think that "repeal" is probably the right word. I do not think that my erstwhile friends on the Conservative Benches should have any problems with this clause, as their policy, as I understand it, is to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Henley, will be able to clarify that.

Clauses 3 and 4 make it a requirement that no international treaties or military action may be entered into without prior parliamentary approval. This puts the elected Parliament in the driving seat and is similar to arrangements in the United States, where the President needs Senate approval to sign any treaty and Congress has to vote approval for the money for any military engagement.

In Part 2, we come to the rebalancing-to borrow Jack Straw's word-of Parliament. The main points here are, first, that the number of constituencies should be greatly reduced-the Bill suggests about 250. This Bill was trailed in a debate on constitutional reform in July last year, and the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Stoddart, who had both been elected MPs, objected to this number of MPs on the grounds that that would make constituencies too large and unwieldy. I see the force of that argument but I point out that MPs now do quite a lot of work that perhaps could be properly and better done by parish councillors, district councillors or county councillors. The proposals later in the Bill give real power to all those councillors through direct elections and powers given to them in the Bill. However, this is only Second Reading and we can probably revisit in Committee the question of the size of Parliament.

Clause 6 proposes a fixed parliamentary term of five years. That would give certainty to the electorate and remove power from the Prime Minister to call an election when it suited his rather than the country's interests. I should point out that in Committee I intend to put in a provision that, should a Government lose a vote of no confidence during this five-year period, Parliament would have to be prorogued. Noble Lords will also note that under Clause 11(2) there is a power for voters to call for a general election under the referendum powers granted to them.

While I am on this point, noble Lords will see that Clause 6(1) says:

"The next parliamentary general election is to take place on 6th May 2010".

This Bill was printed on 19 November last year but of course a lot of work went on before then, so at least, if nothing else, perhaps I can claim some clairvoyance there.

Clause 7 reduces the number of sitting days of Parliament to 100. The legislative sausage machine has to be slowed down or stopped. There is simply too

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much legislation. In the past 10 years, we have passed nearly 500 Acts of Parliament, added to the almost uncountable tens of thousands of regulations and statutory instruments-more than 10,000 in the past three years alone. When preparing for this Bill, I was astonished to find that 200 statutory instruments had been passed since 1 January this year alone-the Poultry Compartments (England) Order 2010, the Video Recordings (Labelling) Regulations and the Infrastructure Planning (Interested Parties) Regulations, to name but three.

These tens of thousands of SIs do not have a hope of being properly scrutinised. Indeed, many of them-particularly those coming to us from Brussels and directly applicable-are not even laid before Parliament. According to information supplied to me by the Library, the last time that an affirmative statutory instrument was defeated in the other place was in 1978. Fewer sitting days should lead to less but better regulation.

Clause 8 covers the payment of Members of the House of Commons, which is a delicate subject at the moment. My Bill proposes that Members should receive a generous but transparent expenses allowance to allow them to operate efficiently. The proposed salary is pitched to encourage Members of Parliament to have jobs outside Parliament and discourage the idea of career MPs.

On the reform of this House, I propose something different from the already large menus which we have been invited to scrutinise over the past few years. I suggest that there should be four options proposed by the House of Commons, two of them being no change and total abolition, which will be put within seven years to the electorate to vote on. They would vote on that in a referendum. That brings me to the central point in my Bill, which is to give power back to the people through binding national and local referendums. It is hard to deny that people now feel some contempt for Parliament. They feel powerless; they feel that their voice is not heard, that it goes unnoticed. They must be right. A million people marched in London against the Iraq war. Half a million people marched to protest against the criminalisation of hunting. Were their voices heard or taken any notice of? No, they were not.

I believe that the most profound change in the past 100 years to the way that this country is governed has been the incremental handover of legislative powers to Brussels from Westminster in a succession of EU treaties. No one in this country under the age of 55 has ever had a chance to say whether they agreed with that or not. My Bill would give people a meaningful say in decisions that affect their lives and which they pay for with their taxes.

Clauses 11 and 16 give governments, national and local, the right to hold referendums, and give voters the right to do the same through qualifying petitions. I do not accept for a moment the patronising arguments advanced in this House during our debate on the Lisbon treaty that voters are either too ignorant or too irresponsible to be granted such a right. That is an argument against democracy itself. Referendums work very well indeed in Switzerland, arguably the most democratic country in the world. I would expect the

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Government, at least, to accept my argument, as the Prime Minister has announced that he will propose that a decision be taken on whether to have first-past-the-post or alternative vote elections, to be decided by a referendum.

Clause 10 defines those areas that are reserved to Parliament and beyond the scope of local authorities. Clause 17 calls for a review of public bodies to ensure that they are necessary, accountable and cost-effective. This review will cover, for example, regional development agencies, regional assemblies and the forest of more than 1,100 quangos-or non-departmental public bodies, as they are also known-that have sprung up in the past 15 years, from the Advisory Committee on Advertising to the Youth Justice Board, via the Drainage Council for Northern Ireland and the Potato Council. A royal commission will decide where the axe should fall, in the public interest. Only this morning I read in the papers that the cost of quangos has now mushroomed to £46 billion a year. There must be some savings to be made there.

Finally, Clauses 12 to 15 give local authorities powers to determine local policies, make local laws and have local tax-raising powers. Again, the local electorate will be able to call a local election following a referendum, which will help to concentrate local authorities' minds.

The thrust of my Bill is the rebalancing of powers away from the Executive and a whipped Parliament to the people. Sir Francis Bacon wrote:

"A country is less free if it is all in the hands of the state".

This Bill will go some way to loosening the state's grasp, and I commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move.

10.25 am

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, on bringing this Bill forward and giving us the chance to debate it. The Bill before us may be modest in length, but it is anything but in terms of content. The Bill is clearly contentious in terms of its provisions. However, my purpose is not to go through the specific proposals embodied in the Bill but rather to address it in the context of constitutional change.

The Bill may be accused of comprising a set of constitutional reforms which have been put together in haste, have not been subject to widespread consultation, and derive from no clear, coherent approach to constitutional change. The Minister, in replying to the debate, may have in mind making these very points. He would be most unwise to do so because the description I have just supplied applies just as well to the Government's proposals for constitutional change. The Prime Minister has announced a set of reform proposals that appear detached from any process of extended deliberation within government and which relate to no discernible coherent approach to constitutional change. This Bill, like the Prime Minister's proposals, comes at the end of a Parliament when there is no time for either House to consider it in detail.

One can argue, justifiably, that major constitutional change should not be brought about through the medium of a Private Member's Bill. In practice, of course, any such Bill cannot achieve passage without

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the support or acquiescence of the Government and, in principle, should not do so without the support of all the principal parties. If it is not to be brought about through a Private Member's Bill, how then is it to be achieved? I believe that there are two basic procedures that should be adopted, one within government and the other external to it.

First, there needs to be a clear, deliberative process within government for considering Bills of constitutional importance. When the then Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, whom I am delighted to see in his place, appeared before the Constitution Committee in its inquiry into the process of constitutional change, he outlined such a process. He even produced a flow chart to illustrate how the process operated. He took pride in the extensive deliberations that took place on the reforms for which he was responsible. He told us that the Devolution Committee, which he chaired, met on 14 separate occasions in the first 11 weeks after the 1997 general election for meetings of at least two hours' duration each, and considered a total of 43 papers. The Sub-Committee on House of Lords Reform, which he also chaired, met on 13 occasions in 1998 and considered a total of 32 papers. There was then a process of publishing Green or White Papers and drawing up legislation.

That deliberative process has clearly gone. It needs to be resuscitated. As parliamentarians, we need to be vigilant in monitoring legislation of constitutional significance to ensure that it has been subject to such a process. As the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, will doubtless concede, his Bill is not the product of such a process. Indeed, it would be interesting to know what consultations he has had on the Bill.

Secondly, there needs to be some means of examining proposals for constitutional change to see how they fit with our existing constitutional arrangements and with other changes proposed. I have variously advocated a constitutional commission or a committee, not so much to propose a new constitution for the United Kingdom, but rather to make sense of where we are at the moment. It should seek to relate change, including proposals for change, to the basic principles underpinning our constitution. To some extent, that is a task fulfilled by the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House, but what I have in mind is a body that would have the time and resources to look at the constitution holistically and engage in a major exercise in cartography.

The Government have implemented a number of constitutional reforms, but they have essentially promoted each on its individual merits. The reforms have not derived from any intellectually coherent approach to constitutional change. There has been no holistic view of the consultation, no clear adumbration of the type of constitution that the Government consider best suited to the United Kingdom.

When I initiated a debate in your Lordships' House at the end of 2002 on constitutional change, the Lord Chancellor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, conceded that the Government had no overarching theory. Instead, he said that the Government proceeded,

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Unfortunately, the three principles that he enunciated were not necessarily compatible with one another and the third-

was essentially a get-out clause, destroying any scope for identifying where we were going in terms of constitutional change.

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