|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The Government's approach bears no relation to various coherent views of constitutional change that have emerged in recent decades. Neither, I have to say, does the Bill before us. There is a case to be made that it is, in part, somewhat more coherent than the Government's approach, but only in part. The Bill clearly rejects the high Tory approach-to maintain the status quo admitting no case for any change-and instead adopts, in part, a reactionary approach in Part 1, embracing the status quo ante, and in part a radical approach essentially in the remaining parts. I do not see the overall coherence. There is to be a referendum on Lords reform but not on any of the constitutional changes embodied in the Bill. The provisions for the referendum on Lords reform in Clause 9(2) appear to be a recipe for confusion. There are problems, practical as well as in principle, with other specific provisions, but these I shall keep for Committee.
My final point relates to timing. As I mentioned, the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, has brought his proposals forward, as has the Prime Minister with his, at the end of a Parliament. There is no time for considering them in detail before the general election and no grounds for seeking to enact them at short notice. That would be wholly inappropriate. I believe that both Houses have a responsibility to be vigilant in ensuring that nothing is slipped through, in whatever form, that brings about constitutional change without having undergone the scrutiny that I have outlined as well as being subject to thorough examination in both Houses of Parliament.
In conclusion, I invite the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, to say how he thinks his Bill fits with any coherent approach to constitutional change. Before the Minister takes any comfort from such an invitation, perhaps he, too, would like to take the opportunity to explain how the Government's proposals-I presume the Prime Minister's proposals constitute government policy-fit with any extant approach to constitutional change. I am sure that neither he nor the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, wishes to be accused of bringing forward an incoherent wish-list of reforms.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, it will come as no surprise to noble Lords to learn that I support my noble friend's Bill. Its two most radical proposals are that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union and that the British people should be granted the power to hold binding referendums at national and local level. I submit that without these two essential proposals becoming a reality, the future of this country is beginning to look very worrying indeed. Of course, the political class will not welcome the Bill, as no doubt we will now hear, but the British people are not infinitely patient and they are getting very frustrated
5 Feb 2010 : Column 421
I also submit, not for the first time, that the cause of much of the people's frustration is that they have come to see that whatever they do, whatever letters they write to their Members of Parliament, however many of them march our streets in protest against one or other folly visited upon them by Brussels or Westminster, or for whichever party they cast their votes, it makes no difference. They cannot change anything. The tide of unwanted legislation flows on. Their post offices and pubs close, their waste is not collected and their hospitals are too often dirty and incompetent. Too many of their children fail in life because they have not been taught to read. Their police are weighed down with bureaucracy while the crime rate remains at unacceptable levels. Their prisons are overflowing with the mentally ill and the illiterate. The morale of their Armed Forces, which quite simply are the finest in the world, is starting to sap and, perhaps most pernicious of all, their borders have been deliberately dismantled by politicians who loathe their proud history and culture, so their inner cities have been turned into very dangerous places indeed.
It is not just that people feel that they cannot make a difference or change anything; they cannot. Modern Governments, under our absurd first past the post system, are elected by about 24 per cent of the electorate, or 40 per cent of the 60 per cent who still bother to vote. Now, thanks to our imprisonment in the European Union, those Governments make only a minority of our national law-perhaps as little as 16 per cent of it, if the German Government are to be believed. The majority of our national law is now made in Brussels, with your Lordships' House and Members of the House of Commons, for whom the people are allowed to vote, irrelevant in the process.
The people have not yet understood that process, by which most of their national law is now made in Brussels and imposed on them here. Their political class, which includes the BBC of course, has done a brilliant job by simply refusing to reveal how the EU's legislative process makes our law. I have said it before in your Lordships' House, and I will go on saying it until the frightening truth reaches our people. EU laws are proposed in secret by the unelected bureaucracy, the European Commission. Those laws are then negotiated, still in secret, in a shadowy body called COREPER, the Committee of Permanent Representatives, consisting of bureaucrats from the nation states. They then go to the Council of Ministers from the nation states, where the UK has some 8 per cent of the votes, and to the European Parliament for final decision. The European Parliament, to which we elect MEPs, cannot propose EU legislation; it can only delay it. Of course, it does not do much of that because it does not want to derail its famous gravy train. Again, all our UK MEPs put together have only
5 Feb 2010 : Column 422
It is safe to say yet again that our membership of the European Union has removed our democracy; it has taken away the right of the British people to elect and dismiss those who make their laws. Our system of representative parliamentary democracy, for which millions have died over hundreds of years, has been frittered away. It no longer serves the people. That is why the time has come to give power back to the people. They deserve it anyway; it is their power and it belongs to them. Before long their anger will overflow if they do not get it back.
The only adequate safety valve in these circumstances is the system of binding national and local referendums envisaged in my noble friend's Bill, or something very like it. But I suppose we now have to listen to the Front Bench speeches telling me that I am wrong and why it is perfectly okay to have more of the same from them and the rest of the political class. Let us not trust the people, whatever we do. I hope that I am proved wrong.
The Bill's proposal for referendums is very like the Swiss system which works so well there. When I mention Switzerland, I should be grateful not to be told "cuckoo clocks". The cuckoo clock actually comes from Bavaria. Switzerland is a wonderful country with a very similar, if smaller, economy to our own. Its system of referendums and its free trade with the EU are pretty much exactly what we now need here. Compared with us, Switzerland is also a happy country and its referendums will keep it that way.
Our EU membership is also colossally expensive. According to the much respected TaxPayers' Alliance, our EU membership may be costing us some 8 per cent of GDP, or £120 billion per annum. Our main political parties are vying with each other to cut some £7 billion or £8 billion from public expenditure; yet what is the sum of cash that we send every year to Brussels? It is £16 billion. Our EU membership is the elephant in the room when our political class talks of our dreadful economic position and wonders what we can do about it. It is a no-brainer: get out of the EU, as the UK Independence Party will no doubt explain during the forthcoming election campaign.
Let us not forget that getting out of the EU and continuing in free trade with our friends in Europe would lose no jobs here at all. In fact, it would create them, as we throw off the shackles of Brussels' overregulation at home and take our rightful free-trading place with the rest of the world, outside the decaying economies of Europe. That is where the action is, and we are mad to stay on the "Titanic" when we can see what will happen to it.
Clause 17 of my noble friend's Bill deals with another area of colossal waste, which it politely calls a "review of public bodies". Again, I quote the TaxPayers' Alliance, which recently teamed up with the Institute of Directors to produce an analysis called, How to Save £50 Billion. As one looks down the little list of savings which they recommend, one can hear the squeals of indignation from Whitehall, local government
5 Feb 2010 : Column 423
I confess that I get slightly lost among all the statistics on our squandered squillions and the dire financial straits into which our political class has allowed us to fall, although I have just mentioned £170 billion a year to be saved, and perhaps another £50 billion on top of that. With the annual deficit standing at £176 billion and public sector debt at 56 per cent of GDP, or £793 billion, I would have thought that those were useful figures.
My noble friend's Bill makes most of these savings possible and restores power to the people. It leaves the House of Commons to deal only with genuinely national issues-everything else goes local-and it requires the House of Commons to be inhabited by real people who do real jobs in the real world, just as Swiss parliamentarians do. I fear that this Bill will be hated by our political class, but it is the Bill that the people need, want and deserve, and that is why I support it.
Lord McNally: My Lords, whenever I listen to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, I recall a character on "ITMA" who always used to finish his litany of woes by saying, "It's being so cheerful that keeps me going". I am sure that there is a lot wrong with our country, but I can tell him that, for the folks from whom I came, the past 60 years have not been an unmitigated disaster or decline, which should put some of what he said in proportion.
I entirely support the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, of a holistic, deliberative and coherent approach to this Bill. The only thing I note as a student of these issues is that the great constitutional advances have been made not by committees sitting endlessly around tables-we have been doing that for the past decade and made very little progress-but by people who believed in certain changes and fought for them. We fought a civil war, a king lost his head, another king lost his throne, we frightened the establishment by revolution to get an 1832 Act, and women chained themselves to railings-one woman spectacularly died-to get votes for women. The idea of constitutional reform being a matter for gradualism and rational debate is true up to a point, but constitutional reform is also made by people who believe in it.
Lord Norton of Louth: I draw the noble Lord's attention to a point that is well made by Robert Stevens in his book on English judges. The reforms about which the noble Lord is talking have been won from things that have indeed been fought for, but in recent years we have dealt with several reforms that, in combination, have fundamentally affected the nature of our constitution. That is why we need to look at
5 Feb 2010 : Column 424
Lord McNally: Indeed-and whenever you challenge an academic, he immediately gives you a reading list. Interestingly enough, I sat on the Cook-Maclennan committee, which looked at reform. At one stage, we looked at a coherent great reform Act to deal with these matters, but we did not anticipate in 1996 the deep-rooted, almost immovable, conservatism that was to be found in what became the Labour Cabinet and that has resulted in constitutional reform being left dead in the water for the past decade.
There are signs of progress with regard to the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke. Debates on the 1910 reform of this House show that one of the last-ditchers who fought to the very end against that reform was Lord Willoughby de Broke: not our present incumbent but, I suspect, a great-grandfather-perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby, will elucidate. The de Brokes fought Lords reform until, as I have pointed out before, they gave up on 10 August 1910, and noble Lords can judge for themselves why the de Brokes had to leave this House on that date to get back to their estates. Anyway, this is certainly progress in the Willoughby de Broke family.
We on these Benches have made it clear that if we ever come to the point at which this country wants an "in or out" referendum, we will be there to contest it and to argue for our continuing membership. In that respect, there is a certain respect for the UKIP position. What I find contemptible is the attitude of the Conservative Party, which longs to wound but fears to strike. In constituency after constituency, it presents its candidates as being as close to the UKIP position as it dares to get.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: Will the noble Lord clarify the position of his own party on a referendum on whether this country should be in or out of the European Union? Did not his leader, Mr Clegg, flounce out of the House of Commons because he was not going to get an "in or out" referendum on our membership? When I moved a suitable amendment here, the noble Lord's party failed to support it, so it would be very helpful to your Lordships to know whether the Liberal Democrats now support an "in or out" referendum on the European Union. If they do, they would be with us, of course.
Lord McNally: First of all, Mr Clegg has never flounced anywhere in his life. We have said time and again that the Lisbon treaty, as the Conservative Party knows well, was a series of adjustments to EU arrangements to take account of the increasing membership of the EU. It was not the new constitution on which we had pledged a referendum. We have said consistently that if the EU comes forward with major constitutional changes, we will support an "in or out" referendum. It would be dishonest to keep suggesting referenda on changes, which, if they were carried, would cripple the EU, without having the courage to argue the "in or out" case.
As for the Bill's other provisions, we vigorously oppose the clause on human rights and at a suitable time would seek to delete it. We on these Benches are proud that we played our part in passing the Human Rights Act into law. It has set a high bar for civil liberties and human rights of which we should be justly proud. As for the provision on international treaties, we agree: like the provision on military action, these are important powers that should go to Parliament.
We think that 250 parliamentary constituencies would be too few. However, 650 is too many, just as 740 for this House-or perhaps the figure will be 800 or 900-is absurdly large. Both Houses should get down to the figure suggested by Cook-Maclennan: about 450 in each. We agree about fixed parliamentary terms. If the number of sitting days was limited to 100, the Daily Mail would have editorials about lazy MPs taking long holidays. So you will not win on that one.
On reform of the House of Lords, given the current impasse in which we have a House of Commons that wants a directly elected House and a House of Lords that has voted consistently against such a House, I am rather attracted to the idea of putting a multi-choice proposal to the electorate. Such a decision from the electorate would, one hopes, finally end the resistance of the refuseniks in this House. I am confident that in such a referendum we would get an overwhelming vote for a directly elected House of Lords.
We are at one on local authority powers. We are a party of subsidiarity and want to see powers moved to the right level. As we believe that the right level in some cases is Europe, we would perhaps part at that point. As for getting powers out of Whitehall and Westminster and back to local authorities, we agree. We also agree on local authority funding. Indeed, in the provision on local taxation I thought we might even be seeing something on local income tax-but perhaps not. On quangos, £43 billion is a worrying figure which requires eternal vigilance.
Lord Hunt of Chesterton: Does the noble Lord agree that the EU currently has 29 meteorological services? If the EU was properly united then we might, like America, have one meteorological service. The EU can reduce quangos but all these tiddly little states across Europe can duplicate them. I therefore support the noble Lord's view.
Lord McNally: I have run a little over the amount of time taken by other speakers but I have been interrupted by perhaps provoking the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, which was thoroughly intentional. That
5 Feb 2010 : Column 426
However, I put one warning. Although I have said that I support a referendum on this place, I belong to a generation who perhaps believes that the retreat to referendums is a weakening and diminishing of our parliamentary democracy. I still believe that the liberties talked about by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, are best guarded by an efficient and functioning parliamentary democracy. I hope that when the new Parliament is elected, Parliament in both Houses will recover its confidence and ability to speak for the people.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I intend to be fairly brief because I think that the House is itching-if I may put it that way-to hear the Government's response to this major Constitutional Reform Bill. I also admire the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in taking the trouble to go through this Private Member's Bill clause by clause and give his party's views on various parts of it. Since we heard references to the fact that there might be a Committee stage, he will have further opportunities to put forward amendments to the Bill when it comes before the House.
I accept that every private Member has a right to bring forward a Bill in this House or in another place. I would not want to restrict that in any way. But occasionally, possibly, there is a small element of abuse in bringing forward a Bill, right at the end of a Parliament, which has no prospect whatever of coming into law. It will waste our time on a number of Fridays or whenever when we have to deal with its Committee stage. Its sole purpose seems to be UKIP's general election manifesto.
Lord Henley: I would make the same strictures about quite a number of the Government's Bills that are coming before us; for example, the Fiscal Responsibility Bill and the constitutional renewal Bill-or whatever it is called. There are a number that the noble Lord knows have no chance of getting on the statute book. They were brought forward at the Queen's Speech purely as an early edition of the Labour Party's election manifesto. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for reminding me of that. But no doubt we will have to deal with those Bills and this Bill in due course. Again, I am amazed at the tolerance of all Members of the House who have listened with avid interest to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, and his noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch as they have argued the case for this.
All we can say is that we are very grateful that my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth added his name to those speaking today. We were able to hear from him his profound thoughts on how constitutional reform should take place and be managed. For that, I think that we are all grateful. I will now sit down and leave the Floor to the Minister. I do not exactly look forward
5 Feb 2010 : Column 427
Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, we are without doubt living in a time of great enthusiasm for constitutional reform. All the major parties have brought forward proposals for how our constitutional systems, conventions and laws should be changed to bring about what is, in their view, the proper constitutional balance. The Prime Minister set out on 2 February his vision of the new politics that is necessary to take our country forward in the new decade.
We have this Bill, put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, to add to the mix. The Government, however, are taking steps to rebuild confidence in our political and constitutional arrangements through measures in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, setting up the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, and our ongoing programme of constitutional reforms, including our proposal to offer the people an opportunity to vote on whether we should replace our present electoral system with the alternative vote.
The noble Lord's Bill is, in all but one minor detail, identical to his Bill of the last parliamentary Session. As some will recall, on that occasion the Bill did not make it to Second Reading. However, we debated it under the cover of a Question for Short Debate tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. In that debate, the Government expressed considerable concerns about many of the measures in the Bill. Noble Lords will not be surprised to learn that the Government's position has not changed.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|