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Nevertheless, my successors and I are realistic. We know that legislation to put the Civil Service on a statutory footing will always be at the back of the queue for inclusion in the legislative programme. We recognise that, if we do not seize this opportunity for legislation, another opportunity might not occur for another 150 years.
We accept, however, that this part of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill should go ahead. If the Bill is to survive the strictures of the Constitution Committee, we would be content for the Civil Service part to come through the wash-up with whatever amendments may be accepted in that process, even if it has not been improved by the detailed scrutiny in Committee and on Report that it merits, so that it reaches the statute book before the dissolution of this Parliament.
There is one other point that I would like to make, arising out of the points made on the likelihood that the size of this House may increase after the coming general election and the difficulties that that would create. I am old enough to remember coming here as a young civil servant, sitting in the Box over there to brief Ministers, at a time when there were something like 900 Members of this House. Of course, they did not all turn up regularly; they turned up when there was something to be debated on which they had expertise to offer. Of course, if and when the House of Lords is reformed fundamentally, that will change things; in the mean time, we should not be stampeded by the possibility of a further increase in the membership of the House of Lords. The natural good sense of people will ensure that noble Lords come when they have something to contribute and do not feel obliged to come all the time. After all, if they do not come to the House, they do not cost the taxpayer anything.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, unfortunately for myself, I have forfeited the right to speak in this debate due to the fact that I had to miss the speeches
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Without taking up my allocation of time, I should like to address two issues in the Bill, which I believe should go into wash-up and should go through-IPSA, which has nothing whatever to do with this House, and the referendum carried in the Commons by 365 votes to 187. It would be quite wrong for opponents of AV, on an unelected House matter, to use wash-up to block the will of the Commons, whether that be the Opposition or the Government.
Part 3 of the Bill is different from any other part of the Bill because it does not decide anything but lets the people decide something rather important. There are arguments for and against electoral reform and for and against referendums, but I have never understood how there can be a democratic case against a referendum on electoral reform. It must surely be more democratic to allow voters to decide how their representatives are chosen than simply to argue for a status quo that allows MPs to decide for themselves the means by which they are elected. It is generally accepted now that MPs should not decide how much they are paid, so how could it be right for them to decide how they get their jobs? We know that many MPs like the present system because at least two-thirds of them are in safe seats. They are effectively chosen or reappointed by their parties. People cannot vote against them without voting out their own party. So I, too, welcome the provisions in the Bill to hold a referendum on electoral reform, although I wish it was for a more fundamental reform, a properly proportional system and, preferably, a single transferable vote.
There is opposition to the principle of any referendum on the issue of electoral reform from the Conservatives, but I cannot understand how those who have argued for a referendum on European treaties could convincingly argue that voters should have had their say on the fine print of such treaties but not on the principle of how their elected representatives are chosen. The Conservatives say that this should be the year for change, but when it comes to the most fundamental issue of reforming our political system, they are the party of no change and no say for the voters. It would also be right in this debate to ask about the Government's own sincerity in going some small way at this stage towards only partially fulfilling their promise on this issue that was the basis on which they were elected 13 years ago. They are, of course, finally reneging on the manifesto promise that they made in 1997 that people would be offered a choice between first past the post and a proportional system to be recommended by a soon-to-be-established commission on voting systems. Any promises or hints that they may make over the next few weeks on constitutional reform may therefore be received with some scepticism, but some of it would be reduced if the proposal for a referendum on an alternative voting system was reached and on the statute book before dissolution. If, however, they fail to achieve that, it will
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This is not the occasion for a full debate on electoral systems-and I know some noble Lords will welcome that statement. However, I shall deal just briefly with a couple of myths. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, argued that the AV system would result in there being more Labour MPs and Liberal Democrat MPs and fewer Conservative MPs, a point made repeatedly in another place from the Conservative Benches. That would only be the case if the voting shares in future were along the same lines as those in the previous three general elections. I doubt that the Conservative Party accepts that that will be the case, so they should stop making that bogus argument.
The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, attacked the basis of the alternative vote system, but it is exactly that same system that is used by his own party in all its internal elections, including that for electing its leader. It cannot be such a bad system if the Conservatives use it for themselves. What an alternative vote would mean is that most MPs would require the support of most voters; that is a principle that is hard to argue with. Those of us who are unelected should not ask to oppose the rights of the voters to have a say on how their votes are cast and counted, whether in the wash-up or not.
On the timing of election counts, the general discussion has revolved around concerns about losing the excitement of the so-called Portillo moments being broadcast at three o'clock in the morning, as against the need for accuracy in the counting process. The staff employed by returning officers may well be tired if they have been working at polling stations all day long and are then employed to count votes in the small hours of the following morning, but the volunteers from the parties, who may well have started the day much earlier delivering leaflets, working hard on polling day and in their evenings and weekends for many weeks and months through the course of the campaign, all want to be able to see the result that night, not to hear about it when they are back at work doing their jobs the next day. A far better solution to these conflicting priorities would be to allow voting at weekends, as in many other countries, with an early Sunday evening count that may not rival "The X Factor" but would probably engage rather more people in the whole process. But in the absence of that change to voting at weekends, I think that there should not be a problem in achieving accuracy and conducting the count shortly after polling stations close, in all but those areas in the Scottish Highlands and Islands where ballot boxes must be collected from remote locations. I shall never forget acting as agent in a parliamentary by-election when we lost by just 100 votes. I insisted on three full recounts and getting exactly the same result twice before finally accepting the result at 6.30 am, at which time it was broadcast live on the TV breakfast news.
Nor will I forget the call from the Winchester count in the 1997 general election, telling me that counting had been suspended, given the doubt and uncertainty over the result. The returning officer there very sensibly suspended the count and we started it at 1 pm, concluding
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Baroness Boothroyd: My Lords, we have been in debate on this issue for some hours and it would be very nice if I could give the very popular Minister a little light relief, but I am afraid that I cannot manage it. I have to tell him, and it is with regret, that I cannot remember a more flagrant example of the mismanagement of an important constitutional Bill during my time in public life. The Government's decision to delay the Bill's arrival in this House until the eve of a general election is worse than a mishap. To me, it simply illustrates the Government's underlying contempt for this House, by not allowing us detailed scrutiny, and its disregard therefore of our duty to the nation.
It has been well minuted that after a series of Green and White Papers, the Bill was published as long ago as July of last year. If the Government had put their mind to it, it could have been on the statute book later that year, and in better shape than it is now. Instead I am afraid they dithered and, whatever Motion is on the Order Paper today, we all know-let us be honest about it-that we were given little time, if any time at all, to examine the 95 clauses and 15 schedules with the thoroughness essential for the proper scrutiny of legislation. Of course, I speak only for myself when I say that I think it is a scandalous way of dealing with this matter. I believe that the Government should think again.
We were promised a shiny new vehicle of reform. Instead, we are handed an overladen charabanc of changes that we are asked to approve without first being allowed even to look under the bonnet. The Government's negligence reminds me of a bus service that keeps its customers waiting for ages. When the bus finally arrives, it is already full up and there is no time to stop. We call out to the driver, "Hey there!", but he passes us by, just as the Government intend to do with this Bill. Ministers-even very popular Ministers-can hardly plead circumstances beyond their control, because the coming election has been on everybody's mind since Mr Brown became Prime Minister. Nor is this a minor measure, worthy only of a fag-end Parliament. Since taking its first steps a long time ago, it has grown like Topsy, as we have heard, with 39 more clauses and six more schedules.
and that each step in the Government's programme of constitutional reform "appeared rather prosaic". I went to my dictionary-I thought that there might be a hidden, lawyer's meaning of "prosaic", but of course there was none. It means what we all know: dull, commonplace, unimaginative-hardly a recommendation and not a word I would use about changes to the legal
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That is undoubtedly true for the Assemblies of the devolved regions, but not for the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Too much legislation is still ill considered; it is rushed and flawed, as the devastating report on the Bill from the Lords Select Committee on the Constitution makes clear.
Mr Straw speaks frequently about the need to make this House more legitimate, as if we were neither one thing nor the other. He really should reflect on his comments. We are here because the constitution of this country puts us here. Constitutional legitimacy is the lifeblood of this nation and I resent it being quibbled about by Mr Straw.
I do not object to the phasing out of the remaining hereditary Peers and I welcome our right to expel or suspend Peers whose conduct warrants it, but Mr Straw baulked at the need to entrench the powers of a statutory Appointments Commission to vet new life peerages, so there is no shift here in the Government's determination to hold on to power. Nor, I fear, will there be if we are replaced by a Chamber that lacks our independence. I understand that Mr Straw looks forward to finishing us off early after the election. If he gets the chance, he will have to manage the timetable better than he has managed the Bill.
Convention requires us to give this proposed legislation an unopposed Second Reading and so we shall. However, I urge the party leaderships and those who deal with the wash-up to take our reservations fully into account when they meet in the smokeless rooms for the wash-up session. The Bill has many good things in it, which I approve of, but it would be better still if much of it could be properly examined, in detail and in a new Parliament.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, it is my pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. We first shared a platform in 1951, when I was chairman and she came along bringing a delegated representation. Ever since, our paths have crossed and it is a joy and a pleasure to see her here and in such good spirits, although I did not agree with her censures-but she would expect that.
I was moved to put my name down to speak in this debate because, in general, I sense as a former Chief Whip in this place that the Government will have a difficult job. The Minister, in introducing the Bill to us today, pointed out that he felt that some bits would be supported by all parties but that some would not be. I rest content that the outcome of the wash-up will be that all the parties will be satisfied with what comes out, because nothing will get through unless it has the agreement of all the parties.
We have had paraded before us aspects of the Bill that do not find favour with Members here. I do not quibble with them at all, but, as the Minister said, Parliament is in the middle of a crisis of confidence, in both system and persons. I use as a peg for what I want to say the fact that the spotlight of publicity has been shone on the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft. We know that, in abusing the system, he has sought to introduce a fantastic amount of money into constituencies that he has chosen as being possible to win. He hopes that, by buying the votes and the seats, he will be able to help to form a Government who are different from mine. He may be right; we will have to wait and see. I say simply that the practices that he is carefully nurturing-they do not seem to be condemned as much on the other side of the House as on this side-are not the only ones.
League tables have become part of the lexicon of politics. The league table that I am most proud of is football's Championship League, because at the top is the team of my home town, Newcastle United. The team won again last night and I believe that it will be promoted. That is not the only league table that is of interest, though. The Electoral Commission publishes a quarterly league table of constituency parties, showing the amount of cash and kind received. For the three months ending 31 December 2009, the league table records that the sums received by constituency parties were, from the bottom up, £35,000, £36,000, £50,000, £52,000, £55,000, £58,000, £70,000, £75,000 and £82,000, with, at the top of the table, the Edmonton Conservative constituency party receiving from its prospective parliamentary candidate alone the sum of £142,000. That candidate's name is Mr Charalambos. From what I know, he is a successful, locally based man who obviously has a lot of money, which he is entitled to spend as he wants. The present system allows him to spend it in that way, though, and that is wrong. This ought to be stopped and we ought to deal with it.
I hope that the Minister will be able to talk about the activities of Mr Ashcroft, which are turning back the clock. I thought, from my history, that rotten boroughs had been done away with years ago, but they have not if a man or woman can come into any town or city and, in effect, buy the wherewithal-a practice, as we know, that is rife in American politics-to hire people to do the canvassing and so on. There is a growing tendency to do this; we hear about Mr Ashcroft but there are others.
When I spoke to a colleague at a meeting today and told her what I was going to say, she said, "Well, in a constituency where I worked, an attempt was made to do that. Over £300,000 was calculated to have gone into the coffers of one candidate, but they did not succeed". Money will not always be the answer.
I do not say that the present or the past are right and that things cannot be changed. We are in the middle of change in lots of things and, in the Bill, there will be attempts to change even more. However, we need to be alerted to the fact that if the Government, of whatever colour, do not deal with the kind of thing that I am talking about, our democracy will be diminished. I hope that the Minister is able to say something kind about this idea.
We all know, as experienced politicians, what is going to happen to the Bill. I could enter into arguments about the Government's programme and their priorities -and the fact that the election is going to be held and Parliament will end at Easter, whereas normally it goes right through to November. There are all sorts of reasons and miscalculations. I shall simply say, however, that we need to be aware of the fact that the practice of buying constituencies, which in effect means buying Governments, is here to stay and is successful. I am ashamed that it is happening in Edmonton.
I was extremely moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. Possibly this is because I feel sometimes that I have a kinship with Speakers since, at the bottom of the Speaker's stairs, there is my coat of arms because of the Onslow Speaker, and there was an even greater Onslow Speaker. When I see someone such as the noble Baroness, who filled that post with such distinction, I feel an almost-if she will forgive me-proprietorial pride in her achievement. When I heard what she had to say today, I could feel all the Onslow Speakers, of which there are three, rising up and clapping her, even though that is probably not in parliamentary order.
I am not going to say much, but I shall say again and again what has already been said about the disgracefulness of the way in which the Bill has been brought before your Lordships' House. Constitutions are serious things. Some of them are quite small; the American constitution, including all its amendments, is about 45 or 50 clauses. The Bill, however, has 95, which simply tidy up and tinker at the edges-and still they have not been properly debated.
The Bill was given a Second Reading in another place in July 2009 and comes here today. It went through the other place in a way in which, two Parliaments ago, it would not have been allowed to: on carryover. Constitutional Bills should not be carried over. It went through on a timetable. Constitutional Bills should not be on a timetable. If the Liberal Government could get the Parliament Act 1911 through without a timetable, I am sure that this Government, had they thought their way through properly-and, as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, said, had they produced Bills that were on one subject only, not on practically a whole Encyclopaedia Britannica's worth of subjects that are poured into people's ears in indigestible form-could have done the same. I had reason the other day to read one of Peel's police Acts; it was so understandable that it read like a Mills & Boon novel. British Bills now are practically all indigestible. They are too long and suffer from long titles of Macauleyesque length.
I cannot emphasise enough the total impropriety of people from both Front Benches-the Liberals will happily join in, obviously-going behind closed doors and agreeing which bits of a constitutional Bill should go through or not. I say to my own Front Bench, "Will you please tell us what you will allow through and what you will not?". I sincerely hope that the only part that it allows through is the one regarding IPSA,
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Interestingly enough, one of the defences of the pre-1911 House of Lords was a quote from Cromwell, who said that if the House of Commons had total supremacy it would abuse it. What has happened? The House of Commons has total supremacy, more or less-although of course I am not advocating the repeal of the 1911 Act; that would be dotty even beyond my powers of imagination-and it is too dictatorial. What makes it worse is that, because of things such as timetabling, carryover and the party Whip system, the Executive have too much power. Our job in Parliament, in both Houses-the Commons has to sustain and provide money for the Government to go on-is to make life difficult for the Government. We should make them answer questions; we should make them come up with the right answer. Unless we do that, we are not doing our job properly. This is a perfect time for us to say, "No, we will not do anything; we will not allow it through".
It would have been much more honest not to have given the Bill its Second Reading. I understand about IPSA and about non-doms, but there is a great unfairness. This is only rumour, but it is right to raise it. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, will be rather unfairly treated by that provision. That, again, is a reason why things should be properly looked at and gone through word by word, not just agreed in smoke-filled rooms at the end of a Session. It is a disgraceful way to run a constitution. Lawyers such as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and Mr Straw ought to know better. After all, they have studied the law, they know what the law is about and they should understand the spirit of the law. I am afraid to say that their behaviour, in both cases, has shown that they do not. They have treated the constitution and Parliament with contempt in producing this Bill in this state. I am sorry if I am getting worked up, because I feel so strongly about Parliament and about Parliament serving people. It should not be just frittered away through the Bill in this dreadful way.
Baroness Young of Hornsey: My Lords, many noble Lords have pointed out with great clarity, rigorous analysis and some vehemence the shortcomings of this Bill, in particular the speed and nature of the process with which noble Lords have to grapple. I want to say a few words about a few areas that I hope are not too contentious. In general, I welcome very much the proposal that the Civil Service Commission be placed on a statutory footing. The independence and impartiality of the Civil Service now, more than ever, needs to be demonstrably transparent.
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