Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

4.02 pm

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, I beg to second my noble friend's Motion for an humble Address. It is a privilege to follow the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, in our proceedings today. The noble Earl's membership of this House is in its sixth decade, as he reminded us, he having taken his title here in 1954, before I was born in a distant military hospital in Quetta the following year. In that time, he has served on the ministerial Benches with distinction in no fewer than five different Conservative Administrations. But apart from our new-found friendship on the government Benches-I am not entirely sure about being a suffragette chained to the noble Earl-I trace another link to him. His line descends from the Shirleys of Astwell Castle in Northamptonshire, while my link to that illustrious county lies in my role as the inaugural chancellor of the University of Northampton. Northamptonshire is well served in this House, with several noble Lords having connections there. They include the noble Baroness, Lady Billingham, a former MEP for the region, the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, and my noble friend Lord Naseby. It is a county well versed in both continuity and change.

It is a rare distinction to second the humble Address in the knowledge that you are the first Liberal in 96 years to do so, following Lord Methuen in 1914, but it does not seem a long period, given the swathe of reforms envisaged in the gracious Address. There is much unfinished business from our time in the 1910 and 1914 Governments yet to do, and, yes, we Liberals are always mindful of the long game. Even the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has had his patience tested in our fulfilling his instructions to prepare for government. I suspect that he did not intend us to take quite this long. But here we are, and perhaps it is the beginning of a trend. We shall see.

There were not many among our ranks on these government Benches and, I dare say, the Opposition who, when looking at where the voters told us to go on 6 May, could have envisaged this day. The spirit with which our two parties have come together for this programme of government is remarkable. It takes good judgment to see clearly what is legitimate, but it takes courage to walk in a direction you have not been before, and the leaders of both parties have displayed bagfuls of that. Having said that, it is still a little strange to see my noble friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats sitting in such close proximity to the Leader of the House. While this is undoubtedly good for the country, I hope it will not deprive us of the humour we have all enjoyed as they have torn strips off each other on opposition Benches in the past few years. The whole House will wish to join me in congratulating the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord McNally, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, on their new roles. I am enormously grateful to the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Shutt, for their generosity in allowing me the opportunity to address the House today.

Opportunity does not present itself with 20:20 vision. When, at a drinks party in 1987, I confessed to a lady called Celia Thomas-now the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester-that I was a member of the

25 May 2010 : Column 13

SDP, she enrolled me in the Liberal Whips Office in about three minutes. Later, I was interviewed to be a researcher by the then Chief Whip, now the Advocate-General for Scotland, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness. He asked what I brought to the table. Well, in Asia, we are not backward about coming forward, and I went in for all the special pleading: gender, race, religion, even age-I was younger then, but older than the usual suspects. Then, and only as a last resort, I said it was because I wanted to change the world and make a difference. He sat upright. "In that case, why on earth do you want to come to us?" he asked. "We are not going to be the Government any time soon". Reflecting on the political road I have taken reminds me of the words of the American poet Robert Frost:

"I never dared be radical when young for fear it would make me conservative when old".

Change and its compromises are very much part of my background. With parents who migrated from India to Pakistan, I grew up in a military family that was, by definition, itinerant in a culture that took moving around for granted. As many noble Lords from similar backgrounds will testify, all aspiring south Asians are second to none in spotting greener pastures elsewhere. We are living proof of the dictum of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, to get on our bikes, hence our large numbers in this country contributing across all fields of social and economic endeavour.

But the most precious thing this country gives is freedom, day in and day out. I had never voted in an election until I naturalised as a citizen in 1983 and then cast my first vote in the general election of 1987. The thrill of a blunt pencil marking a cross against a name on a secret ballot is something never to be forgotten when you do it for the first time. My only regret is that I have done it in only four general elections, but then, this House has other compensations.

In this House, there is great support for wise deliberation, and time and time again, we see strange bedfellows coming together through the call of principle. I have found myself agreeing with the Bishops, which is a little strange for a non-Christian-and even from time to time with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, which is stranger still-but, whether in agreement or not, I have always been persuaded to respect opposing positions.

In this spirit of shared objectives and mutual respect, our two proud parties have come together to propose this programme for government. Against the backdrop of the severest financial environment in generations, it would have been permissible to concentrate on bread and butter issues and to set aside lofty ideals, but fundamentals are the foundation stones of this edifice, and no more important as fundamentals are the values of freedom, fairness and responsibility, and they will become all the more important when underpinned by the sacrifices that so many will have to make to restore our country's economic strength.

While our Government will have to undertake the task of cutting public expenditure, it is right and proper that this be done fairly, with the lightest burden falling on those who have the least. This will be made easier through having independent economic reporting, which the new Office for Budget Responsibility will

25 May 2010 : Column 14

provide. Removing barriers to flexible working will be essential in this economic climate, and promoting equal pay is long overdue and will help millions, as will a simplified and fairer benefit system. Restoring a balanced Budget will require resolve and determination, and Messrs Osborne and Laws in the other place will do well to remember the words of the Republican senator Phil Gramm on Budgets:

"Balancing the budget is like going to heaven. Everybody wants to do it, but nobody wants to do what you have to do to get there".

Real fairness also extends to our compact with those beyond our shores, and I am proud to be associated with the gracious Speech, which says unequivocally that we will honour the commitment to reach the UN target on international aid by 2013. Many might say that in this age of austerity compassion to others should take second place, but if the bonds of our common humanity are to mean anything they should bind in bad times as in good.

The most important value that binds us as partners in this endeavour is our mutual attachment to individual liberty and freedom. It will be a good day for our country when our children are no longer fingerprinted at school, when we as citizens do not have to carry ID cards, and when those who disagree with us can protest peacefully without being arrested. In this House, I am conscious, too, that the parts of the gracious Speech that will provoke the most interest will be those to do with the reform and renewal of politics. Fixed-term Parliaments will bring much needed stability to the policy planning process; the reform of this House has taken about 100 years too long, as any Liberal will tell you; and, while my preference is for a partly elected House, elections through proportional representation will give us a far more representative Chamber than we have today. Restoring trust in our political institutions is not something that we can consign to the back burner any longer.

As we on these Benches go into partnership, let me offer a word of advice to my noble friend the Government Chief Whip. She should not be taken in by my noble friend Lord McNally's northern "can-do-ness"-all male and authoritative, as he comes across. He comes from a long line of Liberal Democrat leaders who quickly realise when they lead those on these Benches that we have at least as many opinions as our numbers. We are ever original, often argumentative, and about as coherent and disciplined as a teenage dorm at St Trinian's, so she will need to go softly with him when he shuffles up to her with an undertaker's air to say that we will not do as he tells us.

If the past two weeks have been a long time in politics, five years may well seem like an eternity, but we will learn from each other, too. In Tom Wolfe's words:

"If a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged, a liberal is a conservative who's been arrested".

This Government will bring balance to both points of view.

Today is a sobering day. Today we recognise the heavy burdens of office, but we do so with a spring in our step in our resolve to try to serve our country to the best of our abilities. That is what we have been called upon to do.

25 May 2010 : Column 15

4.14 pm

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I rise to move that this debate be adjourned until tomorrow. There were moments during the aftermath of the recent general election when it looked as though the entire government might be adjourned until a good deal later than that. But this was avoided and now we have a Lib-Con-or is it a Con-Lib?-coalition, although it is, as yet, far from clear who conned whom.

We heard today the first results of the coalition in the form of the new Government's legislative programme set out in the gracious Speech. It is my duty to congratulate the mover and the seconder of the main Motion on their most excellent speeches. Before I do so, perhaps I may make my own position clear: I speak as acting Leader of the Opposition until the elections on my Benches have taken place.

It gives me great pleasure to pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, for their speeches today; one Conservative, one Lib-Dem-a very coalitionesque pair. Sadly, I have not yet had the opportunity to discuss the Con-Lib coalition with the noble Earl. I look forward to it over tea. Some might regard the noble Earl as perhaps not a natural coalitioner. Some might think that his long espousal in this House of Conservative beliefs and values might make him less warm than others to the idea of being in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, some might think that his many remarks, interventions, points and speeches in your Lordships' House over the past 55 years might have let slip the merest glimpse of opposition not just to those of us on these Benches-whether in Government or in Opposition-but to those on what used to be the Liberal and Liberal Democrat Benches during the whole time of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, in this House. What absolute chumps those people must feel now that he is happily chained to his noble friends the Liberal Democrats. These heady days of new politics clearly bring change even to the most conservative of Conservatives.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, has told us, she has a wealth of experience to assist the coalition. Raised in Pakistan, where she attended a convent school, she is well used to cultural challenges. Her long-standing interest in international relations and her work in the Middle East will stand her in good stead, for she is no stranger to conflict resolution.

My second duty is to congratulate the noble Lord the Leader of the House who I know will be proud to lead the whole House. I also congratulate all those who serve in this Government. Government is an honour, a privilege and a huge responsibility. It is daunting and difficult, but it is a delight. I am grateful also to the Government for continuing to observe the convention of providing a copy of the text of the gracious Speech to the Opposition in advance.

I am even more grateful to the Sunday Telegraph for providing that service even earlier. Leaking such a major statement is usually a sign in politics that the ship of state is in trouble. But I simply cannot believe that the good ship SS "Coalition" can already be in such choppy and unstable waters, built as it is on the rock-solid stability of the astonishingly close policy fit

25 May 2010 : Column 16

between the two coalition partners on, admittedly minor, issues, such as the economy, Europe, human rights, the environment, military action, nuclear power and many equally trivial matters.

Brutally ignoring both these minor differences and their own manifestos, the new coalition has moved with impressive speed from the moment when, the day after the election, the soon-to-be Deputy Prime Minister began to deliver to the Leader of the Conservative Party the election result he could not deliver himself, despite only a few months ago being 24 points ahead in the opinion polls. The Liberal Democrats have driven for Downing Street with a ruthlessness which is familiar to those of us who have fought them at a local level, but which appears to sit oddly with the woolliness with which they are still characterised by some.

We in this House have long known the noble Lord, Lord McNally, as a cheery fellow, the sage of St Albans, full of jokes and cracks, which were mainly, over the years, as the noble Baroness pointed out, at the expense of the Conservative Party. Little could the noble Lord have thought that when the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, said more than a quarter of a century ago that the Liberal Democrats should return to their constituencies and prepare for government it would turn out to be the Liberal Democrats preparing for a Conservative Government.

We feel that this Government business will not be easy for them. You can see from their enthusiastic faces, free of all trace of shame, how fully and joyously they have abandoned their proud and principled history for power, for the warm embrace of government and the many government jobs that Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and Chris Huhne have been given. And why should they not be? The Benches opposite are full of bedfellows as completely natural as those of David Cameron and Nick Clegg themselves. Think of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, or the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. What closer colleagues with more completely congruent attitudes could be imagined?

The noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Strathclyde, were once compared to a well-known make of satnav, but at least TomTom sends you on only one route at a time. The Lib-Con coalition is already showing signs of being all over the place, but if David Cameron and Nick Clegg can be likened to the great Morecambe and Wise, perhaps Tom and Tom could be likened to another great 1970s comic double act, that of Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett-although in the case of Tom and Tom, not so much the Two Ronnies as the Two Tommies.

But while I might jest today, governing this country is a serious business. None of us involved in politics could or should ignore the message we were all given in the result of the general election: no party won and the outcome gave no party a mandate to govern our country. It produced a hung Parliament that is taking and will take a considerable amount of adjustment to get used to. The Conservative Party has long considered itself to be the natural party of government. We shall see how natural the Conservatives feel it to be now that they are in government with a party setting out,

25 May 2010 : Column 17

on behalf of both parties, the kind of programme of constitutional reform already mapped out by the Deputy Prime Minister. Perhaps the new shared enthusiasm derives from the fact that the constitutional changes can be relatively inexpensive in monetary terms.

We shall see, too, how natural the Liberal Democrats find it to be a party of government. I suspect that this will be at least as large a cultural change for them as it will be for the Conservatives, sitting alongside a party which in many ways is considerably further to the left than the left of the Labour Party. But the Liberal Democrats will have to realise that they cannot be fish and fowl; they cannot be in government and in opposition. The attitude they have tried to take on the issue of Short money in the Commons and its equivalent in this House shows that they have not yet made that leap.

Government is a serious business, and so too is opposition. Good government benefits from strong opposition. We will be a principled and reasonable Opposition; we will be a confident Opposition; we will be a rigorous and vigorous Opposition, and we will hold this Government to account. But in this House politics, although important, is not everything. Much of what we do and how we work crosses party boundaries and the boundaries of those not in political parties at all. I am sure that there will continue to be issues in relation to this House which will best be dealt with by the political parties and the Cross Benches working together. So, as well as opposing the Government when we believe that they are not acting in the interests of the country, we will work with them and the Cross Benches on these issues.

We look forward to dealing with the range of issues in the Government's legislative programme as set out in the gracious Speech. I would be grateful if, in his reply, the Leader of the House will indicate how many and which Bills are likely to be Lords starters. There will be big issues to tackle, such as some of the cuts announced yesterday by the coalition-seen until a few short weeks ago by the Liberal Democrats as wholly wrong, but seen by these Benches as wrong then and wrong now. They are wrong for the economy, wrong for the recovery and wrong for the country. For example, up to 80,000 youth jobs could go as a result of cuts in the future jobs fund. This is somewhat at odds with the proposals on welfare reform announced in the gracious Speech, which is supposed to be about getting people back to work.

Then there is the constitutional programme claimed by the Deputy Prime Minister to be the greatest piece of democratic reform since the great Reform Act of 1832. Over half of the population of this country who secured the franchise in the period since then-women, they are called-might take a different view, but after a pretty much all-male election and with the coalition Government being run pretty much as a boys' club, women in this country might just prefer to differ, just as they might prefer to differ over the recent announcements in respect of rape and anonymity, which is a truly retrograde step for abused women.

I would mention two further specific issues, the first of which is the appointment of Peers. The coalition says that "in the interim", appointments will be made to this House,

25 May 2010 : Column 18

All political parties? Although the BNP did not win a single seat in the election we have just had, it won more votes than a number of other parties which did secure parliamentary representation. Perhaps this is merely a self-interested way of upping the numbers of the Lib Dems in this House.

There is a serious constitutional matter lurking in this point. The working assumption of this House is that the Government of the day should not have a majority. For the House to carry out its proper function of scrutinising and revising legislation brought forward by the Government of the day, the Government of the day cannot and must not command a majority in this House. That should be and has been the case on the Floor of the Chamber and in Committee. Today the coalition already has a large majority in this House. That, I know, is already causing concern in a number of areas, in the House and beyond. The concern would be deeper and wider if the coalition pursued, through the appointment of Peers, a House which would see that already large majority increased still further.

Like the coalition's proposals for boundary changes and constituency reorganisation in the Commons, these proposals are not the new politics. They are, in fact, pretty old politics, pretty discredited politics, and smack to many of a political fix to benefit those in power. We will oppose them. The convention that the Government should not have a majority in this House is an important-a fundamental-part of the way in which this House works.

So, too, is another convention-the Salisbury convention. Like all such conventions, the definition of the Salisbury/Addison convention is not necessarily clear or agreed but its purpose and effect are unquestionably both-for this unelected House eventually to give the Government of the day, whatever their political complexion, their business. For the purposes of the convention, the definition of the Government's business is equally clear: it is the programme of the Government as set out in their manifesto.

Where does that now stand? The process of negotiation of which the two parties opposite are so proud has seen the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties not take a scalpel to their manifestos but take great swingeing lunges at them with political machetes. The two parties talk of new circumstances, new politics and a new age. If new circumstances, new politics and a new age mean that the manifestos of the parties opposite are no longer worth the paper they were printed on, what does this mean for the Salisbury convention? These and many other issues are matters for the future, not for this day, but they are important. I give the Benches opposite fair warning: we on these Benches will not allow you to trample over these matters for your own political benefit, your own political gain.

The Labour Party is now the only Opposition in this Parliament to the new coalition Government. We did not seek this role-we wanted the outcome of the election to be very different, as the noble Earl said-but

25 May 2010 : Column 19

we will not shirk it either; we will carry it out properly. We will be an effective Opposition but we will not oppose for the sake of it; that is not what the public want. Opinion polls showed that many people wanted a hung Parliament and the electorate duly delivered it. But polls showed, too, that people want a strong, decisive Government and the coalition is the answer of the parties opposite. We will wait to see if the two conflicting positions can be bridged.

For our part, as the Opposition, we will seek to illuminate, expose, criticise and harry and, where appropriate, to co-operate, help and support. We believe that, sooner or later, this coalition will not hold despite the efforts to fix the Commons. Its differences are all too palpable; its divisions are fundamental. In this House, where the coalition is led by the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord McNally, sooner or later-just like the two Ronnies-the two Tommies will have to part; they will have to pursue solo careers and solo programmes. The Government have said that they stand for freedom, fairness and responsibility. These are principles with which the whole country would agree. We will play our full part in ensuring that they live up to them.

I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until tomorrow.

4.29 pm

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, it is a real pleasure to support the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. Your Lordships, I hope, will understand if I begin by saying that the noble Baroness is someone for whom I, like so many others in the House, have the utmost affection and respect. She was, and I know will continue to be, a tough political opponent. That is good, for every Government is much the better for robust scrutiny in your Lordships' House. But she was, and is, far more than a gifted leader of her party. She was an outstanding Leader of this House; it is a great challenge, as well as a privilege, to have been asked to follow her.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page