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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for opening our debate and congratulate him on his appointment. He is highly regarded in this House and I look forward to our future debates. It is true that I have not yet sent him a letter, principally because I no longer have the well
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I shall focus most of my remarks on constitutional issues and local government, while my noble friend Lord Bach will concentrate on justice and home affairs. However, I first want to respond to what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, suggested about the previous Government. He mentioned authoritarian indifference to civil rights. I remind him that it was a Labour Government who brought in the Human Rights Act, which the Conservative Party opposite continues to snipe at whenever it is given the chance and whatever the coalition agreement. I am proud that we were responsible for the Race Relations Act 2000 and the Civil Partnership Act and that one of the final pieces of legislation that we took through your Lordships' House was the Equality Act. All those actions were about expanding the rights of the British people. At the same time, a central concern for us was always the security and safety of the UK, which faced the worst terrorist threat that this nation has ever seen. Our aim was always to get the balance right between public protection and the need to maintain the rights of individuals.
The noble Lord has outlined the Government's proposals on CCTV, ID cards and DNA. We will study those carefully, but we need to be wary of taking actions that might undermine our ability to fight crime. We should not, for instance, underestimate the impact of CCTV in reducing the fear of crime and antisocial behaviour. Talking to people who live in the communities most affected will leave you in little doubt as to the value of CCTV. With DNA, advances in technology have played a critical part in solving serious crimes. Last year alone, 832 positive matches were made in cases of rape, murder and manslaughter.
We will also look carefully at the Government's policing policies. The programme that the coalition has agreed to has much to say about structural changes but is ominously silent on police resources, front-line policing numbers and crime reduction targets. We shall scrutinise these policing measures carefully to ensure that the safety of our citizens is the paramount consideration.
I turn to constitutional issues. We are promised a new politics, but I have to say that the signs so far are not entirely encouraging. Indeed, many of the Government's proposals seem more suited to the need to shore up the coalition rather than to enhance our democracy. The Government hardly made a good start with the leaking of the Queen's Speech over the weekend and then, on Monday, with the announcement of major cuts in government expenditure not to Parliament but to the media.
On local government, the coalition agreement proclaims radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to councils. The rhetoric is impressive, but
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Nowhere are the needs of the coalition put first more than in its proposals on fixed-term Parliaments. As my noble friend Lord Adonis asked, why is the interval between elections to be five years? Why not four? Of the 14 general elections that have been held in the past 50 years, nine have been in or before the fourth year. Why are the public being given fewer opportunities rather than more to choose their Government?
Then there is the 55 per cent proposal. Votes of confidence have had a critical role in our Parliament; a confidence defeat for a Government leads either to a request for Dissolution or to the resignation of the Government. As the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, put it so brilliantly on Tuesday, everyone understands that, so why mess around with the principle? The reasons are evolving and changing. Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander said in the Observer on 16 May that the aim was to guard against the suspicion that one or other of the parties could,
So this is a quick fix on the constitution, essentially because neither party in the coalition trusts the other. However, the argument has moved on. We had a rather different explanation from David Heath, the Deputy Leader in the other place, who said on Tuesday night:
"If the Government lost a vote of confidence, they would no longer be the Government ... Then another party or coalition of parties might be able to form a Government from within the existing House of Commons ... If no one can form a Government that has the confidence of the House, Parliament will be dissolved".-[Official Report, Commons, 25/5/10; cols. 148-49.]
That still raises a number of questions about how it might happen and the logic of 55 per cent. I remain concerned that what looks like major constitutional change is being written on the back of an envelope with apparently no intention for pre-legislative scrutiny. I can assure the noble Lord-
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am sure that the House will learn lessons from that experience. It all looks different from this side of the House. I can assure the noble Lord that we shall certainly scrutinise the legislation carefully.
I now turn to the alternative vote. Will the noble Baroness tell us in her winding-up speech when we can expect legislation on the proposed referendum and when the referendum is intended to be held? Will a
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Why is the coalition bent on reducing the number of Members of Parliament? I have yet to see any persuasive arguments for that. Are 70,000 electors really too small a number for an MP to represent? The intention for more equal constituency sizes will create some unnatural constituencies, as the Electoral Commission pointed out in February. Constituencies will change more frequently, destabilising the link between MPs and constituents. Again, I suggest that the answer is bound up with a narrow, partisan interest and the proposed speeding up of individual voter registration.
We passed legislation to provide for a carefully staged transition from household registration to individual voter registration in a way that would reduce the risk of people falling off the electoral register, as happened in Northern Ireland. If that careful process is ripped up and the rollout made prematurely, millions of people could fall off the register. I remind the House that that is extremely important because constituency boundaries are drawn on the basis of registered electors. We know from the Electoral Commission that 3.5 million eligible voters are missing from the register today. They are predominantly missing in areas of poorer, younger, mobile populations. It would be wholly unacceptable for seats to be cut and boundaries redrawn on the basis of an electoral register from which millions of our fellow citizens are missing.
I am pleased that the Government are supporting the implementations of the Wright committee's proposals to make the House of Commons more effective, but what of your Lordships' House? I noted with interest the remarks made on Tuesday by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who said:
"I also believe that we should look afresh at our working practices. I do not think we should lose sight of the remarkable privileges that Peers already enjoy, such as the right, not given to Back-Bench Members in another place, to table amendments at three stages of a Bill, and to have each one heard and replied to. We should always keep our working practices up to date".-[Official Report, 25/5/10; col. 22.]
The noble Lord's rather late conversion to procedural reform is, on the face of it, most welcome, but I say to him that any attempt to restrict the right of Back-Benchers to scrutinise legislation will be firmly resisted. I am happy to discuss the report of the Labour Peers' working group, which was in the context of a wider debate about the conventions and the pressing against the boundaries of those conventions by the party opposite at the time.
Finally, I come to reform of your Lordships' House. The coalition parties have agreed to establish a committee. That is progress indeed. The noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Strathclyde, and I have already spent many happy hours in such a committee. I must put a question to the Minister, as I am not sure what the committee is going to be asked to do. It seems that the outcome of its work is already known. He has already said it today: a mainly or wholly elected upper Chamber under PR and a system of grandfathering for the current Peers. So what is left for the committee to do? What will the composition of the committee be? Will
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Grandfathering is not really about the transition; it is a term used in the regulation of professions and essentially it means that existing practitioners go forward into the new qualified regulated profession. It is clear that grandfathering means that existing Members become Members of a reformed House. I ask the noble Baroness to confirm my interpretation.
In the mean time, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, confirmed, we are faced with the apparent intention of the coalition to appoint dozens, if not hundreds, of new Peers. Why is this being done, given that the Government already heavily outnumber the Opposition, with 258 Members compared to our 211? There has long been an understanding that there should be rough parity between the Government and the main Opposition. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has eloquently put the case for a strong second Chamber. In his Politeia article, he argued:
Then there is the question of the conventions. I ask the noble Baroness to confirm that the committee will look at how the current conventions will be underpinned and the primacy of the Commons assured in an elected House. I remind her of the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, on the conventions, which made it clear that firm proposals for changing the composition of the House would require a re-examination of those conventions.
The coalition professes that it wants to strengthen Parliament to create a new politics. I would have thought that this should have been grounded in promises that the parties made to the public in the recent election. However, when we look at the proposals to be brought before us, how many do we see that were in the manifestos of the two parties? The Conservatives were certainly silent on a referendum on the alternative vote. They were also silent on fixed-term Parliaments. The Conservatives were silent on the intervals between elections to be fixed at five years, as were, incidentally, the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives were silent on the 55 per cent super-majority required for the Dissolution of Parliament, as were the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives were silent on their intention to give the Executive a massive majority in the Lords, as were the Liberal Democrats. We see proposals for major constitutional change that were not put to the British people at the recent election. They were cobbled together behind closed doors. They amount to a lack of trust between the two parties and they will do little-
Lord Tyler: Does the noble Lord now resile from all the promises made by Mr Gordon Brown before, during and since the general election on AV, on fixed-term Parliaments and on implementing the White Paper produced by Mr Jack Straw? Is the Labour Party's position now that it does not stand on any of its manifesto commitments?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Of course not, my Lords. Indeed, the White Paper on Lords reform, for example, could form the basis of the committee that is going to meet to discuss this further, although in that White Paper we did not embrace the concept of grandfathering. I have to say to the noble Lord that his intervention was irrelevant. The fact is that these proposals on their own will do little to restore public confidence in our democracy. They are clearly being brought together as a package to suit the convenience of a coalition agreement. Essentially, this is not so much a new politics as an old-fashioned stitch-up between the two oldest parties.
Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, I am happy to say that I do not feel any embarrassment at speaking in support of the partnership which now exists to support this Government. I am also happy to say that not all that long ago, in 1945, when I was moving from school uniform to military uniform, I had the pleasure of canvassing vigorously for the general election of that year in the constituency of Exeter for a Liberal Party candidate. I cheered enthusiastically at the eve-of-poll meeting addressed by Sir Archibald Sinclair. Beyond that, to maintain respectability in my native Wales, I included in my memoirs a striking photograph taken, I think, in Biarritz, which establishes beyond doubt that Lloyd George knew my father, and even my mother. So I start with some contentment.
I can see that the way in which our two parties have come together may lead to some misunderstanding. Both parties fought on the simple premise that it was time for change. That is a phrase which has different meanings in different respects. My anxiety has been that both parties, including my own, may have misunderstood the kind of change for which the electorate were looking. I believe, as I have said frequently, that a mood has spread among the population which one detects if one goes into a school staff room, a hospital staff room or even a police canteen. If you ask that gathering, "What would you like me, as a politician, to do next?" you will always evoke the response, "For heaven's sake, leave us alone". Many people in this country are looking forward to a change from a period of intense, excessive and reckless activity to a more measured and considered one. I need some assurance in that respect as the weeks, months and years go by.
That is why I am glad to welcome some of the measures already foreshadowed by the Government, which undo some of the hasty measures carried through by the previous Government. I must regret, as I did so frequently, and as so many of us did, the impossibility of recreating the office of Lord Chancellor, so recklessly destroyed by the measures taken by the previous Government. I am glad, on a more modest scale, about the decisions to remove the imposition of identity cards and, not much less important, to secure the death of home information packs-the least popular innovation by the previous Government. To that I say: hip, hip, hurrah!
I listened with care to the speech made by my noble friend Lord McNally and welcomed the extent to which he set out the way that the Government intend
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As we know, this Chamber has a composition of diversity, independence and expertise and cannot, and never has been able to, oust the Government. The Government cannot dissolve the House of Lords. The House of Lords cannot dissolve the Government. The Commons-although the circumstances there are being changed as we wait-has a quite different quality and one that is above all dominated by party politics. We owe special gratitude to the leaders of all parties in this House for the way in which they have conducted the opening of the debate on the gracious Speech because they have all displayed the way in which we work together. That was the position in this House in the previous Parliament as well. Our leaders have been able to secure the smooth working of this House. They have also been able, in partnership with leaders in the other place, to secure the smooth handling of the much larger number of amendments being carried in this House for consideration by the other place. Therefore, we owe a great debt to the skill-in the previous Parliament and in this-of the leaders of our parties here.
The problem one now wants to consider is what is to happen from now on as a result of the commitment so fully pledged in advance to a wholly or mainly elected House. I refer noble Lords to some observations made by the Public Administration Committee of the other place under the chairmanship of Mr Tony Wright in a report that it produced-I think in 2002-on this House and its future. It said that,
That will not be the consequence of the kind of changes we have already had foreshadowed that the Executive have in mind for the structure and management of this House. The second conclusion of the committee under Mr Wright's chairmanship was as follows:
That is a very shrewd judgment from the other place of what may lie ahead and needs to be taken very seriously; that is, to find both Houses being managed with a ruthlessness of which Governments of any kind are sometimes capable. It is a shrewd judgment from
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Lord Woolf: My Lords, I first make a disclosure of interest in view of the nature of what I have to say. I have the privilege of being a patron or trustee of a number of bodies involved in penal affairs-in particular, I am life president of the Butler Trust.
It is a pleasure to address the House, having heard the noble Lord, Lord McNally, speak in his new role. In the period that I have been in this House, I have enjoyed his contributions, which are always so sensible and so relevant to the matters being considered. I can assure him that my former colleagues in the Strand and those now on the other side of Parliament Square will have taken great pleasure from the team that primarily represents the Ministry of Justice. Having said that, perhaps I may, again in relation to judicial affairs, say a word of praise for its predecessors, whom I am so pleased to see sitting opposite the noble Lord, Lord McNally. They fulfilled their offices responsibly. Members of the judiciary felt that they were properly being listened to and that their interests were properly considered.
Almost exactly 20 years ago the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who was then Home Secretary, asked me to conduct an inquiry into, and then make a report on, the prison riots at Strangeways and elsewhere. The Government accepted the recommendations in that report, with the exception of a recommendation designed to prevent future overcrowding. Yet overcrowding had been accepted as being a cancer which was destroying our criminal justice system. At the time of the report, the average prison population in England and Wales was 44,000. The figure today is over 85,000. In the intervening years, the prison population has grown exponentially year by year, and thereby the problem of overcrowding has persisted. There is now a building programme priced at £3.8 billion.
In addition, the cost of looking after each prisoner averages about £45,000 per annum. The total annual bill is therefore about £3.825 billion. This is an enormous expense. I am told that it represents about 2.5 per cent of GDP-a higher per capita cost than in the US or any EU country. I ask myself: is this cost justified? The answer is clearly no. If proof of that is needed it is necessary to look only at reoffending rates. It is estimated that about 49 per cent of adults reoffend within one year of release, and the National Audit Office states that reoffending by recent ex-prisoners costs the taxpayer about £9.5 billion per year.
Expenditure on that scale cannot begin to make sense, yet successive Governments have refused to heed that message, and instead of improving the situation, by their intervention they have made it immensely worse. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said
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What can we do to extract ourselves from such a disastrous situation? First, we have to accept that it is a myth that the judges, because they send prisoners to prison, are responsible for this situation. That myth has to be exploded. Ministers are responsible for the length of sentences, given that their role is to make provision for keeping in custody those whom the judges send to prison, according to the law-and it is Ministers who make the laws.
The Bromley Briefing, published by the Prison Reform Trust, makes the point that 70 per cent of the increase can be attributed to harsher sentences by judges. However, this ignores the fact that laws control the policy adopted by the judges with regard to sentencing. Unfortunately, decisions have been made repeatedly to change the law when their effect has not been properly considered.
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