|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
I will give a bad example-perhaps the worst example-of this sort of behaviour, because I know intimately of the effect of that law, which I argued against at the time. I refer to Schedule 21 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which deals with the period that those convicted of murder and given life sentences must serve in custody before they can be released on licence. Before the law was introduced, and under the guidance of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, a meeting was held at the Middle Temple, where nearly all those who were playing a leading role were present to discuss the proposals. They were unanimous in their opposition. I am pleased to see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, in his seat. He will probably remember that at the end of the meeting, he said that he had listened to what had been said. He made it clear by the way in which he spoke that he had sympathy for what had been said-but he accepted that there was little, if any, chance of the then Home Secretary, Mr Blunkett, changing his views.
Mr Blunkett was losing sight of the fact that, by increasing dramatically the term of imprisonment to be served by those who have committed the most serious crime, he would affect sentencing right down the system. The system strives for consistency not only between people who are convicted of the same offence, but between those convicted of offences in the system as a whole. If you interfere to the extent that he did with the level of sentencing at the top, it is the inevitable consequence that the level of sentencing throughout the system will be increased. That is what happened, as Mr Blunkett was warned-and it continues to happen now.
I could give another example, but I fear that I do not have the time. I hope that I have said enough to indicate that the approach to sentencing now needs dramatic and urgent consideration. In the present financial crisis, we cannot afford to spend the sort of money that is proposed, and that was spent by the previous Government, because it yields no dividends.
Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, perhaps my noble and learned friend will comment on a narrow but important matter of topical interest. I refer to the
27 May 2010 : Column 148
Lord McNally: My Lords, in my capacity as Deputy Leader of the House, perhaps I may say that there are an awful lot of noble and learned Lords down to speak on the list. I appeal to them in particular: if we are to finish much before midnight, we shall have to show a little bit of discipline.
The Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, as has already been observed, much has changed since we last debated the gracious Speech in this House, and not least the elbow room on these Benches from time to time.
In the midst of the economic, security and social challenges, which properly frame all that is in the gracious Speech, the Government have emphasised reform of our constitution and particularly of the functioning of our Parliament and democracy. On these Benches, we have good reason to believe that we are in touch with significant public opinion in relation to these proposals. In my diocese during the election, more than 20 public hustings were held in churches in Leicester and Leicestershire, and the pattern was repeated across the country. Parliamentary candidates commented that their primary engagement with significant live audiences of non-aligned citizens took place in the churches of England.
The evidence is that the public want a measure of parliamentary reform. This may include support for the provision of a referendum on the electoral system, reform of the number and size of constituencies, and power of recall for any Member engaged in serious wrongdoing. A strong, elected lower House, accountable to the public and transparent in its operation, is welcomed and supported on these Benches. However, as has already been mentioned, the proposal to increase the numbers in this House to reflect the proportion of the vote gained on 6 May is surely profoundly questionable. Does this not seem like creating a large number of new Peers with the sole object of voting themselves out of existence? That is surely strange for a coalition Government who are determined to reduce the scale and cost of government in general.
However, the Deputy Prime Minister has spoken of a "wholesale, big-bang approach" to political reform. That suggests something with destructive, sudden and irreversible consequences, having little regard to what has gone before and taking less account of unintended consequences for the future. This surely raises serious questions about how our constitution is to be changed and about whether it is the property of the Government of the day or of the nation as a whole.
Can the Minister tell us how such a committee will be composed, whether it will have any commitment to achieving consensus, and whether the Government would welcome the contribution of these Benches in formulating their proposals for change?
The former Bishop of Chelmsford gave much of his time with others to conversations leading to the 2008 White Paper-conversations certainly not regarded at the time as simply a talking shop. In his response to the White Paper, he set out the Church of England's position, which remains broadly the same today:
"The Church of England does not find the argument for a wholly elected 2nd Chamber convincing and supports the proposal for a fixed appointed element. This would help ensure the continuation of a breadth and diversity of talent amongst the membership, more often than not, currently evidenced within the members of the Cross Bench peers. It would ensure that all those with undoubted expertise, but who would not naturally submit themselves for election, would continue to have a role in parliamentary scrutiny and debate: a quality of the current House of Lords that has been invaluable, particularly when matters of great ethical importance are before it".
"We have some excellent Members of Parliament but many observers think that to fill another Chamber with more of the same, whipped to the will of government, would be worse than pointless. I am, in other words, much more concerned with the ability of the Lords to scrutinise legislation than I am with the official place of Bishops in that House. But that is not the point. The point is that our fine-tuned constitution, like a complex ecosystem, cannot simply be tampered with and played about with without considerable risk".
That broadly represents our position, and especially now when two further considerations come to the forefront of the nation's concerns. First, there is now a major priority facing Parliament and the country, as the gracious Speech and the coalition agreement make absolutely clear. The people will not forgive Parliament if it gets caught up in self-regarding questions of its own organisation, at the expense of giving clear and focused attention to the consequences of dramatic fiscal cuts on the wider population. Secondly, the people clearly do not want the public discourse about reform to be conducted in polarising and unproductive language about privilege and entitlement. I am sure that most if not all Members of this House would hold the ideal of service above privilege, and that is certainly what will animate the contribution of these Benches to the debate, since we see our service to this House as an intrinsic element of the Church of England's broader service to the nation. It is on the basis of service and not privilege, and on that basis above all, that we shall judge the merits of the reform proposals that are brought before your Lordships' House in due course.
Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, I consider it a great privilege to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, and I agree with many of the things that he said, particularly about the idea of
27 May 2010 : Column 150
I begin by thanking the Labour Ministers for their kindness to me during their term of office. Unfortunately they did not always agree with me, but I hope that the voice of individual conscience will continue to be respected in our country, as it was in the past.
I particularly congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, on his appointment as Advocate-General for Scotland. I am glad that the Government have recognised the importance of having Law Officers who have a deep understanding of the political considerations and yet who at the same time are able to give independent and reliable legal advice.
My noble and learned friend is unique in a number of ways. I think that he is the only person to have served in a Scottish Administration and now serve in the Government of the United Kingdom. He is unique in another respect. As a Member of the Scottish Parliament, he formed with his colleagues a coalition with the Labour Party in Scotland. Now, of course, he has taken part in a coalition with the Conservatives here. That shows that a person of fundamentally Liberal Democratic principle can work well and in coalition with those who are willing to work with him. His career also underlines the danger of the advice that was given by one Cabinet Minister in the election campaign, that people should vote tactically. Another Cabinet Minister, more patronisingly, referred to the same idea as "intelligent" voting. I am glad to say that that principled Scot, the then Prime Minister, said that he wanted people to vote for what they believed in.
The principal thing I want to speak about is the proposal for fixed-term Parliaments. A fixed term for Parliament undoubtedly has the advantage of removing a great deal of opportunity for speculation. It also has the advantage of removing from a Prime Minister the temptation to go for an election when the party that he leads happens to be high in the opinion polls-or, occasionally, when he feels that there is a disaster around the corner and is anxious that the election take place before it comes. A fixed-term Parliament has an advantage in that respect. It also has the advantage of eliminating the situation already referred to when the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, appeared to stimulate speculation that an election would be held shortly after he took office but it then did not happen. I gather from the newspapers-although I have no other way of knowing-that one result of that was abortive expenditure of fairly high sums by the Labour Party, which I am sure that it would like to have avoided.
Five years has been selected. I can see arguments for different lengths, but I can see a great deal of argument in favour of having fixed-term Parliaments. A matter that has attracted a lot of attention is the proposal for 55 per cent. As I understand it, because there is only a shorthand statement of it in the coalition agreement, the proposal is in no way to interfere with the rule that a Government lose their mandate to govern if they lose a no-confidence Motion in the House of Commons by 50 per cent plus one-of those
27 May 2010 : Column 151
Lord Mackay of Clashfern: That seems to me to be much the same thing. I am perfectly happy to accept that formulation: a majority plus one-a majority of one. A majority is a majority of one; in other words, 50 per cent of the votes cast plus one. That is the way that I have understood it; I may be corrected if I have got it wrong.
If the Government in office lose the confidence of the House of Commons, it does not necessarily follow that Parliament should be dissolved, even under our present system where there is no fixed-Parliament rule. But if you have a fixed-Parliament rule, you must have some protection against easy and arbitrary dissolution. As I understand it, the proposal for a requirement of 55 per cent has been formulated for that.
In Scotland, when the Labour Government introduced the Scotland Act, they produced a requirement for a two-thirds majority for a vote for dissolution. Fifty-five per cent seems rather reasonable in comparison with that. It has been suggested in some quarters that that is because of proportional representation in Scotland, but the only effect of proportional representation is to make a minority government more likely than it is under a first-past-the-post system. The voting in the Parliament is one Member, one vote, so, in my judgment, the analogy with Scotland is important.
That is a separate question altogether from the collapse of or loss of confidence in the Government. If the Government lose a vote of no-confidence on the basis that we have discussed-I will not repeat it again-the result is that the Government are out of office, and the question is whether someone else could form a Government. Your Lordships will remember that at one point in the transition Mr Gordon Brown mentioned the possibility of an alternative coalition in the present House of Commons, so the idea of there being more than one person capable of forming a Government in that situation is perfectly reasonable.
We look forward to the legislation in detail, and I hope that, in framing it, those responsible will look closely at the detail of the Scotland Act, which I do not want to go into at present but which includes a safeguard in relation to the time: if no view can be taken by a time limit, dissolution arises.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, I shall use my time to talk about matters relating to constitutional change. I must begin by acknowledging a different experience from that of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who talked about clear public support for constitutional change. I spent four weeks knocking on doors in Telford during the general election period and must have had a different experience to the noble Lord knocking on doors in Blackpool, or wherever it was, because I did not find the slightest public interest in any aspect of constitutional change, whether Lords reform, fixed-term Parliaments,
27 May 2010 : Column 152
I shall concentrate my arguments on three points but, as a brief preamble, I should say that I have been in politics a long time, and I understand that when two parties try to form an agreement, there will be all sorts of concessions and compromises. That is inevitable, but when the concessions, compromises-or, if you want to be more robust about it, horse-trading-take place in respect of constitutional change, that is far more serious. One party is saying to the other, "I absolutely hate that constitutional change you are proposing but I will go along with it as long as you support the constitutional change that I propose, which I know that you hate". That may be a way to try to fix short-term policies, but it is not a way to rewrite fundamental parts of the constitution of our country. The constitutional changes proposed in the coalition agreement between the two parties have been described already by the leader of the Liberals as the greatest reform Bill since 1832-so no pressure there then. I would have thought that that is quite a high hurdle to leap over, even for someone more popular than Winston Churchill.
These constitutional changes, should they be carried out, mean a significant weakening of Parliament. That is how I would describe them, not least because for the past 13 years I have heard nothing other than, "Governments are too strong and Parliaments are too weak". That was the received wisdom. Overnight on 6 May, the received wisdom became, "Parliaments are too strong and Governments are too weak, and we are going to have a strong Government". That underpins a lot of these constitutional proposals. In particular, I shall mention three. One is the fixed term, which is supposed greatly to strengthen Parliament. Clearly, it does not. I could not have imagined a situation in which a Prime Minister-a Prime Minister who, I might say, had fewer MPs than any Prime Minister since the war, if my maths is correct-was able in effect to announce, the day after the general election, "I am going to be your Prime Minister for the next five years, almost irrespective of what happens in Parliament". That does not strike me as strengthening Parliament; it makes Parliament less important and its votes of less significance.
I will not go in detail into the 55 per cent rule, which will surely have to be dropped. I was present, as were a number of other people here, when the Labour Government were quite properly voted down on a Motion of no confidence and quite properly immediately and without any fancy laws to refer to went to the country. From a purely personal point of view I wish they had not because I lost my seat. It would have been quite nice to say, "Oh, it doesn't matter. There are a few more months yet before the five years are up". I would have been amused to see my friend-I call him my friend-the noble Lord, Lord NcNally, a far more important man than the rest of us, going to see Jim
27 May 2010 : Column 153
I want to mention one other thing very briefly. If the proposal to increase the membership of the House of Lords in line with the number of votes in the last election is carried through, although I am not convinced that it will be, the fundamental convention that has operated certainly all the time I was the Chief Whip and throughout the time of my predecessors-that there is rough parity between the Government and the Opposition and that the Government must not be able to have a majority in the House of Lords-will be destroyed. It has been destroyed already, actually, because the Government have 250 seats and the Opposition have 210.
Please let us not confuse the argument by talking about the Bishops or the Cross-Benchers, who have never been included in any argument that I have heard or that has ever been advanced. The Government have a clear majority in the Lords, as they have a clear majority in the Commons. If that majority were enhanced even more, that would be quite outrageous. If I as Chief Whip had known that the Liberal Democrats would have voted with the Government on every single vote, I could not have justified a full-time job. I could have come in at midday and watched the cricket in the afternoon, and I would have loved it, because the Government would have known perfectly well that they would win every vote. Check the maths, check the history. This really cannot be allowed to sustain, and I hope that it will be addressed.
There is another way in which Parliament is being diminished by the constitutional changes. I do not call it reducing the number of MPs; I call it increasing the size of constituencies. I have some expertise in this in that I have represented two seats in Parliament, both of which were very large with 90,000 electors. Let me say that it is extraordinarily difficult to represent that number of people in anything like the way in which we have been accustomed to doing. I may upset some of my friends when I say that I do not object at all in principle to moving towards anything that makes constituencies of roughly equal size. That is not the problem; the problem is reducing the number of MPs. How on earth can that be described as making MPs more accountable? That really is torturing the language. MPs will be less accountable if the number of MPs is reduced.
In conclusion, I was particularly alarmed to see that the Government were proposing-I hope that this can be denied-that the whole process of drawing parliamentary constituencies is to be accelerated and local involvement in it diminished to get this through quickly. Let me remind the House that the previous redrawing of constituency boundaries in England has taken around six years, because local people have to be consulted and there have to be proper procedures for dealing with this. Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have in their manifestos the importance of local democracy, local control and local involvement. If
27 May 2010 : Column 154
In three crucial respects these constitutional changes diminish Parliament, rather than enhancing it; and, my word, we will not do our job here unless we scrutinise them very carefully indeed. I hope that some of them are thrown out.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, may I say what considerable pleasure it is for me and those around me to see the noble Lord, Lord McNally, put his hands on the Dispatch Box and to discover that in becoming a Minister he has not lost his wit and good humour? We congratulate him most sincerely.
"Liberals will switch the emphasis in combating crime to prevention and rehabilitation. We will expand the police force and the probation service, improve pay and conditions to attract high quality recruits. To reduce the prison population, we will make greater use of alternatives to imprisonment; extend experiments in prison reform and remand procedure; improve after-care service, and appoint independent inspectors to visit prisons and investigate complaints".
Wait a minute, we already have independent inspectors: the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and his successor Dame Anne Owers. I am quoting from the 1964 Liberal manifesto for the very first election that I contested as a Liberal in West Flint against Mr Nigel Birch, and the principles that we enunciated in those days are just as relevant today.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|