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1.48 pm

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, I will focus on the sentence in the gracious Speech that announces the Bill to,

There are good reasons for giving local people more power over their neighbourhood. Indeed, one could say that it is an essential feature of democracy. I wish the Government well in this objective, provided that, in the end, democracy is well served by the way in which it is done.

There are other essential features of democracy as we understand it, of course. One is to enable the citizen to enjoy a secure place to live, with the amenities we consider necessary to health, education and leisure accessible and of a decent standard. Another is to safeguard the rights of minorities to those things, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has recognised. It is particularly in these respects that we must look carefully at how control by local communities will be exercised. For instance, how will the Government ensure that good standards of design for housing will be adhered

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to, no matter what the enticements of developers; or, for that matter, that enough housing will be built at all? Will it be firmly inculcated, with guidance available, that good design in housing saves money in the long term, especially since people tend to live in communities in the long term, unlike some developers, who build, sell and move on? How will the admirable statements of the new Minister for Culture, Mr Ed Vaizey, on the value of good architecture, be brought to bear on planning authorities? Now, as the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, said in his profound maiden speech, there is a great opportunity for joined-up government. Can we be assured that it will be used to raise local standards?

Where will local communities find their expertise in design? I mean the design not just of houses, but of whole neighbourhoods, so that schools and clinics are within easy reach, that there are pleasant places to walk, that the motor car does not take pride of place where families live, and that crime is designed out and community solidarity fostered. Good design can help powerfully with all those things and there is plenty of research to show it. Research also shows how well designed communities are energy-efficient and attract investment. Design contributes substantially to eroding that poverty of aspiration which characterised the poorer housing estates of the 1980s. What will happen to the design principles that are emerging now from our enlightened neighbourhoods, where crime has fallen and people have rediscovered community action to improve their surroundings? What plans do the Government have to raise the standard of the worst to that of the best? Will they develop the role of CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, and will they endorse the approval of the Liberal Democrat LGA Group for the "Total Place" concept?

The other area I mentioned-that of the interests of minorities-applies most poignantly to the fate of Gypsies and Travellers. Sadly, the previous Government did not have time to implement the provision in the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, which would give Gypsies and Travellers equal security of tenure with other occupants of mobile home sites. Can the Minister tell us when the statutory instrument which would bring this legislative obligation about will be made? How will the Government ensure that local authorities make comprehensive assessments of homelessness, so as to include Gypsies and Travellers and provide the sites which they should? What provision are they making for the education of Gypsy and Traveller children, who are among the lowest achievers in our maintained system? One reason for this is bullying and intimidation at school. I have heard many examples of drop-out at secondary school for this reason. What will the Government do to provide safety and security for the children of this most marginalised of communities? Will their mothers continue to have the highest rate of maternal mortality in the British Isles?

I look forward to hearing more about how the fairness which both sides of our new coalition Government have proclaimed will be made available to the people who have had least of it; and how local communities can be empowered so that fairness, as well as good design and new homes, are brought about.

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1.54 pm

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I wish to address constitutional issues. For reasons of time, I will reserve my detailed comments on specific measures for when they are introduced. Given that this is the debate on the Address at the start of a new Parliament, I thought I would focus on three overarching points that should inform the Government in how they proceed in dealing with constitutional affairs.

First, do not expect too much. There is the danger of offering constitutional change as a simple solution to complex issues. I fear our economic and social problems are not going to be alleviated by changes to our political structures. Indeed, our political problems are not necessarily going to be solved by changes to our political institutions. We face a crisis of confidence, but it is not a crisis of confidence in our established institutions, but rather a crisis of confidence in our political class. If people do not trust politicians, changing our electoral system is not going to solve the problem if it simply results in the same people being elected. There is the danger of constitutional change being used as a way of politicians absolving responsibility-of not accepting that the problem is the way they behave, rather than the institutional framework in which they operate. What is crucial is behaviour rather than structures. What we need primarily is leadership-politicians being seen to act in the public interest-and not necessarily institutional change.

Secondly, if we are to have change to our constitutional arrangements, it is essential that that change derives from a clear conceptual framework-a clear understanding of what type of constitution is appropriate for the United Kingdom. The previous Government introduced a number of major constitutional changes. They affected fundamentally our constitutional arrangements. The problem was that they constituted essentially disparate and discrete measures. They were never couched in any intellectually coherent approach to constitutional change.

When addressing constitutional change, we need to start from a clear understanding of the type of constitution we consider appropriate for the United Kingdom. We must be clear as to the principles that determine structure and composition. Take reform of your Lordships' House. The Times has been carrying letters from people who advance their pet schemes for reform, indicating what proportion should be elected and which Members should be selected by this or that body. Anybody can come up with a scheme to change the composition of the House; what is crucial is to start from first principles. That is, to determine what we expect of Parliament in our political system and, therefore, the role and relationship of the two Houses and their relationship to the other elements of our political system. Once we know what we expect of the second Chamber as an integral part of our constitutional arrangements, then and only then can we start to determine the composition best suited to the fulfilment of that role.

Thirdly, measures of constitutional change need not only to be grounded in an intellectually coherent approach to the constitution, but to be evidence-based

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It is not sufficient for a Minister to have a bright idea and then for that to be embodied in a Bill and rushed through on the basis of some supposedly self-evident principle. I have previously made the point that public policy should be evidence-based. Bills that seek to change our basic constitutional arrangements need to be based on sound evidence and subject to sustained parliamentary scrutiny to ensure that they are. That requires, wherever possible, pre-legislative scrutiny as well as sustained examination once a Bill is introduced.

Take, for example, something already referred to: the proposal for a super-majority of 55 per cent in the other place for a premature dissolution of Parliament. That needs to be thoroughly tested. Why a super-majority? Why 55 per cent? When the question has been put, the response has generally made reference to the position in the Scottish Parliament, where a two-thirds majority is required. This troubles me as it suggests a lack of knowledge of what happens elsewhere, other than in Scotland. The Scottish situation is not exceptional. A number of countries employ the two-thirds requirement. None, though, requires a 55 per cent majority. Perhaps my noble friend, in replying to the debate, could tell us the genesis of the 55 per cent requirement. That will be a useful starting point. We need to ensure that this is a thoroughly well grounded proposal and not some back-of-the-envelope approach of the sort that we have seen in the past.

I am not arguing against the proposal, but making the point that it must be thoroughly tested. Changes to how we are governed must be based on compelling evidence and located within a clear conceptual framework. That, I think, is the fundamental message I wish to convey. Ensuring this requires a rigorous process of scrutiny not only within Parliament but within government itself. Ministers may wish to take a leaf out of the book of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg. When he appeared before the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House in 2001, as part of its inquiry into the process of constitutional change, he produced a flow-chart identifying the stages a measure had to go through before it was introduced to Parliament. I do not think that it outlived the tenure of the noble and learned Lord, but it is something well worth considering by the new Administration. Indeed, it will be very useful to know from my noble friend what particular processes have been established for determining the strength of proposed constitutional changes prior to their introduction to Parliament.

Ensuring that Bills have been thoroughly tested, both in terms of rationale and empirical support, is likely to mean that they are not rushed. It is important that Parliament is not front-loaded with such Bills. There is no need to rush; indeed, there is every reason not to rush. We can fruitfully utilise some of the time of the new Session to ensure that we do have enhanced processes of scrutiny in place. At the end of the previous Parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, reported, a number of informal working groups of your Lordships' House came up with proposals for strengthening the House in its conduct of business. Let us focus on those proposals and make sure that we have in place the most effective processes for examining changes to our constitution. I hope that the Government will do likewise. It is better to be right than to be

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rushed. Our constitution is not the plaything of any government. We need to ensure that change is justified both in principle and practice. It is essential that we have in place the mechanisms to do justice to whatever the Government bring forward.

2.01 pm

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I welcome the phrase, "It is better to be right than to be rushed", which guides what I want to say in this important debate. Since 6 May, whenever David Cameron or Nick Clegg has spoken, it has always been in the national interest, never in the interests of the Conservative Party or of the Liberal Democrats. They have tried to give the impression that what was in the interests of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats was in the national interest and that any party with a different view was not speaking or proposing actions in the national interest. I do not intend to leave questions hanging in the air when I sit down because I need to give a lot more thought to the generality of constitutional change, but I speak with experience, having been the opposition Chief Whip between 1990 and 1997. I was also in the Whips' Office in the Commons on 31 March 1979 when Labour went down by one vote. Immediately the Prime Minister went to the country to ask for an endorsement.

The arguments that we have heard all have merit, but I think that the coalition parties are so determined-or so frightened of each other-that they want to fix the parliamentary arithmetic so that whatever happens they are guaranteed to remain in office. I give one or two figures. You do not have to look into a crystal ball to recognise what the Conservative Party has done in the past. Given that I was the Chief Whip, I am perhaps more a figures man than a policy man, but the House will be interested to hear about some figures that pertained when Labour was in power between 1974 and 1979. In 1975-6, there were 146 Divisions, of which the Government of the day lost 126. Of course, you might say that that was because rotten policies were involved. However, in 1981-2, there was the same number of Divisions, 146, but the Government lost only seven of them. You can stretch the imagination and say that that was the luck of the draw and that different policies were involved, but we know that the figures are the product of the composition of the House at the time.

In 1988-9, there were 189 Divisions, of which the Government lost 12. I am grateful to the Library for having provided me with these figures. In 2002-3, there were 226 Divisions, of which the Labour Government lost 68. In 2005-6, there were 192 Divisions, of which the Government lost 62. Even in the Session that has just ended, there were 43 Divisions, of which the Government lost 14. By and large, the previous Government won two Divisions and lost one. Those figures are remarkable.

As regards the composition of the House, when I ceased to be the Chief Whip in 1997, there were 116 Labour Peers and 477 Conservative Peers. You might say that it should not be like that if we claim to be part of a democratic process. In 1991-2, there were 115 Labour Peers and 451 Conservative Peers. That again indicates not just the size of the disparity but its

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consistency. I am not privy to any information other than that which I read and listen to, but if a case is being made for doing something about numbers, why does one need more Members-unless it is for a political fix-when the present composition of the House guarantees the coalition Government their say?

In 1998-9-just before the Lords Bill-there were 1,210 Members of this House, 484 of whom took the Conservative Whip and 193 of whom were Labour. Tony Blair and the Labour Government said that that disparity had to be corrected and it was. They increased the number of Labour Peers from 116 in 1996 to 201 in 1999. I invite noble Lords to ask for the relevant papers, but rough parity was achieved. My noble friend Lord Grocott made an interesting point in that regard. There was an unwritten understanding that what one needed was parity, particularly between the Conservative and Labour Benches. We now have something like parity, around the 200 mark. However, there were 200 Labour Members when there was a Labour Government and a House of 700 Members. The then Government had 500 potential opponents. We never tried to increase our number above about 200 and we know of the various changes that brought more people on to the Cross Benches.

We need to be careful when we look at these changes. If we are honest-I accept that we are honest politically-we must accept that we are faced with a naked attempt not only to bolster those in office but to try to ensure that they are never driven out of office again. As far as I am concerned, the Conservative and Liberal coalition Government need to be very careful before they overstep the mark and are seen to be cynically manipulating the constitution.

2.10 pm

Lord Tyler: My Lords, in expressing delight that my noble friend Lord McNally is sitting where he is, I should also express my thanks and appreciation that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, with their invariable courtesy and constructive dialogue, occupied that Bench with distinction.

In retrospect, Mr Tony Blair and his Government in May 1997 were unlucky and unfortunate in terms of the way in which this country has been governed. They had too big a majority. Had there been a small, or indeed no, majority, we would have seen completion of the necessary reforms that were set out in the agreement between Mr Robin Cook and the then Mr Robert Maclennan. Instead, of course, we had very timid Lords reform. We had no outcome from the Jenkins commission on electoral reform, to which Mr Blair had committed himself. Instead, he was in thrall to old Labour-Messrs Prescott, Straw and Blunkett-and there was no partnership for a radically reforming Government in the 21st century. We had 13 years of retreat on civil liberties; constitutional renewal was under constant attack; there was subservience to the right-wing tabloid press; and even the 2008 Lords reform White Paper sat gathering dust for two more years. There was weak-kneed collapse of the discussions on cleaning up party funding and then only a deathbed repentance on electoral reform. Those on the opposite side of your Lordships' House who now bemoan what

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happened on 6 May have only their side to blame, because they failed to address the collapse in public confidence in politics and Parliament.

I never thought that I would say this but, in contrast, David Cameron deserves full credit for recognising, in the first hours after the electorate gave their verdict, that a much more imaginative and radical response was required to make possible any renewal of trust in politics and Parliament. It would have been only too easy to have adopted the Wilson lesson of the summer of 1974. I remember it well. What Mr Wilson did was to delay any serious discussion of the economic problems, to delay any of the painful decisions that were necessary and to postpone all the difficulties until he thought that he would get a majority. On our side, it would have been very easy for the Liberal Democrats to continue in the comfort zone of perpetual opposition.

I give full credit to David Cameron and Nick Clegg. That was true leadership. Breaking the mouldy mould of confrontational politics was not only the right thing but the popular thing to do. By 2:1, a large majority, the public are showing their favour for the new agreement. That is far greater support than any other Government since the war has enjoyed. People recognise-

Lord Hughes of Woodside: How could the electorate give a confidence vote to an agreement that was never envisaged at the time of the election?

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I have heard so often from those Benches the expression that the public are in support of something because the polls show that and because a large majority of people voted for those parties. That is what people do at general elections. They do not vote for every jot and tittle of the manifestos; they vote to support the judgment that they believe to be nearest to their own view. That is what happened. I say this honestly and sincerely to friends on the opposite side of your Lordships' House: it is important that they, too, recognise what the electorate said on 6 May, as we have, because people recognised, in the light the economic legacy, that a different response was required. The Labour Party has not yet woken up to that reality.

I yield to no one in my respect for the former Leader of the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon. I have the greatest respect for her, but, honestly, her speech on Tuesday did not do her justice. Sarcasm does not suit her. It was a very ungracious speech. It is amazing how quickly former Ministers, bereft of their advisers, fall into the trap of silly oppositionitis. Take the example that has regularly been mentioned today that the new Government have a complete and guaranteed automatic majority in your Lordships' House. That is to suggest that Members on the Cross Benches have no influence and no say in what happens in this House. That is simply not true.

Lord Grocott: I shall be brief. Can the noble Lord confirm that, if the Liberals had always voted with the Labour Government in the past 13 years, every single Division-bar one or two at the most-would have been won? The Government have a majority in this House and to suggest anything else is to distort the language.

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Lord Tyler: That was not the point that was being made earlier today or on Tuesday. The conventions were referred to. I served on the Joint Committee on Conventions. It is simply not true that the conventions are as were described on Tuesday and today. I certainly agree that we must review them, but it is not true that the conventions meant, as was stated on Tuesday, that the Salisbury/Addison agreement, which was an agreement between only two parties, still stands today. That is simply not true.

We have had a discussion about the threshold for Dissolution. I can tell your Lordships' House that the original idea was to adopt the Scottish 66 per cent. As has been implied, that is indeed the custom elsewhere, but it was sensibly decided that that percentage was excessive. For those who do not understand the difference between a vote of confidence and the Dissolution of the House, I should draw attention to the sensible-as one would expect-contribution by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. These are different issues. What is important at this stage is that this is the first Prime Minister who has been prepared to give up the right to call a general election when it suited his party's advantage. That was not, of course, the case with the previous Prime Minister, who only dallied with the idea of a fixed-term Parliament during the fifth year of the Parliament.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: If the noble Lord is pleading the case that this is the first Prime Minister to give up the right to call an election, surely he would agree that that was in exchange for a guarantee that he would not face the country until the end of a five-year Parliament.

Lord Tyler: I am not yet in a position to give any undertaking on behalf of the Prime Minister. I hope that I will be given injury time, because I seem to be provoking a certain amount of difference.

I sincerely hope that my colleagues and friends on the opposite side of the House and in the other place will not fall into thinking that we are simply back where we were before 6 May. The electorate have spoken and I very much hope that the new leader of the Labour Party will not dance to the tune of Labour reactionaries in both Houses. We need cohesion but also continuity and consistency in this Parliament if we are to deal with the economic problems that our nation faces. It is simply untrue, as has been suggested, that somehow any form of electoral reform will necessarily lead to an increase in the occasions when we have no overall majority in the other place. As Professor John Curtice, the most influential of all psephologists, has pointed out, first past the post is likely to deliver that, too.

We had the 2008 White Paper on Lords reform and there was a great deal of agreement. I hope that we can build on that and I understand and undertake to pursue as fast as I am able to-as one Member of your Lordships' House-the idea that the next full stage should be done as a public discussion of the options that still remain within the context of pre-legislative scrutiny. The great advantage of that is that the public can be involved, in a public way, in a discussion of the options. Relatively few issues need to be resolved, but

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it is not fair, right or proper for Members of your Lordships' House to suggest that we are rushing into this. I remind them that your Lordships' House and the other place passed the Parliament Act 1911 with the preamble that it would,

That has hardly been rushed.

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