|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Finally, I turn to the role of your Lordships' House. Yes, of course we need to undertake the most effective scrutiny on all these issues. There should be no shilly-shally. That is quite right. However, since the coalition has now guaranteed that it will pursue the whole Tony Wright agenda for reforms of the Commons, it is surely right that the exercise referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, and others, stimulated by the Lord Speaker under the title "Strengthening Parliament", should be advanced as quickly as it can be. I, too, was glad to hear what was said from the Front Bench.
The contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, and the contribution over many months by the Institute for Government on improving the way in which we operate-both Houses, all Parliament working together holding the Executive to account-demand a radical review. I hope that that will happen, because the core problem of restoring public trust and confidence remains with us.
Lord Laird: My Lords, I rise in this debate on the gracious Speech aware of the new political time in which we now exist. We in Northern Ireland have put our political process through contortions in the past decade. Included in that is the requirement for people to sit beside those with whom they never expected to work.
Once I worked in a bank. The period was the 1960s and into the 1970s, and my role was very humble. The position of the banks today is very different. The staff rewards may be enhanced, but regard for them in society has been diminished. I wish to bring to Her Majesty's Government's notice the case of the successor bank to the one in which I was employed at the start of my career.
First Trust Bank is today a subsidiary of the Dublin-based AIB Group. AIB was born in 1966 with the merger of a number of banks that had a presence throughout the island of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, although long-standing, the new bank's coverage was a minor part of the banking scene. In 1991, AIB acquired TSB Northern Ireland. The move created First Trust Bank, which then became a major player. This gave AIB a comprehensive network throughout the island of Ireland, which was its stated objective. To many, the Dublin-based AIB was regarded as an Irish nationalist bank. Now, because of the financial mess that AIB has created for itself, it has placed First Trust up for sale.
For many unionists, this is very interesting. It is increasingly clear that the Irish business establishment accepts the concept of the Belfast agreement of 1998
27 May 2010 : Column 178
However, there are a number of critical areas of which I would like HMG to be aware. AIB is rushing to raise capital with asset sales and so avoid potential nationalisation by the Irish Government. However, the interests of its Northern Ireland customers, its staff and its pensioners must be protected. Constituent parts of First Trust have traded locally for almost 200 years. It is clear that as a result of the bank being put on the market, its local staff, at all levels, are demoralised and disillusioned by the way in which they have been betrayed. This low morale, coupled with a lack of leadership from AIB, has been apparent to the customer base, which has been very poorly treated over the past 18 months. Information is difficult to obtain and is often not correct. A once helpful bank has turned into a nightmare for customers. I am hurt that an institution for which I have some loyalty is now the object of ridicule and gossip at dinner parties and other such gatherings. Good will takes a long time to build but only a few disastrous months to disappear.
I ask the Government to ensure that whatever body scrutinises the banking sector in the future, First Trust customers and their interests are monitored. It is also vital that its existing staff and pensioners, of whom I am not one, have their rights and entitlements protected. This is an issue in which I propose to take a careful interest and will, no doubt, return to many times in the future.
Legislation concerning the method of selection of the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland is also a matter for this Parliament. May I suggest that there is a need for consideration of the democratic understanding for such posts? Speaking in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 18 January 2010 on the very controversial subject of a multilane motorway from the border to Londonderry, the A5, Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister, said:
"It is imperative that the A5 road project go ahead. I understand that some landowners will have concerns, but they will have opportunities to make enquiries and raise those concerns. However, let nobody be in any doubt whatsoever that those two vital projects-the Belfast to Larne project and the Aughnacloy to the north-west gateway project-will go ahead".
The concerns that landowners have in the case of the A5 are full scale and important. Farms in fertile areas, listed buildings, habitats for wildlife and homes are to be destroyed, and the official process of planning and environmental assessment will count for nought, according to Mr McGuinness. "Be under no doubt the project will go ahead", he told the Assembly. There was no mention of the statutory planning process. This may be the kind of democratic process that Sinn Fein thinks it has signed up to, but it will not be tolerated by the ordinary people of the area.
I agree with the new Government's decision to cut down on the use of consultants. I would also ask that they examine the quality of some of their work in future before engagement. I am concerned with the work undertaken in the area of environmental assessment.
Earlier this week, central government asked the Northern Ireland Executive to cut £128 million from their budget. It is fair for us to play our part in the overall savings required by the nation. However, the loss of fuel and cigarette tax collections as a result of activity in south Armagh is calculated to be well in excess of that amount every year. In south Armagh, under new leadership, the republican movement has changed from fuel laundering to importation from the Irish Republic and the collection of VAT on both sides of the frontier. Careful organisation has made this trade, and that of bulk loads of cigarettes, very profitable. I ask the Government to clamp down on this activity and, in doing so, reduce the national deficit.
Like many in our country, I am intrigued by the coalition which forms the Government. The interaction between the two leaders seems to have sparked a public mood. This is one of those times when we all must work together to put our nation back on the tracks again. If we do not, the next generations will not forgive us.
Lord Richard: My Lords, this is in many ways a special debate on a special day. Quite apart from the fact that it is the first time that Liberals have been in government for 70 years, it is certainly the first time that I have seen the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in such close proximity to the Conservative Party. Now he sits cosily there, next to the Leader of the House, as he was earlier on, as to the Front Bench born; but I have to say to him-I say it with, I hope, sincerity and respect-that it is deeply disappointing for many of us who have for years known him and those like him in the Liberal Democrat Party and their record of anti-establishment and anti-Tory campaigning. I dare say that he will get used to it. I dare say that we will have to get used to it too.
I wanted to say something significant to mark this unlikely coupling, so I turned, as I so often do in these times of serious stress, to the wisdom of Lewis Carroll. In the middle of the 18th century, the Reverend Isaac Watts, more known for hymn writing than anything else, wrote an improving text entitled "Against Idleness and Mischief". It starts:"How doth the little busy BeeImprove each shining Hour".
I want to say a few words today on two subjects. The first is the absurd proposal to impose a 55 per cent qualifying limit before a dissolution can take place. As I had understood it until recently, the proposal set out in the coalition's programme was to legislate for five-year fixed-term Parliaments, and that that legislation would also provide for dissolution only if 55 per cent or more of the House voted in favour. The 55 per cent is expressed as 55 per cent of the House, not 55 per cent of the Members voting in the debate. However, from what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said today, this is still in doubt.
This is extraordinarily dangerous. At the moment, the Conservatives in the House of Commons have 306 seats. The combined Liberal Democrat and Labour total is 315. If, in order to force a dissolution, the Opposition must produce 55 per cent of the House, that puts the target at 357. Even if the Liberal Democrats, having come to their senses and left what I was about to call this gimcrack coalition but should perhaps call this recent coalition, had reverted to their more normal and sensible posture and decided to vote with us against the Government in the House of Commons; and even if one were then to add in all the 29 Members of the other parties-and we know five of them will not turn up because they are Irish nationalists-we reach a total of 344. In any event, it would be impossible in the House of Commons for the opposition parties to get up to 357. This cannot be right. If the Parliament is to last for five years, that gives the present Government a majority which on the face of it is impregnable.
That is how I had understood it until recently. However, reading the short debate in the other place, and particularly the speech of Mr David Heath, I emerged more confused than ever. He said something very firmly and definitely that was partly repeated today. He said:
"The Government will still have to resign if they lose the confidence of the House, and that will still be on a simple majority. There is no ambiguity about that. If the Government lose a vote of confidence, they are no longer the government of the day".-[Official Report, Commons, 25/5/10; col. 148.]
In that event, the Government having gone, there will then be an opportunity to see whether another Government can be formed. If they can, I assume that they will take over and govern for the remainder of the five years. If they cannot, a Motion to dissolve will be put to the vote and will require the 55 per cent for it to be carried. Let us assume that the Conservative Government has been defeated. I am not sure how they could be, but if they were defeated on a Motion for dissolution in the House of Commons, it would presumably be open to that Government to try to cobble together another coalition with another set of parties.
I am overwhelmingly driven to the conclusion that I do not see the point of this. What is the object of the exercise? In 1979, Mr Callaghan lost a Motion of confidence by one vote. What did he do? He immediately told the House that he would resign the following day and request a dissolution of Parliament. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, remembers it well. It was a simple procedure that Mr Callaghan followed to the letter. If the Government cannot command a majority in the House of Commons, they have to go
27 May 2010 : Column 181
As the House will know, I have favoured this for many years. If this is a serious commitment by the Government, and one which their supporters in this House can be induced to accept, then of course I welcome it; but there are many questions still unanswered. I regret that I do not have time to ask them. However, I will say something about what happens in the interim before the House is reformed. I refer in particular to the proposal that seems to have been leaked at a superior level for the creation of at least 100 Peers. If we are to "rebalance the House", whatever that means, and if the House is to be constituted on the basis of the popular vote at the last general election, it would involve creating something in the order of 96 Liberal Democrat Peers and 77 Conservative Peers. While it is true that the Government have resiled a bit from that position, I would be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that that is not the policy of Her Majesty's Government.
It was a clear understanding between the Conservative and Labour parties, certainly since I came into this House 20 years ago, that no one party should seek a majority in the House of Lords. Broadly speaking, there was parity between the two sides. The situation in this House has been changed enormously with the creation of the coalition. There is now only one opposition party in the House. The coalition already has a majority over the Opposition. There are 258 Conservative and Liberal Democrat Peers and 211 Labour Peers. While in office, we never sought to outnumber the combined opposition parties, and only increased our numbers gradually. Despite the 1999 Act, Labour still had fewer Peers than the Tories until 2005.
I am conscious that the figure 8-now the figure 9-has appeared on the monitor. Therefore, I will stop. I will say this to the Government. If they are serious about House of Lords reform, and if they can persuade their people in this House to go forward on the basis of a mainly elected House, I would welcome it. However, I have grave doubts about whether the enthusiasm for House of Lords reform will remain as bright on the other side of the House as it is on the Front Bench. We shall see.
The Lord Bishop of Bradford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his humane and humorous introduction. I hope that he will follow the example rather than the advice of the noble Lord, Lord St John, as he continues his business. I will make a brief comment to the noble Lord, Lord Richard. It is the mosquito that is the most dangerous creature, not the crocodile. There are many mosquitoes around, ready to bite and infect.
I was particularly impressed by the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bichard. I am grateful that he took our attention beyond the walls of Westminster and into the world out there that we are called to serve. The assertion in the Book of Proverbs that without a vision, the people perish, is open to a variety of interpretations. However, it probably rings true among political parties. The vision of Her Majesty's Government of a big society shaped by a legislative programme based on freedom, fairness and responsibility, is one that many of us would affirm-not least those of us who are members of communities of faith. We welcome the development of a partnership between the Government and civil society that will empower local people to tackle the issues that impact most closely on their lives, and which shape or misshape their existence-the issues that they understand best. Faith groups are well placed to play their part, alongside many other voluntary and community groups, in helping to turn vision into reality.
We have people on the ground already for whom loving their neighbour is part of their spiritual DNA. I imagine that any of my colleagues on this Bench could take your Lordships to Christian individuals and communities who are caring for people with learning difficulties, supporting the homeless and those suffering from alcohol and drug abuse, carrying the bereaved, and supporting people in debt and those who are ill. Your Lordships will be aware of the Christian origins of the hospice movement. Less commonly known is the fact that churches have more youth workers than does the public sector. If I want to show people what churches can do, I take them on to a particular outer estate in Bradford where, I have been told, half the homes have a member of their family in one or other of the various churches-but not on a Sunday. There is a wealth of community activities for people of all ages from the very young, involving playing and teaching massage for babies, to the elderly with their luncheon clubs and so on. It is an exceptional achievement but by no means unique. I could bore your Lordships for ever on it but I think I would be guilty of the sin of pride.
Next month, I shall be hosting a lunch here in the House on behalf of the Church Urban Fund. This wonderful charity specialises in providing seed corn grants for small projects which enhance personal and community well-being-making the bricks, so to speak, needed to build the big society. Some of these small projects grow beyond all expectation. However, there are some "buts". The big society and the relevant proposals in the gracious Speech, the encouraging of individual and social responsibility and the reliance on social enterprise, require a dramatic change in our political culture which needs to go far beyond the democratic reform of which most of us have been speaking. Some local councillors behave as though their elected status confers on them an exclusive responsibility to decide what is best for the local community. Voluntary groups are seen as unprofessional and as getting in the way. Yes, they are less professional but therefore they are also likely to be less bureaucratic and, at the same time, far more innovative.
Another "but" is that our most deprived communities have very low levels of self-esteem and social expectation,
27 May 2010 : Column 183
a number of our innovative and effective courses in community development are facing an uncertain future. I think especially of the excellent MA in community development which the University of Westminster runs but which, I believe, is due to close.
A renewed civil society with genuine local decision-making on local issues will not only enhance our social fabric; it will also revitalise political life at the national level as people cut their teeth on, and get a taste for, politics-if noble Lords will pardon two metaphors which do not really belong together-in an arena where they see that they can make a difference. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, in effect that vision will be no more than a pipe dream unless the Government devolve more financial decision-making to the local level. As in many areas of life, what we do with our money shows where our heart truly is, and that will be true for the new Government.
There is half a sentence in the gracious Speech which warms my heart more than any other part, although no one else has referred to it thus far, and indeed it requires little or no legislation. It is the expressed commitment of the Government to end the detention of children for immigration purposes. The locking up of children, many of whom are already traumatised by their experiences in their home countries, by an often tortuous journey to Britain and by their insecure existence here, is deeply inhumane and shameful to the values that we claim to hold in common as a civilised country. I ask the Government, through the Minister, whether it would be possible, as an earnest of their intention, to release those children who are currently held in detention.
I believe that the country wants the Government to control immigration. The temptation, though, is to have a draconian policy which creates the illusion of strong government rather than a thought-through policy based on those principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility to which the Government have committed themselves and which takes account of skills shortages and other special needs that we have. I hope that those same three principles will also govern the way that we process asylum seekers, the quality of the initial decision-making in particular, and also the way that the end of the process is handled.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I have been wondering how on earth to open this speech. For the first time in many years I really do not know how to do it because I do not know where I stand. What the noble Lord-now my noble friend-Lord Tyler, said just now was right: we cannot deal with constitutional change other than through the parliamentary process, and that involves pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills. He and I, who have quarrelled over many things, at least agree on that today. One simply may not foretell or forestall the democratic process. That is how I start.
The horses of the three main parties are all there groomed in their stables. Her Majesty's Opposition have in a sense-thank heavens-been restructured. We heard a magnificent speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, on the adjournment debate; we have been spoken to by the right honourable gentleman Jack Straw; and we have two spokesmen on the opposition Front Bench-I do not ask them to move-who are, frankly, totally respected on all sides of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, is one of them, and that will provide great support for the House in the future.
From there, I suppose that we start with the main problem of legal and constitutional affairs. As I said, I have no speech; I have a lot of illegible notes. I shall do the best that I can in eight minutes and sit down. The main concern is to change the whole system of government. That was spoken about in the rose garden, elsewhere and all over the place, but not in the gracious Speech. That is crucial. The gracious Speech has a handful of evolutionary Bills dealing with aspects of parliamentary and political reform, but they do not deal with the fundamental commitment spoken about in the rose garden. Where are we? Where do we stand? What can a Back-Bencher like me know? You cannot even pick this up in the Bishops' Robing Room. There it is; the parliamentary process and procedures would, as a practical reality, inhibit Royal Assent to a constitutional Bill within five years. I shall deal with those in a moment.
In the previous gracious Speech we had two constitutional Bills, one of which was withdrawn and the other bundled into the washtub. That cannot happen again. As the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, wrote in his prophetic article in the Times on 14 April, which proved Professor Bogdanor's contribution to the debate:
There is indeed, but not only on this Bill. There are always events, such as the euro crisis, and other crises, on which the stand of our Prime Minister is highly to be commended, as well as on other matters naturally not referred to in government business. I want to deal with the practical realities if there is time, but looking at the clock, there will not be.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|