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A totally new factor has now come into the situation, which was referred to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who spoke of the speech made by Mr David Heath, the parliamentary secretary to the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, on Tuesday night. I have read through that speech a number of times and have found it somewhat confusing, but ultimately one comes to a passage on which I should be grateful if the House would concentrate for a moment. Mr Heath said:
"Returning to where a vote of no confidence has taken place, it is extraordinary to suggest that there would be circumstances in which this House would refuse to vote for a Dissolution when it was clear that a Dissolution and a new general election were the only way forward. However, even given that, we are putting forward"-
In fact, 55 per cent is not part of that basic structure as has been suggested. If a Prime Minister had been defeated and given up the seals of office there is a period of 30 days for a successor to decide whether he or she can form a Government. If such a Government is formed, the 55 per cent does not really come into it. If it cannot be formed, then that Government has fallen, not because of the 55 per cent but because of the automatic Dissolution system. That being so, one then asks what is the purpose of the 55 per cent. I think that it was intended to be an instrument to be used in terrorem against the Liberal Democrats. Put another way, it is an instrument-a chastity belt-to prevent the Liberal Democrats jumping into bed with any other political association. If that is the case, and I believe it to be so, we should look at these arrangements and proposals exactly in that cynical light.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I wish to address the measures announced in the gracious Speech that relate to fixed-term parliaments, the alternative vote referendum and the principle of moving to more equal-sized electorates in constituencies.
As someone who has worked both as a volunteer and a professional in the last 10 general election campaigns, I personally welcome the proposal for fixed-term parliaments in future. It is not just a matter of personal convenience to be able to plan your holidays and work around the known dates of elections nor a matter of assisting everyone involved in planning the campaigns, including the staff, the parties and the media, but an important democratic principle.
It has always seemed unfair that the leader of one political party can choose polling day according to their own party's advantage. Of course, they sometimes make mistakes, such as Jim Callaghan in 1978 or Gordon Brown in 2007. But, by and large, the power to choose polling day based principally on examination of opinion poll or local election data has in the past given an unfair and undemocratic advantage to the party in government. That is why opposition leaders have had good cause to complain. The noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, argued strongly for fixed-term parliaments in 1992. But Labour's addiction to power after 1997 meant that that was one of the many reforms that did not see the light of day in Labour's 13 years in office, although it resurfaced in its recent manifesto.
Since 1999, we have seen the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly function well with fixed-term parliaments, no one party having an overall majority, different coalitions being formed and periods of minority government. The sky did not fall in in response to any of that. Many noble Lords will also be aware of how most local authorities function on a fixed-term cycle based on elections every four years. In these councils, even a vote of 100 per cent of the members does not lead to a new set of elections. Councillors simply have to respect the voters' verdict and make it work over the four-year term.
Fixed-term parliaments work in many countries. In the United States, President Obama knows that he is elected for a four-year term to head the executive branch of the US Government. Nothing can alter that, short of impeachment. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, suggested that perhaps if a Prime Minister dies there should be a new general election, but in the United States if a President resigns or is assassinated, there is no new presidential election-the business of government continues.
There has of course been much debate today on the principle of how a general election might be triggered at an earlier point than the fixed term. My noble friend Lord Tyler pointed out that when introducing fixed-term parliaments for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, the previous Labour Government legislated to require a two-thirds vote for a new election to be triggered. To those who have said today that a Dissolution of Parliament should be triggered by a vote of 50 per cent plus one of the Members, I say that this would mean that we did not have a fixed-term parliament whenever one party, as is usually the case, had a majority. If a Government with a majority can vote for Dissolution and a general election then we will simply hand power back to the governing party to choose the time of the election. The 55 per cent rule is necessary-
Lord Rennard: Given the public commitments by both coalition parties, that clearly would not happen. The noble and learned Lord makes a good point, however. When we consider this fully and properly in due course and learn the lessons over this parliament, perhaps the 55 per cent measure will be seen as an insufficient trigger. Perhaps his Government acted sensibly and wisely in the Scotland Act in ensuring that in Scotland, as in Wales and in Northern Ireland, a two-thirds majority is required. For this parliament, though, 55 per cent provides stability.
Lord Mackay of Clashfern: Before the noble Lord goes on, is it not implicit in what is proposed in the coalition agreement that there should be a lost vote of confidence before there is a Dissolution?
Lord Rennard: It is probably logically necessary that there would have to be a vote of no confidence in the Government. If it were impossible to form a new Government, I have no doubt that Members in another place would vote for Dissolution by more than 55 per cent. That is what happens in the Scottish Parliament, for example: if the First Minister resigns and they are unable to elect a new First Minister, an election is triggered.
Lord Harris of Haringey: The noble Lord's point about a fixed term is interesting. He cited with approbation the fixed term for the US President being four years. In local government, as he knows, the fixed term is four years. Why does he think that a five-year term is appropriate in this context?
Lord Rennard: Actually, I have not argued that case; I have argued the case for a fixed-term parliament. I think that the argument that those in favour of five years would make is that this is the first time in British history that a Prime Minister has surrendered that supreme partisan advantage of being able to pick and choose polling day according to opinion poll ratings rather than the national interest. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, effectively pointed out earlier, this has often been deeply damaging for the long-term British economic interest.
Lord Campbell-Savours: I hope that the House will provide some additional injury time for the noble Lord due to the interventions that he is accepting. This is a question that I wanted to ask him on the Floor: was he involved in the decision to proceed with the 55 per cent? Does he know where that idea came from within the coalition? Was it a Liberal Democrat proposition, or did it come from the other end of the coalition?
Lord Rennard: The answer is no, I was not involved, and I do not know how it came out of the negotiations, but the 55 per cent is logical for this Parliament. As I have argued before with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, on "Newsnight", it is relevant and effective for this Parliament because it is the first time that this has been done. I think that the case is made.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I beg to disagree on the basis that if you do not have a percentage like that, you simply do not have a fixed-term parliament. If it is possible for one party with 50 per cent plus one of the seats in the House of Commons to trigger an election, you allow that party, for its own interests, to choose the time of the election, rather than have the fixed term that works in so many other countries.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I support fixed-term parliaments but I completely fail to understand what is wrong with a provision that says there should be a fixed term for X years, subject to a case where the Government are defeated on an Opposition Motion of confidence.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, you see what is wrong with that when you look, for example, at the models of many other European countries, where there are fixed- term parliaments, multi-party coalitions, systems of
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My time is almost up and half of it has been taken up by noble Lords in other places. We will return to the very important arguments about the alternative vote referendum and to other points that need to be made in due course.
Lord McNally: Noble Lords are clearly getting a second wind but this is not the Second Reading of a Bill; nor will there be a vote on it at the end of the night. So can we still try to stick to eight minutes?
The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, much of this afternoon's debate on the gracious Speech has focused on constitutional affairs and, in particular, on the reform of Parliament. I wish to introduce a note of light relief by addressing home affairs. I promise to use neither the phrase "five years" nor "55 per cent" in what I am about to say. There is much in the gracious Speech on home affairs which has arrested my attention. The foreword to the coalition's programme for government refers to the creation of a big society, matched by big citizens. This phrase has a built-in ambiguity but I think I understand the drift. I favour greater partnership between the Government and civil institutions, and welcome the affirmation of both local responsibility and the role of the voluntary sector. However, the state must be wise about the difference between the delegation of authority and the abrogation of responsibility.
The Deputy Prime Minister, as we have already heard, has described the Freedom Bill as the greatest shift of power to the people since 1832. These Benches had frequent anxieties about the previous Government's perceived tendency to restrict civil liberties, but the proposed changes will require careful scrutiny. I welcome the scrapping of the identity card scheme and of universal DNA databases to protect privacy. A change to the Scottish system of retaining the DNA profiles of those arrested but not convicted is probably right, though there is still a concern about how far this will reduce detection rates for serious offences. I am glad to see that the right to peaceful protest is to be safeguarded in light of the misuse of legislation designed to counter terrorism. There is a further need to restrict the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 to ensure that these powers are used only for the detection of serious crime, rather than more trivial matters.
This points to a further issue, which the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has pointed out, about the legal aid system. Many of us are concerned that the recent cost-driven reforms in both civil and criminal justice
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As far as I can see, the most controversial proposal in the police reform and social responsibility Bill is the direct election of supervisors for police forces. I share the view of many senior police officers that it risks further politicising policing and in a worst case scenario may allow eccentric or even sinister local interests to influence operations.
The system of indirectly elected police authorities allowed politicians to direct policy but safeguarded the operational independence of the police. Although the distinction between policy and operation is sometimes difficult to make, my fear is that this proposal might upset the proper balance of powers. It seems to me that local accountability is better pursued at the level of neighbourhood policing, as is already happening.
I worry about the language of "crackdown" on anti-social behaviour and alcohol-related violence, which often leads to tackling the symptoms rather than the underlying causes. For instance, it is easy to apply the law on anti-social behaviour to those with mental health problems, when we should be strengthening community mental health services. At the same time I welcome the proposal to ban the sale of alcohol below cost price and measures to restrict the sale of alcohol to children.
However, it needs to be said that there seems to a misconception in all of this that the major problem is binge drinking by "irresponsible people", but the reality is that alcohol abuse is a much wider public health problem and should be tackled by a wide range of measures, including minimum unit pricing. On this I commend the report by the Health Committee in the other place on alcohol published in January.
In conclusion, what seems most refreshing to many of us is that working together for the good of the country seems a far better way of going about things than much of what we have experienced in past times. I look forward to playing my part with my colleagues in building that big society matched by big citizens.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, it is great to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol. I hope that, unlike one of his predecessors, he will not be pursued across the roof of his burning palace by rioters in Bristol, which once happened.
It is perfectly fair to say that Mr Cameron acted with supreme statesmanship immediately after the election, in which he was closely followed by Mr Clegg. This has resulted in a Government who I suggest are supported-or were supported at the polls-by more people than have supported any other Government since the advent of universal adult male suffrage, let alone universal suffrage. That gives this Government an essential ballast of authority to do the things that have to be done. It also combines those two principles-
Lord Harris of Haringey: Surely the principle of the moral authority which the noble Earl is talking about is when the Government have sought approval from the electorate for a particular set of legislative proposals-a manifesto. In this instance, both political parties have jettisoned their manifestos and the coalition agreement has never been put to the British people
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, all Members of the House of Commons are elected on the Burkean principle: not as delegates but as representatives. I always have to think here, but the House knows what I mean. They are elected for their judgment. Thereby, when certain circumstances arise, as they did after this election, they had to make judgments on the facts as they were. The two leaders have taken a thoroughly great and statesmanlike decision.
I listened with great interest to the noble Lords, Lord Hunt, Lord Grocott and Lord Elystan-Morgan. I agreed essentially with them on fixed parliaments and the 55. If you say, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, did, that the aim of the Government is to return power to the people, making sure that they cannot have an election seems a very odd way to do that. But then I did not go to university, so perhaps I do not understand that.
In 1923, as the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said, Bonar Law was elected on a programme of free trade. When he died, Baldwin succeeded him and felt that he had to go to the country to get a mandate for a basic change in policy. I see nothing immoral or wrong about that. In fact, I see morality and right about that. The concept of 55-I do not know whether it is 55 seats or 55 per cent; and nor do the Government, who will have a consultation on that-seems absolutely, wrong. If the Government have lost power in a vote of no confidence, then they must be allowed to recommend a dissolution.
In France in the 1870s, the Government were defeated. I am not sure of my exact historical facts, but the President either could not, or would not, grant a dissolution. So what did they say? They said the French equivalent of "Yippee! What we can do is swap about being in government and we do not have to go to the people and give them any choice". From then until 1940, when Pétain brought an end to the system-although it was reintroduced in 1945-the French had a Government every six weeks or months. If you have
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This is not the way to go about it. If a Government lose command of the House of Commons, that represents the basis of our constitution. Only the House of Commons can raise the money for the King or Queen's Government to continue. If the Prime Minister loses the confidence of the House of Commons, he has to go-it is as simple as that-because he cannot raise the money to run the country, and that is why the House of Commons is, and has been for 300 years, the senior of the two Houses. This House, very wisely, gave up the right to raise tax some time in the 1340s. It did not give up the right to say, "No, you don't raise tax"-which is a different issue. That was what brought about 1911.
I shall briefly comment on some of the other things. Between 1999 and the election, I thought that this House worked better than at any time that I have been in it, and I have been in it since 1971. That is not as long as my noble friend Lord Ferrers, but that is impossible. We used to combine in odd coalitions all over the place when the Government made mistakes. I know that as night follows day, however good this Government are, they will do silly things. All Governments do. I thought of calling my new Liberal Whig noble friends noble acquaintances. The independent Tories, of whom my noble friend Lord Lucas is certainly one, used regularly to vote with the Liberals against the Conservatives during the previous Session. I did that on the American extradition treaty and on control orders, and I do not resile from that for one moment. It seems to me that as a Back Bencher on a big government side, it is your duty to be constructively disloyal, and I promise my noble friends on the Front Bench, both Liberal and Tory, that I will be constructively disloyal because that is the duty of somebody who is here and who paid their debt to their political masters some time in 1801, or it may have been 1717, I do not know. That is how I hope that this Government will go on. I wish them the most enormous success because they are full of good ideas and represent the greatest section of the voting public since universal adult male suffrage.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I shall say a few words on electoral reform in general and AV in particular. I speak as a member of the Jenkins committee on electoral reform right back in 1998. It is interesting that, when the Commons wanted advice about how to change the electoral system, they chose a committee with four out of the five members being Members of this House. Unfortunately, two of them are no longer with us-Lord Jenkins and Lord Alexander-but my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton and I remain and I shall give a few reflections on the AV proposals from that perspective.
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