Previous SectionIndexHome Page

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Game, set and match.

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Gentleman says that from a sedentary position--and it is certainly true in the Republic

27 Jun 2001 : Column 734

of Ireland, where the people have spoken. Despite the fact that they have spoken, it is clear that their voice will be suppressed, not by any democratic body that they have elected, but by an unelected, undemocratic body in Brussels. I should like the Leader of the House to tell us why we should not have a referendum on the Nice treaty.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Will the hon. Lady remind the House of how she voted when the Liberal Democrats suggested that the Maastricht treaty should be put to a referendum?

Mrs. Browning: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, when I fought the 1992 election--[Interruption.] Liberal Members should not be so rude. When I fought the 1992 election, the Maastricht treaty had been signed, with some very important opt-outs which the hon. Gentleman would willingly embrace, such as those on the social chapter and the single currency. I accepted in good faith that that was the best deal at the time. Since being elected to the House, I have become very suspicious of all deals cobbled together in Brussels. On a point of principle, I would be in favour of referendums on all major constitutional issues. I had thought that that was Liberal Democrat policy, but perhaps they have also changed their minds.

Simon Hughes indicated assent.

Mr. Tyler indicated assent.

Mrs. Browning: Oh, they agree with me. We know that they are trying to be the official Opposition, but it is no good their intervening on matters about which they agree.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Browning: I shall give way very briefly, but I was not impressed with the right hon. Gentleman's contribution on the first day of debate on the Gracious Speech. If I give way to him, I hope that his intervention will not be acerbic, rude or pointless.

Mr. Kaufman: My gosh, that has slain me.

Mrs. Browning rose--

Mr. Kaufman: What was the hon. Lady's view when Margaret Thatcher guillotined the Single European Act through the House, without even allowing a right to debate it properly here, let alone a referendum?

Mrs. Browning: I was not a Member then; I am much younger than the right hon. Gentleman thinks.

I should like to refer to some of the other changes that we face in this Chamber and elsewhere. The Gracious Speech states that the Government intend to introduce legislation to implement the second phase of what they describe as House of Lords reform, following consultation. I have to tell the Leader of the House, who is new to his post and so may not be fully up to speed with such matters--[Interruption.] That is not a personal slight; he has only just been promoted, so he has inherited the proposals.

27 Jun 2001 : Column 735

In the previous Parliament, the leader of the Conservative party in the House of Lords and I met the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor and the then leader of the Labour party in the Lords to seek to fulfil their pledge to set up a cross-party committee of both Houses to consider the second phase of House of Lords reform. We in the Conservative party made it clear in the House that we were willing to engage in that process, but I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor and the then Leader of the House of Lords not only declined to fulfil their own promises, but declined take us up on our offer, because they would not allow the committee to discuss the composition of the House of Lords in phase two.

The Government were very happy for the committee to debate things such as guillotining and similar arbitrary changes to the procedures in the Lords, such as those that were imposed on this House in the last Parliament, but despite their pledge they were unwilling to let that committee discuss the composition of the House of Lords in phase two. I must tell the Leader that if the words "following consultation" in the Queen's Speech are to mean anything, the consultation must be wide-reaching, genuine, and embracing of both Houses and all parties.

Of course, the fear is that the Government will impose on us their wish for the composition of the Lords. We have heard the proposal to get rid of the hereditaries. We have had a vast number of people added to the Lords--245 have been appointed in the past four years. The Government have not said anything about dealing with that aspect of the composition of the Lords.

I shall have something to say tomorrow in a much longer debate about the procedures of the House and the way in which they have been hijacked by the Executive. I shall leave those comments until tomorrow, in the hope that the Leader of the House can answer some of the questions that I have put to him tonight.

9.40 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): I begin by putting it on record that 39 speeches have been made by new Members and a few old Members who have been enjoying a sabbatical from the House. Some angst has been expressed today about the standing of Parliament, but I hope that I shall carry the whole House with me if I make the positive conclusion that the high quality of the maiden speeches made in the debates on the Queen's Speech and the calibre of new hon. Members are good grounds for optimism about the future of the House. I warmly welcome the hon. Members for Southport (Dr. Pugh), for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) and my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), for Caerphilly (Mr. David) and for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) I congratulate them on their well-expressed tributes to the constituents who sent them here and to their predecessors. As it is evident that it gave him so much pleasure, I hope that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) will accept my congratulations on being disenobled and joining us as a born-again commoner.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) has returned from a sabbatical. I think that we have a sufficient majority for me to be

27 Jun 2001 : Column 736

magnanimous enough to congratulate him on his return. I am not entirely convinced that he correctly paraphrased the Prime Minister's comments on "Question Time", and it is important that we get it straight, as I am aware that one of the hon. Gentleman's distant ancestors carried out the only assassination of a Prime Minister, when he shot Spencer Perceval. I would not want there to be a repetition through any misunderstanding.

I took the precaution of looking up the speech made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) in reply to this debate last year. I was entertained to see that she finished by saying that the best thing about that year's Queen's Speech debate was that it brought the Tory party six days closer to the general election. It is a sentiment which in retrospect she may wish she had phrased differently.

Today, the right hon. Lady made a sustained plea for modernisation of the constitution. In a spirit of friendship and willingness to enter into common endeavour with her, I should say that her pleas would have carried more authority if just once she had acknowledged the state of the constitution that the Conservatives left behind four years ago. It was the only constitution in the democratic world that allowed the hereditary principle to determine who controlled one of two Chambers of Parliament. It was one of the most centralised constitutions in Europe and we had one of the most secretive of democratic states. The public had no right to know information held by the Government elected by the public.

As a Member of Parliament who served in the House for every one of the 18 years that the Conservative party was in power, I have difficulty sharing the rosy glow with which the right hon. Lady appears to recall that period as the golden age of parliamentary democracy. The Conservatives may have forgotten it, but the nation has not forgotten the poll tax, which symbolised all that was rotten in the constitution at the time. The measure was forced through the House by Government Whips, despite opposition from every other party and from most of their own Members. It was pushed through the House of Lords on the back of the hereditary vote. One Member of the other place was flown back for the day from his residence in Monte Carlo, where he did not have to pay the poll tax in any case.

The poll tax was first imposed on the people of Scotland, who had not voted for a Tory Government at any price. I do not recall it entering the heads of Conservative Members that it would be unfair for Tory Members of Parliament to impose the poll tax on Scottish people who had not voted for it. Any constitution that permitted such a monumental mistake as the poll tax was one demanding a thorough overhaul.

I agree with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton that the Government have delivered on radical reform of the constitution. We are proud of that. The people of Scotland and Wales have their own Parliament and Assembly to decide for themselves how to run their public services. I remind her that the Conservative party is only represented in those bodies because we introduced a voting system that is fair to parties which otherwise would be endangered species.

We introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which gives the public the right to the information in millions of documents that were previously kept from them. In addition, we have broken with the hereditary

27 Jun 2001 : Column 737

principle in the House of Lords. Of course more needs to be done--not that the Conservatives ever attempted to do it while they were in office.

The Opposition's amendment demands a referendum on the Nice treaty. That is from a party that took Britain into the European Community without a referendum; accepted sweeping increases in majority voting as the price of the single market without a referendum; and signed up to the Maastricht treaty without a referendum. In all the Conservatives' long years in office, they never once gave the British people a referendum on anything. They did, however, claim that they were going to make the election a referendum on Europe--and they lost catastrophically. If I understand them right, the Conservatives are going to claim that, although they might have lost that referendum in the United Kingdom, they won in Ireland.

If the Conservatives want to be taken seriously when they promise to learn from the lessons of defeat, they cannot ring-fence their party prejudices about Europe from the learning process. A good starting point for their rethink could be the Nice treaty. It gives Britain a larger vote than it ever had in the Conservative years and, for the first time, sets out the votes of the candidate countries that are queueing up to become members of the EU even as Conservative Members develop second thoughts. If they cannot support even that modest measure, they are refusing to learn one of the key lessons of the election--that the British public have enough common sense to reject a party that prides itself on offering isolation, rather than influence, in Europe.

Next Section

IndexHome Page