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Lord Ewing of Kirkford: Or she!

Viscount Cranborne: --or she (I stand corrected by the noble Lord, Lord Ewing; shades of our time on standing committee in another place)--may or may not be a good idea. We know for sure that 72 per cent. of 33 per cent. or, if my maths are correct, 24 per cent. of the population of London believe that he or she is.

And when the legislation comes before Parliament we must hope that it does not contain the sort of contradictions that threaten to make the Welsh, and more particularly the Scottish legislation, unworkable. Any self-respecting Parliament, even a House of Commons with as substantial a government majority as

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this one, would consider rejecting legislation that it might approve in principle, but whose detail made it unworkable. But pre-legislative referendums make the exercise of legitimate parliamentary government virtually impossible--and no doubt the Government realise that all too well.

If the devolution proposals do turn out to be unworkable, as I particularly fear they will in Scotland, the process by which they have been approved by the electorates of the United Kingdom will undermine public confidence in the way governments secure authority for what they do. I hope, therefore, that the Government will find themselves able to respond positively to the pleas of my noble friend Lord Mackay, my right honourable friend Michael Ancram and myself that the parties should agree, before any more are held, as to what rules should govern referendums. I am sure that they will have noted, as I have with pleasure, that this proposal received the support of the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, on the Floor of this House and, in doing so, I hope he was speaking for the massed ranks of his party. It would be a happy change to find them on our side rather than the Government's.

It is important that the Government take my plea seriously since we probably face referendums on two questions whose importance it is difficult to exaggerate; that is, proportional representation and the single currency. The single currency is not a subject for today except perhaps to say that, whatever the referendum result, I am sure no government would accept that the electorate's confidence in the way it is conducted should be put at risk. The same applies to proportional representation. Indeed, I should be interested to know what vote in the Government's view would justify a change in our voting system. For instance, would a vote of at least 50 per cent. of the electorate be necessary to introduce a PR system, since, as I understand it, the logic of the system is proportionality?

I have to say--and it will come as no surprise to your Lordships--that I am strongly opposed to changing our present voting system. Any change would encourage the growth of the power of extremist parties, as it has in France and Germany. It would, particularly on the closed list system favoured by the Government, transfer power from the constituencies to the party apparat. It would bring about the transformation of our political parties into state funded corporatist entities, in which party political campaigns and organisation are organised from the top rather than growing from the grassroots bottom. It would usher in an era of coalition politics. In short, it would transfer the forum where power is brokered from Parliament to the party leaders and their familiars. It is therefore fundamentally inimical to parliamentary government. If we are to judge the Prime Minister by his actions--after all, he has introduced a system of proportional representation for every assembly he has proposed and, indeed, commissioned the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, to act as his John the Baptist in the matter of introducing it for Westminster elections--he is seduced by the idea of proportional representation. Those of us who dislike the systems of

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proportional representation as a prospect for Westminster elections take this as further evidence of his desire to bypass parliamentary accountability.

There are many other pieces of evidence as well. I will not this afternoon address myself to the question of how the Government intend to abolish the right of hereditary Peers to sit in your Lordships' House. I hope the noble Lord the Leader of the House will afford us the chance to discuss our future before the Summer Recess. I would merely say here that just to remove the hereditary Peers and not simultaneously to put something at least as independent in their place would increase neither the independence nor the legitimacy of this place and so it would in itself undermine the standing and authority of Parliament as a whole.

Setting aside the vexed question of your Lordships' House, it is clear that in all kinds of other ways Parliament should be vigilant in holding this Government to account. Madam Speaker herself has reminded Ministers that they should inform Parliament of their intentions before they inform the "Today" programme. We all know that spin doctors do not shoot down a kite they have launched and which has proved to have flown.

I hope, too, that Ministers will accept in full the strictures of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee of your Lordships' House and act on them swiftly and in full, as I always insisted that we should do before the last election. We have read the committee's report on the School Standards and Framework Bill and have taken some comfort from the reply of the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, to my noble friend Lady Blatch during last week's proceedings on the Bill. Nevertheless, in spite of its language the committee's conclusions were as damning as on any Bill it has examined. If the Leader of the House can reassure us today, I am sure the whole House would be very greatly relieved. Skeleton Bills and Henry VIII powers are sometimes necessary--I acknowledge that--but they can all too easily become a habit. They are fundamentally inimical to parliamentary accountability.

In the same area, the Government have now asked Parliament to consider three Bills which rely upon, and refer to, legislation dealing with the registration of political parties. Yet the Government have not even published their draft legislation on the matter, so as we consider the Scotland Bill, the Government of Wales Bill and the European Parliamentary Elections Bill we will have no idea of what the legislation they depend on will look like. My noble friends have already expressed their extreme disquiet on this issue and no doubt your Lordships will want to consider carefully how far these three Bills should progress through this House in the absence of a published Bill on the registration of political parties.

All of this creates an atmosphere of contempt for Parliament which I find disturbing. It has led to a position where the Government feel able to introduce a major part of the Budget proposals at the Report stage of a Bill in this House, making it virtually impossible for either House to subject them to even the semblance of adequate scrutiny. It is exacerbated by the distressing

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arms-for-Sierra Leone affair where after one or two bosh shots, Ministers' defence in essence seems to amount to this: "We knew nothing. So we are not responsible. Civil Servants are therefore responsible and, although we want to imply that they are culpable, we also want to get any credit that's going. So since our man won, didn't we do well?" But my question, my Lords, is quite simple. Where is Parliament in all this? Before the last election there was no one more insistent on the Government's being wholly accountable to Parliament than the Foreign Secretary. Was he serious about this at the time or was he merely showing off his well-known skills as a debater, at least in opposition?

And, all this, too, at a time when the Government are setting up new parliaments and assemblies. The Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, the new London body and, eventually, we are promised, regional assemblies for England. Add directly elected mayors to the picture, and poor old Westminster is getting rather squeezed at one end and local councils at the other. And I speak for a party which rather neglected local councils during our period in government. In the case of the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly there is no declaration in either Bill of the supremacy of Westminster. I imagine that is partly because the Government feel that the Scots at least would not accept such a declaration. If that proves to be so, it does not bode well for harmonious relations between Westminster and Edinburgh or the clarity of the Government's accountability to Parliament.

As I say, it is not altogether a happy story. One cannot help beginning to feel that the Prime Minister would like to reduce his obligation to remain fully accountable to Parliament and is intent on rigging the system to achieve that aim. If so he is making a serious mistake. Only Parliament can provide the continuous scrutiny needed to hold governments to account--not the press, not opinion polls, not focus groups. If Parliament holds the Government to account continuously and effectively and nevertheless still supports Ministers, the government's authority to tell us all what to do is surely increased rather than diminished, for it is only from Parliament that the Government get their authority in the first place. Paradoxically, therefore, Parliament and government stand or fall together, and governments have an interest in bolstering the power of Parliament--although governments of both colours tend to forget that. The present Government seem to have forgotten it rather earlier in their term of office than most, and are trying to change the system so that they can get away with it. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.27 p.m.

Lord Richard: My Lords, I initially welcomed this debate and looked forward greatly to it. I thought that we were going to have a detailed analysis of the way in which this Government are relating to Parliament. What do I find? A few cracks about pre-legislative referenda, with which I shall deal in a moment; an attack on my honourable friend Mr. Mandelson for what he said in Bonn, of which I happen to have the full quote and

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which I shall be delighted to read to the House in due course; a little bit about the Scottish and Welsh devolution Bills and how they had not been properly scrutinised in the other place; and one or two cheap jibes, which the noble Viscount could not resist, at the expense of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary--although what it had to do with what he was supposed to be talking about still escapes me--after which the noble Viscount sat down.

Despite the tone of some of what the noble Viscount said I am grateful to him for giving me at least the opportunity to stand back and to put on record both the seriousness with which this Government treat Parliament and what we are trying to do to improve accountability. I hope also, together with my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey, who will wind up today's debate, to put the noble Viscount's mind at rest and settle some of the quivering unease he seems to feel.

We have heard much from the noble Viscount recently. We heard the theme again today of the "elective dictatorship". After nearly 20 years the phrase is once again occurring on the lips of Conservative spokesmen. It has had a patchy history. It was invented by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, 22 years ago. It had a good run for about three years after that. Then in 1979 something curious happened. Nothing more was heard of it from those same Conservative lips for all of 18 years. The dictatorship did not cease to be elective, but obviously it became a Conservative one. Only since last year has it made its reappearance, and that again is curiously coincident. We seem to have made a very interesting discovery about the elective dictatorship, at least as envisioned by the party opposite. It appears only when that party is not in power.

As to the substance of today's debate, I shall turn in a moment to some of the things the noble Viscount mentioned. But, first, I wish to deal with one or two peripheral matters, if I may so term them. The noble Viscount takes to task my honourable friend the Minister without Portfolio for a speech he made to a seminar in Germany on 3rd March. I thought that the noble Viscount might just do that, so I have the actual text. If the House will forgive me, I propose reading some of it so that it can be put into some kind of sensible context.

My honourable friend said this:

    "It may be that the era of pure representative democracy is coming slowly to an end. We entered the twentieth century with a society of elites, with a very distinct class structure. In those days it seemed natural to delegate important decisions to members of the landowning elite, or the industrial elite or the educated elite. When, in Britain, Labour emerged as the party that represented the industrial working class, it quickly developed its own elite of trade union bureaucrats, City bosses and socialist intellectuals. But that age has passed away. Today people want to be more involved. Representative government is being complemented"--

that is the word he used--

    "by more direct forms of involvement from the Internet to referenda. Tony Blair's Government has already held two referenda and three more are at some stage in prospect, not to mention more citizens'

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    movements, more action from pressure groups. That requires a different style of politics and we are trying to respond to these changes".

If the noble Viscount had read that, how he could make the comments he did on that speech today is beyond me. I prefer to believe that he never read it rather than that he deliberately misrepresented it to the extent that he did.

We had a blast about pre-legislative referenda. It was all in the manifesto so the country knew that this was coming--

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