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Earl Russell: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Does he understand that PR is not a single system? Whether the effects he fears come about depends on the type of PR that is adopted.
Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for pointing that out. Perhaps I should have explained myself more clearly. I refer to representatives similar to the 20 out of the 60 we are suggesting we might find in the Welsh assembly. Those 20 are totally unrepresentative of the electorate, and it is important to point that out. I am sorry if I did not make that clear.
PR is an electoral system which may strike the party organisations as being fairer than the first-past-the-post system, but it is loaded against the ordinary citizen. They no longer "own" their MPs, especially in the case of the Welsh assembly representatives on a party list. To whom will they write when driven to sick despair by the injustices of bureaucracy? At whom will they rail
Moreover, there exists the upper Chamber, which I should like to speak briefly on now. The upper Chamber acts as a check on the machinery of government. Forty per cent. of the upper Chamber are non-party. With great respect, I have to disagree with my noble friend Lord Alexander of Weedon. I believe that there is no one party which has a majority in the House. We are not, on the whole, professional politicians. It has also been described with approval by the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal as effectively the only place in which the legislature can curb the power of the Executive. I believe that its members should not be dependent upon political favour and must be as near incorruptible as is possible for an institution to be. Some will say that it should tread gently in the face of acknowledged hostility from another place. But it owes a duty to the people of this nation to continue to monitor the actions of the elected leaders and to speak out without favour or bias when it feels that they are to the detriment of the country.
If I may borrow a phrase from the sphere of education, it has a role to play as an assembly of "critical friends". This particular critical friend finds himself in sympathy with Horace Walpole, who wrote in January 1770:
If the Government decide to change this constitution, let us hope that they will come forward speedily with their reforms and complete reforms for this House as part of a comprehensive package for their reforms of the constitution; and pray they may "let it alone".
Lord Desai: My Lords, just as the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, has a fixed place in any debate, I am always put as last on my side, in a sort of Franz Beckenbauer sweeper role. We have had a wide ranging debate about many topics, not all of them on the Motion on the Order Paper. We have discussed constitutional reform, we have had complaints about referenda, and various other matters have been mentioned. By and large, there have not been many "hits" at the Government. I am sure my noble friend Lord McIntosh will have a light task to answer, with one exception, if I may say so. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, always gets her hits in and she strikes.
The heart of this issue is not a matter of Labour or Conservative but it is a structural problem in the British constitution. It was pointed out by Tom Paine about 200 years ago that an executive which commands a majority in the House of Commons will always have excessive power because we have a unicameral system in all practical senses. While we are a very good Chamber, a scrutinising, revising Chamber, we do not really matter unless the House of Commons agrees to take our opinion into account.
Therefore to some extent the effectiveness of opposition, at a time when the party in power has a large majority, depends upon the quality of opposition. There, I fully endorse what my noble friend Lord Ewing has said. The Opposition in another place are on the lower part of a steep learning curve. That is when we begin to be unhappy about the effectiveness of Parliament.
The problem is not just the quality of opposition but the fact that we do not have an effective second Chamber. I shall not say anything further about that because, as some noble Lords may know, along with the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, I wrote a pamphlet on this about two years ago. I have said all I want to say in that.
However, there is an important point about the reform of the House of Lords which has nothing to do with the quality of hereditary Peers or the quality of life Peers. It has to do with the fact that a second Chamber in the British constitution has no bite unless the House of Commons prefers to be bitten. Therefore we will always have the problem that an executive commanding a large majority in the lower House will be able to do almost whatever it likes--but not quite. Very often, and I am sure the party opposite knows this better than I, the effective opposition to the Government comes from its Back Benchers. Not always, not perhaps in the first year of government or the first two years of government but eventually Back Benchers, who may start innocent, learn the tricks. That is where much of the opposition in our system has come from. These are early days yet and there are some Back Benchers in another place who will learn a few tricks. Nobody has mentioned this, but on the vote on the lone parents' order, although the Government won, they changed their mind when they saw the size of the opposition and abstention. So I think this is a learning Government. This is not a Government who are carried away entirely. I do not often stand in praise of my Front Bench, but the Back Benchers there are learning--thank God for that! I welcome that.
It would be too easy to romanticise our democracy as depending entirely and solely on parliamentary opposition. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, that lovely romantic picture of Parliament acting as the guardian of national interest was perhaps once true in the 19th century. But today, especially since universal franchise came in the 20th century, there are extra-parliamentary channels of opposition. I remind the House that the community charge, as it was then called, or the poll tax, was removed not because of parliamentary opposition but because of the riot in the streets. That riot in the streets meant that a major piece of legislation, a flagship in the party manifesto of 1987, was enacted and abolished within a single Parliament.
We must not forget that there are people out there and unless they address the people as well as Parliament, governments can get into trouble. We do not quite admit to ourselves that this extra-parliamentary opposition--the people's opposition, if I may use that New Labour cliche--is as important as anything else. This Government so far have not encountered people's opposition. I hope they will not, but I think it would be very restrictive of us to imagine that we are the sole
I come to my final point, which many noble Lords have made. We have a Parliament and parliamentary arrangements which are suited to a much more leisurely age when the state was small and people had very little to consider by way of legislation. We have, without changing our practices, increased the amount of legislation that must be scrutinised. The Government may have information technology but Parliament does not. We do not use any information technology in our proceedings. We use very old-fashioned methods. We are then obviously short of time. Therefore, unless we think of our working practices and how to make better use of technology which we have in the House as well as outside it, we shall have the problem that governments will always have far too much legislation for Parliament to consider; Parliament will not have time; Ministers will have far too much to do and will not have time to come to Parliament; there will be dissatisfaction all around; but, so long as there is a majority, the ruling party will get away with murder.
We should take advantage of the Motion which the noble Viscount has tabled to think much more thoroughly about a total reform of parliamentary practices. We should not say, "You did not do such and such when you were in power" and so on. Those stories can go on but they are not very helpful. Great as this Parliament is, it has structural defects which we have not thought about removing. One of the opportunities for doing that will be when we consider the reform of this House. But that is for another occasion.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, all those hours ago, my noble friend Lord Cranborne referred to what Mr. Mandelson said and the noble Lord the Leader of the House said that that was just fine. I am sure that my noble friend and those noble Lords who have had the opportunity to study some of the research and literature on which new Labour's planning, before the election, was based are not surprised by this Government's style.
The use of focus groups, the 100 and something review groups, the use of articles by senior Ministers in the newspapers, all brought together under the unified heading of modernisation, are currently fashionable ways to proceed. They can be very effective too. There is nothing wrong with them. One has only to glance across the Atlantic to see that. That the Government are using those measures is not at all surprising.
What is surprising is that, apparently, the Government do not see the danger of constantly communicating directly with people, as one can nowadays, while at the same time leaving elected MPs out of it, operating Parliament so that it is thoroughly left out, and legislating in a manner which deliberately reduces their input.
In this country we are unselfconsciously but deeply democratic and people understand well how the system works for them. Focus groups may well be saying that Parliament is being held in less regard than it used to be. If that is so--and I think it possibly is--it is reason for change. But change must come through the proper use of the checks and balances of Parliament that we have now. If the Government forget that, they are in danger of getting the legislation wrong; of upsetting a lot of people in the process; and thus losing the wonderful opportunity which the electorate has given them.
A major example of how things can go wrong is already revealing itself as the Government's constitutional proposals unfold. I suggest it all began in Scotland when, long before it was elected, the Labour Party began communicating directly with the electorate by, along with the Liberal Democrats, setting up a constitutional convention. Over seven years and without reference to the rest of the United Kingdom--because it was not required to refer to the rest of the United Kingdom--it drew up plans publicly, and to considerable general satisfaction, for a Scottish parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Ewing, played a great part in that and we all congratulated him on it.
When elected, the Government accepted the plan virtually as it stood. It was plain they could scarcely have done otherwise, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, indicated. The result of the referendum was a foregone conclusion and the plan went into the Bill.
What is only now dawning on Members of another place, as can be seen from recent debates on the Bill on Report, is that the Scottish proposals for lop-sided legislative devolution are likely to create huge tensions in relation to funding, who pays for what, who may vote on what and who negotiates on devolved matters in Europe. It is dawning on MPs that such tensions are likely, quite quickly, to bring instability and the outcome may well have to be more balanced devolution. That may happen sooner rather than later.
The outcome may well have to be some kind of federal arrangement with an English Parliament with powers similar to those proposed for the Scottish Parliament, presumably a uni-cameral parliament relating to the human rights legislation as is proposed for the Scottish parliament. Should that be the case, is the Government of Wales Bill the right Bill? Where does it leave the House of Lords? The noble Lord the Leader of the House talked of long years ahead for the House of Lords. Will that role merely be one of scrutinising social security, defence and foreign affairs matters? What about the Good Friday settlement and, indeed, the Human Rights Act?
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, said he thinks that this is a learning government. There are indications of that. We have seen it in the work on several Bills. But neglect of Parliament is dangerous at all times. As has been said, the last government neglected it too. But neglecting Parliament as this government are doing at the same time as communicating directly with the people in every way that they can is very dangerous indeed, especially when changes to the constitution are under consideration. I wonder whether, when the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, replies, he will be able to agree with that.
Baroness Strange: My Lords, we are all very grateful to my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition for initiating this debate today with his depth of knowledge and his usual scintillating rapier wit. Speaking as the "afterthought" and at the end, I do not feel so much embattled as my noble friend Lord Beloff does; nor do I feel myself to be a "sweeper" like the noble Lord, Lord Desai. I feel more like a coot skittering over the surface of a lake, below which lie deep and unplumbable depths of wisdom. It is much the same feeling as one has when entering Westminster Hall. History is all around one, beneath one, below one, behind one and indeed before one, if one thinks of the title of T.H. White's book about King Arthur, The Once and Future King.
History and change are so continuous and so much a part of the present as of the future that whether history exists in a straight line or in a circle is a philosophical question which I shall not attempt to delve into. My noble kinsman Lord Russell spoke about the golden age of Parliament. The trouble about a golden age is that it is never now. However, looking round this Chamber, full of glittering gold, and at all my noble friends on all sides of the House--many of them hereditary--I cannot help feeling that the golden age is now.
My noble friend the Leader of the Opposition quoted one of my favourite journalists, Matthew Parris, who said that we must not believe all we see on television. I have a journalist friend in Istanbul, who once said,
My dear and noble friend Lady Blatch referred to hereditary Peers as being "beef off the bone", to be tossed to the envious. Although I agree with her, I do not think she has got it quite right. We hereditaries are "beef on the bone"--British bone, born and bred. Our Parliament is part of our constitution and our constitution is different from others because it is not written. It evolves. It is a constitution admired and copied all over the world.
It is said that Britain is governed by the weather. It is never the same two days running; nor in two places. So we basically remain temperate people and when in doubt we talk about the weather. Perhaps there was an El Nino about during the time of the Civil War: signs and portents in the heavens. However, since that time our constitution has continued to emerge and to change slowly. We have come to rely on the importance of a democratically elected Parliament, with slight checks from an upper House, which is answerable in the main to its own conscience.
This Parliament is very dear to us all. It is the one block against a dictatorship. Perhaps the time has come once more for the barons to defend our freedom and our democracy, as they did at Runnymede.
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