Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, it may be of interest to the House if I set out the plans for recess dates up to and including the Summer Recess. First, the House will rise for a short Whitsun Recess at the close of business today, returning on Wednesday 2 June. The intention is then to rise for the Summer Recess at the close of business on Wednesday 28 July. The House will then return in October. As ever, recess dates are subject to the progress of business and I will announce in due course the expected date for the return of the House in October. A note of these dates is now available in the Printed Paper Office.
Turning to today's business, there are 49 speakers signed up for today's debate. If Back-Bench contributions are kept to 8 minutes the House should be able to rise this evening at around the target rising time of 7 pm.
"Most Gracious Sovereign-We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament".
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, if there is a look of surprise around the Chamber at seeing me standing here today, I can say at once that it is a feeling I entirely share.
Let me get one piece of protocol out of the way straight away. I intend to address members of both coalition parties as my noble friends. I have not checked how Viscount Samuel handled the matter in 1945 or the Marquis of Crewe in 1922, my most recent predecessors, but that is how I intend to do it. Of course, I am conscious of the advice that the new Member of the House of Commons received when he said what a pleasure it was to look across the Chamber and look into the eyes of his enemies. The old sweat next to him said, "No laddie, they are your opponents; your enemies are behind you".
Whatever the truth behind that advice, we are all coming to terms with the new politics-some of us faster than others. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and others in the Opposition made some observations about the role of the Liberal Democrats now that we are in government and in coalition. I remind noble Lords and Ladies on the Labour Benches that I have a very good example of how to behave in coalition. My personal political hero, Clement Attlee, and his colleagues served in a coalition for five years without losing their identity as individuals or as a party. The Labour Back Benchers retained their identity-so much so that Winston Churchill called Aneurin Bevan a squalid nuisance. So good were they at coalition that after five years the country rewarded them with a landslide victory in the 1945 election.
On another matter, I have searched the Ministry of Justice high and low to see whether the former Ministers in the department, the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Bach, left me a helpful note. I have searched in vain. I felt that it might just have said: "Sorry, old cock, all the prisons are full". What I have received from both, with characteristic generosity, are their personal good wishes, along with a rather chilling warning that they intend to keep a close eye on my stewardship. I pay tribute to them and to the noble Lord, Lord West. I will not pay tribute to former Lord Chancellors-that is above my pay grade-but I pay tribute to the Ministers who have served in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. Perhaps this is the moment for me to say how much I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, a distinguished public servant in a number of fields, not least in the Ministry of Justice.
All Ministers and civil servants grapple with getting the balance right between the role of the state in ensuring the safety of its citizens and protecting those civil liberties and human rights which make us a liberal democracy. There is a difference in outlook and approach, which was best encapsulated in an article I read some months ago in the Guardian, writing about the role of this House. It read:
"It is one of the paradoxes of our age that whereas in the 20th century the great reforming governments-Liberal in 1906, Labour in 1945-faced a recalcitrant House of Lords, in these early years of the 21st century it has been the House of Lords that has been the bulwark of civil liberties against an increasingly authoritarian government".
The concern about encroaching state power and the willingness to respond to every problem with a new law and a new offence was a criticism of the previous Government made not only by Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, but in this House from the Cross Benches and the Labour Benches as well. In carrying out our new responsibilities, I and other Ministers will continue to rely heavily on the collective wisdom of this House as we seek to balance the responsibility of the Government for the defence of the realm and the need to promote civil liberties in a free society.
The coalition agreement is clear on this issue. We will be strong in the defence of freedom. The British state has become too authoritarian, and over the past decade it has abused and eroded fundamental human freedoms and historic civil liberties. It is the Government's contention that the state has intruded too far. We will therefore bring forward proposals to make sure that we strike the right balance. For this reason, the gracious Speech brings forward proposals to scrap the ID cards scheme. Moreover, it is clear that our constitution, the way in which government makes decisions on behalf of the people whom it serves, the relationship between it and Parliament and the public, and how it is held to account are in need of some fairly radical surgery.
My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister set out our challenge in his recent speech. He said that we must transform politics so that the state has less control over the citizen but the citizen has far more control over the state. We must break up concentrations of power and make sure that power resides with the people, and we must persuade the public to have faith in politics and politicians.
Noble Lords may feel that they have heard such high-minded aspirations before and have seen them flounder on the rocks of parliamentary time or the sheer difficulty of achieving agreement. I suggest that there is a fundamental difference this time around. The strength of the government coalition is that there is a critical mass outside Parliament in support of our proposals for fair votes, parliamentary reform and greater local decision-making. In the gracious Speech, we show how we intend to capture this public mood.
I have already spoken of the delicate balance that we need to strike between the state and the individual. That is why the Government will establish a commission to investigate the case for the creation of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. In doing so, the commission will consider the proper balance that must be struck between the rights of the individual and the wider interests of the community, so that the liberties that we enjoy and the obligations that we owe are better understood. For the doubters, let me repeat the key words of what I have just said: a Bill that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Next, we will bring forward legislation to roll back the state, thereby reducing the weight of its involvement in people's lives. Your Lordships have spent a good deal of energy over the past few years pointing out the volume of criminal offences in government Bills, so I am confident that the Bill will be welcomed in this House. We will also bring forward legislation on
27 May 2010 : Column 136
Lord Grocott: If noble Lords are disappointed at not having that intervention, may I suggest this one? Will the noble Lord explain how announcing in May 2010 that the next election will be in May 2015 strengthens Parliament?
Lord McNally: We have had many debates about fixed-term Parliaments, and this is the first example. The noble Lord may recall the dithering and doubts caused by the recent Prime Minister and the harm that that did to good governance, and that many colleagues, including those on his Benches, have for a long time argued the benefits of fixed-term Parliaments. I would have thought that as he is a reformer he would welcome it, but I must move on. The legislation will provide for the possibility that a dissolution of Parliament may be needed outside the five-year timetable. Our proposal is that it should happen if more than 55 per cent of the other place votes for it. Parliament would still be able to dismiss a Government, but the Government would not be able to dismiss Parliament.
Lord McNally: With customary courtesy, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, gave me notice of that question. I wish he had not told noble Lords that because it would have then looked like I was incredibly on top of this job. Even better, I am now able to respond to him by quoting official government policy as expounded by my noble friend the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, David Heath. He said:
Seriously, the proposal has excited a good deal of comment and I anticipate a very full debate when legislation comes before the House. I know that the proposal has frightened the horses in various parts of the House. But the truth is that many respectable and
27 May 2010 : Column 137
Lord Adonis: On an extremely important point, will the noble Lord say why the coalition is proposing a fixed term of five years, which is longer than applies in virtually every democracy in the world with a fixed term and is longer than Parliament has introduced in respect of the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales?
Lord McNally: I suspect that the truth is that we had to start somewhere. We have five-year Parliaments in this country at the moment. I have said to my colleagues down the Corridor-some of whom are younger and more enthusiastic not than the noble Lord but younger than me-that when these proposals come forward we will benefit from the collective wisdom of the House of Lords on these matters, and so we shall.
Furthermore, we will publish a draft parliamentary Bill making sure that the law enabling parliamentarians to do their job is fair and adapted to modern circumstances. A Bill of this type was recommended by a Joint Committee of both Houses, which pointed out that there are a number of areas in which the extent of privilege is not clear. We will also bring forward legislation to implement the Calman commission's final report on Scottish devolution. We remain committed to a referendum on the powers of the National Assembly for Wales. The Government believe strong devolution settlements mean a strong United Kingdom.
This debate would not be complete unless I said a few words about reform of your Lordships' House. The Government's position is set out clearly in the coalition agreement published last week. Perhaps the House might find it helpful if I remind it of the relevant section. Here, some noble Lords might like to adjust their pacemakers. We agree to establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper Chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft Motion by December 2010. It is likely that this Bill will advocate single long terms of office. It is likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers. In the interim, the appointment of Lords will be made with the objective of creating a second Chamber which is reflective of the share of votes secured by the political parties in the last general election.
This is the position: we are committed to reform; we are committed to a wholly or mainly elected Upper House. I am well aware that some sitting in this Chamber hearing my words-articulating as they do the collective wisdom of government policy-will think, "Well, that is okay, that is back in the long grass".
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I am sure the noble Lord will have many hours of overtime in your Lordships' House. Can he be more explicit? Speaking as a grandmother, I know a little about grandfather
27 May 2010 : Column 138
Lord Richard: I am obliged to the noble Lord for giving way. Perhaps I may ask him a question. Assurances have been given from both sides of the House that existing life Peers should be entitled to remain until they expire, even if there is to be a gradual introduction of voting for an elected House. Is that the position the Government now hold-in other words, that we should be entitled to die while still Members of the House-or will there be some arrangements whereby we will have to retire or be induced to retire?
Lord McNally: I reply to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, as a once enthusiastic reformer-he will just have to wait and see. If he would like to send me the watertight commitments from both sides of the House to which he referred, I would be very interested to see them-they do not exist.
The Earl of Onslow: I speak as a long-time reformer-and as an elected Peer, I hasten to add. Would not my noble friend regard it as perfectly reasonable, if we are going to reform the House, to have a cull of life Peers in exactly the same way as there was a cull of hereditary Peers?
Lord McNally: I note what my noble friend said-or, as he told me yesterday he would prefer me to call him, "my noble acquaintance". He is still coming to terms with the oiks that this coalition is bringing with it.
Let me say a few personal words. I know the esteem in which this House is currently held; I see every day the value and diligence of its work and the expertise noble Lords bring to scrutiny-that is now-but I am clear that this House as presently constituted is not sustainable. We could soon be a House of more than 800 Peers-
I do not believe that we will retain public confidence in such circumstances. I love this House and I do not want to see it decline from a House of respect into a House of absurdity. I know that for the majority of your Lordships a nominated House suits you very well. However, the clear and settled view of the other place, and the official view of all three major political parties, expressed in manifesto commitments at the election, is for Lords reform to produce a House based on election. That proposition also has the consistent support of public opinion. I do not doubt the parliamentary skills of those who oppose elections. I say to them only this: I hope the judgment of history for this Parliament will not be-as it must be about the
27 May 2010 : Column 139
Let me deal with one objection immediately. Some say that, given the severity of the economic crisis, to put energies into Lords reform would be frivolous. I remind the House that the Conservative-Labour coalition to which I referred earlier, that of 1940 to 1945, not only won a war but also brought forward the Beveridge report and the Butler Education Act. Good Governments do not have to be one-trick ponies. Nor should the House lose the opportunity to look at measures for reform which can be undertaken here and now. Before the election, I commended the Lord Speaker for her initiative in asking the noble Lords, Lord Filkin and Lord Butler of Brockwell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, to chair working groups to see whether we could do some work that was parallel to that which the Wright Committee was doing in the House of Commons. I hope that those ideas can now be taken forward with a sense of urgency.
Today's debate will also cover Home Office and Communities and Local Government business, to which I now turn briefly. First, the police reform and social responsibility Bill will bring in strict checks and balances by locally elected representatives. My noble friend Lady Neville-Jones will deal with this and other Home Office matters in the winding-up speech. Our legislation on local government will be of a piece with our wider constitutional goals of fundamentally shifting power from Westminster to the people. The Department for Communities and Local Government will introduce two Bills in this parliamentary Session, which will be in the steady and capable hands of my noble friend Lady Hanham.
Moreover, the localism Bill will enable individuals and community groups to have much greater influence over local government and how public money is spent in their area. The Bill will streamline the planning system and encourage local communities to become actively involved in planning, housing and other local services. The Government will also introduce a Bill to halt restructuring of local government in Norwich and Exeter. The Bill will be introduced as soon as possible to avoid delays in the local government financial settlement.
The gracious Speech reflects a genuine radicalism in the areas that we cover in this debate today. In the words of the old Metropolitan Police recruitment poster, dull, it isn't. This is likely to be a long Session, and there will be many times when we debate our politics and public trust, our communities and their security and liberty. The contribution of this House in resolving these matters starts with this debate, and I look forward to the contributions from all sides.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|