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I believe that upholding the principles on which policing has operated so successfully in this country for nearly two centuries is more important even than party loyalties, and I believe Sir Robert Peel would have felt the same way. Experts on policing practice and governance told the members of the Bill, in the other place that the provisions of this Bill constituted "a unique constitutional experiment" never before tried out in this country.
To push this Bill through at this point in time, when police numbers and budgets are being cut, and when the public are already deeply cynical about politicians and their motivations, will be a grave mistake and one we will live to regret-just as MPs in the other place are belatedly discovering the dangers in one of the Bills we tried in vain to change six months or so ago. The consequences of this legislation will assuredly come back to bite us, and if we pass it in its unamended form, as it has come back to us, it will come back to bite us sooner rather than later.
Lord Beecham: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Henig who, along with my noble friend Lord Harris, are astounding examples of the work, service and commitment of non-directly elected former chairs of a police authority. They are not the only such members in this House, of course; the noble
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In his thoughtful and reasoned speech, the noble Lord, Lord Condon, referred-as others have done-to recent events, effectively confirming the wisdom of avoiding the intrusion of politics into policing. We saw some of those dangers when the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary claimed to have instructed the police to increase the number of police on the streets. In fairness, those claims were subsequently withdrawn, but they illustrate starkly the risk of political interference. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary did not cross the boundary but who is to say that less experienced, less statesmanlike figures would not succumb to the temptation? It is a very real risk.
In opening, the Minister made exactly the same comment. However, the reality is that those checks and balances are insufficient. What is surprising is that the Minister in the other place went on to claim:
"The Lords amendments do not try to increase the local accountability of the police. They do not even try to ensure that there are adequate checks and balances".-[Official Report, Commons, 12/9/11; col. 780.]
Only the word "effrontery" can describe that statement. If the checks and balances are not sufficiently strict, it is because the Government ensured in your Lordships' House that they were not put in place. They were moved from various parts of the House and they were rejected.
The proposals for police commissioners owe much to the partial-although no doubt not the only-begetter of the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Wasserman, who in these matters is a sort of ermine-clad Mephistopheles to the Prime Minister's Faustus. He is an enthusiast for American-style policing, of which he has experience. I defer to his knowledge of it. He is also an enthusiast for Bill Bratton. Indeed, if the noble Lord had his way, I hazard that we would have congratulated Mr Bratton on his appointment as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police today, instead of the gentleman whose appointment we have commented on and to whom we all send our congratulations. However, as has been pointed out by my noble friend Lord Hunt, Mr Bratton is vehemently opposed to the concept of directly elected police commissioners. The Prime Minister's chosen adviser on policing, brought from across the Atlantic at no doubt considerable expense, is to be listened to in all respects save this rather crucial one-the direct election of police commissioners.
I support the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Condon. I bear in mind the observations of the Electoral Commission, which have not yet been mentioned. It has reported that it has concerns about the date of 15 November. It refers to problems with the registration of voters, which will be taking place at that time. It refers to the seasonal issues-the short period of daylight and its impact on turnout-and to
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However, if those appointments were to take place in May, of any year, both the commissioner and the panel would have an opportunity to be fully involved from an early stage in the process. It should be borne in mind that commissioners will come into an entirely new field, unless they have been involved as members of a police authority. Who is to say whether that will happen? They will have only a matter of weeks to absorb all that complexity and difficulty before passing a budget. They will surely not be capable of producing a police and crime plan, which you would have thought would shape and provide context for such a budget, in that time. It seems quite impossible.
Noting the reactions of the colleagues of the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, in another place, I am irresistibly reminded of the Grand Old Duke of York, who marched his army to the top of the hill, only for them to be led down-in this case on the basis of an offer of only six months' deferment of the election. The noble Baroness is of course a resident of the great county of Yorkshire. I hope she will not find herself in the position of-forgive me-a grand old duchess of York, leading her troops to the top of a hill, only to find herself abandoned by the self-same troops as they slide silently downhill. I fear from the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that that may indeed be her fate, which would be unfortunate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, also referred to independent members. The Bill provides for very little in the way of independent members of the police and crime panels-many fewer than currently serve on police committees. Therefore, the independence argument hardly persuades one.
The amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Condon, are sensible and practical. They ought not to be voted down on the basis of a rather cheap deal whereby Liberal Democrats are bought off with, as I say, a temporary deferment of elections as part of an arrangement in another place. My noble friend Lord Hunt's proposal for a commission clearly makes sense. The very powerful arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Imbert, should certainly carry weight in this House. I hope that the noble Baroness will, even at this late stage, see the logic of these positions and acknowledge that your Lordships have made substantial arguments, which should remain as the Bill goes back to another place.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I understood the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to say that our duty was to amend legislation where practicable. I did not hear her say that our other duty
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There has been much attack on members of existing police authorities. They are not high-profile; people do not know who or where they are. I have spent time looking at all the issues that were raised with me and would be considered by a single populist candidate. I raised none of them in public. I raised them with my noble friend who was chair of the police authority, the chief constable, divisional officers and community police officers over a long period. To say that police authorities are ineffective because they are not in the press every week and the newspapers do not know who they are is, frankly, not borne out by my experience. The issues included car crime and many other things. The real issue facing policing by consent and our police service is that of those for whom the system is broken. They do not give consent; they are not part of the consent. Those are the issues, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Condon, that need to be looked at by a royal commission and the groups that are studying this. That is where the system is breaking down-not with the chief constable, police officers or members of the existing police authorities.
I suggest that the Minister should be awfully careful in using the argument that we ultimately have no right to intervene because the other place is democratically accountable. That does not appear to sit with her Government's policy that, were we to be democratically accountable, we would still have to be quiet on issues that we did not agree with.
I am deeply worried about this. As someone who has worked in local and county government, I believe an individual will not be able to stand unless they have a lot of money to fight a campaign across a whole police authority area. These areas will be bigger than the bishops' areas and they have an army of people in their church to take their message out. It is a very worrying position. New registers will come in in November, when elderly people will not go out in the dark and people will not answer their door when candidates' volunteers go around to campaign. I am worried that there will be a very small turnout and a limited populist campaign, resulting in the fracturing of a service of which I am proud.
Lord Shipley: That form of politicisation will not occur, as the panel-which the noble Baroness supports-will be made up of elected local councillors with party-political labels, who will themselves elect the person who becomes the commissioner. In that sense, because there will be virtually no independent members of that panel, the person who is appointed will have a party-political background and role.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: The noble Lord was not present when I was congratulating the fine record of the noble Lord, Lord Howard. When he was Home Secretary, he had a better system than that now proposed. In Lancashire, my noble friend Lady Henig was re-elected by the police authority regardless of whether or not people shared her party-political allegiance. They voted according to ability. It is much better to have a balance from a group of people than a single populist politician.
Baroness Browning: My Lords, it has been suggested that police and crime commissioners will be focused on local issues to the exclusion of those which require a strategic response-in other words, that they will be too parochial and populist. Issues such as terrorism, riots, drug dealing and people trafficking all affect local communities. They are local issues that local police and crime commissioners will want to ensure are tackled effectively. However, it is important to acknowledge that these issues also have national dimensions, either because they require police forces to work together to identify and tackle a threat that is not constrained by force boundaries, or because the threat may be so significant as to require resources to be mobilised from several forces. We have seen an example of that this summer.
Police and crime commissioners will be responsible and accountable to the public for the totality of policing. To help them deliver this remit, the Home Secretary will issue a strategic policing requirement which will guide them on their responsibilities for serious and cross-boundary policing challenges, such as terrorism, organised crime, public order, cybercrime and responding to major incidents and emergencies. Police and crime commissioners and chief constables will be under strong duties to have regard to this requirement.
These issues already stretch and challenge the police service. The strategic policing requirement is about addressing these existing challenges, often referred to as level 2 gap, rather than responding to a new problem created by the introduction of police and crime commissioners. It is for this reason that, even though it will not have statutory effect until next year, the Government intend to publish a shadow strategic policing requirement later this year. It will support forces and authorities in their planning and allow time for further testing and consultation.
It could not be further from the truth that police and crime commissioners will be the sort of people who will just be on the periphery of serious issues that affect local and national policing and crime issues. They will be of a different calibre. Working with the chief constable or the commissioner, they will address these issues and ensure that they are contained within their local plan. I refute the idea that this is about populist politics, with candidates appealing to people just by saying how many police officers they are going to march up and down the high street each week. These are serious issues and they will require serious people of substance to address them.
We have had a lot of debate, during the Report and Committee stages, about the independence of chief officers. Much has been made of this. The protocol
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We put this on a statutory basis not for the sake of the fine detail, but so that the requirement for the protocol will have a statutory basis. This is to ensure that the important relationship between the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable will not overreach in such a way as to affect the operational independence and decision-making of chief officers. This was a matter of great concern in this House and we worked very hard with all parties to get the balance right. I welcome the contribution made by noble Lords in this matter.
The Government believe that a single accountable individual should hold the police to account, and that person should be democratically elected by the public in their police force area. The strength of this model is that local councillors will still be involved in the governance of policing while an elected individual takes executive decisions supported by a highly qualified team. The principle of one accountable individual being directly responsible for the totality of force activity is crucial to our vision. I pay tribute to those who have given up much of their time to police authorities, but policing governance by committee has meant that an unelected body has the power over the level of the precept. It has meant that no one is properly held to account for decisions or poor performance and no one is truly in charge. Even police authority chairs are first among equals, they are not decision-making leaders. That situation would continue and probably worsen under the proposals before the House tonight.
I turn to the noble Lord, Lord Condon, who spoke to his amendment. I do not believe that the lesson of the riots is as he described-that everything in policing is fine. The noble Lord persuasively argued in earlier stages of the Bill against the uncertainties of further delay. He admitted that in his remarks. He was right then, and it makes sense to bring this new form of accountability in good time.
Baroness Browning: I stand corrected-much of it was not at peace with itself. However, it has occurred to me that, despite our lengthy debate on these amendments, very little was said about the public and accountability, and the way in which the public can hold to account the policing in their force areas and local communities-something that is at the heart and core of this legislation. It is about the public. It is about accountability.
Last week I attended the meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Retail and Business Crime. One of the biggest issues that its members wanted to raise with me was that 40 per cent of business crime
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Baroness Browning: The noble Baroness says that it is not true. If that were the case the level of unreported business crime would not be 40 per cent. People would think that it was worth reporting and would be pleased with the outcome. Something different has to happen. People have to feel that they are represented. People feel that they have to be represented by someone whom they have chosen. I hear what has been said by noble Lords from across the House in this debate, but I have to say that democracy is actually about trusting the people to vote for the right person, and trusting the people to understand, which of course they do, that they then have a voice. I have to say that I am disappointed that no one-not once-in this debate has mentioned the need for the people to have a voice, which is what this legislation gives them. I give way to the noble Lord.
Lord Harris of Haringey: I am all in favour of the public having a voice, but what the noble Baroness has so passionately spoken about is the business community. Unless she is advocating a business franchise for the election of police and crime commissioners, that problem will not be solved by this. The reality is that the police service should be consulting the business community and listening to it, but this legislation does not require that because it places no such obligation on them. The only way that you would get that in terms of the noble Baroness's arguments would be by the creation of a business franchise. I am pleased to see that that is not part of the Government's proposals.
Baroness Browning: I have to say to the noble Lord that I observed with horror what happened to small businesses in the riots. I would not in any way dismiss the needs of small businesses. They are individuals; they are husband-and-wife teams running small shops and other small businesses up and down the country. One of the other messages that I received quite clearly at the all-party group last week was that these businesses and business organisations are already making plans to talk to people who want to stand as candidates to be police and crime commissioners, because those businesses want them to have a much clearer understanding of what their needs are in terms of law
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These reforms are essential to address that democratic deficit in policing, to end the era of central government's bureaucratic control, to reduce crime and antisocial behaviour and to drive value for money. Chief constables will be liberated to be crime fighters rather than government managers-free to run their own workforces for the first time ever.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: The noble Baroness says that police chief constables will be liberated. How on earth can that be the case when they will come under the direct control of a party politician? Based on US experience, the average length of stay is no more than two years. How can she defend the situation that we already see in London, where in a single term the Mayor of London is now on his third police commissioner? That is not liberation. It is the political control of police chiefs that will be a disaster to our policing.
Baroness Browning: Enhanced accountability, but not through the public, for the public and by the public. That is the difference between us. Let us make no bones about it, it is now very clear that it is accountability but on certain terms. The terms of the Bill are that the accountability is such that the public will elect the person who on their behalf will hold the police to account in their police area. That is the difference, and I am grateful to the noble Lord for having established the fundamental difference between his interpretation of accountability in this matter and what is in the Bill.
Police officers will benefit from a less bureaucratic system where discretion is restored and where the chief constable has a strong interest in driving out waste and prioritising the front line. Local authorities will benefit from a continuing say in the governance of policing, and district councils will have a role for the very first time. The taxpayer will see better value for money as commissioners, who will have responsibility for the precept, focus relentlessly on efficiency in their forces. Local policing will benefit from a strong democratic input, focusing attention on issues of public concern. The Home Office will be focused on its proper role,
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Police and crime commissioners have the mandate to reflect public concern on crime. Democratic accountability in policing is needed and we agree on this. If so, there can be no question as to whether these amendments from the other place should be agreed. I ask that the House not agree to Motions A1, A2, A3 and A4. I agree with Motion A.
Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, I have listened to my noble friend the Minister but with a very heavy heart. I have tried throughout this Bill to rehearse all the arguments around the construction of a police and crime commission. It is clear that I have not been able to convince the coalition Government or my colleagues-or most of them-or the other place, which makes the final decisions on our amendments, to agree with me. However, I would not be at all surprised if this legislation were to be amended again before it is ever implemented. I predict that elements of it will have to be looked at again in the police Bill that is due to be published next year on national police landscape proposals. If it is not dealt with there then another Bill will have to be brought before Parliament within the next three years. I will not relish saying "I told you so" at that point. It would be far better to provide a sensible corporate governance framework now. I will support the amendments of other noble Lords to delay the legislation-especially the Motion proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Condon. I hope that this will provide adequate time for the Government to reconsider and see some sense. In that somewhat forlorn hope, and with great weariness and reluctance, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
Leave out "to 6D in lieu" and insert ", 6C and 6D in lieu, do disagree with Amendment 6B in lieu, do propose Amendment 6E in lieu thereof, do propose Amendments 6F and 6G to Amendment 6C, and do propose Amendment 6H as a consequential amendment to the Bill."
Lord Condon: My Lords, I beg to move Motion A2 as an amendment to Motion A. I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in favour of my Motion. I have also listened very carefully to the Minister, for whom I have enormous respect, but she has not convinced me that it is not in the national interest to delay this Bill by a fixed period of six months for the reasons that I set out in my arguments. I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.
As an amendment to Motion A, leave out "to 6D in lieu" and insert ", 6C and 6D in lieu, do disagree with Amendment 6B in lieu, do propose Amendment 6J in lieu thereof, and do propose Amendment 6K as a consequential amendment to the Bill."
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, this Bill leaves a situation in which there are no proper governance arrangements around directly elected individuals with the most amazing and strong powers in respect of policing, one of the most vital services in our country. I am sorely tempted to divide the House again but I recognise that there are only so many times that a dead horse can be flogged.
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Wallace of Tankerness): My Lords, during the passage of this legislation it has been evident that the Government have been prepared to consider and, indeed, to support amendments which improve the provisions of the Bill. This Bill has been refined and improved by the scrutiny to which it has been subjected both in this House and in the other place. Most notably in this House, we worked with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, on the amendment in his name, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, the distinguished former Speakers, the noble Lord, Lord Martin, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, to bring forward a new version of Clause 2. We also implemented the recommendation made by your Lordships' Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. However, we have also consistently opposed amendments which would undermine what we believe to be the fundamental purpose of the Bill.
The Bill has now been scrutinised at length and there remains one outstanding issue to resolve: whether there should be a sunset provision. This House has now twice inserted a sunset provision, while each time the other House has voted to remove it. The Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, seeks to revitalise the amendments to achieve that, reintroduce them to the Bill and impose them on the other place for a third time. The Government agree with those in the other place who oppose the sunset clause-indeed, it has been described as a sunset and sunrise clause-and I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I briefly repeat our objections.
The purpose of the Bill is to remove the Prime Minister's power to ask for a general election at a time that is most politically advantageous for his or her party. As has been expressed in our debates, a number of your Lordships believe that the Bill is simply a "fix" for this coalition, but I assure the House that that is not the case. The Government believe that there should be fixed terms and that it should be for the House of Commons to decide on the timing of an early general election and not a Prime Minister. I also remind your Lordships that the 2010 manifestos of both my party and the Labour Party included a pledge to establish fixed-term Parliaments.
In his speech when visiting the Scottish Parliament in May last year, less than 72 hours after taking office, the Prime Minister made clear how significant a transfer of power this is, remarking that he was the,
I know that a number of noble Lords agree with that assessment. Indeed, at Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, remarked that this Bill is something of a collector's item as it is an example of the Government surrendering a significant power to Parliament. My noble friend Lady Stowell also remarked that the Bill will ensure that the Government and the Opposition must face the electorate on a set date whatever way the opinion polls are pointing. In other words, the Bill creates a level playing field and will ensure that the electorate are not left waiting in limbo for a Prime Minister to decide when to call an election.
If this House were to support the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, I believe that it would be reintroducing exactly the kind of politicking that the Bill seeks to end. If each new Parliament had to resolve whether or not to serve for a fixed term-I understand that under the terms of the amendment it would be able to decide that at any time during the lifetime of a Parliament-that decision would inevitably be subject to political intrigue and made in a partisan way.
Should a future Parliament wish to move away from fixed terms, it would be free to do so by either amending or repealing the legislation-the way in which most Acts of Parliament are treated if a Government wish to overturn them. Such a constitutional change is no small matter but one that should be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny, as this Bill has been. By contrast, the sunset amendments would switch fixed terms on and off like a light switch. Parliament would default to non-fixed terms if a simple resolution failed to be tabled or if the two Houses could not agree on the matter. In our view, it is clearly not appropriate for constitutional legislation to be applied or disapplied simply as a result of passing or failing to pass, or indeed failing to table, a resolution.
I know that the members of your Lordships' Constitution Committee had misgivings about the Bill. However, in their recent report, The Process of Constitutional Change, they emphasised the need for proper scrutiny of constitutional reforms. One of their conclusions stated:
"We stress the importance of proper parliamentary scrutiny of all bills, but we do not recommend that any new parliamentary procedures such as super-majorities should apply to significant constitutional bills".
This legislation has been subject to considerable scrutiny in both Houses of Parliament. I rather suspect that if the Government had introduced in the original Bill the kind of provision that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, seeks to insert, the Procedure Committee might have given it pretty short shrift.
I do not believe that these sunset amendments would stand up to the scrutiny that one would expect if Parliament were to make an important constitutional change. They would take us into uncharted constitutional waters. They assume that it would be possible for the Prime Minister to regain the option of asking the monarch to dissolve Parliament. However, by failing to provide for the prerogative power to dissolve to be reinstated, we could be left in a position where neither the rules in the Bill nor the previous prerogative powers had effect. Indeed, it is not immediately clear whether it is possible for a prerogative power to be
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I know that many of your Lordships who supported the sunset amendments have genuine concerns about the Bill and about the concept of fixed-term Parliaments. I respect the views that have been expressed with great passion in a number of our debates. I accept that moving to a fixed-term Parliament is a significant change. Although I believe that this is a change for the better, as it transfers power from the Executive to Parliament, I acknowledge that it is a significant reform and that such reforms can often cause angst.
That is why the Government have brought forward an amendment in lieu of the amendments to sunset the Bill. It provides that the Prime Minister must make arrangements to set up a committee to review the operation of the legislation in 2020. Those arrangements would require the committee to consider the operation of the Act and, if appropriate, to make recommendations for its repeal or amendment. This would introduce a statutory requirement for post-legislative scrutiny, ensuring that the reservations that noble Lords have expressed could be considered again once we had real experience of the effects of the Bill. That is why we propose conducting the review in 2020, when we can ensure that the committee's scrutiny is informed by the experience of one Parliament whose length is fixed from beginning to end.
A majority of the members of the committee would be Members of the other place, reflecting both the primacy of the other place and the fact that they would have contested elections whose timing was determined by the Bill. Nevertheless, the amendment still leaves open the possibility of Members of your Lordships' House sitting on the committee. I believe that this will ensure that the committee's deliberations benefit from the wealth of experience and expertise on constitutional issues that resides in this Chamber.
The amendment gives categorical reassurance that the legislation will be subjected to full post-legislative scrutiny. I hope that noble Lords will agree that this is a much better solution than the sunset and sunrise provisions, which would lead to a great deal of uncertainty with voters not knowing the length of the Parliament they were electing, which could leave the statute book in some form of disarray.
I close by reflecting briefly on the role of this Chamber, and in doing so I can do no better than to quote the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. During our debate in June on the proposed reforms to your Lordships' House the noble Lord said:
"The House of Lords can and does suggest revisions of draft legislation, but it cannot in the end enforce those revisions against the will of the House of Commons. We are a revising Chamber and a debating Chamber, and valuable in both functions, but we cannot prevail against the House of Commons if it wishes to insist. The House of Commons is sovereign in the matter of law-making".-[Official Report, 22/6/11; col. 1257.]
Noble Lords have raised with the other place the matter of a sunset provision on two occasions. The other place has now twice sent us a clear message that it does not wish for a sunset provision, both times by a substantial majority. If your Lordships again insist on
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Lord Butler of Brockwell: My Lords, I will not take up your Lordships' time by repeating the arguments for the sunset clause which noble Lords passed on two occasions before the Summer Recess, except to say to the Minister that it was a novelty to hear him accuse me of reintroducing politicking. I have rather been against politicking in my career. He referred to what was said by your Lordships' Constitution Committee in its report on the Bill. I should like to remind the House of that. The committee said that,
Your Lordships will know that when this House has insisted on an amendment, the other place has to come back with some sort of modification to a Bill to prevent it from being lost. My noble friends and I had hoped that we might use the time during the Summer Recess to reach a reasonable agreement with the Government on a modification to the Bill. In August, my noble friend Lord Pannick had a meeting with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and Mr Harper, the Minister in the other place. My noble friend told the Ministers that, for our part, we would be happy to modify our amendment to meet criticisms that were made of it, including some of the criticisms made by the Minister tonight. Specifically, we said, first, that we would be content for a resolution to apply the legislation to be made only by the other place since it is the elected House. Secondly, we would be content for a time limit to be placed on the period within which such a resolution should be moved-within,
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The Ministers made it clear that these modifications were not acceptable to them, but they put forward no proposals themselves. My noble friends and I then waited to see what modification the Government would propose. Last week, without any further consultation or notification, the Government put down in another place their modification to which the Minister has referred. That modification is now before us on the Marshalled List. It goes no way towards meeting the point made by noble Lords on two occasions. The key words of the modification are:
As a former Cabinet Secretary, I have had experience of Governments fobbing people off by promising reviews that effectively kick issues into the long grass, but this is of a different order. Seriously, I have to say to the noble and learned Lord that if the Government's amendment is intended to meet the point which your Lordships have legitimately made, it is an insult. It shows a contempt for your Lordships' House and for the amendments we have passed.
There is still time to reach a reasonable agreement that will satisfy the point which this House has twice made, but I am afraid that this can happen only if noble Lords once more insist on the amendment and we can have sensible discussions. I beg to move.
Lord Pannick: My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell. Your Lordships will not want to hear lengthy Second Reading speeches at this stage, but it needs to be understood that because this House and the other place have disagreed twice, the Government are obliged either to accept our amendments, lose the Bill, or produce a variation-what Erskine May describes as "alternative proposals". The procedure is designed to ensure that the Government and the Commons cannot simply ignore what we have decided. Your Lordships have heard what the Government have produced by way of alternative proposals: that there should be a committee which will not begin its consideration for another nine years. That is not so much kicking the issue into the long grass, the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, as burying it in a time capsule. The authors of "Yes Minister" would have regarded it as lacking in credibility to suggest, even in a work of fiction, that a Minister should solve a problem by setting up a committee which would begin its work in nine years' time.
The Minister suggested that there is some constitutional novelty in the provision approved by noble Lords, but many legislative provisions have attracted such a procedure: there is the need to consider each year whether to maintain the late and unlamented control order system; and Parliament requires that the Armed Forces Act be reconsidered every five years. The Minister suggested that the House should accept the views of the House of Commons and that we should go quietly into the night on this issue. He emphasised that we are a revising Chamber and that we cannot challenge the will of the elected House. But the relationship between this House and the other
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The response of the Government and the other place to our amendments is simply derisory, and it is intended to be so. The Commons and the Government are not listening to or engaging with your Lordships' House, and I regret that. Just as the Government introduced this legislation without bothering to consult anyone or to adopt any pre-legislative scrutiny, they are now rejecting the views of this House without bothering to listen to and engage with us. We should ask the House of Commons to think again on this matter.
Lord Howarth of Newport: While I appreciate the constructive response that the Minister gave to the proposals by this House to redraw Clause 2, I have to say that the Government's response to the Motion spoken to so well today by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, is not only inadequate, it is indeed contemptuous. Whether we talk of long grass, time capsules or the deep freeze, it simply will not do. The seriously considered advice of your Lordships' House ought equally seriously to be considered by Ministers and by the other place. It should not be dismissed with reflex reactions. That is a matter of constitutional principle.
It is also a matter of constitutional principle that legislation that proposes constitutional change should be subjected to ample and early consultation, through a Green Paper, through full preliminary debate-debate outside this House across the country, as well as within Parliament-and then to a White Paper before legislation is introduced to Parliament, let alone being voted on in a whipped vote. I add that in my view it is questionable whether it is suitable for constitutional legislation to be subject to the Whip.
The Government actually agree, or say they agree, that pre-legislative scrutiny is a good thing. In its report on the process of constitutional change, the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House-the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, who chairs it, is in her place-described the process that is appropriate for the consideration of proposals for constitutional legislation, and explained the importance of that process being followed. Indeed, in its report it actually quoted its own report on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, in which it had said:
"Process is critical in terms of upholding, and being seen to uphold, constitutional values: particularly those of democratic involvement and transparency in the policy-making process. Moreover, we believe that a proper process is the foundation upon which successful policy is built: the lack of a proper process makes an ineffective outcome more likely".
There was no good reason why a proper process was not adopted by the Government for this legislation. There was no genuine hurry to get this legislation on to the statute book. It did not need to be done in the first Session. But the Government neglected to follow due procedures. During our proceedings a very good case has been made by noble Lords on all sides of the House that legislating to introduce fixed-term Parliaments, and particularly Parliaments fixed for a term of five years-which means that general elections will occur less frequently in the future than they have in the
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We should, therefore, insist on the amendment that we have already sent to the other place twice. This would be the third time. That is relatively unusual, but the Constitution Committee, again in that same report on the process of constitutional change, observed that,
and I believe there is a very good case for this. As the committee also pointed out, there is a lack of checks and balances to prevent a Government armed with a majority in the House of Commons from changing the constitution of this country more or less at whim. This House should seek to act as a check and a balance, as well as we can, on issues of such importance as this.
An appropriate process was not followed by the Government. This constitutional legislation is highly contentious; it would introduce a major innovation into our constitution. It is the responsibility of your Lordships' House to be vigilant to safeguard the constitution. It is entirely right, therefore, that we should adjure the House of Commons to think again.
The amendment that we have already twice sent to the other place provides a convenient and practical means whereby subsequent Parliaments should have the opportunity to judge whether indeed they wish each new Parliament to be fixed for five years, or whether they judge it preferable to revert to the historic arrangements that we have had in this country, of flexibility in terms of the date of the election within five years, which has enabled government and Parliament to be responsive to political reality in all its unpredictability, and to be more accountable to the people.
Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for quoting my words from a different debate and I do not resile from a single word of that. None the less, I join my noble friends Lord Butler and Lord Pannick in hoping that the House will insist on this amendment, which has now already been passed twice by this House, by a larger majority the second time than the first.
I will be a little kinder to the Government than my noble friends have been. This proposal by the Government, the Commons amendment in lieu, does at least agree that there should be a review. But it is a rather scrawny baby that they have delivered to us, and they will not allow us to turn the tap on for the bath until 2020-nine years. The baby will look very scrawny at the end of that time, and the water may be rather cold.
If it is right that this be reviewed, as we think it is, and as the Government and the House of Commons now seem to think, then why should we have to wait until after the election after the next election? Surely it makes sense that we should review it as proposed in the amendment which we have already agreed, and which my noble friend Lord Butler has reintroduced,
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Lord Grocott: I cannot understand why the Government could not have done the simple thing for this House, and for the integrity of our constitution, and simply said yes to this amendment. What on earth would the Government have lost by saying yes? They would have had the five-year Parliament that they, for whatever motives-we will not go into those-want for this Parliament. If there is a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat Government or a Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government elected in five years' time, they could ensure that this legislation remained on the statute book and that there was another five-year Parliament after that. It would have cost the Government nothing. The Government would have lost nothing and they would at least have shown that they were listening to some of the advice from this House.
I am not thrilled by this amendment, although I thought it was very ably moved, because I just do not like five-year Parliaments, and I do not like acknowledging that the Government, with a relatively flaky coalition, should be able to legislate for themselves to survive for five years in this way. But the reason I very much hope that the House sticks to its position, requiring any future Government or Parliament to look again at this issue, is that I am convinced that, should this Bill go without any amendment now and become an Act, we will have five-year Parliaments ad infinitum and no future Government will repeal this legislation. This gives the lie to the oft-repeated argument that somehow or other this is a Government giving something away. Why on earth would any future Government want to give up the security of a five-year term of office? Of course they would not; it is very convenient to Governments; it is very convenient to the Executive. This is the last chance. I hope that my own party will win the election, and I hope that it will have in its manifesto the decision to repeal this legislation, but I rather fear that it would be as attracted to the idea of remaining in office for five years as this Government. This is the safety net-that it requires Governments to make that decision.
I make an appeal to the Minister. It really is worth listening to what this House has to say on constitutional issues. We are just seeing the first fruits-I should say the second fruits-of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, which was so strongly opposed in this House. It was strongly opposed on the ground of the unnecessary nature of a referendum on the alternative vote system, which, incidentally, I have just discovered in a reply from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, cost us £97 million in total, at a time when we are supposed not to have two pennies to rub together. I was very pleased with the result, but it was not worth £97 million for a few of us in this House and a few million people in the country to be pleased. We told the Government that it was a waste of time and a waste of money-we were right. We also said that reducing the number of MPs by 50 would not bring an advantage to our democracy and that it would be
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The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, very wisely did not mention among his justifications for five-year fixed Parliaments, or Parliaments of any fixed period, that they enable Governments sensibly to introduce legislative programmes over their period of office. I would like to challenge him to state that the Government are on course for doing that. Here we have five years, which is a year longer than any Government normally have for certain, and a two-year Session, but I would not say-again, I shall put it as kindly as I can-that we see a Rolls-Royce legislative planned operation going through. So I ask him not to use that as a defence of security of tenure and security of planning. But, above all, I ask the Minister, not with great hope or expectation, to acknowledge that we were not completely unworthy of being listened to over previous constitutional legislation and, even at this late date, not to commit the country to five-year fixed-term Parliaments ad infinitum as this legislation assuredly will-because that is precisely what any Government would want.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, I wish simply to make one point which I consider, very humbly, to be a pertinent matter and one which constitutes a backcloth to the issue before the House. The point was tangentially mentioned in earlier debates that this was not a matter which could be made the subject of the operation of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, but no one has argued in full as to its constitutional significance.
That Parliament saw fit in 1911 to make that so, and decided not to change the situation in 1949, is highly relevant to this issue. I would go so far as to suggest that it changes the whole balance of the relationship between the two Houses. I of course agree absolutely with what the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, said about the general primacy of the House of Commons as the elected Chamber over this place. My submission is that, in relation to this matter, all such conventions and all such inhibitions are totally removed. Section 1 of the Parliament Act 1911 excludes two matters from its operation. The first was money Bills, which of course did not come into it in the first instance, and the second was a Bill which prolonged to any degree the maximum life of Parliament. Clause 1(5) of this Bill does exactly that. It enables the Prime Minister of the day either to reduce the period of five years by up to two months or to add to it by two months. It does not matter, therefore, whether it is two months, two years or 20 years; a wall has been breached, a wall created by the House of Commons in protection of its own position and the position of democratic government altogether. It made this House the sentinel of that
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Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, several noble Lords this evening have referred-somewhat kindly, I must say-to the report of the Constitution Committee, which I have the privilege to chair, on the process of constitutional change. The Minister was kind enough to refer to it in his opening remarks. I look forward to the Government's formal response to the report. It will enable the House to have a proper debate on the report, to which I equally look forward.
I suspect that the committee will be very surprised, as am I in immediate response to what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, to hear the content of the exchanges during the Summer Recess between the Government and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in support of his original amendment. That seems to illustrate precisely, when we hear what the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said, the inadequacy of process within the Government as related to constitutional matters. If it is the case that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, as he suggested and as was confirmed by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, came forward with what sounded like rather appropriate substitutions and amendments to his original amendment, particularly regarding the question of when such a sunset clause could be introduced in the new Parliament as well as the other questions which he mentioned, I am very surprised that the Government did not respond to them in the way that has been suggested and, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said, simply put down the amendment in lieu that we have before us tonight. This is another illustration of precisely the problems about constitutional process to which the Constitution Committee's full report tried to draw attention. As I have said, I hope that the report will be fully debated in the House.
Baroness Stowell of Beeston: My Lords, I support the Motion of my noble and learned friend the Minister. Before I explain in brief terms why I do so, I want to say how much respect I have for the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell. As I have said on previous occasions, he was the Cabinet Secretary when I was a civil servant in Downing Street. I know from first-hand experience what a wise, astute and reasonable man he is, but, on this occasion, I disagree with him. I can perhaps best explain why by answering the question asked by my noble friend Lord Forsyth in the previous round of ping-pong. He asked the Minister why he thought that the Bill was a step forward in restoring public confidence and trust in the political system. With all due respect to the Minister, I think that that was a challenge too far. It is a shame that my noble friend Lord Forsyth is not in his place, but to answer his question-this is my reason for supporting the Motion to accept the Commons amendments and not to introduce a sunset or sunrise clause-I think that five-year fixed-term Parliaments offer three things. The change proposed is real, relevant and a bit radical.
When I say real, I mean that the Prime Minister is giving up some real power so that the public will know that the Government and all political parties will have to face the electorate on a pre-determined date regardless of the political conditions at that time. It is relevant because that action is a direct response to the issue that we are responding to, which is the public's distrust in this political system. It is a sad fact, but what the public told us following the MPs' expenses scandal back in 2008 was that there was a lack of trust in our political system. The public wanted some evidence of us making an attempt to restore that trust. That we are giving up this power and making sure that in the future an election will happen in that way is a direct response that is relevant.
The proposal is a bit radical because we do not do that very often. We are not often enough real and we are not often relevant. It is also a bit radical rather than a lot radical because while we might see this as a massive constitutional issue, to the world outside it is a small concession. It means that we are providing certainty to the electorate. People will know every five years when the election will be. But it is important because it is tangible change.
Baroness Boothroyd: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. I am sure that she was here when we had the Second Reading on the Bill. Perhaps she spoke on it: I think that I did. We have also had Committee stage where we dealt with amendments. Many noble Lords used Second Reading speeches at that stage. Today, we are dealing with a very specific area that is on the Order Paper. We have had a lot of Second Reading speeches during debates on this Bill and I think that we ought now to restrict our comments to what is precisely on the Order Paper before us.
Baroness Stowell of Beeston: I am about to conclude. It is important to make these points because I believe that the amendment that has been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, affects the very heart of the Bill. That is why it is necessary for me to make these points.
If the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is accepted by the House, we will no longer be putting forward to the electorate change that is real, relevant and radical. We will actually be doing something that is quite predictable. On that basis, I support my noble and learned friend the Minister and I hope that we do not accept the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell.
Lord Alderdice: My Lords, I have listened with some care to what previous noble Lords have said. It has been very thoughtful and I am not surprised that the noble Lords, Lord Butler of Brockwell and Lord Armstrong, take the view that they do. They are exactly the kind of recommendations that any good senior civil servant would give to the Prime Minister, which is, "Hold on to whatever power you have because it seems little enough at times". I understand that.
But it is a mistake to suggest that the response of the other place is disrespectful. I do not think that it is. It is disagreement. There is a fundamental disagreement between those who take the view that a fixed-term Parliament is in the interests of the Parliament and
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The question that has now been raised is, "Is the amendment that has come back from the other place a fair and reasonable one or a scrawny child?". It does not seem to me unreasonable that one should wait for the passage of two terms of Parliament, which is after all what we are talking about. To simply return to the question in a month or two tells you nothing about whether this approach is reasonable. Sometimes one has to take time to think one's way through and see if what you have is genuinely a change for the better or worse.
It is clear that there is an intellectually honest disagreement. Noble Lords here have understandable points, but it is not the case that the Government are seeking to be disrespectful. Rather, they are saying, "We do not agree with this and so, having listened to what the House of Lords has said, we have said that we appreciate that but we think that post-legislative scrutiny after two mandates is a reasonable way to address the issue". I appeal to noble Lords to see it in that light and give the other place the primacy that is appropriate in this context.
Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield: My Lords, I listened with great attention to the Minister a moment ago and I think that I detected an anxiety on his part that the royal prerogative on the dissolution of Parliament would somehow be thrown into confusion. Her Majesty the Queen graciously places her prerogative at the disposal of Parliament every time the question arises. She always has and always will. I hope that the Minister will elaborate on the anxieties if indeed I am right to detect them in what he said, but I cannot see the problem about the Queen's personal prerogative of dissolution being revived on a vote of the House of Commons if the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is passed. There is no constitutional dilemma at all here. Perhaps he has better advice than I have and perhaps he could elaborate in a moment or two.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I do not intend to take up much time of the House. Our position remains the same. We support the amendment. It still seems to us to be a practical and sensible proposal that is generous to the Government and gives them their five-year term of this Parliament but takes account of the substantial concern and suspicion that there is about the Bill across both Houses of Parliament. Noble Lords may
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What is Her Majesty's Government's argument? Put by a junior Minister at the Cabinet Office, the honourable Mr Harper, last week, it is effectively that the Cross-Bench amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is unconstitutional. Anyone reading Mr Harper's speech from last week and looking at the ridiculous amendment proposed by the Government would be struck by the frankly patronising, even insulting, manner in which he addresses the Cross-Bench amendment. It is perhaps a little cheeky for a junior Minister to attempt to patronise two ex-Cabinet Secretaries, a very distinguished ex-Speaker of the House of Commons and one of our leading constitutional legal experts, but that is what he chose to do. That insult, or patronisation, pales into insignificance compared with the pure chutzpah in this Government protesting about the way in which constitutional change takes place. If the right reverend Prelate will forgive me, it is a bit like Satan preaching against sin.
Where, both in this Bill and in its now notorious predecessor, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011-whose absurd consequences we can all see this week, and the Liberal Democrat Benches more than most-was there, first, any pre-legislative scrutiny? Secondly, where was there any draft legislation? Thirdly, where was there any suggestion in the Conservative Party's manifesto for the last election of supporting fixed-term Parliaments? Indeed, I recall-and I am sure the Minister will correct me if I am wrong-the Prime Minister himself, before the election, insisting that there must be a general election whenever a new Prime Minister took office. That is the complete opposite of what is proposed in this Bill. Where is there the search for consensus? Where, in short, is there any of that care, caution and concern for our past, present and future which should always be part of constitutional change? The answer of course is that there was none, and our country will pay the price for such hurried and careless law-making.
The Government criticise the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, saying that the sunset clause is not suitable in a constitutional Bill, forgetting, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, reminded us a few minutes ago, that, when in opposition, both parties demanded-quite rightly, in many cases-sunset clauses in constitutional matters affecting citizens' civil liberties. In short, there is absolutely nothing unconstitutional.
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames: Will the noble Lord help me on this? Does he agree that this sunset clause is not just a sunset clause but also a sunrise clause, in the sense that the matter can be brought back in any subsequent Parliament, for the duration of that Parliament alone, so that effectively the difference between this clause and other sunset clauses-that is, the clauses proposed by the amendment-is to leave the country and the electorate in a state of permanent uncertainty, and to deprive the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, as it would be, of any force whatever to that effect?
Lord Bach: I disagree entirely with the noble Lord's point. But I will ask why in that case he thinks that the Government that he supports did not support the suggestion that the noble Lords, Lord Butler and Lord Pannick, made to the Government during the Recess. What was wrong with it, as far as the Government were concerned?
To sum up, there is absolutely nothing unconstitutional about this proposal. Frankly, there was much more unconstitutionality in the way this Bill was dreamed up by the two parties in the coalition as a way of protecting their own party interests-and if one wants proof of that, one only has to look at page 98 of the right honourable David Laws' book 22 Days in May. For all these reasons, the House should not take any lessons from this Government on constitutional propriety. We will be supporting the amendment.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, anyone who had never known any of the history of this, listening to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, would probably be astounded to learn that the Labour Party supported the idea of fixed-term Parliaments in its manifesto, as far back as 1992-
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: The argument that, because Labour lost, that devalues the principle is not one I have fully understood. The noble Lord seemed to suggest that the Prime Minister had completely set his face against fixed-term Parliaments. In a speech entitled "Fixing Broken Politics" which my right honourable friend the then Leader of the Opposition made on Tuesday 26 May 2009, he said:
"But I believe the arguments for fixed-term Parliaments are strengthening too. Because if we want Parliament to be a real engine of accountability, we need to show that it is not just the creature of the executive. That's why a Conservative Government will seriously consider the option of fixed-term Parliaments when there is a majority government".
So I think it is wrong to say that this is something that the Prime Minister had totally set his face against in opposition. There was a commitment in the Conservative manifesto to look at areas of the exercise of the royal prerogative.
Can I start by picking up the points which my noble friend Lord Alderdice made? I think he put his finger on it when he said that this is not disrespect but disagreement. It is a genuine disagreement, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, would agree that when Mr Mark Harper and I met him it was quite clear that there was a gulf between us. Two propositions were put to us, which would have addressed what we had identified as some of the technical-indeed, more than technical-problems of the amendment, but did not actually address what we believed to be a fundamental problem with the amendment, which is that it undermines the actual core purpose of the Bill. This Bill is the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, in the plural. It is not a Bill to have a fixed-term Parliament for this Parliament, the one elected in May 2010, but rather one to have fixed-term Parliaments into the future, all this of course being subject to the right of any Parliament to repeal the legislation of a predecessor Parliament. That is why there is a fundamental difference.
Therefore it is not disrespect, and I can assure your Lordships that I would not wish to be disrespectful to genuinely held views. I think some people do not believe that having a fixed-term Parliament is right, but they will allow us to make some fix for this Parliament. In fact I think that what happens with the amendment is that it leaves us in the position of having the potential of a fix for every future Parliament. It is not putting this on a permanent basis; it is an amendment which could allow the powers to lapse, and then be revived again in a subsequent Parliament after 2020, or whenever-if the powers had lapsed, it might not necessarily last the full five years. The incoming Parliament following that election could revive the powers, or again, after a subsequent election, it could let them lapse. We do not believe that that is a particularly good way of legislating with regard to the constitution. It is literally switching the light on and switching the light off again.
That is why-if I pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy-I have a concern about the nature of the royal prerogative. The existence of the royal prerogative would then appear to be dependent upon the resolutions of each House not being carried. It does not seem very desirable that the prerogative may sometimes not exist, and then sometimes be revived. That may not be the drafter's intention, but it is not clear what he has achieved in the drafting. In particular, the presumption of Section 16 of the Interpretation Act 1978 is that where an enactment of temporary duration-which the provisions abrogating the dissolution of prerogative appear to be-expires, it does not ordinarily revive anything not in force at the time of the expiry. I think there is a genuine concern there. In matters so important as the royal prerogative, the idea that it can be revived, then allowed to lapse and then revived again is not particularly satisfactory.
I shall now pick up the important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, about the Parliament Act. It is something we have always acknowledged and recognised. The reason why the Parliament Acts would not apply in this case is nothing to do with the concept of fixed-term Parliaments. As he rightly pointed out, it is a provision in the Bill: in response to this House we deleted the part that would allow the election to be brought forward by two months, but there was still a provision there to extend it by two months. That takes it over the five years-the arguments for that were debated well at the time-as happened also in 2001 with the outbreak of foot and mouth. It is also important to point out that your Lordships' Delegated Powers Committee actually said that it thought it was a proper power, but recommended that we should have a Written Statement from the Prime Minister as to why the power was being exercised-a recommendation which we accepted. I do not think that is an issue about which there is any real dispute. It goes to the heart of whether or not we should have fixed-term Parliaments.
That takes me to the core issue; and, I say again, we are not being disrespectful. When one is proposing a review that will not take place until 2020, it is very easy to talk about long grass, time capsules or scrawny babies. However, it would be even more disrespectful-frankly ludicrous-to ask a committee to examine a
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I do not consider that an insult. If you are going to do proper pre-legislative scrutiny, make sure that you are scrutinising something that has actually happened-that you have actually got a piece of material, or evidence, on which you can actually base informed scrutiny.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I look upon it as post-legislative scrutiny. You cannot scrutinise what you have legislated for until it has happened. We will not have had a fixed-term Parliament that has run its full course until 2020. It is as simple as that.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: I ask the noble Lord, through the Minister, whether it is therefore the Government's position that all the arguments and discussions we had about no-confidence Motions-as they related historically and as they will, presumably, be affected under the fixed-term Parliament legislation-will not apply to this Parliament before 2015.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: That is not the case, as we know. I was making the point that this Parliament was not elected as a fixed-term Parliament. I am sure if the noble Baroness thinks about it, she will appreciate this. The arguments, I recall, when we debated the benefits of four or five years and whether it would affect the legislative plan of Governments coming into office, were that this would not happen with this Parliament, as that was not the basis on
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I say again that I believe that this House has made an important contribution to this Bill and that its shape-in particular the trigger mechanisms for an early election-is vastly better because of the debates that we had. This Government are prepared to listen and have shown their willingness to do so. However, we cannot agree to something that we believe actually goes to the heart of the Bill and undermines one of its central purposes. For that reason, we cannot agree with the Motion as proposed, but we believe that it is proper and right to have a proper post-legislative review; one which, if the fixed-term Parliaments take their normal course, would have to be started within just over one month after the election or no later than six months after that. There is a set time limit under which the Prime Minister would have to make the necessary arrangements. On that basis, I commend that amendment in lieu to the House.
Lord Butler of Brockwell: I thank those who have taken part in this debate. I particularly say to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that of course I accept that this is a disagreement-a disagreement on a very important constitutional matter, on which, I think, everybody agrees there has not been the normal preparation for a major change on a constitutional matter. That is the argument for allowing a sunrise clause, which will allow the next Parliament to take a view, in the light of further deliberation, consideration and consultation, and, indeed, of experience. Those who read the debate in the House of Commons last week will know that there are views on both sides of that House on this matter. As has been said, both on the government and the opposition side, there is concern about, and opposition to, the Bill as it stands.
The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said, in his very eloquent way, that the House of Lords never has to give way to this Bill, strictly speaking, because it is not covered by the Parliament Act. I sincerely hope that it does not come to that but, in the House of Commons debate last week, it was a Conservative Member who-making the point that the Bill is not covered by the Parliament Act-said that the House of Lords can hold out indefinitely if necessary. I am not arguing for that at all but would like to have the sort of serious discussions with the Government on a serious constitutional matter that so far-I am sorry to say-the Government have not been prepared to have. In the House of Commons last week, the Labour spokesman said of the Member who pointed to the effect of the Parliament Act:
I very much hope that the House of Lords tonight will stand firm, with a view to enabling meaningful discussions with the Government on this important constitutional matter. I beg to test the opinion of the House.
The Earl of Lytton: My Lords, not having spoken previously at this stage of the Bill, I declare an interest as president of the National Association of Local Councils and as president of one of its county associations.
The intention behind Amendments 166 to 169 is simply to prevent Schedule 4 to the Bill repealing what I believe are useful parts of the Local Government Act 2000. It may be for the convenience of your Lordships and make for a more coherent debate if I do no more than move Amendment 166 at this juncture and then, with the leave of the House, speak to the detail of the amendments in the group after the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, has spoken to his Amendment 175. I trust that your Lordships will permit that.
Lord Bichard: My Lords, I first thank my noble friend Lord Lytton for allowing me to lead on this group of amendments. The amendments that I shall speak to today go to the heart of effective and credible local governance. In others words, they are neither technical amendments nor desirable but non-essential. That is why they have obtained support from across the House. Without them there is a serious risk that the progress on standards of conduct that has undoubtedly been made in local government in recent years will be lost. If that happens, it will damage not only local citizens and the reputation of local government but the Government and Parliament.
As currently drafted, the Bill proposes placing a new general duty on councils to promote and maintain high standards. At the same time, it proposes to abolish the standards board for England and the national code of conduct. It proposes to let each council choose whether to have a code of conduct and, if they do, what to include in it. It proposes that the current requirement for standards committees with independent members should be removed. It proposes removing the powers to suspend members who have breached the code. Finally, it would introduce a new criminal offence of failing to register or declare a pecuniary interest.
The amendments before the House in my name do not seek to perpetuate either a national standards board or a centrally prescribed national code of conduct. I accept that a prescribed national code would run counter to the Government's avowed intent to devolve more responsibility to local communities, which I thoroughly welcome. I also accept that the standards board, in spite of some excellent work and some very dedicated staff, has just not made a strong enough case for its retention. While I accept those changes, the impact of the other proposals will, I suggest, be seriously damaging. At a time when the public's trust in politicians is at a low ebb, it is important that all public bodies have explicit standards of conduct, which make transparent how they will carry out their business and provide benchmarks against which they can be held to account. A sceptical public will otherwise assume the worst. This is all the more important as local councils are rightly and belatedly given more power through elected mayors and changes in the planning regime. It is absolutely essential in these circumstances that the public have confidence in the people who will take responsibility for those powers if those powers and that devolution are to be sustained as we all want them to be.
However, a discretionary system will have other dis-benefits. Inevitably, it will mean that standards are discretionary and that they are not a priority. As councils adopt different arrangements across the country, and they inevitably will, the public and business will find it difficult to understand what is to be expected from their particular authority or the authority with which they are doing business. Worse still, the authorities that do not take standards seriously will of course be least likely to adopt a code with any kind of rigorous content. That will result in damage not just to the reputation of that particular council, but to the reputation of local government as a whole. There will be some who argue that all councils would naturally and voluntarily adopt a code, so we really do not need a mandatory
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For all of those reasons, a national code of conduct is necessary. Not one prescribed by the Secretary of State and imposed on local government, but one developed by local government in accordance with the principles of public life and adopted by all councils. That is the purpose of my Amendment 175.
If we are to have a mandatory code, there does need to be some leverage to ensure that it is taken seriously. The proposal to remove the current requirement for a local standards committee with independent members, to monitor the implementation of the code and, where necessary, to suspend members who are in breach, will take away an important influence. In addition, it will further feed the scepticism of those members of the public who believe that councillors are, frankly, in it for their own good. Amendments 177 and 178 therefore seek to reinstate a local standards committee with a right of appeal for members found to have fallen foul of that code. There is scope for discussion of the precise nature of those standards committees, so as to reflect the particular characteristics of a local area or local authority, but standards committees must be reinstated.
My Amendments 179 and 188 concern the proposed introduction of a new criminal offence for failing to register or declare a pecuniary interest, which is also the subject of further government amendments. The problem with this proposal as it stands-and this is not resolved by the several amendments on the Marshalled List-is that it applies only to pecuniary interests, and covers only the elected member and their spousal partner. Consequently, councillors will only need to declare registered pecuniary interests where they or their partner directly benefit financially. If they fail to do that, no matter how minor the interest, they will have committed a criminal offence. However, elected members would not need to declare non-pecuniary interests or the interests of other members of their family. To put this in context, an elected member could vote for their son's planning application with impunity. The proposals, as they stand, leave unregulated most of the previous examples of malpractice where there have been attempts to manipulate the planning, licensing and housing systems. One of the consequences of this will, I have no doubt, be that councils will run a far greater risk of legal challenge over decisions that are perceived to be biased.
I have been heartened by the widespread support that I have received for all these amendments-not just across the House but outside too-from the independent Liberal Democrat and Labour groups on the Local Government Association, the Law Society, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives of which I used to be a member, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors, the Society of Local Council Clerks and the National Association of Local Councils. Let us not forget that these same issues affect town and parish councils, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, will I am sure remind us shortly. All those respected organisations support these
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As I said at the outset, a great deal of progress has been made in recent years to improve the standards of local governance, but that is not to say there have been no transgressions-there have been-and none of us should ever be complacent. Thirty years ago I was the chief executive of the London Borough of Brent-not something that I widely advertise but many Members of the House will recall it. There I witnessed at first hand some of the most serious failures of conduct and behaviour. Of course, at that time they were not confined to the London Borough of Brent. None of us expects to see the return of such things, but explicit transparent codes are critical parts of the machinery to prevent that ever happening again.
You can-and I have long argued that you should-devolve decisions about the level of services. You can and you should devolve decisions about the cost of services and the way in which the needs of local communities are met. However, you should never ever devolve the question of whether probity is a priority. You should never make standards discretionary.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I have one amendment in this group, Amendment 170A, to which I shall speak in a minute. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, on his extraordinarily good presentation of the issues that lie behind his amendments. Like other members of the Liberal Democrats here I fully support them. I also thank the Minister and his colleagues, as well as the Bill team, for the amount of time and commitment that they have given to discussions-certainly with us and, I think, right around the House-on this and other issues, in order to try to find a compromise and a way forward that satisfies the wish of the Government to dismantle the national bureaucracy of the Standards Board for England. We all want that to happen without compromising the fundamental principles behind standards in public life in local government that the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, has ably set forward.
My amendment, which I shall speak to briefly, is about parish and town councils. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, will follow up to talk about them also. I have not seen any statistics but all the anecdotal evidence from areas with a lot of parish and town councils is that standards problems at that level of local government take up a remarkably large proportion of the time of, and the cases that come to, local standards committees. The reasons are obvious: a lot of parish councils are only small, they have clerks who are very much part-time and they simply do not have the expertise or, very often, the authority to deal with what are sometimes leading local personalities who do not take kindly to being told what to do and how to do it. Whatever the reason-and I do not think that it is through a lack of willingness by parish councils to deal with this problem and to cope with it; the issue is their ability or competence to do so-they take up a lot of time and a high proportion of the time of standards committees. The proposals as put forward by the Government simply
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My amendment simply suggests-and it is designed to fit into the Bill as it exists at the moment, unamended-that whatever system there is within a district or unitary authority should also apply to the town and parish councils within that area, which is the present system. That may not be the best way to solve the town and parish council problem, but a solution has to be found before the Bill leaves this House. I understand that the Minister will promise more discussions on parish councils, in particular, before Third Reading and if that is the case, I do not want to say anything more today, but it has to be sorted out and a solution found which will work in all town and parish councils, which vary from quite large town councils of, perhaps, 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000 people right down to little parishes of 200 or 300 electors. I have nothing more to say about that; I look forward to discussions that the Minister is going to offer us at the end of this debate.
Lord Newton of Braintree: My Lords, I have two possible speeches, upon which I thought I might seek the opinion of the House. One is the two-hour, scripted version and the other is the two-minute, unscripted version. I do not think that I need to seek the opinion of the House before I know which they would prefer, and it will be the shorter one.
My name is on this amendment and not by accident. I feel quite strongly about it, I support it, I agree with every word that the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, has said in favour of it. However, a number of little birds have whispered to me during the last few days that there has been a lot of talking behind the scenes-indeed, one or two people have even spoken to me-and I share my noble friend Lord Greaves's understanding that there is a willingness to undertake discussions across the whole range of issues, including whether there should be a code, what machinery there should be and some of the detail and the nature of the points on the criminal offence. In those circumstances, I would not wish to make trouble tonight.
I very much hope, therefore, that my noble friend on the Front Bench will indeed offer such discussions on a wide-ranging basis, covering the whole breadth of the issue, bearing in mind that we are not looking for confrontation; we are looking for a satisfactory outcome without shutting off the possibility of raising matters at Third Reading should we find it not possible to achieve a reasonable agreement. If my noble friend responds in that spirit, I shall go quietly, certainly for tonight. If he does not, I am aware that I am slightly burning my boats because I shall not be able to speak again, but I can tell him that I will do my best to make life hell for him in his winding-up speech. I look forward to his conciliatory gesture in quick order.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, I share the optimism of the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, that we are this evening going to come to some sensible consensus on the way forward. I particularly applaud those noble Lords who have tabled amendments this evening, because I think that they are extraordinarily important; they are the very heart of our local democracy and I hope that they are going to receive a very positive response from my noble friends on the Front Bench.
I want to make one modest, and, I hope, relatively succinct contribution to the debate based on my experience as a county councillor many years ago but, more recently, as a constituency Member of Parliament. I want to ensure that in disposing of the present regime within which standards are maintained in local authorities, we should not throw out a lot of important babies or even, perhaps the wrong bathwater-that was the analogy used in the previous debate and it is even more appropriate here.
As I understand it, my noble friends who are responsible for taking the Bill through the House are carefully considering ways in which standards of conduct can be maintained at local authority level. That has already been hinted at and I very much welcome that. I am very concerned that we avoid the worst features of the present regime applied by the present Standards Board for England. I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, said about the Standards Board for England but, unfortunately, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and I have direct experience of a number of episodes where the present regime has been most unfortunately and unproductively attempting to meet those objectives. All too often, the board has catered for-even encouraged-persecution of whistleblowers. I refer to one instance in Cotswold District Council.
I know that many Members of your Lordships' House are avid readers of Private Eye and I have no doubt that they all attend carefully to the "Rotten Boroughs" section of that estimable organ, as I am sure it would regard itself. This issue is extremely important because it indicates that some of the problems that we had thought had disappeared-I endorse the long experience of the noble Lord, Lord Bichard-are still there. Put briefly, in this case, one assiduous councillor, doing precisely what electors expect of him, has been proved right in identifying potentially illegal activity, but instead of supporting, encouraging and endorsing his successful attempts to bring illegality into the open, leading members of the council and officers would appear to be determined to use the Standards Board for England as a way of tying him up with a ludicrously trivial investigation.
That is not a lone example. I have seen that happen time and again with large and small authorities-from Westminster City Council down to a small council in my then constituency-when apparently disreputable actions of a few leading members or officers of a council have been exposed by a whistleblower, but their reaction has been to seek to silence him or her. Instead of welcoming transparency and remedial action, there have been persistent attempts to silence such dissent by claiming that their activities brought the council into disrepute. I am sure that there will be
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This has often happened where one political party has been in control of the council-no doubt, any political party-without proper challenge for years and years, but that all too often has meant that the local establishment has tried to use the Standards Board as part of its political weaponry. That is not the intention of the legislation that we are considering repealing this evening, but it is its practical effect.
My anxiety now is that we must ensure that any new code, disciplinary framework or right of appeal should take careful account of the bitter experience that so many of us have had of trivial complaints to the Standards Board, which have been used as a means to gag those who are simply undertaking the first responsibility of an elected member: to act as a watchdog for the public interest. I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench will be able to reassure me that, in the new format or regime or code of conduct or whatever that emerges from the current discussions, we will be watchful of that essential element in our public life.
Lord Best: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the standards committee of Westminster City Council and as president of the Local Government Association, but I do not speak in either of those capacities. I just wanted to add, from my knowledge of the Local Government Association, that if there is to be a code of conduct-and the arguments for that have been very well put by noble Lords-I believe that the Local Government Association is extremely well equipped to draw up an entirely sensible code and to gain the approval for this from all local authorities. I, too, look forward to hearing the Minister's ideas for taking this forward.
The Earl of Lytton: My Lords, if your Lordships will excuse a slight déjà vu and second time round, which I know is a trifle out of order, I will now, with the benefit of the excellent introduction given by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, to Amendment 175, drill down a little bit into the issues that I think are important, which specifically focus on parish and town councils.
a standards committee. However, Section 53(2) exempts parish councils from that duty. Why? For the very practical reason that the mandatory creation of 9,000 dedicated parish council standards committees across the country would be something of a nightmare, as well as a very considerable duplication of something that is already done via the standards committees of principal authorities. This would be disproportionate and unaffordable, especially to very small parishes. Parishes currently utilise the district and unitary authority standards committees to avoid just this problem and I
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Paragraph 11(2) of Schedule 4 to the Bill removes the parish exemption. Therefore, the use of principal authority committees is lost and, as I see it, this gets us back to this mandatory appointment of the 9,000 parish committees. In fact, this creation of a mandatory committee would be a first because there is no other measure that obliges parish and town councils to create any committees. This would be something of a novel departure. I felt that that was not good, and so my Amendments 166 to 169 were intended to prevent that happening.
What happens at parish and town council level, as the tier that stands to be a major beneficiary under the process of localism espoused in this Bill, is of course very significant. As the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, has pointed out, this tier will potentially wield far greater powers, command much larger resources and have custody of greater amounts of taxpayers' money and assets on behalf of the communities. The public generally will expect a seamless, effective and enforceable regime of standards, particularly given what we have all read in the media in recent months and years. In answer to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, parish and town councils need to raise their game and this is going to take a little bit of time. I do not think that we can expect an instant fix.
I support the principle of clear, proportionate and enforceable standards that apply at parish and town council level. The National Association of Local Councils supports it. Together, we regard it as the basic hallmark of integrity and coherence, and indeed as the basis of public confidence in local government at all levels.
Therefore, I am extremely pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, has tabled Amendment 175. I very much support it in its entirety and I can confirm that the National Association of Local Councils does as well. The fact that the amendment restates the Nolan principles is itself particularly welcome, and I do not think that anyone could argue with that. After all, we all sign up to principles that look like that when we take the oath or affirm on entering this House. However, sometimes I think that the rather basic aspects of motherhood and apple pie come in with the recitation of these Nolan principles. I know that a lot of this is contained in regulation elsewhere, but I do not think that it is to be found in any Bill and it is about time that it was stated. Sometimes one has to state these basics to avoid the problem of constantly trying to rewrite and amend legislation. You need an anchor point to go back to.
The amendment opens up a broader issue of how minimum levels of standards should apply, the manner in which they are to be observed and, ultimately, the criteria for their enforcement. It is all very well having standards but there has to be an enforcement process. If I have one slight objection to Amendment 177, it is that it appears to make standards committees mandatory for every relevant authority. As I see it, a relevant authority would, in this context, include parish and town councils, so we get back to the 9,000 committees that I am trying studiously to avoid.
Having realised that there is a general problem, the Government have tabled a series of their own amendments, which will come up later-Amendments 181 to 187. Although I have some reservations about those amendments-in some places they go too far and in others they do not go far enough-it is none the less a welcome affirmation that something needs to be done.
I finish by making a few suggestions about how I think standards should operate in practice for parish councils. First, they need the oversight of a standards committee, much as at present, and I think that we have to re-establish that. Secondly, the time has come for an accepted base line of generic standards to be stated in legislation, as I said earlier. I think that those standards need to be consistent across the board-throughout large and small parish and town councils. I do not think that we can get away from a need to have a consistent approach. They need to be based on a requirement both to register interests and to declare them at the appropriate moment-not one or the other. The requirement must not be weak or full of loopholes. Any family business or other interest-whether personal or relating to an associate and within a defined proximity which should be neither too narrow nor too wide-needs ultimately to be declarable. Just because a pecuniary interest has to be declared, I do not think it follows that the person declaring it should thereby be immediately excluded from all further discussion. He or she may be the one person who can throw some light on a complicated issue. However, I accept that it is almost certainly not appropriate for them to take part in any vote on the matter. I suspect that here a little discretion needs to be vested in the chairman, probably backed by some sort of standing orders. I just leave that in park for the moment.
A disproportionate cost in any of the administration of this is going to be a considerable enemy. As I pointed out yesterday in conversation with the Minister, undue complexity is the smokescreen for sharp practice, and I think that we want to avoid both those pitfalls.
I fully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, that standards in our procedures need to be enforceable and have sanctions that mean something. That said, I think that making a failure to register an interest an automatic criminal offence, regardless of circumstances, goes too far. I accept that some types of sanction will need to be subject to a right of appeal and I can see why Amendments 178 and 179 have been tabled in that respect. However, I enter a plea: can we keep all but the most exceptionable lapses out of the courts while retaining effective measures to ensure that an elected member complies? I have a pathological fear of things being tied up in court proceedings.
At present we have a statutory code made under regulations under the 2000 Act. I have not heard anything to suggest that this code is considered to be a bad one, but I accept that the imposition of a code by the Secretary of State sits ill with the ethos of the Bill. However, getting rid of the code in the interests of non-centralism, if I can put it in those terms, does not of itself make for the advancement of localism. We need to preserve what is good, even if it has somehow to be rebranded. Parliament should set the basic criteria
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My final comment concerns one of detail in respect of Amendment 177. In so far as standards committees have under their consideration the affairs of a parish or town council, I would like it to be understood that in the interests of fair representation, at least one member of that committee should be from another parish council within the same district. If I have forgotten anything, I hope that others will pick it up, but I have said quite enough for an intervention and a half.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, and my other co-supporters of this group of amendments, I think we are pleased with the way in which this House has approached these issues. We have done so as far as we possibly could on a non-party basis, and that is why there are signatories to the amendments from all four corners. For obvious reasons, public standards matter too much simply to be treated as a party-political football issue. What is also remarkable is the depth of support that has been shown by local government for these amendments. The argument was put to me that local government want the changes being brought forward in the Bill. All I can say to that is: how is it that three of the four Local Government Association party-political groups have expressed explicit support for these amendments? Every single one of the major local authority professional bodies supports these amendments, as has the Law Society. It is almost inconceivable that such a strong coalition of support should arise for what to some would seem to be such an arcane and specialised issue.
The Government are not foolish and they can see what is at risk if these issues are put to a vote. Wise Ministers in this House always listen and are flexible, and therefore as a result of conversations that took place perhaps slightly late-but they did happen so we are grateful for that-there has been, as you can sense by the mood and the number of noble Lords in the Chamber, a willingness on both sides to move away from adversarial politics towards a proper process of seeking to try to improve the Bill and achieve the objectives that I believe most people wish for it. I thank Ministers for that and look forward to the response.
I would not normally go further because for obvious reasons it is bad manners to shoot people's foxes, but I need to give a little hint of what I have total confidence the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, is going to say. I do so because it bears explicitly on the issue that I want to do no more than signpost at this stage. A good standards regime requires four things. First, it requires some very clear principled and comprehensible standards. Nolan and his work gave us the foundation for so many codes in public life; we would be mad if we moved away from that. Most of us believe that such standards ought to
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Let me test the patience of the House for a short while by talking about sanctions. One of the most surprising issues in the Bill is that it introduces a criminal sanction, when there has never been an explicit criminal sanction over and above how the criminal law already sits. I have looked high and low to find strong, genuine supporters for this. I have found only one I am certain of, and I will not mention who that is. I wondered why it was seen as so important that there was such a strong sanction-a criminal sanction-introduced, when nobody else seemed to think it was necessary.
I think it may go back to the wish energetically to sweep away as much as possible of the architecture and process, which may have become slightly baroque as a consequence of the years, and not to preserve even, to torture my analogy, some Romanesque purity underneath. One can envisage that a wish to get rid of any national code, and to leave local authorities totally free to decide whether they had a code or not-you could hardly make it up-would perhaps be seen as a step too far, and completely unwise, unless there was some signal that the Government were serious about this issue. Enter the criminal sanction.
But the criminal sanction is no longer needed. The noble Lord, Lord Bichard, explained why it was inappropriate and ineffective, because it did not bear down on some of the most serious potential issues. That should worry us all. But it is inappropriate now because of what I believe we will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. I believe we will hear a recognition that every local authority has to have a standards code, and every code must contain some mandatory elements. If he does say that, I think there will be general rejoicing around the House, and then we will work on the detail of what should be in the code, and who should make it. That is all good stuff. We will at least start from a point of sanity. It is surprising that one would actually celebrate the achievement of that, because to some of us it would seem to be the most blindingly obvious piece of common sense that you would not even spend five minutes arguing on. But putting that to one side, we are glad of where we are moving to rather than regretting where we have been.
If, then, every authority is to have a code, and to abide by at least some mandatory elements, why do we need a criminal sanction? The case for that has not been made. We need a criminal sanction because, as far as I can see-and I will have to probe on government Amendment 180 a little more, as this is in effect the first time we have seen these amendments, and I will raise a series of questions about that-it looks as though the Bill has removed all the other existing sanctions, apart from censure, that a local authority
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Why would one not wish to have as much as possible resolved at the local level? It goes for good regulation and good government that, wherever you possibly can, you resolve issues locally. Therefore, a local authority must be able to retain the powers it currently has to sanction when, after a proper and fair process, a misdemeanour, large or small, has been found. If the existing sanctions are retained, the criminal sanction is not needed.
I would expect rejoicing around the House generally, that we could live without one more criminal act, particularly an unnecessary one. I will say no more on this for now, but will probe further on government Amendment 180. We do need to ensure that there are meaningful sanctions that operate at a local level fairly, so that, as much as possible, these issues can be dealt with sensibly and with a light touch in the locality. This is why we should restore the sanctions that local authorities currently have, when they have had a proper process against a complaint. I will come back, I fear, at government Amendment 180, on these other points.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am a thoroughgoing supporter of Amendment 175 and of the amendments proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. We will get parish councils which have great power and influence in their neighbourhood. Politics at that level get very personal and intricate. Unless we have a national set of standards, nobody will know where they are from one of a discussion to the next. Where the acceptable ends and where the unacceptable begins need to be made clear. I therefore have complete sympathy with Amendment 175. What we need beyond that I do not know. At the parish level, I am unconvinced that we need a lot more, because of the referendum process that we are going through in order to get local powers over planning, which will make everything very open and obvious. It may just be that we need the code and that we do not need a lot of mechanism for enforcement. However, I am very happy that discussions should take place, and I am sure that something sensible will emerge. I am delighted that the Government are taking such a supportive attitude to the amendments.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I added my name to the amendments so comprehensively and ably spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, a little over three-quarters of an hour ago. The way in which the treatment of the issue has developed has been quite an object lesson in itself. As far as I am aware, it received little or no consideration in the other place. If I recall correctly, the only person in the Second Reading debate to devote their speech substantially to this issue was the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. It was at that point that I became very conscious that, in the midst of our general rejoicing at the proposed demise of the Standards Board for England, we were in grave danger of not thinking about what was going to be left later, which effectively was nothing: everything was going out-the baby and the bathwater.
When we got to Committee, we did not reach this issue until a Thursday evening, after the time when the Committee would normally have adjourned. I remember getting rather tired and emotional about such an important issue being addressed at such an hour. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, who has known me for the best part of 30 years, is clearly astonished that I could ever get "tired and emotional", but it sometimes happens late on a Thursday night, as it did on that occasion.
Lord Tope: It was an extremely serious issue. The Government seemed to be taking the view that this was a Localism Bill and that standards in public life could therefore be dealt in accordance with local diversity. I was pleased to see in the briefing from the National Association of Local Councils, much quoted in this debate, the matter put very succinctly. It stated that,
There is no one keener on local diversity than me, but the one area where local diversity is particularly inappropriate, and where in the past we have had rather too much of it, is in standards in public life.
I am therefore delighted, although still a little surprised, that, at this very late stage in the Bill's process, we are having a full and good debate on the subject. The Minister's response has been so much heralded that it is in danger of becoming an anticlimax, because we have all said what we think that he is going to say. If he says it, it will be what we expected; if he does not, we are all in trouble.
I am delighted that we are now, at this late stage, coming to address the real issue, which is not whether we should have had the Standards Board and whether we are pleased that it is going-everyone accepts that it is going-it is what replaces it. There seems now, a little late but welcome nevertheless, to be a general acceptance that there needs to be a mandatory code, that it should not be imposed by central government and the Secretary of State, that it should be drawn up, as our amendment states, by "representatives of local government"-I think that it is generally understood what that means-and that it needs to be mandatory both in terms of its existence and of what is in it, although it may be added to.
We then get to the area for real debate, which is how that is effectively enforced. I do not think that any of us want to recreate in any shape or form the sort of national level bureaucracy that grew up with the Standards Board. As others have said, there are many issues that we can explore belatedly in our discussion. However, we do need to see effective means of local enforcement. One of the elements that we had in the standards regime in recent years, which has been extremely welcome, is the independent element. There may well be exceptions, but certainly in my experience the role of the independent members on the standards committee, often chairing those committees, has been very valuable and welcome-
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There has to be some sort of an appeals mechanism. It does not have to be an appeal to a national body. I will not try to go over it tonight, but there needs to be some sort of appeal-for natural justice, as has been said, but also to deal with the sort of case referred to by my noble friend Lord Tyler. In some authorities, regardless of political persuasion, someone who is perceived to be awkward or difficult or a minority interest of whatever sort can be persecuted and will not have proper protection within the local authority, even with the independent element. There needs to be some appeal mechanism.
We have set out in the debate the areas for discussion with the Government. It will be a bit of a let-down if the Minister now says that he is not prepared to discuss it at all. I do not think that that will happen. We look forward to some fruitful and positive discussions with the Government to try to find a way through that all sides of the House can support and feel strongly should happen and can be achieved. I really hope that we can come back at Third Reading with a comprehensive package. It may not be what all of us want, but I hope that all of us on all sides can support it at Third Reading. If we can achieve that, the work that we have rather belatedly been doing-I pay tribute particularly to the noble Lords, Lord Bichard and Lord Filkin, in bringing this issue to the fore-will have been very much worth while. I thank them for that.
Lord Wills: I support the amendment. I withdrew my own amendment, which was directed to much the same objectives, because I thought that this one was better. It was more comprehensive and generally much more effective than my own.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, so compellingly set out, the transparent setting of standards for elected representatives plays an important part in securing the accountability that is fundamental for the health of any democracy. With the greater powers conferred on local authorities by the Bill should come greater accountability. Yet as this Bill currently stands, it risks some elected representatives not being accountable in that way. It cannot be acceptable to run the risk of leaving any elected representatives so unaccountable.
Voters expect their elected representatives to meet certain standards. They will expect a code of conduct to be in place for their representatives on every local authority and this amendment will ensure that such expectations are met. I very much hope that the further dialogue about which there has been so much conversation in the debate already will produce an outcome that embeds if not the exact words in these amendments at least something that achieves their effect.
Lord Beecham: My Lords, I feel obliged to pay particular attention to the need to declare interests as I reply on behalf of the Opposition to this debate, so I declare an interest as a member of Newcastle City Council, as a recently appointed member of its standards committee and as an honorary vice-president of the Local Government Association. I join other colleagues
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Lord Tope: My Lords, in no way would I wish to cast aspersions on the noble Lord and certainly not on my noble friend Lord Shipley. My point was that, if my memory is correct, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, devoted his entire speech, or pretty well his entire speech, to the issue of standards. He was the only one in the debate to have done so-not surprisingly, as it is such a big Bill.
Lord Beecham: Indeed, and I join the noble Lord in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, on what he said on that occasion as well as this. A number of issues have been raised today. I particularly note the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I am probably alone in this Chamber in being prepared to shed a tear or two for the standards board. It perhaps started off in a rather cumbersome and bureaucratic way, but it did improve its performance over time. Nevertheless we accept that its day is done, and we have to find a suitable replacement for it.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made perfectly legitimate reference to the problem of trivial complaints designed to gag or in some ways punish or inhibit members. That is a perfectly legitimate concern, which can be met within the framework of the local committees that are proposed in the amendments, particularly when they include the involvement of independent members. That is a crucial issue and one which will need to be discussed with Ministers. Those committees offer an assurance of impartiality which might not otherwise arise in the sometimes highly charged atmosphere-not necessarily party-political atmosphere-that can exist within individual councils.
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