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Lord Carter: My Lords, the noble Earl talks of the House being in balance at the moment. Out of a House of 661 Peers, there are 181 who take the Labour vote and 480 who do not. Is the House still unbalanced?
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, it is unbalanced in a sensible way. It is unbalanced in that nobody can rig it. My noble friends on the Front Bench cannot call in Earls and Marquesses of ancient lineage. One of my noble friends says "shame". I actually think it is right that they should not, but it means that the Conservatives cannot win a Division without outside help: nor can the Liberals, nor can the Cross-Benchers and nor can--
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, if I may intervene for a moment, would the noble Lord who is now addressing us in response to the Government Chief Whip point out that a very substantial part of the Conservatives' representation is a result of the Weatherill amendment negotiated by the present Government?
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, the way in which it arose is called constitution making on the hoof, which is the whole point of it. We have a Chamber which does not have the faults of last Session's Chamber. That, I suggest--as it has come about through an Act of Parliament introduced by the Government--gives us the right to alter convention. The terms of the Salisbury convention of 1945 were simple: you do not muck about with our programme; we do not muck about with the composition. The composition, correctly, has been mucked about with. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable, but with immense responsibility and care, to argue with government and to bring better and more balanced constitutional--call it Whig--arrangements into our affairs. That seems a sensible way in which to approach the matter.
There is a wonderful letter in The Times today which states that it is interesting to see that the Iranians have run a better election than the Labour Party. I am afraid to say that that goes beyond saying for the arrangements for the London mayor. The fact that the contest is between someone who ruined the GLC and someone who ruined Camden Council is neither here nor there. The choice is not excellent, but there it is.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, Ministers have briefs from civil servants, so we must also be allowed to read from them occasionally and it happens to be a brief with which I agree. It is based on fact and so there is no harm in using it. The Government are sending out an 11-page leaflet so that everyone will know how to vote. As the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, the cost can be nominal. To deprive the electors of London of that would be wrong and for us not to exercise our constitutional duty would be silly.
Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, I had not intended to speak in the debate but I have been provoked by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and others who seem to be using the debate on London local government to establish certain constitutional principles which are certainly in dispute. I do not want to argue today about whether this is a more legitimate House as a result of the partial reforms. That is a matter for another day. But we need to look carefully at what is being suggested.
It is being suggested that through secondary legislation this House should alter and amend primary legislation. It has been said that the automatic right of the House to vote on any issue should not be challenged. The House may vote on any matter on which it wants to. I should have expected that sensible people would at least have considered carefully why they were voting. It is not a question of the right to vote but of whether a vote should be exercised. I have been in the House for a short time, so I hesitate to discuss conventions, but my understanding in relation to orders is that secondary legislation may be challenged only on the grounds that it is not in accord with primary legislation. I have not heard it argued here today that the orders before us are not in accord with primary legislation.
That being so, the only reason for voting against the orders which makes sense, which was partially argued by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, is that it is the duty of the second chamber to exercise a check on the
Those words will not make any difference. I have been in the game long enough to know that speeches from any Benches are unlikely to sway anyone. One noble Lord might perhaps be swayed, but more than that would be unusual. If the Opposition have made up their minds to proceed and vote the order down either by passing the amendment or otherwise, they are of course free to do so. But it does not make good sense or good constitutional law. I believe that in their heart of hearts the Opposition Front Bench know well that they are being opportunistic. That is fine; good luck to them. But let us not allow them to pretend that they are defending some ancient right of the House of Lords, because they are not.
Lord Ackner: My Lords, I have a characteristically modest point to make. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Peston, with great interest, because I always do so. As I understand him, he was saying that we are bound by a precedent to which we should keep until we have had a debate to justify its removal. But I do not believe that we are bound by a precedent. It is the Front Bench of each party that is bound by a precedent, not the rest of us. I give your Lordships an example of how that worked out some 10 years ago.
At that time, my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the then Lord Chancellor, specified by way of secondary legislation the characteristics of the conditional fee; in particular, what should be--if I may be allowed the horrible phrase--the extent of the uplift allowed to the winning solicitor. He suggested that the uplift should be 100 per cent. I objected to that figure on many bases, but on the main basis that his own advisory committee had said that 20 per cent was more than adequate and 100 per cent could lead to all sorts of abuses.
The net result was that I lost by five votes in a well-attended House. It later turned out that if the Opposition Front Bench had voted in my favour, as they encouraged their Back-Benchers to do, I should have won by 10 votes. A rather acid comment in the newspapers to that effect emanated from the Liberal Party the next day.
So this great convention, to which we should all adhere, applies only to the Front Benches. I asked why there should be such a convention, as it did not seem to make sense. I was told quite simply, "It is done because
Earl Russell: My Lords, there is another convention which has not so far been mentioned and which is more important than any which has been mentioned. I refer to the convention that in a democracy the rules of engagement for the conduct of elections should in general be agreed between the parties. I am not saying that everything should be agreed by everyone. One does not want to turn a need to create consensus into a right of veto. But, in general, rules for elections should be agreed between the Government and at least one major opposition party, preferably including the Official Opposition.
Through the whole of my adult memory, I cannot find more than one case when elections have gone ahead under rules which were approved by the governing party and by no other party. In this case, the rules for the election are objected to by the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and, I may now add, the UK Independence Party. It is not often that we on these Benches agree with the UK Independence Party. It is not often that the Conservative Party agrees with the Green Party. That elections should not go ahead on that basis is a more important convention than any convention about the management of this House.
We are told by another place that we lack legitimacy to interfere in these matters because we are not elected. I find it curious that the Government wish the majority of this House to remain unelected. Were they to make this point in order to procure an elected Chamber, we on these Benches would be happy to support them. But should they make this point in order to preserve the right of those who govern another place to do exactly what they like, we on these Benches would not support them.
I remember well the debate of 20th October 1994, to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, referred. My noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank spoke from the Front Bench and I spoke from the Back Bench. I made the point in that debate that there is an interlocking between conventions. I described them as a roundabout. I agree that it was once the case that we did not vote on regulations. On these Benches we have done it three times since 1994. My noble friend Lord Avebury did it the first time and I did it the second and third times, with the full support of our Benches on each occasion. If the Government do not wish votes on regulations to happen, they must not put through highly controversial matters by regulation. I cannot think of anything much more controversial than to attempt to run an election according to rules acceptable only to the governing party. This is not a Labour Party selection.
Lord Blackwell: My Lords, we have heard a good deal today about constitutional conventions and a number of authoritative contributions have been made. I take a rather simple view that it is the duty of your Lordships' House to consider as best it can its judgment on those matters which are properly brought before it. At least one very powerful argument has been made for why in the mayoral election, above all others, candidates should have the privilege of a free postal system. In local elections and parliamentary elections, most people would concede that the party system works reasonably well. Parties and other organisations with established structures work reasonably well in putting forward candidates and being able to mobilise supporters and distribute literature.
They work well because, on the whole, electors in those elections cannot often know individually the many candidates. When they elect a governing group to a council or indeed to Parliament, they need to know that there is a coherent set of policies. Therefore, the party labels or organisational labels have a great value. The organisational structures behind them work to put those views across to electors. If there is one argument for having a directly elected mayor, it is that it allows individuals of stature and individuals who can make a contribution to their city to come forward as valid candidates for mayor without the support or backing of that kind of organisational structure. That is one argument for having a directly elected mayor as opposed to simply the leader of the majority group.
It stands to reason that that kind of candidate cannot depend on the canvassing structure and local system that party politics provides. Therefore, if we want to have candidates of calibre outside the party structure put themselves forward for mayor, we have to have an electoral system that recognises their needs and encourages that kind of candidate to stand. At the end of the debate, I should like to understand from the Government whether they accept the force of those arguments. Will they accept the principle that, in order to support the notion of a directly elected mayor, such candidates should have a free postal system? If they do accept that, it is incumbent on them to explain how they will provide for it.
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