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Along with a number of interested parties, the Government have consistently told us over the past few years that they are worried about the reputation of Parliament. Anyone who holds that Parliament's importance is as the central part of our national life will share the Government's concern. It arises, at least in part, from an increasing belief that Parliament is felt by the electorate to be distant from their everyday concerns. Indeed, so often, when they are considered by Parliament, those concerns are considered "way behind the curve", as the military is wont to put it.
I suspect that part of that concern could be addressed by examining the day-to-day procedures of both Houses. Indeed, as a result of the welcome initiative by the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that is something that this place is intent on doing. I say in parenthesis that I hope it will do so not in a way that accelerates the avalanche of ill-digested legislation that we have to consider--of which this Bill is a prime example--but in such a way as to control it, so that its quality can be improved.
As I understand the amendment, it does not seek to address the day-to-day aspects of parliamentary life, but another aspect entirely: an aspect that affects national life on very great issues, and in particular issues which are not only self-evidently substantial but which are by their nature, whatever the theory, virtually irreversible if approved.
As the noble Lord made clear, increasingly since the early 1970s we have witnessed Parliament making substantial constitutional changes which are in most cases and to all intents and purposes irreversible. The obvious example cited by the noble Lord was our act of joining what was then the EEC. Since 1997, the incidence of such examples has multiplied. I am not sure that I wholly go along with the noble Lord when he says that there have not been many such examples. There have been a number of examples--some of which, of course, the Government have made the subject of referendums. I refer to issues such as devolution for Scotland and Wales and the London Assembly. Other examples are the incorporation of the ECHR, which we all recognise will have substantial
Effectively, such major constitutional changes can, at least in theory--and substantially have been in practice on occasion--be forced through Parliament on a majority of one in another place and, in the case of manifesto Bills, through this place without it having the oportunity to push the matter to the Parliament Act if it so wanted. There is one exception: the extension of the life of a Parliament under the Septennial Act. In theory, in a number of these cases, the electorate need have no direct say in the matter at all beyond taking part in any national debate that may be cobbled together at the time. That is particularly true--I was struck by the noble Lord's descent, if I may so put it, into anecdotage of the 1970s--when parties are split on the matter and when a referendum can readily become an easy way off the party unity hook.
For that reason, above all, it seems to me that it would be extremely sensible for Parliament to consider one way in which it could reconnect with the electorate in between parliaments on very big issues which are essentially, irreversible; namely, by giving the electorate the final say on matters that have enormous, long-term constitutional consequences. Indeed, one of the by-products of accepting the principle of the noble Lord's amendment is that it would give the electorate a feeling that it did have the ultimate say so on matters of this kind.
I turn to the exception to my general support for the noble Lord's amendment. It seemed to me that he gave extremely cogent reasons why the initiative should come from the Speaker in another place; in other words, that it should be a Speaker's initiative. In a fully reformed House of Lords I should infinitely prefer the initiative to come from this Chamber. If one believes, as I do, that this House has as its central role the objective of making another place do its job properly--I put that perhaps rather crudely--especially in legislative matters, there is also by extension a very useful job that this Chamber could do by developing its role as a constitutional longstop. As I say, we already have one such unequivocal function under the Septennial Act, where the Parliament Act does not apply over the extension of the life of a parliament.
We are developing the strictures of what was formerly called the delegated powers and scrutiny committee--something which during my time as Leader of this House I did my best to encourage; indeed, I pay tribute to the present Government in that I believe they have also pursued the same path--and these should always be observed by the Government in matters of Henry VIII clauses and too many delegated powers. Therefore, in day-to-day matters we are also beginning to develop what I believe is an extremely effective constitutional check, as well as developing our role as a constitutional longstop.
Although I am the first to admit that the pragmatic reason for keeping the power with the Speaker that the noble Lord proposes may be a more practical and immediate way of seducing another place into agreeing with his views, in a purist world there is a great deal to be said for this House, if it were to accept the amendment, suggesting that it would, in its role as a developing constitutional longstop, be a more appropriate place for the initiative to originate.
If a very substantial constitutional change were proposed, it would make considerable sense for this Chamber not to take upon itself the decision about whether or not that constitutional change should go through. Even in its fully reformed state, which I hope will come about fairly shortly, I suspect that this House would not carry the authority to enable it to do that on its own. However, it might be able to carry the authority to refer the matter to the electorate, with whom the ultimate decision should rest, particularly in matters of a very substantial constitutional type. If we used the power suggested for the Speaker in this amendment with wisdom and judgment, I suggest that it would do much to increase the standing of this House in the estimate of the electorate, which is something that I feel is much to be desired.
In spite of that one reservation I believe that this is an important principle which is well worthy of consideration by this Chamber. It closes a circle which at the moment needs to be closed and in which there is a gaping gap. If the noble Lord were to withdraw the amendment and bring it back at Report stage, it would be well worth our while debating it again more fully, perhaps at a more sensible hour of the day.
Viscount Cranborne: I hear the question asked from the other side of the Chamber, "What is wrong with now?". There is nothing wrong with now, particularly as it is delightful to see so many Members on the Government Back Benches and on other Benches paying close attention to this important debate. However, it may not have escaped the Committee's attention that occasionally the Chamber is even fuller before dinner than it is now. There will be many people with enormous experience who may feel able to take part in such debates earlier in the day rather than later.
Finally, I draw attention to Amendment No. 228 which stands in the names of my noble friends Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and Lord Astor in which they suggest that referendums should always be post-legislative rather than pre-legislative. I hope that the Committee will also give sympathetic consideration to that amendment for one simple reason; namely, that it seems to me that the history of pre-legislative referendums has not been a happy one. I believe this is true of pre-legislative referendums in other countries. I suspect that if we were honest with ourselves we would admit that pre-legislative referendums in the past three years have not been universally satisfactory either. Certainly I would be the last to suggest that if the referendum had been better conducted in
It seems to me that the overwhelming objection to pre-legislative referendums is that they emasculate parliamentary consideration of the Bill giving effect to the measure under consideration. It is all too easy, particularly in another place, to force through a Bill without proper consideration. We all know that was done by the spadeful, if I may put it that way, on the Welsh Bill. It is all too easy to force through consideration of a Bill with the spoken, and sometimes even unspoken, accusation that those who oppose the Bill, even in detail, are going against the spoken will of the people in the pre-legislative referendum. How much better to look at the Bill in detail--as this Parliament does--and then if a referendum is to be called, for it to be submitted as a post-legislative referendum with the full details available to those who are interested enough to look at them before they vote one way or the other. That does not emasculate parliamentary consideration of what is going on.
I hope that the Committee will see the merit in what the noble Lord proposes, not only from the point of view of the electorate--which is what really matters--but also from the point of view of the standing of this Chamber.
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