Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Let us consider what each element of the Bill does. First, and perhaps least surprisingly given the noble Lord's membership of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Clause 1 would withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union. The Government believe that our membership of the European Union has brought real benefits to the United Kingdom through jobs, peace and security. Through our membership, we belong to the world's biggest trading bloc. Over half of the United Kingdom's trade is within the EU, with an estimated 3.5 million British jobs linked to it. Our membership allows us to live, work and travel across Europe.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: I wonder if the noble Lord could explain how leaving the political construct of the European Union and continuing in free trade with our friends in Europe would have any effect on jobs whatsoever.

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I do not think that it would be sensible to stray into an answer that would last for several hours. The realities of living within the European Union and the value it brings to the citizens of this country are self-evident to most of us, as are the mechanisms. This Government are proud to continue

5 Feb 2010 : Column 428

their support for the European Union and grateful for the widespread support we have in that continued membership.

The European Union also allows member states to co-operate effectively in tackling issues like organised crime and climate change, which do not stop at national borders.

Clause 2 would repeal the Human Rights Act. Again, it will come as no surprise that the Government take a strong and contrary view on this matter. The Government are proud to have introduced the Human Rights Act. I am sure that the noble Lord will not mind me reminding him that those who inspired and drafted the European Convention on Human Rights, to which the Human Rights Act gives further effect, were British lawyers. We are clear that any attempt to reverse the incorporation of the European convention would prevent our judges applying the convention in a way that is specific to the United Kingdom. It would also stop us contributing to the development of the interpretation of the European convention in the international arena. We on these Benches are crystal clear that we have no intention of resiling from the protections afforded by the European convention or from the way in which they are given effect in the UK by the Human Rights Act.

Interestingly, we come next to two areas of the noble Lord's Bill which have some commonality, of general intention at least, with government policy: Clause 3 on international treaties and Clause 4 on military action. Clause 3 is very straightforward. It states that,

The intention is very direct, but I think the drafting may need a little further thought if it were to achieve its aim. For example, the clause makes no mention of the process for how Parliament's authorisation would be sought. Would the process, whatever it might be, apply equally to all treaties however significant or minor and technical, or would the process vary from case to case? Would all treaties have to be debated, for example, or would they be subject to some form of negative or affirmative procedure? Most treaties, after all, are essentially routine or specialist and do not attract much interest in Parliament.

There are around 30 treaties each year. Under the Government's detailed proposals in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, it would be for Parliament to indicate where and when it would be effective to debate a treaty. Our reforms not only formalise the arrangements for giving Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise treaties, but allow Parliament to prioritise certain treaties for debate and voting. Rather than press ahead with the approach set out in the noble Lord's Bill, I would urge him to support the Government's proposals when they come before this House.

Next we come to Clause 4 on military action. The Bill proposes the prior authorisation of Parliament for declarations of war or the engagement in hostile military action by the United Kingdom. The Government too

5 Feb 2010 : Column 429

believe that, in a modern representative democracy, Parliament should be allowed a substantive vote before our Armed Forces are deployed into military action. Indeed, the Government believe that the current position, whereby the prerogative power can be exercised to deploy the Armed Forces without requiring any formal parliamentary agreement, is an outdated state of affairs in a modern democracy. While the Government do not rule out legislation in this area, we prefer the approach of taking this forward through a parliamentary resolution rather than in statute. Indeed, we were pleased that the Joint Committee on the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill supported the draft resolution as a well balanced and effective way of proceeding.

Clauses 5 to 7 deal with reform of the House of Commons, reducing the number of constituencies and sitting days, fixing the term of Parliaments and setting MPs' salaries and system of expenses. While the Government are not against keeping the size of the Commons under review, we should remember that it has already been reduced in size since 1997; and that since 1950 the average number of electors that individual MPs represent has increased by over 25 per cent. We believe it is important to maintain the link between people and Parliament. Similarly, we welcome the discussion of wider parliamentary reforms such as the idea of a fixed parliamentary term. Such a move would, however, mark a significant shift in our constitutional and political arrangements and the consequences would need to be examined very closely. Again, the relevant clause is drafted very simply and does not allow for any number of unusual circumstances whereby it may be necessary to dissolve a Parliament before a five-year term has been completed. The Government have no plans to reduce the number of days on which the House of Commons sits, however. Indeed, public criticism is generally that Parliament should sit for more days, not fewer.

On setting salaries and allowances for Members of the House of Commons, only this week the Government took steps in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill to implement recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. This builds on the decisive action that the Government took to tackle concerns over MPs' expenses by introducing the Parliamentary Standards Bill in the last Session.

Clause 9 requires a referendum on House of Lords reform within seven years of its passing into an Act. The Prime Minister announced on 2 February the Government's intention to reform this House into a democratically accountable second Chamber. We published a White Paper on reform of your Lordships' House in July 2008, which was informed by cross-party talks. There followed almost a year of wider debate and discussion of the proposals contained in it. In developing more detailed plans for reform, the Government have listened to and reflected on this debate and discussion. This fully considered and comprehensive approach to the issue is one way in which the Government are working to promote and restore trust in politics and our political institutions. The Government intend to publish draft legislation setting out the framework for a fully reformed House of Lords soon.



5 Feb 2010 : Column 430

Lord Norton of Louth: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is talking about the 2008 White Paper being widely debated. It has not even been debated in your Lordships' House.

Lord Tunnicliffe: I note that statement. As everyone knows, it is the usual channels who determine what is debated and when. I defer to their wisdom on this matter.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, is it not true, however, that the principles set out in the White Paper have been debated ad nauseam in the House?

Lord Tunnicliffe: I am going to avoid any comments about nausea.

Much of what remains of the Bill is concerned with what it defines as local matters and the redistribution of power to local authorities. On the government Benches, however, we are proud of our achievements in devolving power to legislatures and assemblies in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. The Government believe that devolution has delivered real benefits to people across the United Kingdom, providing the right balance between responsibility, accountability and representation. Devolution in England has been significantly advanced by the introduction of the local performance framework, including local area agreements agreed between local authorities and their partners and central government. The Smarter Government White Paper has set out how we will go even further to help citizens to drive further improvement and ensure that they have the necessary tools to hold government to account.

Within England, the Government believe that a regional approach is necessary to analyse and address the causes of economic disparity, to ensure that planning and investment decisions are properly integrated and to co-ordinate issues which extend beyond the boundaries of even the largest local authority. The Government do not, however, believe in the prescriptive one-size-fits-all approach. Respecting the outcome of the November 2004 north-east referendum, they have no further plans for directly elected regional bodies. Our Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 includes provisions that set out the next stage in devolution, from all layers of government to local bodies such as neighbourhood and community groups and to individuals.

To return to the overall theme of the Bill-constitutional reform-earlier this week the Prime Minister gave a speech in which he observed that the current movement for constitutional change and new politics is of historic importance. He said:

"If we the people want a politics that is more open, more plural, more local, more democratic, and more responsive to our underlying British liberty, then we will need to have the strength to make these changes because the only way to ensure that politics serves the people's values is to make all those who wield political power genuinely accountable to the people".

I do not believe that the measures in this Bill would do that.

The Government wish to express their strong reservations about the noble Lord's Constitutional Reform Bill. I urge him and all those in the House

5 Feb 2010 : Column 431

today to favour instead the reforms proposed by the Government and support the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill when it arrives shortly for consideration in this House.

11.12 pm

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate and I am pleased to have given the noble Lord, Lord Norton, the opportunity to rehearse his own constitutional reform Bill and to dig a few barbs into the Government's side.

I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who obviously spent time looking at the Bill and researching the Parliament Act 1911. It was my grandfather who led the last ditches in opposing the introduction of the first Parliament Act. In fact, it was not a given that he was going to lose at that time. I have looked at the reports of those debates in some detail; and he lost in the end by 17 votes on 10 August. The reason he lost-I am pleased that there are no Bishops on their Benches at the moment-is because the Bishops, who had undertaken to abstain, in the end voted with the Liberal Government and the Bill was duly passed by 17 votes. So that was down to the Church.

I was grateful for the thoughtfulness with which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, went through my Bill. I am glad he agreed that Parliament is probably too large, both in the Commons and the Lords. I can tell him that the Lords is twice the size of the next biggest Chamber in Europe, which is the French Sénat. If we have even more Peers here, people will start asking what on earth we are going to do. However, I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for taking such a thoughtful and sometimes-not always, I understand that-supportive approach to what is contained in the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, seems to think that everything is hunky dory as it is and that there is no point in talking about constitutional reforms and referenda. He did not answer the point about the Human Rights Act, on which I asked him to enlarge, and say whether or not the Conservatives support its abolition or repeal. But there we are; we can live with his remarks quite comfortably.

I am grateful to the Minister for his thoroughness in going through the Bill. I want to remind him about one point. He said that in the provisions for a fixed five-year Parliament there was no provision for changing it. However, there are two. One, which is not yet in the Bill, it is true, would allow for prorogation during those five years should a Government lose a vote of confidence in the Chamber. Secondly, if people felt that the Government were doing so badly at any point in the five years they could, through a referendum, demand a general election.

I understand that the Bill does not meet everyone's desires but it is useful to talk about ways in which constitutional reform can be brought forward. There is no doubt that people are dissatisfied about the way in which we are governed at the moment. As the Minister said, a large constitutional Bill is coming

5 Feb 2010 : Column 432

through. On the points he made about declarations of war and signing treaties, I shall certainly look at the measures the Government are proposing before we move to Committee stage. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Marine Navigation Aids Bill [HL]

Bill Main Page
Copy of the Bill

Second Reading

11.17 am

Moved By Lord Berkeley

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to acquaint the House that they, having been informed of the purport of the Marine Navigation Aids Bill, have consented to place their prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I declare an interest as a harbour commissioner at the port of Fowey in Cornwall and as president of the UK Maritime Pilots' Association. Neither organisation is affected by the Bill.

My interest in introducing the Bill is to support the competitiveness of shipping, our ports and the marine industry generally. Aids to navigation, lighthouses, buoys and beacons around the UK are funded by a levy, known as light dues, on merchant ships calling at British and Irish ports. This is a tonnage-based levy subject to a cap on the maximum chargeable tonnage and on the chargeable number of port calls in any one year. In nearly all other countries, the maintenance and renewal of navigation aids are funded by government, but I am not proposing that we go down that road now. Dues here are paid into a central fund-the General Lighthouse Fund-from which they are disbursed by the Department for Transport to the three general lighthouse authorities in England, Scotland and Ireland.

Faced with a projected shortfall of £21 million, significant increases in light dues this year and next were announced by the Department for Transport in June last year. The increased light dues amounted to an initial 67 per cent, followed by an outrageous second increase of 26 per cent, making a total for the year as a whole of around 80 per cent at the worst possible economic time. A number of reasons for these increases were given by Ministers, including additional costs, dealing with the GLAs' pension problems and a continuing contribution of £15 million to maintaining lights around the coast of the Republic of Ireland. It is therefore essential that a lasting solution is sought to restore industry confidence after a succession of clumsy mistakes, wasteful use of resources, poor consultation by the Government and these huge increases in the light dues. The Bill aims to address all these mistakes.



5 Feb 2010 : Column 433

These increases are, frankly, unaffordable in the current economic conditions and risk deterring some vessels from calling at UK ports, particularly direct calls by large container ships and discretionary visits by cruise ships.

I start with what I shall call, to use shorthand, the Irish question. The subsidy to fund navigation aids in another member state is unique in Europe. Successive Ministers have argued that we have a common sea area with the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and that we need to make sure that the lights work for the benefit of ships coming into our ports. However, we do not fund the lights in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark or Norway, which are on a shipping lane that is much more heavily used than the one between the UK and Ireland, so why do we continue to help fund the lights in the Republic? I know that it is a relic of the time before the Republic gained independence, but that was more than 80 years ago. Again, Ministers have argued otherwise, but as was established through a Parliamentary Answer on 12 January last year, there are no legal or constitutional reasons why the Government could not withdraw immediately from the 1985 agreement and the funding of the Commissioners of the Irish Lights. Furthermore, in November 2004, which is more than five years ago, the then Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling MP, in a response to the Transport Select Committee, committed HMG to cease the funding of Irish lights.

There is a precedent for the changes to funding of matters Irish in health. The funding of the Irish lights from the General Lighthouse Fund could be stopped in the same manner as the Department of Health ceased funding for healthcare for Irish pensioners under an agreement made between the two Governments in 1971. This move, which happened last year, saved a much larger figure of around €600 million. It was done with minimal political bargaining and, most importantly, had scant regard for what Ministers have claimed as a problem of "diplomatic relations".

Support for ending this payment to fund the lights in another member state has come also from Julian Brazier MP, the shadow Shipping Minister, who was quoted on the Daily Telegraph's website on 24 March last year as saying,

effectively paying 65 per cent of the total costs. He continued:

"I would remind you that your Government has been promising to tackle this issue since January 2004 ... the shipping industry has been particularly hard hit by the current economic turmoil",

which is very supportive. He went on:

"Any additional cost pressures at this time could lead to lines missing out stops at UK ports altogether. The City of London, as the global centre for shipping, could also ultimately be affected".

Ministers here have been rather more cautious, saying that the Irish Government are not keen to negotiate. I suggest that they wouldn't be, would they? That is not a reason for not doing it. I therefore repeat what I have said a number of times in this House: we really are past the time for talking; it is time for the

5 Feb 2010 : Column 434

Government to act decisively. They should give the Irish Government a year's notice and then switch off the £15 million subsidy.

However, £15 million, I am afraid, is not enough of a saving. There must be much more that could be saved if the provision of navigational aids was rationalised and subject to independent regulation. At the moment, the three GLAs responsible submit their budgets to the department for some light-touch scrutiny. Then, once the process is completed, the charges are just passed on as light dues to the ship owners entering the UK. There is no independent regulation of the charges or the related costs. I am afraid that the department has shown itself to be rather a poor regulator. Even this year, when all the other DfT agencies, including the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Highways Agency, are being required to plan for at least a 5 per cent reduction in their budgets for 2010-11, some GLAs seem to think that they can continue to do what they like. In the first draft of its budget for 2010-11, Trinity House proposed an increase of 3.4 per cent.

The Government appear incapable of taking an independent view of GLA costs or charges. They commissioned a study through Trinity House to justify two years' worth of cost increases. It was carried out by Raven Trading, which subcontracted to a company whose partner is also a Commissioner of the Irish Lights, and consulted only one shipping line. The whole thing was shrouded in secrecy. Predictably, Raven Trading incorrectly concluded that the threat of ships reducing their calls to the UK was not real and that the GLAs needed more money to pay their board members and hopefully get some repeat orders for consultancy work. However, according to a Written Answer I received on 13 January, HL1160, the department sees "no conflict of interest" here.

According to Stephen Bracewell, the chief executive of the Harwich Haven Port Authority, ships are already avoiding the UK. He has said that,

This is quite important. This stark warning has been issued first hand to the department. I can only hope that it takes some notice of the industry at the front line.

Now the Government have commissioned a more far-reaching study by Atkins, which is due to report next month. Again, it very helpfully has a steering group comprising the three GLAs. As Mark Bookham, chair of the Independent Light Dues Forum, said in October last year:

"It's like turkeys voting for Christmas".

Effectively, the GLAs are on a steering group set up to determine the future of their own structures. We therefore

5 Feb 2010 : Column 435

have two studies where those organisations being investigated have representatives involved in the study. There is serious concern in the shipping industry that a small, independent regulator is needed, as I propose in the Bill.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page