Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill Debate

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Department: Wales Office

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Baroness Williams of Crosby Excerpts
Monday 24th January 2011

(13 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D'Souza
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My Lords, I speak on behalf of the Cross-Benchers. It will come as no surprise that there is deep concern among us about the breakdown in the conventions and procedures of this House. I thank the Leader, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for his words today, but would like to muse a little further on the possible consequences for this Chamber.

Scrutiny is our job, but I doubt that a reasonable person would conclude that the speeches in the dark hours of the night last week, and maybe even again tonight, represent scrutiny or sensible revision. We are therefore forced to believe that it is the Opposition’s intention to delay the Bill beyond the date on which it would be possible to have a referendum: 5 May.

Many Cross-Benchers, of course, hear the justifiable worries that the Opposition have expressed about the lack of scrutiny of certain parts of the Bill, and I am sure that we acknowledge the difficult combination of two contentious issues for reasons of political expediency. We recognise that the date of 5 May was always, to say the least, an unhelpful goal. I think everyone would also agree that there is some legitimate question about whether the Salisbury/Addison convention really should apply to this Bill.

Despite all this, I hope that I am expressing the views of the majority of Cross-Benchers in saying that the tactics that the Opposition are using to delay the Bill fly in the face of the conventions that have governed this House for perhaps the past six decades, that these tactics undoubtedly bring this House into disrepute, that any success of such tactics may well encourage their further future use, and that these factors put together may even mark the beginning of the dissolution of this House. I say this with some reluctance—even to me, it sounds somewhat dramatic—but I believe it to be true. Why would the public, let alone the other place, choose to support a Chamber that is seen to be deeply unserious in undertaking the role of revision and scrutiny? We are at a dangerous crossroads.

As everyone knows, the Cross-Benchers are fastidiously independent and non party political. What I say is absolutely not anti-Opposition; indeed, as has been said and was shown by Cross-Benchers in this House last week, we very often support the Opposition in their valuable amendments. No, our collective concern—for once, perhaps we are acting as a group—is that the self-regulation and fundamental tasks of this House are sufficiently valuable to be preserved. We therefore both understand the need for and urge that there be significant compromises on both sides of this House so that we may proceed with dignity and resolve.

Baroness Williams of Crosby Portrait Baroness Williams of Crosby
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My Lords, what the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, has just said is of extreme importance. She has summed up very well what is at stake in an issue that has far greater repercussions than the source of the differences between the two sides of the House. We do indeed put at risk the whole reputation of the House of Lords as a place of intelligent and thoughtful discussion, where from time to time essentially bipartisan considerations give way to the greater needs of the constitutional issues that affect the United Kingdom and its people.

In that context, observing this as someone who has not taken detailed part in the debate, it seems clear to me that there is some room to move on both sides. I suggest that one of the issues that might be moved on is that of giving slightly more discretion to the Boundary Commission on constituencies with a natural community. The House’s choice on the issue of the Isle of Wight showed how strongly it shares that view, and it is only sensible to do that within the narrowest conceivable limits, which basically means equal-sized constituencies while recognising that some issues have to be given rather more discretion than the present Bill gives them.

In exchange for that, it is vital that the Opposition accept their responsibility and cease to create what is in effect a filibustering lobby—for that is what it is. It is high time, speaking as someone who cares very much about this House as an essential element in a sensible, thoughtful and responsible democracy, that it is accepted that there should be some relatively small movement on both sides so that we can get an agreement and decision on this issue within the next few days and, to put it bluntly, cease to lose the respect that we so much need, and usually deserve, from the rest of the country.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch Portrait Lord Pearson of Rannoch
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My Lords, I have given notice that I again wish to propose that we do not continue with these proceedings at all. I hope for a more helpful answer today than the one I was given last Wednesday. I have been encouraged to try again by several noble Lords who have told me that the brush-off that I was given last week was really most unsatisfactory and not at all in accordance with the convention of your Lordships’ House that the Government at least try to answer questions; they should at least make a fair stab at it, even if they do not like the answer.

My question last week was simply whether it was it was sensible to break our traditions and spend so much time and energy debating the method by which Members are elected to Parliament when so much power has been passed to Brussels that they can do very little when they get there. My question today goes further, and I touched on it in the first Oral Question today: if we are to have a referendum on anything, why is it not to be on what the British people have been promised, which is whether or not we want to stay in the European Union? After all, such a referendum was given as a cast-iron guarantee by the Prime Minister during the run-up to the Lisbon treaty. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, and this sews up the coalition Government quite nicely, actually walked out of the House of Commons—some would say flounced—because he was not allowed a vote on whether we wanted to stay in or leave the EU. Such a referendum was also in his party’s manifesto.

Why are we wasting so much time on a referendum to which the public are supremely indifferent while denying them one that they have been promised and which 85 per cent of them say they want? Surely the Deputy Leader of the House must agree that this sort of procedure, together with the regrettable filibuster that is clearly being mounted by Labour Peers, can do nothing but harm to the reputation of your Lordships’ House. Can it do anything but make the British people despise their political class even more than they do at the moment? Here I entirely share the sentiments and the words of the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza.

I add my thanks and those of my party to all the staff in your Lordships’ House, who are behaving with such amazing fortitude and courtesy throughout these regrettable proceedings. I fear that we do not deserve such service if we continue.