Humanist Marriages

Lord Desai Excerpts
Tuesday 29th November 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

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Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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The Government have to consider in detail the Law Commission report, its undoubted strengths and the various points that have been made about it, not least by humanists. We will publish our position as soon as we can in the new year.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, is the problem that the humanists are not religious? Every other religion has been treated kindly and LGBTQ marriages can take place. Just the humanists in England are discriminated against. Is the Church of England so upset about humanists that it will not let humanists get married?

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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My Lords, as far as I know, this problem is not a matter for the Church of England. The Government’s view is that as a country we should proceed across the board to solve and update our law of marriage all at the same time.

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Lord Desai Excerpts
Monday 24th January 2011

(13 years, 5 months ago)

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Lord Lipsey Portrait Lord Lipsey
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My noble friend is entirely right and, if I had dared to pronounce the words that he has just pronounced, I would have made precisely the same points. The knock-on effect from changing this constituency would be absolutely extreme. It is an example, incidentally, on which the whole House might like to reflect, of the way in which one change leads to another change and eventually to a complete, wholesale redrawing of the constituency map, to whose consequences, it seems to me, the Government have given not one moment’s thought.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai
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My Lords, I want to speak very briefly about the amendment moved by my noble friend. First, the prime number thing is very easy. My noble friend Lord Harris asked whether 600 is a combination of prime numbers. It is; it is 23 x 3 x 52. That is not a serious problem. I said the other day—I think it was on Wednesday—that the Government’s difficulty is that they have put too stringent a criterion on themselves for equalising the size of seats. I am entirely in favour of their objective, but to have spared only two seats out of 600 shows that they have adopted too stringent a criterion. If they had given themselves a bit of slack by saying 99 per cent, or even 98 per cent, we would not be going through this debate about individual constituencies which are awkward in terms of the criterion. If they had set aside 10 or 12 constituencies which could be awkward, the rest would fit into the Government’s criterion. So rather than go seriatim through all these different constituencies, perhaps the Minister could say that yes, they recognise that 598 is too stringent a criterion, and maybe something like 590 or 580 would do. Then all the anomalies could be adjusted and local sentiment satisfied, while the Government could still get the bulk of their objective of equalising seat sizes. I hope that the Minister will find that a helpful remark, not a hostile one.

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Lord Desai Excerpts
Monday 13th December 2010

(13 years, 6 months ago)

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Lord Maclennan of Rogart Portrait Lord Maclennan of Rogart
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A large number of people who have voted in previous elections feel that their vote did not count and that the relevant constituency remained dominated, come hell or high water, by the party which had been there for over a generation. I am bound to say that those people are likely to look at alternatives with a passion and concern not shared by a new voter, who may simply be mystified by what could appear to be a very academic debate. Consequently, I do not think that the noble Lord’s intervention has much substance.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai
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My Lords, it never fails to surprise me that when people want to resist an advance in the franchise all the same objections are made. They say, “These people do not know how to vote. They are not interested in politics; they are just not good enough”. That happened in 1832 and it has been happening steadily ever since, every time a reform is suggested, especially when people believe sincerely in the reform but do not want to implement it, as is the case with noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches. They say, “Ah, but there are administrative difficulties. We are entirely for it in principle, but it is so difficult to transfer a number from one computer to another that we cannot do this”. It is almost a universal law that every time any advance in the franchise is proposed, the establishment is against it on the ground that people who are about to get the franchise are too ignorant and too stupid to deserve it.

In proposing this amendment, my noble friend has done a very nice thing. Given that we are talking about a referendum, we are not so worried about which constituency people are registered to on the electoral register. The constituency does not matter; this is a nationwide election. Therefore, as my noble friend Lord Rooker said in his imaginative intervention, once you have your national insurance number, people know that you are 16 and then you are eligible to vote. One could even experiment with e-voting given that we are not electing Members to represent constituencies but asking the nation a question: “Are you for AV, or not?”. We should not be so conceited as to presume that students, or their teachers, do not understand the issues surrounding AV. They can all read and write and people have been reading about this stuff for ages.

I remember that in the 1960s the only party which publicly supported voting at 18 was the Monster Raving Loony Party, and it was far ahead of the electorate in that respect. These really radical reforms always come from the outside, as it were. For some strange reason the Government want to hold the referendum on 5 May 2011; perhaps it should be held in 2012, but they want it on 5 May. However, they should not let that one little thing be an obstacle to achieving a good reform. If we can achieve this reform, it will make a tremendous difference. As regards the point about today’s 14 year-olds being eligible to vote by 2015, that is a great idea. We could easily amend the noble Baroness’s amendment to say that anybody who is likely to be 18 by 2015 should be eligible to vote in the referendum.

Lord Howarth of Newport Portrait Lord Howarth of Newport
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My Lords, this amendment concerns the age at which one should be eligible to vote in the referendum. However, it is difficult, if not impossible, convincingly to separate out the arguments for allowing people to vote at 16 on the referendum and lowering the voting age for other elections. Indeed, in the speech in which she so ably moved this amendment, my noble friend Lady Hayter engaged with those wider considerations, as did my noble friends Lord Soley and Lady Kennedy of The Shaws.

My observation of young people’s views on what the voting age should be is a little at odds with the experience of my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. Like many Members of Parliament, I used regularly to have meetings with sixth formers in my two former constituencies. They were very different constituencies situated in different parts of the country with very different socioeconomic make-ups. I expected my youthful constituents to be enthusiastic about lowering the voting age but I found that that was not commonly the case. I used to go to their schools to talk to them about the role of a Member of Parliament, the way Parliament works and broader constitutional issues, and very often the question of whether the voting age should be lowered came up. While my young constituents were well informed, sophisticated in their interest and in no sense apathetic about politics, Parliament and their future role as citizens, I was struck that commonly they did not think it was appropriate to lower the voting age. Many points of view and a range of arguments were put forward, but commonly they felt that it was not right to lower the voting age and that they were not ready for that. You can take a horse to water but you cannot necessarily make it drink.

We have noted at a series of elections that the lowest turnouts are among those entitled to vote for the first time, which worries us all. That should not necessarily be interpreted as disaffection from politics, but it is a matter of concern that those in the youngest age group eligible to vote are not conspicuously prone to exercise that right. If we lowered the voting age, I worry that that trend might intensify and become extended. Therefore, there is a case for caution. I would be interested to know whether my noble friend Lady Hayter thinks that my observation is correct and that there is not a great demand among young people for the right to vote at a younger age than 18, whether on a referendum or in other elections.

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Lord McNally Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally)
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My Lords, as ever it is a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, not least because his speeches never fail to give the feel of how he tries to persuade the House. To give an example, he said in his summing up that 200 Members of Parliament voted in favour of votes at 16. That is an impressive statistic, but actually 196 voted in favour, on 18 October, while 346 voted against. Occasionally, in his wonderful summings up, the noble and learned Lord leaves out the odd fact that the House might like to have and I think that knowing that 346 Members voted against might help this side of the House.

I do not object to the debate, as I found it absolutely fascinating. The span of it, on the Benches opposite, illustrated why the amendment should not be pressed. The noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Howarth, were against, the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and the noble Lord, Lord Soley, were for, while the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was agnostic. That is the kind of spread and I can see why the Labour Party wants a free vote. It is a very interesting issue to debate.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai
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In being so divided, we are just like the Liberal Democrats.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally
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These shafts of wit will throw me one of these days. In the mean time, I address the problem with this proposal. I am surrounded by parliamentarians of great expertise, who know that there are two kinds of Bill. There are the Christmas trees, which people hang things on—I have hung many a thing on a Christmas tree Bill and had great pleasure doing so—but then there are the clear, simple Bills, whose beauty and simplicity are their major strengths. As has been said on this side of the House since this debate began—it seems like years ago, but apparently it was only four parliamentary days ago, as we gallop into Clause 2—this Bill is about fair votes on fair boundaries. All the other things are interesting and will undoubtedly continue to be debated as this Government carry forward their constitutional reform agenda.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is constantly asking to see the big picture. Tomorrow I am speaking to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Legal and Constitutional Affairs, when I will give the constitutional big picture, or big vision, from this Government. I hope that the noble Lord will come along. In the mean time, what we are trying to do is to keep this Bill clear and simple in its objectives.

Standards in Public Life

Lord Desai Excerpts
Thursday 2nd December 2010

(13 years, 6 months ago)

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Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally
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Because that has not happened thus far.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai
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My Lords, surely we have a very good method of dealing with party funding, and that is to nominate the donors to the House of Lords.

Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally
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I am very pleased that the Labour Party is approaching this very serious issue with all the necessary objectivity. I do not mind the little bit of knockabout that occurs at such questions, but, seriously, I think that we have all learnt the hard way that to maintain the integrity of our politics it is imperative to get big money and big money donors out of our political system. The building blocks for an agreement are around. I pay tribute to the party opposite for taking some very significant steps during its time in office to help clean up our politics. I assure this House that this coalition is determined to carry on that work, and to do so with a sense of urgency.

Referendums: Constitution Committee Report

Lord Desai Excerpts
Tuesday 12th October 2010

(13 years, 8 months ago)

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. I too join everyone in congratulating my noble friend Lady Jay on having got the chairmanship of the committee and on introducing this debate. Since quite a lot has been already said, I should like to take a different tack. The argument that referendums are imperfect or that they are not a panacea is not news. Nothing is perfect and nothing is a panacea. Even the representative democracy that we have is not a panacea.

The arguments made that decisions taken at referendums are influenced by other extraneous events or variables can be said about any election. When an election takes place in a constituency, people may vote for person X or person Y on no consideration of reading the manifesto or on knowing the policy or whatever the person may have said, but on the colour of his hair or something like that.

I do not think that we can construct an ideal decision-making system and say, “Referendums are not like this; therefore we reject them”. Our difficulty is somewhere else. Not only, as the committee points out, do we not have a written constitution, but we have a particularly highly centralised decision-making system. Despite devolution we are a highly centralised system in which the primacy of the House of Commons allows the party with a majority to more or less dictate when and how it would choose to have a referendum or not. There is nothing that we can do about it.

The argument has been made that the 1975 referendum was to establish peace in the Labour Party. The ruling party had problems and, therefore, it had to have peace established within itself because it wanted to govern for the next three or four years. Things were difficult from the early days for the 1974 to 1979 Government. My noble friend Lord Foulkes said that keeping the Labour Party united was in the national interest and I agree with him.

But let us look at today: the idea that every passerelle has to be put to a referendum is not driven by logic. It is driven by the fact that the Conservative Party is deeply divided on Europe. If it is not divided, the coalition is deeply divided on Europe. When the ruling party is divided it is very convenient not to have to make the decision on the Floor of the House in a Bill, but to have a referendum and give the responsibility to someone else for getting the wrong decision. Then you are out of it, which can be very useful. I do not want to be cynical, but a system which so crucially depends on a cohesive majority in the House of Commons for running the country will need something like this if there is no cohesive majority in the House of Commons. That is not to be sneezed at.

Another point was cogently made by the committee. If we are going to use referendums we should use them for only major constitutional questions. I quite sympathise with that. The committee lists four or five major constitutional topics. During the passage of the regulatory reform Bill a few years ago, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, added a schedule. The Bill was designed to speed up regulatory reform—cut the red tape and all that. Many noble Lords were suspicious that this way of doing regulatory reform would bypass the legislature and would make major legislative amendments. Therefore, a schedule listed every Act which should not be subject to amendment by the procedure in the Bill. I apologise for forgetting the exact title of the Bill, but I thought that if the noble Lord, Lord Norton, was here, he would tell me. The schedule to that Bill is a good guide to the many different Acts. It is not an acquis communautaire, but almost an acquis Britannique of all the very important Acts. Perhaps we should start with that list of Acts which cannot be touched except by a referendum.

The only argument for having a referendum would be that citizens feel differently from elected representatives. Therefore, citizens’ wishes should be consulted on such a question. But if that is the case we have to have some sort of threshold on participation and on the size of the majority. Some noble Lords will recall the George Cunningham amendment; my noble friend Lord Foulkes very painfully remembers it. It put down a threshold as to participation in the Scottish referendum. It would be entirely proper to do that. Unless participation is above a certain threshold, such as two-thirds of the electorate, and the final weighted average of the majority in the referendum plus the rate of participation is at least above 40 per cent, the referendum should be declared void. There is no point in having a referendum with very low participation and a majority which represents not the people’s wishes at large, but the wishes of only those who have bothered to come out and vote. That may make the wrong decision. If referendums are to be legislated on, we must insist on a threshold condition on every referendum, regardless of how major or minor the decision at stake is.