§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]11.47 pm
§ Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)
It was something of a surprise to draw this Adjournment debate, which I put in for some 18 months ago, as the spokesperson on democracy. It was recycled and finally pulled out of the hat last week.
One reason why I put in for the debate was that the House of Commons very rarely talks about matters to do with democracy and the way in which we govern ourselves. I thought that it would be useful to give the House the opportunity to discuss and debate an important question on part of our democracy, which is the system that we use to elect not just this House but our other institutions.
I was delighted over the weekend to note that there is a growing view that our democracy needs to be talked about, looked at and, perhaps, reviewed. For some time, Labour has had a wide-ranging package of measures on how to improve our democracy. I was pleased over the weekend to read the words:Labour's democratic agenda is the most extensive package of constitutional reform ever proposed by a British Government.Those were not the words of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition; they were not a quotation from our former leader, the late and greatly lamented John Smith, the former right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East, but the words of the Prime Minister. It appears that there is a consensus that Labour has the most radical package of constitutional reform, even if there is no agreement that it should be implemented.
In my opinion, that package is designed to reinvent democracy in the United Kingdom. It stretches across all our institutions, to end the command politics that persist in this country. We have seen command economics wither and die in eastern and central Europe, and so, too, we shall inevitably see the highly centralised, one-track, winner-takes-all politics prevalent in our society wither and die. It must give way to a more open, diverse and plural system in which we are prepared to listen to all voices, which could be our salvation, rather than pretend and assume that someone in Whitehall or in No. 10 Downing street, regardless of party, possesses sufficient wisdom to answer all economic, social and political questions. That is the direction in which not only politics but any industry or international organisation is going.
In other countries, people are looking for answers, diversity, independent budgeting and accounting, and team work. Only our political system looks for centralised delivery of answers to all our problems.
Radical democratisation of our society and politics would free up the talents that could help us to move towards a more developed economy. If deference and hierarchy were ended and the terrible burden of our class structure were lifted, we would free people to liberate their talents, and make them more self-confident and assertive. They would then be more mobile, entrepreneurial and able to meet our economic needs. At present, people are held captive in the stranglehold of our unitary political system, often unable to express their politics other than once every four or five years, in a vote that is highly mediated by the media.
286 An incoming Labour Government would bring the victory of pluralism over centralism, which has failed our country over the years. It is time to consider a system that operates in not only western Europe but north America, to liberate the talents that could be our country's salvation.
The package of measures involved would include a review of the powers of the Executive. In the last couple of days, Crown prerogative and prerogative power have been confused with the future of the royal family. The two are quite distinct. Executive power is exercised almost without constraint in this country, and certainly without proper scrutiny by Parliament. We must ensure that international treaties, the ability to go to war and other aspects of Executive power are scrutinised by the House—not necessarily to obstruct or delay the exercise of those powers but to legitimise them.
If this country were to go to war, it would be appropriate for the Prime Minister or someone else to come to the House to seek ratification of that action by the elected legislature. The same applies to international treaties.
Another central part of our package is a Bill of Rights. It is remarkable that our country still does not have clear, written rights for all individuals. That makes us subjects rather than citizens. We should adopt the European convention on human rights, as most other countries have done, and then go further. We should ensure, through an all-party commission, that a British Bill of Rights is drafted, so that citizens have the ability to know and to defend their rights—and so that young people in school and elsewhere grow up know, to understand and to exercise their rights in a way that does not happen now. If we are to do that, the next question is: what do we do about the judiciary? I am careful not to stray too far and incur your wrath, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the judiciary needs to be examined carefully in terms of how it is selected, appointed and trained. Then, I believe, it would be capable of defending the civil and political rights that we would like to see in law.
In addition, we need to examine our own institutions, not merely in the other place—the second Chamber. We need to ensure not only that the hereditary principle is ended, but that the Chamber is fully and properly elected. I shall mention the method by which it should be elected in a moment. What is good for the Lords is also good for this Chamber. Far too often, we are complacent that, somehow, we do not need reform. Just about every other institution in our society may be pointed at as needing reform, but the House of Commons somehow escapes scrutiny. I believe that the reform process must begin at home, in this Chamber. We must give teeth to our democratic institutions. We must do what Gladstone said many years ago. He said that the role of the House of Commons is not to run the country, but to hold to account those who do.
By that clear criterion, we are failing in our duty in the House. The Labour party would like to introduce a package of measures to make this place more relevant, more accessible to people and more secure in the job that it should be doing as a legislature in the constitution.
We need also to look at the package of measures on the future of local government. Local government currently is just a creature of the centre. It needs to be given its own independence, its own ability to raise money. It is nonsense that only 20 per cent. of local expenditure is raised locally. We must ensure that local authorities are 287 given not merely the powers to carry out their duties adequately on behalf of their electorate, but the finance to do so. Without those two criteria existing together, we shall not have genuinely independent local authorities. I would go as far as saying that we need constitutionally independent local authorities. I believe that that certainly could be done were there the will in this place to ensure that it would be done under an incoming Government.
That raises the further prospect of what should happen at regional level in this country. My party is committed to a Scottish Parliament and we shall introduce legislation to that effect in our first term. We are also committed to a Welsh Assembly, and that will also take place in the first term. But the English regions present some other difficulties, which need to be overcome. I suggest that they could be overcome not by imposing regions on the English people, but by encouraging the development of regions by local action—in other words, ensuring that they develop from a menu of powers rather than from some centralised blueprint imposed from above.
That would have a liberating effect in the regions. It would also mean that people would find it far more difficult to repeal those regions, because they would be built up by the people themselves and would be backed and supported by them. Nothing would be more certain of instant repeal than a region imposed on an unwilling, and often unaware population, in a region of England.
Finally, I suggest that we also need to be very serious about what we want to do to democratise the European level. The European project has been the province of an elite, a minority of self-proclaimed visionaries, and that has meant that the project has lost touch with people, not just people in our country, but throughout Europe. We need to reclaim our vision of what a peaceful Europe could be, and that means involving those people. It means involving the electorates of those people and their national Parliaments and democratising the institutions of the European Parliament. Again, my party has made a distinct set of proposals to ensure that that takes place.
If I were permitted to do so, I would go a little further and discuss the possibility of the 1996 intergovernmental conference producing what would, in effect, be a written constitution. One exists now, fractured in 20 or 30 parts, in treaties and directives; why not pull something together that defines competence not only in Europe but at national, regional and local level? A package of pluralist measures could reinvent democracy in our country, and I believe that such a package is long overdue.
The central part of tonight's debate, however, should concern a further element of that package—the electoral systems that should govern our country into the new century. As one who served on the committee on electoral systems chaired by Professor Raymond Plant, now Lord Plant, I am very pleased that a long-serving, long-suffering colleague from those days—my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Ms Church)—is present tonight. Indeed, I shall be pleased to take interventions from colleagues as I talk about electoral systems.
Labour's policy on the matter is now crystal clear. As a result of its 1993 conference decision, embodied in composite resolution 31, it is committed to a proportional representation system based on regional lists for the second Chamber, and to the same system for the European 288 Parliament—which I hope will be active in the next European elections in 1998. Labour is also committed, through the same conference resolution, to a referendum to identify the electoral system that people want for the first Chamber. In many ways, that was the legacy of Professor Plant and his committee. The Plant proposals were taken further by the former leader of the Labour party, John Smith, and I think that that batch of proposals constitutes a coherent approach to electoral systems.
We talk of developing a plurality of institutions in the United Kingdom, but it is remarkable that some people—particularly Conservative Members—are still afraid of the possibility that there will also be a plurality of electoral systems. It is a question of horses for courses. The one thing that the year or two in which I served on the Plant committee taught me, and, I suspect, my colleagues, was that there is no holy grail, no perfect electoral system. In certain circumstances, proportional representation may be appropriate; in others, first-past-the-post may be appropriate. How we match electoral systems with the institutions that we wish to build and develop in a new pluralism is entirely a matter of political judgment and the wisdom of people, not least those in this place.
Probably the first new electoral system will be that for the Scottish Parliament. My party is rightly and thankfully committed to instituting a Parliament in Scotland, and I very much hope that that commitment will be honoured rapidly, in the first year of Labour government. We feel—ours is a view of some generosity—that we would not want a first-past-the-post system in Scotland; we would want the "additional member" system. That would mean a constituency-based system which would be made good, as it were, in terms of proportionality: the number of people elected directly would be topped up, possibly with losing candidates.
That means that the Labour party has forgone the possibility of developing a one-party state in Scotland. That is highly commendable. It will come on top of the discussion and activity that now takes place under the single transferable vote system, which is operative for European elections in Northern Ireland. So, civilisation as we know it has not collapsed where proportional representation systems or systems different from first-past-the-post have been exercised. I hope that that is something that people with an open mind will understand and appreciate.
If we were to have a regional list proportional representation system for the second Chamber, under Professor Plant's analysis, that would produce 322 Members. That would be in place of the current 1,203 peers, of whom 774 are hereditary and, of the remainder, 300 are Conservative and 100 are Labour. That is an important reason for us to move quickly to the second phase of our policy programme, which is to bring in an elected second Chamber. We could be faced with the ludicrous possibility of having 300 of the most partisan Conservative life peers outnumbering the 100 or so hard-working Labour life peers. That would necessitate the nomination of another 200 life peers just to balance the books. I do not think that any Labour Government would want to countenance that. We do not want to see a repeat of events under the last Labour Government, on whom 350 defeats were inflicted. That would surely be revisited were we to have a Labour Government, particularly one without a substantial majority.
289 Let me give a flavour of how the second Chamber might look. An elected Chamber would help to break down the existing metropolitan bias. For example, my region of the east midlands could elect 23 Members and the west midlands could elect 30. Throughout the whole of the midlands area, 53 people could be elected. To my knowledge—I am happy to be corrected—there are no peers representing my immediate area in the second Chamber now. There would be people representing the north, the north-west and other areas that are currently unrepresented. That would be great progress. It would also assist the representation of people who vote for parties that do not have any representation because of the first-past-the-post system. So, we would be operating a different system from that in the first Chamber.
Were we to have a system of proportional representation in the second Chamber, one operative in the European Parliament and another in the Scottish Parliament, we would see the decision on the referendum on the first Chamber in a different perspective. Right now, people will say that one may feel obliged to prove one's democratic credentials by supporting proportional representation in the first Chamber rather than to make a decision on a clear and honest basis.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
Order. I hesitate to intervene on the hon. Gentleman, but he is leaving very little time for the Minister to reply.
§ Mr. Allen
I understand that the Minister has generously allowed me to speak for 26 or 27 minutes. I should be pleased to take my seat if the Minister says that he is desperate to answer any of the questions that I am posing.
The perspective on which we would make a decision in the referendum on the first Chamber would be different from now. It would be an important decision for people to make on the basis of rational criteria.
Many people argued to Professor Plant that one needs a first-past-the-post system for the first Chamber to deliver a strong Executive. That argument may not be shared by everyone but people should certainly consider it. If people believe that both political parties supporting the first-past-the-post system in a referendum will make the result a foregone conclusion, they should look to New Zealand, where people were given a unique opportunity, if I may put it bluntly, to put two fingers up to both main parties, which were telling them that the first-past-the-post system was a good idea. People rejected that in New Zealand. People would have the option to do so in the United Kingdom.
Electoral systems are part of the Labour party's package for a new democracy in the UK and for a new constitutional settlement. People are ready for it. They are sick not only of the Government, but of the sleaze, of the inadequacy of this institution, the House of Commons, and of many other institutions that pretend to support our democracy in the UK.
The battle ahead is a philosophical battle between those who believe in plurality and in many independent and diverse institutions competing and conflicting, and those who believe that centralism, the unitary state, where one person or one institution can deliver the answer, is appropriate. More and more Labour Members are looking to pluralism as the way forward and the way to answer some of the economic, social and political questions that beset our nation.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Nicholas Baker)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing this debate. Since he came into the House, he has been a doughty campaigner on procedure. He has made a special study of procedure and constitutional matters. It was no surprise that he became the Labour party's constitutional affairs spokesman, although he no longer has that responsibility. He does, however, speak for the Labour party.
The hon. Member for Nottingham, North gave us a warning of some of his views in the Thomas Paine memorial lecture in January this year, when he said:I want to lead a Labour government"—I do not know whether he gave notice of that to the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair).
§ Mr. Baker
The hon. Member for Nottingham, North said:I want to lead a Labour government that will introduce the most radical package of constitutional reform ever proposed by any major political party. This, I believe, will be a key battleground of the 1990s as we define the new politics of a new century.Radical words indeed. I notice that, at the lecture, he also said:The Commons is currently held in contempt by the electorate.He has echoed that view this evening. It is one of a number of points on which he and I will be unable to agree.
The Government are not opposed to any constitutional change. If one considers some of the changes that have happened under the Government, particularly in relation to the House, I think that one can see clearly that the contrary is the case. I cite the examples of the Select Committees, which were set up by the Government, and the Jopling Committee, which was set in motion to make considerable changes to the way in which we conduct ourselves and which now seems likely to make more progress given that the Opposition parties agree.
In reply to the hon. Gentleman's points about local government, he may or may not be aware that a local government review is now taking place. That review takes a radical look at how local government conducts itself and at the basis for our local democracy. Although we may disagree strongly with his call for regional government, we do not suggest that any of our institutions can be immune from change.
Change should be evolutionary. Our great institutions should be improved, but they should not be redefined in some of the ways that the hon. Gentleman has suggested. He has outlined a fairly radical package. I notice that, only this week, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) recommended fixed-term Parliaments, which the hon. Member for Nottingham, North did not mention. Of course, any system of fixed-term Parliaments would still have to allow for the early dissolution of Parliament in some circumstances.
291 There is nothing to gain and much to lose from prolonging unnecessarily a Government or Parliament which is discredited or which has simply reached the end of its natural life. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Labour Government who were defeated in, I think, 300 votes. They were clearly a Government who had reached the end of their natural life, and I should have thought that a fixed-term Parliament would be inappropriate in such circumstances. The ability to decide when a general election is to take place is a tactical advantage but I note that no Opposition have ever sought to relinquish that advantage when they have taken office.
I said that the hon. Gentleman's package was radical. He mentioned the redefinition of the monarchy, which his party announced only this week. Our electoral system has at its apex the monarchy. The monarchy is the oldest institution of government in Britain; it has 292 existed even longer than Parliament itself. It is a vital element of our present constitution and representative of centuries of history and tradition.
The monarch personifies national and Commonwealth unity but has continued to develop and evolve during the present monarch's reign: the size of the civil list has been reduced; the monarch herself has proposed the payment of tax on her income and capital gains and undertaken to publish detailed accounts of expenditure. In short, we have a monarchy that has made changes and for that reason, as much as its long history, we are extremely fortunate in that institution.
The monarchy is part of our national heritage. The hon. Gentleman is a Labour spokesman on national heritage but now tells us that this part of our heritage is to be redefined. What else is to be redefined—Westminster abbey, the Speaker or the House? Perhaps we shall learn the answer from next year's Thomas Paine memorial lecture.
The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order. Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Twelve o'clock.