HL Deb 30 October 2000 vol 618 cc739-48

7.38 p.m.

Lord Waddington rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will ensure that in future the Queen's Speech at the Opening of Parliament is of reasonable length, and, while containing details of the Government's legislative programme, omits an account of past events.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not believe that I am alone in being concerned at the fact that the Queen's speech at the State Opening of Parliament has become much longer in the past three years and the political tone more strident. The State Opening of Parliament is not only a colourful occasion but of considerable constitutional significance. The Queen comes to Parliament in person as head of state and as the symbol of the nation's unity. She is there as a reminder that loyalty to Queen and country, which we hold in common, is a great unifying force. The things we hold in common—principally loyalty—are far more important than the minor differences, the stuff of everyday politics, which sometimes, but only temporarily, drive us apart.

Surely on that great occasion—which is a state, not a party occasion—and out of respect for the Queen, the Queen's Speech should not stray from its purpose of outlining the Government's programme and should be no longer than necessary to achieve that purpose. It should be couched in dignified and not unnecessarily controversial language. I do not believe that anyone would disagree with any of those propositions.

For some years, a number of my noble friends on this side of the House and I had a hand in deciding the content of the Queen's Speech. We always took a pride in their wording and in keeping them to a reasonable length. I remember that on more than one occasion we rejected unduly wordy contributions from departments. I shall not mention which departments or Secretaries of State but consequently we were not always popular with them. However, the result of our efforts was that between 1979 and 1996 the longest Queen's Speech contained about 1,100 words.

Things have certainly changed since 1997. The Speech of 1998 was even longer at 1,613 words and 1999 produced a monster Speech of 1,772 words, which was nearly twice as long as most of the Speeches in the previous decade.

It may surprise some Members of your Lordships' House to learn that some of the longer Speeches were not followed by a larger number of Bills. Indeed, during the years of the Labour Government there has been no relationship between the length of the Speeches and the number of Bills introduced subsequently. For instance, while in the 1997–98 Session 50 government Bills were introduced, a longer Speech in 1998 was followed by only 31 Bills. The monster Speech of 1999 was followed by fewer Bills than were introduced in Labour's first Session.

Therefore, the recent excessive length of Speeches seems to have nothing to do with the number of Bills but a lot to do with the Speeches ceasing to be concise statements of the Government's policies and becoming more party political. They are often more a recital of what the Government have done than a statement of their intentions.

I cannot believe that the drafting of the Speeches has been handed over to Alastair Campbell—I am sure that they would be much more racy if they had been—but I believe that the old disciplines instilled in us have been forgotten and that someone with few literary skills stitches together turgid offerings from the departments.

I cannot resist telling the House that much the same happened to me when I was in Bermuda and had to read its Government's Speeches at the state opening. On one occasion, I was surprised to discover that two lengthy paragraphs on page 13 were a repeat of two paragraphs on page 1! That took a bit of explaining.

I turn briefly to the Speeches of 1997, 1998 and 1999. The 1997 offering contained a great deal of stuff about tobacco advertising and the restoring of confidence in the integrity of the political system. That looks rather odd post-Ecclestone. However, its excessive length was not due to that but far more to an excessively long Foreign Office passage, complete with sizzling statements of the obvious, such as that the Government will seize the opportunity to increase co-operation between the United Kingdom and other members of the Commonwealth".—[Official Report, 14/5/97; col. 8.]

The second Speech is interesting to read now because it gives a foretaste of the repeat announcements which have become an established ploy. Much space was taken up telling us that Scottish and Welsh devolution, which we had been told all about the year before, was going to happen. Similarly, we were told that the regional development agencies, for which legislation had been passed the previous year, were also going to come into being.

However, the third Speech really broke new ground. Much of its contents had nothing to do with the Government's programme but was a highly selective recital of the Government's alleged achievements in the field of unemployment, the minimum wage, income tax, national insurance and interest rates. Those issues have no place in the Speech and are more suited to the Government's annual report. In fact, on 13th July this year, I pointed out in this House that the Government's annual report is, to an extent, a selective account of their alleged achievements published at the public's expense and nothing of which to be particularly proud. But if there ever were an excuse for putting all that stuff, which was in the 1999 Speech, in the Queen's Speech—and I deny it—it certainly disappeared when the annual report was invented because that is a vehicle precisely for such party political propaganda and for what the Government are alleged to have done rather than what they propose to do.

I do not want to go on, analysing why the Speeches were excessively long. The point is that, judging by the length of the Speeches made in previous years, they were. It is perfectly plain to see that if one adds up the words of all the Queen's Speeches during the past 20 years—and I have wasted a bit of time doing it!

It may be that the Speeches were not written by someone determined to go beyond the bounds of propriety in the hope of gaining political advantage. The explanation for them being so awful may be sheer sloppiness. But out of respect and consideration for the Queen, something really must be done to try to arrest a decline in such standards. Something must be done to remind the media just how low standards have fallen since the Conservative's Queen's Speech in 1986. They may then be alerted and not allow more Speeches of such a low standard to go unchallenged.

7.47 p.m.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, during such a dark and dramatic night, one might have hoped for a subject of debate which would summon up the blood a little more, rather than the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. We are discussing a somewhat narrow subject—the length of, and the inclusion of past events in, the Queen's Speech at the Opening of Parliament. I hope that it is not churlish to wonder whether it could have been the subject of a Starred Question, but here we are.

The throng sitting behind me tonight—

Noble Lords


Lord Phillips of Sudbury

They are here, my Lords, they are here. They have asked me to make one principal point. However, I shall first allow the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, the fact that there has been a decline in terms of the length and literary merit of Queen's Speeches, although I must confess that his presence in this place long outdates my own and he is in a better position to say that. I also fully accept that if, inadvertently, there has crept into the Speeches a degree of partisanship, that would be unseemly and counterproductive. I am sure that if that were the case the Government would not want it to be.

An improvement which could be made would be no longer to repeat the Speech. The Commons does not go to the trouble of repeating it. It is printed and it would be straightforward for this House to follow the same line. We would therefore save time having to repeat the 1,772 words of the Speech and, having read its contents, we would come to the debate, which traditionally begins at 3.30 p.m., and get straight into it. There is some time-wasting in the current conduct of business. That time could be better spent getting straight into the debate.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord would not deny that there is a symbolic importance in the Queen coming here and delivering the Speech, for the reasons that I mentioned.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, I absolutely agree. I did not mean to imply that the Queen should never come here to open Parliament, but when she does not come here there is no need for the Lord Chancellor to read the Speech solemnly in her stead. Others may disagree.

The number of Bills may not have increased, but I think that the length of Bills has increased vastly. The Speech will reflect that to an extent. It is surely important that the Speech tells the House and the country in a pithy and informative way what is proposed for the Government's programme. Some detail is needed so that we can get our teeth into the debate.

The Liberal Democrats feel strongly that the current organisation of the debate does not allow sufficient focus. It is too diffuse. Although the days are divided up into policy areas, they are too large. It should not be beyond the wit of those who organise our affairs to sub-divide the days into specific policy areas that are autonomous and consistent. That would allow more specific contributions and would encourage a more informative response from the Minister. Timing arrangements such as those that we are working to in this debate would then be inevitable.

That would have three effects. First, people would be more inclined to contribute to the debate. Secondly, the debate would be better. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it would be more interesting for journalists and those whom we hope would report it to the country and would therefore be more informative and stimulating to the public at large. Much of what passes in this House may be worthy, but it is carried on with little regard for the ultimate impact on the public. I thank the noble Lord for choosing this subject for debate.

7.52 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, was not surrounded by throngs of Liberal Democrats. I notice that I have something of a throng—or at least a good number—of Conservative Peers behind me. I am sorry to see that the Government Chief Whip does not have a throng behind him.

I welcome the debate. My noble friend Lord Waddington brings a great deal of experience to the debate, having been a Leader of the House and a Minister in various departments. I am sure that during his time as Home Secretary he did not introduce the number of Bills that Home Office Ministers have introduced during this Session, some of which the Government Chief Whip might admit have not been as perfectly drafted as they might have been. Better drafting might have avoided some of the great number of government amendments that we have dealt with. I hope that the Government will take on board all my noble friend's wise words.

The most important point in a debate such as this is that Her Majesty is, and will always be, above politics. That is why it is not desirable for words to be drafted for the gracious Speech that are more redolent of a spin doctor's manual or that are too easily identifiable with a particular political party. Like my noble friend, I have examined some past examples. The most striking difference between the Speeches before 1997 and those after is that the Government's domestic agenda is now put before foreign policy. Exception was made in 1997 for references to Her Majesty's state visits and visits anticipated by other Heads of State. However, since 1998, even those references have been relegated to the body of the text, behind the trumpeting of the Government's domestic policy. That is disappointing. References to state visits remind us of the role of the sovereign as the embodiment of the state. That is valued and supported by every Member of this House. It seems proper and appropriate to the occasion to have such references at the outset of the Speech. Instead, in 1998 and 1999, we had dismal and tawdry references to "modernisation"—a new Labour buzz word that is as hollow as it is inappropriate to such a great occasion of state.

I have looked back at the 1989 Queen's Speech—the last year, as it was to prove, of the government of my noble friend Lady Thatcher. That Government was wrongly attacked by many as high-handed and ideological, but there was no evidence of that in the gracious Speech. It opened with the traditional references to state visits and foreign policy. It then turned not so much to the domestic agenda as to the legislative programme, which is the purpose of the Speech. It was a brief, factual Speech, with almost no adjectives or adverbs. I forget who it was who used to strike out almost all the qualifiers from all his first drafts. That might seem an extreme approach at times, but it has advantages. It would be hard to detect from the 1989 Speech which party was in government. The same could be said of the last Speech prepared by the government of my right honourable friend Mr Major, except perhaps for one aspirational phrase about wishing to maintain a strong economy.

How different was last year's Speech. Far from concentrating on legislation alone, as used to be the custom, it contained elements never found in the Speeches to which I have referred. There are self-congratulatory phrases describing the Government's self-proclaimed achievements that could easily have been dropped into a speech made by the Prime Minister or into a Labour Party broadcast. That practice should not grow. We may be spared that, as I think that we can all agree that the Government's list of achievements is remarkably short.

Fatuous new Labour-speak comes into too many gracious Speeches, with redundant adjectives and phrases such as the "dynamic, knowledge-based economy" and repeated references to "modernisation". I hope that such undesirable tendencies will not be encouraged and that the Chief Whip will do his bit in the drafting of the next gracious Speech to ensure that they are removed.

My noble friend has drawn attention to a matter that may seem less important than some of the great issues that come before the House, but on consideration it is of very great importance. In the absence of the Leader of the House, I hope that the Chief Whip will be able to reassure us that we will return to the simpler style of Speeches of the past.

Perhaps I may end by asking the noble Lord for a reassurance. In due course we shall have a speech on the Prorogation of this Parliament. I hope that the noble Lord can give an assurance that that Prorogation speech will be similarly short.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, before my noble friend replies to the debate, perhaps I may make one comment as regards the quality of the Queen's Speech. I realise that my noble friend cannot give the House guarantees lasting into the distant future, but can he at least give an assurance that in this year's Speech Her Majesty the Queen will not be required to utter grammatical solecisms? In particular, I hope that she will not need to deliver herself—as was the case last year—of a split infinitive.

8.1 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for giving us the opportunity to revisit the fundamentals of our constitution. As he will be well aware, Erskine May reminds us that the Queen's Speech details the "causes of summons". The reasons why the Monarch feels it necessary to call a Parliament to meet make it improper to speculate in advance why Her Majesty the Queen might wish to call Parliament, in what style and at what length. However, I certainly agree with the noble Lord that it is an occasion of deep constitutional significance.

I assume that noble Lords neither wish nor would expect me to pre-empt Her Majesty's speech in December. Furthermore, I shall not comment on the length and style of previous Speeches, apart from remarking on the aim of this Government, where possible, to publish Bills in draft in order to help to secure an improvement in the final legislation. The Queen's Speech now includes an announcement of a number of Bills to be published in draft. Those are then considered by all interested parties and are sent out for consultation. They are also considered by Members of this House. I can recall the Joint Select Committee which met to consider the Financial Services and Markets Bill. I shall return to that measure in due course because it serves well as an example of what may happen to a Bill when it is first published in draft.

I hope that the noble Lord would agree that the practice of announcing Bills in draft has been a welcome addition to the content of the Queen's Speech. The Financial Services and Markets Bill was foreshadowed in one Queen's Speech and was the first and only Bill to be carried over in the House of Commons from one Session to the next. It was then reintroduced in this Session. Because it was also considered by a Joint Select Committee, the whole process attracted an enormous number of amendments by the time the legislation finally reached this House. I believe that we encounter a no-win situation here. I agree that that Bill needed a great many amendments, but that was necessary in order to respond to the wide consultation which had taken place over two Sessions.

The Queen's Speech needs to strike a balance between providing full and proper information as regards the intentions of her Government against not becoming overly long for Her Majesty's listeners and, indeed, for Her Majesty. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, criticised recent Queen's Speeches for being rather too political. I find it rather odd that Members on the Benches opposite often criticise the Government for being obsessed with presentation, but then proceed to discuss endlessly the way in which a speech has been written rather than its contents.

Hindsight can be a terrible thing. However, I cannot help but wonder whether some of us would have benefited from a little more detail and information in previous Queen's Speeches. Let us consider, for example, one line from the Speech delivered in June 1987: A Bill will be introduced to abolish domestic rates in England and Wales". In October 1991, only 12 months before the ERM debacle, the Speech stated that: My Government will pursue, within the framework of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, firm financial policies". Because I have a deep personal regard for the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, I have chosen not to research into what was said in a Queen's Speech by the previous government about the privatisation of the railways. I am happy t o draw a veil over such matters.

This Government have made progress on a number of serious and important issues. I make no apology for the fact that those past events have been mentioned in a number of Queen's Speeches. Members of this House, Members of another place and the wider public would want to be informed of such matters. I shall take as an example the report made on the progress of the peace process in Northern Ireland. That was definitely worth mentioning in last year's Queen's Speech. Similarly, in 1998 the introduction of proposals for devolution in Scotland and Wales was a valuable statement because it introduced a matter of major constitutional change. I am sure that noble Lords, Members of another place and, indeed, the people of this country would wish to hear more about such issues. I believe that it was important that we should all be reminded of the settlement of the nation before we turned our attention to the business for the coming year.

Recent speeches have introduced new policies of the highest importance. For example, in 1997 mention was made of the responsibility put on the Bank of England to set interest rates, as well as mention of the intention to set a national minimum wage. In 1998 mention was made of plans to reform the NHS and to remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit in the House of Lords, while in 1999 the modernisation of the welfare state was covered, along with the establishment of the Strategic Rail Authority.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, made mention of the number of Bills that have been passed after Queen's Speeches. In 1981–82, during the third Session of that administration, 46 Bills were passed. During the following Session, the figure was 41. In 1985–86, during the third Session of the next administration, 49 government Bills were passed. In the fourth Session of that administration, when the noble Lord was in the Cabinet, a further 49 Bills were passed. Finally, in the fourth Session of the next administration, 43 government Bills were passed. We have introduced 41 government Bills during this Session. Thus the number of Bills currently being passed compares favourably with previous third Sessions of Parliament.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord may have misunderstood what I was saying. I wished to make the point that one cannot consider the length of a Queen's Speech and relate it directly to the number of Bills being introduced. I have not complained about the number of Bills. I wished to make the point that, strangely enough, one discovers time and time again that a speech may be longer than the previous Speech and yet contain the details of fewer Bills. I pointed out in particular that the 1999 Queen's Speech—the longest by far of all Queen's Speeches—contained the details of fewer Bills than did the 1997 Queen's Speech. It cannot be argued that the Queen's Speech was necessarily long because the Government were imposing on Parliament an extremely heavy workload. Other reasons must be found and I have tried to indicate what those were.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I was about to develop my argument by saying that there is no connection between the number of Bills and the length of a Queen's Speech. I am reminded that one of the first points one learns in philosophy is that a connection is not a cause. Indeed, I wished to remind noble Lords only that the number of Bills introduced in this Session compares favourably with the number of Bills introduced during the third Sessions of previous governments.

Indeed, in comparison with some earlier Sessions, I believe that this administration has been positively restrained. Perhaps noble Lords would like to see a further eight Bills introduced over the next week or two. That would take us back to the happy days of 1991.

We are determined to take Parliament seriously and to allow proper time for full debate to take place on our legislation. Major government Bills almost always need to be amended during their passage. However, if we make sensible and reasonable concessions, we are told that we are amending too much. If we stand firm on our principles, we are told that we are unfairly resisting argument. I mentioned earlier our new practice of publishing Bills in draft. It would be ridiculous to do that if we were not prepared then to take account of the valuable comments that we receive. I have mentioned already the valuable experience gained on the Financial Services and Markets Act. However, responding properly to consultation means that amendments have to be introduced. Often such amendments help to make legislation both more effective and focused. Furthermore, implementing those changes is one of the most important duties of this House.

However, having said that, I believe that I must agree with the noble Lord, Lord Henley, in his comment that some Bills that we introduced this year have required a certain amount of polishing. I have said before that we are a listening Government. To that end, the Home Office seems to have listened more than most.

The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, seemed to imply that Her Majesty the Queen should not read the speech at all. I may have misunderstood the noble Lord, but I believe he also raised the matter of the repetition of the speech by the Lord Chancellor in the afternoon. It has been agreed that that practice will stop. No longer will the Lord Chancellor repeat the Speech in the afternoon. As I understand it, noble Lords who are not present on the morning of the Speech will be able to read it in the Printed Paper office. The Procedure Committee has agreed that the practice of the Lord Chancellor repeating the Speech should cease.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, I certainly did not mean to say that Her Majesty the Queen should not deliver the Speech. I was not aware of the reform that the Government Chief Whip mentioned. I am glad that it has been lighted upon.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, also mentioned a problem with the organisation of the four days of debate that we normally have. I am inclined to agree with him. As the House will know, topics are agreed for the day with the intention that the debate on that day should concentrate on those topics. We have considered informally among the Chief Whips a sub-division of the day, so that the first half of the day was taken up by a certain subject and the second half by another subject. However, it has been suggested that this will be harder to achieve and should be time limited.

The Queen's Speech is, in fact, one debate from beginning to end. If the day were to be divided into two different subjects, there would need to be 12 Front Bench speakers. There would be three to open and three to close on the first subject; and three to open and three to close on the second subject. That would mean that there would be twice as many Front Bench speakers than is now the case, and that would reduce the opportunities for Back-Benchers to speak in the debate. We agreed informally that, on balance, it would be better to keep to the organisation that we have now.

The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, rather confused me because he said that I have not got a throng behind me. The noble Lord should appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, counts as a throng. The point about the length of the Prorogation speech is well made and will be taken to heart.

As I said, the Government cannot win. If Sessions are short, they are accused of railroading their programme through; if Sessions are long, they are accused of mismanaging it. Arguments about the style of the Queen's Speech do not obscure the main fact: we are putting forward a substantial programme of reforming legislation and delivering it successfully.

Perhaps I may return to the point made by my noble friend Lord Gilbert about the famous split infinitive in the previous Queen's Speech. If we had removed it, the Speech would have sounded odd. It would have stated: A Bill will be introduced which will make it unlawful for public bodies racially to discriminate". That sounds wrong. The Queen's Speech is meant to be easily read and understood. I have the backing of Fowler's Modern English Usage which states: Rigid adherence to a policy of non-splitting can sometimes lead to an unnaturalness or ambiguity and no absolute taboo should be placed on the use of adverbs".

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am obliged to my noble friend for replying to the point I raised. If he needs any assistance in removing split infinitives, I shall be only too happy to help.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend.

This has been a useful debate. Noble Lords have made a number of important points. I undertake to draw them to my colleagues' attention.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do adjourn during pleasure until 8.35 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.14 to 8.35 p.m.]