Queen's Speech 2015
Queen’s Speech 2015 27th May
Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): I congratulate the Conservative party on its victory at the general election and the Scottish National party on its victory in the election in Scotland. Two main rules have always been in my head about democracy and the outcome of an election: first, the majority shall prevail; and secondly, the rights of the minorities must always be respected. Winning an election outright, wonderful achievement though it is for the Conservative party, is not a licence to ride roughshod over those who disagree with it—or with us, were we to be in power.
I fear that having gone from a situation of great political volatility, we may now try to assume that it is back to business as usual and that, because there is a majority, this place is a sausage machine that is here just to ram through legislation. That would be a disaster for the nation at any time, but particularly when fundamental issues impacting on our democracy are going to come before us over the next five years. “Back to normal working” is a bad philosophy. We need to respect those who have different views and, through our processes and procedures in this House, to accommodate these debates. If we fail to do that, we will be putting a lid on things that will explode off our democracy in the not too distant future.
We have a very long Parliament ahead. I can understand the new Members, in particular, being very enthusiastic about coming to this place—the pomp and the finery and the rest of it, and what an experience it is—but there is going to be five years’ worth, and the edge will go off that feeling. There will be a lot of drudgery and a lot of routine, and there will be a full five-year Parliament. On the previous occasion, we did not pass the Bill that became the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 until about a year into the Parliament, so it did not feel like a full five years, but that is what we are now facing.
I am a Fixed-term Parliaments Act person, and one of the good things about the Act is that it allows a Government to plan their legislative programme: not to ride roughshod over people with whom they disagree, but to have proper process. From the Floor, we have heard repeated calls—from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), the former Attorney General the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), as well as from Opposition Members—for the need to understand the issues, to listen and to work stuff through. I agree with the leader of the Plaid Cymru Members, the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), that when we are recreating a democracy, there is a moment when those of us who believe in the Union will need to work very hard to work out how to save it. That is not a problem that my friends in the Scottish National party need worry about too much, but those of us who do care about it, need to work at it very carefully. Pushing stuff through is not the answer, and using—or abusing—this Parliament is not the way to do it. That is a long-term matter.
Mr Allen: There are many ways to skin a cat, and given that we have five years and are not thinking that maybe there will be a general election next year or maybe the Government will fall—maybe, maybe—we can use all such devices. I referred earlier to the possibility, under Standing Orders, of having a special Committee. I would argue very strongly—as Chairman of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, I would, wouldn’t I?—that there should be a serious pre-legislative stage and a post-legislative stage in our Select Committees. That is the role of Parliament, and my worry is that the Government may seek to ride roughshod over us. That is not a partisan point.
If I make any point today, I want to make the simple one—I make it to GCSE students, let alone Members of Parliament—that Government and Parliament are two separate and distinct entities. We tend to conflate them, which makes life a lot easier; when we do not know what the business of the day is and the bell rings, it is easier to be told what to do. They are two distinct institutions, and the legislature and Executive have a different view of life—not always.
If I may be so bold, one thing that new Members will learn is that there is a permanent conflict in this place, particularly if they support a party or a Government view, because they will be torn on a daily basis. If they have two brain cells, it is a difficult role to fulfil: working for their constituents and for democracy while following their party line, particularly when it is laid down by the Prime Minister or their party leader. That permanent conflict—the eternal battle, as it were, between the Government and the legislature—is one with which we need to engage.
The Government currently control Parliament and our daily agenda. Many years ago when I was a new Member, before the House had even met I sought out the doyen of Parliament at that time, a guy called Chris Price, the Member of Parliament for Lewisham West, who has sadly passed away. I asked, “Where do I go and who do I talk to to understand this place?” He said, “You go to see a guy called Murdo Maclean.” No one had heard of him.
Mr Allen: They have now. The current Murdo Maclean is a guy called Roy Stone—I am sure he is very happy at my naming him on the Floor of the House—who is the private secretary to the Chief Whip. He has a buddy on the other side called Mike Winter, who is the head of the Leader of the House’s office. They are the two most powerful people in Parliament. New Members do not know who they are or where they live, but I suggest that they go round, seek them out, knock on their door and ask their advice. I am sure that they would be absolutely delighted if 40, 50 or 100 new Members came round to understanding how Parliament and Government really work.
It is essential to make sure that we are equipped for the task of scrutiny, but we are still to set up a House business Committee. Before the last election, the Wright Committee reported to the House on a whole series of reforms, including things we now take for granted, such as that our Select Committee Chairs should be elected by secret ballot, not gifted to us by the Whips, and that members of Select Committees should be elected by party in a secret ballot, rather than appointed by the Whips. Many other reforms went through at that point. One of the key things that we missed and was sidestepped, but to which the previous Government and no doubt the Labour Opposition agreed, was a House business Committee. It would have meant that when we have an issue such as how to deal with the Human Rights Act or whether it is right that some order from 1997 determines whether or not we can elect the people who decide on everything in this House—of course that was never intended to be the case—we had a mechanism to debate those issues. If they are not debated, we may be trying to be fair, but people outside Parliament will not understand it, and some people may even exaggerate the importance of such matters for their own political gain. I am sure that that would not happen, but it could do so.
We need to have such mechanisms so that our democracy can function effectively. My worry is that now a majority Government have been returned, the instincts of various officials around the place is to ask not what we should now do to renew our democracy, but how to push their laws through the House of Commons. That contradiction could be very divisive and explode in our faces if we do not do our job properly.
Many of these things were covered in the reports of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which might have covered them again. Briefly, the reports have talked about the crisis in the Union, our relations with Europe, devolution in Scotland and England, the role of this Parliament, improving the legislative process, the role of the second Chamber—a quiet moment in the Queen’s Speech, I noticed—and the need, as many colleagues have said, for a proper constitutional convention that goes beyond the bubble to bring people from outside Parliament alongside on how we can recreate a new democracy within the Union. Our boundaries are a matter of great concern to people in this place. Where will that issue be decided, and where will the pre-legislative scrutiny of it take place, asking whether there should be 600 or 650 Members and so on?
We have a crisis of legitimacy in our democracy. Either the House steps up and devises means by which we can debate that crisis effectively and make our institutions more legitimate—with parliamentarians deciding to support Parliament, rather than just the Government or an alternative Government—or, just as the people of Scotland faced a very different morning after the general election, we could wake up on a morning in 2020 to find our Union not only in jeopardy, but destroyed. That is something that some people would approve of, but if we do not want it, we need to act on that now.