LATEST THOUGHTS

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Speech to the House of Lords by Rt. Hon. Lord Foulkes of Cumnock on the 20th February 2017

 

Second Reading of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill

My Lords, compared with when we started nearly seven hours ago, we are a bit thin on the ground. However, we make up for it in quality, tenacity and, of course, fortitude. Let me put my cards on the table: I remain totally opposed to Brexit. I am not going to throw in the towel: if we go ahead, it will be a total disaster economically, socially and in every other way, and it was sold on a false prospectus. I will oppose it by any legal and constitutional means. As my noble friend Lady Crawley said, we have a long, long way to go. I say to the Ministers on the Front Bench in particular—and I am not threatening them in any way because all six of them are good friends of mine; I hope that does not do them any harm—you ain’t seen nothing yet.

 

We are just at the beginning of the beginning. We still have the Committee stage, the Report stage and the Third Reading, and then, of course, we have the great repeal Bill and, I am told, at least 7,500 statutory instruments to be dealt with as a result of that. That is going to keep this House busy with a lot of scrutiny, and I am sure that we will do it properly. Of course, there are a lot of hurdles ahead: we have heard about Northern Ireland; no one has mentioned in detail the problems relating to Scotland. I know there are one or two members of the Front Bench who know some of the problems there. We have heard about the need for approval by 27 national parliaments and the European Parliament. It is a long, long way to go, and there is many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip.

 

Today, however, I just want to concentrate on one thing very seriously, and that is our form of parliamentary democracy. I was in the other place for 26 years, so I am very sensitive about our parliamentary democracy. Winston Churchill said:“We believe Members of Parliament are representatives, and not delegates”. He also said: “We believe that Governments are the guides as well as the servants of the nation”. Therefore, Governments should give the lead. I liked a quotation from Edmund Burke, to the effect that,“a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and … most seriously to consider”, the opinion of his constituents. But, “authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,—these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land”.

 

That was Edmund Burke. That is our parliamentary democracy. We do not have a direct democracy here in the United Kingdom; we have a parliamentary democracy. That is why I was disappointed in the debate in the House of Commons, where they ought to know better. I was going to mention that someone said, “This Brexit is going to be a total disaster, but I’m going to vote for it”. Incidentally, I have the greatest of respect for them. The noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, outed that person earlier on, so I cannot be blamed for doing that. However, when these Members of the House of Commons took the decision, did they think about their judgment and their conscience, or did they just feel that they had to do what they believed the referendum told them to do?

 

Let us look at that referendum. First, as others have said, it was advisory. All pre-legislative referenda are advisory. The only one that has not been advisory is the AV referendum, post-legislation, where we knew exactly what we were voting for, and thankfully, we voted it down. In addition, 16 and 17 year-olds were not allowed to vote, as they were in Scotland. Some of them are 18 now, and all of them will be 18 if we finish these negotiations. Some of the old cod—oh! I am chair of Age Scotland, so I had better be careful. I should say some of the elderly people who voted against remaining are, sadly, no longer with us. That is one of the ironies. EU citizens, who work in this country in the health service and the financial sector, were not allowed to vote. They are taxpayers. Whatever happened to “no taxation without representation”? They are being taxed, but they were not able to say anything.

 

On the threshold, which my noble friend Lord Rooker, and the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Norton, raised on earlier occasions when we discussed this, it was 40% in the first Scottish referendum, yet this referendum was supported by only 37% of the electorate. It would not have got through if we had had the Cunningham amendment. Even—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, will know this very well—for Muirfield golf club to admit women, it has to have a two-thirds majority. We are making a major change to the United Kingdom constitution, not just a question of admitting women.

 

Finally, there were the lies on which Brexit was sold, not just different interpretations of the facts which we get at general elections, but manifest lies. I will not go into that in more detail. I will finish with a little story, which goes back to my original point about parliamentary sovereignty. Many years ago, when I was an MP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, we were having a vote in the House of Commons to change the law on abortion. I am not a religious person and I did not feel strongly about it one way or another. I therefore went to my constituency party—we had a large turnout, with more than 100 people—and I told them that I did not feel strongly about it and asked them for their advice. We had a fantastic debate, which lasted over two hours, and it was about 50:50. However, they resolved unanimously to leave it to me, their elected representative, to listen to the arguments and decide how to vote. That is parliamentary democracy for you. If we do not stick to that, not just the House of Lords will be redundant but the House of Commons as well.

 

Debate on the size of the House of Lords

This debate is largely a diversion from the real issue of the urgent need for radical Lords Reform.I favour replacing it with an indirectly elected Senate of the Nations and Regions which would have some democratic legitimacy without challenging the primacy of the directly elected Commons. But, meanwhile, I accept we do need more immediate reform to modernise the Lords and make it more acceptable but the size is only one of the many changes needed. Our archaic procedures of wearing robes, swearing in and the endless ceremonial needs changing also.

Most of the debate on size concentrates on removing some of the existing Peers, and the retirement provision has achieved a modest reduction – 61 Peers have retired since 2010 (www.parliament.uk). But before we go further we need to stem the tide of new appointments or our effort will have been in vain. The method of appointment needs radical reform – more transparency in the procedure; power transferred to a statutory appointments commission; clear criteria and an end to the “automatic appointments” of the heads of the civil service, armed forces and others which are conveniently overlooked by the establishment who benefit. Once all of this is done then current members might be more sympathetic in agreeing to reduce existing numbers, but this then needs to be done on the basis of logic and not simple arithmetic.

The Second Chamber is there for a purpose, as part of the legislature so we need to keep all the “working peers” and not those who covet the title or see it merely as a passport to appointment to lucrative outside bodies. That’s why I would favour as the main method of cutting existing numbers by an assessment of past performance, including attendance & voting record and service on Committee, and would support a removal of voting rights for those who failed to attend for an agreed percentage over, say, the past 3 years. To indicate the scale of the potential reductions, removing those Peers who attended 30% or fewer of sittings in the 104/15 session would result in a 25% reduction of the total eligible group, or 200 Peers (House of Lords Library).

If we structure this carefully we could achieve the reduction required. However it has also been suggested that each political group and the Crossbenchers could agree to vote to reduce their number by an agreed percentage. I would oppose this as both unfair and destabilising. If there is to be such a group reduction it should be of the London and SE Region. It is unacceptable in a Chamber of a UK legislature that London & SE with 27% of the population should have over 45% of the Lords while the East Midlands with over 7% has only 2.3% of Peers. The West Midlands and North West England are equally under-represented.

Finally, if we cannot achieve a sufficient reduction with these measures I would agree we should look at a retirement age, at the end of the Parliament in which a Peer turns 80, as proposed by the Labour Working Party. Were a compulsory retirement age of 80 implemented, the effect would be to remove 206 of the current Peers by the expected 2020 Dissolution of Parliament (House of Lords Library).

Space

Loneliness

Loneliness can be a problem at any age, and at any time. While many of us look forward to Christmas, people who are on their own at this time of year can feel that isolation even more deeply. Decades of research have shown that chronic loneliness is more common than we might have thought and has debilitating impacts on our wellbeing.

Loneliness is not only a problem for older people. Pupils can be shunned at school, adults given the cold shoulder by friends and family. But older people are often more likely to be affected because so many of the causes of isolation – bereavement, children moving away, retirement, mobility problems and cognitive or sensory impairments – occur in later life.
One in ten older people – over 100,000 Scots – say they feel lonely most of all of the time. Half of over-75s now live alone, and most of them say that their main form of company is a pet or their TV. And up to 40,000 older Scots will be alone on Christmas Day.

Long-term loneliness can lead to stress, anxiety and depression. It can also raise blood pressure, increase risk of heart attacks and some cancers. And it has behavioural effects, reducing activity and exercise, and stirring cynicism and resentment.

Age Scotland has made tackling loneliness one of our strategic priorities. Our national freephone telephone helpline, 0800 12 44 22, offers friendship and contact as well as information and advice. We connect people to local groups they can participate in or who can arrange visits, and are giving out £75,000 this year in small grants to community organisations for activities like outings and lunches to bring older people together.

But we also need others to help. A parliamentary inquiry last year – the first of its kind worldwide – investigated isolation and recommended change. There’s now a Government commitment to a national strategy, which must align policies and practices by public bodies like the NHS and councils to recognise the symptoms and respond appropriately. And everyone can think about how to connect better with older people they know or live beside.

George Foulkes
Chair, Age Scotland

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Private Member’s Bill – Political Opinion Polling

My Lords,
Some years ago, when I was a student – in fact, many years ago now – I did some work on polling, during which I learned a bit about the techniques used – random sampling, quotas of specific classes distinguished by factors such as age or sex, to reflect the makeup of the whole population. I learned about the not inconsiderable statistical margin of error that polls can contain, however good the sample is. Most importantly, I learned about what makes a good poll and what doesn’t: polls have to be run in a scientific, politically neutral manner with no influence from those who commissioned them. To give an example, this could mean avoiding leading questions to ensure their wording is fair and unbiased.

So for some time now, I have been concerned by the direction that polling has been moving, with rigour and accuracy seeming to be subordinated to the demands of speed and cost. The media expect polls to be completed in extraordinarily short time, often to be ready for publication the next day after the sample has been taken, leading to a preference for internet and telephone polls. My concerns over the dangers of this corner-cutting were reinforced by attending a seminar chaired by the Noble Lord Lipsey, with polling experts John Curtice and Peter Kellner in attendance. They confirmed the paramountcy of speed over accuracy and the constant demands of the media, and it is this background that first gave rise to my strong determination to introduce this bill.

But what really made reinforced the importance of accurate polling to democracy was the one rogue YouGov poll on the 7th September 2014 that seemed to indicate for the first time in the Scottish Referendum that the Yes campaign was ahead. This caused a widespread panic among politicians supporting the Better Together campaign, resulting in the so-called ‘Vow’ for even greater devolution of powers to Scotland that led the creation of the Smith Commission. In light of the actual results of the Referendum, it is clear that fears of a Yes victory were unfounded and that the SNP had directly benefitted from one highly inaccurate poll. It is not right that the real issues of democratic politics should have been so affected, and the course of history changed, by a statistical prediction which turned out to be so wrong.

The General Election gave further evidence of the direct impact of polling on political events. Constant polling and the corresponding media coverage made it seem beyond doubt that the contest was ‘neck and neck’, with some polls suggested that Labour would even emerge as the largest party. This shaped the nature of the debate in the run-up to the election: the main topic of debate was about the consequences of a Labour minority government, with the SNP set to hold the balance of power at Westminster. We were confronted by images of Alex Salmond with Ed Miliband in his pocket and Nicola Sturgeon pulling the strings. If the public had known the true position, debate would more likely have centred on the policy issues – foreign policy, welfare, the NHS – which were noticeably absent from the campaign. If the polls had been accurate, the outcome of the Election may have been different, again affecting the course of history.

As a result of these manifold polling errors, I have found that there is now far greater support for the creation of a regulatory body overseeing political opinion polling than ever before. I only need to compare the support for the introduction of the bill in this session and the last, and the difference is clear for all to see. The political will is there, should we want to ensure that our democratic process is not undermined by such misleading predictions in the future.

Even the British Polling Council admit that they got it wrong, and have set up an inquiry into why the polls in the run-up to the Election were so consistently inaccurate, but this is a self-regulating body running merely a one-off investigation. While the Council may justifiably claim the credit when polls are correct, they also need to accept some blame now that their regulatory methods have been shown to be ineffective, and to ensure that we have a more rigorous system in place, what we need is an independent and permanent regulator.

Contrary to what some commentators have said, the bill does not legislate for an outright ban on polls, but it would allow the regulatory authority to put in place some limits on their publication, as is already the case in France, India, Italy and Spain, if they thought it would be helpful. The bill would replace the self-regulation of the British Polling Council with an independent body which would have responsibility for issuing regulation and guidance on such things as sampling methods, the wording of questions, and arrangements concerning publication including how close to Election Day polls could be published.

I should also answer the criticism raised by Professor Ron Johnston of Bristol University, who has expressed concern that this bill might infringe upon academic freedom to undertake polling on political attitudes and behaviour for the purposes of independent research. This is, of course, not my intention, and, as Clause one, Paragraph eight of the bill makes clear, the Authority’s regulatory powers will be restricted specifically to polling concerning voting intentions in local authority elections, Parliamentary elections (including elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the National Assembly for Wales), and referenda. Academic research on other political behaviour will therefore be completely unaffected.

It is also important that all those who have an interest in polling are represented on the board of this Authority: the organisations nominated by the British Polling Council, the main political parties, and the media will therefore all be included. I am very much open to other suggestions on this matter, and any amendments to refine and improve the bill will be given serious consideration. Equally important is transparency: the Authority will publish its rules within 6 months of its establishment and consider amendments at least annually.

I welcome that Lord Cooper of Windrush is due to speak, and in the absence of the ‘super-pollster’ Lord Ashcroft – who is not really a pollster anymore since he sub-contracts the research out – he represents the polling industry in your Lordships’ House. I will be interested to hear what he has to say, as I feel that the industry have been unduly defensive about my Bill – given that the BBC are regulated, and that we have regulators such as Ofcom, it surely makes sense that the multi-million-pound political opinion polling industry is brought in line with the others.

Polling has grown exponentially in recent years, and the 2015 General Election saw almost daily polls – almost all of which turned out to be wrong. Those in charge of the newspapers – the media moguls – that commission the major polls and publicise them have gained control of a powerful election tool that, as Lynton Crosby has noted, has become something more than a method of independent measurement, it has become something that can have real influence over the result. This has potentially dangerous consequences for our democracy.

Polls can play a major part in deciding the future of our country and it is therefore essential that they are carried out in a rigorous and unbiased manner. That is what the minimal and independent oversight I am putting forward in this bill sets out to achieve, and it is with this aim in mind that I beg to move.

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