Queens’ Speech – 23rd November 2009

Lord Mawson: My Lords, I still feel a bit of a new boy in your Lordships’ House. As an entrepreneur and practical person I am still trying to understand the inner workings of this place, but I am getting there, at least a little. However, when it comes to the constitutional issues mentioned in the gracious Speech, I am an absolute beginner, but naivety and inexperience in this area might be no bad thing, particularly if they encourage us to look again at some of the basic arguments and practice that underpin the present constitutional debate.

I have a bit of a reputation, I think, as a moderniser of public services and for taking outdated health and education systems and applying to them entrepreneurial thinking and practice. My colleagues and I, both in east London and nationally, have produced results over the past 30 years which demonstrate some success. At the core of this work has often been the empowerment of disfranchised local communities and individual citizens so that they might take more responsibility for their personal lives and families and their local community. This is what citizenship is all about. In the eyes of local people you become a good citizen not through which committees you sit on or what you talk about but by what you do to improve local people’s lives. Doing this work has taught me a little about empowering communities and organisations in an area of the country where the majority of people had almost given up on the democratic process altogether.

There is not time today to delve into the detail of what we experienced at a local level when we stayed around to observe the long-term consequences of all the attempts at restructuring. Suffice to say that many of these local attempts at democracy and empowerment have been far from successful. In many of the projects with which I have been involved we have often felt smothered in red tape and disempowered by countless practical attempts to be more democratic. Far from empowering local people and delivering more practical change in poor local communities, they have often hindered our work and drowned us in endless meetings and processes that many locally found very confusing indeed.

What lessons have we learnt over the years from the front edge? First, our experience is that we can create whatever political structures we want but if we do not have the right people in the right places running them, little will change in practice. Indeed, it may get worse-an obvious point. Real change is not about structures, systems and processes, it is all about the quality of the people who run them and the relationships they have with those around them. However, you see this only if you stay around long enough to witness the long-term consequences. Secondly, if our core business in this Chamber is the scrutiny of legislation and holding the Government of the day to account, will the new representative world that is being proposed bring to this Chamber and to this task people who have more experience than those who are already here? I doubt it. Thirdly, our ability to empower a neighbourhood in east London, which has had countless promises made to it over the years by politicians of different parties, many of them good people, did not come about by setting up new social and political structures but by building on what we know works in practice and by growing a reputation for doing what we said we would do. Integrity was the name of the game.

Our local East End community has been offered countless new structures and processes by successive Governments over the years. I have lived through at least 19 restructures of the NHS alone. When you stay around for a quarter of a century in one place and you watch the cumulative effect of this endless democratic merry-go-round, you see not a reinvigorated democracy but apathy, indifference and an increasing unwillingness to engage with the democratic process. If we want to empower the citizens of this country, as I think we must, I humbly suggest that the next Government, whoever they are, spend a little time at a local level with those who have turned aspirations into real practical results, examining in detail what actually works in practice. There is considerable confusion out there on all sides about the words “delivery” and “democracy”. Let us start by getting clear what we mean and what we want.

Unless we understand the micro level in more detail-the practical lessons learnt locally-I fear we will rush to usher in change at a macro and national level which will confuse the life out of those who live on the estates where I have worked, and thus dampen yet further what little confidence there is in the democratic process. What are the local lessons for the renewal of the constitution? The first lesson is that it is all about having the right calibre of people in the right place. Is there any evidence that the constitutional changes that we are proposing embarking upon will ensure that the right people with the right skills end up being in the right places? This is the crucial question we must ask.

The second lesson is to make sure that what you say and what you do are the same. Integrity matters to local people. Too many promises have been made that came to nothing. Will the proposed changes make your Lordships’ House more effective at what it does? We should change the rules only if we can demonstrate that they will. Thirdly, will such changes enable us to build upon what we know works, and thus strengthen the hand of the calibre of people who inhabit this House? What counts with local people at the end of the day is what works in practice. The working out of theories is irrelevant. In my experience, you work out what really works only through many hard years of practice-hard-won practice that your Lordships’ House already possesses. It is practice that makes perfect. We must be careful that we do not undermine it.