Previous SectionIndexHome Page

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is my right hon. Friend aware that when it appeared to be the case, in the late 1980s, that our party was in favour of a directly elected second Chamber, I was among those Labour MPs who argued that we should not go down that road because, whatever might be written in the powers, the fact would remain that the directly elected House of Lords would be in direct competition with this House? Will he bear it in mind, however, that if there is to be a directly elected element—I firmly believe that there should be, as I argued in written evidence to the Wakeham commission—

10 Jan 2002 : Column 707

it should be more than 20 per cent. and a minimum of one third? Under no circumstances should the second Chamber be entirely directly elected; it would be wrong to take that path.

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend and I have, broadly speaking, similar periods of service in the House and I fully share his concern to preserve the pre-eminence of this House and his anxiety that it would be impossible to do so in the event that there was a wholly directly elected second Chamber. No written document would be strong enough to withstand the challenge to the supremacy of the Commons by a second Chamber that felt that it had equally good democratic legitimacy. Over time, a wholly elected second Chamber would seek to approach parity with the Commons—perhaps even, as in the case of the United States Senate, to achieve more than parity with the Commons.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Many Labour Members simply do not accept that. It is an assertion, not a statement of fact. If the powers and functions of the second Chamber are to be tightly circumscribed, what is wrong with having an elected upper House?

Mr. Cook: Plainly, I have failed to carry my hon. Friend with me and I must try harder. I fully admire the extent to which he is vigilant about his rights to represent the people who sent him to this place and active in using the House to pursue those interests. I ask him to contemplate how he would react if he found himself returned as a member of a wholly elected second Chamber and was then told that he had no right to vote on the taxation of his electors, no right to block—rather than delay—any law that was binding and no prospect of questioning Cabinet Ministers running the public services. I know my hon. Friend well enough to know that in those circumstances he would commence a vigorous campaign to ensure that he had the rights to do those things and to represent his people.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): I seem to remember that when we debated the Scotland Act 1998 a number of people made similar points, arguing that the Members of the House who came from Scotland would try to interfere with the Scottish Parliament. Most of us recognise fully what we are elected to this place for, and we vote on that basis.

Mr. Cook: I am not sure that I recognise that as a parallel case in the circumstances. I would also say to my hon. Friend and to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) that of course we can—I would be enthusiastic about it if I were ever faced with such an outcome—write down and tabulate in statute what should be the limited functions of the House of Lords. I just do not believe that that tablet of stone would stand the test of time when confronted by a wholly democratically elected House of Lords that was pressing to change it, and which might sometimes find itself pressing for changes with the support of public opinion. But there is another reason why—

10 Jan 2002 : Column 708

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Cook: I fully understand that many of my hon. Friends wish to intervene on that point, but I shall make progress because many of them also wish to take part in this debate.

The limited functions of a second Chamber do not require it to mirror the democratic mandate of the House of Commons. On the contrary, the second Chamber will be better able to fulfil its role of deliberation and a more valuable forum in which difficult issues can be discussed openly if its debates are informed by the expertise and authority of people with a lifetime of distinction.

Parliament can benefit from a forum that can tap the experience of people who have devoted their lives to courses other than Parliament, such as science, the arts, the voluntary sector and business. This may seem strange to me, and perhaps to some of my colleagues, but it is a fact of life that only a minority of the population actually enjoy the prospect of standing for election. If we want to preserve and improve the standing of the second Chamber as a place that can draw on the expertise and first-hand knowledge of those who have not stood for election, we need to preserve an alternative entry to the House of Lords for independent Members.

That is why the White Paper proposes for the first time that there should be a new statutory appointments commission that takes the appointment of those independent Members out of political patronage. The White Paper proposes that the commission should have the duty to appoint independent Members to form 20 per cent. of the new reformed second Chamber. There has been much media criticism of the first batch of Members chosen by the present Appointments Commission.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cook: No, I shall finish this point.

I invite hon. Members to consider the individuals who were brought into the House of Lords through that new transparent system. They include Valerie Howarth, chief executive of Childline, which she built up from a small charity to a national body. She has brought her expertise to proceedings in the House of Lords on child poverty. They include Mr. Amir Bathia, who has a long record of voluntary work, including as trustee of Oxfam. He has brought that voluntary sector experience to debates in the House of Lords on immigration and pre-school education.

Those people also include other distinguished members of Britain's ethnic communities, such as Dr. Michael Chan, who has a distinguished lifetime of contributing to the NHS as a paediatrician and as a professor in ethnic health. The House of Lords has benefited from his expertise in its debates on health. The truth is that those people would never have been likely to put themselves forward for election as party candidates and that they could not have taken part in those debates without an alternative entry system.

Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West): Does my right hon. Friend accept that such elected expertise probably exists in this Chamber and that it could equally exist in another elected Chamber?

Mr. Cook: As Leader of the House, I would be the last person to undermine the status, experience, expertise and

10 Jan 2002 : Column 709

the calibre of the House of Commons. No one is saying anything other than that the House of Commons is the wholly democratically elected Chamber, on which its prerogatives rest. If we were to exclude those voices altogether, the debates in the second Chamber would be poorer, and it does not seem unreasonable that 20 per cent.—only a fifth of the total membership—should be available to those independent voices.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cook: I shall give way, but then I must make progress.

Michael Fabricant: The Leader of the House will be aware that voting shares and non-voting shares exist under company law. Why has he not considered allowing certain people—such as the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and, indeed, the Law Lords—to attend and debate in the House of Lords without having a right to vote?

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman's suggestion has been reflected in some of the responses to the consultation exercise, and it is obviously open to us to consider and to the House to reflect on that suggestion. I am not sure whether I would necessarily wish to constitute a second Chamber in which there was a very clear cleavage between the status, standing and rights of its individual Members, but that is obviously a consideration.

For those reasons, we believe that the right solution for House of Lords reform is to have a mixed membership of elected and appointed Members. That principle of mixed membership also appears to have the support of a majority of the public. The two most recent opinion polls show that only 30 per cent. of the public supports a wholly elected membership of the second Chamber. However, that still leaves us with a very difficult judgment—it must be a matter of judgment—about where the balance should be struck between elected and appointed Members. That is why the first of the six questions posed in the White Paper is whether the proposed balance between elected and appointed members is right.

Many hon. Members have already made it clear to me—some of them on more than one occasion—that they do not think that the proposed balance is the right one. I hope that today's debate can take us an extra step beyond that by establishing whether there is an alternative that would command a centre of gravity of opinion in support of reform.

Mr. Chaytor: Is it not the case that the composition of the overwhelming majority of bicameral Parliaments in the world is wholly elected? Is there any evidence that those countries have worse records of government or social stability than the United Kingdom, or that there is permanent gridlock between their two Houses?

Next Section

IndexHome Page