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4.13 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) made a thoughtful speech, but I am bound to say that I found the speech of his neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), a very much more convincing one. My hon. Friend outlined the real dilemma that faces the House today: because of the Government's inept and clumsy handling of constitutional matters, we are—rather like the Irishman—not where we want to be, but we are here and we have to face facts. The facts are as was lucidly annunciated by my hon. Friend.

If we are to reform Parliament, we have a choice. We either seek to improve what we have or we seek to create something entirely different. The logic of the former position of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the shadow Leader of the House, was entirely right; indeed, it was impeccable. He believed that we needed to re-write—or, indeed, to write—our constitution. He believed that we should have a second Chamber that had real power and was directly and wholly elected. He believed that the relationship between the two Houses should be broadly similar to the relationship between the two Houses of Congress in the United States. That is an impeccably logical position and a perfectly honourable and honest one.

It happens to be one with which I do not agree. I am an evolutionist. I believe that we should concentrate on improving what we have and not create something different. I do not want a wholly written constitution. I recognise that if we move towards a wholly elected second Chamber, all the consequences to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon referred, and many others besides, are inescapable. At a stroke, we would move towards the disestablishment of the Church of England and towards the establishment of a supreme court, both of which may be desired by many Members.

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I am not seeking to argue that they are not logical things to want, but the House must face up to the consequences of its own actions and proposals.

It is fatuous to suppose—my hon. Friend was again entirely right on this—that we would be able to create a wholly elected second Chamber that was permanently and perpetually subordinate to this House. If we had people of real calibre seeking election to that place, and if they had a mandate, they would, over time, inevitably come to challenge us. If they were elected on the same day, we would merely have a replication—two elected Chambers, one subordinate to the other. If they were elected at a different time, we could have an unpopular Government of the day, wanting to get what they considered essential parts of their mandate through, while, at the other end of the Corridor, we had people with mandates stretching many years ahead who believed that they could overturn and challenge that. The prescription for gridlock, and worse, is there and we have to face up to that fact.

I believe that it would be far better to go down the road referred to by my hon. Friend. I would prefer a wholly nominated House. I do not believe that one can dismiss as pleasantly and lightly as did the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington the question of expertise. I do not believe that it is sufficient to have experts who are merely advisers to Select Committees and individual Members. I believe that it is right and proper to have people of real intellectual quality and ability in the other place. The country as a whole does not regard us as being less than admirable because of the activities at the other end of the Corridor; it does so because of the activities at this end of the Corridor.

I also believe that the argument about legitimacy is spurious. If we look around the world, we see that many second Chambers are not directly elected. Nobody questions that France is a democracy, but it has an indirectly elected second Chamber. The same is true of Germany. In Canada—where the second Chamber has the power of total veto—there is a wholly appointed second Chamber, with senators serving for 15 years. In my view, we would be far better building upon what we have, and having a second Chamber that is wholly nominated.

Such a Chamber would not be illegitimate. When one goes around the world, nobody suggests that this country is not regarded as a democracy. Indeed, we are held up in many places as being the fount of democracy. We hear—it is frequently misquoted—that this is the mother of Parliaments. It is not; the Bright quotation is that England is the mother of Parliaments. Other countries look upon us as a great democracy, and they do not believe that that position is invalidated for half a second because we have a second Chamber that is not directly elected.

Fiona Mactaggart: Yes, they do.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am sorry; I do not think that that is the case. As I have said, there are many second Chambers around the world that are not directly elected.

I agreed completely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst on one point: we must remind the Government of their oft-repeated promise

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that a Joint Committee of both Houses would be established once the first stage of reform had been completed. That Joint Committee would look at all the implications and possible varieties and permutations of change. It is incumbent on the Government to honour that promise, which seems to have been forgotten and abandoned.

We should have a Joint Committee of both Houses, but there is no hurry about the matter. The second Chamber exists and functions effectively. The Joint Committee should look carefully at the various options. We should decide whether to have a written constitution in this country, which would entail a reorganisation and reordering of the respective powers of the two Houses. If that is the decision, we should move towards having a wholly elected second Chamber. If we decide that what we have is too good to throw away totally, we should safeguard and improve it. The only sensible way to do that is to follow the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon.

Hon. Members talk about elections as though the public love them, but a certain election fatigue has set in. People expect Parliament to scrutinise, supervise and hold the Government to account. They vote for us to do that, but far fewer people voted last June than in previous general elections. The percentage polls for the number of people voting for other assemblies such as local government or the European Parliament invite several questions. Do we really think that people would vote for the sort of second Chamber envisaged in the White Paper? That directly elected Chamber would have no more powers than the Government were willing to allow.

Would that directly elected second Chamber attract the necessary calibre of candidate or the enthusiasm of the population? It would not. Would a derisory turnout of 25 per cent. confer great legitimacy on that body? Would not having directly elected people in the second Chamber give more power to the political parties than even the patronage system gives? After all, everyone in the second Chamber would owe their position to one party or another.

I urge the House to approach this matter with great caution. We are talking about the constitution of our country, and we must get it right. The Government have not been especially helpful in setting us on the right road, but we can still redeem the position. However, we will not do so by going for the gimmick, or by rushing something through before the next general election.

4.22 pm

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Members for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), who spoke earlier. Their Thermopylae speeches, if I might call them that, were as fine a defence of the indefensible as it is possible to imagine.

Before I continue, I shall do as I did in 1999. I shall come out straight away and say that I am an unreconstructed, unrepentant and practising unicameralist. I do not believe that there is a need in modern democracies such as ours for a second Chamber. However, I am also a realist, and I understand as well as anyone that unicameralism, like

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heavenly bliss, is not for this world; at least, it is certainly not for this Parliament, so other matters need to be addressed.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): My hon. Friend has at least one supporter in the Chamber—me. Does he agree that the speeches made today make our case even stronger than it was before?

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: Yes, I do. However, before I deal with that I wish to make a brief plea for the unicameralist position, if only to ensure that the argument does not go by default. It has always seemed to me that having a single Chamber would avoid in the most dramatic way the false dichotomy involved in deciding whether a second Chamber should have too much legitimacy by being all elected, or whether it should have no legitimacy because it would be the product of nepotism, croneyism, patronage, or whatever one wishes to call it.

Secondly, in the limited time that I have been in the House it has always seemed to me that the existence of a second Chamber is often used as an alibi for this House's inadequacies. For example, we had some fine debates in this House on jury trial. There was considerable resistance among Labour Members to the proposal to remove the right to trial by jury. In the end, 80 Labour Members either abstained or voted against the measure.

The overall effect of that vote may have been slight in this House, but the effect on the House of Lords was more considerable. A considerable number of Labour Members told me how deeply worried and distressed they were about the legislation. Weeping through the Lobbies is a well known characteristic of new Labour Members, who said that they would support the Government because they knew that the House of Lords would chuck out the proposal in the end.

We should consider what would have happened if the House of Lords did not exist. Those Labour Members would have gone ahead and voted against the Government, and there is a good chance that the Government would have been defeated. Who knows what would have come from that sudden outbreak of testosterone among Labour Members? Who knows what would have been the long-term effect of the House taking control of the Executive for the first time?

I turn now to the White Paper. The real iniquity in its proposals is that 80 per cent. of the membership of the projected second Chamber would be chosen by a system of patronage. Patronage in any guise is the curse of the British political system. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made a compelling point when he said that patronage had its roots in the system that we have. We select our Executive, by a system of patronage, from the legislature. The result is an immediate and obvious conflict of interest, which is well overdue for review. The most crude manifestation of that conflict was evident in the disgraceful attempts to manipulate the Select Committee system.

Patronage in this House has always had a corrosive effect, on Government and on individual Members of Parliament. However, I have considerable sympathy for my fellow hon. Members. A few of us came here late in life, having had the enormous fortune—in my case, the good luck—to pursue reasonable careers beforehand.

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We happy band of brothers do not give a fig about preferment of any sort, and would not accept it if it were offered. In my case, that is very lucky.

However, we are comparatively few in number. I understand very well that other hon. Members are professional politicians, and much younger than I am. Their entire careers rely on the fact that they are bound to that form of patronage, which colours and configures their behaviour as Back Benchers. There is no dishonour in that, but patronage represents the only chance that such hon. Members will have to serve.

The same applies to the House of Lords. Many hon. Members will have noticed, as I have, what happens when senior Members of this House discover that they are not going to be the junior Minister in charge of paper clips, or that they do not want to hold such a post again. In their case, the power of patronage is exerted in respect of elevation to the House of Lords. Anyone who has not seen that happen with senior Members of this House over the past five years must be very myopic indeed. We must set our collective face against the principle of patronage.

Finally, I want to explode the idea that a wholly elected second Chamber would in some way conflict with the primacy of this Chamber. That proposition has been touched on by several Labour Members. It is a specious argument. This House sets the parameters and the circumscriptions for that House. We may not get people of the highest possible calibre standing for election if they know that the House of Lords has very circumscribed powers. So be it. My bet is that we will, but that does not matter much. The principle is the main thing.

Of course people may want an office, a telephone and a secretary. I appreciate that those things matter to the patrician side of the Conservative party. They may even write to the local newspapers about it, and that will not conflict with me at all. In any event, we will have a proper and duly elected assembly.

The worst thing is to have part and part. What happens if part of the second Chamber is elected and part of it is not? We all get a rush of blood to the head when we suddenly find that we represent real people; we get the urge to take on the Government, or anybody else, and to make trouble, if necessary, on behalf of our constituents. What happens if part of the House of Lords suffers from that malaise and affliction and the other part does not? What happens if there is an alien body in the soft belly of the House of Lords that is permanently for insurrection and usurping the House of Commons? That only needs to be said for us to realise the absurdity of the position. I agree that one option or the other must be chosen, and it can only be one. The overwhelming view and wish of the people is that we should have a wholly elected second Chamber.

The Government have a choice. They can change the Bill markedly and substantially. I have never said this before, and I hope that I will be taken seriously, but it is my perception that if they do not they will lose it, for the first time ever, notwithstanding their majority. Alternatively, they can push it through as it is or they can sulk and say that even if we do not like it they will not bring it back. That was touched on by the Lord Chancellor yesterday or the day before.

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I hope that the Government do not take that option and that they listen to this debate. Most of the contributions have been outstanding. I hope that we will ultimately have a Bill that will give us an elected second Chamber of which we can be proud.

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