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Mr. Cook: I congratulate the right hon. Lady on having responded to this matter not as a parliamentarian but as a single-minded party politician. I was not necessarily persuaded that my last sentence would convince her to respond to this as a parliamentarian. It is perfectly plain that she is unwilling to consider reform; she is still fighting a rearguard action against the abolition of the hereditary principle. For the avoidance of doubt, I should point out that no Labour Member believes that the hereditary principle has any place in a modern democracy.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): My right hon. Friend deserves a medal. He is a great reforming parliamentarian. May I ask him how one gets on to this Joint Committee? I think that I may have something to contribute to it. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] My hon. Friends agree with me.
I want to return to the question posed by the shadow Leader of the House and other colleagues about the possibility of gridlock between the two Houses. The consultation document shows that all those who responded were in favourto one extent or anotherof an elected second Chamber, except the peers. They were the only group who preferred a House with a less than 50 per cent. elected membership. The issue of gridlock is one that must be addressed.
Mr. Cook: I shall, of course, take note of my hon. Friend's bid for membership of the Joint Committee. I expect that I shall get a number of competing approaches from other hon. Members. I am not sure quite how big the Committee will be, and I cannot, therefore, guarantee that all who wish to be on it will be able to be on it.
It will not necessarily be a disaster or a surprise if the two Chambers vote in different ways. After all, this is a democracy, and we pride ourselves on the fact that the two Chambers can come to independent conclusions. We should not regard it with dismay if they did so. I would suggest that the best thing that we can all do in the next two months is to ensure that we find a way forward that establishes a centre of gravity that can be supported in both Chambers. If we find that there is a difference in the other Chamber, the Joint Committee can consider the implications. We can also consider it ourselves if we wish to do so when we consider the measure to bring these measures into being, which will start in this Chamber.
Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): We are all used to Secretaries of State coming to the House and kicking for touch, but this one has gone right out of the stadium. Presumably the Leader of the House is hoping that nobody will find it and throw it back before the next election.
After five years of a Labour Government, they are clearly showing their inability to agree on what they want to do. The Prime Minister wants a minimal number of elected peers, while all his Back Benchers want the maximum number, so forgive me if I cannot take this Joint Committee very seriously. The idea that the Government have suddenly woken up to the idea of consulting this House on important issues is a novelty to which it is difficult to give any degree of credibility; it is all part of their playing for time.
We all know what the conclusions of the Joint Committee will be. A large number of people will want a high number of elected Memberslike most of the Labour partywhereas others will want none or only a minimal number, and the ball is going to end up back in the Government's court. Would it not be better if the Government decided now what they wanted to do, and put that proposal to Parliament?
Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman condemns us for having committed the issue to the long grass, but the statement made less than two weeks ago by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders in the House of Lords says:
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Has my right hon. Friend warned the Conservative peers in particular that if they vote against the abolition of foxhunting there will be scores if not hundreds of Labour MPs in this Chamber who will vote for the third waynamely, to abolish the House of Lords altogether? Will he bear it in mind that if we are not able to achieve that, the important thing to remember in respect of gridlock is that we have to cut the teeth of that second Chamber? They should not be allowed to filibuster ad nauseam. We should make sure that they have a guillotine, as we have in this House, and that this House reigns supreme over any policy issue.
Mr. Cook: The White Paper and my statement today make it perfectly plain that the Government are firmly committed to the principle that the House of Commons must remain the pre-eminent Chamber, and I have not heard anybody in the Chamber argue with what I believe is a universal point of consensus here. I did not become Leader of the House of Commons to give away the standing of the House of Commons relative to the other Chamber.
My hon. Friend suggests a definition of the third way that I am not sure will command that same universal consensus, but I note his interest in abolition. Whether the motions can be tabled in such a way that he can make such an amendment is, of course, a matter for consideration.
Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Could we not make progress on this very complex issue if the Government and Opposition Front Benchers accepted that having elected peers might undermine our democracy, and more so than at present? Will the Leader of the House bear in mind the fact that the public are fed up with the number of elections, and they are going on strike? Is he not aware that only a quarter voted in the European elections? Even in Rochford, where we had the highest swing to the Conservative party in England, only 29 per cent. voted? Is he not aware of the danger that having even more elections will make the public fed up to the back teeth and undermine democracy further?
Mr. Cook: Although I fully understand the immense trauma undergone by the Conservatives at the last two general elections, I urge them, but not on the basis of that, not to give up supporting elections. If they go to the nation saying that they have lost all faith in elections, they will get a very loud raspberry from the electorate, who will be inclined to give them another landslide defeat third time round.
David Hamilton (Midlothian): May I try to help the Leader of the House? I appreciate that there is to be a free vote, but it may be best not to have a Committee, and the best way to do that is not to have a second Chamber. I am one who believes that we should vote against any second
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton) that I fully understand that some people hold the view that we do not require a second Chamber, but I would not want that to be confused with the concept of over-governance. The second Chamber is not in itself part of the Government. It is a mechanisma forumby which the Government can be held to account.
The powers and role that we set out for the second Chamber in the White Paper included the scrutiny and revision of Government legislation, the ability to hold the Executive to account, and the opportunity to float novel ideas and new policy initiatives that the Executive can take on board. It is not a question of Government, but accountability of Government, and for that we need a modern second Chamber that has the legitimacy of being appointed or elected on a basis that commands consensus support.
Mr. Cook: To be frank, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an answer until I know how the House votes tomorrow. I will commend the Committee of Nomination to the House to ensure that we have fair and appropriate appointments to the Select Committees. The Committee of Nomination is primarily designed for the Select Committees of this House, but I believe that it will be possible for us to find a way forward in which we can ensure that those appointed from this Chamber to the Joint Committee are representative of this House and command the confidence of their parties. That is why we will have to have a rather larger Joint Committee.