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Kevin Brennan: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Soley: In a moment. I want first to finish this point, because it is linked to my earlier remarks.

I sat on the Modernisation Committee in the last Parliament because I felt that the other thing that we had failed to reform in the 20th century was the procedures in this place. Consequently, in several ways, we allowed this place to become devalued and, at some stages, a laughing stock. We failed to get through any of the reforms that we wanted. There is an awful lot of devil in the detail in this matter, and one approaches what one thinks is the obvious question, but it turns out not to be.

As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who was very helpful on this matter, will be aware, the Modernisation Committee in the last Parliament spent a lot of time, probably too much, trying to work out how we could deal with the ridiculous problem of voting, speaking and passing legislation in the early hours of the morning. After a number of those meetings, I came to the conclusion that we were asking ourselves the wrong question. We needed to ask ourselves how we could get some of this Chamber's business out of the Chamber. I then wrote a paper on what I called, rather inelegantly, the "Primary Committee", which the clerks, in their infinite wisdom and subtlety, finally called Westminster Hall. That is where the idea came from, as the hon. Gentleman will know, and it came about for reasons of time.

When considering reform of the Lords, we must ask ourselves whether it is simply a revising Chamber. I have no doubt that it ought to be, in part, a revising Chamber, but I also believe strongly that part of its activities must focus on protecting and enhancing aspects of our constitution. That is why I highlight the importance of having representation of organisations such as local government. We cannot rush through such consideration, which is why I think that 17 July is nonsense, but that does not mean that we should drag our feet. I am sorry, I have moved on a bit since the point at which my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) tried to intervene.

Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend is making very thoughtful points, but does not he accept that many of the issues that he is raising have been covered in great detail by the Wakeham commission? A big difference in West Germany, whose constitution we helped to write, is that it was a Federal Republic, with a federal constitution that included a lower Chamber elected by proportional representation.

Mr. Soley: My hon. Friend is right on the latter point, but he ought to bear it in mind that some aspects of our actions, on devolution in Scotland and Wales, make this country federal. [Interruption.] I agree that it is not federal, and I did not say that it was, but it has federal aspects.

Because we do not have a written constitution, the British have been very good at making things up as we go along. That is messy but it works quite well, which is

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why I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase that we should not leave things there but continue to move forward. We should not do what we did in the 20th century—stand still and tell ourselves that we have a wonderful Parliament, the best in the world, while everybody else is overtaking in the fast lane.

I acknowledge that a lot of the legwork has been done, although I am not such a fan of the Wakeham commission's report as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) seems to be. I am not knocking its work: some of it was good, although I am less keen on other parts. However, some of the other things that have been written and said do offer us a way forward. What I am trying to say is, yes, I want the work to be done as fast as possible, but I also want workable solutions that recognise the complexity of the issues.

The unspoken argument—of which we as party politicians are all aware but do not talk about much—is that as much as we want Parliament to be a good Parliament that holds Governments to account and all the rest, we know that if we win an election on a party manifesto, we expect to be able to carry out that manifesto without the second Chamber constantly blocking us, which is what happened to Labour Governments throughout the 20th century. We had better come up with a system that recognises that; to do otherwise would be to put the parliamentary aspects wholly above the party aspects, whereas the reality that we have to take on board, whether we like it or not, is that no modern democracy works without political parties.

We want it to be possible to govern effectively and we want the second Chamber—and, I might add, the first—to be able to hold the Government to account, but we also want the second Chamber to be able to protect and enhance aspects of the constitution. The aspect about which I feel strongly is local government, because—unlike some of my hon. Friends, although people outside certainly saw it—throughout the 1980s I watched Governments smash up local government, abolish local government, and impose the poll tax.

I learned a lesson when I entertained a group of West Germans who were fascinated about docklands. Having heard how Michael Heseltine, then Secretary of State for the Environment, had overruled all the local authorities to build docklands, even though the local authorities were all saying no, they asked me how he had the power to do that, saying, "Under West Germany's constitution, he would not have been allowed to do that—yet you wrote our constitution for us." I did not say it at the time, but I thought of the magic saying that the British occasionally utter, "Don't do as we do, do as we tell you."

The issues are complex. That is an argument not for delay, but for very clear and hard thinking. That thinking should focus on matters such as the role of the second Chamber—what it exists to do. I think that it should not only act as a revising Chamber, but serve to protect and enhance parts of the constitution. We might need to take a more radical approach from time to time if we are to avoid falling into the trap that claimed the Modernisation Committee when it spent several meetings considering how we could change the times that this House sat, not focusing on the central issue which was how to get some of the time-consuming business out of this Chamber and into what is now Westminster Hall.

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I am very proud of Westminster Hall. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) thinks that we devalued Parliament in creating Westminster Hall, but I think that it has done wonderful things for Back Benchers. In the long term, it will enable us to enhance the role of this Chamber—but that will only happen when other parts of the constitution are reformed.

I have spoken for longer than I intended. I do not want to lay down blueprints, but I ask hon. Members to recognise the importance of the steps that we are taking and to understand the need for an ongoing process of constitutional reform. We must not get stuck as we did in the 20th century. However much the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) thinks I underestimate some of the reforms that occurred then, historians looking back at the past four centuries would regard the 20th century as the one of least movement.

8.24 pm

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): I am grateful for being called and pleased to follow the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley)— I almost said for Hammersmith. I shall not follow him down the corridor of his views on our changing constitution and what the role of the second Chamber should be. Instead, I shall concentrate on the terms of the motion, which is to do with setting up a Joint Committee.

I recently joined the Select Committee on Public Administration. I wish that I could take credit for having been a member of the Committee when it published its original report, but I was not. On a personal note, I greatly regret that the Chairman of that Committee, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), is not to be a member of the Joint Committee, but I realise that not everybody can be.

I support the amendment, but I hope that members of the Public Administration Committee will allow me to point out that I support it to make a consensus. I strongly believe that there should be a limited time scale for the deliberations of the Joint Committee, but I should have preferred a requirement that it report by the end of the current Session, or, for want of a better description, by the end of October. None the less, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we really should be able to get a decision on the composition of the second Chamber and the element of election to it, if that is to be the case, first and then we can sort out the other matters. I hope that the members of the Joint Committee will bear that in mind.

I started the debate believing that a timetable was preferable. Having heard the Leader of the House, I believe that a timetable is essential. As he put it, it will be necessary for the Committee to report and this House—and, presumably, the other House—to make a decision if legislation is to be presented in the 2002–03 Session. I hope that that might encourage the Joint Committee to act faster rather than slower.

I have one or two, perhaps over-simplified, observations to make. We are all modernists now—

Mr. Forth: No we are not.

Sir Sydney Chapman: Well, almost all of us are, although I include myself in the minority.

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I understand that from next Session the House is to sit in September as a matter of course. I think it would be an extraordinarily good thing to have a dry run by inviting the Joint Committee to sit in September.

I apologise in advance for the fact that my next point is slightly party political in nature. The Government, rightly or wrongly, have adopted a procedure whereby before every Bill goes into Committee, its Committee stage is timetabled, as are remaining stages. I should have thought that that made more powerful the case for setting a timetable for the Joint Committee.

There is also something injudicious in the fact that while we in the Commons can see the point of reaching conclusions sooner rather than later, I imagine that Members of the other place—on the principle that turkeys do not vote for an early Christmas—might think that they need to take a long time to determine all the options that they should present to the Commons and the Government.

In trying to adopt an all-party approach, if that is possible, let me refer to the point made by the Scottish National party Members. I might be wrong, but looking at the 12 Members of the House of Commons who have been proposed as members of the Joint Committee, it seems to me that all the regions are covered, with the exception of Scotland. I am more concerned that there is not a Scottish MP on the Committee than that a particular party is not represented.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush would join me in reminding the House that, in population if not in size, London is considerably larger than Scotland. From a party political viewpoint, I feel strongly that the second party in London should have a representative on the Joint Committee, but I realise that its size makes it impossible to achieve the balance needed to satisfy all the interests.

As the Leader of the House said, there is general consensus on the need for a second Chamber and on its having the sort of powers that the other place currently has. Essentially, the argument centres on composition and what degree of election or appointment there should be to that revised second Chamber.

If it was the responsibility of the Joint Committee to draw up the blueprint for the second Chamber, it would need longer to deliberate. But as it is required to put options, whether there are two or a range—my experience is that there are as many views as there are Members of the House about exactly what the second Chamber should be—the Joint Committee can and should come to its conclusions sooner, rather than later. In short, we all know the arguments. We have rehearsed them for years, particularly over the past year or two. Now it is time to reach decisions.


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