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8.30 pm

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): The terms of the motion are very narrow indeed—to agree or reject the membership and to consider an amendment concerning the timetable. I supported the establishment of the Joint Committee and the Government's decision to leave the matter to Parliament. I did so because the Government's track record on the issue is particularly poor.

The Wakeham commission was a disaster. Anyone who read the responses to the Wakeham report realised that Wakeham got it completely wrong. We all know that the

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Lord Chancellor was living on another planet when he presented his preferred options. He was not speaking for the parliamentary Labour party or the Labour party but for a very few Members of the House of Lords.

We had the disaster of the people's peers, proposed by my own Government, to huge ridicule. The House of Lords Appointments Commission was ridiculed. The whole episode has been a disaster, so I welcome the decision by the Prime Minister to leave the matter to Parliament.

We have picked over the issue endlessly, and I shall not follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) and others by rehearsing the options. We know broadly what they are, but I enter a caveat. My heart sank when my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), I think, mentioned new developments: the regional dimension. Goodness me! We are still consulting on the regions. The regional Green Paper is out to consultation until August. The Government's proposals for the regions are opaque.

It is a characteristic of the Government that on certain difficult issues—this is a difficult issue—there never comes a point where matters crystallise and we are asked to decide. There is always more consultation, more navel-gazing. It is depressing and debilitating. What people out there want, and what I want from my own Government, is clarity of vision and purpose.

I attached my name to the amendment because it concerns me—less so now than before the debate started—that no time frame is mentioned in the motion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase mentioned, when we tabled the amendment we made the mistake of not specifying the year. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), speaking for the Liberals, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush both told the House that they believe, as we believe, that it is possible to bring forward options by 17 July. We are not asking people to go back to the drawing board and produce a blueprint—

Mr. Soley: With respect to my hon. Friend, I said that 17 July was a nonsense date.

Mr. Prentice: Forgive me, I am confusing my hon. Friend with another hon. Member—I shall call him my hon. Friend on the Public Administration Committee—the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman). He said, I think, that it should be possible to bring forward options at an early date.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I said that I went along with the consensus of the Committee in specifying the date of 17 July, but I personally would have preferred to submit a report by the end of the Session—say, by the end of October.

Mr. Prentice: I have got it all seriously wrong. Clearly, I am speaking of what I want to happen. This is a kind of Vulcan mind meld. I do not know whether we are all Trekkies, but some of us are.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he would help

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himself by talking about what he wants, rather than recapitulating what other hon. Members have been saying?

Mr. Prentice: It should be possible to bring forward proposals by the end of July. I have no doubt about that. Anyone who reads the Public Administration Committee report would be convinced that it is possible to find a consensus where, perhaps, it was thought previously that none existed.

That is the case in the report from the Select Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase reminded the House that we started to take evidence in December and I think that we produced our report on 14 February. No doubt I will be corrected if I am wrong. The Select Committee encompassed a range of views, but we settled on a recommendation of 60 per cent. directly elected. We thought in our wisdom that that would find favour with the Government, although we state in the report:

which is my preference.

I have no problems with the membership of the Joint Committee. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that its members are all distinguished and of great standing. However, we need to consider how the members of Joint Committees are selected in future. I had not realised, until my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush told the House, that he had applied. I made a very public application last Thursday to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and I thought that he was seriously considering it, but there we are.

Finally, I return to the matter that I touched on earlier—the centre of gravity. I do not want people from the other end inventing their own centre of gravity. I want them to look at the evidence. The Conservative party's position is that 80 per cent. should be elected and 20 per cent. indirectly elected or nominated. The Liberal party's position is that 80 per cent. should be elected, and 20 per cent. nominated. The Public Administration Committee recommended that 60 per cent. should be elected.

Perhaps I was expecting too much of the Joint Committee in hoping that it could meet during the summer. Having listened to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, I believe that a realistic deadline for a final report would be the turn of the year, so that legislation can be introduced. I hope that the House will endorse that approach.

8.38 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): The only issue that I agree with so far is that we are discussing a key constitutional matter that needs to be settled. As the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) said, reform of the House of Lords is essential because the present situation is untenable. The Government have interfered with processes in the other place and they now have to finish the job. That should be a matter for Members of this place rather than for the Government. The Government have failed miserably to take Back-Bench Labour Members with them, let alone the rest of the House.

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Unless one is a member of one of the three largest parties in the House, the motion is entirely unacceptable. It contains no recognition of the minority parties in the House. The Leader of the House danced on the end of a pin to justify the motion in terms of logistics and statistics. He ignored the fact that there will be a Committee of 24, a number that would legitimately require a minority party member to be on it. He said that 12 members will be nominated by the House, and only the 12 will count. By that logic, no Joint Committee will ever have a minority party Member on it. We will never count in those terms. That is unacceptable for Members of minority parties, and I suggest that it should be unacceptable for anyone who takes the Chamber seriously and for the process of democracy.

The Leader of the House has suggested that these Joint Committees should become a more obvious feature of our constitutional arrangements in the House, and that we should be doing more jointly with the other place. When we arrive at a reformed House of Lords that will contain at least a majority of elected Members, I expect that we will work much more closely with it. As a member of the Catering Committee, which is my highest standing in this place at present, I know that we cannot agree with the House of Lords about co-ordinating the opening and shutting of our catering facilities. There is much to do to improve relations between this place and the other place. Future Joint Committees have had a worrying precedent set this evening.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): There are already differences between this place and the other place, as there are between parties in this place. What special or unique bearing would a minority party bring to the debate? Surely the purpose of a Joint Committee is the recognition that there are differences within parties in this place, and that we are seeking consensus.

Mr. Thomas: That was a disappointing intervention. It suggests that minority parties never bring anything to this place. If the hon Gentleman's logic is taken to a reasonable conclusion, representation does not count. Yet we represent 1.5 million voters. In opposing the motion, I am arguing that representation of the different constituent parts of the United Kingdom should be reflected in the Committee. I do not mind whether it is a member of my party, the Scottish National party, the two Unionist parties or the Social Democratic and Labour party. I want the House to recognise that there is a representational role in respect of the individual nations that form the United Kingdom that has not been reflected in the proposed Committee.

It has been pointed out that there will no representative of a Scottish constituency on the Committee. I have a slightly more sophisticated argument than that because there will be a Welsh Member. I may not want him to be on the Committee, but at least he is there. I know that his views will be different from those that I would like to be explored. I shall explain why I take that view.

There has been an underlying debate about the House of Lords interacting in some way with regional devolution in England and national devolution in Northern Ireland,

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Wales and Scotland. That argument has been advanced by two senior Members who will be members of the Committee if the motion is agreed to: the hon. Members for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). That means that there is a crucial role for the minority parties in this place because we stand for election in only one country in the United Kingdom.

We are minority parties not because of the votes that we receive but because we concentrate on only one area of the United Kingdom. I do not represent a minority party in Wales because my party is the official Opposition in the National Assembly for Wales. We got within a whisker of the Labour party's vote in the European elections.

The SNP is not a minority party in Scotland because it is the official Opposition in the Scottish Parliament. The Ulster Unionists and the SDLP are not minority parties in Northern Ireland but parties of government that are essential to the process there.

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