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20 Jun 2006 : Column 374WH—continued

I can think of a number of possible outcomes of going down such a route, and that would depend on whether the Members in the two elected Chambers were elected by the same system of elections or a different system, and whether they were elected at the same time or at different times. If both Chambers of Parliament were elected and if they were elected at the same time, it is reasonable to guess that we would get broadly similar results in each of the two Chambers, and if the intention was that the second Chamber should be some sort of revising brake on the first, that would be unlikely to happen. If, however, they were elected at different times, the likelihood is that we would see the sort of results that we see in local government elections midway through the term of a national Government; the local election is seen as a sort of referendum on the performance of the
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Government. One Chamber would be elected as, in some sense, a protest against the way in which the Government were proceeding, and the result would be likely to be deadlock.

I have a confession to make. Once upon a time I had a private conversation with a very senior member of my party’s shadow Cabinet. He is not here today, and even if he were, I would not embarrass him by identifying him. He said to me, “Julian, you don’t understand. The whole point is to have a deadlock. If the problem is that Parliament is doing too much, that there is too much legislation and too much government, then isn’t it a great thing that the two Houses should be deadlocked in this way?” That is a radical approach, but I do not think that it is a very constructive one.

Chris Bryant: I have just been quietly counting to myself the number of subjunctives and ifs that the hon. Gentleman has used. I think that we are up to about 15 of each. I think that that is because he is describing something, to then knock it down, that nobody is advocating. The truth is that the vast majority of those of us who advocate a substantially or wholly elected second Chamber suggest that it should not all be elected at one time, that it should not have a majority for any one party and that the relationship between the two Houses needs to be a constructive one that can lead to proper legislative process.

Dr. Lewis: Yes, but if it were not elected all at once—[Interruption.] I am terribly sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not like my use of the word “if,” but when one is trying to anticipate what the results of a proposed change will be, that is the only way in which one can proceed. One can say, “If you take cause A, the result will be consequence B. If you take cause B, the result will be consequence C,” and so on. There is nothing wrong with my doing that; in fact, I cannot think of an intellectually honest alternative way to proceed with the argument.

Ian Lucas: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Lewis: Well, okay. I had not finished my response to the previous intervention, but never mind.

Ian Lucas: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know that he is always anxious to take lessons from Europe, and in his support I refer him to the position in Germany in recent years. A series of state elections led to the paralysis of government in the Bundestag, which meant that the Government were unable to continue through their term and an election had to take place. That position would apply here if a directly elected second Chamber were introduced.

Dr. Lewis: Of course the hon. Gentleman’s point is right, and it is precisely the answer to the objection that was made to my argument. There are differences between people’s outlooks on the most legitimate method of electing a Parliament. If people believe, for example, that it is most legitimate to use a system with a proportional element, which tends to lead to the type of results to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred, they will
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regard the Chamber elected by those means as having more legitimacy. If people believe, as I do, that it is more legitimate to have a first-past-the-post system of election, they will take the view that the Chamber elected by that method has the greater legitimacy.

The key argument against the proposals is shown by the fact that nearly every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate has emphasised that the main role for the second Chamber should be as a revising Chamber rather than to extend, repeat or second-guess the process of legislation carried out by the House of Commons. Who is better qualified to undertake its work—another raft of non-expert, professional, elected politicians or a collection of people who have achieved distinction in other walks of life, but chosen not to enter the hurly-burly of the democratic political process because they are intellectually gifted and temperamentally inclined to become distinguished academics, practitioners of the law, medical practitioners and experts in their field? The reformers’ proposals would exclude from the legislative process a group of people who can genuinely improve the legislation that comes before them in favour of non-expert, career politicians who have nothing to add to what the career politicians in the lower House contribute.

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend provokes me almost beyond belief. Under the proposals, the percentage of independents in the new, reformed House of Lords would be almost exactly the same as it is now.

Dr. Lewis: I am not sure that that bears very much on the question of expertise. If people have to go through a process of election to get into the second Chamber, then the majority of people who have chosen not to become professional politicians but to rise to the top of their professions will almost certainly be excluded.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is provoking me even more than he provoked his right hon. Friend. The majority of those who do most of the work in the House of Lords at the moment are career politicians who have gone from the House of Commons to the House of Lords. I do not understand why those people should suddenly be frightened of elections. Surely anybody who is in the legislature on a party ticket should at least have to be elected.

Dr. Lewis: I am very surprised at the assertion that the majority of work is done by the ex-politicians. The vast majority of business management may be done by such people, but a very considerable contribution is made, according to the field in which their expertise lies, by people who have, as I have repeatedly stated, risen to the top of their respective professions. Those people will be excluded.

Why has the Prime Minister suddenly declared himself a convert to this cause? Is it because he has been convinced by the integrity, consistency and plausibility of the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)? I rather doubt it. I think that it is because he and his party have been caught with their fingers in the till—they have been caught out over the question of loans for peerages.
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They are not the first, and they will not be the last to have been caught out in that way.

If we are talking about the people who do the majority of the work in the upper House, I think that it will be found that those who have been controversial appointees are not the ones who do the majority of the work. A lot of those people take the bauble and are never heard of again.

John Bercow: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Lewis: I am actually bringing my remarks to a conclusion.

I can think of a lot of good reasons for the Prime Minister’s having one view or another about the composition of the second Chamber, but doing things as a panic reaction to having been caught out in corrupt practices is not the right way to decide this important constitutional issue.

10.18 am

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): May I say what a pleasure it is to appear for the first time with you in the Chair, Mr. Weir. I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on raising what I have always considered to be an extremely important subject. It goes to the heart of the British constitution, because as long as one half of our Parliament is considered to be illegitimate, Parliament as a whole is weakened. We are weakened in the eyes of the people and our legislation is not as competent and as good as it could be. I have always felt that reform of the House of Lords is one of the most important things that any Government could attempt. This Government have started, but I echo those who have said that it is surprising that, at this stage of their life, the very paltry reform of stage 1 is all that they have managed to get on the statute book.

Mr. Clelland: What evidence has the hon. Gentleman for saying that the House of Lords is considered to be illegitimate? That might be the view of those who want an elected second Chamber, but what evidence has he that people out there care very much about having the House of Lords reformed, never mind whether they think that it is illegitimate?

John Thurso: I have three pieces of evidence for the hon. Gentleman. The first is my own experience in another place. Secondly, I have listened to Members, in another place and in the Chamber, usually on the Government’s side, saying that it is time to stop voting against legislation, either because “We are the unelected House”—when I was up there—or because “They are the unelected House”—now that I am down here. Thirdly, I have had many conversations with ordinary voters concerned about Parliament who feel precisely the same way.

I do not think that anyone can challenge the fact that the House of Lords is regarded as illegitimate. That for me is the core problem when considering reform of the House of the Lords.

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I agree completely with much that the hon. Member for Rhondda said. I suspect that his objective is exactly the same as mine, but I must take issue with him on one fundamental point. I do not believe that it is appropriate to consider powers at the same time as composition. I have changed my view on that over the years. Back in about 1997, when I wrote a not-very-widely-publicised pamphlet on the subject, I made the point that one should look first at the powers, and that the composition should follow. I used his precise argument: in architecture, form should follow function.

My experience of watching attempts to reform the House has taught me that the precise opposite is the case. Actually, we need to set out a detailed plan for reform of the composition, and only then will we see the answers to the questions, many of which have been raised in today’s debate.

John Bercow: We need to deal with the point about the so-called experts. Did the hon. Gentleman hear my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) suggest either that experts would not stand, or that the public would not vote for them? I suggest in fact that if we have lengthy non-renewable terms, it is likely that substantial numbers of experts would stand, even if not the same experts in every case, as is currently the situation. If the public are fed up with the current tranche, and with what they regard as the superfluity, of standard, professional, elected politicians, there is every prospect that they will vote for those different and to-be-preferred experts, whose chances my hon. Friend is wrongly inclined to discount.

John Thurso: I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman. Furthermore, the oft-used phrase, “The great experience of the House of Lords”, is overstated, in my experience. As I recall, there was considerable experience on agriculture and matters to do with landowning. I remember answering regularly for my party on the vexed question of the future of salmon fisheries in the United Kingdom, and on a wide range of other subjects.

The removal of the hereditaries removed quite properly one bias in the House of Lords, but has actually resulted in another series of biases. One of those is retired Members of Parliament, who form far too large a section. Others include Oxbridge and the law. I could go on. Many areas of our lives are not represented. Election would result in much broader representation.

Dr. Lewis: Will the hon. Gentleman expand on how all those experts would find themselves elected to the upper House? Would they stand independently or have to rapidly join individual parties in order to submit themselves to the democratic process?

John Thurso: That could be achieved in a number of ways. I am conscious of the time, but the hon. Gentleman leads me on to the critical point: we need to establish a firm method of election and to know what we seek to achieve from it. That would answer all related questions.

I want to make clear what I see as the fundamental points. The first is that the method of election is
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proportional representation. The second is that the election should involve large, regional constituencies. The third is that one third of Members should be elected every four years. I would hold those quadrennial elections at the time of the devolved elections for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the nearest local election in England. The fourth is that Members be allowed one term only. In the past, I suggested that that term be of 12 years. Another is that there be no re-election. That is the critical point because it would remove the power that the Whips have in the Commons on reselection and re-election. Finally, there should be some provision for appointment. If that did not happen, I would not worry. The proportion of those appointed should be less than one quarter.

I take issue with the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland). I believe that one solves the vast majority of the problems that were referred to by the manner of composing elections. It is easy to ensure that there is no casework. We would simply have a convention that Ministers do not respond to letters from peers on individual items. There are a range of ways in which those problems can be solved.

I share deeply the suspicion of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) that bringing the powers of the Lords into the debate at this stage will complicate the process of reform and delay it. I may be being uncharitable but I have a suspicion that that is not wholly distant from what the Government seek to achieve. I hope that it is uncharitable and that they will go ahead with reform. I urge them to concentrate on the composition of the House.

Chris Bryant: I think that there is a misunderstanding here. It is certainly true that it was difficult to achieve consensus in the Labour party. Indeed, at the time, Robin Cook said that consensus was a misnomer for what one wanted to achieve. Among Labour Members it would certainly be difficult to achieve consensus on reform of the Lords unless one understood what the powers of the Lords would be. That is why the Government are moving in that direction. It is not because of any desire to push things into the long grass.

John Thurso: I have known the hon. Gentleman long enough to accept entirely what he says but I still have my doubts as to its practical validity. It seems to me that the purpose of reforming the Lords is straightforward. Reform must be about improvement. For me, improvement is defined by strengthening Parliament as a whole. I have often heard that the House of Commons must remain supreme and be predominant. The more I hear that phrase, the less I understand it because, ultimately, it seems to me that what we must be about is strengthening the role of Parliament as a whole. The start point must therefore be that the existing powers remain unchanged. Any attempt to limit the existing power of the Lords should be resisted. It would be a trap to allow legitimacy at the price of castration.

History teaches us two lessons: that our constitution is in a state of permanent—albeit slow—evolution; and that all legislation has unintended consequences. To achieve the former while minimising the latter, it would
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be better if the power of the Lords was considered in light of the experience of the operation of an elected House. The powers of the House should not be part of the current consideration. They should neither be increased nor decreased. There would, however, be a clear understanding that the question of powers would be revisited in light of the experience of an elected Lords. It would be for all of us—by then enjoying the privilege of election, whether to this House or to the other place—to ensure that neither the Lords nor the Commons abuse the new arrangements or, if they are abused, to make a cogent case for their change.

It seems to me that the key is that an unelected House will always be tainted with the charge of illegitimacy. The only remedy for that can be election—and substantial election. The danger lies in seeking to reform powers at the same time as conferring legitimacy. It is equivalent to giving a child who has attained majority the keys of the house and then changing the locks. I am equally convinced of the need to accommodate existing peers graciously.

Perhaps I may for one moment explain what I believe should happen: each third of the new House would be elected every four years, leaving all the existing peers in place. The plain fact is, taking an actuarial view and looking at the age of the House, that the question would resolve itself through time relatively easily. The House would be large, but it would begin to diminish. If we withdrew the obligation on Members of the other House to go, we should have removed one of the biggest blocks to their lordships’ agreeing with us. It is a practical point, but is probably the key to the whole thing. We must be gracious with them.

Provided that we have decided where we want to go, it does not really matter if it takes a little time. After all, it is nearly a century since reform began. If it takes another decade to complete the transformation it will have been worth it. The critical point, however, is to decide where we want to go. We must decide that soon.

10.31 am

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I agree with the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) that the function of the House of Lords is extremely important. I pay tribute to their lordships because in recent months they have stood up and defended freedom. They have played an important role in relation to civil liberties issues arising in recent legislation.

I share the slight suspicion of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) that it is odd that a demand and desire to tackle House of Lords reform should suddenly arise, apparently parallel to the scandalous allegations that were made recently and that are being investigated by the constabulary. There is a worry that the Prime Minister, having appointed 50 per cent. of the other place and 70 per cent. of the Labour peers—he has exercised more patronage than Henry VIII—and being now at the end of his days, thinks, “No need to pass that on to the next one.” Alternatively, perhaps it may be convenient to be able to say that serious negotiations are in hand, given that collars—well, no; I have no idea whether they will be felt.

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