“To begin the task of building a new politics, we will let the British people decide on whether to make Parliament more democratic and accountable”
Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman said that he required time to consider the Bill. How long does he require—10, 15, 20 or 25 days? Will he enlighten the House by saying how long he feels is necessary?
I note from his opening statement that the Deputy Prime Minister highlighted areas where the Bill had been amended as a result of the Joint Committee’s report, but he was less keen to highlight those where he has not taken on board the Joint Committee’s views. He knows as well as I do that he has cherry-picked from the Joint Committee’s report, while blindly ignoring its other key recommendations and concerns. Let me turn to the Bill itself. If I was being generous, I would have to say that the Bill as it stands is a bit of a mess.
Mrs Laing: Having sat on the Joint Committee for eight months, I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the report was critical of the Government’s Bill. The alternative report—signed by 12 of the Joint Committee’s 25 members—was even more critical. The Committee agreed that eight months was not long enough to give proper scrutiny to the Bill, so how could 10 days be long enough for this House?
Sadiq Khan: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She reminds us that there are still a number of major deficiencies, which will need to be looked at in Committee, if the Bill is to be improved. Our support for giving the Bill a Second Reading should therefore not be taken as a blank cheque.
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Government have sought to rewrite the inadequate clause 2 of the draft Bill and dropped any reference to the conventions governing the relationship between the Houses. It remains to be seen whether this will deal satisfactorily with the issue; constitutional experts are no doubt poring over this as we speak. As the Bill will be debated on the Floor of the House, and as new clause 2 was not considered by the Joint Committee, there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny. We simply do not know whether the provision is adequate. Labour Members want to ensure that the Commons maintains its primacy even when a second Chamber becomes elected.
It is impossible to predict what changes might develop in the culture of the House of Lords following reform, but it seems likely that elected Members will expect to play at least a fairly assertive role and that voters may share that view. When the European Parliament went from being an appointed to an elected body, it demanded more powers to reflect its democratic mandate. Why should elected Members of the second Chamber be bound by conventions that bind a Chamber of hereditary and appointed peers? The Bill effectively washes its hands of this issue.
Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend explain why it is good enough to have a referendum when we are electing a mayor in a city, yet not good enough to have one when we are changing the constitution?
Sadiq Khan: I heard the Deputy Prime Minister desperately trying to answer that question, but on four or five occasions when such questions were put to him by his hon. Friends, he failed to answer them.
Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Did my hon. Friend notice that in answering one of his colleagues earlier, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the coalition had decided on a change to the voting system in favour of proportional representation? Only a few months ago, however, the electorate rejected that, but the coalition is not prepared to accept the democratic will of the electorate.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the semi-open list system was exactly the system that he personally asked for in the Joint Committee?
Sadiq Khan: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm two things: first, that the Joint Committee stopped sitting in November 2010; and, secondly, that the Joint Committee of both Houses failed to consider this system? He decides not to respond.
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Sadiq Khan: The Bill recognises that conventions may evolve, and assumes this will happen of its own accord during the transition phases. We believe that that is too passive and is a dangerous position. The obvious questions requiring clarification include the following. What is the position on the Salisbury-Addison convention about Bills and the prevention of manifesto commitments? What about the convention that the Lords does not usually object to secondary legislation? More than 1,000 pieces of secondary legislation go through Parliament each year; the Parliament Acts do not cover this. What about the convention that the Government should get their business through in reasonable time? The Parliament Acts still allow Bills to be delayed for 13 months. What is the position on the exchange of amendments between Houses? The Lords could force the Commons to concede on major changes or resort to the use of the Parliament Acts. I am not saying that those questions cannot be answered adequately; it is just that the Government appear not even to realise that these are live issues. They have their heads in the sand.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The shadow Secretary of State is making a powerful speech. He refers to the Government’s Bill. Is it not a fact that there are 10 Ministers sitting on the Front Bench today, of whom only two are Conservative and eight are Liberal? Does that not show where the real support for this Bill comes from?
It is simply not clear how any dispute about the use of powers or appropriate interpretation of conventions could be adjudicated or effectively enforced? We think the Bill will need to play a more active role in addressing powers and conventions, particularly if we are to placate the legitimate fears of colleagues on all sides and in both Chambers. Failure to do so risks storing up big problems for the future.
Mrs Main: I should appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s comments on the function of this apparent second House. Does he share my fear that when the majority of its Members are elected and a small proportion will be appointed, there will be a divided second House some of whose Members will have more power than others? When it comes to a tied vote, who will really win?
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his statesmanlike address. He seeks credit for the Labour party for reforming history, and he is right to do so. The last but one Labour Prime Minister, who introduced devolution in Scotland and Wales and
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a Northern Ireland Assembly, and, indeed, introduced proportional representation for European elections without a referendum, deserves enormous credit.
Does the right hon. Gentleman feel comfortable about concentrating on the details now, and essentially asking for a prevaricators’ charter? Does he feel comfortable about being ranked as a pygmy alongside those giants of constitutional reform?
Sadiq Khan: I am not sure whether I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. He seems to be suggesting that we skip the details and rush the Bill through the House, and I am not sure that that is my idea of good government.
Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend feel as uncomfortable as I do when listening to the Liberal Democrats lecturing people on referendum commitments in manifestos when they cannot even keep to their own commitments to their coalition colleagues, or on tuition fees?
Mr Sheerman: My right hon. Friend is making some very good points. I have been in the House for long enough to have voted for many of the progressive measures introduced by a Labour Government, but one of the things that worry the reformers on the Opposition Benches who want change in the upper House is the quality of the people who would end up there—and there is nothing in the Bill to assure us that the party machines will not control all the people who end up there.
Sadiq Khan: My hon. Friend highlights one of the problems of a list system. That is one of the reasons why we are surprised that the Joint Committee, which sat for nine months, did not consider the type of system that is being imposed in the Bill.
“I am a supporter of a fully elected House of Lords”.—[Official Report, 5 April 2011; Vol. 526, c. 879.]
Those are not my words—although I agree with them—but the words of the Deputy Prime Minister. However, his Bill proposes the establishment of an 80% elected Chamber. We are disappointed that it has not gone for a fully elected second Chamber. Even the Joint Committee was split, recognising that there was a case for that.
Our position is that we want a fully elected second Chamber, and that was also the position taken in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto. By allowing some Members still to be appointed, the Deputy Prime Minister is weakening his own arguments for having elected Members in the second Chamber. The Deputy Prime Minister’s pet phrase—although he did not use it today—is “Do not let the best be the enemy of the good”, but in proposing a hybrid Chamber he may be storing up problems for the future.
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The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): I was a little confused by the right hon. Gentleman’s criticism of the open list system. One of the things that we did after listening to the Joint Committee was adopt an open list system, in the spirit of consensus, as it is exactly what the Labour party put in its manifesto.
Sadiq Khan: The Minister is wrong to suggest that the Joint Committee had an opportunity to consider the system that he has now put in the Bill. It simply did not. I am willing to give way to the Minister again. Did the Joint Committee consider the type of voting system that is in the Bill? Well, the Minister has decided to remain in his seat, which is his prerogative.
There are legitimate concerns about the possibility that this hybrid system will lead to tensions between the different types of Member, and that those who are elected and are full time will consider themselves more legitimate, and be treated as such, than those who are unelected and part time. There are also other concerns, which will no doubt be raised over the next two days.
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the Joint Committee had considered the issue of open lists. Obviously we did not consider the specific clauses that are now in the Bill, but if he reads our report he will see that there is a section referring to open lists, and a recommendation that states
“In the Committee's view, the voting system chosen should give voters the widest choice… of where to cast their preferences, whether that is within a single party or across candidates”.
Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): In answer to an intervention from the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), the Deputy Prime Minister said there could be some kind of referendum or investigation after the election of the first tranche of peers. That shows that we need a more detailed investigation of the Bill, because the rules are changing as we go along.
Sadiq Khan: It is worrying that the Deputy Prime Minister has today decided to pull a rabbit out of the hat by suggesting the idea of a referendum once we have some peers appointed or elected in the way that he wants.
We also need to be clear that the model is not quite as simple as the 80:20 split that has been portrayed. The Bill permits the Prime Minister of the day to appoint eight additional Ministers to sit in the Chamber. That will mean that, once again, patronage will lead to a place in the second Chamber—so much for accountability and the end of patronage! Over the period of a Government, that could accumulate, and result in a fair number of partisan ex-Ministers with full voting rights being members of the legislature for 15-year terms by appointment via patronage. This, again, is against the advice of the Joint Committee.
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Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman has discussed the problem with having different types of peers in the new upper House, but nobody has yet discussed the new ministerial Members, who will, of course—[Interruption.] Well, not in terms of numbers. The fact is that the Bill will allow the Prime Minister of the day to impose an unlimited number of ministerial peers who are not appointed by the independent appointments system.
Sadiq Khan: The draft Bill advocated the Prime Minister having the power to appoint Ministers, who would be members of the legislature for as long as they were Ministers. However, the Bill published last week says they can stay for 15 years, which is really quite remarkable.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for making public the historic levels of indecision on the Liberal Democrat Benches in respect of House of Lords reform. On the 15-years issue, the Deputy Prime Minister says this House contains career politicians. Surely, a 15-year job is a career.
A key absence from the Bill is that there will be no referendum. The Government have opted to impose their proposals on the public, rather than trust the people with a vote on House of Lords reform. We think that is an error, and it runs contrary to the growing tradition that major constitutional change should be put to the people in a referendum.
“The Committee recommends that, in view of the significance of the constitutional change brought forward for an elected House of Lords, the Government should submit the decision to a referendum.”
We heard a number of defences of that position from the Deputy Prime Minister. He said a referendum was not needed because proposals to reform the House of Lords were in all three main parties’ manifestos. The manifestos said very different things, however. While Labour and the Lib Dems called for a wholly elected second Chamber—albeit Labour wanted a referendum as well—the Conservatives sought only to find consensus. It is not simply semantics to argue that the Conservatives never actually gave a commitment to reform the House of Lords; they gave a process commitment to seek dialogue to find common ground.
What is the best way to build consensus and to get a second Chamber that has legitimacy and public confidence? One way would be through holding a referendum. That would give consensus, public confidence and greater legitimacy.
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has been highlighted by a number of eminent commentators and colleagues from both sides of the Chamber, we would do so because someone who was opposed to reform of the House of Lords had no way of expressing that opinion at the last election. A referendum would allow a full and frank airing of views and allow voters the option to support, or oppose, the position.
The fact is that, under these proposals, by 2015, let alone 2025, the way in which the Members of the other Chamber are elected and appointed will be totally different from how it is now. That is a radical change; it is not simply tinkering. If it were just tinkering, I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister would not be quite so keen to champion the proposals as he is now.
Moreover, Parliament has got into the habit—some would call it a convention, and a good one at that—of holding referendums on major constitutional change. When in government, Labour did so in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland on devolution proposals, and in London on the creation of the mayoralty and the assembly. We also did so on giving further powers to the Welsh Assembly. We gave the people of the north-east of England a referendum to vote on regional government —a proposal they rejected. Even this Government have held a referendum on changing the voting system. People will not unreasonably think that the Deputy Prime Minister fears that his latest set of proposals will suffer the same fate as his electoral reform ideas. Referendums were also held in towns and cities up and down the country on proposals for elected mayors less than eight weeks ago. So if a referendum is good enough for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, London, the north-east, Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, Wakefield, and for the alternative vote system, it is certainly good enough for Lords reform—an issue of national significance.
Time prevents me from dealing with the other areas where this Bill needs improvement, which include the length of the terms; whether those terms should be renewable; the cost of the second Chamber; the transitional arrangements; and the system of elections. There are more such issues, but time is running away.
We have made it clear that we will be voting to give the Bill a Second Reading; we support the principle of reform of the House of Lords. As the Government have decided to introduce this Bill, our job is to respond. We will oppose where we think things are not right and we will support them when we think they are the right thing to do. As I have said, on this occasion we will be supporting the progress of this Bill, but the Committee stage will offer the opportunity for the House to shape the Bill into something much better.
It is absolutely crucial—[Interruption.] I will answer the question that Ministers on the Treasury Bench have been chuntering about. It is crucial that the Bill is given sufficient time to be debated in detail. I know that the Chief Whip has now left, but attempts to shorten or stifle debate by the Government would be unhelpful. A fixed period of time for the Committee stage will not allow proper discussion of all 60 clauses and 11 schedules, and consideration of new clauses. Filibustering could
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render a full and frank debate impossible, which would be an utter travesty for a Bill of this importance. Let us consider the following:
“when there are really important matters before the House…a big Bill when Members want to say what they need on behalf of their constituents, they are unable to do so because of some ridiculous programme motion that does not take into account the gravity or importance of the measure.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 638.]
Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman has not stinted from personal criticism of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, so why is he declining to tell the House of Commons how many days he thinks are necessary for this Bill? If he and his party are so committed to the reform of the House of Lords, why is it, if they oppose the programme motion, that they will find themselves in the same Lobby as those opposed, root and branch, to any reform at all?
Mr Speaker: Order. Liberal Democrat Members should not be yelling at the right hon. Gentleman. The right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) intervened and the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) is replying. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) is an aspiring statesman—
Sadiq Khan: I have already told the House what the Deputy Leader of the House thought a few months before he had the burdens of high office. Only two months before he became part of the Government and part of the Executive, he said that programme motions are
“imposed by the Executive to prevent debate”.—[Official Report, 2 March 2010; Vol. 506, c. 819.]
“Strengthen the House of Commons to increase accountability”,
“control over its own agenda so that all bills leaving the Commons have been fully debated.”
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. One problem is that when we debate important pieces of legislation, we sometimes expect them to be corrected in the House of Lords and choose
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not to have votes in this Chamber as they take 15 minutes, losing us time for debate. Is it not therefore all the more important, particularly on clause 1, which contains nearly all the issues of composition, that we have as much time as it takes to get it absolutely right and to have as many votes as we need to get it right? Otherwise, there will be no prospect of the Bill ever coming into law because we will be unable to Parliament Act it.
Sadiq Khan: On a number of occasions, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have said that they will use the Parliament Act to get the Bill through, which means that the second Chamber’s ability to revise and improve will have gone and the Bill must leave this Chamber in the best state possible. If debate is guillotined, that will not be possible.
Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend has made a point in his effective speech of referring to the previous Government’s record on reforming and improving the House of Lords and of the Liberal Democrats’ failure to support us. Let me remind him that when we introduced the House of Lords Act 1999, if I recall correctly, we allowed four full days of debate on the Floor of the House on the five-clause Bill and we did not programme that discussion in any way because it was a constitutional matter.
Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend understand that if he is not prepared to say how long a programme motion should specify for debate, even in his wildest dreams, while saying that he wants reform of the second Chamber, people outside this Chamber might well feel that his position is contradictory? Will he therefore consider entering into proper negotiations should the programme motion fail tomorrow night, so that we ensure that everyone outside this place knows that the Labour party is still a party of reform of the second Chamber?
Sadiq Khan: I thank the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for his helpful words. It is important for us to ensure that we do that so that the public can see that we are genuine and because we believe in House of Lords reform. We do not want the Bill to get stuck in the House of Commons so we will enter into discussions, but the Government must talk to us. The Deputy Prime Minister has failed to talk to us on the substance of the Bill and what is really important is that the usual channels operate—
Let me make it absolutely plain: we have tried to speak to the Opposition at all times during the development of the Bill to find out how they long they want for the programming of it. They have declined to tell us and the right hon. Gentleman is declining to tell
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us today. That is why we cannot reach consensus; the Opposition do not want to tell us how long they want for the Bill, but simply want to vote against the programme motion.
“today I can announce that we will abolish the practice of automatically guillotining Government Bills and give Parliament back the time it needs to make real improvements to the law.”
“MPs the time to scrutinise law effectively”.
That is the point that we have been trying to make. Both coalition parties are clearly on the same page as Labour. The Bill before us today should be allowed to be fully debated and there should be no guillotining of debate by the Government.
The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young): I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is indeed the case that since 2010 we have tried to develop a consensual approach to the programming of legislation and on many constitutional Bills against which his party has voted on Second Reading, they have agreed to the programme motion. That has happened because we have had a sensible dialogue. I very much regret that, on this Bill, it has not been possible to have that dialogue and reach agreement.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 made a substantial parliamentary change in Wales. Due to the approach of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in the coalition, there was no discussion on the Floor of the House on the reduction from 40 seats to 30 for Wales. That is exactly what will happen if we have a programme motion for this Bill—we will be prevented from speaking out.
Sadiq Khan: It is worth reminding the House what happened: MPs from Wales did not get a chance to discuss their seats, and nor did MPs from Devon and Cornwall, but the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) got his chance to discuss his seat.
The Government are not only trying to deprive the public of their say in the matter by not giving them a referendum, but seeking to deprive the people’s representatives of the chance properly to scrutinise the Bill. For the avoidance of doubt, I repeat what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has made quite clear: we want House of Lords reform and we do not want the Bill stuck in the Commons, but we need the opportunity properly to scrutinise, amend and improve it. Accordingly, we will vote against the programme motion tomorrow night, and hope that Members on both sides of the House join us.
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Mrs Laing: Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that this is not just any Bill? The Bill brings about fundamental change to Parliament. It is a serious constitutional measure and, by convention, the House does not usually put a timetable—a limit—on a Bill of such constitutional significance.
Sadiq Khan: I heard Lib Dem Members chuntering while the hon. Lady, who sits on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, sat on the Joint Committee and spoke for the Conservatives in opposition, made her important point.
The next two days offer an opportunity for views from all sides to be expressed. On previous occasions when the Chamber has debated House of Lords reform, there has been no shortage of opinions from across the full spectrum, all sincerely held and all genuine. I am certain that this occasion will be no different. I understand that more than 115 MPs have already indicated that they want to speak in the debate over the next two days. I know that there are siren voices of concern in all parts of the Chamber. There are those who favour reform, but have concerns about the Bill, and those who favour the status quo.
Let me end by saying that we can all agree that no one, except the Deputy Prime Minister, thinks that this is a perfect Bill. We will help the Government to give the Bill a Second Reading tomorrow night, but Government Back Benchers should vote with us on the programme motion so that we can all work together to achieve a better Bill.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): In the modern history of parliamentary reform, there have been a number of noble milestones: the extension of the franchise in the 19th century, and to women voters in the 20th; the Parliament Act 1911, which gave primacy to this Chamber; and the expulsion of hereditary Members from the House of Lords. Those were all radical measures, and they were welcome and serious. I very much regret to say that the Bill that the Deputy Prime Minister has introduced does not come into that category.
The Bill is a puny measure. It is unwelcome and it will do far more harm than good to our constitutional structures and to the good government of this country. I say that because, essentially, two things will happen. First, the Bill will lead to the departure—the expulsion—of the vast majority of Cross Bencher and specialist Members of the upper House. We have been extremely well served by several hundred of our most distinguished citizens—industrialists, trade unionists, academics, diplomats, churchmen of many faiths, leading members of the armed forces—all of whom have carried out the task of revision, and only a small fraction of them can remain under these provisions. What are we to replace them by? Essentially, it will be a sham democratic Chamber, consisting overwhelmingly of Members who would rather be in this Chamber and who will be elected under a party list system that is an insult to the electorate.
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I believe that this Bill needs to be opposed. I do not normally oppose measures introduced by the Government of whom I am one of the strongest supporters, but this Bill has to be opposed, because, essentially, what it is designed to do will damage the fabric of our government. I say that both to my hon. Friends who, like me, are perhaps willing to go along with an appointed House of Lords, and to other hon. Members who want a genuinely elected system that will continue to attract the brightest and the best to serve in the upper House.
I was not impressed when my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned that Lesotho provided the only example of a House appointed like our own. He must be aware that, for example, Canada has an entirely appointed senate, and that the Federal Republic of Germany has an upper House which is not elected by the people but appointed by the states—
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: My hon. Friend is right and he brings me to my next point, which is that if the Deputy Prime Minister really believes in a democratic upper House, why is he not providing for one in the Bill? What he is providing is form, not substance. The very name of the revised Chamber will continue to be “the House of Lords”. Not a senate, it will be the House of Lords, even though every Lord will have been expelled from it over a period of years.
When it comes to the proposed powers, the Deputy Prime Minister spends his time trying to reassure this House that the powers of the new elected, democratic Chamber will be—will have to be—exactly the same as those the appointed House has now. What possible justification is there for that, if he believes in an elected, democratic upper House? He is a Liberal Democrat; does he not remember the history of his own party? Does he not remember that the Parliament Act 1911 was passed because, until then, apart from on taxation matters, there was an equal right of veto in both Houses, and Asquith and his colleagues argued correctly that an unelected House could not have a veto on the business of Parliament? If the second Chamber is now to be elected, on what ground does he seek to justify his proposals—other than a desire to be all things to all people?
That is the sad problem with the Liberal Democrats: they always wish to be all things to all people—to go for the middle way. I am reminded of a remark I once heard, which I thought was rather good: if Christopher Columbus had been a Liberal Democrat, he probably would have been content with discovering the mid-Atlantic. [Laughter.]
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What public interest will be served by the Bill in its current form? Does my right hon. Friend really believe that, compared with all these distinguished men and women from all over the country who serve in the House of Lords now, most of whom will not be able to continue to serve, a party list of candidates will result in more cerebral debate, more enlightened debate and more able contributions to the revision of legislation? Does he actually believe that and does he seriously want us to accept that, or does he recognise that that cannot, in fact, be the case?
Jesse Norman: I am greatly appreciating, as, I am sure, are all Members, the brilliance of my right hon. and learned Friend’s speech. Does he share my view that, as for Members of the European Parliament, Assembly Members in Wales and Members of the Scottish Parliament, the process of election can only empower this group, so that they start to throw their weight around even more?
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Yes, but what worries me is the prospect of ending up with a party list system which, as we know from the experience of the European Parliament, has no legitimacy with the electorate, is not regarded as a way of electing people to represent their interests, and has been entirely discredited, regardless of the view one takes of the European Union as a whole. For that system of all systems to be chosen for the purpose of deciding membership of the upper House is totally incomprehensible to me, never mind entirely regrettable.
I say specifically to the Deputy Prime Minister, because clearly it is his party that is behind the Bill, and perhaps the only party that would care much if the Bill never saw the light of day, that if he wants to eliminate the defect he rightly referred to of the continuing presence of hereditary peers in the House of Lords, that can be done very easily by means of a simple legislative measure. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to get rid of the extraordinary nonsense that we have almost 1,000 peers, that can be done by a compulsory retirement age. If he wants an opportunity to deal with the other anomalies in the House of Lords, he does not need to go down this road. The only argument for going down this road is if he believes in a democratic upper House which, by its very nature, will then share primacy with this House of Commons. Let him, if he wants that, admit that, rather than try to conceal that fact behind words that do not carry conviction.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I take no pleasure in not being able to support the Government and the coalition, in which I am a very strong believer, but it would be unworthy of anyone to argue that a constitutional measure which will have a profound impact on the well-being of this country and of our political system should in any way be influenced by its impact, if it were to be defeated, on other legislative proposals.
I have not voted against my party on a three-line Whip for a very long time. I last did so in the 1970s. I do not know what effect it will have this time on my future ministerial career. All I can say is that the last time I did it, in the 1970s, two years later Margaret Thatcher
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appointed me to her Government. So my right hon. and hon. Friends should be of good heart and vote as they believe, and that means voting against the Bill and against the programme motion.
Margaret Beckett (Derby South) (Lab): I regret to have to differ in this matter from my Front-Bench colleague, for whom I have the utmost respect, but in my years in the House I have never supported the establishment of a second House to second-guess this Chamber. I have voted for and would prefer the outright abolition of the second Chamber, if that is what it comes down to, but I have not voted and will not vote for an elected House. I have made that clear to my electorate on the rare occasions when they have shown any interest in the matter whenever I have stood for election—that whatever was said in my party’s manifesto, I would not be voting either for a change to the electoral system or for an elected upper House—and I have made that clear, I should add for the avoidance of doubt, in government as well as out, to a succession of Chief Whips.
I completely agree that further reform is both necessary and desirable. It is time, for example, to terminate the arrangement for the remaining hereditary peers which was the price in 1999 for ending their complete control of the upper House, and I share the approval of Lord Steel’s recent Bill, which makes many sensible suggestions. I entirely understand why, looking at an upper House whose Members had their place on the basis of being the eldest in their families—not even the best qualified or most interested—people should conclude that reform was necessary and that election was the only way.
However, that original hereditary House has been changing and evolving over many years, ever since the Conservative Government of the past introduced life peers. Nearly all those in today’s House are Members because of the contribution that they themselves have made in a variety of ways to the nation’s life, not because of the contribution, dubious or otherwise, of their ancestors. So gradually and with some reluctance, I have over the years come to recognise that there is some merit in an advisory and a revising Chamber with a membership of variety and experience, but my view that we do not want and we do not need a competitive Chamber remains unchanged.
I recognise the argument that is put that we can somehow prevent that Chamber from being a competitor, but I do not believe a word of it. Not only is that my own long-standing view, but it was powerfully reinforced. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) expressed dismay that the Government did not give the Joint Committee the services of the Attorney-General. A former Attorney-General, as I think he was, the late Gareth Williams, a brilliant and distinguished lawyer, told us that if the second House were elected, it would be entitled to compete for power with this Chamber. He said, “You cannot confine, for example, decision making on finance or discussion of the Budget to the House of Commons if you have an elected upper House.”
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Two other matters lead me strongly to oppose the Bill. The first is the specific proposal for the elections. The Deputy Prime Minister has waxed lyrical about the fact that Members of the existing upper Chamber are there by reason of patronage, but that is also what a party list system is—everyone in this House knows that that is the reality—so he proposes replacing one patronage system with another. He also claims that the elections he proposes would convey accountability. As has already been said in the debate, people who are elected for a 15-year, non-renewable term do not need to be, and will not be, accountable to anyone.
That brings me to my other major concern. The Liberal Democrats have been particularly vocal about the need for constitutional change, on behalf—they always say—of the people of this country, but they have shown a marked reluctance actually to consult the people of this country. In the coalition negotiations that preceded the formation of the Government, they tried to blackmail each of the major parties into giving them a change in the electoral system without a referendum, and now they are trying to get us to change this whole Parliament without giving the people a chance to express their view. I know that in opinion polling people will say, “Surely it is better to elect the upper House.” As we all know, it all depends on the question that is asked. If people were asked, “Do you want to set up a second Chamber of politicians with all the facilities that would be required, certainly at a cost of tens of millions of pounds, if not substantially more?” I suspect we might get a different answer.
The Bill seeks to reshape this entire Parliament and, into the bargain, introduce a different electoral system for the upper House, and all without consulting the people. I shall not vote for it, and trying to force it through without a referendum is the most undemocratic thing about it.
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): In 1970 I had the privilege of sitting on the steps of the throne in the other place to listen to my father’s maiden speech. In 1995, following what I thought was his untimely death, I had the opportunity to go there myself to make my own speech. In the intervening period I often sat on the steps of the throne, largely because doing so was free and, as a trainee in the Savoy company, I was able to spend afternoons on split shifts there. I listened, watched and learned a great deal about the House of Lords. I remember many great noble Lords making many great speeches, but I came to the view that, however wonderful it was, it was no way to run a legislature. When I arrived in this place, in my maiden speech I made it clear, as I had done in speeches in the other place, that I would seek to work for reform of the Lords and would not rest until it was an elected House.
Therefore, I rise to support my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister’s Bill. When I made my maiden speech in this House, what I said on Lords reform was said more in hope than expectation, but let me tell him now that the expectation is high, because this is the right reform, at the right time and in the right context. I believe that for two fundamental reasons. First, in my view the House of Lords is broke. It does not actually work. An hon. Friend referred earlier to the number of Government amendments that the Lords voted against
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in the last Parliament, but the crucial point is the number that survived scrutiny afterwards in this place. As we all know, when an amendment that is made in the other place arrives here we are told that the Lords have asked us to think again but, as they are not legitimate or elected, let us, the legitimate and elected House, strike it down. That is the critical fix that we need to make.
Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): If I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument correctly, he is now saying that, because Members of the House of Lords are to be elected, when they turn something down and it comes to this House we will be more likely to give way to their views. If that is the case, surely he accepts that we are in fact giving up part of our powers?
The second fundamental reason I believe that the House of Lords should be reformed is that for the past 50 years the Executive have gradually been pruning the powers of Parliament. For 50 years the ability in this House, and in Parliament as a whole, to hold the Government to account has been diminishing. For me, the Bill is primarily about the primacy of Parliament as a whole. It is not a zero-sum game. Increasing the legitimacy of the Lords will increase the legitimacy of Parliament as a whole.
Rory Stewart: The hon. Gentleman is making a very interesting speech, but some people who support the Bill say that it will make the upper House stronger, some say that it will leave it the same, some say that the House of Lords is not broken, and the hon. Gentleman says that it is broken. Does he not agree that real constitutional reform requires a consistent vision of the problems—and of the objectives that one is trying to achieve?
John Thurso: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. For my own part, I have been consistent in my views ever since I started to think through the matter seriously, and for me the key part is legitimacy, for so long as the other place—
The critical point is that the other place is not regarded as legitimate by us, by the media or by the public at large. If we had an appointed upper House that was regarded as legitimate, as indeed Canada does, that would be worth considering, but we do not. As long as there is no election, the upper House will not be considered legitimate, so we have to move towards election.
We need to observe four key principles. First, we need to look at the role of the other place. It does its job up until the point at which what it has done leaves the other place and comes here, so I want the other place to be a place that continues to scrutinise and to advise.
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—up to a certain point, because one cannot be thrown out. By seeking, therefore, to replicate that with long terms and no re-election, that same flavour will come through. Further to that point, and absolutely fundamentally, there should be no competing constituency interests. That is why PR and large constituencies are so important—so that those who are elected cannot claim to represent a county, a division or a town. That is absolutely vital.
Thirdly, reform should be gradual: it should be brought in over a period to allow the customs and mores of the other place to survive the transition. The fourth point, which is also of prime importance, is that the upper House should not compete with the House of Commons as the place to form the Government.
So I look to what is in the other place now, but the one thing that none of us should be able to support is the status quo. It clearly cannot be right in the 21st century to have half our legislature composed of the rump of the aristocracy, together with the great and the good who have benefited from whatever their parties might have chosen to prefer them with.
It is extremely important that we look to an upper House that has legitimacy, has elections and replicates the good parts, but that does not replicate, or seek to replicate, the bad parts. I happily left the other place in 1999 to take my retirement from it, but when I did so I made a prediction to the colleagues whom I left behind, saying that the next stage of reform would not be nearly so easy. I did not for a moment believe that those who had kicked, screamed and gouged their way to party preferment, and had arrived in the other place after all that hard work, would be as happy as I was to leave. That, indeed, seems to be exactly where we are.
I have friends in all parts of this House, not perhaps political friends but none the less friends, and I know how many of them would like to see the other place reformed, so I say to all reformers in this House: we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity; for God’s sake, let us take it.
This morning, Mr Speaker, I heard on the radio one of your most distinguished predecessors suggesting that this Bill was the end of civilisation as we know it. To me, it is a very small step on the road to a better civilisation that we might arrive at if we could get through some of the very tribal differences that we are expressing today. There are three questions to ask in this debate: first, should we reform the Lords; secondly, if we should reform the Lords, what should be the nature of the reform; and thirdly, should that reform be subject to a referendum of the British people?
I came into this House in 1997 on the back of a very important Labour manifesto. We had been out of power for 18 years, and so important was that manifesto that we took the unprecedented step of putting it to every individual member of our party in a programme called “The Road to the Manifesto”. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) was in charge of that process.
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As well as saying that we would get rid of hereditary peers, we said that that would be the beginning of
“a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative.”
Ever since I have been in this place we have, very slowly but very surely, inched towards a consensus on this. That has happened because the quality of our parliamentary democracy must be diminished by a second Chamber that is wholly dependent on privilege or patronage for its membership. Only two countries in the world have a bigger second chamber than first chamber—Burkina Faso and Kazakhstan. Incidentally, I doubt whether they can match the fact that in our House of Lords 54% of Members come from London and the south-east, only a fifth are women, and there are more Members aged over 90 than under 40, which is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) once said that it is a model of how to care for the elderly.
Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the House of Lords as it currently stands is representative given that two thirds of its Members come from public schools?
Alan Johnson: It is a shame that that was said by a Government Member, but the hon. Gentleman makes a fundamental point about why Labour Members have sought reform—originally abolition, but then reform—of the other place. To me, I am afraid, it represents institutionalised snobbery.
I do not agree with Walter Bagehot’s comment that the cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it, but neither do I agree with the constant stream of self-regard that comes from those on the other side of Central Lobby about how it is the greatest, most expert revising chamber ever to be devised in the world. They have certainly been very expert at preserving the status quo. I am quite prepared to listen to and debate the very strong arguments for the status quo made by Members who, despite manifesto commitments, are perfectly entitled to come here and make that case. Incidentally, that is not the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), who believes in a unicameral system. However, the consensus that we have been inching towards says that the status quo is indefensible in a modern, 21st century democracy, and that view is reflected in the proposals in the Bill.
The first question is, “Do we need to reform the House of Lords?”, and the answer is, “Of course we do.” The second question is, “Are these the right reforms?” I think that they broadly are. I say that not because they are Clegg’s reforms, but because they are Cook’s reforms. One of my great heroes is the late, great Robin Cook. There was no greater parliamentarian and no greater defender of this place. As Leader of the House, he sent
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us through the voting Lobbies seven times. We voted against every option, from a fully elected to a fully appointed House of Lords. The option that nearly got through—it failed by only three votes—was an 80-20 split. Incidentally, the other place voted almost unanimously for a wholly appointed second Chamber.
After that, Robin Cook worked with the current Foreign Secretary, the current Leader of the House, the current Lord Chancellor and another great Labour parliamentarian, Tony Wright, the former Member for Cannock Chase, to develop the argument with the “Breaking the Deadlock” proposals of 2005. Those proposals are very similar to this Bill, and to various other attempts, such as that of the Public Accounts Committee and the White Paper published by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) in 2008. The Labour Cabinet agreed to that paper, which incidentally involved a 50-50 split between elected and appointed Members.
In the end, Labour proposed a 100% elected House in the 2010 manifesto. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) knows, because he was a member of the Cabinet at the time, we knew that we might have to concede an 80-20 split because anyone who is serious about pursuing House of Lords reform does not want to take on the disestablishment of the Church of England at the same time, because that is a recipe for permanent procrastination.
“Breaking the Deadlock” said that there should be single terms covering three election periods, as did the royal commission under Wakeham in the late ’90s and as have various other documents. It said that Members would be elected by proportional representation, as did our election manifesto in 2010. The reason for that is to keep the primacy of the Commons. When a large proportion of the second Chamber is elected, we need to ensure that they do not seek ministerial office, that they are not after a career and that they will not be difficult with elected local MPs and seek to replace them. That is why everybody who has looked at this matter in any depth has come to the conclusion that there should be long, single terms with no further right to stand again.
All of the current proposals are right. I should probably say that they are nearly right before I get into trouble with the Whips—there are obviously some improvements that can be made in Committee. However, to get a consensus and to take advantage of what is an unprecedented opportunity to do something about this issue, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said, I believe that a referendum of the British people is needed. I ask those on the Treasury Bench to consider that. To have legitimacy, the proposals have to be approved by the public. We can then ensure that they are implemented in full.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson). Although I disagree with a lot of what he says, I have respect for the way in which he says it. I certainly agree with his last point about a referendum.
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measured, necessary reform. If only we had a small Bill that proposed to do what we all know needs to be done, we could get on with it. But we cannot, because the Bill is fundamentally flawed. It undermines democracy in three specific ways: first, it damages accountability; secondly, it has not been subject to proper consultation; and thirdly, it ignores the will of the people.
Mrs Laing: I do not know what proposals I would support for the House of Lords, because we have not had proper consultation or proper consideration of what ought to be done. I believe that we ought to have a constitutional convention to consider the reform of Parliament as a whole. Once we have done that properly, I will be happy to give the hon. Gentleman my answer.
Worse still on the matter of accountability, a body of people who, having been elected, claim to have a democratic mandate, will behave as though they had one. There will be no stopping them. They will flex their democratic muscles and challenge this House of Commons. No matter what any Bill or any convention says, they will challenge the primacy of this House.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): When these people are elected to the House of Lords, or the House of senators, or the second Chamber, they will be elected by millions. They will therefore say, “Millions of our people have put me here, so I have a better democratic right than MPs to speak for them.” That will mean a challenge to this Chamber.
Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the challenge will be not just here in the Chamber but in every marginal constituency? That is what happens in Australia, where they have the system in question. The equivalent of a Liberal Democrat Senator in a Conservative seat becomes that area’s parliamentary representative, and so it is in every marginal constituency.
Mrs Laing: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Joint Committee took evidence from the Australian Parliament, and Members ought to look at that evidence and pay heed to Australia before giving away our primacy.
The most worrying thing of all is that as the primacy of the House of Commons is challenged, the unique link of accountability between the elector and his or her representative in Parliament—their Member of this House —will be undermined, so Parliament’s very accountability will be undermined as well.
Quite apart from the fact that there is no reasonable question to which the right answer is 450 extra elected politicians, having a second House of Commons at the other end of the corridor will not increase the chances of holding the Government to account. It will do exactly
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the opposite. A clash between the two Houses and a squabble over when and whether the Parliament Acts could be used will lead to a challenge in the courts, and I for one do not want vital political issues to be decided not by Parliament but by the judiciary. Our electors expect us to take responsibility, and they expect the buck to stop with us, their MPs. We ought to fight to preserve that.
I turn to the matter of consultation. The subject of Lords reform may have been talked about for 100 years, but we are not considering it in a proper, wider context. Reform of one part of Parliament is reform of Parliament as a whole, but we have been able to consider only the narrow proposals that the Deputy Prime Minister has put forward. I sat on the Joint Committee for eight months, and we recommended a constitutional convention so that the subject could be properly examined in context. The Government have ignored that recommendation, and now we face the possibility that we might not even be able to examine the Bill fully here in the House of Commons because of a narrow programme motion. At the same time, the Government are afraid of a referendum. They are afraid to ask the people. No constitutional convention, no referendum, no proper scrutiny in the House of Commons—that is not democracy.
Mrs Laing: No, I will not rule that out—not that I ever expect to be offered a seat, and certainly not by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench. I am probably not the most popular Smartie in the tube today, but I do not care about that: I am here to do my duty for democracy.
The Bill ignores the will of the people. Only one year ago, we had an expensive nationwide referendum in which the people overwhelmingly rejected a proportional representation voting system. The Deputy Prime Minister now ignores the will of the people. PR for this House was rejected, so he says, “Let’s introduce it for the other place.” What contempt! What duplicity! Why does he do it? The answer to that non-rhetorical question is that a proportional election system will give the Liberal Democrats a permanent hold on the balance of power in the second Chamber. That is not democracy; it is blatant party political advantage. It is short term and small-minded, and I certainly cannot vote for it.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I remind hon. Members not to approach the Chair to find out when they will speak, as Mr Speaker has indicated. We will try to get in as many hon. Members as we can.
Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab):
The most fundamental principle of any democracy is that those who exercise political power over us must be elected by us, yet everywhere in the UK it is evident that the long march to extend the franchise has a long way to
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go. The most powerful and influential in our society are not directly elected—the media, the bankers and the civil service. Even the chief executive of our Government is not directly elected. We are still one of the few western democracies in which the people are not trusted to elect directly their Prime Minister—the top politician in the land. Our problem is not too much democracy, but not enough democracy.
Elections are almost a guarantee of powerlessness. Anyone contaminated by contact with the ballot box is edged around by regulation, oversight and rules that dull our enterprise and inhibit our leadership. For example, locally elected councillors are bound by 1,500 Acts of Parliament, which render them as little more than agents of the centre. Elected Members of Parliament have a fleeting existence as an electoral college on general election night, but thereafter are laughably alleged to hold to account the very Executive that whips them to vote for them several times a day, every day, every week.
Dan Byles: Presumably, therefore, the hon. Gentleman will be delighted that a large number of Government Members will show that we are more independent by not giving in to the Whips and by voting against the programme motion?
Mr Allen: I very much hope that Government Members exercise their independence in pursuit of parliamentary sovereignty and a wider democracy rather than in pursuit of any special interest—I am sure that will happen.
In all those areas, reform is a relatively simple matter, but the most centralised state of all western democracies is blocking the way—the sclerotic relic of an empire, with England as the last country to throw off its yoke. The regime is so suffocating and so clueless about the alternatives that some of our blood relatives in the nations of our kingdom feel driven to break free of it.
There is an alternative, as there always has been, and as the best elements of the philosophies of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal parties have always known and for which they have always fought: the ballot box. No one, and above all hon. Members, needs to be afraid of the ballot box or of spreading electoral possibility. The ballot box is the weapon feared most not by those outside the House, but by Executive power, whether in the House or elsewhere. The vote can deliver devo-max not just for the nations of the UK, but for this Parliament and for locally elected councils, and above all for individuals in our country.
Today, we will see whether this elected House, this poor, whipped, dwarf of a legislator, can reconnect with its historic mission to extend the franchise, or whether we decide to pull up the drawbridge so that none can share our meagre status. Can we outgrow this fairytale of parliamentary sovereignty and our self-delusion about the primacy of the first Chamber? The cold, harsh reality is that we have Executive sovereignty and the primacy of Government. That is what dominates British politics, not some fairyland where Members of Parliament dominate the political scenario.
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Mr Allen: My hon. Friend makes his point, but anyone looking objectively at this House would see two competing teams, one for the Government, the other against, and it is rare that there is rebellion or independence of mind, as he well knows.
We should not fear the liberty and the improvement of the second Chamber. It might actually be the making of the freedom of the first Chamber. It might be one step on the road to having a free and independent legislature that would challenge the power of the Executive.
Mr Allen: My right hon. Friend, having been a strong member of a past Executive, knows where he is most powerful. Is he most powerful sitting on the Back Benches here, or was he most powerful when in Whitehall and commanding a Government Department? We could discuss how effective the scrutiny was that he went through.
To have an un-elected Chamber with a say in passing laws over our citizens is a democratic abomination. It is not a deficit, an anachronism or a quaint ceremonial corner; it is an insult to every elector in the land. It is hobbling and repressive. It says to our citizens, “You are not capable or worthy of deciding your own future, of deciding who should run your country.” It says that this country is about deference and patronage, about a lack of self-confidence and belief, and about insiders and those who know better. It is about our past, not our future. It is an open wound in the body of our democracy and it must be healed.
That wound can be healed only by introducing the elective principle to the second Chamber. That is what this generation of parliamentarians in both Houses can achieve over the next year, and it can be done without beheading those whose service in the second Chamber deserves our respect, not our abuse. For those of us who for 25 years or more have worked for reform, standing on the shoulders of a century of giants before us, these proposals are the most serious attempt yet to bring about a change in our democracy and bring it into the modern era. Their courage and ambition mock the flaccid indecision of recent years.
Are the proposals perfect? No, of course not. Only the 650 different plans in the minds of each hon. Member are perfect, but that is why, theoretically at least, we have a parliamentary process. There is a—
Mr Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale West) (Con): I am delighted to follow the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I share much of his analysis but arrive at the opposite conclusion.
The Deputy Prime Minister builds his case on three broad themes. First, there is his claim about the manifesto commitments. It is clear, however, that the Conservative manifesto contained no commitment to legislate—the Prime Minister famously described it as a third-term issue. Regardless, however, I would urge my hon. Friends to think carefully about their responsibilities as Members of this House. We are not delegates sent here to nod through whatever our parties ask, but representatives sent here to exercise our judgment in the public interest.
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I would also like to reflect on the case for a referendum. If it were true, as the Deputy Prime Minister said, that all the major parties promised the Bill at the general election, then contrary to the assertions of the Ministers, the public were presented with no choice at the general election, so the case for a referendum on such major constitutional change is compelling.
Alison Seabeck: The hon. Gentleman is giving a thoughtful speech, as have other Members. If it is possible to have a referendum in a local authority—for instance, on something to do with council tax—surely it is absolutely right, on an issue as significant as this, that the British public should be offered the same choice.
Much of what has been said about the Bill, however, concerns not party commitments but calculations of party advantage. We spend too much time here pursuing party advantage. To do so in changing our constitution would be not just wrong but contemptible.
Let me turn to the other parts of the Deputy Prime Minister’s case—the points of principle on which I hope the House will judge any proposal to effect a massive change in our constitutional arrangements. These are whether reform is needed and the argument that there is an absolute principle that those who legislate for the people should be chosen by the people. There has been an effort to paint opposition to the Bill as reactionary opposition to any change. Nothing could be further from the truth. Few on either side of this House or in the other House would dispute the need for reform. The Lords is too big and it needs a route to retirement. It also needs a means of removing those found guilty of serious crimes. All this, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said, could be enacted with little dissent here or in the other place. However, desirable as reforming the Lords may be, I would contend that reforming the Lords without reforming this House would be to miss the point.
The public are not stupid: they know where power is located in our Parliament. They know that it is in this House and not the other. People certainly dislike politicians who break promises or who seem interested more in seeking or holding on to office than in serving the public good, but this is seen as a failing in the House of Commons far more than in the House of Lords. People notice that this House is poor at holding the Government to account. They see that we make only a desultory effort at scrutinising legislation—although I trust that this Bill will be an exception. People see the damaging effects of patronage—against which Lord Ashdown railed in the weekend press—but they know that patronage is a greater impediment to the freedom of this House than it is to that of the Lords. We are agreed that the House of Lords needs reforming, but reforming the Lords while flunking the far more important task of strengthening the Commons would be profoundly mistaken.
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effectiveness of this place, but is he clear that he appears to be proposing that we should end up with a second legislative Chamber that is slightly altered, but all of whose Members are appointed? Is that really justifiable in 2012?
Let me turn to the most important pillar of the Deputy Prime Minister’s case: that those who legislate for the people should be chosen by the people. Many of the opponents of the Bill, on both sides of the House, reject that. They rightly point to the expertise of the upper House. They highlight the obvious truth that an elected or part-elected upper House would be more inclined to challenge the primacy of the House of Commons. I accept both assertions, but unlike many of my hon. Friends, I would support an elected upper House in spite of them. However, that is not what the Bill delivers. We do not have time today to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the United States constitution. There can certainly be gridlock between the Houses in the United States, but the legislation it produces is at least as effective as ours, and Congress is certainly far better able to hold the Executive to account than we are. However, is the Bill before us today one that would excite Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine? Is it a great clarion call for government of the people, by the people? It is not.
Let us look at the reality of the Bill and some of the reasons why it should be rejected by any true advocate of reform. Even if the Bill were enacted unamended and even if all the electoral cycles it envisages were allowed to take place and the reformed House foreshadowed by the Bill were implemented in full, we would have a bizarre and opaque arrangement—a House of indeterminate size, with an unknown number of Members appointed as Ministers by prime ministerial patronage; an appointments commission for the unelected Members responsible for vetting appointees for propriety, but not if they were appointed as Ministers; and a number of bishops, as has already been said.
Instead of a simple, transparent democratic process, the Bill proposes an absurdly complex hybrid assembly: elections by not one but two different systems of proportional representation; and party lists to help to maintain the central powers of the political parties over who will sit in the newly constituted Chamber. Far from the high principle of an elected Chamber, we have a ridiculous fudge, justified by the Deputy Prime Minister as a gradual move towards a wholly elected Senate, although he, like the Prime Minister on previous occasions, has suggested with a nod and a wink that the second and third cycles may never happen, and that that will be open to this House or indeed to the public in a referendum to decide.
As an advocate both of reforming the Lords and of introducing more democracy to our institutions, I shall oppose this appalling Bill because if those are its aims, I believe it will fail utterly to achieve them. The Bill fails to address the real problem in our democracy—a Commons that is so greatly dominated by the Government that it fails to perform its core functions of holding Ministers
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to account and of scrutinising legislation effectively. I urge the House to vote against a Bill that is complex where it should be simple, that preserves patronage instead of providing real democracy, and that yet again allows this House to avoid confronting the truth about its own shortcomings.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Despite his eloquence, I disagree with most of what the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) said. There are two issues that I wish to address from the outset. The first is the charge that now is not the right time. It never is the right time to introduce constitutional reform. That is the dreary, weary excuse that anti-reformers use over and over again. It was used about devolution and almost every other constitutional reform brought in by the last Labour Government whom I was proud to serve. What if great reformers over the years had decided that it was not the right time? What if Aneurin Bevan had said, “I have this really good idea for a national health service, but the country is broke and we are probably going to lose the next election, so it is not the right time”? What if the suffragettes had said, “We’d really like the right to vote, but there is so much else going on at the moment; let’s leave it to the men for a few more years”?
Secondly, if any of us had been starting from scratch and designing a second Chamber for a new, modern democracy, it is inconceivable that any of us would have come up with the House of Lords in its present incarnation. Of course we would not have done so; the very idea is risible. The truth is the House of Lords is an anachronism, and we all know it. Yes, it performs a valuable scrutinising and revising role. Yes, it demonstrates a diligence often superior to that of the Commons. When I was a Minister appearing before a Lords Parliamentary Committee, the standard of questioning was often more stringent and, I regret to say, its members often better informed than those in the Commons. There is, however, absolutely no reason why that standard of performance could not be maintained, possibly even exceeded, by a democratic second Chamber with new blood and new expertise. This is not about a personnel change; it is about accountability and democracy.
In any case, the fact that the House of Lords performs a valuable role is no reason to maintain it in its current constitutional form. It is a democratic farce, an arbitrary mixture of a majority deriving their place from patronage and a minority deriving it from titles inherited from a liaison with a royal, centuries ago. It is a hangover from pre-democracy days, a constitutional dinosaur.
Labour has a proud record, going back to our first Labour leader, Keir Hardie, of demanding a democratic second Chamber. If we do not take this opportunity now, through this Bill, to ensure that we have a democratically constituted second Chamber, we will be throwing away that opportunity—if not for ever, certainly for this generation. It is a “now or maybe never” decision.
We will try to amend the Bill. For instance, I am a supporter of the reformed democratic second Chamber having a “secondary” not a “primary” mandate. That principle, eloquently enunciated by Billy Bragg, will help to address the crucial issue of the primacy of the Commons. I am not in favour of electors having two
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votes—one for MPs, one for Lords—as there should be just one vote: for MPs. This House should continue to have the primary representative mandate from our constituents. Parliament should consist of MPs with legislative primacy by virtue of their primary mandate, with peers discharging their important revising, scrutinising role by virtue of their democratic but secondary mandate. That is an issue for Committee; for now, we have a duty to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Oliver Heald: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Joint Committee, which examined at the draft Bill, suggested that the Government should have another look at forms of indirect election that preserve the supremacy of this House while still giving a democratic legitimacy to the other place? Does he agree that looking again at some of those ideas would be well worth while?
I remind the House that the last time the Commons voted on a very similar proposition to that put forward by the Deputy Prime Minister—the one put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) in March 2007—it voted decisively for an elected Chamber. A 100% elected Chamber was favoured by 337 votes to 224, and an 80% elected one by 305 votes to 267. Surely this House of Commons, with hundreds of younger MPs of a new generation, is not going to backtrack on that vote? With new MPs of a new generation, we should be increasing the majority for reform.
“it never arrives and some have become rather doubtful whether it even exists, but we sit around talking about it year after year.”—[Official Report, 4 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 152.]
For the very first time, all three parties have a manifesto mandate for Lords reform. To betray that mandate would be to betray trust even more. This House has a once in a political lifetime opportunity to bring down the curtain on what must rank as the longest political gridlock in the history of parliamentary democracy. It is high time we resolved this once and for all, and brought our democracy fully into the 21st century by an historic decision for a democratic second Chamber.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): In response to an earlier intervention, my right hon. Friend referred to indirect elections. Would it not be sensible, and would it not have been sensible over the last 10 years, to have seriously considered the alternative approach, as in India, of having an indirectly elected second Chamber with a small composition to reflect the regions and nations of this country rather than bring in a party-list PR model of regional election?
I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend. What I favour is different proportions of party votes given to MPs then going into a regional pool, as the Bill envisages in its proposal for second votes to determine the numbers of party representatives in the second Chamber, subject to the specified transitional arrangements. This closed list mechanism is not one used in European, Welsh or Scottish elections, which
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quite properly have open lists, but it is not appropriate, in my view, for elections in which voters elect primary legislators in Europe, Wales and Scotland. However, a new democratic second Chamber would be unique among our institutions because a direct mandate from voters would compromise the primacy of the Commons. That is my view. If I win that argument in Committee, so be it. I hope to do so, but I will still vote for the Bill because it is vital to get it out of the House of Commons in good order so that it goes to the House of Lords. That is essential.
Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I think the right hon. Gentleman has talked a lot of sense, but does he not accept that if Opposition Members vote against the programme motion, it would seriously jeopardise Lords reform and our ability to get it through?
Mr Hain: No, I do not. I am glad I took that intervention. I am a former business manager, as I used to be Leader of the House, and I say that if a Government with this majority want to get this Bill through, they will get it through—with or without a programme motion. When we were in government, and we introduced the system of programme motions, I cannot recall off hand—there might be examples, but they would have to be searched for—either Liberal Democrats or Conservatives ever voting for them. They consistently voted against our programme motions—for honourable Opposition reasons —and I when I was Leader of the House the current Leader consistently opposed my arguments for programme motions when we were introducing new Bills. It is the duty of the Opposition to seek proper scrutiny of the Bill, which the programme motion does not allow. It is not our duty to provide extra time for the right-wing Bills that occupied the rest of the Queen’s Speech.
I shall vote enthusiastically for the Bill’s Second Reading, and will follow that up by supporting the Bill in principle at the end of its parliamentary stages. It is vital for it to leave the House of Commons and go to the House of Lords—and let battle then commence.
Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): At the time when the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) was Leader of the House, I was the shadow Leader who opposed all the motions that he tabled. I do not remember agreeing with him very often, but I think that he said something important today when he talked of the secondary mandate system, the vital need to ensure that this place retains primacy, and the need for effective government.
My concerns about the proposals in the Bill relate to the central provision allowing the election of senators, or representatives, for the regions. In future, instead of the simple constituency link that we have at present, with one parliamentary representative being elected for each area, there will be a number of senators. In marginal seats a parliamentary representative for the Conservatives may be elected to this House, and a parliamentary representative for the Liberal Democrats may be elected to the senate. I see that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) is looking at me. In a three-way marginal such as the seat that he represents, there will be three surgeries every week.
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Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way as he chose to name me. Let me say that I am not sure it is a three-way marginal, although I suspect that my constituents would be delighted to hear more.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that what he has described is very similar to what happens now? There are extra representatives in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, in the European Parliament and on councils. Giving the people a say in the composition of the other House merely means that they will be able to exercise some direct influence, which does not happen when Members are appointed through patronage.
Oliver Heald: What is happening is the creation of a culture of the multi-Member constituency. An individual constituent will be able to choose whether to go to the Liberal Democrat, the Conservative or the Labour representative in Parliament, and I do not believe that that is good for our country. I believe that it is important for a Member of Parliament to represent all his constituents, and for the constituents to know where to go when they need help or want to raise an issue. That is good for them, and it is good for us.
Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): Although I support the Bill, as a Member representing one of the most marginal seats in the House—my majority is 389—I think that my hon. Friend is making an extremely important point which must be considered. I can imagine how, had I been elected under the proposed system in the last election, my Labour or Liberal Democrat opponent would have sought to undermine my position by claiming that he or she had a mandate equal to mine.
“I am allocated a number of seats that are not held by the Government in the lower House in my state. I look after those constituents who do not have a government representative. Those people might come to me about issues and legislation.”
“we have nine Senators and only one Member in the House of Representatives. The issue of working with constituents is very important for us and it takes up quite a bit of time.”
“I do not think that you can make the assumption that you will not be engaged in constituency-type work, particularly if the elected Lords in an area—as Senator Stephens said—come from the other party. If you are a Member of the non-ruling party, the Lords might find that they have more people knocking on their doors than they might otherwise have anticipated.”
I share my hon. Friend’s concern. That is a real issue, and I think it will have to be addressed if we proceed with the Bill. There are ways in which it could be dealt with: for example, it could be
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agreed that Ministers would deal only with Members of the House of Commons when it came to constituency casework.
The power of the people is in this House, not at the other end of the building. That is why, when we are arguing with the Lords about a Bill, they always give way eventually. When I was a Whip, I went down there and had discussions with them, as many other Members will have done. In the end, they say, “You are the elected House; you have your way.” I recall hardly any occasions during my time here when, in the end, they have not caved in, because we are the elected House.
I believe in efficient and effective government. I think that it is something the Conservative party has stood for over the years. We have given this country more than 250 years of good government—or, at least, we have given a lot of it during that period. [Laughter.] I remember the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) saying “It must be healed.” I agree: it must be Heald.
Following the proposed changes, we will struggle to have effective government. The Parliament Acts cannot be used on every occasion. It is a nuclear option. We rely on the Lords’ giving way, but the fact is that without conventions and arrangements between the Houses —some means of ensuring that we always prevail in the end—it will be more difficult to ensure that we have effective government in this country. When a party makes promises in its manifesto, it will not be able to deliver on them. When we experience a crisis, as we have recently, it will be difficult to introduce urgent measures with the necessary speed.
Let me make a suggestion. It is in the Joint Committee report, the alternative report and in my pamphlet, which can be read on the website of the Society of Conservative Lawyers. Let us see whether we can avoid regional elections which provide a geographical power base, which would mean the people at the other end of the building representing a group of constituents from an area. Let us consider indirect election. There are various different models. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) mentioned the German model, and the right hon. Member for Neath mentioned the secondary mandate model. There are ways of doing this.
Hazel Blears (Salford and Eccles) (Lab): I was in two minds about applying to speak in the debate, and I remain deeply conflicted. That is partly because I honestly believe that taking an immense amount of time to debate the Bill is a distraction from some of the very real problems that face the country. With a million young people out of work, with families struggling to make ends meet and with one of the worst recessions that we have ever known, I feel that we would use the House’s time better not just in debating those subjects, but in debating action to tackle them.
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It also worries me, although I understand the reasons for it, that we have spent the last six months talking about Leveson and the public inquiry into the press—we have had six months of politicians talking about journalists —and now we are to have a further nine months of politicians talking about politicians. If anything is a bigger turn-off for the people of this country, I do not know what it is.
Hazel Blears: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that when I said that I was in two minds about the Bill, I meant that while one part of me says that it is a distraction, the other part says that it is one of the most cynical deceptions to be inflicted on the people of this country, for deeply partisan reasons.
The people who are promoting this Bill, supposedly in the name of democracy, are using the language of high moral purpose, but, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said, the Bill is really motivated by partisan low politics designed for party advantage. I have therefore decided to vote against the programme motion, in order to give the Bill as much scrutiny as possible. I am sick and tired of the people promoting this Bill painting those of us who have genuine objections to it as reactionary—diehards, dinosaurs, opposed to reform. I say to them that nothing could be further from the truth. I am utterly opposed to privilege. The last time we voted on these issues I voted to abolish the House of Lords. If I had that option now, I would vote for it again. I believe we could have a unicameral system with much more pre-legislative scrutiny and experts involved. The primacy of this elected House of Commons to our constituents is the top priority for me.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): The Liberal Democrats currently hold the balance of power in this Chamber, and it has been suggested that if the programme motion is not passed tomorrow and if the Bill does not pass, Liberal Democrat Members will vote against the boundary changes. [Interruption.] I am glad to hear them saying that that is the case. Does the right hon. Lady agree that that illustrates what they would do if they were to hold the balance of power in the upper House? They would hold Parliament to ransom over every issue that suited them.
I have the utmost respect for my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), and he made an excellent speech today. If he were still present in the Chamber, however, I would ask him this question: he is a proponent of democracy, but what is democratic about a 15-year term? The Chartists have a very proud history in my constituency of Salford, with 250,000 people demonstrating for universal suffrage. They wanted annual Parliaments. They have never achieved that, but 15-year terms are the antithesis of anything that could be called democratic.
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What is democratic about regional party lists, too? There has been a lot of talk today about patronage, which is how people find their way into the House of Lords at present. Patronage under regional party lists would be many times worse than that. We should consider the situation in other countries. Some 90% of the Members of Parliament in Spain live within 50 miles of Madrid because they know their position is dependent on the patronage of a central party. Our Parliament is already too London-centric, but that would be exacerbated.
I believe that one of the biggest problems facing this country and our democracy is the growth of a political elite—a political class—and the consequent disaffection of voters. This year’s Hansard Society annual audit of political engagement makes very sad reading. It says:
“The growing sense of indifference to politics highlighted in the last Audit report appears to have hardened into something more serious this year: the trends in indicators such as interest, knowledge, certainty to vote and satisfaction with the system of governing are downward, dramatically so in some instances”.
We have a problem in this House. In 1970, only 3% of MPs said they had come into Parliament through a political adviser or special adviser route. At the last election, that figure had risen to 25%. That constitutes a political elite.
We must not for one moment think that if we have an elected second Chamber, we will get an influx of young, vibrant, democratic people from all walks of life. Some 40% of the Members of the US Senate are former politicians. Some 76% of Members of the Australian Senate have previously worked for political parties. They are staffers—they are people on the inside. How are we going to combat the problem of having a political elite if there is no place for independents?
If we accept this dreadful proposal before us, may I make a couple of practical pleas? First, we must require candidates to live in the areas they represent—not to have an address of convenience there so that they can live in London and travel up every so often. We have done that with police commissioners, and we can do it with the second Chamber. Secondly, I want the second Chamber to take its work out across the country. If we simply have a replica of our Chamber, we will have no chance of combating political disaffection. The second Chamber could go out, take evidence, and have sessions out in the country. My noble Friend Lord Adonis has suggested that it be based at Salford quays. I am not necessarily making a plea for that today, but this is a serious point. If we have a second Chamber, we must change the way in which it works. We must make sure that, by analysing the functions, not the form, we end up with a Chamber that will not challenge the primacy of this House of Commons.
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about pretty low politics. I believe they are a Trojan horse for the Liberal Democrats to sustain power and influence, and permanently hold the balance of power in the second Chamber. The Liberal Democrat party cannot win enough first votes, so it relies on back-room secretive squalid deals to get its own way: the Liberal Democrats get proportional representation on closed lists, and the Conservative party gets boundary changes with the windfall of possibly 20 extra seats.
The alternative vote referendum showed what the British people really want. They want to elect a Government on a clear manifesto with clear policies, and for that Government to get on with governing the country. They do not want a party who got fewer MPs at the last election to end up having Cabinet Ministers who have no mandate to hold their post.
I believe that what we have here is people posturing as democrats and masquerading as champions of the people. They say one thing, but they do another; that sounds familiar to me. This is about self-interest, and what is being done is untrustworthy and unworthy of this country. I certainly will not vote for this Bill as it stands.
Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears). I found that I could agree with much of her speech—although certainly not all of it. That is also my view of this Bill: it is not a perfect Bill, but neither do I think the House of Lords is perfect. That is why I am more than happy to vote for the Bill on Second Reading, but I would not be prepared to support it in its current form on Third Reading.
I have mulled over the idea of a Committee of the whole House having 10 days to amend the Bill. Given all the other important work this Government also have to do, that may well be enough time for us to find consensus. Indeed, I am hearing a lot of agreement on some points. I think there is consensus that we must reduce the size of the second Chamber, for instance.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has obviously read the timetable motion as carefully as I have. Does she realise that it gives only two hours for Third Reading? As any votes will eat into that time, there may well not be a Third Reading vote on a Bill that is of such great constitutional importance.
There is also consensus in this House that anyone who has been convicted of a serious crime should be kicked out. The cost of the second Chamber must be reduced, too. I am not convinced on this point; I will need quite a lot of convincing in respect of the Deputy Prime Minister’s earlier assertion that this proposal would be cost-neutral.
Jesse Norman: The cost figures have reached their current level only by the entirely illegitimate manoeuvre of including costs—such as costs of the Commons associated with the Lords—that have not yet been recognised in legislation, let alone achieved, as well as by ignoring the £85.7 million cost of five-yearly elections.
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Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend makes some wise points, but it is unlikely that an elected Member of the second Chamber would be able to get by with only one member of staff, which is an assumption made in the costings. There are a number of questions about that issue, and I think we would all want the cost to be at least lower than it is now.
Let me deal with the contentious areas, where there might be more disagreement across the Floor of the House. I am strongly in favour of the bishops continuing their constitutional role in the second Chamber. They play a valuable and important role, and reflect the fact that we have an official Church of England role in our constitution.
On the question of what voting system we use, I am aware that the coalition agreement said that we would use proportional representation and that it has some attractions. Some of the things we like about the second Chamber at the moment, such as the fact that some distinguished former Members of this House have been appointed to it, could be continued were we to carry on with that voting system. I would fight for Baroness Thatcher to be top of any list that the Conservative party would field, so from that point of view there are some merits in the PR system. However, it is clear that in many countries where PR has been used it is an extremely unsatisfactory system. Israel elects its “Commons” on the basis of PR, which often ends up giving the balance of power to undesirable elements. I would have a significant concern about that.
I think we all agree that Cross Benchers play an extremely important role, and if I were to move in any direction from what is proposed, it would be to give an increased weight to them. However, I now wish to discuss something that has not been mentioned—the geographical problems of what is being proposed—and relate it to my private Member’s Bill in the last Session on the West Lothian question. In its current form, the Bill would clearly exacerbate problems with the West Lothian question. We have yet to see the report from the West Lothian commission, but I anticipate it in this Session of Parliament. A further look at how the upper House worked would clearly need to be taken because of the West Lothian question, so I throw out a proposal to colleagues: rather than have the much larger geographical constituencies proposed in the Bill, let us do away with the geographical link altogether and have national proportional weighting in the allocations in the upper House. Such an approach would completely sever the geographical link, which I know a lot of colleagues have expressed concerns about, and would solve the West Lothian question.
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Session our proposals will carry the majority of the House, so that we can look back on this opportunity to reform the House of Lords and say that we did not fall into the temptation to filibuster and talk out the Bill, but were able to leave behind, for future Parliaments, a more reformed second Chamber.
Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): I think that this afternoon we have established that the calumny that if someone is against this Bill they are against reform and modernisation has been laid to rest. It is absolutely clear that someone can be in favour of a very different second Chamber based on a very different franchise and be vehemently against what the Government propose in this Bill.
Secondly, I think that we have established that we genuinely need as much time as possible to debate this Bill. That has been shown by the variety of views expressed, including by those who are in favour of the Bill and will vote, at least in principle, for it tomorrow night. The views expressed this afternoon about the future of our constitution, the nature of our government, and the relationship between this Chamber and the second Chamber are so numerous that they demonstrate, if ever it needed demonstrating, that we need not only time to scrutinise the Bill properly, but the constitutional convention advocated by at least half the Joint Committee.
We need that constitutional convention for this reason: this afternoon we have had demonstrated a number of substantial constitutional changes introduced over the past 15 years, many of which have proved to be successful, but the idea of one fundamental constitutional change taken in isolation demonstrates that we do not have joined-up thinking in this country about where our constitution is going. We have, as the Deputy Prime Minister himself demonstrated this afternoon, the real danger of the break-up of the United Kingdom and the vote on the future of Scotland. We have the McKay commission on existing devolution. We have propositions on a written Bill of Rights. We have, undoubtedly, in the future a new relationship between the United Kingdom, in whatever guise, and the European Union and the eurozone. We also have a range of minor constitutional changes that have already happened. In those circumstances, taking the future of the second Chamber out of the equation and dealing with it separately does not make sense. Furthermore, and fundamentally, we have also had demonstrated this afternoon the fact that certain individuals on both sides of this House—those on my side and among Liberal Democrats—do see our constitution in different terms.
I have also learned this afternoon, although I really already knew this, that quite a lot of people do not understand the constitutions of other countries. I can only presume that those who have spoken—good Labour friends of mine—do understand what they are proposing when they suggest a system that would actually have the Executive outside Parliament rather than in it. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) suggested that, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) came close to suggesting it. The Liberal Democrats—through the development of proportional representation; through the break with the single-Member constituency; through the advocacy, as is in this Bill, of being able to
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appoint Ministers who are not from or within Parliament, but who are from outside it and then do not have to be part of the Parliament; and through the criticism of the way in which the Government within Parliament do not allow for scrutiny—are demanding a debate, and it is one that we should have, about whether we should fundamentally change our constitution for the future. I am against that change; I believe that we should elect a Government. A clear mandate from the people for a Government is something people in this country have valued. We can do that only by the single-Member constituency, the electoral system we have and the Parliament to which we give primacy.
Mr Blunkett: That is at the heart of the criticism of this Bill. Once legitimacy is given to elected politicians without the accountability of their having to seek re-election and be re-elected, the very fundamentals of democracy are undermined. That is because, as I am on the record saying on the morning after the election, democracy is not simply about electing people; it is about being able to get rid of them. The admirable speech made at the Magna Carta lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury on 15 June demonstrated that par excellence.
Simon Hughes: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that nothing in this Bill suggests that Governments would not be formed on the simple principle of needing to command a majority in the House of Commons? That is as it has been and as it is, and there is no proposal that it should not continue in that way. If that is the case, the threat, and the suggestion he makes, that electing people to the other place would change that is entirely unsupported by anything in the Bill.
Mr Blunkett: I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman read the Bill, because it suggests, for the first time in our history, that Ministers can be appointed outwith the second Chamber but report to it. We have always had to appoint people to that Chamber, who have worked within it and have continued to be a part of it, if they were to be Ministers.
The fundamental rub I foresee is that we will create mistrust in the electorate. We will say that we are going to replace people who are unaccountable and not legitimate, but then we will put up regional party lists—in the case of Yorkshire, the region covers 5 million people—and simply tell electors to tick the box on the list. People will turn on us, because that is a delusion. That is why we should vote against the Bill and against the programme motion.
Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), and to hear his views. Many interesting views have been expressed; clearly the House is well divided.
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A former colleague in this House, the right hon. Tony Benn, would remind us of the story of when Mr Gandhi came to England and was asked by British reporters what he thought of democracy in England and he replied that he thought it would be a jolly good idea. That shows our conceit about ourselves and elsewhere, as we are not entirely democratic. Tony Benn also used to point out that the Crown resides not at the end of the Mall, but in Downing street. This House is an appointed House, in one way. The occupant of the Chair might not be directly chosen by Her Majesty, but is approved by her.
We have all sort of tangles in an ancient constitution and they are often difficult to reconcile, but my whole parliamentary career—although “career” is a rather grand word that might imply some sort of distinction—has been based on the quest for us to become a democratic nation in which everyone elected here speaks on behalf of someone. That is what causes me the difficulty with the Bill, and the Deputy Prime Minister did not answer my concern. I do not think that he feels democracy, and my disappointment is that, over the years, the Liberal Democrats have stood for democratic issues and have stood against guillotines—in fact, I voted many times with them—but since they went into coalition, that has all been tipped out. That is at the heart of my disillusionment about the intent of fine men who stand up and make bold promises.
I genuinely believe that people should just read the Bill. It is unconscionable to say that someone must stand for election, an idea on which the Deputy Prime Minister has based his Bill, but can never be accountable. We are reverting to the aristocracy of the 19th century, who were all Members of the House of Lords but could conduct their business from the south of France. Indeed, as I look towards my own possible retirement, I think I probably should go to the Lords. I do not know whether I have 15 years left—[Hon. Members: “Of course you have.”] No, I am not sure about that; we may be running out of time. It is an unconscionable idea, but how agreeable. Perhaps our bankers should all become Members of the House of Lords. They would not have to be here at all.
There are many flaws in the Bill. However much I might believe in the necessity of the affirmation and consent, rather than the casually given acquiescence, of the people, I cannot support it. As for the very idea that we can put everything to a referendum, I tried and struggled to get a referendum on Maastricht, which was absolutely impossible, but we can have referendums on whether I tie my laces or on whether to have an elected mayor for wherever. That is the contradiction in this whole farrago.
I say to my Liberal Democrat colleagues, those good souls sitting on the Benches in front of me who have been led to contradicting everything that they have stood for as long as I have been in this House, that they do not want elections to be held after people have been effectively shoo’d into the House of Lords. I cannot go for that. The constituencies are bigger than countries, so we will have 11 Members of Parliament, but who will they be representing? I do not know, and I do not think that it will work.
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has been repudiated comprehensively. This process makes the House look ridiculous. We have crises facing us and this guillotine motion—we are back to them, despite the Leader of the House’s attestation otherwise—must be defeated. I urge Members, however they feel, to allow the proposals to be debated properly.
Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): It is a pleasure and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd). I shall be in the Lobby with him to vote against the programme motion and against the Bill, as it is a bad Bill.
I am not one of those people who has great admiration for the House of Lords. I agree with Bagehot, who was quoted earlier, that one need only go along the corridor and look at it more often. It is not such a wonderful place, even though there are some excellent and extraordinarily capable people there.
I believe in democracy and in improving our constitution, but the proposals do not do that at all. They diminish democracy in this country by setting up a counter-Chamber at the other end of the corridor. The problem, which has been mentioned in many excellent speeches, is that we have an over-mighty Executive and that this House has not kept as many powers as it should have done to itself over the years. I have not heard one speech from the people in favour of the proposal that told us how they would prevent power from being taken away from this Chamber if the Bill were passed.
The Bill will not improve the accountability of the Executive but will set them free to do more of what they want to do while being less accountable. So, the first argument in favour of it, which is that it improves democracy, falls. The second supportive reason given by the Deputy Prime Minister was that all the other countries he could think of had an elected second Chamber, which, as right hon. and hon. Members have corrected him, turns out not to be 100% true. Even if it were true, virtually all the countries that have such a second Chamber have a written constitution to deal with precisely the matter covered by clause 2, which is primacy. With no written constitution and elections to the second House, we will lose the primacy of this House.
Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend not also accept that right now one could argue that areas of this country, particularly Scotland, are over-governed as regards democracy?
I want to increase democracy where it is effective so that people feel that they are changing things, not being left behind and lost by politicians. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) said, the idea behind the genesis of the Bill is not the improvement of democracy but the improvement of the prospects of the Liberal Democrats, who are frightened of the prospect of democracy and the electorate at the next general election. What they are trying to secure in the Bill is proportional representation in the other place so that they can be in government for ever, but I do not see my job as coming to this House to put the Lib Dems in government for ever. To achieve that, they obviously have to introduce a system of PR, but just over 12 months ago the electorate said quite
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clearly that they did not want to move from first past the post, even though it was not PR that was put to them.
I must ask those who say that clause 2 will protect and provide security for the primacy of this House: how? There is only one legal basis for that primacy, and that is the Parliament Act, but we are not going to Parliament Act every Bill that comes through. All the other details such as the Salisbury convention and the convention on statutory instruments are just that—conventions. If I were elected to the other place, I would say, “The Salisbury convention no longer exists, because the basis of it was the fact that some people were elected and some were not.” If people in the other place are elected, they will have the right to say, “My electorate are as important as your electorate, and a great deal bigger, and I have been elected by millions of votes, so I will vote against what you in the House of Commons believe.”
It will be impossible to prevent freely elected people from doing that, particularly when they will never be accountable for anything because they will never go back to the electorate, and I see nothing apart from the Parliament Acts to prevent the other House from challenging the primacy of this House. That takes us back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) that the proposals will not affect the Government. Ministers may be appointed, but by blocking legislation they could do exactly what the Lib Dems are doing in this debate: blackmail whatever Government are in office so as to get their own way and get posts in the Government.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman begins his intervention, I counsel him that those who persistently intervene may get dropped down the list. I hope that the House understands what will happen if there are continual interventions from the same Members.
Simon Hughes: I hope that the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) accepts that, at the moment, at the other end of the building there is clearly no party with an overall majority. Indeed, everybody is in a minority. He is worried about having one period only for election and no need for re-election, but what would his alternative be that would end patronage and heredity in the second Chamber, if it is not something like this Bill?
Graham Stringer: That is the easiest question I have ever been asked in this Chamber: I would abolish the other House, for the simple reason that, in the constitutional position that we are in, it is difficult to improve and democratise it without diminishing ourselves or having a written constitution.
Policies and manifestos have been mentioned a number of times. On the day after the general election, it was my view that all the parties had lost. The advantage of our system is that the core parts of manifestos are voted for. If a party becomes the Government, it gets the rest of its manifesto because it put that manifesto before people, but when none of the parties has won and there are three differing commitments on House of Lords reform—incidentally, none of those commitments is embodied in
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the Bill before us—it is difficult to understand how my Front Benchers or Front Benchers from other parties could say, “This Bill is legitimate to put before people and we have the will of the people behind us.” We simply do not have the will of the people behind us on those manifestos and the only answer—again, the Lib Dems are particularly frightened of the electorate—is to put the proposal to a referendum.