Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): It is with a heavy heart that I speak to the Bill before the House. I am a reformer and I would welcome a well-crafted Lords reform Bill without election that reduced the size of the upper House, removed those who have committed serious criminal offences, improved the scrutiny of legislation, strengthened the appointments process, reduced political patronage, converted the hereditary peers to life peers, and separated the peerage as such from the legislature. Those measures would constitute a great reforming Bill and would, I suspect, pass through this House on a free vote. This Bill, however, is a hopeless mess.
Members of the House can properly differ on the merits of the underlying issues. What they cannot differ on are the flaws in the Bill itself. It is deeply confused and, indeed, dangerous legislation. It will prevent real reform. It will reduce diversity and deep expertise in our political system. It would be a catastrophe for this country if the Bill were ever enacted.
There has also been an important failure of due process. The Government originally worked hard to establish a consensus on the Bill, but without success. The Joint Committee sat for longer than any in recent memory. Because of its internal disagreements, it was forced to put more issues to the vote than any recent Committee. It even produced an unprecedented minority report, signed by six Privy Counsellors, but the views of the Joint Committee have barely been heeded by the Government. Its key recommendations were that an issue of this constitutional magnitude required a referendum and that the crucial clause governing the relationship between Lords and Commons should be entirely rethought.
Those recommendations have been ignored or brushed aside. The result is that important matters have been introduced without any pre-legislative scrutiny. Those include a revised clause 2 on the relations between the Houses, and a party list voting system. Instead, the Government have treated the votes of a highly divided Committee as a consensus when they were nothing of the kind. The Government refused to allow the Committee to publish the costs of the draft Bill, and refused to schedule a debate on its report, as is normal practice. They have rushed to get the Bill into Parliament before the summer.
Mr Gray: As evidence of the lack of consensus that my hon. Friend so well describes, has he ever attended any Second Reading debate in which every speech of any substance at all was against the principle behind the Bill?
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The Bill is being pushed through the Commons by the Government—before the summer, on a whipped vote and with a guillotined debate—but the central question concerns the likely constitutional crisis that will arise from the Bill, which will transform the Lords into a Chamber competing with the Commons. The result will be gridlock, cronyism and a rise in special-interest politics.
The US offers a useful cautionary tale. The American political system is manifestly struggling: beset by gridlock; vulnerable to powerful special interests, from the gun lobby to the American Association of Retired Persons; and its politicians elected by corporate lobbyists through political action committees, recently liberated by the Supreme Court from any spending constraints under the first amendment. The two Houses have repeatedly found it impossible to achieve consensus on important legislation. Pork-barrel has been replaced by stand-off. President Obama’s health care Bill is a classic example and it ended up in the Supreme Court.
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): Is not my hon. Friend adverting to the fundamental conundrum at the heart of the Government’s presentation of the Bill? On the one hand, they are arguing for a more legitimate House; on the other, they are arguing that there will be no change in the relationship between the two Houses. It does not add up.
Jesse Norman: My hon. Friend is exactly right. As my noble Friend Lord Forsyth put it, what would be the point of electing these people if not to give them more power? Exactly the same thing as has happened in the US will happen here. I refer my colleagues and Members across the House to Lord Pannick’s brilliant memorandum on the issue, which has been published this afternoon. Lord Pannick is widely regarded as one of the most excellent lawyers and advocates of his generation, and is specifically expert in the Parliament Acts. He is also precisely the kind of person who would never be willing to stand for election to a new Senate. In his words:
“The Bill does not adequately address the central issue of constitutional concern: the fact that a House of Lords most of whose members will be elected will almost certainly be much more assertive than the unelected House of Lords and reluctant to give way.”
“only relate to the end of the legislative process, and not the day-to-day conventions which (at present) result in the Lords giving way to the Commons. Indeed, the Parliament Acts do not apply at all to Bills introduced in the House of Lords or to subordinate legislation.
The crucial question is this: should the Bill seek to regulate all these matters, or leave them to convention? If it leaves them to convention, then the result will be disputes between the two competing chambers. If it regulates these issues, then the result will be that relations between the chambers become justiciable in law, as they did over the Hunting Act, which went all the way to the Supreme Court.”
Mr Harper: The Joint Committee considered the question of putting powers in the Bill and clearly recommended that we should not go there; it would be dangerous and it would open up the Bill to interference by the courts. We listened to the Committee very carefully.
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Jesse Norman: I am grateful to the Minister for stating that he wishes to be impaled on the first horn of the dilemma: in the absence of regulation that would render the actions of the Houses justiciable, he wishes to impale himself on the horn of constant gridlock and competition between the two sides.
“the Government have, hitherto, failed to recognise the difficulty”—
“and the importance of the constitutional issue arising from a decision to elect 80% of the House of Lords.”
Members of the House of Commons, Lord Pannick is no partisan, no party politician. His is quiet but devastating criticism. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us about what external advice the Government took when they reformulated clause 2. We now know which of the two options he proposes to take, so I need not ask him. He proposes not to allow the judges in, but to leave future disputes between the two Houses to the conventions —and a thoroughly unsatisfactory compromise that is.
In politics, as in all else, timing is everything. That applies in particular to voting against one’s own Government for the first time, which is not something to be wasted on a small measure. Luckily, however, this Bill makes it very easy. There is a fundamental issue of constitutional principle at stake; the Bill is a hopeless mess; it is in no sense a piece of Conservative legislation; it lacks any genuine manifesto commitment; it proposes a new upper Chamber that will be less expert, less diverse and more expensive than the present one, let alone one after sensible reforms; and the issue is absolutely irrelevant to the overwhelming need to put out the fire in the economic engine room. I shall be voting against it and I would venture to suggest that the Bill is such that all MPs, Conservative or not, have a constitutional obligation to vote against it. Only thus can we rid our country of—
Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who, if the proposals are passed, would end up being represented by the same regional list of senators as myself in Dudley—although how anyone could represent effectively both a rural community such as Hereford and a former industrial centre such as the black country is something we might ponder during the course of this debate.
I have always believed that the House of Lords should be reformed. It is clearly too big; it is indefensible that hereditary peers remain; and it is completely wrong that Members can fail to turn up for years and retain their membership, when they would be booted off a local authority if they failed to attend for six months. That said, however, there are major problems with the Government’s proposals.
First, the lesson of Scottish and Welsh devolution is that constitutional reform cannot be undertaken piecemeal. Those changes, which I supported, resulted in imbalances between Scotland and Wales and England and its regions,
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which have still not been resolved. The lesson is that a comprehensive and coherent view is needed of the relationship between the individual and the state, and of what powers should be exercised at national, regional and community level, before constitutional reform is undertaken.
Mr MacNeil: Are not the hysterics we are hearing in the House today reminiscent of the hysterics heard in 1979 about a Scottish Assembly, and in 1997 about a Scottish Parliament? There are hysterics only within these four walls, but when these things actually happen, the sky does not fall in.
Ian Austin: As I said, I supported the proposals for devolution, but I think the previous Government made a mistake in not undertaking them as part of a far-reaching, comprehensive and coherent view about the arrangements for governing Britain as a whole. Reform of the House of Lords needs to be properly thought through as part of a wider package of constitutional reforms to deal with the regional and national imbalances that are the result of stalled devolution.
For example, a renewed approach to regional government is needed. It is ironic that the Bill proposes that Members be elected from the English regions, which the Government have been doing all they can to abolish in all other respects. They claimed that the regions did not exist when they abolished the regional development agencies, regional spatial planning and all the rest. We have regional government in this country in the NHS, the police, planning, transport policy, housing and regeneration, but they are run by faceless civil servants in England, and by politicians in London, Scotland and Wales. I would prefer to have proper regional government and proper regional accountability for those powers and then to establish a revising second Chamber drawn from the regional assemblies.
The Government are proposing far-reaching reforms, which have huge implications for the way the country is run, and are doing so without a referendum. We had to have referendums for voting systems, for Scottish and Welsh devolution, for a regional assembly in the north-east and for directly elected mayors in some quite small cities, but the people of Britain will have no say in huge changes to their Parliament.
The central question is whether the House of Lords should be elected. I do not think it is possible to defend, as a point of principle, appointments and patronage. I am a democrat and I am in favour of devolving power to the people. That is one of the reasons I became interested in politics and got involved: I wanted to ensure that ordinary people have as much power as possible over the way the decisions that affect them in their daily lives are taken. Clearly, the current system is one of appointment, not election, but what we have to decide is whether the changes that the Government propose are appropriate and will do the job.
First, whatever the Government say, having an elected House of Lords will inevitably change the relationship between the two Houses. That is bound to happen. The Bill promises that this House will retain primacy, but simply asserting that and ensuring that it happens in practice are very different. It is not credible to say that nothing will change, when it is inevitable that people who have been elected will claim a democratic mandate
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and assert their authority. Secondly, there is no question but that elected Members of the second House will claim democratic legitimacy in our constituencies. That is bound to happen. In this debate and during the detailed scrutiny of the Bill that follows it, I want to see how the Government and this House will deal with those huge questions.
There are other issues we have to deal with. It is pretty clear that 400 new senators will bring huge additional costs. They will immediately demand the same level of resources, staff and offices and all the rest as we have, even though they will have no real constituency. Of those 400, the west midlands will have about 35 representatives elected from a regional list. Voters will have very little idea who they are voting for. I spent the weekend asking people in Dudley if they could name their MEPs. Michael Cashman and the other six west midlands MEPs do a good job, but the current system ensures that almost no one knows who their MEPs are. I take more than a passing interest in politics and I struggle to name all seven of them off the top of my head.
What I do know is that the introduction of a regional list system for those elections has resulted, to our great shame, in Britain being represented in the European Parliament, for the first time, by people standing for a racist and fascist party. It is pretty clear to me that if we go ahead with a similar system for a second Chamber, all sorts of cranks and extremists will get elected.
The idea of people being elected for a 15-year non-renewable term is appalling. One of the reasons that politicians work hard, particularly in marginal constituencies, is that we have to answer for our views and actions at the ballot box. The proposed system, which prevents people from being held to account for their actions by seeking re-election, appears to be based on the most appalling elitist view that listening to the public and taking their views into account is a bad thing.
Although I am in favour of democracy and elections, I shall be following this debate and the subsequent scrutiny of the Bill and amendments with great interest, to see whether the concerns I have expressed today can be dealt with.
Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, although regretfully it is to express my opposition to the Bill. It is a pleasure to follow many of my hon. Friends who, despite their considerable loyalty to the Government, feel compelled to reject this piece of political vandalism. They have eloquently outlined the numerous faults in this ill-conceived Bill and I shall add briefly to their arguments.
The Bill contains rushed, illogical and poorly constructed proposals which bring no discernible benefit to Parliament or to the nation. I am struck by the arrogance of the Bill’s proponents who, neglecting the relative brevity of their place in the long history of Parliament, seek to force through a Bill with unknown consequences for the future governance of this country. Constitutional change stands apart from other legislative Acts, and to seek to limit the time spent debating such significant and irreversible change is an insult to this Parliament, and could be seen
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as an attempt by the Bill’s proponents to force through what they must know to be at best unjustified, and at worst indefensible, change.
Surely the supporters of the Bill have recognised the weaknesses of the arguments that they advance. They must acknowledge, for instance, as already mentioned on many occasions today, the fallacy of suggesting that senators elected for a single 15-year term, with no chance of re-election and no chance of entry to the Commons or of deselection, will be accountable to the electorate. Even hon. Members who passionately support the creation of a fully elected House of Lords must see that for the half-baked illogical muddle that it is, creating powerful and in reality unaccountable senators cloaked by the illusion of accountability.
In the light of the Bill’s multiple flaws, one has to wonder what motivates support for this reform. It would be of little credit to hon. Members, for instance, if a Bill of such scale and magnitude were to pass simply as some grubby trade-off for boundary reform. I hope Members across the House will act not on short-term interests, but with a mind to the enduring consequences of reform, for I strongly doubt that in years to come the creation of an expensive, unaccountable and constitutionally unbalanced House of senators will be seen as much of a legacy for this Parliament, and it is certainly one with which I would not wish to have my name associated.
I want to talk about what I believe would be lost if the Bill succeeds. I remember that one of the first events that I hosted in Parliament was as the newly elected Chair of the Navy group of the all-party group for the armed forces. Coming from a Navy family and a Navy constituency, I thought I was quite safe in my knowledge of the subject, until I realised that at that dinner I would be joined by three former Secretaries of State for Defence, two past Chiefs of the Defence Staff and a former First Sea Lord. I believe that 17 Lords previously held one or more of these roles and bring an incomparable level of knowledge and experience of our armed forces to the upper House.
That pattern is replicated throughout the Lords, with experts from medicine, law, diplomacy, MI5 and MI6, charities, business, the arts and many other fields. They bring an unparalleled wealth of expertise and experience, and as the Mayor of London said, despite what might be described as their more mature exterior, they bring a depth of wisdom that allows them to see even the most minor flaws in the legislation which it is, after all, their job to scrutinise line by line.
Conor Burns: My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful point about the difference between this place and the other place—that in the other place, in order to win the vote, one has to win the argument. That is not always the case in this Chamber.
Caroline Dinenage: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. After speaking to many Members of the House of Lords, I know that most would not dream of putting themselves forward for election. After, in many cases, a lifetime of experience, working their way to reach the very top of their chosen field, why would they submit themselves to what is, in effect, a popularity contest? They will not, and their experience and knowledge will be irrevocably lost.
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It is a great sadness to me that there seems to be a generation of MPs who have never worked in anything other than politics, yet who now presume to sweep aside people with decades of hard-earned experience in their chosen field, to replace them with party political favourites. As a Conservative and as a reformer, I acknowledge that the House of Lords is in need of change to cut down the size, to weed out the cheats and criminals, and to introduce a more independent process of selection, but all that can be done without recourse to this ill-conceived, unwelcome and damaging reform Bill. It is therefore with a heavy heart that I urge hon. Members to vote against the Government and to reject the Bill.
Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage). I am in the rather curious position of supporting the coalition Bill, in contrast to the hon. Lady. I am in favour of reform of the House of Lords. The tide of time—[Interruption.] No, I am in favour of it now, which is why I will vote for its Second Reading. The tide of time is in favour of democracy and we need to accept that.
Tristram Hunt: I should declare an interest. My father sits in the House of Lords, as do the fathers of other Labour Members of Parliament. He, too, is in favour of reform of the House of Lords, and in favour of democracy in relation to it.
The tide of time is in favour of democracy. Many in the Chamber might find that an uncomfortable reality, but we cannot go around the world preaching democracy to developing and other nations without having that in the second Chamber. I entirely accept that legislative wisdom comes in many forms, and I acknowledge the expertise in the unelected second Chamber, as the hon. Member for Gosport suggested. That is why I am in favour of an 80% elected, 20% appointed upper House. My perfect model would be 75% elected, 25% appointed because when one drills down into the absolute expertise in the upper House, one would probably get to about 25%.
Rory Stewart: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that before it goes round preaching about democracy to the rest of the world, Britain should take the example of the rest of the world by not introducing major constitutional change without either a two-thirds vote or a referendum?
Tristram Hunt: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I wholly agree; I shall come on to that. I am in favour of the referendum, as the Labour party rightly proposes, on this major piece of constitutional change.
I served on the Joint Committee, and a number of points emerged from our investigation. This is a serious, problematic reform, as the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) suggested, throwing up detailed problems about the interrelationship between the Houses, the fundamental change to Parliament,
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the role of bishops and the established Church, and the dual mandate between the other place and this place. That is why we need proper, detailed investigation of the Bill. The programme motion will not allow for that. If the change is to last down the centuries, does it matter if we have another five, seven, eight, 10 or 15 days to look at it? If the Government are serious about major constitutional reform, they should allow us the time and space to consider it.
There is also, as the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) suggested, the need for a referendum. We are beginning to move towards different forms of democracy, and whether we like it or not in this place, referendums play an increasingly powerful part in that. So if, as has been noted, we have had referendums on city Mayors and on voting systems, and we are having the farce of elections for police commissioners in the depths of November, why do we not have a referendum on a major piece of legislative change which will affect the governance of the entire country? It is right that the people have a say on that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) suggested.
The Bill contains numerous problems. The 15-year term is very difficult to accept as a democrat. Personally, I am in favour of two 10-year terms, but that throws up equal problems in terms of electioneering.
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): Could the hon. Gentleman point to the occasion on which there was a referendum on removing the hereditary peers from the House of Lords, which one might concede was a big constitutional change?
Tristram Hunt: I think that removing the hereditary peers was so obvious a change that we did not need a referendum, but this is not an obvious change. There are major complexities, as we have just teased out, with regard to justiciability between the two Houses and composition. All sorts of questions need to be answered.
I also agree with the change from 300 to 450 Members, because I think that the initial proposal for a wholly professionalised and salaried body of 300 was incorrect. However, if Ministers think that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority will simply allow them to decide who is paid what, it is clear that they have not looked at the evidence its representatives gave to the Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill. I think that Ministers will find that IPSA will take a great deal more control of what happens to Members of the other place than they believe. I am in favour of keeping the bishops and the established Church, and the appointment of Ministers seems exactly right.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is deliberately provoking me. Only this afternoon the Church of England decided that it cannot even decide when it will decide on whether to have women bishops. Surely we should at least say that the bishops are allowed to remain in the House of Lords only if there are to be women bishops.
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the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire also referred, and convention versus statute. It also seems to me that there is no reason why a democratically elected second Chamber will not intervene on Finance Bills. If they are elected by taxpayers, why should they not have their say on Finance Bills? We do not seem to have sorted out the conflict resolution procedures that will be needed between the Houses.
The bigger problem relates to what happens in Scotland. If there is a vote in favour of an independent Scotland, the entire premise of this Bill will be undone, because the role of the House of Lords will have to take on a far more federal nature with regard to the interrelationship between the kingdoms of the Crown under the Crown in Parliament in the House of Lords, but perhaps the timeline will allow for all that.
On a broader point, when there is major constitutional reform there is always fear of the unknown. The Second Reform Act was described as a leap in the dark, and Thomas Carlyle wrote lurid pamphlets about its consequences. Actually, it resulted in a strengthening of Parliament and of the democratic process. Britain did not fall apart, and the same was true of the Third Reform Act and votes for women. It comes down to whether we believe in the purifying effects of democracy. Do Members believe in what we on the Labour side used to call “the good old cause”, which goes right back to Lilburne, Rainsborough, Paine and all the rest? The Bill has many problems but, ultimately, if we believe in democracy we have to support it.
Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt). I listened carefully to the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech this afternoon—I listened dutifully and did not intervene. He seems to have become the Andy Murray of this House; he has gone from being a set up and at break point two years ago to being in deep trouble in the fourth set this afternoon. I suggest that part of the reason is that his arguments seem to centre on the point that we do not want to spend a huge amount of Government time on the Bill and just need to get on with it and get it through—we basically just need to agree with Nick. However, from what I have heard over the last few hours, very few of the Members who have spoken so far seem to agree with Nick, but there is still time and, of course, there is tomorrow.
Many Members have said that the Government should not be spending time on this issue right now and that no one cares about Lords reform, but I do not entirely agree. Governments multi-task all the time, so the Bill takes its place alongside many others, and that is the choice of Ministers this time. I also do not think that it is fair to say that no one cares about Lords reform. The truth is that those who care about it do so passionately. I suspect that they come predominantly from one political tradition, but that does not make their views any less valid, and I certainly do not dismiss them. I have received a huge number of e-mails from constituents over the past few weeks putting both sides of the argument, and I do not dismiss any of their points.
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I stand by the manifesto commitment I stood on two years ago to work to build a consensus and deeply regret that we have been unable to do so.
Mr Gray: My hon. Friend alleges that no consensus has been achieved, but surely the real feeling in this afternoon’s debate shows that there is a strong consensus that the Bill should be consigned to the dustbin of history?
I think that there is plenty we can do to reform the other place. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) touched on a number of things we could do without abolishing the House of Lords or jamming up Parliament for months, if not years, with a clumsy Bill that seems to get worse the more times I read it.
To be blunt, I think that we are approaching the whole business the wrong way round. Reform of Parliament should start with a simple question: what do we want this House and the other place to do? I think that we want a second Chamber that acts as a revising Chamber, largely free from the politics of the first Chamber and, ultimately, always subservient to it. In other words, purely with regard to the roles performed and the way we make the laws of this land, I think that we have it about right in the United Kingdom. We can argue until the cows come home, and no doubt until they go out again, about who should sit in this bicameral Parliament but, when it come to the system of checks and balances on the Government of the day, I think that most of the sensible people I represent would say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Let me turn to who sits in the upper House. What is proposed in the Bill is a host of senators—let us call them that for now—who would sit for an unrepeatable term of 15 years. From what I have heard so far this afternoon, that seems to be at the heart of the concerns right across this House. The record will show that I asked the Deputy Prime Minister in this House on 20 March whether he thought that
“a 15-year senator who is unable to stand for re-election is more or less accountable than a current Member of the other place”.—[Official Report, 20 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 639.]
“They’re not accountable… there will be no power of de-selection. Once they’re there, they’re there for 15 years.”
I accept that it is absolutely the case that under current rules, without the power of recall, Members of this House could leave the election night count, jump in a cab and go to Heathrow, take a flight direct to Barbados, sit on a deckchair on a white sandy beach for five years and that decision would catch up with them only if ultimately they sought re-election to this place at the next general election. I take that seriously. The point is that I am accountable to the people of Winchester only if or when I seek re-election to this place. A guaranteed job on £300 a day, with zero accountability—why on earth are we even considering creating such a gravy train? If it were not so serious, it would be funny.
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Steve Brine: No, I cannot, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Many of the constituents that he and I represent, in the public and private sectors, would give their eye teeth for a job with a 15-year guaranteed salary.
I wonder what the public would think if they actually saw the other place in action and were exposed to its debates in the same way they are to debates in this House, at Prime Minister’s questions for instance. I think that they would be genuinely shocked to find the level of debate that their lordships pursue and the much reduced partisan nature of their proceedings. Bagehot has been quoted a few times today, but clearly he has not been in the House of Lords lately.
The Bill, from my reading of it, would take all the worst element of this House, magnify them tenfold and place them at the other end of the building. The insane proposal to elect these senators to nine regions of the country by proportional representation would simply introduce a new breed of political animal to Parliament, one that owes everything to the party list that put them there. Of course they will act accordingly, and we would not blame them for doing so. Do right hon. and hon. Members really want to create a whole new raft of expensive, partisan and regionally roaming politicians?
I read in the weekend papers—there was a lot in them—the comments of one Liberal Democrat peer, who said that his party has had to swallow some bitter pills, such as student fees and the NHS Bill, strangely, as a result of coalition, and that it was time the Conservatives did the same.
That is one of the worst aspects of coalition, and I am a supporter of this coalition Government—and very much on the record as saying so. The horse-trading—the “you get, we get” mentality—that coalition fosters is a woeful way to carry on in any policy area, but when it comes to the constitution of our country it is just plain wrong and plain dangerous.
That is what is very wrong with this debate. The Bill is a reckless piece of proposed legislation that Baroness Boothroyd, who has far more experience of this House and the other than I do, described on the radio as “an abuse of Parliament.” I do not think that she would use that term lightly.
The Bill does not hang together intellectually. It is in part about coalition politics and, much more, about the internal politics of the Liberal Democrat party—and that is no reason to take a bulldozer to our constitution. In my bones I know that it is wrong, and the saddest thing of all is that it will probably set back sensible reform of the Lords for many years.
I urge the Government to step back, even at this late hour, and the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to look each other in the eye over the Cabinet table this evening and simply to ask themselves whether these proposals will leave our Parliament a better place if they go through. I suspect that in their hearts both know the answer to that question, and I ask them to ask it.
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Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I was a member of the royal commission on the House of Lords, an all-party commission that, after many months of consideration and consulting a large number of witnesses throughout the United Kingdom, decided unanimously that
“we could not recommend: a wholly or largely directly elected second chamber”.
In the years since then I have come upon no evidence to dissuade me from that view. This Bill is a botched mess that seems to have been drafted on the back of an envelope, and it is based not on principle, but on a series of deals between the two parties that comprise the Government.
The principle, if one can grace it with such an epithet, behind the Bill is not how to secure the better governance of this great democracy, but how to gratify the whims of the Liberal Democrat party, which has been determined to distort our parliamentary system, first, through the alternative vote and, now, with this rubbish in an effort to wangle more Liberal Democrat Members of either House or both Houses.
Significantly, what concerns the Liberal Democrats, to the extent of their threatening the stability of the Government, is not what concerns our constituents, such as jobs, the health service, schools, pensions, law and order, housing, but their own party self-interest.
One issue that has always troubled me about even a part-elected second Chamber is the conflict between Members of such a Chamber and the rights of the House of Commons and its Members. This Bill is imprecise to the point of vacuity on the relationship between the House of Commons and the new Chamber that it seeks to create. What is clear, however, is the certainty of conflict and collision between Members of the House of Commons and Members of the second Chamber in the areas where their membership coincides.
If a Member of the House of Commons and a Member of the revised second Chamber both take up the same individual case, or take up a position on the same issue, chaos could result, and the rights of the elected Member of the House of Commons could be eroded or undermined, particularly given the different lengths of membership of each body and the fact that Members of the second Chamber will be unaccountable because they cannot be re-elected.
I was not thrilled with the proposals for a second Chamber in the 2010 Labour party election manifesto, but at least they started with a referendum to legitimise any subsequent action. That difference being so strong, I am bewildered by the decision of Labour Front Benchers to support the Bill’s Second Reading. In 42 years in this House I have voted only once against the Labour Whip, but I shall certainly disregard it tomorrow evening. Perhaps it will set a precedent. I shall vote against both the Second Reading and the programme motion.
On whipping, let me say this to hon. Members in the Conservative party, although from what I have heard in this debate so far I do not believe that they need to be told it. I have a considerable personal regard for the Government Chief Whip, but on this issue he is not McLoughlin but Machiavelli. His job is to manipulate to get the result that he needs to deliver.
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If one picks up a newspaper or turns on the television, one encounters all kinds of lurid warnings and threats: “boundary changes may be in danger”; “the very future of the coalition may be at stake”. Boundary changes crop up every few years and will continue to do so. I have survived four sets so far, and perhaps I will survive the next as well. Governments come and Governments go, but the new Chamber proposed in this Bill will be irreversible. Once we have it, we will not be able to get rid of it.
This nation’s parliamentary system of government has evolved over nine centuries to make the United Kingdom, for which under this Bill there will be different electoral systems in different countries, the greatest and most stable democracy in the world. There has been change, but it has been evolutionary change. A Liberal Government asserted the primacy of the House of Commons under the Parliament Acts more than a century ago; a Conservative Government created life peers and introduced women peers; and a Labour Government began the end of the hereditary system in the House of Lords.
We, unlike other democracies, do not have a constitution, and that is because we do not need a constitution. The Queen in Parliament is all we need. Let us uphold British democracy tomorrow night. Let us vote no in both Divisions and be done with this pernicious threat to what has made the United Kingdom a great democracy.
Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I regret that I will not be in the same Lobby tomorrow night as my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), even though I agreed with much that he had to say today. I think that the primacy problem in this place has nothing whatever to do with the House of Lords or even the House of Commons. The real issue that lies at the heart of UK constitutional politics is the corrosive effect of the overweening primacy of the Executive.
Anything, but anything that provides an effective counterweight to the oft unchallenged power of the Executive is, in my view, a good thing. I remain to this day staggered by the sheer gutlessness of this place, including of many Members who will vote against this Bill’s Second Reading and programme motion tomorrow night, because we waved through the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, and it was a terrible bit of legislation.
That legislation cravenly supported a reduction in the size of this House, and it was promoted by the Deputy Prime Minister on the basis of a fatuous saving to the public purse of £10 million a year, which even in his own words has been overwhelmed by the additional amount of money that will be required for the new House of Lords. At the same time, we failed either to nail down any commensurate shrinking of the size or cost of the House of Lords, or to address the constitutional iniquity surrounding the absurdly inflated Scottish Parliament and Northern Irish and Welsh Assemblies.
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the preservation of the “ancient traditions”, as many hon. Friends have assured me, of the upper House was conclusively lost in 1999. Once the vast bulk of the hereditaries had been removed, so too should all appointed Members have followed. Instead, today we have a bloated House of Lords, of which the Lords Winstons and Puttnams are assuredly the exception rather than the rule.
Over the past 13 years the ranks of the upper House have been swelled by literally hundreds of party hacks and large-scale political donors, along with dubious-quality legislators given the nod on politically correct grounds. In the charming words of my Liberal Democrat opponent at the last election, ironically herself also the daughter of a life peer, I was too “male, pale and stale”. That may well be the case, but I was also elected, and in a democracy that matters.
While I am happy to support the principle of electing the House of Lords both on Second Reading and in the vote on the programme motion, I believe that in many of its particulars the Bill is shoddy and poorly drafted.
The Bill misses the opportunity to propose an elegant solution that might have resolved effectively the four main domestic constitutional uncertainties that have plagued our whole political arena for the past three decades. I hope that when it is in Committee and in the other place we might be able to make some progress in that regard. With a federal UK parliament and four elected national parliaments, we could have not only maintained the monarchy, strengthened the Union, and resolved questions over the legitimacy of an unreformed House of Lords, but given independent and equal representation to citizens in England as well as in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
As many Members have said, the British constitution has been one of the success stories of modern politics. It has kept this country together, united under a common Crown and a common Parliament, for over 300 years—not for us the coups, revolutions and counter-revolutions that have plagued many of our European partners over that period. So successful has it been that we Britons had perhaps stopped thinking about some of its great successes. Until 15 years ago, nobody in this House or beyond gave much thought to constitutional issues; we knew instinctively that we had a British constitution that worked well for the whole of these islands. I am afraid that that was destroyed in 1999 when we got rid of the traditional House of Lords, removing much of the genuinely independent hereditary element and created hundreds of new life peers. Shamefully, this process has continued even under the coalition Government, with some 120 new life peers being created. That is unacceptable.
David Tredinnick: I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but surely he must recognise that a lot of those who are made peers are experts in their own fields; it is not just a case of Lord Winston and one other.
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Mark Field: They are the exception that proves the rule. Just look at the 120 who were made peers; we could mention particular names. It is an entirely misjudged view that the House of Lords is full of expertise. Clearly there is expertise—I do not dispute that for one minute—but it is very much the exception rather than the rule.
I think we all accept that the UK constitution has traditionally been full of anomalies. However, we also like the idea of fair play. As an MP for a seat in London, which is the capital of England and of the whole United Kingdom, I call on the Government to offer all the British people—English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish—a new settlement through this Bill that will be demonstrably equitable for everyone. I believe that we should move in the direction of creating an entirely new federal parliament so that we have four full national parliaments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, together with all the existing powers of the House of Commons. The federal UK parliament would deal with defence and foreign affairs, make treaties, and administer a cohesion fund for the poorer parts of the UK. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) says that it would be expensive. In fact, it would be anything but, because it would mean that there were fewer politicians as all English Members would be members of both the English and the UK parliaments. It would reduce the number of elected politicians, which would be a much better approach. In a sense, it would be a unicameral system. I was the only Conservative who voted for a unicameral system when we had that option. To me, what we have at the moment is the most undesirable outcome of all. I would sooner abolish that, put nothing in its place, have a unicameral system, and make the positive reforms that I hope we are going to make. Abolishing the House of Lords would mean that Parliament was unicameral, but that has not proved to be a problem in Edinburgh or in Cardiff over the past 12 years.
All this and much more needs to be addressed in Committee, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) said, voting down the programme motion would be tantamount to trying to wreck the Bill as a whole. As a believer in a democratised House of Lords, that is something that I am not prepared to do.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I nearly fell off my chair earlier today because I had an e-mail from a constituent on Lords reform. I think that that is the first one that I have had in all my years, despite the fact that I have held forth about the subject on many occasions. Fortunately, I agreed with her, so 100% of my constituents are in agreement with me.
I say to hon. Members who are opposed to the Bill that the current House of Lords is unsustainable. It has more than 800 Members, and the coalition agreement says that more should be appointed. At the rate that we are going, every member of the Liberal Democrat party will end up as a Member of the House of Lords. There
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are enormous problems with the numbers that we have at the moment, because appointment as the defining way of getting into the House of Lords leads to a heavy over-subscription of people from London and the south-east. Two hundred and seventy-three Members of the House of Lords come from London and the south-east, but just 38 come from the midlands and 74 from the north. It cannot possibly claim to be the representative House that it claimed to be seven centuries ago, when it had all the tenants-in-chief of the land available to advise the king.
Chris Bryant: I have only just started, to be fair. I wanted to start by saying that there are too many Members and, on top of that, too many who come from London and the south-east and too few who come from everywhere else. With a system of appointment, the people who do the appointing end up choosing people they already know, and that is why there is a heavy preponderance of people from London and the south-east. We also still have crooks, perjurers and arsonists up at the other end of the corridor. The hon. Gentleman will say, “Ah yes, but we can change all this through David Steel’s Bill,” but then we end up with a House of Lords that is solely appointed, and that is a House of patronage and power given to too few people, not to the people of the land.
We have the ludicrous situation of by-elections for hereditary peers. I say to all those who are opposed to the alternative vote system that we already have that system; it is used to elect people to the House of Lords. It is ironic that the last person who was elected in July last year, in a by-election that was not much commented on in the national media, was Lord Ashton of Hyde. I have never met that gentleman, and I suspect that few of us in this House have, but he got to stand as a hereditary peer only because of his original predecessor who was made a peer. That Lord Ashton of Hyde had been a Member of this House. He tried to get elected for Hyde several times and never managed to do so; but none the less, when he went to the Lords, he called himself Lord Ashton of Hyde. He went there because he had vacated his seat in the Commons two months before the vote on the Parliament Act 1911 to try to make sure that it could get through down at the other end of the building.
The system of having elected hereditaries in the Lords is completely bizarre, but it is even more bizarre to have the bishops of the Church of England there. There was an argument for that when we also had the bishops of Wales and Ireland, and some representation from Scotland, but it makes no sense for only one denomination representing one geographical area to be appointed to the House of Lords. I would move an amendment to get rid of all the bishops.
To those who argue in favour of the House of Lords on the basis of expertise, I would say that sometimes expertise is also a vested interest. Just take the case of two members of the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions, which is considering a very sensitive issue in politics. One of them is Lord Gold. Most Members have probably never heard of him, but he happens to be
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a Conservative peer. He also happens to be a lawyer who specialises in litigation. Some people might say, “That’s great—he has expertise,” but I would say that he has a commercial interest in the legislation that he is advising on. Similarly, Lord Black of Brentwood, as the executive director of the Telegraph Group, has a direct financial and commercial interest in the legislation that is going through. That is why I say that, all too often, the commercial interests of people down at that end of the building turn it into a corrupt House.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. We are in danger of questioning the nature and duties of Members of the other House and of going over the line in doing so, and I am sure that we would not want to do that.
Laura Sandys: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is not just about financial interests but could be about vested interests such as those of the British Medical Association, the National Union of Teachers or other organisations? Might people who are in the other House as a result of the status quo and have vested interests in the status quo therefore resist more radical change that might be proposed by this House?
Chris Bryant: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s point, because it was a very good one. A large number of those who spoke in the House of Lords in the debates on the Health and Social Care Bill had a personal, commercial, financial interest in supporting it. I am not questioning any individual, Mr Deputy Speaker, but the system of having expertise in the other House that many people advocate. Often, someone arrives in the other House with a degree of expertise and ends up staying there for another 30 years, which means that their expertise becomes extremely out of date. Furthermore, someone may have phenomenal expertise in medicine, but absolutely no understanding of the armed forces, or vice versa. Appointing people to the House of Lords on the basis of expertise is, I believe, a mistake.
I say to those who say that we need evolution, not revolution, that we have had two revolutions—one of them glorious and one of them perhaps inglorious. It was on the basis of those revolutions that many of the advances that we have had came about. We have had elected peers before. The 16 Scottish representative peers from 1707 to 1963 were elected at every general election. Similarly, the Irish peers were elected for life. We have had a mixed and evolving system. We introduced life peers. In 1963, we allowed women who had a peerage in their own right, suo jure, to sit in the House of Lords. I do not believe that this is the dramatic change that people claim; it is part of the evolution, not a revolution.
There are problems with the Bill, the most important of which was referred to by the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who intervened on me but has now left the Chamber. It is the question of powers. I do not believe that the
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original version or the present version of clause 2 on the respective powers of the two Houses will meet the day. There is a third way. I do not want the courts to be able to decide on a row between this House and the other House. The best way to proceed would be to have a concordat between the two Houses that forms part of our Standing Orders, which requires that there can be no change in our House without the agreement of the House of Lords and no change in the House of Lords without the agreement of the House of Commons. Perhaps, as one hon. Member suggested earlier, that should rely on a two-thirds majority.
I think that a 15-year term is far too long. Six or nine years might be better, but we can debate that. I will also support 100% election. I say to my Liberal Democrat—I hate to say this word—friends, that I have long campaigned on this matter and I think that there is more likelihood of getting the reform if we have a referendum and if we ensure that the Bill is debated properly, because we are going to have to use the Parliament Act.
Mr Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): I will not follow immediately on from the tempting suggestion made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), because I want to direct the bulk of my remarks to the parliamentary Labour party.
I should begin by making my position clear because, as colleagues in my ranks and across the Floor of the House know, I have something of a reputation in this Parliament as a coalition sceptic, having not supported its formation. It is therefore with all the more enthusiasm that I am speaking strongly in favour of the coalition proposals, as outlined by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister this afternoon.
One of the things that has driven me in politics over the decades is that when one comes into the British House of Commons in a third-party position—I have been part of the Social Democratic party, the Alliance and the Lib Dems—there is an overwhelming sense, which we are seeing in this debate, that the forces of small c conservatism within both the principal parties are ranged against one. Today, colleagues on both sides of the House have said, “Of course I am in favour of the principle of House of Lords reform.” To listen to their rhetoric or to read it in Hansard, one would think that they had been lying awake at night for years fretting about this issue. They go on to say, “But not this reform,” “Not at this time,” “Not in this way,” “Not for these reasons,” “Not because of that political context,” and so on.
This debate is reminiscent of one of the first cross-party debates that took place when I was first elected in 1983, which was about televising the House of Commons. When I look at those, particularly from the House of Lords, who have been in the public prints over the weekend warning of the pestilence, plague and Niagara falls of misfortune that will descend upon our nation if we try to reform the House of Lords as outlined in today’s proposals, I recall, funnily enough, that many of the same voices, many of the same names and an awful lot of the same arguments were raised against the pernicious effect that televising the House of Commons would have. Had they lived in a different generation, those people would have had the same instincts and the
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same conservative gut reactions against votes for women. It goes on and on. That is why I make my plea to the Labour party in particular.
I listened to the Labour leader on BBC Radio 4’s “World at One” at lunchtime today, speaking no doubt with sincerity. When he says that Labour will oppose the programme motion, while supporting the principle of reform, in the best-case scenario he is being breathtakingly naive in parliamentary terms and in the worst-case scenario he is displaying abject party political cynicism. I hope that it is not the latter, because I think a lot more of him than that.
I say that because of my experience, some 20 years ago, of the Maastricht treaty. That is what this occasion reminds me of more than anything else. Labour held themselves together in opposition brilliantly under John Smith’s leadership. He had the rallying cry of the absence of the social chapter, which united Eurosceptics and Euro-enthusiasts in the Labour ranks. That kept the Labour party together and kept the heat on John Major’s Government. We found ourselves having to vote on many an occasion, in circumstances that were bitter, controversial and politically damaging in the short term, to enable the Maastricht business to proceed, because Labour was seeking to thwart it. We are in a similar position here.
The votes on Maastricht were a bad experience for the Conservative party because of its rebels. I fear that its rebels on this issue will find that they are stoking up an awful lot of trouble within their own parliamentary ranks later in this Parliament. The other message of that experience was that, no matter how much one tries to feed and placate the sceptics, they come back for more. They want more and more red meat, and eventually they end up devouring you. That will be the danger if the programme motion is not passed.
Mr Jenkin: I am in danger of agreeing with one or two things that the right hon. Gentleman is saying. The Maastricht debates were a disaster for Parliament because of the way in which they were conducted. The solution then would have been to have a referendum, and the solution now is to have a referendum to avoid the kind of disaster that he is talking about.
Mr Kennedy: We will see, assuming that we have the parliamentary progress that is required, what happens on that issue. I was a European spokesman for my party at the time of Maastricht and voted in favour of a referendum. Folk of my generation voted for a referendum, while people of David Steel’s generation voted against. If we have a vote on a referendum in the course of our proceedings, which I dare say we will, it will be interesting to see what happens. It might yet become a way of breaking the logjam—who knows? I am not going to declare on the issue yet because I want to get through 10 o’clock tomorrow night first. We will take it one step at a time.
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Front-Bench apotheosis of Labour enthusiasm for Lords reform, then God help us, whether we are debating the matter for 10 days and nights on the Floor of this House or for a longer period if the programme motion is defeated tomorrow evening. I can only assume—I am being charitable to him—that his speech on this occasion had to be a non-committal holding operation, while Labour weighs up the advantage, sees what happens tomorrow night and decides where to go from there. He showed studied ambiguity about what the Opposition would do if they were successful in thwarting the programme motion tomorrow night, and how much time they would insist upon for debate on the Floor of the House. The repeated delphic absence of a response to those questions spoke volumes. I plead with the Labour party: do not just play the Bill for narrow party advantage, play it for the historic opportunity that it is.
Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy). I am sure he will accept that I do not agree with the entirety of his speech, but he made it in his usual moderate and thoughtful way.
The right hon. Gentleman leads me to my first point. It is often said that the House of Commons is at its best when it is discussing huge constitutional issues. I tend to differ with that view. I believe that we are at our very worst, because we look inwards on ourselves and talk about the effect of a change on this or that party or on us as a political class, instead of facing outwards and considering what the wider public care about.
I should start by stating my own position. Like the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and several others, I am a unicameralist. There are examples both in the UK and abroad that show us how a unicameral legislative system can work effectively and efficiently.
The upper Chamber, the House of Lords, is historically anachronistic. Several Members have gone into great detail about that, but we need only to read primitive children’s history books to understand why it is the case. Even in its current state, there is an anomaly: it contains hereditary peers alongside those who are appointed. That is not a satisfactory way to structure a legislature.
I accept that, as has been said, there are Members of the House of Lords who bring to bear their knowledge and experience, which is often reflected in the quality of the debates that take place there. That in itself is not sufficient for it to continue in its present form, but it has to be said that that is the case.
I have to accept that there is not a majority in this House that agrees with me about the abolition of the House of Lords. On the basis that turkeys never vote for Christmas, there most certainly would not be such a majority in the other place. Nevertheless, reform runs logically counter to the views of anybody who, like me, believes in abolition.
It has been said repeatedly, not least by the Deputy Prime Minister, that all three parties—the two in the coalition and my own party—referred to reform of the House of Lords in their manifestos. That is true, but I doubt whether many right hon. and hon. Members put it in their election addresses. I can say with absolute certainty that it was not an issue that was discussed
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in Knowsley at the last general election, or any other. Nevertheless, it was in all three parties’ manifestos, and I believe that we need to make some progress on it. However, this Bill is not the way to do that.
I will not go into great detail about all that is wrong with the Bill, because time forbids. However, the 15-year term offends any sense of accountability whatever. It is beyond my wildest imagination how anybody who is elected for a 15-year term, with a rule that they cannot stand again, can in any way be considered accountable.
As we know from the European elections, the partly closed, partly open regional list system hardly sets the world on fire. The turnout that those elections manage to attract is pitiful, and in my region, the north-west, there is the unintended consequence that members of the British National party end up getting elected.
I return to where I started. On such issues, we need not to look in on ourselves but to look out at what the wider public think. The only way that we can do justice to that aspiration, which I hope others share, is to have a referendum on the subject. If we are to change the second Chamber, we should do so on the basis that we have public support, not just the support of the political classes. I hope that at some point in the proceedings, if the Bill gets that far, we will have an opportunity to vote for an amendment stating that there should be a referendum on it.
The two Members who have excited me the most in this debate are my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) and for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). We need true, bicameral reform. Both parts of this Parliament need to look at themselves and ensure that we have a dynamic, active and reformed Parliament—one Parliament, two Chambers, which in my view should both be elected. I appreciate that the Bill is merely one step on the way and is not the answer to the big parliamentary deficit from which we suffer, but we have an opportunity to consider a new settlement between the public, Parliament and, most importantly, the Executive.
Although many people might have heard a lot of conflict in the debate and a lot of difference between the Government’s position and that of other Members, over the past 10 months the process of public debate, the proceedings of the Joint Committee, on which I served, and other discussions have delivered, in a strange way, a significant amount of consensus. There is consensus about a reduction in numbers in the Lords, the end of patronage and the decoupling of titles. Those are all fundamental points about the anomaly at the heart of our constitution, and I think we can agree on them. The sticking point is whether we have a second Chamber that is elected or selected.
In many people’s minds, the case for selection is that people without political bias would be appointed. Does that mean that membership of any political party would preclude someone from being put forward? What criteria would be used for the selection? As we have discussed
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before, we must consider whether people would represent vested interests and embed the status quo rather than offer a Parliament that can provide reform and take things forward. Are those people not a group of professionals who have benefited from the status quo and are part of the elite?
Mr Gray: Does my hon. Friend agree that the most passionate and powerful opponents of what the Government are doing with regard to, for example, the reductions in the armed forces are the field marshals, generals and others in the House of Lords? They are the passionate opponents of the Government, not their supporters.
Laura Sandys: Yes, but they have no vote on this matter, because it is one of financial restructuring. They can discuss it, but to be frank they do so more in the media than in Parliament. Formers members of the military, or of any institution, have every right to discuss Government proposals, but I am not sure they need the House of Lords to do that.
We have an example of how selection can be negative. One of the previous chairmen of the House of Lords Appointments Commission said, “We don’t want hairdressers in the House of Lords.” I am very proud that we have a hairdresser in our House. Any selection process will not choose people who have not been to the right dinner party. Those who do not know the right people, or who have not networked and become well connected, or those who do not come from the south-east, will not be selected.
Laura Sandys: Hon. Members come from many different backgrounds. Party associations select people from the parts of the country they are to represent. Our parties should not be demeaned—we should not say that they should not have that responsibility. In my case, the party has made an excellent choice.
We have a fundamental problem. We have one Parliament, but two Chambers as important as each other. Our hybrid system—one elected Chamber and one appointed —makes a mockery of our democracy and hobbles Parliament’s overall legitimacy. In addition, it creates a problem for those resisting reform. If the House of Lords is only a revising, advisory, “think again” Chamber, it is very expensive. If it is a proper part of a bicameral legislature, as I believe it should be, it must be elected if we are to sustain a self-respecting democracy.
Louise Mensch: Does my hon. Friend recognise that we recently had a referendum on changing the voting system for the Westminster Parliament, which the public overwhelmingly rejected? Is not the Bill an attempt to introduce that through the back door?
Laura Sandys: I disagree. We will have two Chambers and two electoral systems, and two different outcomes. As a result, there will be strengths in both Chambers. They will complement each other and create much greater rigour when it comes to scrutiny and the legislative process.
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Back Benchers of all parties constantly complain about the diminishing power of Parliament. Many claim the Executive is too strong. How can the concentration of powers in the hands of three party leaders, who appoint hundreds of legislators to the Chamber next door, be anything other than extreme patronage gone out of control? It is unprecedented anywhere in the democratic world.
Opponents of reform seem very concerned that the poor old Government will struggle to get their legislation through Parliament if there are two elected, functioning Houses, but the House of Commons is not the Government —it is separate. I would hope that two elected Houses of Parliament would not defeat any Government any more than they do in other bicameral systems in the world. However, it is no bad thing if a stronger Parliament deters the Government from passing ill-considered legislation. I am a good Conservative, and, in that way, the objective of getting the Government to do less better would also be achieved.
We cannot blame our coalition partners for some of the philosophy behind the Bill. Localism and elected police commissioners are Conservative policies, not policies conjured up by the coalition. Trusting the public with decision making on schools and other public services is part of the Conservative DNA, so why should we deny the public the choice to vote for 50% of our Parliament? It is absolutely crucial that we Conservatives are seen to be giving power to the many and taking it away from the few.
Perhaps not every aspect of the Bill is perfect—some of us might be looking for more radical reform—but it is a crucial step forward. It is an opportunity to say that we trust the people, and that we are taking away the appointments system from the Prime Minister and giving it to the electorate.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys). I agree that reform and an elected House of Lords are essential. It is a basic principle of democracy that those who legislate for everybody else are voted for by the other citizens of the country.
Whatever their positions on the Bill, hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that the House of Lords should complement and not duplicate the House of Commons in both its function and its make-up. Unfortunately, the Bill is weak on both counts. Clause 2 is inadequate in setting out the functions of the reformed House. I agree with the letter written by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) to the Deputy Prime Minister. We must see a new draft of clause 2 early in the passage of the Bill. We cannot be expected to agree to a measure if we do not know what the functions will be until some distant time in future, after the Bill has been to the Lords.
Furthermore, the Bill reveals one of the weaknesses of our unwritten constitution. It would be helpful if Ministers considered not only how to preserve the primacy of the Commons but what special responsibilities
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the other House should have. At one point, giving the other House special responsibility for human rights was considered.
On the make-up of the second House, many noble Lords are going around saying that the Lords is more reflective of the population than the Commons. That is not true. Only a fifth of Members of both Houses are women and 5% or fewer are from ethnic minorities. However, more than 96% of Members of the other House are over 50. The Government’s proposals in the Bill are extremely weak on that. The proposed 15-year terms are weak not just on accountability; they will add to that age bias.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady. You have made your speech, Ms Sandys. Turning round and having a private conversation, along with many other Members, is not fair and does not show due respect to the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). Given the importance that hon. Members have attached to this Bill, perhaps they can ensure they listen to the debate on it.
Our politics and our democracy are not exactly in a crisis, but confidence in them is beginning to look rather tattered round the edges. If we are to restore that confidence, we need both institutional reform and higher levels of participation. Today is an opportunity to discuss the institutional reform—we can talk about participation on another occasion.
For many, the heyday of our popular democracy was the early 1950s, when voting participation under universal suffrage was at its highest, and when the two-party system seemed to provide a reasonable reflection of the choices for the country. However, in 1997, at the end of 20 years of Tory rule, the overwhelming sense one had was of anachronistic institutions that were completely unrepresentative of who we are and what we expect from our democracy. Institutional reforms redressed the balance between citizens and the state. They were significant and welcome, but they did not address some of the key failings. Why are so few Members of Parliament in either House women? Why is it right that the second Chamber should reserve places for Anglican bishops but none for other denominations and religions? Those are failings of the institutional arrangements, but they reflect a deeper failure: a failure to make sense of our new British identity.
To tackle that malaise, we need institutions that provide equal rights within their arrangements. This is an extremely unusual country, because it is both a multinational state built over more than 500 years from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and a multi-ethnic country, which in the past 50 years has had a huge change in its constitution. Such significant cultural diversity can make the task of building inclusive citizenship seem huge, and we do it against a background of growing globalisation, which seems to be reducing the importance of the nation state. It is vital, however, if we are to get the levels of participation that we need.
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Andrew Griffiths: The hon. Lady makes some important statements about the need to ensure that the Chambers are representative, but does she not accept that the other place has the same representation of women, and a higher representation of disabled people and ethnic minorities?
This Chamber represents people according to the communities in which they live. Once upon a time, the differences between living in Sheffield, which was a steel town, and Nottingham, where there were lots of lace factories, were significant, but increasingly the idea of communities based on economic differences defines only a part of people’s lives. With House of Lords reform, we have the opportunity to consider the other aspects of identity and the issues arising from them, which are often just as important—for some people, more important—as the communities in which they live. I propose that we look at House of Lords reform in an attempt to redress that imbalance. It is obviously a deep and complex problem requiring a lot of consideration. Tomorrow evening I will vote for Second Reading, so that we have a democratic second Chamber, but against the programme motion, so that we can unpick some of these very significant matters.
I wholly support the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who captured the whole sense of what is wrong with the Bill. When one considers the great historical events that have shaped our British constitutional and political history—Magna Carta, the Reformation, the civil war, the Glorious Revolution, the Great Reform Act—it is easy to understand why a former distinguished Speaker, the great Baroness Boothroyd, on a programme on the wireless this morning, described the Bill as a constitutional outrage.
On the same programme, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), in an impertinent assertion—I am sorry he is not here to take his medicine—assured the world that Churchill would have voted for this proposal. First, that is not for him to say, given that he has absolutely no idea whether it would have been the case and, secondly, most historians would agree that it is highly unlikely that Churchill would ever have voted for an elected second Chamber, which he would rightly have perceived as a serious challenge to the House of Commons.
Most people looking in on our proceedings would think it extraordinary that in a country where so few things work—I think of the Government’s dismal inability even to fix the immigration controls at Heathrow—we should be setting about wasting an inordinate amount of valuable Government time on proposals that are ill thought out and falsely conceived, as part of a deal to conciliate our coalition partners.
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institutions of the land. Like all my colleagues, however, I accept that there are useful and important reforms that should be made to their lordships’ House without upsetting the constitutional applecart. I say to my own Front-Bench team that by pushing ahead with this foolish enterprise, they are diminishing the Government’s sense of urgency and purpose to put our country back in a better place. They are throwing away the chance to build on the British public’s clear and—in my lifetime—unique understanding that we live in an era of great austerity, that there are difficult and important decisions to take and that the Government should get on and take them, rather than worrying about undermining our constitution.
The essential argument is that the creation of an elected second Chamber would inevitably transform relations between the two Chambers and would produce a House that would increasingly be in competition with the House of Commons. The evidence of the Clerk of the House in this regard should be studied most carefully by all those who intend to vote on these profoundly disappointing proposals. The House is going to vote potentially to enshrine in our national political life the recipe for a permanent constitutional crisis.
Of course, the House of Lords needs reforming—it is too big and there are sensible measures that we could take—but I profoundly believe that an appointed House has very real merit. It can deliberately reflect the diversity of our country in a way that the House of Commons simply cannot. The present House of Lords has the same gender balance as us, an honourable and long-standing tradition of ethnic diversity and, incidentally, a considerable number of disabled Members. Most importantly, however, it contains a vast reservoir of talent and experience that complements a more youthful and aggressive House of Commons without ever being able to threaten it.
The Bill will inevitably lead to the greater politicisation of the House of Lords, blur the harmonious and distinctive differences between the two Houses and remove the correctly unambiguous democratic mandate that the House of Commons rightly enjoys. The Bill will pile a constitutional crisis on top of an economic crisis that we all know will last for a long time. The Conservative party has honoured the obligation in our manifesto; that commitment has been discharged. It is now the duty of every Member to consider their position carefully before knowingly doing something to unpick that which we know works, however imperfectly. We should wait for better hours and better days, when we have the space and the time really to think this through.
I want to speak against both Second Reading and the timetable motion for the following reasons. We who are elected to this legislature have developed the habit of thinking that politics is about passing legislation—I am as guilty a party to that sin as anyone else—and although we all approach legislation with a good spirit and wishing to improve the public good, we often do not make a very good job of it. Prime Ministers and parties in government change, however, so we have a chance to undo the silliness of a previous House of Commons. We are talking about a different form of legislation, however, when we talk about changing the constitution.
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My time in the House has often been spent undoing the silliness of other politicians, but we cannot point to any example of a constitutional measure, passed by this House and—under threats—by the House of Lords, that has actually been changed. We will be changing the constitution for ever—there will be no going back—so it is beholden on us to be satisfied with the Bill on Second Reading and not to be beguiled by the Whips. The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), whom I respect, said, “If I don’t like it on Third Reading, I’ll strike it down.” It never works like that. Let me tell her that simple fact.
We also need to lay charge against the Government because of what this Bill is about. The Deputy Prime Minister has an extraordinary view of democracy. He views democracy as being about voting. There are many nations in this world that vote, but which we would not regard as democracies. In this country we have crafted two great constitutional ideas through which we channel our ideas about political freedom. We value the idea that our institutions should be representative and that they should be responsible. The charge I make against the Government this evening when they reply to this debate—or when they care to reply—is this. To what extent does this reform strengthen representative government, and to what extent does it strengthen responsible government? Let me take the responsible side first.
The idea that we will get more responsible government by electing people for 15 years without them ever having to stand to account again is a most extraordinary view. We are responsible in the sense that we stand on a mandate of our party—sometimes rather loosely, but we stand on it—and if we wish to continue our careers, we know that we have to face our electorate. The idea that electing people for 15 years will somehow strengthen the responsible side of our constitution is idiotic.
Now let us face the other issue: whether our system will be more representative. The idea that a list system—prefaced by the word “open”—will give us a different composition from that of the House of Commons, as well as a better one, is equally naive. Those concerned will be people who the Whips have decided are safe. Constituency parties will elect huge lists of people without knowing who the hell they are and they will have little chance of imposing their views, as they try to when they select for single-Member seats.
The reason I am going to vote against the timetable motion is that there are many other ideas that we could put forward to make the House of Lords both responsible and more representative. Since Nolan, we have swallowed the extraordinary view that we should not represent interests. It is totally novel and totally foreign to our constitution. The one place where we should have a view of representation coming forward is the Lords. I want days, if necessary, to discuss how we could make that Chamber—after it has, necessarily, the elements of Government and Opposition—a representative Chamber of the great interests: the great regions of this country; the different interests of men and women; the different interests of both sides of industry; different cultural and industrial interests; and even, perhaps, the interests of political parties.
The idea is that, under a timetabled motion, we will be able to open up the debate where the Joint Committee left it and seriously consider, first, whether the Bill makes our constitution more responsible and, secondly, whether it makes it more representative. Anybody who
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thinks that the Bill will deliver either of those two simply because we will have an election system—one that will have even lower turnouts than for the European Parliament—needs their head tested.
John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): Britain has had a long tradition of gradually changing its constitutional arrangements, rather than going for an overnight revolution. It is a tradition that reflects the strength of our political establishment, but it is also a tradition that means that change generally happens slowly. It has taken us 101 years to reach this point in the House of Lords debate, but we now have a Bill before Parliament that is supported by the Government, along with commitments in the manifestos of the three main parties, to conclude the work that our predecessors began, with the Parliament Act 1911, in reforming the House of Lords.
I appreciate that I am probably in a very small minority on the Government Benches; nevertheless, I welcome the Bill. I acknowledge and accept that it is a compromise, but in many respects that is inevitable. There are probably 650 views of what a reformed House of Lords should look like, but at some point we just have to allow for compromise. The Bill therefore reflects the many attempts over the last 20 years to reform the House of Lords—both from this place and the other place—and it addresses what are, for me, the two key issues of reform: the principle of democratic legitimacy and the issue of practicality. As a simple matter of principle, I believe it right and proper to reform the House of Lords. The present arrangements are, in my view, indefensible. Lords membership at present is based on piety, patronage and privilege. A country that calls itself a democracy in the 21st century should not have a key part of its political system based on such criteria.
Jake Berry: I agree with my hon. Friend: his point about democracy is absolutely key to this debate. Does he agree that if we say that we are a democratic country, democracy cannot be partial? We have to reflect it through all our parliamentary institutions, including the House of Lords.
John Stevenson: I agree with my hon. Friend. We elect parish councillors, local councillors, county councillors, mayors, MPs, MEPs, MSPs and Welsh Assembly Members, and in November we will elect our first police commissioners, but somehow we do not think it necessary to elect Members of the House of Lords.
To any rational person, the current arrangement is absurd. We live in a democracy and we, the British people, should be allowed to elect those who make our laws and govern us. Equally importantly, we should also be allowed the opportunity to put ourselves forward for such a role. As things stand, I have to be able to explain to my constituents that, when it comes to the House of Lords, although they live in a democracy and we can
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vote for and be councillors, MPs, mayors and so on, they cannot vote for some of the people who pass laws over them, nor do they have the opportunity to hold such offices themselves. That cannot be right.
John Stevenson: I do not believe that the monarchy is part of our constitution where effective—[Hon. Members: “What?”] No, it is not involved in our effective day-to-day constitution, in terms of the laws that are passed, so when my hon. Friend talks about the monarchy as such, he is talking about a different concept.
As a Conservative, I believe that all those who make the law should be elected and that those who have the right to vote should also have the right to seek election, with the opportunity to make laws or govern.
Louise Mensch: My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way again. If he believes that people should be elected and should be accountable to the electorate, will he not reject a system whereby people are elected for a 15-year term, but never have to face the electorate ever again?
I am aware of the arguments for the present arrangement that the other place is more varied in background and that it is a place of greater expertise. I do not accept this. The average age in the other place is 70. There are more in their 90s than there are under-40s, and around 44% have a political or local authority background. Undoubtedly, there is expertise in the other place, but it is not reactive to, or representative of, the electorate.
As for the make-up of the other place, it is overwhelmingly geared towards the south of England. Where is the representation of Scotland, Wales or the north of England? Representative it is not. We need to ensure proper regional representation so that the views of all parts of the country are heard in the second Chamber. As to the principles of a functioning Parliament, let us not delude ourselves that the present arrangements are satisfactory for us in this place. Arguably, because of the current arrangements for the House of Lords, we have weakened our own Chamber as an instrument of legislature.
Jim Dowd (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is being astonishingly generous with his time. I am following his arguments closely, but would he say that because we do not elect our second Chamber, this country is not a fully functioning democracy?
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I ask how many amendments the Government accept from Opposition Front-Bench or Back-Bench Members, or even from Government Back-Bench Members. In the other place, amendments are often considered and accepted even when they are similar to those proposed and rejected in this place. It is time that this Chamber asserted itself more, and I believe that House of Lords reform will help to achieve that. There are concerns that this Chamber would be diminished as a result of reform and that a more assertive House of Lords with an electoral mandate would threaten this place. My view is that Parliament as a whole would be more assertive as a result of these reforms, and it is the Executive who should be concerned about an empowered legislature. In a country that is overly centralised and dominated by a powerful Executive, that would be no bad thing.
On the issue of practicality, as I alluded to earlier, the Bill is one of compromise. Specific aspects of it will undoubtedly be debated in great detail and there will be further opportunities in Committee to do that and to amend the Bill. This Second Reading is very much about the general thrust of the Bill, however, so I would like to touch on a few points.
The powers of the House of Lords will largely remain unchanged. The Lords will still have the power to introduce and amend legislation; what will undoubtedly change will be the conventions of Parliament. The conventions have been changing continually for decades, however, and will continue to do so. As I said at the outset, constitutional change develops slowly in this country. Even if this Bill becomes an Act, it will be another 12 to 15 years before it is implemented fully.
There is no doubt that, over time, the other place will become more assertive towards the Executive and, indeed, this Chamber, but that is not necessarily a bad thing for our democracy. I believe we will end up with less but better legislation. The terms of the Lords would be limited to 15 years, elected in thirds at the same time as the general election. This means a peerage will no longer be a lifetime gift, but the terms will be lengthy enough to ensure that a long-term view is taken. I believe that that is correct—and certainly better than the average 26-year tenure of a present peer. The fact remains that the House of Lords is over-filled, under-representative and under-mandated. This Bill will provide a 100-year overview solution to these problems.
Let us strengthen Parliament, not the Executive. Let us improve, not weaken our democracy. Let us pass this Bill, ending 100 years of debate and, in 2025, on the conclusion of these reforms, we will be able to reflect on a more vibrant, assertive Parliament of which our country can be proud.
Jim Dowd (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab):
I shall break with the traditions of this Chamber by being brief and by trying not to repeat what others have already said. One of the earliest speakers supporting the Bill today said something like, “If you are a democrat, you have to vote for this Bill”. That embodies the attitude and the arrogance of some of those who are seeking to advance this Bill. I believe that it is possible to be a democrat and disagree with people. That is entirely the nature and essence of this Chamber and
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everything it stands for. It says on the cover that this is the House of Lords Reform Bill, but I prefer to call it “a horse designed by a Committee that failed to produce a camel Bill”. It has been cobbled together for a variety of different and often conflicting reasons and then presented before us as a fait accompli.
I take the oldest of old Labour positions on the House of Lords. My party believed for the overwhelming majority of the 20th century that the place should be abolished. However, I understand that we cannot do that on our own. A similar Bill was tested in the previous Parliament and there was no majority then; I suggest that the majority has subsequently decreased still further in this Parliament. This reform has to be coupled with the whole question of Parliament and its purposes. We cannot take one part of our democratic institutions and take it in isolation. That is why so many attempts to reform the House of Lords have run into the sand—because we have taken just one element of Parliament and tried to pursue reforming it on its own.
Let us consider some of the changes introduced over the last 15 years or so that have had significant effects. Devolution to what we call the nations—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—is one example. That has happened, but I still think the English question has not been resolved and will need to be addressed in some detail in the not-too-distant future. To be perfectly frank—I do not wish to be parochial—I think that doing that would be a far better use of this House’s time now than would pursuing this pipedream that has been put before us.
We have seen the advent of draft Bills and we have seen the development of programme motions, about which I shall say more in a moment. Of course, at the time of their introduction by a Labour Government, the Conservatives and Liberals fought it tooth and nail, telling us how awful and what a denial of democracy it was, but we knew—I was in the Government Whips Office then—that as soon as they had the chance to use them, they would use them, and use them mercilessly. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) seems shocked by such a proposition. I realise that he is one of the few members of the Liberal Democratic party who occasionally tell the truth, although normally by accident rather than design, but I assure him that that was what happened.
I hear from the Leader of the House that public reading stages of Bills are likely to be introduced, whatever they may be. A wide range of change is taking place, and we need to deal with the elements of it together. Trying to isolate one part, whether it be the House of Lords or anything else, will virtually ensure that progress cannot be made.
The other bit of arrogance on the part of the proponents of the Bill is their saying, “We have been arguing about this for 100 years, and therefore you must accept this answer. You cannot question it. If you are genuine about reform, you must agree with me.” That is not the way in which a democracy works. I say, “If you are genuine about reform, you must convince me, and convince me without the use of a programme motion.”
That attitude demonstrates the hubris with which the Bill is being pushed by its advocates, and the disdain that they have both for this place and for the people. Having had their fingers burnt to a crisp over the AV referendum, they have adopted another strategy: “As we cannot trust the people to give us the right answer,
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we are not going to bloody ask them. We are going to tell them what is good for them. That is how we will rebuild trust in Parliament.” I do not think it is.
To say what the proponents of the Bill are saying is rather like saying, “We are all in favour of improving public health, so when some charlatan comes up with a quack remedy involving blood-letting and leeches, we should all go along with it.” Well, I am not going to go along with it, and I am not going to go along with my Front-Bench team on this occasion. Under the Labour Government, I voted against them just once. I do not offer that as any particular threat—certainly not the silly threat that some so-called Liberal adviser came up with, equating the issue of boundaries with the Bill—but I will tell Opposition Front Benchers this. I voted against the last Labour Government once, on the Bill that became the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, and on the one occasion when I voted against them, they lost.
I much enjoyed the contribution of the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd). I too am a party loyalist, but there is one small difference between us: in my 25 years in the House, I have never voted against my party’s main business. I am proud of that record, and to illustrate the importance of loyalty, I should like to share with the House an exchange of letters between the person whom I used to call “my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley”—in other words, Mrs Thatcher, as she then was—and my party association chairman, who had the temerity to write to her, on 5 April 1990, complaining about the community charge. On 18 April she wrote back, very commendably, saying:
“I entirely agree with you that splits within the Party only damage ourselves. It is essential that all”—
“members of the Party should direct their fire at the real enemy: the Socialists. To do otherwise is… to assist our opponents.”
This is not just a Government Bill; it is a fundamental constitutional Bill. I have underlined the first three words in the next sentence of my speech three times: “I am against an elected Lords.” We have not heard much in this debate about the great history of building up the House of Commons through the 1832 and 1869 Great Reform Bills, although the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) did talk about that. We cannot have it both ways. We either have an appointed other place over which the Commons has influence, or we have an elected other place, which will,
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in the end, compete with us. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), who served in the Army as I did, knows about mission creep. We are going to have Lords creep. The new versions of the Lords will come a-leaping. They will want more power. That is very worrying.
The list system is the worst possible system. How can any of us stand up and talk with a straight face about getting rid of patronage and bringing in a list system? Opposition Members have spoken eloquently about the evils of that, but when we couple it with the absurd proposition of an elected House with 15-year terms, we see that this entire proposal presents an opportunity to get elected and then go and live in the south of France. Those elected would never need to come back, because they will never stand for election again. This is a recipe for lazy peers. Why should anybody want to turn up for that length of time? There is no accountability either.
There is another Bill that solves about half of these problems. I mentioned it in an earlier intervention. It is Lord Steel’s Bill. He is a Liberal Lord, and his Bill give peers the opportunity to retire if they want, which will reduce the numbers. If they do not turn up, they get disqualified. On the criminals issue, the bad guys would be disqualified, too. That Bill therefore deals with at least a third of the problems with this Bill.
I say to those who are dissatisfied with the way in which we get our peers that I personally do not object to former senior politicians going to the Lords, as I think they make an important contribution. If the regional balance is wrong, we do not have to turn the Lords upside down; we could have regional commissions, perhaps, or a debate about allocating peers.
As for the insulting notion that the experts in the Lords are not important, anyone who has attended a debate on health issues in which peers such as Lord Winston or Lord Walton participated will have listened in awe—and the same applies to those with military experience, as has been said. Listening to a Lords debate can be an awesome experience.
We are being told that because Lords reform was in the parties’ manifestos, this Bill has to go through, but we barely touched on the issue in our manifesto. It merely said that we must find some form of consensus. The Steel Bill presents the ideal way to achieve consensus, and therefore to get us out of this corner.
Many years ago, I served on the Anglo-Irish parliamentary forum. I remember talking, in County Tipperary or somewhere else, to Irish Members who suffered two-Member constituencies. Did they like it? They hated it, because they were always campaigning against each other through the whole term. Nothing got done and constituency interests were not paramount.
Let me say a few words about the veiled threat from my new-found Liberal hon. Friends, who occupy what used to be our other Front Bench before it was taken over by them. I forget after which election that happened, but perhaps we will get that Bench back at some point
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in the future. I say to them, “Please don’t threaten us over the boundary changes that we need. We gave you the AV referendum and it was a straight fight.”
Finally, we must think about the new constituencies—with seven Members and larger than a country, as a colleague put it. Do we really want to superimpose that in our areas? I do not think so. We already have MEPs covering similarly vast areas.
As a party loyalist, I hate doing this—I really do—but I cannot support this Bill. I do not think it is in our national interest or Parliament’s interests, and it is certainly not in my party’s interests.
Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): I have listened with great interest to the number of speeches in which we have been told about the expertise in the other place, how wonderful their lordships are and so on. I wonder why, then, when the results of their deliberations in the other place come down here, we rarely accept anything that they say. I think of the most recent example of the Welfare Reform Bill. There was a great deal of expertise over there and nobody in this House, or very few—certainly among those on the Government Benches—listened to them.
I would have thought that the Liberal Democrats would have been able to come up with a better Bill than this; after all, they have been thinking about it for 101 years. I feel as though I am at a seminar about the Parliament Act. We are talking about an increase in accountability, but in order, apparently, to assuage criticism from those who would argue that the House of Lords should be a forum for the expertise that I have mentioned, which we rarely actually accept in this House, we have before us a proposal to appoint 20% of the new Chamber. This morning, I received the document I am holding, “Lords reform: a guide for MPs”, to which some distinguished colleagues have contributed. As well as a hybrid Chamber and a new electoral system—many other colleagues have mentioned this—we have before us, in this supporting document, the statement that
“members elected in large, multi-member regional constituencies would be able to take a more strategic view of the needs of a whole part of the country. They would not be expected or resourced to take up a litany of individual cases on behalf of constituents”.
I come from Scotland, where we have regional MSPs. I can see my colleagues from Wales nodding in agreement with what they anticipate I am about to say. The reality is that if a politician is shown an electorate, they will react like a politician. They will not say, “Sorry, I cannot deal with that, because I have been elected for 15 years and I am not going to be re-elected.” Of course they will be politicians, and that is what they will do.
I have been in this place for 15 years, which is a long, long time in politics. Many of the people who came in with me are no longer here. I say to those Government Members who think they will still be here in 15 years: in your dreams. I am not talking about your dreams, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I know that you do not dream about the Government Benches.
The Deputy Prime Minister made great play of the new House of Lords, new Senate, or whatever on earth we are going to call it, having greater regional and national representation. He obviously has not looked at or seen the implications of what Lord Strathclyde has
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said about the way in which it is expected these that new Senators or Members of the House of Lords will operate; as the Joint Committee also said, the new situation should allow individuals to “maintain relevant professional expertise”. The Government have also said that the
“appointed members and elected members should be able to vary their level of participation…so that they can maintain outside occupations”.
So I say to the House: how on earth is an elected Member of the House of Lords from Newcastle, from Scotland or from north of the inner circle of London going to be able to maintain another job and still attend the House of Lords? It is utter nonsense.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Does the right hon. Lady share my concern, and that of many in this House, that the number of representatives from Northern Ireland is to total three in each period of the legislative change? Does she agree that the history and culture of Northern Ireland, and the sense of self that its people have, is not represented totally in the reform put forward by the coalition?
Mrs McGuire: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I do not think that the current House of Lords accurately reflects the diversity of the United Kingdom. Although we think that there are Scots everywhere, there are probably fewer Scots in the House of Lords than there ought to be given the percentage of the population—[Interruption.] That is probably so in the House of Lords.
Let me make one or two points which I do not think have been adequately covered. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) makes a very valid point about bishops in the House of Lords. The issue is controversial but, frankly, I do not agree that removing bishops from the House of Lords means that we are automatically talking about the disestablishment of the Church of England. If the establishment of the Church of England depends on 12 bishops sitting in the House of Lords, it is in a worse state than the Archbishop of Canterbury thinks that it is.
There has been a bit of a myth put around for most of the day that the Labour party has always been interested in changing the House of Lords. It has been highlighted that many of our policies related more to abolition than to reform, but the reality is that we have always been more interested in the powers of the House of Lords than in its composition. We have not had any discussion about the powers today. If we change the form of election to the other Chamber, we will change unalterably the balance of the relationship between this House and a second Chamber. We cannot move away from that and no matter how often the Government mention the Parliament Act, it just will not wash. We cannot have a modern constitution for the 21st century based on the relationships in the 1911 Act and we must be far more realistic about the implications of the proposals.
I will vote in favour of Second Reading tomorrow, because I believe in the reform of the House of Lords and this is the only game in town at the moment, but I will also vote against the programme motion on the grounds that perhaps, as the discussion and conversation
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goes on this House, the Government will have the time to reflect and will knock some sense into the head of the Deputy Prime Minister.
I had rather hoped this day would not come, as this is the first time that a Government Bill has presented me with a dilemma. House of Lords reform is not a dilemma for my constituents and, in fact, it simply is not of any interest to them whatsoever, judging by the number of communications I have received. There are far more pressing issues facing my constituents during these difficult times and I very much get the impression that they think we should be focusing on those rather than what they see as a distant and rather arcane constitutional matter. House of Lords reform has not been raised with me on the doorsteps in Ealing and Acton either before or since the election two years ago, but the Government have chosen to make it a priority and we must therefore spend time on it. It needs thorough consideration, however, because its impact would have major consequences.
The first of those consequences is cost. The proposal for an elected House of Lords would not only impose yet another tier of elected politicians, creating a sixth elected tier in London, but be an added cost for which taxpayers will have to pay. As night follows day and as with all elected politicians, the costs will soon start to escalate. I should know. As one of the first Greater London authority members, I remember how Londoners were promised that the new GLA would cost them just a few pence a week, but by the time we had employed personal assistants and researchers for every member, as well as a chief of staff and a press officer for each group, with an expanding secretariat to serve them, up, up, up went the cost. We all know that the costs for the proposed elected House of Lords are already expected to be considerably more than the current costs over each five-year period.
The second consequence would be on accountability. Does the Bill provide for a more accountable and less remote second Chamber? Does it indeed provide for an elected second Chamber that ticks all the boxes for those who want an elected second Chamber? My answer to both questions is no. It proposes a party list system for candidate selection attached to large regional areas. That, to me at least, is appointment by another name. Those who are favourites with the party bosses will go higher on the list—we all know that—and representing a huge nominal region will hardly bring them closer to us either.
Then there is the bizarre idea that Members of the House of Lords should serve a 15-year term, and no returns. That means that they could not be rejected at the ballot box for doing a lousy 15-year job, which is surely a measure for mediocrity. Meanwhile, we will be losing a huge range of expertise covering so many different fields—law, medicine, military matters, health, charities, education. I could easily go on. Many of those experts are not natural politicians and they would not wish to seek election.
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Mr Frank Field: If we had the time, we could discuss alternatives such as the big interests being represented. Let us consider those interests. All the organisations that the hon. Lady has mentioned had the franchise and elected their leadership long before we had universal franchise for parliamentary elections.
I want to comment finally on the future governance of this country. That may not seem to be a big issue right now, but one day it will be—when a newly elected House of Lords decides that primacy should no longer be hogged by this House. After all, Members of the Lords would be elected too and should be given their due recognition. At that point lies gridlock, when the two Houses come to different views on legislation, just as happens on occasion in the United States.
At that point, too, lies a terrible car crash. The House of Lords would no longer be a revising Chamber with a clear view of its role in the parliamentary process; it would be a House ready to assert its newly acquired status as an alternative elected House and would demand an equal role. As things are, people know that they vote for their Government via electing their MPs. Instead of clarity, the proposed changes would simply create confusion.
I am not against any reform. Every institution needs to be refreshed and reformed from time to time, as does the House of Lords. Even now, there are entirely sensible, reasonable and practical reforms on the table, thanks to the Liberal Democrat Lord Steel, which would reduce numbers, enforce proper attendance and ensure that those who fell foul of the law were excluded. They would answer many of the problems that we all agree exist in the House of Lords, so why are we intent on taking the place completely apart, even as the constitutional arrangements continue to work?
This is very difficult for me. I have always supported the Government, on every vote, and I continue to be proud of their many achievements. I also want to put on record my admiration for the work of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, who is doing brilliant work in the Cabinet Office on behalf of the taxpayer. I have very much enjoyed being part of his team. It is very disappointing that the other half of the Cabinet Office is in charge of this legislation.
The Bill has the feel of back-of-the-fag-packet legislation, got up in a hurry to meet a timetable. I cannot stop myself thinking that we are being asked to support the dismantling of a crucial part of our constitution for a short-term political fix. I simply cannot do that.
Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak briefly in the debate. I note the number of Members who are still seeking to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and who will no doubt be seeking to do so tomorrow. A six-minute limit underlines the importance that many of us attach to the Bill and the fact that there is genuine concern about the time that we will be able to spend discussing some of these important issues.
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As it happens, my views are probably not as strong as some of those expressed today by eminent and experienced Members on both sides of the House, and on both sides of the debate on the other side of the House. I perhaps find myself slightly in sympathy with my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) and the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), wondering how much the Bill is a distraction from more important issues. It is certainly not something that has been raised particularly by my constituents at surgeries or on the doorstep in recent times.
Anna Soubry: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree with me, though, from his experience on the doorstep, that a lot of people are disaffected and cynical about politics, and does he not think that one of the reasons for that is that we have an unelected House of Lords?
Before coming to the Chamber this afternoon—I have been here since the debate started—I checked and found that two constituents have contacted me about House of Lords reform and implored me to support it. At the end of the letter—they are identical—it says:
“All I ask is for you to do one simple thing; keep to your manifesto commitment and vote in favour of reforming the House of Lords.”
I do not know whether other hon. Members have received that letter. One was sent to me by a Liberal Democrat councillor—well, he was a Liberal Democrat councillor; he lost his seat in my ward earlier this year and was replaced by the excellent Labour candidate—and I presume that the other was from the other Liberal Democrat in Cambuslang. So we know that there are some people for whom this is a big issue.
In view of the lack of time, I shall not draw the House’s attention too much to the idea of being urged to keep one’s manifesto commitments by Liberal Democrats, given their recent past. However, the lack of demonstrable public interest does not mean that House of Lords reform is not important. It is important, and the consequences of the Bill and their impact on the governance of the country as a whole are such that it is important that we ensure that two things happen: first, that the Bill is properly scrutinised and, secondly, that public support is tested in a referendum, just as many significant constitutional changes have been in recent years. Given that Bill will have an impact on the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament, that referendum is fundamentally important.
A range of concerns about the Bill need to be properly discussed in Committee. Many hon. Members have expressed real concern about the 15-year term, the list system and, in particular, the inadequacy of clause 2, which deals with the relationship between the two Houses. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) was admirably naive to suggest that there would not be some sort of mission creep from the Lords. As others who have experience of regional list MSPs will know, it does not matter what is set out in the code; behaviour is something quite different.
I wish to air two issues that have not been touched on much so far. The first is regional representation. The proponents of the Bill have made much of the idea that it will enable real and effective regional representation
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within the second Chamber. Those who spend a lot more time considering these matters than I do know that that is a widely accepted role for second Chambers in other countries. Schedule 2 to the Bill sets out the formula for the allocation of the elected peers: in each of the three elections, Scotland gets 10, Wales gets six, Northern Ireland three, and England 101. Thus, after the first set of elections, the combined strength of Scotland and Northern Ireland plus four of the Welsh representatives would be needed to outweigh the south-east of England.
That formula is based on population share and, in that sense, it is perfectly understandable, but it does not mean that the reformed House will represent the regional balance, as some have suggested. In the United States, California gets no more senators than Wyoming, even though its population is 66 times larger—that is pure regionalism. Germany has a different structure, with a minimum number of sets and then an additional number, according to population share, up to a maximum. As the constitution unit notes, Germany is one of the few countries without pressure to change its second chamber. If the proposals in the Bill are to be held up as a model of regional representation, those issues need to be looked at.
Secondly, part 4 of the Bill contains the clauses dealing with the number of bishops in the second Chamber. Over time, their number will be reduced. I think the bishops in the House of Lords bring a different perspective. I am a great admirer of the Archbishop of York, whose experience in Uganda brings something different to debates. It seems that the remaining bishops are to be among the 20% of Members of the new House who are appointed. Why, though, do we not get rid of all the bishops, as some have advocated, or if they are to be appointed Members, why do we not ensure representation from other faiths? There are Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, members of the Free Church and many others, and those are just Christians. Should we not ensure that Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and others are properly reflected among the Members appointed to the new Chamber? Could we not make space for a Catholic Cardinal or the Chief Rabbi?
I raise those two issues because they are issues that many people will not see as being of primary importance as the debate goes forward, but they are two important aspects of the composition of the second Chamber that could be the casualty of the programme motion.
Jim Dowd: I follow what my hon. Friend says, but are not international comparisons dangerous? The only other legislature in the world that allows clerics, by dint of their role, to be Members is Iran. Does he think that is a good model to follow?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The point that I am making is that these are issues that people will seek to discuss during the Committee stage that are not of primary importance. They may be secondary to other issues that have been raised during the debate today and it is imperative that there is proper time to consider all those issues. One of my frustrations since entering the House is that on a much smaller constitutional Bill that was taken on the Floor of the House, the Scotland Bill, there were a
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number of issues that we never discussed because we ran out of time. We cannot allow that to happen with this Bill so it is imperative that we have enough time. People will ask how many days that means. It means that it takes as long as it takes to deal with all the issues to get the Bill in the best possible form before it proceeds to the Lords.
Following on from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd), the Government would do well to stop using the line that we have been talking about the subject for 100 years. We have not been talking about this Bill for 100 years. There are big issues in the Bill that we need to get right. We need enough time to get them right if the Bill is to have any chance of taking us forward.
Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your patience and generosity. I had to sprint across to St Thomas’s, where my wife is having a scan. We are expecting our third child.
The supporters of the Bill would have the country believe that those who are opposed to it are opponents of democracy itself. Today I stand to refute that ugly caricature. No one in the House is more committed to British democracy than I. My family emigrated to Britain from an Iraq where democracy was spoken of only behind closed doors, late at night, among trusted friends. Compared to the brutal realities of Saddam’s rule, democracy was an abstract dream. Yet here in Britain there was a constitutional order which made democracy real, concrete, embedded in the very fabric of our national life.
Here was a judiciary—unelected, I grant you—which interpreted the law in the interests of the public, not of the ruling party. Here was a Queen—again, unelected—whose impregnable position as Head of State made sure that no politician could ever wield supreme power. And here also was the oldest and greatest of Parliaments, an elected House of Commons to embody the will of the people, and an appointed House of Lords to stand as a check against the tyranny of the majority.
Jesse Norman: Does my hon. Friend share my view that it is in the balance of these extraordinary institutions and in their distinctive history that so much of the genius of our history has been located?
Nadhim Zahawi: That is exactly right. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. This is exactly the constitution that I believe in and this is the constitution that I will defend. This is not, as my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform has said, some “silly game”.
If recent events in the Arab world have shown us anything, it is that democracy is not just about holding elections. It is also about building institutions which ensure that the whole of society is represented, regardless of who is in power. The question that we should ask ourselves today is whether British society will be better represented by 360 more career politicians accountable to no one but their party.