Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Roy.]
The present constitution of the House of Lords is farcical. There are 721 Members, with an average age of 68. Virtually alone in modern Britain, they have a job for life. The vast majority are there by dint of modern patronage; 92 are there by dint of their birth—ancient patronage.
Seven hundred and twenty-one sounds a lot, of course, but let us not worry about that. It is more than any comparable second Chamber anywhere else in the world; but not many turn up. In fact, only 25 per cent. of the Members ask 87 per cent. of the questions, and the same one quarter make three quarters of the speeches. They are paid expenses to be there and, of course, expenses to get there—although the travel expenses are not much, as the majority come from London and the south-east. To be precise, 185 of the 323 Members of the House of Lords created since 1997 are from London and the south-east. By contrast, just three are from the east midlands and five are from the north-east.
My hon. Friend mentions the east midlands, and the situation that he describes does indeed suggest that the House of Lords is a symposium of the undead; but in our party’s time in government in the nine years since 1997, have we not made at least some progress? The job certainly needs to be completed, but it is not as if we have not tackled it.
Well, I wish I could commend what we have done in the past few years, but the honest truth is that we have continued the process of appointment and in addition to that have continued to appoint almost exclusively from London and the south-east of England. If we want the more representative second Chamber to which our manifesto commits us, we shall have to do better in future.
My view is that patronage is a bad principle for parliamentary democracy. I should prefer an elected second Chamber.
I should say, of course, that there are some very fine people in the House of Lords; some of my best friends are peers. However, one peer was sent to jail for perjury and another for criminal damage—he set fire to his hotel room—and there is no means of removing them from the House.
There are some good things about the Lords. No one party has a majority; that is an important principle. Business is transacted on a more consensual and less partisan basis, for the most part, and the quality of the debate is often excellent, although I have listened to quite a few House of Lords debates and it is not always so. Often the Lords improve Government legislation and in some areas they are better than the House of Commons at scrutinising legislation. There is an argument that the existence of the House of Lords means that we do not have to do our job properly.
Perhaps the most farcical thing about the constitution of the House of Lords at present is the system of by-elections when an elected hereditary peer dies. The Lords has to keep a list of eligible hereditaries. It is probably the only accurate electoral register in the land. When the late Cross Bencher, Baroness Strange, died last year and had to be replaced, 29 Cross-Bench hereditaries could stand for the post and 26 of them did so. After the use of the alternative vote—it is the only use of the alternative vote in the British constitution—and after five transfers of votes, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein defeated the Earl of Effingham, or David Peter Mowbray Algernon Howard, the seventh Earl of Effingham by the second creation, by 11 votes to eight. I am not sure whether that smacks more of “Blackadder” or Trollope.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this important debate. He knows that I, like him, believe that there should be a largely elected element in the House of Lords. However, he has not discussed any of the negative aspects of that, and I hope that he will. An elected House of Lords would have its independence and standing weakened; it would challenge the supremacy of the Commons and would remove from public service some notable people who have achieved much for society. How does the hon. Gentleman deal with those three key points?
If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself for a while, I shall move on to precisely those points.
Against that background, it would be tempting to talk exclusively about the composition of the House of Lords—who should be sitting in it—and that has been a tendency in most debates about it. As I have said many times before, I support a House of Lords whose Members are democratically elected as far as is practicable, given the parliamentary politics of today, but it is more important at this stage to focus on the powers and functions of the House of Lords. After all, an important principle of architecture is that form should serve function, not the other way round. That should also be true in the architecture of government.
The difficulty in this debate is that the precise nature of the power of the Lords is rather nebulous. It is framed more by convention than by statute. Those conventions may have a lustrous patina that is honeyed by use, but the conundrum we must resolve before we can alter the composition of the Lords is how we can better clarify the conventions so that they will stand the test of time.
The powers of the House of Lords have waxed and waned, and waned some more, but in essence the Lords retain an absolute power to say no to legislation. That power is mitigated only by the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 and by a series of conventions that are sometimes adhered to. The Parliament Acts are not minor constraints, of course. They determine that the Lords cannot touch a money Bill—the person who determines what is a money Bill is the Speaker of the House of Commons—and in certain complex circumstances they allow the Commons to insist on its legislation after the passage of a year. Importantly, they also restrict the power of the Commons to extend the length of a Parliament beyond five years.
The Parliament Acts seem straightforward but they are deeply problematic. For a start—this meets precisely the point raised by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink)—nowhere do they articulate that a Government can be formed only by virtue of their majority in the House of Commons and, for that matter, that they cannot be dismissed by dint of a vote in the House of Lords. Such important principles must underlie the primacy of the House of Commons.
Secondly, the power of the Lords, which mostly is a power to delay, increases exponentially during the year because of the danger of Bills falling at the end of the Session. On top of that, it grows exponentially during the passage of a Parliament. It is increasingly difficult to govern the country the further a Government is into a Parliament, and that is problematic for our constitution.
There were those who argued that one could not use the first Parliament Act to enforce the second one. In particular, that position was advocated by those who felt that the Hunting Act 2004 should not have been subjected to the Parliament Act in the way that it was because of reliance on the first Parliament Act to enforce the second one. The issue has been resolved in the courts, but it is still important to resolve it in a single Parliament Act rather than have this cumbersome reliance of one on the other.
The other point is that the process of using the Parliament Act is far from straightforward. It involves a lot of shenanigans and backstage skulduggery by the powers that be to resolve which amendments are possible and which are not. The Parliament Act explicitly allows changes to the original Bill’s text that are
“necessary owing to the time which has elapsed since the date of the former Bill”,
but of course that could cover a multitude of sins. We need a Parliament Act that is much clearer about when it can be used to enforce the will of the House of Commons.
Incidentally, one minor element of the way that the Parliament Acts are exercised is the double insistence rule, which seems largely to have been made up by the Clerks of the House and negotiated between the Clerks of the Lords and the Commons. If one House insists on an amendment to which the other has agreed and the other insists on its disagreement but neither has offered alternatives, the Bill in its entirety is lost. However, alternatives may not be the right way to proceed. The constant process in ping-pong of looking for another way to put the same disagreement may be a wholly inappropriate way of moving forward. For all those reasons, I believe that we need a new Parliament Act to govern the relations between the two Houses.
I am following my hon. Friend’s argument carefully. Does he not show a touching faith in the ability of new legislation to strictly define the role of the Lords? Is not the lesson learned from devolution that when an institution is given new powers it immediately calls for further powers and for those powers to be amended?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point on devolution, because were there to be a major difference of view between the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly and Westminster, it would be decided by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which is notoriously not a transparent or democratic process. That, too, needs to be reviewed. A new Parliament Act could allow a proper system of conciliation rather than the matter simply being sent off to an obscure Committee.
We have not yet had to face that difficulty because the two types of body have had similar administrations, but the matter should not be justiciable. I think there should be a conciliation process governing the relationship between the Commons and the Lords, just as there should be between the various devolved Assemblies and Parliaments and Westminster.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the interrelationship between the two Houses means that the Commons sometimes needs to consider how it works in order to ensure that the other place is able to operate effectively? What would he say about the practice that has grown up of packaging Lords amendments, which can mean that an important amendment is not properly considered because it is not the lead amendment?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the double insistence rule has caused some complications over the last couple of years. The problem is that we do not have a transparent process for resolving disputes between the Commons and the Lords. The ping-pong process may be suitable for awhile, but I believe that after two or three disagreements between the two Houses some form of conciliation Committee is needed to resolve such issues properly, its members discussing the matter openly and transparently, rather than some kind of fix being organised between the Clerks of the two Houses.
The other constraint on the power of the Lords lies in the convention known by some as the Salisbury convention, and by others as the Salisbury-Addison convention. It is fair to say that the Conservatives usually call it the Salisbury convention, because it pushes a bit more in their direction, and Labour Members call it the Salisbury-Addison convention. As the House will know, it is normally articulated in the broadest possible terms as the 120-year-old principle that the House of Lords does not vote against measures included in the governing party’s manifesto.
One of the underlying principles of the convention is the belief that the unelected and therefore illegitimate House of Lords should not overturn the elected House, although I am sure that that is not quite how the third Marquess of Salisbury saw it. Indeed, he positively averred that it was important that the elected should, from time to time, be told quite where to go with their legislation. He rather patristically thought that the elected Commons did not necessarily represent the nation as well as the peers.
In truth, the convention has changed and its modern expression came into use thanks to Viscounts Addison and Cranbourne—from 1947, the latter was the fifth Marquess of Salisbury. That convention is far more circumspect. It says that the Lords should not reject Government Bills on Second Reading brought from the Commons for which the Government have a mandate from the nation. Like the Parliament Act, that seems clear, but I suggest that it is not. For a start, it applies only on Second Reading. It is possible to give a Bill a Second reading, to amend it so substantially that it is nothing like the original Bill and then insist on one’s disagreement. Because the convention does not refer to amendments, it is like a blunderbuss rather than a rapier.
As in any legislation, the devil is in the detail. The classic example was the Identity Cards Bill, which we debated on the Floor of the House. Some hon. Members maintained that they and the Lords were sticking more closely than the Government to the Government’s manifesto promise, but there is nobody to determine who is right or wrong about that, because there is no conciliation process; there is simply the ping-pong arrangement, which most people think is falling into disrepute.
Of course, the Liberal Democrats might assert that they were not involved in the original debates about the convention, which took place from 1945 to 1951, so they do not have to abide by it. I have heard several Liberal Democrat Members say that they do not hold to it any more in any case, because the Government are not properly the Government, having not been properly elected and not achieved a majority through a proportional system of representation.
My hon. Friend refers to the convention and the mandate that we received from the electorate in respect of our manifesto. That marvellously vague red book, which we all received about 13 months ago—on the doorsteps of the Rhondda, as on those of North-West Leicestershire—contains phrases such as that we would make the delivery of health services more effective. That could include anything from a reversion to Bevanite principles to selling the whole damn lot off to a public-private partnership. In those circumstances, how can one be clear about what a manifesto commitment is?
Absolutely. That is one of the big difficulties, as it has been for a long time. It is not that manifestos have got less precise, but that they, by their very nature, seek a mandate to govern, and governing involves the unexpected as well as the expected. Consequently, the convention will have difficulties surviving.
Most importantly, the strength of the convention, as it operates, is predicated on the illegitimacy of the Lords. The less illegitimate the Lords are, or become, the less the convention will hold sway. Surely, it must be folly to place illegitimacy at the heart of the constitution as a deliberate principle. That, again, is why we need a new Parliament Act to codify such conventions, and it should be based on a few simple principles.
The first principle is the primacy of the constituency-based Commons, especially when it comes to financial and fiscal matters and the creation of Governments. The second is the importance of Members of only one House having a local constituency focus and casework. The third is that the Government should be enabled to govern by having their business considered swiftly, and the appropriate period should be stipulated as no more than 60 working days.
The fourth principle is the supremacy, or sovereignty, of Parliament in its entirety—in other words, of the Commons and the Lords. That would require a conciliation Committee—I suggest 12 Members of the Commons and eight Members of the Lords—so that the relationship between the two is not justiciable in the courts. That was first advocated by the Wakeham commission, but the Government ignored its recommendation entirely. Subsequently, such a relationship was also advocated by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who is in his place, Paul Tyler, who is now in the Lords, and Robin Cook.
Unfortunately, such powers have attracted little proper attention. The Joint Committee, on which I sat in the previous Parliament, was extremely profound on the matter. We said:
“We consider that these existing conventions, which are of a self-restraining nature, impact profoundly on the relations between the Houses and need to be understood as a vital part of any future constitutional settlement.”
That was one our greatest moments—stating the blasted obvious. We then said:
“When the views of the House on composition are made known, we will return to the detailed matter of how these important conventions should be maintained”.
That is putting the cart before the horse; we must do things the other way round and determine the powers first.
I am seeking to finish, and the hon. Gentleman will have his moment.
We are often proud of the fact that the British constitution has grown by accretion, but the ship of state has sailed through many waters and perhaps gained too many barnacles. The time is more than ripe for bringing the bark of state into dry dock and overhauling it. Appointment and patronage are not a proper way to govern this country. Gentlemen’s agreements dressed up as parliamentary conventions will not hold water.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Weir, and I shall confine my remarks to the briefest possible. Anyone who is interested in my views will find them dotted around editions of Hansard for the last 10 years. I commend the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on his choice of subject for the debate and it is a pleasure to see the Deputy Leader of the House in his place, because he and the Leader of the House are now in charge of this important policy area, whereas on the last occasion that we debated the subject it was the responsibility of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. We understand that the Prime Minister has mandated the Leader of the House to sort out party funding and House of Lords reform, and the Leader of the House will need all the diplomatic skills that he acquired as Foreign Secretary to discharge that obligation.
At the time of the vote in 2003, the current Leader of the House voted for a wholly appointed House, which I think was the least popular option on which the House voted. If he is to search for a consensus and find a way forward he will need to demonstrate some flexibility.
My hon. Friend is correct, although he has approached the matter with less delicacy than I. There is a need for movement on the part of the Leader of the House if he is to find the centre of gravity.
The debate is the second on the subject this year. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) inspired the earlier debate on 31 January and it is probably useful to have a six-monthly progress report, because there has been a worrying development, which I shall address shortly. If anybody had said, at the time of the original Bill which was considered by the 1997 Parliament, that the Labour party would win three general elections and that the Prime Minister would retire, without stage 2 of House of Lords reform being on the statute book, nobody would have believed it. We were all told that dividing reform into two easy sections would ensure that it would hit the statute book early, and that we needed to take two bites at the cherry. The cherry, however, remains visibly unconsumed.
I do not propose to repeat the case—eloquently made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—for a predominantly elected Chamber. It was set out in a publication and in a draft Bill, which I co-authored with Robin Cook, Lord Tyler—as he now is—and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe. The Leader of the House need not take up any scarce drafting time for the next Session’s Bill—we have already done it for him.
The debate on composition often takes place in rather crude, two-dimensional terms: if one House wins, the other loses. There is an important constitutional battle going on, but it is not that one—it is between Parliament and the Executive. In that battle the two Houses are allies, not enemies, because the terms of trade have shifted dramatically in favour of the Executive and need to be redressed. Once we have settled the issue before us this morning, we need to develop more ways of working together and pooling resources. For instance, I see no reason why Lords Ministers should not reply to debates in Westminster Hall when they are the responsible departmental Minister.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the need for arbitration between the Executive and Parliament. More specifically, however, that need applies between No. 10 and the Commons, or possibly even between No. 10 and the Labour Back Benches. Only three years ago—tantalisingly—we were just three votes short of a majority in favour of an 80 per cent. elected House of Lords. Is that not where we need arbitration?
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. The Labour party was elected in 2001 on a manifesto that committed it to a more democratic and accountable second Chamber. The Prime Minister must have had some hand in drafting the relevant section of the manifesto, but he voted for a wholly appointed Chamber, and I fail to understand how he and the Leader of the House could reconcile that action with the Prime Minister’s own manifesto. However, perhaps that is an issue better addressed by the Labour party than by Opposition Members.
There is a matter on which I part company with the hon. Member for Rhondda. In earlier debates on Lords reform, there was no controversy about the power of the House of Lords. The Wakeham report agreed that the powers should be left as they were, and so did the Government. A document supporting the White Paper, published in 2001 and optimistically entitled “The House of Lords: Completing the Reform”, stated in relation to paragraph 30 of the White Paper:
“There is no need to change the statutory basis of the second chamber’s powers in relation to primary legislation.”
The only suggestion that the Government made about powers at that time was a relatively minor one about subordinate legislation.
It is worth reading what the Public Administration Committee said at the time about the key issue that the hon. Gentleman raised. Paragraph 69 of its report stated:
“There is no proposal for any major change to the role and functions of the House of Lords. This is one of the fundamentals on which there is broad agreement, and it is one of the firm foundations on which reform must build. The second chamber will continue to be predominantly a revising chamber...Its other main functions are holding the Government to account, and debating political issues, in particular long term or technically complex matters which have been given insufficient time in the House of Commons. The Government wishes to strengthen the capacity of the Lords to perform these functions, but proposes no change in the functions themselves.”
The Committee concluded:
“We agree with the Government that no major change is required to the role or functions of the second chamber. It should continue to be a revising, scrutinising and deliberative assembly. But its performance of all these functions can and should be strengthened.”
That statement, with which I wholly agree, was flatly contradicted in the debate that took place on the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham on 31 January. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), said:
“That is why the question of composition is difficult and inextricably linked to the role and powers of the second chamber.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 31 January 2006; Vol. 442, c. 45WH.]
That is a total U-turn.
I am deeply suspicious of what is now happening. There is a view that that is a way of postponing decisions and leaving a status quo that is convenient for the Government. They decide the size and the balance—the party balance, in particular—and they control the composition of a large number of Members. I think that if we reran the 2003 vote today, there would be a majority for a 70 or 80 per cent. elected Chamber, but we would then have to clear a second hurdle, which was not there last time—namely, the powers. If the Government are minded to curtail the powers of the second Chamber, which I believe they are, it could be another 10 years before we resolve the issue.
If we are to resolve the issue, we need to be firm about the destination but relatively flexible about the speed at which we reach it. We need a predominantly elected House of Lords with the powers uncurtailed, but we need to recognise that there are legitimate expectations on the part of those who were made life peers, we need continuity of expertise and we need to maintain the culture and collective wisdom. That is why the draft Bill had a long lead-in time covering three general elections.
When we last debated the issue, the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs did not reach her peroration, so we never discovered what the Government were going to do. May I suggest to the Deputy Leader of the House that this time he begins at the end of his speech and works backwards? That way, we might achieve more enlightenment about where the Government are going than we did last time round.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on raising this important issue and I agree with him that the first job in respect of reform of the House of Lords is to talk about its responsibilities and to decide what its responsibilities and functions should be. I broadly agree with the point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) that it should be a revising, deliberative and scrutinising Chamber. However, I do not agree with his remark that it ought to be there to hold the Executive to account. I do not believe that that should be the job of the House of Lords at all. Holding the Executive to account is the job of the Opposition and Back Benchers in this House; it is not a job for the second Chamber.
Is not holding the Executive to account the job of Parliament as a whole—that is, both Houses?
It is at the moment, but we are talking about reforming the second Chamber; that is the reason for my remarks. In future, I do not think that the second Chamber ought to work in the way that it does.
If the second Chamber is to be a revising, deliberative and scrutinising Chamber—and even one that holds the Executive to account, if that is what hon. Members want—it needs to be made up of people who have wisdom, experience and expertise. We all know that elections do not necessarily result in a group of people with those qualities; I make an exception of the Members in this Room, of course. If we need people with such qualities, they have to be selected rather than elected. Certainly, people with such qualities could not be guaranteed through elections.
Once the hereditary peers are abolished, as I believe they ought to be—ironically, because of a quirk in the way that things developed, that is the only democratic element in the House of Lords at the moment, but there we are—responsibility for appointments will be left solely to the Prime Minister and the House of Lords Appointments Commission, which, I am afraid to say, have both been brought into disrepute by the cash-for-peerages row. That would not be sustainable, and there would have to be changes to the way that appointments were made.
I do not agree that elections are the answer to the problem; I insist on my argument that an elected second Chamber would challenge the primacy of the House of Commons, whatever Members tried to do to change the constitution of the second Chamber. Elected Members will, quite unjustifiably, want more power if they are elected to the second Chamber—more, perhaps, than hon. Members who are pushing for elections might care to give them. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda says that they would not have casework, but who is to prevent them from having it? If someone writes to a Member of the second Chamber who has been elected, that Member would have every right to take up that case on behalf of the elector. I do not see how we can ever legislate to stop them answering letters and taking up cases. Of course they would develop casework if they were elected.
Such Members might not have constituency responsibilities because of how they might be elected, but in a way that might be worse than their having constituency responsibilities, because they would have a brief to go anywhere they liked. They could go anywhere in hon. Members’ constituencies, dealing with anything that they wanted, visiting factories and schools, opening this and that, and taking up issues. There would be nothing to prevent them from doing that, and I do not see how we could legislate to do so.
My hon. Friends argue that if we had a referendum and asked the general public the simple question, “How should a new, reformed second Chamber be made up?” people would generally say that it should be elected; that is the knee-jerk reaction. But ask them a different question—ask them whether they want another 300 elected politicians, with their secretaries, offices, expenses and salaries—and see whether there is the same knee-jerk reaction. I doubt that there would be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda knows, we had that experience recently in north-east England, where we had a referendum on an elected regional assembly.
As my hon. Friend may be aware, those of us opposed to an elected second Chamber will make that same point if the issue ever comes before the people. We are talking about a fundamental change, and if we had to have a referendum on devolution, and on regional assemblies, we ought to have a referendum on making a wholesale change to the second Chamber. When we have that referendum, the very point that I just mentioned will be made in opposition to an elected second Chamber.
A hybrid House would be the worst of all worlds. Two classes of Member would certainly not work. Elected Members would quite rightly consider themselves to be superior and to have more authority than non-elected Members, and I cannot see how they could possibly work together in a Chamber. If we had a proportion of elected Members, we would eventually end up with a fully elected House.
The answer is to continue with an appointed Chamber, so that we can appoint people who have the experience, expertise and wisdom to ask Members of Parliament to think again on legislation, but the responsibility for making appointments ought to be much wider, including business, trade unions, religious organisations, local government and devolved institutions. If the appointments were made with that wider sort of franchise, for want of a better term, it would be more democratic and more accountable. That answers the question asked by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire: how the Prime Minister could say that he wanted a more democratic, more accountable House, but vote for a fully appointed House. We can certainly have a House that is appointed in a more democratic way than it is at present; any change in that direction would be more democratic than the present system. It would certainly be accountable if people were appointed. If the CBI, TUC or Local Government Association were to appoint people, those organisations would expect those people to be accountable to them, particularly if the appointments were made for a limited period, as I believe they ought to be.
We can have accountability and a more democratic system under an appointed House, and we would certainly have the kind of people who would be able to challenge the House of Commons on the legislation that it put though and who would have the authority to do so.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has had a long-standing and consistent position on this subject. Would it not be a fair summary of his argument to say that he is in favour of a little more democracy as long as there is not too much and there is no danger of it being described as fully formed?
I am fully in favour of democracy, of course. This is a democratic country and democratic democracy is the basis of our governance, but this country is not entirely run by democratic organisations. A swathe of people in all sorts of organisations are a part of our democracy and run our system of governance but are not directly elected. School governors, the police, doctors and so on do not have to be directly elected in order for us to have an efficient democracy. As long as the House of Commons has primacy and is the elected body, that is the basis of our democracy. All the rest flows from that.
Could I put it to the hon. Gentleman, although there is no great prospect of persuading him to change his mind, that there is one important difference between the second Chamber and the various institutions to which he has just referred? The difference is that the second Chamber is part of Parliament and has some legislative responsibility, and that does not apply to schools, hospitals or the other organisations that he has in mind.
The hon. Gentleman brings me back to the point that I made earlier. The first thing is to get the powers right. I do not think that the second Chamber ought to have legislative responsibility. Once we get the powers right and it does not have legislative responsibility, his argument falls.
It is a great pleasure to follow the robust and common-sense remarks made by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland). I am glad to know that I will not be the sole reactionary participating in this debate. He suggested that people would give a dusty response to any idea that we should set up another body with another raft of elected politicians. I think that people would give an even dustier response if anyone suggested that the House of Commons, with its 650-plus Members of Parliament, was in fact too small and that we ought to do something to double the number of MPs elected in a single-chamber Parliament. If that is regarded as a foolish, if not barking mad, proposition, why should it be regarded as a sensible proposition to create that number of elected Members of Parliament if they happen to be divided between two Chambers?
I can think of a number of possible outcomes of going down such a route, and that would depend on whether the Members in the two elected Chambers were elected by the same system of elections or a different system, and whether they were elected at the same time or at different times. If both Chambers of Parliament were elected and if they were elected at the same time, it is reasonable to guess that we would get broadly similar results in each of the two Chambers, and if the intention was that the second Chamber should be some sort of revising brake on the first, that would be unlikely to happen. If, however, they were elected at different times, the likelihood is that we would see the sort of results that we see in local government elections midway through the term of a national Government; the local election is seen as a sort of referendum on the performance of the Government. One Chamber would be elected as, in some sense, a protest against the way in which the Government were proceeding, and the result would be likely to be deadlock.
I have a confession to make. Once upon a time I had a private conversation with a very senior member of my party’s shadow Cabinet. He is not here today, and even if he were, I would not embarrass him by identifying him. He said to me, “Julian, you don’t understand. The whole point is to have a deadlock. If the problem is that Parliament is doing too much, that there is too much legislation and too much government, then isn’t it a great thing that the two Houses should be deadlocked in this way?” That is a radical approach, but I do not think that it is a very constructive one.
I have just been quietly counting to myself the number of subjunctives and ifs that the hon. Gentleman has used. I think that we are up to about 15 of each. I think that that is because he is describing something, to then knock it down, that nobody is advocating. The truth is that the vast majority of those of us who advocate a substantially or wholly elected second Chamber suggest that it should not all be elected at one time, that it should not have a majority for any one party and that the relationship between the two Houses needs to be a constructive one that can lead to proper legislative process.
Yes, but if it were not elected all at once—[Interruption.] I am terribly sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not like my use of the word “if,” but when one is trying to anticipate what the results of a proposed change will be, that is the only way in which one can proceed. One can say, “If you take cause A, the result will be consequence B. If you take cause B, the result will be consequence C,” and so on. There is nothing wrong with my doing that; in fact, I cannot think of an intellectually honest alternative way to proceed with the argument.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know that he is always anxious to take lessons from Europe, and in his support I refer him to the position in Germany in recent years. A series of state elections led to the paralysis of government in the Bundestag, which meant that the Government were unable to continue through their term and an election had to take place. That position would apply here if a directly elected second Chamber were introduced.
Of course the hon. Gentleman’s point is right, and it is precisely the answer to the objection that was made to my argument. There are differences between people’s outlooks on the most legitimate method of electing a Parliament. If people believe, for example, that it is most legitimate to use a system with a proportional element, which tends to lead to the type of results to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred, they will regard the Chamber elected by those means as having more legitimacy. If people believe, as I do, that it is more legitimate to have a first-past-the-post system of election, they will take the view that the Chamber elected by that method has the greater legitimacy.
The key argument against the proposals is shown by the fact that nearly every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate has emphasised that the main role for the second Chamber should be as a revising Chamber rather than to extend, repeat or second-guess the process of legislation carried out by the House of Commons. Who is better qualified to undertake its work—another raft of non-expert, professional, elected politicians or a collection of people who have achieved distinction in other walks of life, but chosen not to enter the hurly-burly of the democratic political process because they are intellectually gifted and temperamentally inclined to become distinguished academics, practitioners of the law, medical practitioners and experts in their field? The reformers’ proposals would exclude from the legislative process a group of people who can genuinely improve the legislation that comes before them in favour of non-expert, career politicians who have nothing to add to what the career politicians in the lower House contribute.
I am not sure that that bears very much on the question of expertise. If people have to go through a process of election to get into the second Chamber, then the majority of people who have chosen not to become professional politicians but to rise to the top of their professions will almost certainly be excluded.
The hon. Gentleman is provoking me even more than he provoked his right hon. Friend. The majority of those who do most of the work in the House of Lords at the moment are career politicians who have gone from the House of Commons to the House of Lords. I do not understand why those people should suddenly be frightened of elections. Surely anybody who is in the legislature on a party ticket should at least have to be elected.
I am very surprised at the assertion that the majority of work is done by the ex-politicians. The vast majority of business management may be done by such people, but a very considerable contribution is made, according to the field in which their expertise lies, by people who have, as I have repeatedly stated, risen to the top of their respective professions. Those people will be excluded.
Why has the Prime Minister suddenly declared himself a convert to this cause? Is it because he has been convinced by the integrity, consistency and plausibility of the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)? I rather doubt it. I think that it is because he and his party have been caught with their fingers in the till—they have been caught out over the question of loans for peerages. They are not the first, and they will not be the last to have been caught out in that way.
If we are talking about the people who do the majority of the work in the upper House, I think that it will be found that those who have been controversial appointees are not the ones who do the majority of the work. A lot of those people take the bauble and are never heard of again.
I am actually bringing my remarks to a conclusion.
I can think of a lot of good reasons for the Prime Minister’s having one view or another about the composition of the second Chamber, but doing things as a panic reaction to having been caught out in corrupt practices is not the right way to decide this important constitutional issue.
May I say what a pleasure it is to appear for the first time with you in the Chair, Mr. Weir. I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on raising what I have always considered to be an extremely important subject. It goes to the heart of the British constitution, because as long as one half of our Parliament is considered to be illegitimate, Parliament as a whole is weakened. We are weakened in the eyes of the people and our legislation is not as competent and as good as it could be. I have always felt that reform of the House of Lords is one of the most important things that any Government could attempt. This Government have started, but I echo those who have said that it is surprising that, at this stage of their life, the very paltry reform of stage 1 is all that they have managed to get on the statute book.
What evidence has the hon. Gentleman for saying that the House of Lords is considered to be illegitimate? That might be the view of those who want an elected second Chamber, but what evidence has he that people out there care very much about having the House of Lords reformed, never mind whether they think that it is illegitimate?
I have three pieces of evidence for the hon. Gentleman. The first is my own experience in another place. Secondly, I have listened to Members, in another place and in the Chamber, usually on the Government’s side, saying that it is time to stop voting against legislation, either because “We are the unelected House”—when I was up there—or because “They are the unelected House”—now that I am down here. Thirdly, I have had many conversations with ordinary voters concerned about Parliament who feel precisely the same way.
I do not think that anyone can challenge the fact that the House of Lords is regarded as illegitimate. That for me is the core problem when considering reform of the House of the Lords.
I agree completely with much that the hon. Member for Rhondda said. I suspect that his objective is exactly the same as mine, but I must take issue with him on one fundamental point. I do not believe that it is appropriate to consider powers at the same time as composition. I have changed my view on that over the years. Back in about 1997, when I wrote a not-very-widely-publicised pamphlet on the subject, I made the point that one should look first at the powers, and that the composition should follow. I used his precise argument: in architecture, form should follow function.
My experience of watching attempts to reform the House has taught me that the precise opposite is the case. Actually, we need to set out a detailed plan for reform of the composition, and only then will we see the answers to the questions, many of which have been raised in today’s debate.
We need to deal with the point about the so-called experts. Did the hon. Gentleman hear my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) suggest either that experts would not stand, or that the public would not vote for them? I suggest in fact that if we have lengthy non-renewable terms, it is likely that substantial numbers of experts would stand, even if not the same experts in every case, as is currently the situation. If the public are fed up with the current tranche, and with what they regard as the superfluity, of standard, professional, elected politicians, there is every prospect that they will vote for those different and to-be-preferred experts, whose chances my hon. Friend is wrongly inclined to discount.
I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman. Furthermore, the oft-used phrase, “The great experience of the House of Lords”, is overstated, in my experience. As I recall, there was considerable experience on agriculture and matters to do with landowning. I remember answering regularly for my party on the vexed question of the future of salmon fisheries in the United Kingdom, and on a wide range of other subjects.
The removal of the hereditaries removed quite properly one bias in the House of Lords, but has actually resulted in another series of biases. One of those is retired Members of Parliament, who form far too large a section. Others include Oxbridge and the law. I could go on. Many areas of our lives are not represented. Election would result in much broader representation.
That could be achieved in a number of ways. I am conscious of the time, but the hon. Gentleman leads me on to the critical point: we need to establish a firm method of election and to know what we seek to achieve from it. That would answer all related questions.
I want to make clear what I see as the fundamental points. The first is that the method of election is proportional representation. The second is that the election should involve large, regional constituencies. The third is that one third of Members should be elected every four years. I would hold those quadrennial elections at the time of the devolved elections for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the nearest local election in England. The fourth is that Members be allowed one term only. In the past, I suggested that that term be of 12 years. Another is that there be no re-election. That is the critical point because it would remove the power that the Whips have in the Commons on reselection and re-election. Finally, there should be some provision for appointment. If that did not happen, I would not worry. The proportion of those appointed should be less than one quarter.
I take issue with the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland). I believe that one solves the vast majority of the problems that were referred to by the manner of composing elections. It is easy to ensure that there is no casework. We would simply have a convention that Ministers do not respond to letters from peers on individual items. There are a range of ways in which those problems can be solved.
I share deeply the suspicion of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) that bringing the powers of the Lords into the debate at this stage will complicate the process of reform and delay it. I may be being uncharitable but I have a suspicion that that is not wholly distant from what the Government seek to achieve. I hope that it is uncharitable and that they will go ahead with reform. I urge them to concentrate on the composition of the House.
I think that there is a misunderstanding here. It is certainly true that it was difficult to achieve consensus in the Labour party. Indeed, at the time, Robin Cook said that consensus was a misnomer for what one wanted to achieve. Among Labour Members it would certainly be difficult to achieve consensus on reform of the Lords unless one understood what the powers of the Lords would be. That is why the Government are moving in that direction. It is not because of any desire to push things into the long grass.
I have known the hon. Gentleman long enough to accept entirely what he says but I still have my doubts as to its practical validity. It seems to me that the purpose of reforming the Lords is straightforward. Reform must be about improvement. For me, improvement is defined by strengthening Parliament as a whole. I have often heard that the House of Commons must remain supreme and be predominant. The more I hear that phrase, the less I understand it because, ultimately, it seems to me that what we must be about is strengthening the role of Parliament as a whole. The start point must therefore be that the existing powers remain unchanged. Any attempt to limit the existing power of the Lords should be resisted. It would be a trap to allow legitimacy at the price of castration.
History teaches us two lessons: that our constitution is in a state of permanent—albeit slow—evolution; and that all legislation has unintended consequences. To achieve the former while minimising the latter, it would be better if the power of the Lords was considered in light of the experience of the operation of an elected House. The powers of the House should not be part of the current consideration. They should neither be increased nor decreased. There would, however, be a clear understanding that the question of powers would be revisited in light of the experience of an elected Lords. It would be for all of us—by then enjoying the privilege of election, whether to this House or to the other place—to ensure that neither the Lords nor the Commons abuse the new arrangements or, if they are abused, to make a cogent case for their change.
It seems to me that the key is that an unelected House will always be tainted with the charge of illegitimacy. The only remedy for that can be election—and substantial election. The danger lies in seeking to reform powers at the same time as conferring legitimacy. It is equivalent to giving a child who has attained majority the keys of the house and then changing the locks. I am equally convinced of the need to accommodate existing peers graciously.
Perhaps I may for one moment explain what I believe should happen: each third of the new House would be elected every four years, leaving all the existing peers in place. The plain fact is, taking an actuarial view and looking at the age of the House, that the question would resolve itself through time relatively easily. The House would be large, but it would begin to diminish. If we withdrew the obligation on Members of the other House to go, we should have removed one of the biggest blocks to their lordships’ agreeing with us. It is a practical point, but is probably the key to the whole thing. We must be gracious with them.
Provided that we have decided where we want to go, it does not really matter if it takes a little time. After all, it is nearly a century since reform began. If it takes another decade to complete the transformation it will have been worth it. The critical point, however, is to decide where we want to go. We must decide that soon.
I agree with the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) that the function of the House of Lords is extremely important. I pay tribute to their lordships because in recent months they have stood up and defended freedom. They have played an important role in relation to civil liberties issues arising in recent legislation.
I share the slight suspicion of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) that it is odd that a demand and desire to tackle House of Lords reform should suddenly arise, apparently parallel to the scandalous allegations that were made recently and that are being investigated by the constabulary. There is a worry that the Prime Minister, having appointed 50 per cent. of the other place and 70 per cent. of the Labour peers—he has exercised more patronage than Henry VIII—and being now at the end of his days, thinks, “No need to pass that on to the next one.” Alternatively, perhaps it may be convenient to be able to say that serious negotiations are in hand, given that collars—well, no; I have no idea whether they will be felt.
Since the passage of the House of Lords Bill in 1998-99, my party has been saying that we want full reform and would like to build a consensus towards it. It was wrong to embark on the process in the way that the Government did, bit by bit. At that time we made it clear that we are not keen to defend the hereditary system. However, we think it only right, given the important functions of the other place, that there should be full reform. Yet since then we have had a royal commission, two White Papers, a Joint Committee, on which the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) served, free votes and the 2004 Bill, which collapsed. Here we are now with a system that has given the Prime Minister the patronage I described.
I always thought that Robin Cook put it rather well when he said that we had moved during the time of the Labour Government from the 15th century principle of heredity to the 18th century principle of patronage. I wonder whether that is what the Labour Government really want as their legacy in this context.
Interestingly, when he stood for the leadership of the Labour party the Prime Minister said that he supported an elected second Chamber.
It was the Prime Minister. It does not yet look as though we are to see the more democratic and representative House that he hoped for in his manifestos.
We are about to enter into discussions with the Leader of the House, and we look forward to that. He, of course, voted in 2003 against any elected element, but we hope that his new attachment to a hybrid House is a serious commitment. We are certainly happy to discuss it in detail.
The proposal that we have supported for some years is that there should be a substantially elected second Chamber. By and large, the Conservative party voted for 80/20, and I did so, too, before voting for 100 per cent. However, if our starting point is that we have to create a second Chamber that will last—a sustainable solution—it is hard, in a democratic country, not to go for the democratic solution. The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) suggested that we could ask each profession, trade or interest group to suggest a representative, and I understand his point, but I worry that that has a flavour of the old pals act about it and that it is not a truly democratic solution. Surely, in a democracy, the only real solution is for the electors to vote on the issue.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman was listening carefully to the contribution from the Liberal Benches, which mentioned the form of election that might be adopted for the second Chamber. The suggestion, which seems to be widely accepted by those who want an elected second Chamber, is that there should be some sort of PR system—no doubt, some sort of list system. Does that not call to mind the old pals act?
Well, that is the criticism. Although my party is obviously willing to talk about this issue, we have said in the past that one could get the flavour of a larger area, such as a county, while still retaining first past the post. One would not have a directly similar constituency, and North-East Hertfordshire would still be represented in the House of Commons, but Hertfordshire could be represented as a county by a group of Members in the second Chamber. We would have a flavour of representation on a larger scale than we normally have in the Commons. That would give some interesting insights into issues such as what the policy for a county or city should be, and there would be a different approach, which would fit very well into our constitution. However, my party is prepared to talk about what the method of election should be and how large the constituencies should be.
In terms of the powers, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) was right to note that the battle between Parliament and the Executive is very important at the moment, particularly because, for quite a time now, we have had a strong Government who have had large majorities and who have wanted to accrete power. The ruthless way in which the power of appointment has been used in the other place undoubtedly shows the sort of Government that we have had. In those circumstances, it is Parliament’s duty to stand up to the Government and to question, scrutinise and really do its job more effectively.
When we consider a suggestion such as the 60-day rule mentioned by the hon. Member for Rhondda, we must bear in mind the use that the Executive side might make of it. At the moment, most Bills go through the other place in less than 60 days, and that is certainly true of the large Bills, unless the Government decide to think again and introduce substantial new provisions, which happens from time to time. It is the small Bills, however, that would tip over the 60-day period. The other place would say, “We’ve got to get the big legislation through. This small Bill is not as urgent. We’ll get through it in the Session, but we’re not going to do it in 60 days.” If the Government were ruthless, they could pack in quite a lot of small measures, which, under the hon. Gentleman’s proposal, would have to be dealt with in 60 days. That would reduce the time for debate on more substantial measures.
The logical consequence of such an arrangement is that the Government would end up guillotining—“programming”—consideration in the other place to meet the 60-day limit. That would be a bad idea, because the important thing about the other place is that it can go through Bills line by line—as we know, a lot of them are not well drafted. Although the detail is often not that contentious, the other place does important work getting Bills right and ensuring that they are legally sound and do not offend some interest group that we have not spotted. It would be a mistake to introduce a strict time limit, which the Government could abuse.
Whatever we do in the next two years must be good for the Government and the Opposition, whichever party is which. That is an important principle. The hon. Gentleman’s point about timing might be good were it not for the fact that under the Parliament Acts the House of Commons has to give a Bill to the House of Lords only one month before the end of the Parliamentary Session; so the present time limit is only one month.
The Parliament Acts are designed to deal with a situation in which there is deadlock between the Houses. My point is that in the ordinary course of business, not the extreme example, the Government would be able to change the practices of the other place, in effect introducing programming. That would be a bad situation for those in the other place, because their job is to take the necessary time to ensure that Bills are scrutinised in detail. It is the job of a revising Chamber to take the time and to cause the sort of delay to which the hon. Gentleman is objecting. If its Members do not have the powers to revise, to delay and to make this place think again, it will be turned into a talking shop; something to which nobody would want to be elected. If it is going to be an elected second Chamber—and I hope that it is—I do not want to see its powers diminished.
Finally, it is worth repeating a point that was made by Lord McNally, who said that the Government have lost no legislation, and no manifesto commitment has been deferred by the House of Lords. Therefore, he still does not understand why, other than for the convenience of the Government machine, there need to be changes in the powers. I agree with him. It is not necessary to over-complicate reform of the other place. It must be possible to consider the conventions; to try to clarify them; to agree on how to elect a substantial part of the second Chamber; to agree on the transition—
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the advantages of leaving the current peers in place until they are gathered, and introducing a third in three successive elections four years apart, is the strong possibility that such a process would maintain the conventions, character and attitude of the Lords, which are so important?
Yes. It is important to achieve the strengths of the current Chamber in the new arrangements. Those strengths are independence, which the longer terms—the exact length of which I should like to discuss—would embed, and the spirit of being a revising and non-confrontational Chamber. A proper transitional arrangement would make it possible to pass on the good traditions while legitimising the second Chamber so that it had the confidence to do its job properly.
I made a long speech in January on this matter, and that is available in Hansard. We have had a useful discussion today, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rhondda for having securing the debate. In the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East wisely secured in January, we concentrated more on the process and the composition, so it has been very useful to concentrate on the powers today. Finally, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire was right to be suspicious about the way in which the discussions are moving. I should like to make it clear to the Deputy Leader of the House that we are going to be very vigilant. We want a genuine process, not an excuse.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on having secured the debate. I know that he has long taken a detailed interest in Lords reform. I also welcome the contributions that have been made by the 11 colleagues who have taken part. Indeed, I think that they almost represent the spectrum of views voiced in the 2005 debate, which make the task of reforming the House of Lords seem like a candidate for the 13th labour of Hercules, unfortunately. None the less, we shall try to make progress and secure reform by consensus of the House of Lords, because the subject is of great importance to us and rightly of significant interest across the House.
How our Parliament works is a matter, of course, for both Houses to consider together. The issue was debated five months ago, when the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) secured a debate, to which the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), replied. I am happy to respond to the request from the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) to give an update on where the Government stand, because a number of things have happened in the intervening period.
As has been pointed out, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has been asked to take the lead responsibility for developing the Government’s proposals to take forward Lords reform. That is recognition of the importance that the Government attach to the views of this House on the future of our Parliament. We have always made it clear that the future of the House of Lords cannot be considered in isolation. The Joint Committee on Conventions has been set up and has begun its work. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, along with colleagues from other parties, gave evidence to the Committee last week. Representatives of the Conservative party, I understand, are giving evidence right now. My right hon. Friend is also holding an informal meeting this week with representatives of other parties, the Cross-Bench peers in the Lords and the bishops. That follows the initiative started by the Lord Chancellor.
The Government have always made it clear that they would prefer to proceed with Lords reform by consensus. There are many different views on the optimum outcome, so it is likely that we will have to ask people to compromise on some of the details if we are to get an agreed way forward in this House and the other House. That cannot be at the expense of compromising our fundamental principle, namely the primacy of this House. One of the frustrating things about the difficulty in delivering Lords reform is that there is a large degree of agreement about the fundamentals, yet we cannot find a clear way forward.
I know that some hon. Members think that we should abolish the House of Lords altogether and that this House should be able to perform the job of scrutinising the Government perfectly well. That is not the Government’s view, which is that the UK continues to need a bicameral Parliament. I believe that there is significant agreement about what we want the second Chamber to do and, more importantly, what we do not want it to do. We must not undermine the supremacy of this House nor the representative functions of hon. Members. We want a clear line of accountability from Parliament to the people and from the Government to this House. That is where the Government’s authority comes from, and they must have authority and legitimacy or else they cannot do their job.
We need an effective second Chamber for additional review, scrutiny and deliberation. The House of Lords, as a revising Chamber, is a key part of the parliamentary process. We need a Chamber that provides a distinctive contribution rather than simply duplicating this House, but we also need a Chamber with the authority to make a legitimate contribution.
There is already a broad consensus around the propositions. The trouble is that the consensus breaks down when we try to translate it into policy on composition. Do distinctiveness and difference imply appointment? Does legitimacy imply election? Does election inevitably imply a threat to this Chamber? Those are difficult issues. Today we have had a flavour of the arguments for and against, and that is perhaps why it has taken almost a century to reach the point that we are at now.
Questions have been asked as to whether the codification is premature. We believe that it is essential to have a clear idea of the ground rules for the relationship between the two present Houses before we embark on significant reforms, because otherwise there will be no benchmark against which to judge their significance. Some aspects of the present situation are highly likely to remain true whatever the composition of the Lords—most notably the fact that no party and no Government will in future be able to command a majority in the House of Lords. That factor alone is a powerful argument for codifying the convention now.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire referred to the votes in 2003. The Leader of the House of Commons has said that his “own sense” was that a mixture of an elected and an appointed Chamber—with elections taking place differently from the Commons, for longer terms and with a longer transition—is probably the option on which consensus is likely. As he also said, we have promised a free vote. So he was suggesting where a solution on the issue might, in his judgment, be found; he was not saying that the proposal was one that the Government would force through. We are committed to a free vote, and that means that the other parties have a say in developing policy too, which is why they are being so heavily engaged. My right hon. Friend takes the view that he would be failing in his duties if he did not relentlessly search for consensus. If none exists, it is hard to see how Lords reform could happen for another Government.
The powers of the Lords were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda and by others, as were the proposals for a time limit on consideration of Bills by the Lords. My clear view is that the principle that the Lords should consider business in a reasonable time is important—it was one of the foundation stones of the Salisbury-Addison agreement. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has said, there is no immediate proposal by the Government to legislate on the 60-day issue. The outcome that we want to secure is that the Lords should conduct its role of scrutinising legislation effectively, but should not take that to a point where it delays so much as to be, in effect, vetoing legislation.
I have a question which is slightly pedantic but which goes to the heart of the matter. Are the Government proposing that the powers that exist today simply be codified and put in some form of legislation, or is the Minister suggesting that those powers be changed? If he is suggesting only that what exists be put on a more statutory basis, I think that many of us would not be quite so concerned. On the other hand, if he is talking about changes then there is concern.
The Joint Committee of the Commons and Lords is looking at that at the moment and taking evidence, and there are no handcuffs on that Committee. As well as being an all-party Committee it contains Members of both Houses, and it is probably taken for granted that the starting point consists of the present procedures and conventions, but its members will have their views on how much, if at all, those procedures and conventions need to be updated and properly codified. That is what the Committee is doing, and I hope that, as it has done to date, it will continue to reach consensus as it moves through the programme.
The proposal to reduce the powers of the Lords comes, I believe, from a consensus in this place as we contemplate perhaps making the Lords more legitimate. At the moment we are not considering reducing its powers—that is something that would have to flow from debate, and there may be areas where there is consensus that its powers should be strengthened. We have no fixed view on it—we want a consensus from Members on how to proceed so that it is open for the Lords to reject Bills and to propose amendments, and so that the Parliament Acts are invoked only if necessary. The period of delay, for instance, would remain unchanged under the Parliament Acts.
The scrutiny of legislation was touched on by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). It is important to note that this House spends a great deal of time scrutinising legislation—in fact, considerably more than the other place. During the 2002-03 Session, there were more than 1,100 hours of scrutiny of Bills in Committee as opposed to some 812 in the other place. We should not undervalue the work that we do here.
I apologise for the fact that I do not have 100 per cent. recall of the voting record of the Deputy Leader of the House. I recognise that peccadillo and shall endeavour to address it. Can he refresh my memory by telling me how he voted in February 2003 and give some indication beyond the important profession of support for motherhood and apple pie that he has so far articulated as to where his own preference lies?
I am grateful for that support. Of course, I am not sure whether the strong views that the hon. Gentleman articulated will emerge as the consensus. He strongly supports the 70 per cent. elected, 30 per cent. appointed option, slashing the number of Members of the House of Lords to something more like the Italian model of 300 or 350, and a longer term of 12 to 14 years. I do not know whether that will come about, but one thing I do know is that no one will articulate the argument more forcefully than he if the House has a chance to vote on the issue and if that option emerges as one of the possible consensus views.
I hope that this debate has reassured hon. Members of all parties that the Government are open-minded on the issue, and that we are at one with the House in seeking to achieve reform of the House of Lords by consensus and as quickly as possible. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who are taking part in the Joint Committee. It is doing the initial preparatory work within its sphere very well. Like other hon. Members, I look forward to its report and to future entertaining and lively debates such as this one.
Yes. I noticed that the model that the hon. Gentleman advocates appears to be more like the French model, in which local councillors get together in their regions and cantons and nominate people for the Senate. He suggested that counties might perform the same function.
The electoral system might be different, but it is interesting to look at models in other countries as I and all hon. Members have. As far as I can see, there is no directly comparable model, and all of them have evolved over time. I hope that we do not have to wait as long for the next stage of House of Lords reform as we had to wait for the last one, less than a decade ago.