I beg to move,
That this House takes note with approval of the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions of the UK Parliament (House of Commons Paper No. 1212 of Session 2005-06).
Let me begin by commending to the House the report of the Joint Committee on Conventions, which forms the subject of the resolution before us. The report is an impressive piece of work that has provided us with clarity on the key conventions that must govern the relationship between this House and the other place.
Before I talk about the report in more detail, I should like to pay tribute to all the members of the Committee from both Houses. Many of its members from this House are in their places today. The outcome of its inquiry and consideration far exceeded the expectations in this House when we debated the establishment of a Joint Committee on 10 May. That is a great tribute to all its members. The fact that the report is unanimous strengthens still more its conclusions about the current operation of the conventions.
I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend Lord Cunningham, who is a very old friend to me and to many of us, and who showed his customary felicity, as well as patience, in drawing together different strands of opinion and ensuring that there was a coherent and unanimous report. When the other place debated the report yesterday—I should tell the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that it agreed an identical resolution to approve it—my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor called it the “bible” on the existing conventions.
I also pay particular tribute to one member of the Committee who is no longer with us—Lord Carter, who is sorely missed in both Houses. He had a very distinguished career in the other place. I got to know him well when, as Home Secretary, I had the happy task of being the Secretary of State with by far and away the largest amount of legislation of any Government Minister—some things never change—and I had to persuade him of the wisdom of that legislation and the ease with which it would go through the House of Lords. He was ever co-operative, but also clear about his own opinions when my enthusiasm overtook my judgment. He is sorely missed in all parts of this House and at both ends of the building.
Today, the House is invited to approve the Joint Committee’s report. The Government have published a response to the report—Command Paper 6997—the remit of which, for reasons that I will explain, necessarily goes further than that of the Committee itself. However, the House is not being asked to approve that response, happy though I would be for that to be on the Order Paper as well. We are instead looking for cross-party agreement on the report of a cross-party Committee and on its description of the conventions as they stand.
Yesterday in the other place, there was general endorsement of the Committee's conclusions, although the debate extended to include consideration of an issue raised in one paragraph of the report—the application of the conventions to a future House. I will come to that later. Although it is not the subject of the resolution, it will no doubt form a substantial part of the debate. We are looking for Parliament-wide approval of the Committee’s report on the current relationship between the two Houses. The Government accept the Committee’s descriptions of that relationship and its definition of the key conventions.
One of the fundamental requirements on the Joint Committee was to consider the conventions on the basis of the primacy of the House of Commons. Indeed, the primacy of the Commons is the fundamental principle guiding all current discussions on any future and further reform of the House of Lords, and it has not, to my knowledge, been questioned by any party during previous debates on reform.
But that is the very point of concern. This is being treated as a matter that is just between the parties and not for wider discussion. This House has never had a proper debate on what we want; certainly, there has been no such debate within my own party. It is not good enough to say that this can be wrapped up between the parties.
With great respect, that is not the case. First, we are proceeding on an all-party basis. I am as partisan as the next person when necessary, but I happen to believe that on important issues of the constitution, if it is possible to proceed by consensus and cross-party agreement, so much the better, because those are the ground rules that constrain and help to determine the nature of the partisan debate.
Secondly, as I said, we had a debate about the establishment of the Joint Committee on 10 May, when I was only in my first week as Leader of the House, and I was told by those founts of wisdom, the Whips, that it would all go through on the nod. The debate then went for about four hours, not least with a good half an hour from the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who decided to open the debate when I was temporarily absent, for a couple of seconds, from my seat. He treated us to a lengthy disquisition, and very interesting it turned out to be. As often happens, the debate then took off and became a very good debate about the conventions on the relationship between this place and the other place. I am sure that the same will apply today. When we get to debate the specific proposals on the reform of the other place, much of it will be about whether moving towards, for example, an elected element, is compatible with primacy in the Commons. Much will be said by hon. Members of all parties about that.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his characteristic generosity in giving way. He rightly says that any progress on the issues must be made by consensus. He extols the virtues of consensus and I agree. However, paragraph 61 of the report states:
“Given the weight of evidence on this point, should any firm proposals come forward to change the composition of the House of Lords, the conventions between the Houses would have to be examined again.”
Let us compare that with the Government’s December response, which states:
“Our answer to that question is that further reform should not alter the current role of the House of Lords as a revising chamber, and that the conventions governing its relationship with the Commons are fit for that purpose.”
Either we are wrong or my right hon. Friend is. I fear that, on this occasion, it is he who is wrong.
I shall deal with my right hon. Friend’s point in more detail shortly. Of course paragraph 61 is correct that, were the composition of the other Chamber to be revised, and the Lords acquired an electoral mandate, the relationship between the two would be called into question and have to be re-examined in due course. However, it is important not to parody the Government’s response. As my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor made clear, it is a response by the Government as whole. We concluded that the primacy of the Commons can and should be maintained, and that it could be maintained in a reformed House of the sort that I would support. It was not a cavalier judgment but was reached after careful consideration. It is fully consistent with the repeated judgments of substantial inquiries, including that of the royal commission on Lords reform.
Will the Leader of the House give way on that matter?
I should like to make some progress and then revert to the matter. Of course, I shall then give way to my right hon. Friend, who is a distinguished Member of this House and also a member of the royal commission.
One of the fundamental requirements of the Joint Committee was to consider conventions on the basis of primacy. Recognising the unambiguous primacy of the House of Commons and its importance to the relationship between the two Houses is paramount in any debate on the subject. The Government welcome the Committee’s clear statement of that fact.
Four pillars bear the weight of the primacy of this House. First, the elected Members of this House determine the party that is in government and also determine—as they did in March 1979—when a Government’s authority comes to an end. That democratic mandate is fundamental to the governance of the country and the primacy of the House.
My right hon. Friend said that the House’s powers derive from its Members determining the Government. Is not that the wrong way around? We determine the Government because we are the elected Members. Our determination is based on the elective principle, not the Parliament Act or finance legislation or the fact that the Government have to command a majority in the House. It all comes down to the core issue of election. If we change that, all the other elements in the equation change, too.
I understand the argument, which is quite strong, against any change in the other place to provide for an elected element. The fact that this House is wholly elected is a necessary part of the arrangement but, by itself, it is not a sufficient part of the relationship. There are plenty of examples, which are given in appendices to the royal commission report and mentioned briefly in our response to the Joint Committee’s report, of wholly elected second Chambers in other countries that are clearly subordinate and have less power—in some cases, they are close to powerless—than the House of Lords. It is perfectly possible to construct arrangements, depending, to put it bluntly, on what is acceptable and the constitution, whereby one Chamber is clearly supreme and has primacy, notwithstanding the fact that the other Chamber—I do not support the model that I am outlining—is also wholly elected.
My right hon. Friend has asked the House to “note with approval” the report. With a tiny caveat, I am happy to note the report with approval. However, paragraph 61—not paragraph 63, as the summary states—reads:
“Our conclusions apply only to present circumstances. If the Lords acquired an electoral mandate, then in our view their role as the revising chamber, and their relationship with the Commons, would inevitably be called into question, codified or not.”
We are therefore being asked to approve the report on the basis of the continuation ad infinitum of the status quo. If not, we are wasting our time today.
We are not remotely doing that. My right hon. Friend says that matters will “be called into question”. Of course they will be called into question—they always have been. Those who take the view that any elected element in the other place poses an inherent danger will use that as part of their argument. I understand that. However, the Committee states that future arrangements are outside its remit and it is therefore not remotely the case that we are today closing down all debate on the future composition of the other place. I shall deal with plans for that later.
My right hon. Friend was a distinguished member of the royal commission and he will recall that it, under the chairmanship of Lord Wakeham, considered the relative powers of the two Chambers at great length, almost in anticipation of the examination question set by the Joint Committee on Conventions. The royal commission recommended an elected element—of, according to the alternatives, between 12 and 35 per cent. Recommendation 2 on page 33 concluded:
“The House of Commons, as the principal policy forum, should have the final say in respect of all major public policy issues, including those expressed in the form of…legislation. Equally, the second Chamber should have sufficient power, and the associated authority, to require the Government and the House of Commons to reconsider proposed legislation and to take account of any cogent objections to it.”
Recommendation 6 states:
“The reformed second chamber should maintain the House of Lords convention that all Government business is considered within a reasonable time.”
Other support was given to what were understood then and now to be such conventions. I agree with the conclusions of my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on the royal commission.
Is not the Leader of the House in danger of treating primacy rather like pregnancy? Either one is or one is not. Has not the meaning of primacy evolved in the past 300 years as this House has become more democratic? If the upper Chamber became wholly or partly elected, one could surely retain the primacy of this House, but it might be significantly less than is currently the case. Is not that the real issue?
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) chaired the Public Administration Committee and presided over a report—one of several on the subject—on the future of the House of Lords. Towards the end of his report, he and his colleagues wrote that changing the nature of the other place is not a zero-sum game with this House—I believe that that is an accurate recollection of what the Committee said—and I agree with that.
I do not for a second regard primacy as being like pregnancy, although it is an elegant metaphor—either you are or you are not—but it is evolving and it has, for sure, evolved very significantly. I have always accepted—I did so when I gave evidence to the Joint Committee—that as the other place has increased its active membership, which has been a dramatic change over the past 30 years, and following the changes in 1999, it has become more assertive and more questioning. Let me say, as someone who has served at a senior level in the British Government for the last 10 years, that I do not mind that. I happen to believe that the questioning of Ministers is a way of improving Government decisions, as well as being an accepted part of our democracy, rather than an irritant. Of course, there have been mornings, particularly when I was in the Home Office, when I thought that it would be nice if the House of Commons were on holiday.
For sure, as I said, primacy is evolving. We can debate the issue at greater length when we discuss the White Paper, as it is obvious that there is an appetite for change and I am pleased about that. I have always accepted that the role would change. What I do not accept—and, more to the point, what people much more distinguished than me have not accepted—is that at the moment we introduce an elected element in the House of Lords, by virtue of that fact the primacy of the Commons and the ability of the Government to have the final say suddenly dissolves. That strikes me as unsustainable, unsubstantiated and devoid of evidence.
Does the Leader of the House agree that the sequence of events that we were engaged in was, first, trying to answer the question about the present disposition of powers between the two Chambers so that we could then debate the change in the composition of the House of Lords on the basis of an agreement, if we could reach it? The Committee did not say that there will definitely be a change, argued for or won; all it said was that the question of whether, if we change the composition, there should be a change in the relative powers is bound to come back. It was done completely logically, but there was no presumption across the Committee that just because we changed the composition of the other place, there would have to be a further change.
I accept that entirely. It is part of a sequence. The Joint Committee was established only because it was triggered by our manifesto commitment to further reform, and was supported to go further by the manifesto commitments of both Opposition parties.
My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor said yesterday:
“The acceptance of the other place’s primacy has been the ‘bedrock’ of all discussions on the reform of your Lordships’ House, and no party has deviated from that acceptance.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 575.]
I would also like to quote a good friend of mine—my noble Friend Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean—who takes a slightly different view from me on this matter. Although she believes quite strongly that
“the relationship between the two Houses may well change if the Lords becomes partly or wholly elected”—
she also says that, in her view, that is a fact
“within accepting the primacy of the House of Commons”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 620.]
I fancy that there is rather less to argue about there than sometimes appears here.
I want to make some progress.
I said that the first of the four pillars of primacy was the fact that the elected House determines who is in government, who is to leave it and who sustains the Government. The second pillar is the Parliament Acts. As the Joint Committee states in paragraph 18 of the report, the Parliament Acts have defined
“the fundamentals of the relationship between the two Houses ever since 1911, expressly limiting the powers of the Lords compared with the Commons, and acting as a long-stop to save a Bill and to vindicate the primacy of the Commons when there is a deep disagreement between the two Houses.”
The third and fourth pillars are the Salisbury-Addison convention and the financial rights and privileges of this House and I will return in a few moments to both those specific matters.
I am delighted to be able to accept that offer. I am not sure when I am going to Blackburn, but my old school of Stonyhurst is not far away, so I may be able to take up the offer.
I put it to the Leader of the House that he and others have been speaking about primacy, but is it not useful and very important to ask the question about from where that primacy derives? It is from the will and consent of the British people in an election, which in turn derives from the functions of the House, including the last pillar that he mentioned in respect of financial privilege. The whole question of taxation also lies at the heart of the matter. To differ from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), I believe that the real question that lies at the heart of the primacy—I think that the Leader of the House may agree with me—depends on the manner in which any elected or partly elected House would be granted functions by this House, which would depend on the Parliament Acts themselves.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is entirely right about that issue. My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor acknowledged the point yesterday that we have expressed the hope that the conventions would continue in any reformed Chamber, without more, but we also added in our response to the report that the extent to which there would need to be additional steps to secure that end would need to be addressed if there were any suggestion that the major parties did not support that approach in a new House. It is the case that when and if we reach an agreement by vote in this House on the broad outlines of the composition of a future House, there will need to be much consideration during the subsequent processes—not least the passage of any Bill—to ensure some guarantee that the conventions that everyone is accepting will operate in the new circumstances.
The Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) are right that the functions of any reformed House define its power to some extent, because they shape what it can or cannot do. That has an impact on its status, but form as well as function matters and the form of the House will, if it is elected, confer a political legitimacy that it currently does not have—and it is bound to be a competing legitimacy. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) is right that primacy is a relative concept, so, relatively, because of that competing legitimacy, this House will have less status, less authority, less esteem and less power.
Indeed it did, but I can be forgiven for evolving my view. I do not believe that it is sustainable to have a wholly appointed second Chamber into the dim and distant future of the 21st century. We have to improve its legitimacy and we have to accept the consequences that go with it.
Allow me to finish the point. If people feel that a change in the level of assertiveness by the other place is such as wholly to undermine this place, they should vote against any change. On the issue of reputation, it is slightly paradoxical that it is the wholly appointed House that claims greater public reputation than we do, but in my view the authority and the legitimacy resides here.
I am going to make some more progress before giving way again.
Let me move on to deal with the Joint Committee’s findings on the conventions and the Government’s response to the report. First, on the nature of the conventions, paragraph 279 of the report concluded:
“Conventions, by their very nature, are unenforceable.”
In our debate in May last year, on the motion to create the Joint Committee on Conventions, the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) quoted a saying among French lawyers, which he said could be translated into English crudely as
“To codify is to modify”.
The hon. Gentleman went on to say that
“whenever one tries to codify practices, general principles, ideas and—above all—arguments, one takes away the essence of those various attempts to get at principles and ways of behaving, reducing them to rules and statements that start with the words “Whenever” or “If”.”—[Official Report, 10 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 469.]
There was a great deal of merit in what the hon. Gentleman said.
Conventions evolve with time, providing us with a degree of flexibility that is required by Parliament. That is a further answer to the point made by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). The conventions are an integral part of maintaining a good, healthy, working relationship between both Houses. We agree that it would be wrong to involve the courts in a question of a breach of a convention, and the Government would not seek to do so. As we see in this House all the time, however, conventions are none the less powerful constraining principles that must not be lightly ignored.
I come to the issue of reasonable time. The House will be aware of anxiety in the Government that delays in the Lords in considering Bills were unjustly disrupting the legislative programme. The Government’s manifesto of 2005 therefore proposed that the Lords should be given 60 sitting days to consider business. The Government welcome the Joint Committee’s conclusion, in paragraph 153 of the report, that a convention exists that the Lords should consider Government business within a reasonable time.
Throughout, our primary concern has been to seek
“the outcome that is behind the manifesto commitment”,
as I explained to the Committee in June last year. That outcome is the proper consideration of Bills in the Lords, as the revising and scrutinising Chamber, and their timely return to the Commons. We are not wedded to the method specified in the manifesto and are glad instead that it has been used as a starting point for the Committee’s consideration. We also support the Joint Committee’s proposal that an indication could be made on the Order Paper of the other place when it has spent more than 80 days on the consideration of a Bill.
The Government also accept the Committee recommendations on the Salisbury-Addison convention. This important convention is the third pillar upholding the primacy of this House. A Government must be allowed to carry through their programme of work—their commitment to the electorate as outlined in their manifesto. That is vital to democracy and to Parliament’s accountability to the people. The Salisbury-Addison convention was first formulated in 1945, when circumstances were very different. There was an overwhelming Labour majority in this House and a phenomenal, stupendous majority for the Conservative party in the other place. The Conservatives had more than 1,000 peers; the Labour party had just 16.
I note that the radical who masquerades as a Conservative, the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), shouts, “Too many.”
There was plainly going to be grief if the House of Lords had been as assertive in 1945 as it had sought to be before the war. It was for that reason that Lords Salisbury and Addison agreed the convention. There have been changes since then, however, and we agree with the Committee that the convention has evolved over the past 62 years. It will no doubt continue to do so.
The Committee suggests that the convention is now understood as meaning that in the House of Lords:
“A manifesto Bill is accorded a Second Reading;
A manifesto Bill is not subject to wrecking amendments which change the Government’s manifesto intention as proposed in the Bill;
A manifesto Bill is passed and sent (or returned) to the House of Commons, so that they have the opportunity, in reasonable time, to consider the Bill or any amendments the Lords may wish to propose.”
The Committee also noted that the evidence points to the emergence in recent years of a practice that the House of Lords will usually give a Second Reading to any Government Bill, whether or not it is based on the manifesto.
The Committee did not attempt to define a manifesto Bill, and we believe that it was right not to do so. In the original circumstances of Salisbury-Addison, manifestos were commendably short. The Labour manifesto that led to the great reforming programme between 1945 and 1951 was eight pages long. Our manifesto for 2005, although replete with wisdom in every line, was 114 pages long, and even more radical than its 1945 predecessor—
No, the hon. Gentleman is thinking about the 1997 and 2001 manifestos. The hair-shirt brigade, of which I am a member, won the argument when it came to the 2005 manifesto. I do not think that there is a single picture in it, except possibly one of our leader—but in black and white.
I believe, as a student of manifestos old and new, that whether they are eight or 114 pages long, they cannot be the last word, the truth and the light, on any Government policy. They have to be the subject of further consideration. For that reason, the Committee was wise not to define a manifesto Bill, or to say that there had to be some ineluctable connection between what was in the manifesto and what finally pops out in legislation.
We welcome the clarity that the Committee’s description brings to this essential convention and agree that it is time to consider a new name, to recognise its evolution. In paragraph 115 of the Committee’s report, the Committee suggests that the convention be called the “Government Bill Convention”. However, as we state in paragraph 27 of our response, we are aware of some concern that that name could imply that the same, more restrictive, conventions apply to the Lords’ handling of non-manifesto Government Bills as apply to manifesto legislation. We have therefore suggested that it might be more elegant to call the new definition of the convention the Cunningham convention, to acknowledge the work of the Committee and its impressive report. That question will not come before the House until another day, but I happen to think that it is a good idea. By convention, I shall call it the Cunningham convention.
I come to the Committee’s conclusions on financial privilege—an issue that has exercised the hon. Member for Stone—which is the fourth pillar of the primacy of this House. The financial privilege of this House, and the tight limits on the powers of the second Chamber in this area, are key to the way in which our Parliament and our constitution operate. Indeed, the Joint Committee, in its special report—its first report—stated that it would
“take the financial privilege of the House of Commons as a given.”
In paragraph 244 of the present report, the Joint Committee states that the Lords Economic Affairs Committee should continue to
“address only technical issues of tax administration, clarification and simplification.”
Provided that it continues to do so, the Committee felt that the financial privileges of this House would not be infringed. The Government agree with the Committee’s conclusion. We will continue to keep under review the activities of the Economic Affairs Committee and its Finance Bill Sub-Committee, and we will not waver from defending the financial privilege of this House, which is fundamental to our constitutional arrangements today and in the future.
In relation to secondary legislation, the Joint Committee concluded that the Lords should threaten to reject statutory instruments only in exceptional circumstances, and the Government accept this conclusion. The Government also welcome the Committee’s conclusion that the Opposition parties should not reject a statutory instrument simply because they disagree with it. It is important to remember that the power to create statutory instruments, and the principles behind the primary legislation, will already have been debated and considered by both Houses of Parliament. Of course, Parliament can change the primary legislation, should it wish to do so.
The Government believe that the principle that Opposition parties should not reject an SI simply because they disagree with it should apply even to the types of SI referred to in conclusion 17. The other place should not reject an order simply because it dislikes the policy, if the order has been properly made under the procedure set out. In relation to two of the circumstances in the Committee’s list of examples, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already agreed to consider different arrangements for scrutinising Northern Ireland orders if devolution is not restored. I believe that that will meet with the approval of the House.
In addition to that, the Government have given an undertaking that Parliament will have the opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny of Orders in Council transferring powers to the Welsh Assembly, before they are laid. The Government also accept that, should they lose a vote on a non-fatal motion about a statutory instrument, they should respond to the House and to the other place in an appropriate way. We also agree with the recommendation that should the Lords reject a statutory instrument—which, as Members know, is extremely rare—they should incorporate their reasons for disagreeing with it in their motion or amendment.
The Leader of the House is concerned about the primacy of this House and the ability of Members to hold the Government of the day to account. Does he agree that successive Governments—not just this one—are resorting increasingly to the use of secondary legislation because it removes the need for a full debate on the Floor of the House of Commons on important matters? Does he agree that there is therefore, to an extent, an abuse of the use of secondary legislation?
Certainly, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that—I think that this is right—the number of statutory instruments laid has increased decade by decade. I do not agree with him, however, on the reason. As a Home Secretary who generated a large number of statutory instruments, I know that the principal reason, in relation to the legislation that both I and my predecessors put forward, was that the House had said that the decision-making power to be invested in the Secretary of State should be the subject of parliamentary accountability, whereas previously no accountability at all would have been provided in respect of that. I am aware of the common charge that the number of SIs indicates Ministers trying to avoid scrutiny, but I do not think that that was ever the intention—[Interruption.] Perhaps an inquiry into that is needed. A large number of decisions that would previously have been made by fiat inside Government are now the subject of SIs. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I happen to believe in the maximum scrutiny of ministerial decisions. However, if every SI had to depend on an affirmative resolution, the whole of government would gum up.
Whether or not the avoidance of scrutiny is the Government’s intention, it is unarguable, on the empirical evidence, that in practice that is often the consequence. May I put it to the Leader of the House, who is both fair-minded and a serious parliamentarian, that if the Government expect their credentials to be respected and timeous consideration by the other place of secondary legislation, they would help their own cause if, more often than not, they could at least publish such secondary legislation in draft form before the Third Reading of a Bill in this place?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and we do our best in that respect. Certainly, the way in which we deal with secondary legislation can be improved. The challenge is to do that in a way that is practical and does not seize up the works. We have considered carefully recommendations in the other place—an important and expanded function of the other place that has not challenged the primacy of this place but helped to underpin it—from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Substantial debate has taken place inside the Government on how we can improve procedures, and there is a good case for that to continue.
I am not sure that the Leader of the House is doing full justice to paragraph 229 of the report. It gives a number of examples of circumstances—I shall just give two—in which it would be right for the other place to consider rejecting an amendment. That would apply when the parent Act was merely a “skeleton Bill” and the content of the statutory instrument was of a kind normally found in primary legislation. Alternatively, it would apply in those common circumstances in which a Minister says to the House, “Don’t worry about passing the Bill, because this can only be brought in by statutory instrument”, which clearly implies the possibility of that statutory instrument being voted down at some point.
There is gullibility and gullibility, but I do not ever recall saying to the House, “Don’t worry, we have taken powers to do everything, we’re not telling you about them, and we’ll slip them through.” Any Member, on the Opposition or Government Benches, would object to that. In every case where special provisions have been made—they are listed on page 62 at paragraph 229, to which I referred—they have been made under primary legislation. The right hon. Gentleman might disagree with that, but it has gone through a proper process. Super-affirmative processes for some special circumstances should be subject to anxious scrutiny by both Houses, if that is what the provision lays down, but that does not justify the Government facing a situation in which they cannot get their legislation through.
I want to conclude my remarks in order to allow other Members to speak. As has become clear, although the debate and the motion are about the conventions that govern the present relationship between the two Houses, the outcome that we were seeking from the Joint Committee was, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, a baseline from which to discuss further reform of the other place. The Committee has now helpfully provided that baseline.
Let me now turn briefly to the other matters for the future. As our manifesto commits us to do, we intend to hold a free vote in both Houses on the future composition of the House of Lords, following the publication of a White Paper. The Committee’s report will play an important part in informing that debate. I have already dealt with the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) and other members of the Committee on paragraph 61. As I have said, we have sought to answer that question for the moment. As we spell out in our response, our answer is supported explicitly by the royal commission chaired by the noble Lord Wakeham, by the Public Administration Committee, by the Breaking the Deadlock group, and by my noble Friend Lord Cunningham, in what became the first Cunningham report. On page 7 of our response, I quote from that report, which stated:
“We envisage a continuation of the present role of the House of Lords, and of the existing conventions governing its relations with the House of Commons.”
Lastly, as Members will know, I have been holding a series of cross-party discussions with Members of both Houses, including the Lords Spiritual and Cross Benchers. Those discussions are informing the White Paper, although the White Paper will be my responsibility and that of the Government. The discussions have confirmed, however, a genuine appetite for reform. I am not suggesting that there will be agreement between the different parties on the cross-party group on every issue; there is not. We have, however, been able to identify some important areas of common agreement, which will inform the House and other place in looking forward to reform.
I was about to do that. I hope that the White Paper will be published in February and that that—I cannot absolutely guarantee this—will be followed before Easter by a free vote in both Houses on composition. I hope and believe that the consensus that we have developed will stand us in good stead for further reforms.
As we understand, today’s debate is not about the White Paper or the free vote, but about agreeing the Joint Committee’s report on the key conventions that govern the relationship between the two Houses today. That is a stage further than we have ever gone before. The report is very important and I commend it and the motion to the House.
I join the Leader of the House in paying tribute to the work of the Joint Committee on Conventions chaired by Lord Cunningham. The Committee members included many senior and distinguished Members of both Houses, who brought a wealth of experience to their deliberations. We are grateful to them for their efforts and sound judgment. I also join the Leader of the House in paying tribute to the late Lord Carter. I did not have the benefit of knowing him, but I know that he was widely respected in both Houses and across all parties, and will be sorely missed.
I welcome the report of the Committee and am happy to support the motion to note the report with approval. That does not mean that I accept every word of the report, but I approve of its overall findings. At an early stage of his speech, the Leader of the House said that the Committee’s work had exceeded expectations. If I may say so, that was a generous turn of phrase, given that when the Committee was established many of us expected that far from confirming the role of the upper House and its conventions, the Government intended the Committee to seek ways to undermine that role and restrict the powers of the other place, or at least to prevent an increased or enhanced role for the House of Lords. I remain of the view that that was the Government’s intention in setting up the Joint Committee.
That was hinted at in the report, when the issue of the primacy of the House of Commons was discussed. There is reference on page 23 to relations between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Paragraphs 59 and 60 state:
“there remains a distance between the Government and opposition visions of the role of the House of Lords. At the risk of over-simplifying, the opposition parties are broadly happy with the Lords' behaviour since 1999; the evidence we have received suggests that the public at large feel the same. The Government do not.
It is generally accepted that any reform of the Lords' composition which introduced an elected element would invite the House of Lords to be at least as assertive as in recent years, and probably more so. The Opposition accept this and say they would welcome it. The Government would not. They hope to fix the role of the Lords, by a process of codification, so as to prevent this outcome.”
I am pleased to say that the Committee avoided that intention of the Government. That is why I am slightly surprised by the strength of the Government’s welcome for the report, particularly as it arose from a Labour party election manifesto commitment mentioned by the Leader of the House—the policy of restricting deliberations on legislation in their lordships’ House to 60 days.
Despite all that, the immense good sense and experience of members of the Committee led them down a different path. I welcome their acknowledgment of the role of the House of Lords, its effectiveness and the good workings of the conventions that exist in that House, and between us. As the Committee found, the conventions work, and their flexibility is a benefit. The House of Lords does not hold up Government business and, crucially, its process of scrutiny aids the process of developing effective legislation rather than prejudicing it.
Let me now turn to the specifics of the report. I will deal first with the primacy of the Commons, which has already been the subject of some exchanges across the Chamber. The Committee was instructed to accept it and, having taken evidence, did not question it. I welcome that, as in my view it is the crucial underpinning of any consideration of the roles of the two Chambers. It must also be accepted, however, that any change in the composition of the House of Lords that introduces an elected element will change the relationship between the two Chambers.
In this regard, I agree with both my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). It is possible to envisage a changed arrangement in which primacy remained with the House of Commons, but the nature of that primacy was different from its nature today. Although it is derived from elections and the fact that we in this House are 100 per cent. elected, our primacy is exercised by functions, and it is perfectly possible to envisage decisions in the future that would change those functions.
Is the right hon. Lady saying that in such circumstances primacy would be pushed further and further in accordance with the degree of electoral mandate? Does she envisage a scale on which a tiny elected element would have a small impact on the primacy issue, but a wholly elected second Chamber would have a significant impact on it?
I am not describing a spectrum on which the degree of primacy of the House of Commons would depend on the percentage of elections to the House of Lords. I am saying that although we understand our primacy to have been derived from the fact that we are elected, we should recognise that it is exercised by virtue of the functions that this House has, which are different from those of the House of Lords. I am not suggesting that this should happen, but it would be perfectly possible in a changed environment for decisions to be made that changed those functions and thus affected the nature of the primacy of this Chamber.
That is absolutely true, and there is no intention that it should be altered. I am simply saying that it would be possible for that legislative fact to be altered by decisions of Parliament, because Parliament established the rules that show how the primacy of this Chamber is exercised.
I am sorry to have to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), but surely the right hon. Lady—who is discussing the issues in great depth—must agree that the primacy of the House of Commons would inevitably be eroded, if not worse, if people were elected to another Chamber, almost certainly on a low poll and almost certainly on the basis of proportional representation, and then claimed electoral parity with people elected to this place.
I do not accept that the primacy of this Chamber would inevitably be eroded if the House of Lords had an elected element. I believe that the relationship between the two Houses would be changed, but that it would be possible for this House to decide still to exercise the functions from which its primacy derives.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend. Does she accept that if a second Chamber were wholly or partly elected, and if its relationship with this Chamber were similar to the relationship that currently exists, we would be unlikely to see men and women of great eminence and quality seeking election to that body?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman should wait for the White Paper mentioned by the Leader of the House, which may contain suggestions on how these matters should be addressed. There are a number of ways of looking at issues relating to elections to another House, not least issues relating to the terms of election. I will not take the route down which the right hon. Gentleman tempts me, because it would lead me into discussing the ways in which elections would take place in the other House, and I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would suggest that that was not a matter for debate in the context of the motion.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the “function” of the other place as if it had a different function, but historically the functions are the same, involving such processes as the legitimacy of legislation and the examination of it. The diffidence that currently characterises the House of Lords results from lack of legitimacy—electoral legitimacy. That is the only distinction. The conventions that have been recorded, which we are discussing today are, in fact, a reflection of the way in which the House of Lords perceives its role.
Perhaps I should not have used the term “function” when describing the differences between the Commons and the Lords. I was talking about matters such as financial privilege, in which respect the powers—perhaps that it is a better word—of this Chamber are different from those of the House of Lords, because the House of Lords does not take part in decisions on tax-raising, for example. Those, however, are functions, or powers, that it has been decided will remain in this Chamber. My point in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, who is no longer present, was that those powers and functions could be changed at some point. I am not suggesting that they should be, but it is possible to conceive of circumstances in which it might be suggested.
Does the right hon. Lady not recognise that at times elections will take place on the basis of manifestos, not just on the basis of “Elect me to the House of Lords”? There could be a significant majority in the other place, on a manifesto significantly different from that of a smaller majority Government in this place. In that event, who would represent the electorate?
If people seek election to the House of Lords, of course they will talk to the electorate about what they will do. That will depend, however, on decisions made, when the time comes, on the nature of the elections and the area that those people would represent.
This is one of the issues that I have raised in discussions on a number of occasions. We politicians all too easily assume that any elections to the House of Lords will take place only on the basis of some sort of party or manifesto representation, in which case the problems that have been set out could indeed arise. However, in my view what we should be aiming for is the election of independents to the House of Lords.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not. I have already taken one intervention beyond those that I said that I would take, and it would not be proper for us to discuss the composition of a future changed and reformed House of Lords in our debate today. I will make a reference—
Order. The right hon. Lady has made it clear that she will now press on.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to return to the point about the extent to which the Joint Committee report might pertain if there were changes in the composition of the House of Lords. The Committee was absolutely clear about this, and I make no apology for repeating what it said, even though it has been quoted by other Members. In paragraph 61, in a comment that was also brought forward into the summary of the report, the Committee states:
“Our conclusions apply only to present circumstances. If the Lords acquired an electoral mandate, then in our view their role as the revising chamber, and their relationship with the Commons, would inevitably be called into question, codified or not.”
“should any firm proposals come forward to change the composition of the House of Lords, the conventions between the Houses would have to be examined again. What could or should be done about this is outside our remit.”
I have no problem with the Committee’s decision. What I do have some difficulty with is the Government’s response to that; that is where the problem lies. In paragraph 9 of page 4 of the Government response, they say:
“Our answer…is that further reform should not alter the current role of the Lords as a revising chamber, and that the conventions governing its relationship with the Commons are fit for that purpose. We believe the relationship the Joint Committee describes is one which should apply to any differently composed chamber.”
As I have suggested, it is inconceivable that a second Chamber with elected Members would not want to reconsider the conventions. It might wish to wait to do that until after it had had some time of operating under the current conventions, but as I have said to the Leader of the House on several occasions, an elected House of Lords, or a House of Lords with an elected element, would be a very different House of Lords from that which currently exists. We cannot introduce elections to the House of Lords and expect that it will be the same as it currently is except with a few elected Members. Just as the House post-1999, with what the Government described as its increased legitimacy, has flexed its muscles more than the previous House did, so a House of Lords with elected Members will, I believe, want to reconsider the conventions. The Joint Committee rightly said that it was outside its remit to look at a changed House of Lords, but the Government cannot sweep aside issues to do with that and assume that a changed House of Lords would have no desire to look again at such issues.
Let me turn briefly to the specific conventions addressed by the Committee. First—this might initially seem to be a minor point—I do not agree that the Salisbury-Addison convention should be renamed the Government Bill convention. That is precisely because of the issue raised by the Leader of the House in his opening speech—that it does not apply to all Government Bills because it does not apply to non-manifesto Bills. The Leader of the House has reiterated the Government’s suggestion that it might be named the Cunningham convention. I have no objection to noting the role played in this matter by the noble Lord of that name, but I see no reason to change the convention’s name, because the Committee has not changed the convention and believes that it operates well as it is. Therefore, I see no reason to change the name from the Salisbury-Addison convention. Nor do I see any need to set it out in a formal resolution, and I suggest that to do so would verge on the very process of codification that the Committee rightly rejected.
I wish to talk about secondary legislation, which has also been the subject of exchanges across the Floor of the House. It raises issues that go wider than the operation of the conventions of the House of Lords. It has been my view for some time that we need to look more widely at the way in which both Houses deal with secondary legislation, as there are problems with the current system. Those problems arise primarily because there is so much secondary legislation, and because Government have increasingly used primary legislation in the form of skeleton Bills, relying on secondary legislation to fill in the detail. While no one would suggest that it is always right for all the detail to be included in every Bill, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Secondary legislation does not get proper scrutiny—and of course, it cannot be amended.
The Government must stop taking the easy option of having primary Bills giving powers to the Secretary of State to make large numbers of regulations through statutory instruments; we need the Government to exercise restraint. It makes for better legislation if more is included in a Bill, as that allows greater scrutiny of the measures proposed. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) mentioned, in its deliberations on secondary legislation the Committee said that one of the reasons that could be given for the Lords threatening to defeat secondary legislation arose if the parent Act was a skeleton Bill and the provisions of the statutory instrument were of a sort more normally found in primary legislation. Fewer Bills, with more time for them to be properly considered and with more detail included in them, so that they could be properly discussed in both Houses, and with less resort to secondary legislation, would lead to better legislation.
In response to an intervention, the Leader of the House said that perhaps we should have an inquiry; I think that we should. The House should take time to look at how it handles secondary legislation. Another issue that such an inquiry could cover is whether there should be a power to amend. I have said in this House that I have some sympathy with that idea, and the Joint Committee referred to it, saying on page 63, in paragraph 233:
“The problem with the present situation is that the Lords’ power in relation to SIs is too drastic. The picture would be very different if Parliament had power to amend SIs.”
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government’s first White Paper on the House of Lords in the first Parliament after 1997 included exactly that proposal, and that they then decided to change their mind at the last moment, perhaps because they realised that that might enhance to some degree the authority of the second Chamber?
My right hon. Friend will have noticed that there are references to orders made under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 and remedial orders under the Human Rights Act 1998 in page 13 of the Government response. Does she agree that there might be occasions when it is necessary to override the application of the European Communities Act 1972 in respect of regulatory reform orders—as my right hon. Friend knows, I proposed an amendment on that subject, which was supported by our party both in this House and the other place—and that that would require amendments and statutory instruments, so that is another, and more powerful, reason for making sure that we get this right?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It appears that I am not as lucky as the Leader of the House with interventions. Perhaps I should have offered my hon. Friend a trip to Maidenhead. [Interruption.] He tempts me down a certain route, but all I will say is that there is a very real need for this House to re-examine issues to do with secondary legislation. That would enable us to take on board another issue that the Committee dealt with in considering how the Lords handle secondary legislation. It made the point that the Government should be seen to take non-fatal motions in the Lords rather more seriously than they do at present. The Committee proposed that there should be a written statement in response to such motions. I share the view expressed in the debate in another place by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Strathclyde that there should be an oral statement or a debate on such matters.
The Committee found nothing intrinsically wrong with the ping-pong system, but it referred to the need for proper notice of amendments and proper time for consideration of amendments. That would not only enable Opposition parties to give proper consideration to the proposals, but benefit the Officers of both Houses and, crucially, give more time for cross-party discussions and for potential compromise where that was desirable. That is an issue to which both Houses should return.
The Committee’s conclusion on the question of reasonable time—which, as I said earlier, was specifically raised in the Labour party manifesto at the last election—should be generally welcomed, although I find it a little surprising that the Government have rolled over quite so easily, given that manifesto commitment. We all want to ensure that legislation is dealt with in a timely fashion, but it would be wrong to set a deadline for the House of Lords’ consideration of legislation. Moreover, the length of time taken for consideration of any Bill in their lordships’ House—or, indeed, in this House—is of course not just a matter of the time taken to scrutinise that legislation; it is also dependent on the Government business managers. Given that, as the Leader of the House has suggested on a number of occasions, we should think ahead to when we are in government, I would not wish to restrict the flexibility available to Government business managers on this matter.
Does my right hon. Friend not accept that one reason why the Lords have in recent times spent a great deal of time on certain Bills is that they departed the House of Commons with very large tranches of them completely undebated and ignored in this House? The Lords have done no more than their constitutional duty in undertaking the scrutiny that should have been undertaken in this House.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who was a distinguished member of the Joint Committee. If he casts his mind back, he may recall that I made that point in my evidence to the Committee. There is a real need for the House of Commons to consider how it looks at legislation, in order to ensure that we give proper consideration to all aspects of Bills. That is one reason why I referred earlier to the need for less legislation, which could then be given rather better consideration by both Houses. That would ensure that we end up with better legislation on the whole, instead of the current situation whereby significant aspects of Bills are all too often not considered by this House and have to be considered by the Lords, which does not lead to the best legislation that we could pass.
As I was saying, on the issue of the length of time, I welcome the fact that the Committee has not established a deadline as such. The Committee was also asked to consider codification, and I very much welcome the fact that it resisted that proposal. It said in its summary:
“We do not recommend legislation, or any other form of codification which would turn conventions into rules, remove flexibility, exclude exceptions and inhibit evolution in response to political circumstances.”
That is important. The merit of our system is that, precisely because it is not codified, it can be exercised flexibly and can evolve over time to meet changing needs. I have always thought that trying to find a way of setting out in a code or legislation what is or is not a manifesto commitment would be an impossible task, the only beneficiaries of which would be the lawyers. I am therefore happy to give my overall approval to the Joint Committee’s report and to the particular aspects that I have mentioned.
Of course, the Committee’s investigation took place against the background of work on proposals to reform the House of Lords and, potentially, to introduce an elected element to that House.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire will not be pleased to know—in fact, he already knows—that I have supported having a substantial element of elected Members in the House of Lords, and voted for an 80 per cent. elected House last time. Indeed, I sit on the cross-party working group on reform, which is chaired by the Leader of the House. He expects to publish a White Paper very soon that will lead to debates in both Houses; helpfully, he set out the timetable this afternoon.
My right hon. and hon. Friends and I have entered into these discussions in good faith, aiming to find a way through the many difficult and complex issues that need to be addressed if elections are to be introduced or any element of reform is to be brought to the House of Lords, and we will continue to do so. I am concerned, however, when I hear that press briefings are taking place suggesting a degree of unanimity on all the issues. There are many issues on which much remains to be discussed and considered.
There have been no covert press briefings; however, I did make a speech to the Blackburn Labour party, which got slightly less coverage than I was anticipating, although it got some. [Interruption.] In that speech, I gave my analysis of where we have arrived at. It is on the record and it was not intended to generate an argument with members of the working group, which has proceeded in good faith; indeed, I am grateful for the contributions that the right hon. Lady and her hon. Friends have made to it. I will ensure that she has a copy of that speech.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that promise of a copy of his speech. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) suggested to me a moment ago from a sedentary position that the right hon. Gentleman should perhaps have published his speech as an article in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph; that way, he might have got rather more coverage.
As I said, I am grateful for the Leader of the House’s confirmation that he does not expect there to be full agreement on all the issues, and if I may I shall give just one example in that regard. Reference was made in the press yesterday to the use of a preferential voting system in this House to determine its view of the make-up of a reformed House of Lords. As he knows, I have real difficulty with that idea—in fact, I oppose the use of preferential voting in this House. We have accepted the future use of exhaustive ballots for the election of the Speaker, but Standing Orders make it clear that even in such ballots there should be a single vote for each Member on each ballot. The idea of Members setting down preferences in a single ballot is contrary to the basic principle of voting—that a proposition is put and Members vote for or against it. I suspect that once it was introduced, it would be difficult to prevent such a system from being used on other issues, such as—dare I say it?—taxation.
However, our aim in these discussions is to find a way forward that will strengthen Parliament, and we will continue to participate in good faith on that basis. The Government set up the Joint Committee—with, I believe, the intention of restricting the power of the House of Lords. The independence and common sense of the members of the Joint Committee delivered quite a different result. I welcome their report and pay tribute to their work, and I look forward to further discussions on the House of Lords, during which I hope we will all have only one aim: to strengthen Parliament.
I join my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House in paying tribute to the members of the Committee, and in saying how much I welcome their report. When I intervened earlier, I said that there was one small caveat—the suggested renaming of the Salisbury-Addison convention. I agree with the shadow Leader of the House that that should not be done. One thing that I find saddening as we proceed with our activities in this place is the unnecessary junking of things that are part of the history of Parliament and of this country. Although I was a huge admirer of Robin Cook when he was Foreign Secretary, when he became Leader of the House he had a tendency toward change for change’s sake, which did no assistance to the House. An example was the renaming of private notice questions as urgent questions, for which I saw no real justification. I very much hope that we will continue to refer to the Salisbury-Addison convention, because keeping those two names as part of the convention shows the way in which the history of both Houses of Parliament has evolved.
I understand what the right hon. Gentleman means, but the Salisbury-Addison convention started out as the Salisbury convention and became the former only because further developments took place. If we follow the right hon. Gentleman’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, we should either stay with the existing phrase or consider referring to the “Salisbury-Addison-Cunningham convention”, although that might be taking things too far. However, it is important that the right hon. Gentleman is accurate in describing the point that he makes.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House did indeed suggest that the convention should be renamed the Cunningham convention. With the greatest respect to Jack Cunningham, who is a very old friend of mine, I do not believe that he has played quite the role in the evolution of the relationship between the two Houses that Lords Salisbury and Addison did.
There has been much discussion on both sides of the House of paragraph 61, even though only two speeches have so far been made. I agree with the shadow Leader of the House that it is inevitable that the nature of the primacy of this House would change if the House of Lords were to have an elected element. As I said when I intervened in her speech, there may be different ways of achieving an elected element, but it is certain that those people who were elected to the second Chamber, in whatever way, would claim that the fact that votes had been cast meant that their House had rights in relation to this House that do not exist at present. That would erode and undermine the primacy of this House of Commons, which was certainly part of the terms of reference of the Joint Committee and was part of the terms of reference of the royal commission on which I served.
There is no point, therefore, in claiming that things will not change if things do change, because if things do change, the whole balance between the two Chambers—which goes right back to the passage of the Parliament Acts nearly a century ago—would change. I do not believe that that would change for the better.
I started my political career as a fiery socialist. At this mid-stage in my parliamentary career, I remain a fiery socialist, but part of my fiery socialism now incorporates the important doctrine that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I love this Government, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House knows, but occasionally they depart from that doctrine and, when they do, their intervention always ends in tears.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Parliament Act 1911. Will he concede that the preamble to the Act states that the reform would be temporary, pending popular reform of the House of Lords? That goes back to the point that all of the conventions, even the Parliament Acts, come down in the end to the question of democracy and nothing else.
There are many different interpretations of democracy. In this country I regard democracy as being an elected House of Commons, the primacy of that elected House of Commons and everything that flows from that.
My right hon. Friend paid tribute to the fact that the Joint Committee’s report was unanimous. That always helps. However, I have to tell him that the report of the royal commission on which I served was also unanimous. We published it more than seven years ago and all that remains of its activities is this photograph of the members, in which I—
Order. Visual aids are not encouraged in the Chamber, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows. I trust that his words will be sufficient for Hansard to report proceedings.
I am always guided by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was about to say that in addition to the photograph, which certainly shows me in my prime, the only thing that remains of the royal commission report is a handsome presentation edition that its members were given, which might now fetch a small amount on eBay, but is otherwise obsolete.
The fact that the report is obsolete is demonstrated by the fact that my right hon. Friend, who is an assiduous student of all manner of texts and documents, failed—as indeed Robin Cook failed—to realise that it did not recommend an elected element to the House of Lords. If my right hon. Friend looks at page 122, he will see that we did not make a recommendation on composition, although we presented three possible models for the selection of regional members. Indeed, I might as well tell the House that if there had been an attempt to recommend an elected element to the House of Lords, I would not have signed the report. It was because I refused to go along with such a recommendation that we presented only models. I still stand strongly by model A, which does not contain an elected element, but would involve members chosen from party lists in proportion to regional votes—at the same time as a general election—for part of what I would prefer to call the Senate.
I appreciate the gloss that my right hon. Friend puts on the report, but as he supports model A, I assume that he also supports the proposed description of model A as “complementary voting”. Either it is a system of election or it is not, and I read those words as meaning that it is a system of election.
My right hon. Friend is so wise, but his wisdom does not extend quite as far as it might on this occasion. He has scanned part of the relevant page, but not all of it. The paragraph also says:
“Voters would go to the polls, as usual, on general election day. They would cast their ballot for the person they wished to be their member of the House of Commons in the usual way. They would not be voting, directly, for anyone else.”
It was only on that basis that I agreed to sign the report. One day, I may have the opportunity in the Tea Room to explain to my right hon. Friend exactly how we reached that stage.
The conventions that have developed through our evolutionary history are very important to the balance of democracy in this country. When the royal commission began discussions, I said to my fellow commissioners that we should not believe that we could arrive at some sort of tidy, neat formula at the end of our deliberations. I said that the progress of parliamentary representation in this country was an evolutionary mess and that the commission could do no more than hope to add to that mess. I pay tribute to the Joint Committee because it has implicitly recognised that nice, tidy and convenient solutions might work in other countries, where they have things such as constitutions, but that we have a system of parliamentary representation that has evolved over many centuries. This country remains the finest democracy in the world because we do not mess about with codification. Instead, we get on with it, swallow what has happened and add to it. It looks like sludge and it is sludge, but it works. That is the great thing about British democracy.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House mentioned a future timetable, on the assumption that we will agree the motion before us this afternoon and move on to the Government’s proposals. I was deeply heartened by the shadow Leader of the House’s comments about her party’s role in the forthcoming discussions. I got the distinct impression that the superficial tinsel of her commitment to co-operation disguised the reality that she would not commit herself to any co-operation except on her own terms. I admire and respect her for that.
Every hon. Member has a different idea of how the relationship between the two Houses should evolve. As a result, I am heartened to believe that progress towards consensus will be slow, stumbling and, in the end, nugatory. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House set out a timetable for the White Paper and the subsequent debate, but it will be late spring before any sort of decision emerges from this House about how we should proceed with House of Lords reform.
It will therefore be impossible for proposed legislation to come before the two Houses of Parliament before the 2007-08 Session. Before that Session begins, we will have, among other things, a new leader of the Labour party and a new Prime Minister. Others might know the candidates for the Labour leadership better than I do, but I somehow feel that whoever becomes leader—and therefore the next Prime Minister—will not have reform of the composition of the House of Lords as a high priority. He or she will want to get on with other things in an effort, which I am sure will be successful, to enhance the Labour party’s electoral prospects.
I worked at No. 10 Downing street when Richard Crossman attempted to reform the House of Lords. As Lady Bracknell would say, we all know what that unfortunate movement led to—the waste of years in the 1966-70 Parliament. I have seen what has been done in repeated efforts to reform the House of Lords, including the multiple-choice quiz that Robin Cook presented to us. I am delighted to say that, so far, we have still got no further.
I am a democrat. I have been elected to this House 10 times, and I believe strongly in that form of democracy—especially in relation to the Gorton constituency of Manchester. I believe that democracy resides here, in this Chamber. That should be the basis for any move forward, if we have to move at all. It is for that reason that I welcome the Joint Committee’s report as a beautifully phrased and charmingly written restatement of the status quo. Although I would like to get rid of the 92 hereditaries, I hope that that status quo will continue long beyond the further long period for which I hope to serve in this House.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) is a veteran of the debates on this matter, and we listen to his views with interest and respect. However, although he may be a socialist, I believe that he is a conservative one, and that most of his colleagues no longer share his approach.
I welcome the debate, as I welcomed the one in the Lords yesterday. I welcome the way in which the Leader of the House introduced the debate, and the response from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on behalf of the Conservative party. I shall seek to respond in an equally positive and constructive way.
I had the privilege to be nominated to serve on the Joint Committee, and it was a very constructive and pleasurable experience. All three main parties took part, and representatives from the Cross Benches in the House of Lords. When we started, no one was sure whether the Committee was a serious bit of business or whether it was designed to kick the debate into the long grass. However, our Chairman cast off some of his reputation and handled matters in a very non-partisan manner, with a firm but fair hand. As a result—and also thanks to the constructive approach adopted by colleagues from both Houses—we did a good piece of work.
Our Clerks were very helpful, and the evidence given to the Committee was extremely good. The former Clerk of the House, Sir Roger Sands, and the present Clerk of the House of Lords were pre-eminent in their evidence, but other people also gave important evidence. I want to pay tribute to Lord McNally and Lord Tyler, my two colleagues who served with me on the Committee. Members of each party gave evidence: the right hon. Member for Maidenhead was one of those who gave evidence on behalf of the Conservatives, and the Leader of the House performed the same function on behalf of Labour. I want to thank my noble Friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who gave evidence on behalf of our party.
Some of that cast took part in yesterday’s debate. I shall complete my list of gratitude by adding my thanks to my two other colleagues who took part yesterday—Lord Maclennan of Rogart, who speaks on these matters for the Liberal Democrats, and Lord Roper, our former Chief Whip in the House of Lords. The cast features people of great eminence from all parties.
I also want to pay tribute to Denis Carter, for personal reasons and on behalf of my colleagues in both Houses. Tributes were rightly given to him on the Lords’ first day back after the Christmas recess. He did an extremely good, effective and professional job in the Lords, and he and his wife were hugely appreciated. The love and sympathy for her was evident in the way that the Lords responded when they heard the sad news of Denis Carter’s death. All of us recognise and want to salute the contribution that he made. He was an eminent parliamentarian.
As a postscript to the above, I must say that his agricultural background made Denis Carter an interesting member of the Labour Benches in the Lords. He spoke with great authority on a subject that is not traditional territory for Labour peers.
This debate is the first of a series, and others will follow on the linked matter of the structure of the House of Lords. I shall constrain my remarks today to a description of the arrangements that currently exist between the two Houses, and the powers that each has. I and my hon. Friends will vote for the resolution, which says that this House notes “with approval” the Joint Committee report. I would be in a slightly difficult position if I did not vote for it, given that the report was unanimous and I voted for it.
I note what my hon. Friend says, which is true. All of us—either separately or collectively—are always changing our minds, and that is a good thing. We must never be critical of people who change their minds—and certainly not if they opt for a more progressive position.
At the last general election, the Liberal Democrat manifesto contained four sentences that are relevant to this debate. The first three state:
“We will cut back the powers of patronage, in particular through our plans for a predominantly elected second chamber. We will make the Royal Prerogative powers which the Prime Minister exercises—such as decisions over war and peace—subject to parliamentary accountability…We will…strengthen the powers of parliament to scrutinise the actions of the government, enhancing the Select Committee system.”
The final relevant sentence states:
“Reform of the House of Lords has been botched by Labour, leaving it unelected and even more in the patronage of the Prime Minister. We will replace it with a predominantly elected second chamber.”
I am certainly aware that there is a common characteristic: people who were in this place, including my noble Friend Lord Steel, go native when they get to the other end of the Corridor. They forget the basis of the manifestos on which they stood when they were elected to this place.
Yes, I will always be straightforward about such things; one or two colleagues in my party and the hon. Gentleman’s party have not signed up entirely to the manifesto on which those of us who stood for election campaigned at the last election. The party view was clear at the last general election, however, and it is the view of the leadership of the party in both Houses, of our shadow Cabinet and of the party: a predominantly or wholly elected second Chamber is our option. There may be dissentient voices and there is an argument to be put, but I do not think it will prevail.
May I venture to suggest that the hon. Gentleman has himself gone partially native with his use of the phrase “predominantly elected second Chamber”? To return to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), if we are in a democracy with a bicameral Parliament, surely both Chambers have to be elected.
On another point, I notice that I am the only Scottish Member in the Chamber, so I take it that Scots MPs are not expecting to be at Westminster much longer.
If we all go down that road, there is a danger that we will show what a united and diverse kingdom we are.
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I voted for an 80 per cent. elected second Chamber last time, as did the larger number of my colleagues. That option nearly won; when it was put to the test it was three votes short of a majority, as colleagues will remember. There is a perfectly respectable argument for a fully elected second Chamber, which colleagues of mine have put regularly, but there is an equally respectable argument for something that retains the ability, in a non-party way, to add people of particular expertise to those elected. We shall come on to that debate. Such an arrangement would diminish neither the authority nor the capability and competence of the second Chamber.
The Father of the House has a consistent view about that and I respect it. I was going to talk about primacy later but I will deal with it straightforwardly now, given the intervention of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). I have never dissented from the view that the House of Commons should be the prime House of the United Kingdom Parliament and that it will continue to be so, whatever method of election we choose, if it is the law of the land. The right hon. Gentleman and I will probably differ about the way in which we should be elected; I want this House to be representative of the views expressed by the public—he does not. That is an honest and traditional debate. I do not believe that making the second Chamber of Parliament predominantly—indeed, even wholly—elected necessarily changes the primacy of this place, unless we make a decision to do that. It does not follow. Of course, the nature of the second House would be changed, but the constitutional relationship would not change. So far, pre-eminently among Parliaments, we have the power; we are not constrained by constitution and prevented from holding that position. We are not in France or in the United States, where the constitution governs the relationship between the two Houses of Congress—the two parts of the legislature—and the presidency. We are not constrained in that way, so unless we decide, and legislation changes the position, this House retains primacy.
The report was absolutely clear about that. The primacy question was not asked of the Committee, but it was the first question it answered. For the avoidance of doubt, the Committee wanted to say, “We agree that the House of Commons should be the prime legislative Chamber”. The Leader of the House gave the reasons and the tests, which are obvious, and there was no disagreement about that either. This House is the place, where if the Government commands a vote of confidence and the Prime Minister wins the day, he or she has office; if they lose that vote of confidence—as the late Jim Callaghan did—they lose the right to be in government and have to tender their resignation to the Head of State.
This is the place whose vote decides on the finances of the state; the other place does not. This is the place that initiates legislation. We could enhance the process. The vote on the Queen’s Speech could be the formal confirmation every year that the Government have office. That is not a fundamental change, but it would make the constitutional position of the House even clearer. As the Leader of the House knows, my view is that whatever method of voting gets us here, we should retain primacy in this place. I argue for a more representative voting system, but it does not prevent me from accepting that we should none the less have primacy.
The hon. Gentleman is inverting the argument. The reason we have primacy is not because of the formulaic procedures he describes; they translate the primacy of the House, which derives from the electorate and from the fact that we are elected. He describes the processes, not the bedrock of the system. Once we change that, and have an elected Chamber at both ends of the Corridor, I do not say that the process and procedures will change, but the balance must inevitably change. That would follow from that fundamental difference.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. Of course, in one sense, the nature of Parliament will change. If there are elected Members in both Chambers they will claim an authority that cannot be claimed by a hereditary peer, a bishop or archbishop of the Church of England appointed by the monarch, a Law Lord or a life peer. I accept that. However, I have seen no proposal from any of our three parties, or anybody else, that suggests that there is on the table—or likely to be—something that will immediately change the House of Lords from an entirely unelected Chamber to one where everybody is elected, as we are, on the same day of the same year, with one mandate, on a platform that allows them to claim that they are the Government. There has been no such proposal—it would be cloud cuckoo land.
The proposals, which have been on the table for years, only ever accept the current position, which is that no party will have a majority in the House of Lords. That has become the agreed position of the three major parties, the Cross-Bench peers and their representatives, the bishops and all the others with an interest. Secondly, there is no proposal to elect everybody at the same time; there will be elections by stages, as in the American Congress and other places. People will not be able to say, “We were elected yesterday to the majority”; first, because in almost all imaginable circumstances there will not be a majority from one party and, secondly, because they will not have stood on a platform to be the Government. It will not be an election for the Government of Britain; it will be an election for the second Chamber of the legislature of the United Kingdom, to do two jobs—making sure we have better, and good, legislation and holding the Executive to account. That is entirely different from an election that would result in the formation of the Government of the day.
The hon. Gentleman has signed up to a report that accepts that the conventions have evolved. Will he not accept that, following his logic, even if he were right on day one of his 80 per cent.—let us say—elected Chamber, there is a genetic certainty that the conventions governing that House would evolve into something else? However we structure the debate, we have to be mindful of that inevitable development. How would he structure his reformed House to avoid that pressure?
That is a perfectly proper question and it ties in slightly to the points made by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton. Let us imagine that later this year, in this Session, the House of Commons votes for a predominantly or partially elected second Chamber. Let us imagine that relatively quickly, as I hope will happen—indeed the Labour manifesto indicated that it would happen during this period of the Labour Government—we go to something that was intended in 1911, but was a bit slow in arriving: namely the completion of the process to get rid of the hereditary peers and to arrive at a democratic second Chamber. That has been on the agenda for nearly 100 years. A Liberal Government wanted to do that, but could not. The Liberals still want to do it, and we hope that, with the co-operation of progressive socialists and social democrats in the Labour party, we can deliver it.
Yes, of course, there will then be a change in the nature of things. That is not genetic inevitability, but probability. People will say, “We are elected now— 80 per cent. of us.” That will happen eventually. It will take a while in coming. If we do it by thirds, it will probably take 16 years, or 12 years, or 15 years, but it will happen. I am sure that people will say, “Have we got the balance of powers between the two Houses right?” But that change has been happening anyway over the last 10 years. It has been happening since the reforms of the House of Lords that got rid of the bulk of the hereditaries. It has been happening in the day-to-day arrangements. What we have been asked to do, and have done, is collect together the developments that have occurred and reassess where we are so that we know what we are talking about and what the balance of power between the two Houses is. Having decided that that is the balance of powers, and that we are going to change the structure, the issue will come back on the agenda. But we are still in control of that process. We have not lost any control over it. We will have to win an argument for saying that we want to keep the same relative power.
We come to the point about what happens if people are elected to the other end of the building in a way that is more representative of the views of the public than the way in which we are elected. The change in my lifetime is that when I was born, in the ’50s, 95 per cent. of the votes went to the two largest parties—Conservative and Labour—whereas now only two thirds of the votes go to the two largest parties. In the case of the great ’45 Government, during whose tenure the famous Salisbury-Addison doctrine was agreed between a Conservative Lords and a Labour Government with a majority in the Commons, something in the order of 35 per cent. of the total public voted Labour. At the last few elections, as the hon. Gentleman knows, just over a fifth of the public voted Labour. Parliament and the Government do not have the same authority in terms of the number of voters or the share of the voters supporting them.
There will be an argument and that will force this House to think about whether it can sustain Governments on the basis of so small a share of the electorate. The issue that will come on to the agenda is how we can give more authority to the Government elected here. The hon. Gentleman knows what my answer will be: a more proportionate electoral system. Let me say as a postscript that I am not against single-Member constituencies being represented here. That is not my party’s view, but it is my view. I understand the argument. For me, having a proportionate Commons does not necessarily mean that we have to lose the link with our constituents, which we all value. The Roy Jenkins commission, commissioned by the Labour Government, came up with a proposal that would answer that conundrum satisfactorily and that could command consensus.
The hon. Gentleman has been involved in the Committee thinking about conventions. Does he think that we have an established convention—this relates to his last remarks—that says that no single party from now on will properly have an overall majority in the House of Lords?
I do. The evidence given to us and the evidence as to what people wish suggests that in other than the most exceptional circumstances—that is my caveat—that is now the status quo and the agreed convention. [Interruption.] Let me finish. One of the interesting debates that is linked to that is how we guarantee that as far as we can. One of the ways of doing that is to retain a proportion of people without party allegiance. If that proportion is 20 per cent., for example, by definition we reduce the chances of any one party having a 50 per cent. share or more, because the 20 per cent. are a block and would help to prevent that.
The hon. Gentleman has got himself into a bit of a muddle. If that is a convention, it is a convention that might be wrecked by an elected upper House if the electorate so voted. Surely he would not suggest simply appointing new life peers each time the electorate inconveniently chose to elect an overwhelming number of Members of one party.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman tries to lead me to anticipate a debate that we will certainly have. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) asked directly whether I thought that the arrangement was a convention. The Committee was not asked to adjudicate on the matter, so it did not formally propose that there should be such a convention. There were proposals on which we reached a unanimous view. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was an eminent member of the Committee, so he heard the evidence and he will remember the debate. That debate was held on the basis that it was the settled will of those involved in the House of Lords at present that no single party would be expected to have a majority in the second Chamber in the foreseeable future. That is the best answer that I can give him about my interpretation of the general view.
Surely the answer to the question lies in paragraph 61 of the Committee’s report, as do the answers to most of these questions. The paragraph shows that the Committee was not saying what the conventions would be for a reformed House, only what they are now.
Of course that is the answer, and the purpose of my earlier intervention on the Leader of the House was to point that out. Paragraph 61 set out the position at present, but made it clear that it was not for the Committee to predict the position after a change to the structure. We were not asked or given the authority to make such a prediction, and we did not do that. We recognised not that the relationship would change, but that it would be questioned. We recognised that the question would come back, not that the answer would be different.
Let me make a last postscript on the future—
If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me, this will relate to something that he said.
Part of the description of where Labour will go next was given at the end of the last Labour manifesto, which says:
“Having refused for decades to accept any reform of the archaic House of Lords, some”—
“now claim to support a fully elected House. The choice is forward with new Labour to modern institutions and more power than ever devolved to communities and successful local authorities. Or back with the Tories to a government indifferent to the health of our democracy and negligent of our institutions.”
That was an unfair representation of the progressives in the Conservative party, but at least it committed the Labour party to going “forward…to modern institutions”. In the year 2007, no one can suggest that a House of Lords elected by nobody is a modern legislative chamber. One cannot humanly, possibly, even begin to argue that—
No, it is not possible to argue credibly or with authority that such a House of Lords is a modern institution. It might be authentic, a good idea, or wonderful history, but it is not a modern institution.
Liberal Democrats are in favour of a two-chamber Parliament. We want the legislature to be stronger vis-à-vis the Executive. We want better pre and post-legislative scrutiny. My noble Friend Lord Wallace said yesterday that fast legislation is like fast food: both are bad for citizens’ health—we agree. We believe in reforming the other place. We very much believe that it was right for the Committee to conduct its exercise and reach its conclusions.
Not at this second. The hon. Gentleman will rightly wish to make a speech if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as will other hon. Members.
Let me add to what I have said about the primacy of the Commons. That primacy will be secured by the fact that nearly all Ministers, including the Prime Minister and the principal Secretaries of State of the main Departments, are Members of this House. By definition, that means that this is the prime Chamber. Additionally, this is the only Chamber that anyone contemplates being elected at one time. This is the place where Governments are made and unmade, the place where the Ministers are and the place that votes Supply.
I disagreed with what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton said about the Salisbury-Addison convention. I am absolutely against junking history when there is no need to do so. I studied history and I love it, and it is important that we remember our history. However, the Salisbury-Addison convention, named after two Marquesses of Salisbury and one Viscount Addison from the past two centuries, has changed, so we need a new convention. In parenthesis, the Salisbury-Addison convention did not bind our party, because we were not party to it. It was a convention between two parties only, made in entirely different political circumstances. Under this convention, it was agreed that manifesto Bills, as the term is generally understood, would not be blocked by the Lords, and that Government Bills would normally not be blocked by the Lords.
Occasionally, the Government try to misrepresent things, as they did in the case of identity cards recently. They pretended that it was a Government Bill, because they had said that they would introduce identity cards, but the manifesto clearly said that the scheme would be voluntary, and rolled out slowly. However, the Government then came back with a Bill that said that the scheme would be compulsory, so we cannot always take them at their word. The convention is different now, and we Liberal Democrats accept, as does the Committee, that the convention should bind the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead made a strong point about secondary legislation, and the Committee was very clear on the subject. It is important to note that the Lords do not normally reject secondary legislation, but they have the power to do so. The Committee set out six occasions on which the Lords must have, and retain, that power. The first occasion is when special attention has been drawn to the importance of the instrument by the relevant Joint Committee. The second occasion is when the order is a skeleton Bill, and Parliament was told, “The detail will come later; that’s when you can decide”. The third occasion concerns orders made under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 or the Human Rights Act 1998. The fourth relates to orders that specifically require super-affirmative procedure—that is, double-lock yes votes in both Houses. The fifth occasion is Northern Ireland orders, because of the unusual lack of democratic decision making and scrutiny for Northern Ireland legislation, and cases in which we are devolving primary legislative competence, for example to Wales or Scotland. The sixth occasion is when we are persuaded to delegate a power on the basis that we will have a vote later, as was the case with the provisions on jury trial included in the Criminal Justice Act 2003.
The Committee hinted that we need a process for considering the whole issue of secondary legislation, including European legislation. I support that, as do my colleagues; there is too much legislation of that kind, and there is not enough parliamentary control of it. I support the idea that we should be able to amend secondary legislation, as that would help us to do our job better.
There was agreement that we will not do what Labour’s manifesto wants us to do and set a fixed time in which pieces of legislation must go through the Lords. The current system has not been abused. The long time that it has sometimes taken to get a Bill through the Lords has normally been due to the fact that the Government held it back at various stages. The danger is that if there were fixed times, or a limit to the number of times that the Lords could reject a Bill, the Government would play games. They would delay things until the last minute, and manipulate the timetable. We must allow the Lords ultimately to say no. The result is not that the Government lose their business—the Parliament Acts are their safeguard—but that they may have to reintroduce the Bill in the subsequent Session, as happened in recent times with legislation on jury trial for serious fraud cases. If we had fixed-term Parliaments, things would be different, but we do not have them yet, and until we do, we must keep the right of the Lords both to decide what is a reasonable time, and to send work back for us to reconsider.
I pay tribute to the Lords, who have done a fantastic job. They have often saved the country from legislation that was far too authoritarian or oppressive. They have upheld human rights when the Government of the day persuaded the House of Commons not to do so. That is not to say that if there were elected people among them, they would not do just as fantastic a job. The fact that they are not elected is not a precondition of their doing a wonderful job. I hope that they will continue to be confirmed in the importance of their secondary but hugely important role of helping us to legislate well and hold the Executive to account.
We sign up to the final two conclusions, too. It is absolutely correct that there was no proposal that we should legislate for conventions, as there must be flexibility. Such legislation would be a straitjacket; it would be nonsense and a ridiculous inhibition. There was no suggestion that there should be a change in the financial privilege of the House of Commons, or that it should not have pre-eminence in such things.
In the end, the report turned out to be an important piece of work and, surprisingly, it commanded consensus in a large Committee of both Houses. It gives a clear statement of the position—a “state of the nation” view, as it were, of Parliament in 2007. Having made that clear, we can improve procedures, do more to hold Government to account, and improve the way in which we scrutinise legislation. We need to do all those things, but, knowing the facts, we can do away with prejudices and decide whether we want to reform the second Chamber. My colleagues and I hope that we will create a senate that is wholly or predominantly elected. It would not change the primacy of the Commons, but it would change the nature of Parliament, which is a good thing.
I am for the opportunity to make a few random, rambling and sceptical observations. I start, like every other Member who has spoken, by thanking the Committee for producing an excellent report, which is overwhelmingly important in its unequivocal emphasis on the primacy of the Commons.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), I remember the strange alliance of two great parliamentarians—the Labour Member, Michael Foot, and the Conservative Member, Enoch Powell—that was forged to frustrate attempts to introduce such changes in the 1960s. They were both House of Commons men and they both valued the standing and the unique status of the House of Commons. We must take account of the points made by my right hon. Friend, who offered us the criterion, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
In yesterday’s debate in the other place, Lord Falconer said that the House of Lords performs “exceptionally well” and
“does a hugely impressive job”.
He said that the second Chamber has been “transformed” and is
“an effective revising Chamber that adds substantial value”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 577.]
I assume that, as a fellow member of the Government, the Leader of the House supports all those observations.
Lord Howe put the role of the Lords into perspective by giving two simple facts. First, 40 per cent. of amendments tabled in the Lords are subsequently accepted. I suspect that many Members here wish that 40 per cent. of their amendments were accepted. More revealingly, he pointed out that on only seven occasions in the life of the Parliament Act, which is nearing its century, has the Commons had to call on its powers. The notion that something is broken and needs to be repaired is not borne out by the experience of Government Ministers or by the historic facts about the relationship between the Lords and the Commons.
I am sorry, I will not give way.
In 1997, the former Labour Back Bencher Tam Dalyell and I were equally sceptical about devolution. In one of my speeches, I said that the trouble with the devolution proposals before Parliament was that they were a “constitutional…mystery tour”. That is precisely what has taken place.
I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would allow me to make progress.
In the past two weeks, the Presiding Officer in the Welsh Assembly said that by 2010 he would like the Assembly to be in the position that the Scottish Parliament is in now. In Scotland, an election is being fought on a proposition to move from devolution to independence.
The nationalists are all over the place. On television last night, the leader of the Scottish Nationalist party, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), stated that if Scotland became independent it would still use the pound. Is that not extraordinary?
I am grateful for that information. All is not lost. I should have thought that as good Scots, any Scottish party would cherish its pounds.
If we move to the process of election, the big question is whether it sustains consensus. None of us knows. All we can do is make value judgment assessments. We may be right; we may be wrong. No one can produce in advance evidence to prove the case. All we can do is draw upon experience.
This is my 43rd year in the House, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton has been here nearly as long. As a politician, it seems to me beyond credibility that if Members of the other place are elected they will not try to push the boundaries, as Wales is pushing for more and as Scotland is pushing for more.
Please—I ask the hon. Gentleman to let me finish my point.
In its new form, the Lords is unlikely to want just to fulfil the role of second-thinking the House of Commons. Indeed, Members of the House of Lords will be there because they are politicians, and as politicians they will have to be re-elected, so there is a democratic imperative. They must be seen—
Will there not be a democratic imperative? I see—I thought the proposal was about democracy.
Members will need to convince people that they should be re-elected. Is it credible that young politicians will go into the House of Lords and say, “We’re going to run it in the fuddy-duddy way it was run before”? That will not happen. There will be enormous internal pressures for the Lords to enhance their powers, at the expense of this House.
Recently I was in Syria on a private visit. A leading Syrian, hearing that I was a United Kingdom Member of Parliament, asked me, “How do you become a United Kingdom Member of Parliament? Are you appointed for life?” Now that appears to be Liberal Democrat policy.
I am beginning to realise that I should give way more often. The interventions are making a better speech for me than I can make for myself.
I want to be brief, as there is not enough time to go over the whole range of issues. There is a further problem, but it will not affect me as I am retiring at the end of this Parliament—and it depends whether Members are elected for just one term; I was not aware that there was consensual agreement—in that Members of this House will have another Member of Parliament shadowing them in their constituencies. They may be of the same party, or they may not be. If not, they will not be aiming to do Members of this House any good. Members here need to think of their futures. I am at the stage when I think of my past, and much of it I cannot even remember.
I have merely floated a couple of what I would call heretical thoughts. As my value judgments are no better than anyone else’s, we have to rely on a touch of realism and think about how any proposals would work in practice. When the Leader of the House produces his White Paper, I hope that he will remember that Parliament is not broken and does not need repairing.
I pay tribute to the wise comments of the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). Perhaps the most memorable thing that will come out of this debate will not so much be a new Cunningham doctrine as a new Kaufman doctrine. Given the implication of the concept, “If it’s working, don’t fix it”, at first I thought that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) was going to make a passionate defence of the idea of retaining an entirely hereditary House of Lords, but I realise that he has also described himself as a fiery socialist, so perhaps that is how one squares that particular circle.
I was privileged to serve on the Joint Committee on Conventions, which was one of those Committees of Parliament that generated more light than heat and was very worth while. Any debate that involves the future of the upper House is bound to be controversial. I hope that the Leader of the House will forgive me if I say that this Government’s record in that regard over the past 10 years has not been one of their more conspicuous successes. It was entirely understandable that a newly elected Labour Government might wish to contemplate the removal of the hereditary peers, but on the principle that if it works, do not fix it, the least that the nation might have been entitled to expect was that the Government would not move towards reforming the House of Lords until they already had a clear view of what they wished to replace it with. Yet here we are, 10 years later, with dramatic changes already having been made to the upper House, but still unaware of what the Government’s proposals will be, although we are promised a White Paper in the near future.
Against that background, when the Joint Committee was first established there was inevitably great suspicion, and rightly so, about the Government’s motives. Some wondered whether they were simply trying to demonstrate that they had a policy, with the establishment of the Committee being part of that process. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, some worried that what the Government really wanted to do was to try to freeze the existing conventions in advance of any change in the composition of the House, in the belief that codification would make that much more likely to happen.
If that was the Government’s approach, it completely backfired when the Committee reached the conclusion of its deliberations. There was unanimity not only among the members of the Committee, but among those who gave evidence to it. Politicians and academics, as well as the Clerks of both Houses, made it clear that the Government’s preference for codification was foolish and counterproductive. The Committee not only came down against codification, but inferred, even if it did not say so explicitly, that the whole idea of reforming the composition of the upper House without opening up a vital and fundamental debate about the existing conventions and whether they needed to be changed was something that the Government and Parliament had to take into account.
One would not deduce from the introduction to the Government’s response that the Committee had undermined their central position. The Government say that they are
“very grateful for the work of the Joint Committee”,
“accept the Joint Committee’s analysis of the effect of all the conventions”,
that they accept its recommendations and conclusions, and that the report
“accurately defines the current relationship between the Lords and the Commons.”
One would not think that the whole idea of codification had been blown out of the water. Even more fundamentally in the longer term, one would not think that the Joint Committee is telling the Government that one cannot ignore the challenge that will be made to the existing conventions on the relationship between the two Houses if an elected element is introduced into the composition of the Lords. I want to make a couple of points about that. None of us knows the consequences of introducing a partially or wholly elected element into the House of Lords. However, two things are clear. First, the Government will not determine that outcome by themselves. They are entitled to a view, but they will be only one of many players in determining what will happen to the conventions and the relationship between the two Houses.
Secondly, as other hon. Members have said, the change will not happen overnight. It will be a dynamic process, but that is not especially new. The existing conventions and the development of primacy happened over several hundred years. I have not the slightest doubt that from the moment the upper House is wholly or partially elected, the pressure will begin to build for reassessing the existing way in which primacy applies. The Government are trying to tackle that. However, all the Leader of the House could say today was that if the upper House were elected, it would be more assertive and that the Government welcomed that. I am not sure what he means by “more assertive”.
The right hon. Gentleman tries to combine the declaration that he is happy that the upper House should be more assertive with the assumption that it cannot change the conventions or do anything other than be more assertive. What does assertive mean in that context? The Leader of the House sounds like the Englishman abroad who, on finding that he is not understood, believes that speaking loudly and being more assertive will make people understand the message that he is trying to convey. If that is the nature of the assertiveness, it does not add up to a row of beans and is unlikely to persuade anyone.
However, the Leader of the House also said in his submission and his remarks today that the Government do not mind more assertiveness as long as it does not challenge this House’s fundamental primacy. Again, that sounds reasonable. I doubt whether any Member or anyone in the country would question the basic principle that the House of Commons is more important than the House of Lords, regardless of composition.
However, as I said in an earlier intervention, the right hon. Gentleman’s argument is based on the false premise that primacy is a zero sum business. I used the example of pregnancy. One either has primacy or one does not. However, the message that many of us are trying to get through to the Leader of the House is not that primacy will disappear or that the House of Commons will cease to be the main forum for the nation’s affairs, but that just as primacy changed its nature over hundreds of years to reflect the increasing democracy of the nation and the increasingly representative nature of Parliament, if and when that principle applies to the upper House a similar process will happen. The upper House will say, “We, too, are representative—not in the same way or with the same mandate, but we can claim the electorate’s mandate to some extent and our powers must reflect that if the democratic principle is fundamental to determining those issues.”
Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that in May, when the matter was previously discussed, several of us forced a Division—the result was about 416 to 20—precisely because we were concerned about codification? I made that point at the time. The motion that we should regard the report “with approval” is extraordinary. That is why some of us tabled an amendment, which has not been selected, to say that we note the report with interest, not approval—
I do not always—and perhaps not even often—agree with my hon. Friend, but on this occasion he makes a powerful point.
In his response to the report, the Leader of the House made a point that, again, appears valid. He said that we should take into account the experience of other countries. He stressed that other countries have bicameral legislatures and that, in some cases, their upper Houses are also elected, but they do not claim primacy over the lower Houses. He asked why, therefore, there should be any change in the United Kingdom if an elected element were introduced into the upper House. Again, the right hon. Gentleman misleads himself. He assumes that we argue for a principle that when there are two Chambers, both of which are elected, they must be equal. There is no such principle; it is a question of practicality—it is for the nation to decide whether, when both Houses of a Parliament contain an elected element, they should have equal or different powers. What we are arguing is not that the upper House should have equal powers, but that if it is elected it will certainly claim a greater share of the power that is available.
The right hon. Gentleman also misleads himself in not taking into account that what is unique about circumstances in the UK is that we are contemplating a fundamental change in the composition of the upper House. We are saying that for centuries we have had an unelected upper Chamber and we are now contemplating the introduction of a representative element into its affairs, so against that background the right hon. Gentleman cannot seriously be suggesting to himself—even if he is suggesting it to the House as a whole—that that does not have implications for the powers of the new upper House that will come into existence.
I do not wish to detain the House. Many of the necessary points can be made very briefly as they are simple and straightforward. In my concluding comments, however, I say to the Leader of the House that this is not just a debate among politicians, and it is not simply those who take a different view on the composition of the upper House who will argue about the consequences if the change were to come about.
The right hon. Gentleman should look at the evidence that the Joint Committee received, including evidence from the Clerks of the House—people with perhaps more experience in these matters than almost any of we elected Members. The Clerk of the Parliaments said in paragraph 33:
“The introduction of an elected element would undermine”—
the question of primacy—
“as the House could begin to claim an electoral mandate. It can be argued that the greater the proportion of the elected members the stronger the mandate. If the Lords were elected by a proportional system they might even claim a superior mandate.”
He went on to say:
“All in all it is likely to be difficult to ensure that any definition of the convention now would survive a significant change in the composition of the Lords.”
That was the Clerk of the Parliaments. The Clerk of the House of Commons said—I quote his words—that
“it does reinforce the point made”—
by the Clerk of the Parliaments—
“with which I agree, that the principles on which the Salisbury Convention is based would inevitably be undermined by the introduction of an elected element into the upper House.”
Two of our most experienced officials gave their views quite objectively, making it clear, in their judgment, that there will not only be more debate and more assertiveness, but that the very principles of the Salisbury convention will “inevitably be undermined”—that was the phrase that was used. The Leader of the House must take those matters into account.
It is worth remembering—others have made indirect reference to it—that the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 made it clear that the constraints on the upper House simply reflected the fact that it was not an elected legislature at that time. If that were to change, the whole basis of the Parliament Acts would have to be reassessed and re-examined. I am not one who wishes to challenge the primacy of this House. I believe that, even if there were an elected upper House, it would be highly desirable that most of what we consider primacy to be about should continue to be relevant. We do not want deadlock in our legislative system and we do not want a situation where the Government would feel themselves equally answerable to both Houses, which might stultify the natural business of government.
I conclude by saying that the debate is not about whether primacy would disappear. The question that the Leader of the House has still failed to address is why it would not be reasonable to assume that the primacy that this House enjoys, which has changed over centuries—reflecting greater and greater democratisation—would not begin to be reversed by an upper House that could also claim an electoral mandate. If the work of the Joint Committee has brought this issue into that degree of public debate, we will not have laboured in vain.
The previous speaker has just said that this is not just a debate among politicians. Well, most of this is exclusively a debate among politicians. I stand to be corrected, but I suspect that the Leader of the House is not much assailed on his soap box in Blackburn market about what he is doing about House of Lords reform. It is slightly extraordinary that, as was rightly mentioned by my right hon. Friends the Members for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), we are proposing to gridlock Government business for the next two years and override other important business with which we really should be dealing.
I want to deal briefly with two issues that I believe are linked. The first is the evidence of the former Clerk of the House, to which I shall return in detail shortly. The other has been mentioned by colleagues on both sides of the House—the contradictions between paragraph 61 of the report and the Government’s response on the issue of primacy. The key element that draws those subjects together involves the underlying issue—which the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) slightly evaded—of where we derive our mandate from. Just as the underlying driver for capitalism is not so much a desire for profit as a desire to avoid bankruptcy, we are dealing here not so much with abstract accountability as with the ability of the public to change us, and thereby to change the Government, by voting in a clear way. Anything that moves us away from that does serious damage to democracy.
In his evidence, the previous Clerk of the House of Commons, Sir Roger Sands, said of conventions:
“A further difficulty would be the need for adjudication once conventions had been turned into rules. Any set of rules which precisely defines what can or cannot be done must be adjudicated upon by someone. Within the House of Commons, Standing Orders and practices are interpreted and ruled upon by the Speaker; disputes about codified rules governing relations between the two Houses would suggest the need either for the establishment of some new parliamentary machinery or for some form of adjudication outside Parliament, possibly by a specially constituted court as is the case in countries with written constitutions like France or the United States.”
I took issue with him on that matter, because I find the doctrine of an external body adjudicating over a sovereign Parliament particularly worrying.
I asked Sir Roger Sands what the adjudicator would adjudicate on. I went on to ask:
“How could the courts then adjudicate on whether the House of Commons had applied its rules properly or applied the rules of the relationship between the two Houses?”
Colleagues might recall that we got quite close to that situation when a case was brought before the House of Lords over the use of the Parliament Act in relation to the Hunting Bill. It was extremely imprudent to have considered that case, because a certificate had been properly produced by a former Speaker—in 1949, I think—for the amendment of the Parliament Act. He was a Conservative Speaker. Under our constitution, it seems absolutely improper for the courts to seek to rule not on the interpretation of legislation but on its validity. This is a dangerous area, and we need to be alert. We must ensure that we do not go any further in that direction.
I turn now to the Government’s response to the report. I agree with hon. Members on both sides of the House that it is inevitable that those who have the mandate from the public will seek to exercise it. After all, why else would the public have voted for them? My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West alluded to the problem that can then arise: which mandate takes precedence?
There is a matter that we have perhaps not faced up to in the debate this afternoon. Would the right hon. Gentleman concede that without democracy, we should be left with the corrosive practice of patronage and worse, as we have seen from the Scotland Yard investigation that is going on at the moment? I would venture to suggest that the latest new year’s honours list was almost a tacit admission of foul play within patronage.
That is a complete load of nonsense. If the hon. Gentleman saw fit, his party could have an Opposition day debate in which he could move that the House had no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government. Under the American system, the Government—and the President—are elected for four years and there is a balance of powers. Under our system, however, the Government live from day to day. That is inevitable, because the only basis for government under the Westminster parliamentary system is that the Government maintain a majority in the House of Commons. That is right and appropriate, and the hon. Gentleman might wish to change things, but he could not complain if he were unable to win such a vote. That is the crucial issue. If he is right and we are wrong, the public will change their mind at the next general election.
Opposition Members have been criticising the Government for several years, but two elections have intervened since we first won power: in one we won an overwhelming majority, and in the other we won a substantial majority. The hon. Gentleman might be unhappy with the electorate about that and, like Bertolt Brecht and the central committee in “The Workers Rehearse the Uprising”, he might declare a lack of confidence in the people and a wish for the election of a new people. Under our system, however, the public can hold us to account at the general election, as his party has found: it has a little surge and gets a number of seats in Parliament, and then recedes again. It has returned with a few more seats, but never as many as it had at its peak.
The problem with that is the need for clear lines of accountability, which is exactly the point to which I was coming. Under our system, the way in which not only a Parliament but a Government is elected is the same. If we have two elected Chambers, where do the Government come from? Which Chamber has the greater mandate? Which, for example, has the more recent mandate? We will come on to the slightly muddled views of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in a moment. If, for example, elections are held at different times, as happens in some countries that have off-peak elections, would those who opposed the Government claim that they had put their views to the electorate more recently, so they had a more recent mandate?
Equally, we must consider what would happen if, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey suggested, we had a different electoral system. We know how the jihadists of the proportional representation movement endlessly claim that those elected under such a system are more representative. If the other place had a different system, which was more to their liking, would not they claim that it was more representative of public opinion? Is that a mechanism for getting clear decisions and clearly electing a Parliament and a Government?
Within the current conventions, the ability of the House of Lords to revise and to ask the Commons to think again, as outlined in the report, demonstrates that the public ultimately choose a Government, who decide. We can be asked to think again, which can create public embarrassment and put democratic pressure on us. That is what the Parliament Act says: ultimately, we can decide. The conventions say that the doomsday button does not have to be pressed every time in order for the Government, finally, to secure their business.
There are a variety of means by which people come to that Chamber. They are nominated by the various political parties. Those parties have the ability to nominate through being represented here, so they derive their authority from the electorate. Equally, it has possibly been generally agreed that it is desirable to have people who are distinguished in their fields; even the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey argued for that. That would not necessarily mean that they were instantly electable under any system, but it might be of advantage to have their specialities represented, perhaps through having a variety of Cross Benchers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton commented on methods of achieving that, and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey praised the efforts of such Members. I might have some differences of view on that; I might think that they were trying to thwart the views of the electorate, who clearly wanted us to take effective action. However, a system of divided mandates and a variety of mandates is a different matter, as was pointed out by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).
According to the Clerk of the Parliaments,
“The introduction of an elected element would undermine this as the House could begin to claim an electoral mandate. It can be argued that the greater the proportion of elected members the stronger the mandate. If the Lords were elected by a proportional system they might even claim a superior mandate.”
We should not disregard that thought lightly. It is a serious danger, and one about which we need to be clear.
It has been asked why such people should sit in the House of Lords. Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that many of those appointed to the House of Lords come from many important walks of life such as the arts, industry, the theatre, the trade unions, science, academia and the financial services? In an amending Chamber, their expertise can add a huge amount to legislation—the good legislation that we hope will emanate from Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman omitted to mention former Chiefs of the Defence Staff and other senior figures in the armed forces, as well as members of the diplomatic corps. They also make a significant contribution.
Then there is the question of what we are able to enshrine. I missed some of the context, but the Leader of the House spoke of guarantees. There are no guarantees, because no Parliament can bind its successor. The Lord Chancellor conceded as much only yesterday, when he said:
“Neither this House nor any political party can bind the House for the future.”—Official Report, House of Lords, 16 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 578.]
That is true, and it demonstrates that pressure from those who claim legitimacy, aided and abetted by many of their supporters outside in the media, will inevitably start to move in the direction that I have described.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead spoke of many different ways of electing people to the House of Lords. She referred to an 80 per cent. proportion of elected Members, and also to all those elected being independent Members. I do not know whether that observation was frivolous—perhaps the right hon. Lady’s language is becoming as flamboyant as her dress—but it certainly suggested rather a “year zero” approach to Parliament. The right hon. Lady would not let me intervene on her, but I invite her to intervene on me to say whether what she said represents the view of the official Opposition.
The right hon. Gentleman should have listened to what I said. As I am sure the Hansard report will make clear, I did not say that everyone elected to the House of Lords should sit as an independent. However, I think it would be an advantage for some Members to be independent, because that would help to ensure that the House of Lords contained people from a variety of backgrounds, not just party politicians. That is my view.
The right hon. Lady has failed to meet my right hon. Friend’s challenge. The electorate are sovereign. We have a House of Commons that contains two independent Members, one of them a Labour Member who was elected because of a row in the Labour party in south Wales. That does not offer a very promising prognosis for the substantial number of independents who the right hon. Lady is sure will be elected to the House of Lords.
I am afraid that I must correct my right hon. Friend. In fact the House of Commons has three independents, one of whom was elected as a Labour Member and then ratted on that commitment.
Let me conclude by explaining why the subject under discussion matters, and what the underlying issue is. We must have a clear understanding of parliamentary democracy and how it works. As I have said, there are differences between the British and American parliamentary systems. The American system elects an executive leader. It also elects two Houses that are representative and which, although they are the legislature, also provide the balance of powers. It also has an independent Supreme Court—although interestingly, membership of it is subject to appointment by the President and ratification by the Senate. In our system, the election of Members to this House decides the Government. Therefore, inevitably, the position of the House of Lords in relation to the House of Commons is different from that of the US Senate in relation to the House of Representatives.
It is crucial that people clearly understand how they can change policy or change the Government. Measures that take authority away from this House and give it to quangos or unelected judges, and measures that divide the democratic mandate so that it is unclear who is to be held accountable, are not recipes for good government. Instead, they are recipes for democratic frustration, and that is when people start to become attracted to extremist parties. When people do not have a clear idea of how to exercise their rights, they either drop out of the political process into apathy or they start to vote for extremist parties.
That is why the Joint Committee report is right to say that if we change the nature of the House of Lords, that will inevitably have an impact and we will have to re-examine the conventions. The Government response does not properly address that fact, although it is good in other respects.
I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), both of whom made excellent and sensible speeches.
The key words in the admirable Joint Committee report are those in paragraph 61 that have not been quoted as often as others. In paying tribute to Committee members for working extremely hard on behalf of all Members—I am grateful to them for that—I draw attention to the words:
“We have interpreted our remit as being to define the present reality”.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea and the right hon. Member for Warley both quoted the Clerk of the Parliaments and Roger Sands, who gave evidence that if that present reality is changed, we will face a new reality. If we approve the report this afternoon—I approve of it—it is important that we recognise that it applies only to the current relationship between the two Houses as they are currently constituted.
There is an admirable and logical case—although I do not agree with it—for saying that we should have a written constitution and two elected Houses. There is no case at all in logic for a hybrid House; that is the worst of all worlds. However, there is a case for having an elected second Chamber, but we must not delude ourselves into saying that that would be the House of Lords; it would not. Any move towards that is, in effect, a move towards the abolition of the House of Lords as it currently exists and its replacement by something else.
If that were to happen, conventions could, of course, be established, and it might be the wish of the Leader of the House, and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and others, that this House should retain its primacy. I would share in that wish if that unfortunate sequence of events were to unfold, but neither I nor the Leader of the House, nor my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader, nor anyone else in this Chamber or outside it, could have any ultimate control.
The Father of the House spoke very wisely when he talked about the unintended consequences of devolution. I was one of those who were very reluctant to support devolution. I do not want the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) to jump up and ask, “Do I accept a Scottish Parliament now?” Of course I do. I am not one of those who think that we can un-invent things; it is there, and we have a Welsh Assembly. I remind Members that if my party had handled things rather better immediately after 1979, we might not be where we are now, but that is another story.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer—our possible future Prime Minister—is now making an impassioned plea for the United Kingdom, with which I wholly concur. However, he is doing so without recognising that it is the creature that his Government created—the Scottish Parliament—that has, in turn, created this crisis for the United Kingdom. I deeply regret that. I do celebrate 300 years of Union and I should like to see 300 and more years ahead. I merely use this analogy—as, indeed, the Father of the House did—to say to the House that if we move down the road of an elected or partially elected House of Lords, we will have a creature that we cannot ultimately control. Men and women of real quality and ability may aspire to it, but they will be able to do so, and to have a realistic chance of being elected to it, only if they have a party label. Then, they will legitimately want to have real powers. Alternatively, there will be the worst of all situations—my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House dismissed this view out of hand, but we should not—a second Chamber that is so cribbed, cabined, confined and constrained in its powers that nobody of any worth or substance will want to sit in it.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Given that he is envisaging a new scenario and warning against change at least in part on the ground that its consequences will be unpredictable, why is he making the one exception that allows him so confidently to predict that in this revised arrangement only a tiny number of independents would be elected? With the greatest of respect to my hon. Friend, who is immensely distinguished, how can he know, any more than I or my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) can know?
Of course none of us knows. The point has been made extremely effectively by others in this debate that, once we give to the electorate the opportunity of electing a body, they can elect whomsoever they choose. All that I would say to my hon. Friend, whose linguistic and forensic skills I greatly admire, is that all precedent teaches us that it is very difficult to get a goodly number of independents elected. In this House, we always have one independent—Mr. or Madam Speaker—but in all the 10 Parliaments in which I have sat, we have not had 10 independent Members in all. We have from time to time had one or two, sometimes as a result of an extraordinary circumstance—a falling out in a constituency, for example, which was why Mr. Bell came here—but we have never had a body of independents.
I do not want to pursue this one and nor do I want to detain the House for long. I have to give the House an apology—Mr. Speaker knows this, as does Mr. Deputy Speaker—in that I am chairing the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at 5 o’clock. As Members in all parts of the House will recognise, I will be about the House’s business and have to do that, so I shall not trespass on the House by taking more than another couple of minutes.
The point that I wish to emphasise is the one that I have made, I hope reasonably clearly. I welcome the report, which is a brilliant description of, and definition of, the existing conventions. Those conventions have been—perhaps surprisingly—warmly welcomed and endorsed by the Government. I welcome that. But they apply only to the present reality. We will have an opportunity—the Leader of the House suggested that it would be in the spring, either just before or after Easter—to debate proposals that will give us the chance to say whether we want an elected or partially elected Chamber. If we go down that route, these conventions will die. New conventions will evolve. The circumstances and relationships will be different.
If the new Chamber that would replace the House of Lords is to have any worth or substance at all—because it has people of worth and substance in it—it will sooner or later aspire to real power. That will challenge the primacy of this House. I accept unreservedly the definition of primacy given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea, but like him I entered the House of Commons because I believed passionately in it and its primacy. We live in a very sophisticated democracy and the historic evolution of our system means that we have in the second Chamber, partly by accident and partly by design, a greater accumulation of experience, wisdom and expertise than in any other Chamber in the world. To quote the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who has temporarily left his place, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That slogan was also used by Lord Howe of Aberavon in the other place in his excellent speech yesterday.
Let us read the White Paper thoroughly, digest it and debate it thoroughly, but we should be under no illusion that if we adopt election for the second Chamber, we will fundamentally, absolutely and permanently alter the nature of our Parliament and the relationship between the two Houses.
This is probably only the third time in 15 years in the House that I agree with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). One never knows, there may be a fourth time in the future.
If I had been asked 20 years ago, I would probably have argued unambiguously in favour of a fully elected second Chamber. However, after some years in this place, I started to realise that the relationship between the two Houses is much more complex than is perceived from outside. I reached the view that it was important that we had the sort of debate in which I was delighted to participate during the work of the Joint Committee.
In the last debate in the House, with the curious voting system that was presented to us, I decided that because the debate was taking place in a vacuum—we were debating the structure of the House of Lords without considering its purpose—I chose to vote for abolition, not because I was a unicameralist particularly, but because it was illogical to debate structure without debating purpose.
My hon. Friend mentioned the curious voting system that we had last time. Does he agree that whatever options are put before the House, it is important that we have the chance to reject all the options if we do not find any of them satisfactory?
The intervention from the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp), and the hon. Gentleman’s response to it, seemed to me to be shots across the bows of the Government. Am I right in supposing that the Government’s intention is to ensure that any votes that are held will lead to a definitive conclusion about the form of change?
I am not sure that the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) was intended to be a shot across the Government’s bows. He and I are both devout party loyalists, but sometimes we point out to Front-Bench colleagues that complicated matters facing the House can be explored in different ways.
The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) expressed concern that preferential voting was becoming a convention, and it is true that, once a system is in place, it tends to become regarded as a given. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House acknowledged that part of his engagement in cross-party discussions involves talking to the bishops. There may be a historical explanation for the bishops’ representation in the House of Lords, but there is no logical one. Even so, they are there, and so my right hon. Friend has to talk to them.
Incidentally, if that debate leads the bishops to invite my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to ensure that all faiths are represented in the House of Lords, I might have more faith in the faiths. However, my point is that the ground rules that are in place at any given time will determine where a debate will lead.
In an intervention earlier, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) made an observation about the scrutiny process that needs to be corrected. I do not think that he intended to make a party political point, but he will know that the Committee looked at each Session from 1980 to the present to see how many Bills took more than 61 days. The length of time taken cannot be attributed to any particular Government—
The hon. Gentleman nods in agreement. The number of Bills taking more than 61 days has risen inexorably, from none in 1980-81 to 13 in the period to May in the 2005-06 Session. The average number of days spent on each Bill has also risen inexorably, from 36 in 1980-81 to 63 in the period to May in 2005-06.
Those figures may not have a direct bearing on this debate, but they give us some food for thought. The hon. Member for Macclesfield is a member of the Modernisation Committee, and I hope that it will look at the tables carefully, as they raise serious questions about how we examine the complex Bills that come before us. That might lead us to a view about how amendments ought to be tabled and debated, but it should not impinge on or determine our views about the structure of the other place. That is an important point.
I think I agree with the conclusion that the hon. Gentleman has just reached—that the scrutiny of legislation should not be dependent on, linked to or the result of a particular structure for the other place. However, in reflecting on the way in which we and the other place scrutinise legislation does he agree that we need to deduce from that not only that we might do our jobs better, but that there are issues and challenges for the parliamentary draftsmen, too? We have a responsibility to look at the sausage factory as well as at the sausages that emerge.
Indeed. It could be argued that more time should be given at the outset to ensure that drafting is correct. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am in favour of greater use of pre-legislative scrutiny, which would help to reinforce some of the processes that can get muddled, resulting in some of the ping-pong issues and in measures drifting down to the Lords that have not been properly debated in this place. We can get those things right in the existing structure.
I want to move on to primacy. There have been adequate exchanges about the gentle contradiction between paragraph 61 of our report and the Government’s response, so I shall not detain the House too much on that point. However, it seems axiomatic that as changes are introduced, the nature of the relationship will change. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), the hon. Member for South Staffordshire and some Labour Members have observed that we need to accept that there will be a change. I do not intend to debate whether we should have a written constitution, as I doubt you would allow me to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but can we guarantee primacy without one? The House needs to have that serious debate.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House may say that the issues can be defined and codified, but that would be quite difficult without first defining the structure and purpose of the upper House. There is a complex interrelationship between the protection of primacy and the nature of the second Chamber and how it is formed. We cannot see the process as a series of simple steps; they are complex and interrelated.
There have been exchanges about the inequality of representatives. Can we have an elected Member of Parliament who is unequal? In this House, we fight vigorously to protect the concept that we are all equal Members of Parliament, and so it should remain. However, in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, where list systems are in operation, there are debates about whether all Members are equal, as there are about the relationship between us and our regional Members of the European Parliament.
I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has been as annoyed as I have been from time to time to have a Liberal Democrat MEP describe himself as, in my case, the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, or, in his case, the Member for Blackburn. It might be a matter of semantics, but that MEP is not the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. He does not have the same mandate as I have. There will inevitably be pressures—as there are in cases such as that—on elected Members of an upper House to claim equality with the rest of us.
My right hon. Friend was kind enough to write to members of the Committee in December. He welcomed the report, described it as significant and thanked us for our role. I am extremely grateful for that letter, but I want to bring one word in it to his attention. He is a distinguished parliamentarian and was an eminent lawyer, and he chooses words extremely carefully. He says:
“The Government believes however, that further reform should not alter the current role of the House of Lords as a revising and scrutinising chamber, nor should it alter the balance of the relationship between the Lords and Commons.”
What does the word “should” mean? Does it mean that, in his judgment, further reform will not alter things, or that it cannot? I think that it is probable that further reform will alter things. Paragraph 61 makes it quite clear that the Committee believes that there will be a change. The question that we need to address, whatever conclusion the House comes to in subsequent debates, is: how can we protect the primacy of this House? Members on both sides of the House need work on that so that, whatever the outcome of the subsequent debate about structures, we protect that primacy, which the Government say should not be altered, but which will be altered, whether we like it or not.
It was a great honour to be one of three Conservative and Unionist Members who were appointed by the House to serve on the Joint Committee on Conventions. I found it an uplifting experience and one that taught me a great deal about what goes on in the House of Lords. Although I am prepared to confess to the House that I have long been a supporter of the House of Lords and the role that it plays in our constitution and in the way in which Parliament holds the Government of the day to account and scrutinises legislation, I have to say that, at every sitting of the Committee, I became more and more convinced that the House of Lords, as it is currently comprised, fulfils a valuable and important role. I became more and more convinced that my personal instincts about the House of Lords were merely strengthened by the evidence that was given to the Joint Committee.
May I pay my personal tribute to Lord Carter? I knew him before I started to attend the Joint Committee, of which he was a leading member from the House of Lords, but I got to know him a lot better during its sittings. I found him to be an informed, kind and constructive member of the Committee. I thus join in the tributes that have been paid to him for the role that he played in Parliament as a leading member of the Government party in the House of Lords. He made a major contribution to the debates that took place and the production of the Joint Committee’s report.
Perhaps I have established the fact that I do not wish to see any change in the composition of the House of Lords whatsoever. Although we are debating the report of the Joint Committee, which the Government recommend that we welcome with approval, inevitably, as all the speeches made so far have clearly shown, we must refer to what the future of the House of Lords might be. I am sad that the Leader of the House is not in the Chamber. He is working hard in search of consensus on plans for so-called reform of the House of Lords.
A core question at the heart of the debate is that of whether the second Chamber should have an elected element. I fully endorse and support the views expressed by the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar). I also fully support the views expressed by perhaps the most experienced man in the House, the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). He built on the excellent argument put forward by a man who has been a Member for almost four decades: the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who has been a Minister.
The more one examines the prospect of an elected element in the House of Lords, the stranger the whole idea becomes. Perhaps significantly, all the parties whose leaderships have been calling for yet more elections, in this case elections to the House of Lords—although this has not been mentioned in the debate, it has been pointed out by my noble Friend Lord Howe of Aberavon—have been piling up debts because of their inability to finance their existing election campaigns.
Again, no one has yet mentioned the amount that a partially or completely elected House of Lords would cost. We would not only have to pay the elected Members, however many there might be, but have to pay out huge sums to the staff and researchers whom such elected Members would inevitably demand as of right. We know the extent to which expenses and allowances have increased in this House in recent times. If the public were really to debate the matter, I wonder whether they would be happy to pick up a large sum by way of the taxes that they have to pay to meet the cost of Members of the House of Lords. At present, Members of the House of Lords receive only reasonable expenses. I will say one thing about the House of Lords that I would say in front of any audience: by goodness, we get value for money from the upper House.
In an intervention on the right hon. Member for Warley, I sought to point out how much expertise there is in the other House. Perhaps there are a number of people whose presence there might well be questioned, but overwhelmingly the people who sit in the House of Lords provide valuable experience and expertise. They have skills and talents that they bring to the scrutiny of legislation.
I should like to lay a myth to rest: even the Prime Minister has said that it is wrong that an unelected House should legislate. The House of Lords is not a legislature, but an amending and delaying Chamber. When the House of Lords sends amendments back to the Commons, it gives this House, which often passes legislation over-hastily, and in some cases actually unscrutinised, a second opportunity to look again at such legislation. To return to the cost of elections, there will be, perhaps shortly, a proposal that party campaign funds should receive much larger subsidies from hard-pressed taxpayers—that is, if we go ahead with the election of Members to the House of Lords. I wonder what the public would think about that.
I shall quote from an article by Lord Howe of Aberavon, who I mentioned earlier. He is a leading Member of the other place and a past Secretary of State, who held many important offices in Government. He said:
“The removal, in 1999, of all but a handful of hereditaries has established a chamber in which neither major party has more than 30 per cent of the seats; the remainder are Lib Dems or crossbenchers, in much larger number; and the bulk of the membership of the entire House is dominated by diversity, expertise, experience and independence.”
That picks up the remarks that I made a few moments ago.
As a Member of this House, I can say that there have been occasions in recent times—including under a Conservative Government, but more frequently under a Labour Government—when the feelings, aspirations, and expectations of the people of this country have been more accurately and properly represented in debates in the House of Lords than in debates in the House of Commons. That is a sad criticism of this place. As Lord Howe says, in the other House:
“To win a vote you have to secure, by persuasion, a majority of the 40 per cent—rather like addressing a special jury. But the Lords’ role is, in the last resort, advisory and not decisive.”
It is wrong for Liberal Members to talk about democracy, when in fact the other place is an amending and delaying Chamber, a Chamber that gives this House a second chance to consider legislation that was perhaps over-hastily and rather badly drafted when it first went to the other House.
Does the hon. Member not accept that the House of Lords is part of the legislative process? The Members of the House of Lords—Lloyd George once said of them that they were 500 men chosen at random from among the ranks of the unemployed—have a place in the law-making process that no other group of people has.
Indeed, the Lords are not democratically elected, but I do not think there is any harm in that, given the role that they play in our democracy. Like other hon. Members, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) discussed the primacy of the Commons. Final decisions are made in this Chamber—we pick up the tab at the end of the day, and we have the final decision on legislation—but we consult members of the House of Lords who have a particular talent, skill or experience. Without intending any disrespect to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), people who have recently come to serve in the House are career politicians, with little or no experience of anything other than politics. They probably went to college before becoming researchers, then advisers and assistants, and then standing as parliamentary candidates before entering the House. They do not have any experience of the real world, but I am grateful to have such experience, as I had to earn a living in the construction industry and I served as a county councillor. I speak, too, as someone with experience of procedure. I chaired the Procedure Committee for eight years, but I ran out of time which is why—and I am slightly disappointed about this—I am not chairing it today. I was an original member of the Modernisation Committee, and we have accepted many of its proposals to update, modernise and improve the way in which the House operates and deals with legislation.
My hon. Friend’s track record is exemplary, and it speaks for itself. Some people may even think that if the day comes when he chooses no longer to serve as an MP, because he wishes to retire—I do not look forward to that day, and I hope that it is a long way off—he would be a very suitable Member of the other place.
I decline to make any comment or observation on that proposal. The only thing that I will say concerns the role of the House of Lords. From my limited experience of debates in the second Chamber, but encouraged by my experience of the Joint Committee, I believe that it is a very civilised place in which to operate.
I am not making a bid, but I am not not making a bid. However, I greatly admire the other place.
May I respond to a point made by the Father of the House, who mentioned the number of votes that the Government lost in the Lords and the Lords amendments that the Commons were consequently obliged to consider, by giving some statistics? Between 1999 and 2005, the Government suffered almost 300 defeats in the House of Lords, but in four cases out of 10, the Commons, and thus the Government, accepted the result. The right hon. Member for Swansea, West rightly cited a figure of 40 per cent., so is there not a great deal of wisdom, good sense and good work in the House of Lords? Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), for whom I have unlimited admiration and regard, I think it is a good thing that the Government welcome and approve the report by the Joint Committee on Conventions.
As we went through those conventions, there was nothing that led me to believe that at any stage the House of Lords was denying the primacy of the House of Commons or seeking to undermine it. They accepted it and they carried out their work bearing that in mind. The Salisbury-Addison convention was not only honoured to the letter, so to speak, of an unwritten obligation and responsibility, but in many cases applied to non-manifesto legislation that was introduced by the Government of the day.
On reasonable time, another of the conventions, as I said in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the shadow Leader of the House, part of the problem of the Lords taking what might seem an abnormal amount of time to deal with Bills from this place is familiar to me as a member of the Chairmen’s Panel chairing Standing Committees, many of which will be Public Bill Committees from the beginning of this year. I pick up the semi-criticism that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston levelled against me relating to the intervention on my right hon. Friend.
Under successive Governments, whether as a result of guillotines and timetable motions or, under this Government, programming motions, Bills have gone from this House to the House of Lords with large sections of the legislation undebated and undiscussed. Surely that cannot be right. The House of Lords has a constitutional right to take time properly to debate every clause and every subsection of every clause in the Bills that we send through to them.
On the matter of the exchange of amendments between the Houses, affectionately known as ping-pong, again there has been good sense on virtually every occasion that ping-pong has taken place. At the end of the day, the primacy of this House has been upheld.
I cannot entirely stay with the hon. Gentleman’s argument when he says that good sense has prevailed in the process of ping-pong. Having been involved in far too many rounds of ping-pong for my own good in various home affairs and justice Bills, I know that the process is often extremely flawed because there is no recognition of the value of each House’s consideration, no respect for each House’s consideration, and no attempt at reconciliation of views, which ought to be an essential part of the process.
I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman. In the report, we suggested that there should be improvements in the way that the process was dealt with. I entirely share the view that if the House gets an amendment back from the House of Lords, it is important that it knows why the Lords disagreed with the Commons, and similarly, when the Bill goes back to the Lords, it is important that the upper House knows why the Commons disagreed with the Lords amendment.
On secondary legislation, I support my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House. There is a serious problem in the way the House deals with secondary legislation. I know that the right hon. Member for Swansea, West, the Father of the House, who chairs the Liaison Committee with distinction, is more than aware that the procedures in the House to deal with secondary legislation are totally inadequate. I am disappointed that the Procedure Committee’s recommendation that the Lords and Commons should have a Joint Committee to deal with certain matters relating to secondary legislation was not accepted by the Government. I hope that they will reconsider that and recognise that secondary legislation is inadequately dealt with in this House.
On financial privilege, the House of Lords fully appreciates its limited role in respect of finance. Yes, it can deal with matters of administration, but it cannot deal in any way with policy. That is appropriate. This House deals with matters relating to money, finance and taxation. The Committee unanimously concluded that codification, which the Government had wanted—[Interruption.] The Leader of the House is a very gracious, courteous, amusing man who is held in great respect in all parts of the House—
Yes, indeed. But he knows that the Government would have liked the conventions of the House of Lords to be codified—that is, put down in black and white. That would have destroyed the unique relationship that exists between this House and the House of Lords and be greatly to the disadvantage of both Houses.
I greatly admire my hon. Friend’s dedication and expertise in these matters and fully appreciate why he was one of 20 Members who voted against the provision.
I ask the Leader of the House to proceed very carefully. I do not believe that any element of election in the House of Lords will improve the way in which it scrutinises legislation that we put out from this House, and have the final say on in this House, for the benefit of the people of the United Kingdom. I hugely admire the value for money that we get from the House of Lords. I fully support a system that enables people from every walk of life—the services, trade unions, industry, arts, theatre, academia—to go to the House of Lords, where they can use their expertise to help the House of Commons, which, sadly, is becoming a House of professional career politicians, to do the job that we are here to do on behalf of every man, woman and child in this country. The House of Lords plays a valuable role in that—it does not need fixing.
Before I make a few observations on the Joint Committee’s report, let me respond directly to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who echoed much of what other Members have said during the debate. I should like to tell him a little story. A few years ago, my Government brought a measure before us with which I was not wholly happy and for which I did not vote. The hon. Member for Macclesfield nods. Then it went to the Lords, where it was improved and came back in a form with which I was happy. The Government decided to overturn the amendment from the Lords. I received a call from the Chief Whip’s office. A conversation ensued along the following lines: “These people aren’t elected you know.” I replied, “I know that. What’s more, I know that you don’t want them to be elected.” We were then mysteriously cut off.
The point of the story is that we must ensure that the second Chamber performs a function for us that we want it to undertake, and it must have sufficient authority to do that. Then, when I or someone else gets such a call, we can explain not why the House of Lords should get its way—we have the ability to get our way, and that is right—but that the second Chamber must have enough authority to ensure that we take it seriously. Otherwise, why have it?
I caution against the fear that lurks behind many of the contributions today. There is a spectre at the feast—the fear of creating a monster, which will affect the way in which we do business. That spectre was glimpsed in the speech of the hon. Member for Macclesfield and in the fears that have been expressed about election. It was glimpsed in the speech of my parliamentary neighbour the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who spoke of a creature that we cannot control. Does that mean that we want a creature that we can routinely control? Those are false opposites.
We want a creature that does a job for us to enable us to increase the scrutiny that takes place in Parliament. That is what we want the second Chamber to do for us. Then, it becomes a question of how we constitute the second Chamber so that it can do that. There are suggestions for constituting it—including for election—that would make that harder. If we created, through a certain sort of electoral arrangement, a second Chamber that was simply a replica of this Chamber, with the same party disciplines and lack of scrutiny, we would diminish, not improve, effective scrutiny in Parliament as a whole, even though we perhaps believed that election would achieve our goal. If one gets election wrong, it can enfeeble, not strengthen, a second Chamber.
We have to be clear about what we want the institution to do for us and then design it so that it can do that. We could design it in a variety of ways to secure that objective. I caution hon. Members against simply repeating their old favourite mantras about why appointment or election is the only way. Let us be clear about what we want the institution to do in our system and ensure that we get the design features to produce that outcome.
I believe, for what it is worth, that the composition of the upper House should be mixed. The previous Lord Chancellor recently told us that a hybrid House was a constitutional impossibility and I gather that the Prime Minister took a similar view. I am now delighted to learn that the Government appear to believe that a hybrid arrangement is possibly the only or most desirable way forward. We are therefore making some genuine progress. I urge us all to be sure about what we think is the objective of all this—and then to make sure that we get the design features that contribute to it.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the basic principle of the need for a significant proportion—up to 80 per cent.—to be elected, but does he agree that the question of controls, to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) referred, also applies in the House of Commons because of the Whip system? There is a question there that the hon. Gentleman has not quite answered. Another problem is that we do not know what the term “manifesto commitment” means. I hope that I will have the opportunity to go further into that later, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are serious problems in all those areas?
I think that there are problems in all those areas and I shall deal with the point about the manifesto in a few moments, but let me finish off my argument and make sure that it is clear.
If we broadly accept what I have said, it is possible to argue for forms of election and forms of appointment—and for forms of mixtures of appointments—to secure the objective. It is perfectly proper to argue that because the second Chamber is not going to have the final say, it does not need to be elected—or, at least, elected in the way that the first Chamber is elected. However, it still needs to be so constituted that it has sufficient authority and legitimacy to be taken seriously by the House of Commons. Above all else, we have to be able to answer the question that goes to the heart of the matter for us and for the people we represent. In respect of the House of Lords, that question is, “Who are these people?” If we cannot answer that question in a way that makes some sort of democratic sense, we shall not finally be able to resolve the argument that has dogged us for so long.
It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman’s analysis is essentially correct, as we must have a clear idea of what the new Chamber would do—a crucial prerequisite of having an intelligible and intelligent discussion about the form of its composition. I put it to the hon. Gentleman, however, that some of those who conjure up lurid scenarios of constitutionally impossible hybrid forms are people who seem to want to be the authors of self-fulfilling prophecies. In fact, we need some compromise if we are to get an outcome—and they know that as well as he and I do.
I am very sympathetic to that point. The argument is not helped by conjuring up imaginary monsters that are going to have all kinds of catastrophic consequences. Now is the moment for some clear thinking because, after a lot of difficulties along the way, we may finally have reached a moment to begin to get somewhere. We have got some of the arguments out of our system and if we can agree on what we want reform to do—I happen to think that the Leader of the House is probably the person above all others to lead the House on the matter—we may be able to move forward sensibly with second Chamber reform.
I would like to make a few further remarks prompted by the Joint Committee’s report. I join all those who have paid tribute to the Committee for a very impressive piece of work. I thought it had been given an impossible task, but it has performed it heroically. It has juggled constitutional jelly in a way that I would have thought impossible to do in such an elegant form. The task was impossible because the Committee was asked to codify conventions, and the truth is that once conventions are codified, they cease to be conventions. The task was impossible, but within that impossibility the Committee has performed an extremely valuable service.
Someone once famously said that our constitutional arrangements were based on a series of understandings, but the trouble was that no one quite understood what all the understandings were. That is the context in which we operate. That is why codifying these conventions is such an elusive and impossible task. We can, however, try to understand them a bit better, and the report has enabled us to do just that. It has enabled us to understand them on a deeper level than before. However, the Committee was given the task of telling us whether it would be practicable to codify the conventions, and it has come back and said that it would not. Well, we knew that anyway because that is the nature of conventions. If they were codifiable, they would not be conventions.
The Committee has also told us that if there were to be a radical rearrangement of the second Chamber, all bets would be off in relation to these understandings and conventions. However, the Government have said that that is not true. They would like the understandings or conventions to remain the same. Various Members have pointed out the conflict between those two positions. Yes, there is a conflict between them, but it is perfectly possible for the Government to say that they would like the conventions to remain intact and to endure into a newly configured second Chamber. They cannot be certain that that would happen, but that is what they would like. That seems to be the only way of bringing the two positions together.
I want to say a few words of congratulation and praise for a particular aspect of the Joint Committee’s work, and for an aspect of the Government’s response. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) raised a point about manifestos. The report helps us greatly on this matter. All the stuff that is said about manifestos and manifesto Bills is a kind of fiction. It might be a necessary and convenient fiction, but it is a fiction none the less, and we should acknowledge that. The fact is that we do not know why people vote for or against a particular Government.
When we go to a supermarket, we load up our trolleys by taking things from all the different shelves. When we are presented with the various manifestos, it is rather like going to the supermarket and finding that the trolleys have already been filled up for us. We cannot say, “Actually, I’d rather have something from this trolley, and something else from that one.” It does not work like that. It is a take-it-or-leave-it kind of trolley. Yet, after the election, the winning party says, “We have support for everything in our trolley.” The fact is that we have no idea whether people voted for a party because it had adopted a particular policy, or despite the fact that it disliked another. But, in a sense, that does not matter. All that we know is that the Government have a mandate for governing.
That affects our debate about the second Chamber. The Committee has suggested that we describe certain Bills as “Government Bills”, and that is an improvement, but I think that we should call them “mandate Bills”. That would reflect the fact that the Government had secured a mandate to govern and to introduce Bills, which should be respected in the second Chamber and reflected in the way in which it operates. I am pleased to see that proposal because it represents some truth and progress.
I also very much like an aspect of the Government’s response to the report. In fact, I would almost go so far as to say that this whole exercise has been worth while because of one sentence in paragraph 10, which states that
“overall our reforms have been designed to make Parliament as a whole more effective.”
If only we could have got that from the Government when they responded to the Wakeham commission, to the report from our Committee or to various other reports. This is a breakthrough because it represents an understanding that the purpose of all this is to improve the scrutiny of Parliament as a whole.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman, who is making a most interesting and philosophical speech, what he thinks the Government mean by that statement? The proof of the pudding is in the eating, but I am not sure precisely what pudding they are proposing.
I mean what the Leader of the House referred to earlier when he talked about there being no zero-sum games. Up until this point, the belief has always been that if one makes one part of Parliament more effective, it will make another part less effective. That is simply a misunderstanding. The point is to make Parliament as a whole more effective. The Government are now saying that that is the point of what they are doing in relation to this House, which we have not really discussed but which is an important ingredient. If they are serious in wanting to make scrutiny here better, as I hope and believe that they are, that will contribute to that end. If we can secure a second Chamber that is more authoritative and legitimate, that will also contribute to it. Parliament as a whole will then become more effective at scrutiny. I take that to be a huge gain and a kind of breakthrough.
We are making real progress. We want to preserve our tradition of strong, coherent, effective government, but we must match it with a much better system of strong, coherent and effective accountability. We must set up a second Chamber that is conspicuously a House of scrutiny, which does the kind of things at which this place, a House of government, driven by party, is not very good. This is the place that Government drives and where Government and Opposition meet. It is not the place where intensive scrutiny happens. We must strengthen scrutiny in our system by having a second Chamber that does that. If we do that, it ceases to be a threat. It is not a monster, a spectre; it is our ally in holding the Government to account. If we get that right, other things have the chance of falling into place.
I thank the Government for giving me a chance to vote for a measure that has absolutely no consequences. This is a delightful moment, and I take full advantage of it.
I was very impressed by that speech, and agree with just about all of it. I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and his Committee for having brought more light and less heat to this issue, which will be important when we debate it in the spring.
It was a privilege to serve on the Joint Committee. I enjoyed it and learnt a lot. Some interesting submissions were made to it. I concluded pretty early, however, that this issue is a Westminster backwater. It is difficult to think of anything likely to excite less public interest than the codification of conventions.
The story of what has happened since the Committee was set up can be simply told. The Government, armed with a manifesto pledge, wanted to pin down the existing self-imposed restraint on interference in the House of Lords by codifying and freezing it. They probably had a good go at trying to persuade Lord Cunningham, behind the scenes, to assist in that process.
The manifesto called explicitly for a codification of conventions. Unfortunately, however, the Government did not get what they wanted; they failed. No substantive areas for codification were recommended. Codification itself was explicitly rejected. Let me quote a passage, which has not yet been quoted today, from paragraph 279 of the report:
“‘codification’ is unhelpful…Conventions…are unenforceable …codifying conventions is a contradiction in terms.”
Instead, the Committee sensibly abandoned codification and restricted itself to producing various formulae to describe a number of conventions, at paragraph 283—formulae, not codification. As far as I know, that point has so far gone entirely unremarked today.
In the narrow sense that the Government’s intention was to try to codify the existing conventions of the current House, they have clearly failed. They have also failed in a wider sense, in view of the much remarked paragraph 61. As the Committee made clear that its conclusions applied only to the current House, any attempt by the Government to use its work to bind a reformed House has failed. The Government were piqued by that, and produced a four-page response. The Leader of the House dwelt on that extensively today, encouraged to do so by a number of interventions.
Paragraph 9 of the Government’s response contains the key sentence:
“We believe the relationship the Joint Committee describes is one which should apply to any differently composed chamber.”
That must be wrong. Over time, a differently composed Chamber will want to re-examine its own conventions, and may decide to change them. No amount of passing resolutions or codifying conventions can alter that. However, I feel that the Government should not protest too much. They did not really need to include paragraph 9, for two reasons.
First, it would be ludicrous to reconstitute the Cunningham Committee and have a “Cunningham 3” on the first day of a reformed House of Lords. Any sensible person would agree that a passage of time—which should perhaps be measured in Parliaments rather than years—should elapse before that becomes necessary. Secondly, in any case, if we have—as I sincerely hope we will—a more democratic second Chamber, the key powers and restrictions that it tests will be not the conventions but the Parliament Acts.
A reformed House, unlike the current House, may have the courage to use some of the real powers that it already has, particularly its power of delay and its power to reject statutory instruments. It does not use those powers now, for the simple reason that it does not have the moral authority to use them. A reformed House will have enough legitimacy to exercise the powers provided for it under the Parliament Acts, while also being restricted by them. I think it right—here I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Cannock Chase—for the House of Lords to be given that moral authority.
I shall end by developing that point further, but first I want to make one more general point about the House of Lords as currently constituted, which I hope the other place will not consider offensive. I have enormous respect for Members of the House of Lords, a large proportion of whom are loyal and dedicated public servants, but it is an inescapable fact that whenever their Lordships debate themselves, Dr. Pangloss is out and about. He was certainly stalking the other Chamber yesterday. There was a great deal of talk about how effective the second Chamber already is, what a great job it does, and, by implication, how everything was already for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The truth is much more prosaic. We have the illusion of two-Chamber democracy, but we have the reality of something that is little more than unicameralism: a consultative assembly which, when push comes to shove, is usually too scared—even in its somewhat reformed form since 1999, or whenever it was—to take on the Executive and use the powers that it currently possesses.
I also happen to be in favour of a more directly elected House of Lords, but I take exception to my hon. Friend’s implied comparison with the House of Commons, whose whipping arrangements, craven submission to Government and failure to scrutinise huge chunks of vastly important Bills suggest that, while we are perfectly entitled to criticise the other House, we ought also to consider the beam in our own eye.