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House of Lords Reform

Volume 457: debated on Monday 19 February 2007

No. Listen to what is coming. I should like to make a statement on the procedure for the free votes on the composition of the House of Lords.

In my statement on 7 February, I set out the Government's proposal for using an alternative vote ballot to establish the House's preferences on composition. I told the House that I believed that that would be the most effective way of the House being able to come to a decision on the issue, and I outlined the difficulties posed in the use of our traditional Division system in eliciting multiple preferences.

I took the view, and I still do, that the new system had many advantages. [Hon. Members: “Had.”] However, it became evident during the exchanges in the House on my 7 February statement and the next day during business questions that my own enthusiasm for the new system is not as widely shared as I had anticipated—[Laughter.] Indeed, there was vocal opposition to it from many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House.

As Leader of the House, I have listened carefully to those views and reflected on them over the recess. I do not want discussions about procedure to overshadow the important substantive debate that we will have on the future of the House of Lords itself. I think we all agree that we must not let process get in the way of a reform to which all parties are committed.

I therefore wish to tell the House that we shall not proceed with the alternative vote proposal. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] Instead, we shall revert for all votes to the traditional Division system. That will mean that a series of resolutions will be put to the House for separate votes at the close of the promised two-day debate on Lords reform. We will consult the usual channels and interested Members on the exact form of the resolutions and the order in which they should be put. I hope what I have said is for the convenience of the House.

I would like to thank the Leader of the House for giving me significant advance sight of his statement. He has indeed listened to the concerns of the whole House and scrapped his proposal for a preferential ballot. That would have been a dangerous constitutional precedent and I am delighted that he has changed his mind—and that he has done so so quickly. After all, today’s statement comes less than two weeks—in parliamentary terms, only one full parliamentary day—after he first put his proposal to the House.

A preferential ballot would have taken us into murky constitutional waters. It is a fundamental right of Parliament to reject Government proposals should it wish to do so, and the preferential system of voting would have removed that right. The Leader of the House said that he proposed it to break the deadlock, but is not the reason for the deadlock a lack of consensus caused by the Government’s unwillingness to relinquish party political patronage?

The right hon. Gentleman said that we shall revert, for all votes, to the traditional Division system. Will he confirm that that will not mean voting in exhaustive ballots, as happens in the case of the election of the Speaker? Will he confirm that the only debate held will be the substantive two-day debate on the White Paper, and will he undertake to publish the motions that we will vote on in good time, allowing Members a chance to give them full and proper consideration? Today’s statement is a victory for Parliament and for common sense. I thank the Leader of the House for coming to his decision, and for making his statement with such good grace.

I think that I can reciprocate by thanking the right hon. Lady for her generosity. The—[Hon. Members: “He is lost for words!”] I am rarely lost for words. The right hon. Lady mentioned murky constitutional waters. I made the case for the alternative vote, and I thought—and still think—that it had many merits, but it was perfectly obvious that that view was not widely shared. I told the House a week ago on Thursday that I was listening. She asked why I changed my mind so quickly; it became apparent after two days of exchanges in the House that we did not need many more exchanges for it to be perfectly obvious that although we had a perfectly formed aeroplane, it would be denied fuel, and would not fly. I therefore thought that it would be for the convenience of the House if I announced a change at the first possible opportunity.

The right hon. Lady makes a rather silly point about our lack of consensus. The simple fact of the matter is that all parties in both Houses are split two or three ways on the issue, and there is no point pretending otherwise. What we have tried to do, not least in the all-party discussions, in which she played such a constructive part in private, but which she subsequently sought to rubbish, is find a way through. There will be no exhaustive ballot, and the Divisions will be absolutely straightforward, but of course there could be up to eight Divisions.

We will put the motions on the Order Paper as early as possible. As I said, we will consult the usual channels and, subject to those consultations, I would like to put the motions on the Order Paper either late this week or early next week, so that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have a chance to digest them. If there seems to be consensus behind one amendment or another, we may be able to turn them into Government motions, and we may be able to drop some others; we will see. The only debate that we are now planning—it will follow absolutely standard procedure—is the two-day debate, which will take place in due course.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and thank him for his good grace and good sense in making his announcement? He said that his statement was on the procedure for the free votes on the composition of the House of Lords, so will he confirm, in the presence of my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, that all the votes on reform of the House of Lords will be free votes, in accordance with the manifesto on which the Leader of the House and I were elected?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he said at the beginning of his remarks, and the answer to his second question is yes.

We on the Liberal Democrat Benches have always welcomed the constructive approach that the Leader of the House has taken to the reform of the House of Lords, and that is why I regret today’s statement. Will he accept that he was absolutely right in proposing, on 7 February, a way of discerning the clear will of the House, and that his change of position is disappointing, as it responds to those who spoke the loudest, rather than to the majority of the House?

It is easy to understand why progress might be hindered by those in another place, who may be influenced by self-interest, or whose last, flickering radical instincts may be overburdened by the view that the system that appointed persons of their calibre is inevitably a very good system. It is harder to understand why, in this House, where Members of all parties were elected on manifesto commitments to reform, there should be such resistance to common sense, why the Conservatives should simultaneously profess a purpose of ensuring substantial reform and do all in their power to frustrate the means of ensuring it, and why the Jurassic elements on the right hon. Gentleman’s own Benches are so determined to obstruct progress.

In putting forward his alternative proposals, which are notably less flexible and more ponderous, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the suggested sequence does not allow hon. Members a view of the best option to prevent them from voting for the good, thus avoiding the train wreck that he memorably described last time. Lastly, is it not increasingly apparent that what needs reform is not only the House of Lords but antediluvian processes and attitudes in the Commons, too?

I made my view clear about the merits of the proposal, which was the subject of great discussion both in government and in the working party. For the record, the Liberal Democrats always supported the proposal for alternative voting, but the Conservatives were consistent in not doing so. My view about its merits remains the same, but the voices of the people who shout the loudest are an indication of where they stand, and the proposal did not command the support that I thought that it would. It may well have gone through—who knows?—but a huge amount of time and effort would have been expended, which would have been a diversion from reform. I regret that, but, as I told the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), given the scale of opposition, it was important to come to the House as quickly as possible to make clear the system that we would use in future.

On the issue of the order of consideration, I was concerned about the high level of gamesmanship that was evident in early February 2003. Notwithstanding the fact that I have complied with sentiment on both sides, it is inherently difficult to elicit preferences with yes/no votes. However, that is the system that we must use. My own instinct is to keep broadly to the range of options with some additions that were set out on the Order Paper on the last occasion. We should simply start at one end of the spectrum and work to the other, as that will leave the least bad taste in people’s mouths.

May I thank my right hon. Friend? He said that he would listen, and he has done so. In particular, may I congratulate him on not listening to the Liberal Democrats?

May I just say to my right hon. Friend that I am grateful to him, and for the way in which he made his point a week ago last Thursday? I am glad that there is a satisfactory outcome for the House, at least in the interim.

The right hon. Gentleman deployed all the grace and humour that I well remember is necessary when a Minister surrenders and makes a U-turn at the Dispatch Box. As someone who supported the alternative vote system, I accept his decision on the basis that he is trying to achieve the best atmosphere on procedure before we start. However, as he is embarking on a voyage of discovery in which there will be a great deal of cross-party controversy before we conclude will he assure me that he will not retreat at the next round of gunfire? Otherwise, we might as well as not embark on the process at all—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—because we will conclude with an outcome that is satisfactory to some of my colleagues: absolutely no reform at all and another train wreck.

Everything that I ever learned about the ways of government I learned at the feet of a maestro—namely, the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I observed him with great interest and learned a great deal from him when I was in opposition. I have no intention of retreating on the substance, but he knows that sometimes one has to make what one might delicately describe as a tactical retreat. There was no point in proceeding, given the extent of feeling about the fact that it was a new procedure, although I believe that that was one of its merits. It had not been before the Procedure Committee, which was my responsibility, but if there had been a broad consensus it would not have needed to go before it. In the circumstances, however, that alternative procedure was going to arouse great controversy, so we would not have been able to concentrate on the key issue—the way in which we implement the manifestos of all three parties that are committed to reform of the House of Lords.

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on today’s statement, and I thank him for listening to those of us who had grave concerns about his proposals. As he is in a listening mood, has he had the opportunity to reflect on the point that I put to him in business questions last week? Given that the introduction of elected mayors, regional government and devolved assemblies were all preceded by referendums, if the House votes for a substantial elected element in the House of Lords, that ought to be put to the people in a referendum.

I have indeed reflected on that, but I ask my hon. Friend to spare me. It is hard enough getting the House to reach a decision on a preferred alternative for the future of the House of Lords. For myself, I happen to believe that this is the kind of change that is the responsibility of Parliament, and we have adequate procedures. We are, after all, a representative democracy.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the statement and advance notice. He is right that procedure should not overshadow the substantive debate. I am pleased that he has determined quickly the means of voting, and that he will consult on the form of the resolutions and their order. Can the resolutions be published early—weeks, if not days, in advance—to facilitate Back-Bench discussion, in particular, within and between parties before any decision on the order of voting?

I have already said that. My aim is to publish the resolutions at least a week before they are the subject of debate.

I realise that my support last week for his process was not much good to my right hon. Friend—it rarely is for poor old Ministers. As so many Members of the House have historically supported a wholly or predominantly elected second Chamber, would it not make sense to include on the Order Paper a question about whether they supported 60 per cent. or more elected?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend’s support was of the highest possible quality, but he did not necessarily have the battalions with him. On the alternatives, after they have been discussed with the usual channels, we will table the resolutions, all of which it will be possible to vote on, irrespective of the fact that they are incompatible with each other, so that we can have a clear view of the House’s position. One does not negate the other, so to speak, under standard procedure. My instinct is to follow broadly the options that were before the House four years ago, because the House is more attached to precedent than I am, and that may be the safest option. However, it is open to my hon. Friend, as it is to any Member of the House, to table amendments once the motions appear on the Order Paper.

The Leader of the House is to be congratulated on the flexibility that he has shown. May I ask him, however, to show equal flexibility with regard to those parts of his proposals that will reinforce party control in the second Chamber, if implemented? Those of us who support a wholly or largely elected House of Lords—second Chamber—would do so only on the basis that the membership was selected by genuine associations representing distinct constituencies, for example, the old Euro constituencies, and we will not support party lists for large areas.

I note what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says. First, the proposal that the Government are provisionally supporting is in any event not the European electoral list system. It is the semi-open list system, which would provide for a much higher level of discretion by individual voters than the current list system, where people have to vote for a list and take it or leave it. Secondly—and I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman very much for what he said—this will be the first in a series of votes. If the House can come to a consensus around, for example, a predominantly elected Chamber, that in itself would be a huge advance. There will then be a long process of consultation, probably a draft Bill—that is for my colleagues to determine—and then great debate not about detail, but about very important points of principle, including the electoral system. But we will not be able to do any of that if we have not made a clear decision on the issue of principle.

I congratulate the Leader of the House on his gracious capitulation. May I ask him for an assurance that if the House produces the sort of answer that we had last time, he will concentrate on the sort of sensible reforms to the current second Chamber that our group has suggested?

One person’s sensible reform is another’s reaction. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to the two-day debate that we will have in two or three weeks’ time.

My right hon. Friend has spoken about motions that will be tabled at an early stage, and he has talked about amendments. Will one of those motions be on the abolition of the second Chamber?

Does the Leader of the House’s statement mean that the procedural debate will not now take place, and does that mean that we could have a three-day debate on the substantive motion?

The procedural debate will not now take place, but the right hon. Gentleman has been in this place long enough to know that the moment a space appears on the schedule, the Whips snaffle it.

Although I appreciate the necessity of what the Leader of the House has had to do today, I slightly regret the prospect of ending up in the same situation we had three or four years ago, when there was no agreed solution. In view of what the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) said earlier, in addition to having an option to abolish the House of Lords, will there also be an option to bring back the House of Lords as it was pre-1999?

That is not my current intention and it is not in the party manifesto that the hon. Gentleman fought on during the last election. However, if he wants to table that as an amendment, it is a matter for him, and then for the Chair as to whether it is called.

The Leader of the House is one of the very few Government Members who would have had the decency and the grace to come to the House in the way that he has today, and I commend him for that.

In reply to one or two of the supplementary questions put to him, the right hon. Gentleman has talked about the parties being in favour of reform. Would he confirm that the votes are free votes and that, therefore, every Member in this House is as important as any other? Those of us who hold dear both this place and the reforming and amending role of the House of Lords may have views that put us out of line with our party. I hope that he will listen to non-party lines as well as party lines.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said, but I think that any Leader of the House from my party would have done this. I simply say to him—what was his point? [Laughter.] [Hon. Members: “Free votes.”] Oh yes, free votes. I was looking for the holy text. From my recollection, it was the Labour party that was committed to a free vote. I do not believe that the phrase “free vote” appeared in the manifesto of either his party—

For the benefit of the Hansard writers, the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, sotto voce, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not say that when he was a Whip. Be that as it may, I am delighted that along with this small pas de deux, the Conservative party has changed its mind and will participate in the free vote.

When I received my pager message summoning me here, I assumed it would be in order to rough up the Government. Unfortunately, like the Leader of the House, I am rather lost for words in relation to that task. I simply thank him for giving the House such a wonderful demonstration of the skill needed to do a good U-turn, and I ask him to tell the rest of the Cabinet to come and do the same thing, following his example. I also ask him to accept my thanks—and, I suspect, those of everyone else—for giving this House a much needed opportunity to put one over on an over-mighty Government.

I think that the hon. Gentleman’s last point is pushing it. After all, one of the things that persuaded me that this was a wise move, notwithstanding the intrinsic merits of my proposal, was that the issue was a procedural one, and it would be hard to persuade people into the Lobby on the basis that it was a matter of high principle, or one of our aims and objectives.

As so often is the case, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was absolutely right. Given that none of us who cares about the reputation of the House should want a repetition of the fiasco of February 2003, may I tell the Leader of the House that I strongly supported his decision to go for a mechanism that would allow us to break the deadlock, and although I understand the reasons for his dignified and graceful capitulation, I rue it? I think that it is unfortunate. I think that he would have done better to stand firm, resist the pressure and proceed. We would have got to a solution. [Interruption.]

Now I hear the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) say, “Oh, to be a democrat.”

I do not know whether we would have got to the position described by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). It is hard to persuade colleagues who disagree with one’s argument to go into the Lobby on a procedural issue. That is the problem. I have been perfectly frank with the House. I thought that there were many intrinsic merits to my proposal. Others supported it and it was supported by Government colleagues but, in the event, it ran into far greater opposition than I anticipated. It seems to me, for reasons that I have stated, better to make a graceful withdrawal or at least to make a withdrawal—it is a matter for others what adjective they attach to this—but I am grateful to the hon. Member for Buckingham for his support.

As a radical and fervent supporter of the status quo, I congratulate the Leader of the House both on his courage and on demonstrating yet again what a good House of Commons man he is by listening to the opinions of the House. May I put it to him that if he joins those of us who believe in and support the maintenance of the status quo, a glittering future beckons him as a wonderful House of Lords man in the fullness of time?

I would rather like to have moved that the House sat in camera for that little discussion, because my constituents might find out about that faint praise. I understand the support espoused by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) for the status quo. I do not happen to support it. I believe that there ought to be reform and I have come to hold that view very strongly, but I think that there is measured reform of the kind spelled out in the White Paper. I hope—I say this to the hon. Member for Buckingham—that those who wish for reform are, frankly, slightly better organised than they were in February 2003.

Although we are all grateful for the courtesy that the Leader of the House has shown today, he will know that the largest vote against the four proposals for reform of the House of Lords in 2003 was that against the 60 per cent. elected second Chamber. Why, therefore, is he so wedded now to recommending and putting before the House again in the new voting procedures a proposal that is so similar to that?

This is a free vote. My view is not necessarily shared by all my Cabinet colleagues; it is shared by some of them. There are various options and my personal view, as set out in the White Paper, is that a 50:50 House is the most appropriate way forward. Others take a different view. It will be for me to make my own judgment, if the proposal fails to command adequate support in the House, about what option I vote for next.

These procedural matters are the subject of extensive consultation within Government. I promise the hon. Gentleman that.