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Leader of the House

Volume 458: debated on Monday 12 March 2007

The Leader of the House was asked—

House of Lords Reform

18. When he expects to be in a position to bring forward legislation on reform of the House of Lords. (126351)

Before answering this question, I would like to say a few words. As the House will be aware, the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), tendered his resignation to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister earlier today. I would like to place on record my appreciation of the excellent work that my hon. Friend undertook in this post.

To answer the question, following the debates and votes here last Tuesday and Wednesday, the House of Lords is holding its debate on the future composition of the Lords today and tomorrow, with the votes planned for Wednesday. I have said all along that we must wait until the other place has expressed its view. I then intend to reconvene the cross-party group that I chair and obviously to discuss the matter within Government. I will return to the House in due course to make a detailed statement on the way forward.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that response. Notwithstanding his comment about waiting, press reports over the weekend have suggested that, on the back of those votes, he felt an obligation to press ahead with House of Lords reform. Does he believe that the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown) feels a similar obligation?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer voted for an 80 per cent. elected House of Lords, so I think that the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is yes.

Is it not clear that the chances of reaching consensus with the House of Lords on this matter are very remote indeed? Bearing in mind the fact that the 80 per cent. vote was carried by 305 to 267, are the Government sufficiently determined to use the Parliament Act if necessary—and it looks like it will be—to ensure that the will of this House is implemented?

I do not want to anticipate the outcome of what will no doubt be vigorous discussions with the other place, but it certainly does not lie in the hands of any one Member of this Chamber to decide to abrogate the law of the land, and the Parliament Acts are the law of the land.

When the Leader of the House convenes his all-party group, would it not be wise, as well as considering the Lords, to consider cutting the number of people in the House of Commons by about a third—[Interruption.]

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), asks whether the hon. Gentleman is offering. I have a lot of time for the hon. Gentleman, but I honestly think that the cross-party group on the future of the Lords will have enough work to do without doing that as well; that is for another group.

When the Leader of the House reconvenes the all-party group, will he bear in mind the fact that, last week, only 80 Conservatives voted for the party’s official policy, and that 98 voted against it?

That is more a matter for the Leader of the Opposition to bear in mind than for me. That was the hon. Gentleman’s party’s manifesto commitment. If he is saying that the Conservatives’ manifesto commitments cannot be trusted, of course I agree with that proposition.

In advance of the legislation referred to in the question, and against the background of last week’s vote, would it not be sensible if the Prime Minister made no more political appointments to the upper House?

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The present arrangements will have to continue unless and until we have a reformed Chamber; I would have thought that that was a statement of the blindingly obvious.

May I suggest that the Leader of the House consult as widely as possible on this matter? There are divided views within parties and across the Chamber, and this is not a matter on which the Front Bench can compel its Back Benchers to vote.

What the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just said is the self-evident truth, and I agree with his suggestion of consulting as widely as possible. I do not agree, however, that convening the cross-party group is incompatible with wider consultation.

Did the Leader of the House interpret the vote for a 100 per cent. elected House of Lords as a mandate—indeed, an instruction—to abolish the archaic system whereby Church of England bishops have ex officio seats in the legislature?

I did not interpret the vote in any way; I simply read the words on the Order Paper. It was a vote, in the opinion of the House, for a 100 per cent. elected Chamber.

May I assure the Leader of the House that the Conservatives are also sorry not to see the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths) in his place alongside him any longer? On the reform of the upper House, the right hon. Gentleman listened to the views of this House about his proposed preferential ballot system. He also listened to the views of the House when it rejected his White Paper and voted for a more democratic upper House. As he looks towards legislation, will he now listen to the views expressed by hon. Members across the House about the list system of proportional representation that he is proposing for the elections to the upper House?

My proposal was for 50 per cent. elected, but it was made clear that that was not the Government’s proposition. The right hon. Lady was consulted extensively on our White Paper, and she knows that it contains a great deal that has all-party agreement. I said last week that we will listen to proposals for altering the electoral system, and it is important that the House move on that by consensus as far as possible. Before she tries to makes a party point about the semi-open list, let me say that that proposal originated from the Wakeham royal commission on which several of her distinguished colleagues and former Conservative Cabinet Ministers sat, along with Liberal and Labour Members.

I also extend my best wishes to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths). I hope that nothing that any of us said on Thursday precipitated his decision.

In the euphoria that followed the surge of radicalism last Wednesday, the Leader of the House said two things: first; that he would reconvene the all-party group; and secondly, that he could not pre-empt the Queen’s Speech by announcing legislation. Irrespective of what another place says, will he ensure that the cross-party group is convened, and that it is convened before Easter? Will he also make it clear that legislation will follow in the next Session of Parliament?

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point: would that the decision of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South were related to something that was said in the House last Tuesday and Wednesday! On his second point, I cannot anticipate the Queen’s Speech. As for a meeting of the cross-party group, we will get it together as quickly as possible, although I cannot say for sure that it will meet before Easter; if we can have a meeting, we will. My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor mentioned this afternoon, as I did last Wednesday, the possibility of producing a draft Bill, but that must be discussed by the cross-party group.

Programming of Legislation

Both the Modernisation and Procedure Committees considered that subject towards the end of the previous Parliament. Following their reports, the House approved changes to the relevant Orders—including making them into permanent Standing Orders—in October 2004. The Modernisation Committee also touched on the subject in its report last year on the legislative process. The Government have no current plans to conduct a further review of the operation of programming or to ask the Modernisation Committee to conduct such a review.

Does the Leader of the House accept that the programming procedure is thoroughly unsatisfactory to both sides of the House? It does not allow Back Benchers on either side of the House to participate properly in many important debates. Will he consider that matter again? Can I make a plea to the usual channels—of which I have never been part—to give more authority back to the Back Benches? In that regard, will the Leader of the House please consider setting up a business committee duly representative of the Back Benches?

There is a wider issue about Back Benchers’ involvement in the business of the House. As a senior member of the Modernisation Committee, the hon. Gentleman knows that it is currently considering the use of non-legislative time and ways in which the role of the Back Bencher can be strengthened. The programming arrangements are not wholly unsatisfactory; they are a great deal better than those to which he and I were used when we first came into the House, when there was no programming and a ritual of Opposition Members talking Committees into the night, then going for guillotining and not considering Bills in any detail. We were always ready to consider proposals for improving arrangements, and we did so in the summer of 2004. I am not certain that his specific proposal, made when he was Chairman of the Procedure Committee, of a 48-hour gap between Second Reading and agreement on the Sub-Programming Committee, would produce any benefits. That is the issue—nothing else—between us.