[Relevant documents: Report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, Session 2007-08, HC 551-I and–II, and the Government response, Cm 7690. Tenth Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2007-08, on Constitutional Renewal: Draft Bill and White Paper, HC 499, and the Government response, Cm 7688. Fourth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on Legislative Scrutiny: Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill; Video Recordings Bill, HC 249.]
[4th Allocated Day]
Further considered in Committee
[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]
Ending of by-elections for hereditary peers
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
This provision will remove by-elections for hereditary peers from the current arrangements for membership of the House of Lords.
Before I discuss the clause, it may be helpful, with your indulgence, Sir Alan, if I explain that the programme motion as it appeared on the Order Paper until this morning was deemed to be debatable. I understand that an error was made in the Table Office. The Government had no knowledge of that, but having seen that the motion was debatable, we assumed that it was indeed debatable and were prepared for it to be debated. I think the House knows very well that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), and I are always happy to debate.
I ought to say that this is the only occasion during a long period as a Member of the House that I have ever known an error to be made by the Table Office. It is just one of those things. Also, if I may say so, the Standing Order was passed in 1998 and confirmed in 2004. There is a separate debate to be had—it is open to the House to have it—about how and whether the system of programming should be changed.
If I may, I will leave it there because—
You said you wanted to debate it!
If I may—
Order. I was indulgent to the Secretary of State because I thought the matter had been dealt with previously on a point of order in the House. I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will not press the matter too far.
Of course not, Sir Alan. I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for giving way, and I accept entirely that this was a very rare error in the printed papers, but I also agree with him entirely that we should consider the matter, because it is anomalous that the House cannot decide its own programmes and order of business. We need to address that as a matter of urgency.
I hope that the Chairman of the Procedure Committee will take note of this exchange.
Thank you, Sir Alan. As I have said, the clause will end by-elections for hereditary peers. As existing hereditary peers pass away, they will not be replaced.
This is the background to the clause. Following the 1997 manifesto commitment, it was the Government’s intention to end the hereditary principle altogether. Legislation was brought before Parliament in the 1998-99 Session. In the event, and following great debates in the other place, a deal was struck, and it was originally agreed that 90 hereditaries, who in turn would be elected by their own peers, would continue to be able to sit as Members of the House of Lords. It was also agreed that the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain would continue to sit ex officio, and nothing in the provisions—or, I may say, any other provisions—is about changing that. It is not an issue today.
Subsequently, during the debates, the provisions to continue with 90 hereditary peers were further amended so as to provide for those by-elections—the subject of the clause. It is well known, and I am sure that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) will wish to remind us, that Lord Irvine said that this was an agreement and that it was for a transitional period to the next stage of reform. I paraphrase, but I think entirely accurately.
One issue that may arise is whether we are through that transitional period.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Allow me to continue before I get on to the main—[Interruption.] No.
I wish to correct the noble Lord Steel, who was in that House at the time, I think, and who has taken a great interest in the matter. In the debates on his Bill, which contained provisions almost identical to these, he said:
“It was clearly indicated at that time that this”—
the by-elections and the position with regard to hereditaries—
“was a temporary measure to last perhaps a couple of years. We are nearing the 10th anniversary of that temporary measure.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 February 2009; Vol. 708, c. 432.]
He went on to make a joke about celebrating 100 years of Asquith’s commitment to remove the hereditaries.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He may agree with me that whatever Lord Steel may say, the commitment that was given by Lord Irvine in clear and unequivocal terms—I shall quote only a small part of it—was that “the 10 per cent.”, namely the remaining elected hereditaries,
“will go only when stage two has taken place. So it is a guarantee that it will take place.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 March 1999; Vol. 599, c. 207.]
The right hon. Gentleman may agree that that and Lord Steel’s comments are on two completely different topics. The temporary arrangement may have lasted a long time, but why should Lord Irvine’s guarantee not remain good, seeing that stage 2 has not yet occurred?
I hope that I can convince the hon. and learned Gentleman why. We are not proposing in the Bill to end the right of the existing, albeit elected, hereditaries to sit in the Chamber. What we are proposing is in respect of by-elections. Some might argue that, after 10 years, we are very close to the second stage. I do not particularly take that point, because I want to come on to whether, 10 years on, it is sensible or acceptable in a modern democracy to continue with an utterly risible arrangement for election of hereditary peers with tiny constituencies.
I will also deal with the issue of party balance. I want to make it clear that, as those from other parties who have served with me on the cross-party working groups on the House of Lords will confirm, it is no part of the Government’s intention to use this provision to worst the Conservative party, which has the largest number of hereditary peers, or to shift the long-standing and explicit agreement that there should be a cross-party balance in the House of Lords.
A moment ago the Secretary of State described the by-elections arrangement as absurd. Does he not have even a twinge of embarrassment that his Government are responsible for devising it and then ensuring that it secured a majority in the House?
I do not think that even Lord Irvine would claim authorship of the arrangement, which was part of a deal that was struck. He agreed it—I remember it coming to Cabinet. In the end, we confirmed it in order to get the Bill through, but if the hon. Gentleman’s only point is whether that was Government policy, he often enough suggests that it is time to revise Government policy. My suggestion is that, given the practice that has followed with these by-elections, it certainly is. I shall explain that in a moment.
The Secretary of State has described the arrangement as utterly risible. Surely the whole point of creating, in his words, “an utterly risible arrangement” was that it would put pressure on future Governments to introduce fundamental reform. Once it is removed, there will be no pressure whatsoever. We will live with an appointed Chamber, perhaps for ever.
So that we understand what the Conservative party is seeking to defend, it is seeking to defend by-elections. There have been 10 in the past eight years, so we are not undertaking a huge reform. In any event, the other 90 hereditaries will remain until they pass away, and some of them are quite youthful, so it will take quite a long time before the grim reaper reduces the number or eliminates hereditaries altogether. Let us be clear about that.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. What has happened in the intervening 10 years? We set up a royal commission under the noble Lord Wakeham, which did great work but, itself, was relatively divided. My late friend, the former Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House, Robin Cook, as Leader of the House in February 2003 organised a debate and a series of votes on the future composition of the House of Lords, and those who were Members at the time will recall that every single proposition was defeated.
When I went on the customary transition from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the House, a well trodden path, I was given by Tony Blair—as the then Prime Minister generously said to me—not one but two hospital passes in addition to the normal responsibilities: one was party funding and the other was House of Lords reform. Anyway, we got the cross-party group going, and one Green Paper was published. That culminated in our debates of March 2007, when for the first time ever the Commons, on free votes, came to some very clear decisions. It rejected an all-appointed second Chamber; it rejected any mixed proportion of appointed and elected peers, up to but excluding 80 per cent.; and it voted in favour, first, of an 80 per cent.-elected Chamber and then, by a bigger majority, in favour of a 100 per cent.-elected Chamber, which has been accepted as the policy of this House.
I reconvened the working party, and we produced in July 2008 a further White Paper, which drew on a great deal of work, including that of the Wakeham commission, about how Members would be elected, the terms that they would serve and so on. Quite shortly, I intend to publish what will amount to the basic contents of a Bill fully to reform the House of Lords. Those contents are currently being drafted, so a huge amount of work is being done on the matter.
I am very interested in what the right hon. Gentleman has just said. I understand that he has to tread carefully to preserve a consensus on constitutional reform, but I am surprised that he is willing to wait for the transitional arrangements to continue, effectively, until the last hereditary peer dies. Does that mean that the Government’s policy is basically to shift responsibility for the transitional period from the Ministry of Justice to the grim reaper?
No. I understand why my words may have been interpreted in that way, but for the avoidance of doubt the hereditary peers would go when the new arrangements come in. Meanwhile, there is a glaring anomaly that we need to deal with.
Ending the membership of 90 per cent. of hereditary peers in the House of Lords is a remarkable achievement that no other radical Government have ever succeeded in doing, as we know, and the Government should accept the praise for what has been achieved. Leaving 10 per cent. of hereditary peers—92 in effect—in the House of Lords, sitting there only because they inherited their title, one of which goes back as I reminded the House two years ago, to the 13th century, however, is unfortunate and is clearly an anomaly. Many of us had hoped that the situation would not continue for so long.
I agree, and I thank my hon. Friend for his compliments, because he was a Member between 1966 and 1970, when Richard Crossman, the then Leader of the House, attempted a major reform of the House of Lords. That was scuppered by a cross-party alliance between Enoch Powell, who was then a Conservative, and Michael Foot. That proposed reform was not very good; the one before us is much better.
I shall give way to the two right hon. Gentlemen, but I want to make some progress before I do so—if they can hold themselves.
We suggest that the arrangements for these by-elections, and their results, are even less satisfactory than accepting the continuance of the existing 90 hereditaries. That is because those 90 could claim, and have claimed—I do not necessarily endorse this—some legitimacy because they were sitting there before and they were elected at the time as part of the deal. Ten years on, we have a ridiculous arrangement. It is worth taking the House through the circumstances of the 10 by-elections that have taken place. Of the two that involved the whole House, the first had 423 electors and the other had 348 electors. Since then, in all the rest, the total number of electors has been fewer than 50. The Conservatives usually manage about 50 electors, but they also usually manage between 30 and 45 candidates, which is absurd enough. [Interruption.] I am glad that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) recognises how absurd this is, given a moment’s examination.
When we come to the position of the Liberal Democrat party and the Labour party, it is utterly absurd that in the first election of a Labour peer following the death of Lord Milner there were 11 candidates, but—guess what?—only three electors. That makes Old Sarum appear to be a remarkably democratic arrangement. In the case of the Liberal Democrats in 2005, there were three candidates and only four electors. That is slightly better—30 per cent. better—than the Labour party could manage in terms of electors. However, is anyone seriously going to go out and argue on the stand publicly—
That was the point of it.
No, that was not the point of it—the point was that it was necessary to get this through with some degree of consensus, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who has now left his seat, has said; that is why people swallowed hard and accepted it. However, 10 years on, as the laughter from the Opposition Benches, including the Conservative Benches, acknowledges, this situation cannot continue.
Does not this underline the fact that if we are to have reform, we should have wholesale reform, which is what we were presented with? I happen to be opposed to that, but that does not matter two hoots—what matters is that we take this matter seriously. It does not matter what the Justice Secretary says—everybody outside knows that this is a tiny bit of reform that is party politically driven and that he is trying to explain away. Why does he not have the honesty to come forward with a proper reform, so that we can vote on it properly?
I am sorry, but it is not party politically driven. I am astonished that the Conservatives are apparently working themselves up to oppose something that, judging by their facial expressions, no one believes in any sense to be the case. As a Conservative, the right hon. Gentleman, of all people, should recognise that we do not necessarily have to do everything all at once. As regards constitutional reform, I have never argued that we should do everything all at once. This is a reform that we can undertake now. It is in the interests of the Conservatives to accept this—it is not remotely party political—and they will get themselves into a ridiculous position if they do not. Then we will have made small progress towards the ultimate goal of full reform, to which we and the Liberal Democrats are completely committed, not only in principle but as a priority. I very much hope to hear from the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) that he is committed to that, too.
We have had 12 years of a Labour Government with a big majority, but there has been no phase 2, because it has been too difficult. When does the Secretary of State believe there could conceivably be a phase 2, and what political circumstances would bring it about?
My belief is that there will be a phase 2 if we are re-elected at the next election, and there ought to be a phase 2 if any other party is. All three parties are signed up to the detailed proposals that were encapsulated in the White Paper that I published in the summer of 2008. There is some detail to which they are not signed up, as is made clear in the White Paper, but the basic principle of an 80 per cent. or 100 per cent. elected Chamber is in place, as is the detail of how it can be achieved. The relevant clauses, which are quite complicated, will be published. By the time of the election, the matter will have been the subject of four years of active work by all parties, officials and lawyers.
Some of us take a slightly different view. The Secretary of State has said that it was absolutely absurd to have hereditary peers, but to some of us it is absolutely absurd to have appointed peers as legislators.
The difference is that life peers are at least appointed on their own merit. Since the hon. Gentleman mentions the matter, let me deal with the provenance of some of the people who have been “elected” as hereditary peers in by-elections. Take, for example, the Earl of Stair. His is a Scottish peerage created in 1703 for the lawyer and statesman John Dalrymple, who was Secretary of State for Scotland until he was forced to resign for his responsibility for the massacre of Glencoe. That was how he got in the House of Lords, and it is only because of what his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather did at the beginning of the 18th century that the current Earl could even stand as a candidate. Or take the original Earl of Glasgow, who was one of the commissioners who negotiated the treaty of Union. Everybody who negotiated the treaty benefited directly in some form or another, and in his case he was given a peerage.
Those are two Scotsmen.
That is not my objection in the least, and I am glad that they are Scotsmen. My objection is because life peers at least have to show some merit, whether or not they are party appointees. [Interruption.] Yes they do. They have to show more merit now, because of the House of Lords Appointments Commission.
I want to make some progress, but I will give way to the two hon. Members who are standing, beginning with the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield.
The Secretary of State asked a moment ago, rhetorically, whether we really object to this measure. He noted that we have treated it with some humour, and indeed it is a humorous topic in many ways. However, why should we not hold the Government to their promise? He cannot get away from the fact that the promise that was made in 1999 was exactly that, and he is about to break it. What possible justification is there for doing that?
I am sorry, I do not accept that for a moment. We can argue about how long the transitional period should be, but no one anticipated 10 or 11 years ago that we would be in this position. The hon. and learned Gentleman, who believes in the sovereignty of Parliament, should be the last person to claim that one Parliament should be able to bind its successors.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No; the hon. and learned Gentleman asked me a question, and I am giving him an answer.
Moreover, it must be true—the noble Lord Steel, who as far as I know believes in an appointed Chamber, has made the same point—that the principal arrangement in respect of which the original commitment was given concerned the 90 hereditary peers who were retained. The by-elections came later. Yes, we confirmed them, but the original deal was in respect of those 90 peers. Now we have the completely absurd, risible system of by-elections, which cannot continue.
I give way to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), as I said I would, and then I will make some progress.
The Lord Chancellor wishes to belittle the Earl of Stair and the Earl of Glasgow, but doubtless if they had been large-scale donors to the Labour party, they would have been welcomed as life peers for the remainder of their days.
The Conservatives would be quite happy to go along with clause 29, if the Lord Chancellor had been true to his word. We made it clear in a Division in the House almost three years ago that we wanted to see how phase 2 would pan out, with an 80 or 100 per cent. elected House. Had he introduced that at the same time as the clause, we would have had no objection whatever, but our objection is the only safeguard to ensure that there is going to be a proper phase 2. Without it, we could wait 100 years, as he and Asquith have pointed out, to get rid of the remaining hereditaries. The risk is that if we allow clause 29 to go through, within 30 or 40 years, there will be no further reform, and the Government will have got their way.
That is a kind of Trotskyist argument, if I may say so. The Trotskyists used to argue that running sores should be kept running to raise consciousness, and so hasten the revolution. My view is very different. I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at clause 29. All he would see is a measure for the abolition of the by-elections. There have been only 10 since the system was established, but they have become absurd.
I will give way in one second, but I want to make progress.
The first point raised by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was not worthy of him. I have criticised the system by which a Liberal Democrat and a Labour peer were elected. We do not like the arrangements. I do not know whether any of those people were donors to any party, but I am sure they are all worthy. However, it would be far better—this is my last point before I listen to the debate—
Will the Justice Secretary give way?
Of course I am going to give way—I always give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman—but I just want to finish my sentence. I have not got to my last point, which is an explanation of why the measure is not to worst the Conservative party.
Before I ask my question may I just declare an interest? I am an hereditary peer and thus have a contingent interest in all this—[Laughter.]
I rise not only to support what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has said, but to add this gloss: we are talking about not only a promise, but part of a deal—the Justice Secretary has conceded that. Had that deal and promise not been made, the previous measure would not have got through. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman is not only breaking a promise, but abrogating a deal that gave him a positive benefit, namely the measure that he would otherwise not have had.
First, that might have been a reasonable point if we were proposing to abolish all 90 hereditaries without putting anything else in place, but we are not. Secondly, when the noble Lord Irvine had to accept the amendment to the original proposal, which came later—the original deal was struck in May, but the amendment was made in October—he said:
“The transitional House will be of short duration, but let us proceed on the hypothetical assumptions that it might last for more than two or three years”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 October 1999; Vol. 606, c. 169.]
and so on. They were not talking about a whole decade and no one anticipated that.
I have already given way to the hon. and learned Gentleman and he can make his own points in his own way in a moment. I hope that I have spelled out just how ridiculous the current arrangement is.
My last point is whether any part of the measure is aimed surreptitiously at shifting the party balance against the Conservative party by the back door—it is a matter of record that there are very many more Conservative hereditary peers than Liberal Democrat or Labour hereditaries. The answer to that question is no. We have long been committed to the principle that no single party should have an overall majority in the Lords and that there should be broad parity between the two main parties, which there is. We are not going to undermine that principle.
The death of an hereditary peer can, like the death of a life peer, be taken into account in nominations of new peers, in exactly the same way as if the reduction of a party’s representation in the House had been caused by the death of a life peer. I am afraid that I have not met the Earl of Stair, but if he is a man of great merit and a Conservative—[Interruption.] He is a Cross Bencher, so let us take the Earl of Cathcart, whose title is of even greater original antiquity. If he is of great merit and commends himself to the leader of the Conservative party, there is no reason why he should not be at the top of the list for nomination by the party as life peer, subject to consideration by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. That is a sensible way to approach this issue. In that case, the leader of a political party—or HOLAC in the case of Cross Benchers—is measuring the relative merits of the candidates against others who have not been lucky enough to be born the son of a hereditary peer.
When the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) leaves this place, he will no doubt add himself to the electorate of the Conservative peers, and he may seek election if there is a by-election and if this provision is not accepted. On the other hand—I do not wish to damage his chances—he is of sufficient skill, experience and perspicacity to recommend himself to the leader of the Conservative party for nomination as a life peer, which would be far better. [Interruption.] It is not patronage. That would be better in terms of his legitimacy, as well as in terms of the legitimacy of an appointed House.
I cannot believe what I am hearing. The logic of what the Secretary of State says is that we should replace hereditary peers with appointed peers. Some of us think that we should get rid of the whole shooting match, because a revising Chamber is unnecessary. Surely the appointment process is just as besmirched as the idea of hereditary peers. Can he tell us how many Labour peers have been appointed because they gave considerable amounts of money to the Labour party?
The hon. Gentleman knows that we want to move to a wholly or mainly elected Chamber, and that will be for a future House of Commons to decide. I agree with his basic point that an appointed Chamber is not as good as an elected Chamber, but a Chamber appointed on the merits of the people who sit there—whether he happens to agree with them or not—is far better than a Chamber constituted on the merits of its members’ long-dead ancestors, the basis that the Conservatives are now trying to defend.
This is a modest reform. My answer to those who have suggested that we should wait for holus-bolus reform is that this is a running sore and we should do something about it. Because we cannot do everything now does not mean that we should not do anything. I am strongly persuaded by the case that Lord Steele originally made: this is a matter that we can deal with, and we should do so now.
There is one thing on which I have no difficulty agreeing with the Secretary of State, and that is that the arrangements for the election of hereditary peers are a peculiar anomaly. I do not suppose that in 1997, when new Labour was elected to power, anyone could have dreamt that we would end up with such a peculiar arrangement. Whether it is, as the Secretary of State says, a risible arrangement is more questionable. In fact, as he acknowledged, on the face of it these elected peers, from all parties and as Cross Benchers, do remarkably good work in the House of Lords. They do such good work that the principle that they should stay there has been accepted, even if new ones should not be added. I would not, therefore, describe it as risible, although it is certainly peculiar and—I might say—does not sound very new Labour.
As the Secretary of State will recollect, the new Labour manifesto said:
“As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative.”
That appeared in that wonderful document called “New Labour: because Britain deserves better”.
The fact is that, as was rightly pointed out by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), when the matter came to be debated in this House and the other place, the Government decided that they could not get their business through and did not wish to push it through under the Parliament Act. They therefore negotiated, in the other place, and came to a deal. I must say that the deal is very un-new Labour and is redolent with terminology that takes one straight back to the 19th century. All the tribute for that goes of course to Lord Irvine, who is a slightly 19th century figure.
My right hon. and learned Friend is correct, because the derivation of the idea is almost certainly the fact that—this has not been raised—at one time not all Scottish peers had the right to sit in this place, and instead elected a group of their number to do so.
And Irish peers.
Irish peers, too. I suspect that that is where Lord Irvine got his idea from, and doubtless Lord Cranborne, with his family’s long record of service to the country, had the same idea.
It is worth considering for one moment what Lord Irvine said at the end of that process. I only quoted a small bit of it to the Lord Chancellor, but I think that these words should be engraved above the chair in the office where he sits, and probably over his bed:
“The amendment reflects a compromise negotiated between Privy Councillors on Privy Council terms and binding in honour on all those who have come to give it their assent. Like all compromises it does not give complete satisfaction to anyone. That is the nature of compromise… a compromise in these terms would guarantee that stage two would take place, because the Government with their great popular majority and their manifesto pledge would not tolerate 10 per cent. of the hereditary peerage remaining for long. But the 10 per cent. will go only when stage two has taken place. So it is a guarantee that it will take place.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 March 1999; Vol. 599, c. 207.]
The Secretary of State tells us that times have moved on. He also pointed out—I do not disagree with this—that this Parliament is sovereign and that if it decides to change its mind, it can. I am not actually very concerned about what this Parliament does; I am concerned about what he does. He was one of the Privy Councillors who negotiated the deal on Privy Council terms, and so was the Prime Minister, because they were all members of the Cabinet that ratified Lord Irvine’s solemn and binding pledge. So why should we today release him from that obligation, particularly given that he has not made any credible case for getting rid of these elected hereditaries, who seem on the evidence to be carrying out a perfectly reasonable job in frankly no more anomalous a way than all the appointees who are also present in the upper House?
In truth, there is no justification for such action, apart, I suppose, from a rather new Labour desire to renege on a past promise. If that is the philosophical basis on which the Secretary of State wishes to argue this case, it would be sensible if he were to stand up and acknowledge it now, and at least then we would know where we all stand. As it happens, I think that he is bound by that promise in honour, and I do not see why I should facilitate him dishonouring his own promise, particularly given that there is no rational reason for doing so.
In addition to that, we have to face up to some realities. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State, and in particular to his acknowledgment that there needed to be Conservative peers in the other place and that there was a Government commitment to having a balance of appointed peers between the parties, until that day when we reach a final resolution on a second stage of reform. However, as he knows, the reality is that the composition of the upper House has increasing elements of imbalance, some of which are dictated by age and the fact that peers of certain parties are much older than those of other parties, and by the fact that the total number of Labour peers appointed by Mr. Blair during his period in office as Prime minister was 163. In contrast, 45 Conservatives were appointed in that period. Although there were certainly imbalances at the beginning of that period, they were largely removed when most of the hereditaries went.
Since the present Prime Minister came to office, we have had four Conservative peers appointed in the other place, nine Labour peers, two Liberal peers and 11 Cross Benchers. The truth—I think that the Secretary of State will acknowledge this—is that while we wait for the final stage of reform to take place, it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide the necessary scrutiny of Government legislation in the other place. From our point of view, the continuing election of the hereditaries remains a key way of ensuring that working peers can get in and be maintained, despite the fact that the Prime Minister has shown such a curmudgeonly approach to facilitating proper scrutiny.
The hon. and learned Gentleman is arguing that clause 29 should not stand part of the Bill because the second-stage reform has not taken place. That would be a more credible argument if I felt that his party were champing at the bit to bring forward a second-stage reform, so let me simply ask him this. What commitment will the Conservative manifesto in this year’s general election make to bringing through a wholly or largely elected second Chamber?
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said repeatedly that the Conservative party’s position is that it wishes to have a largely elected second Chamber. As the hon. Gentleman will know, there were votes on that in the House, when there appeared to be a majority in favour of a largely elected second Chamber. That is where we stand.
Will my hon. and learned Friend give way?
In just a moment.
However, the Government have at no stage said that they are about to implement a final stage of reform. If they felt that having a largely elected second Chamber was impossible, they could decide that, as a final stage of reform, they would have a largely appointed second Chamber, but we simply do not have anything.
I forgive him, but the hon. and learned Gentleman was evidently not listening to what I was saying. We are indeed about to move to that final stage, and we are about to publish the draft clauses for that. We have had three and a half years of intensive cross-party discussions, and we have taken them to the next stage.
You have had 11 years.
The hon. Lady knows very well that for six and a half of those 11 years, there was no agreement either within the parties or between them, and things have to be done on a cross-party basis. There is now that agreement. To pick up the question that my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) asked, I want to know whether, subject to going through the small print of those clauses, the Conservative party will say that, whatever position the Conservatives are in after the election, they will give those proposals the same enthusiastic welcome that this side will give and which I suspect—although they know how to speak for themselves—the Liberal Democrats will give as well.
If I may say so, I am not quite sure what proposals I am supposed to give an enthusiastic welcome to. Let me remind the Secretary of State that last year the Government published another document—previously we had “Britain deserves better”, whereas this one, published on 29 June 2009, was called “Building Britain’s Future”. Let us remind ourselves of what it says:
“We have already pursued a radical programme of reform in the House of Lords, including reducing the number of hereditary peers who sit in the House from about 750 to 92 today.”
That is not so radical, we now discover: apparently it is an anomaly, but I leave that one aside. The document continues:
“But fairness and the democratic principle require that the people’s representatives are chosen by the people. The Government plans to legislate in the 2009-10 session for the next steps on House of Lords Reform by completing the process of removing the hereditary principle from the second chamber. And, building on the Government’s White Paper published last July, which committed us to an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected House of Lords—reflecting the will of the Commons expressed in a free vote in 2007—we will pursue the final phase of Lords reform by bringing forward a draft Bill for a smaller and democratically constituted second chamber.”
The hon. and learned Gentleman’s position on these matters is usually so clear, but I would be grateful if he could bring a little more clarity to his own position on reform of the House of Lords. He has told us which proposals he would not give an enthusiastic welcome to. In an attempt to get an answer to the question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), I should like to ask him to which proposals on House of Lords reform he would give such a welcome.
The Leader of the Opposition has indicated that he supports a largely elected second Chamber, and wishes to see that implemented.
I put it to the Lord Chancellor that the whole purpose of this risible arrangement was to force reform. Does my hon. and learned Friend recognise that there are many Conservative Members who believe that what we have is a perfectly satisfactory arrangement, and that we do not want an elected second Chamber full of pitiful clones? Will he confirm that, when, as we all hope, we get into power, there will be a free vote on this matter?
I am afraid that I cannot confirm anything of the kind to my hon. Friend. I acknowledge that there is a wide spread of views on this matter, and it is certainly clear from the votes that took place in the upper House that many people there want a largely or entirely appointed second Chamber. If the Government put in place an entirely appointed second Chamber, with a structure in place for its long-term management, they could claim that as a proper second stage. The point at issue this afternoon is that we do not have a second stage at all. We are being asked to vote on a series of piecemeal measures that amount to little more than gimmickry, because they will have absolutely no impact on the way in which the upper House operates.
I do not feel that we have quite got to the bottom of the Opposition’s position. When the Leader of the Opposition went to talk to the Conservative peers some time ago, he was widely reported—including by those who were there—as having said that this was a third-term issue for the Conservative party. Will the hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that that is indeed the Leader of the Opposition’s position?
I think that I have made the position extremely plain. The plain words of the Leader of the Opposition are that he believes that there has to be reform of the upper House, and that it should be a largely elected second Chamber. I should like gently to point out, however, that we are debating the Government’s proposals, not our proposals. If we could have an election tomorrow, we could then go off and discuss all these matters. At the moment—prior to the election—the Government are asking us to agree to further piecemeal reform which amounts to little more than a piece of gimmickry and, furthermore—I hope that I use these words advisedly—in the light of Lord Irvine’s comments, dishonours them. It is a flagrant breach of trust in regard to what they have collectively said.
Did my hon. and learned Friend know that, when I asked the Lord Chancellor to give us a timetable for honouring his promise, there was no such timetable and, clearly, no Government intention to bring forward reform because they know that it would be logjammed in the Lords?
Yes, I did know that. For those reasons, the Government appear to be trying to find a gimmick with which to divert attention from their failure to implement their own policy pledges or to come up with any alternative if their policy pledges are incapable of being implemented.
In answer to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), the hon. and learned Gentleman said that he would not guarantee a free vote for Conservative Members on a second stage of reform to create a wholly or largely elected second Chamber. Can he give me an assurance that there would be a whipped vote on that issue in both Houses of Parliament in the first term in which a Conservative Government were in office?
The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is no; I shall do no such thing. I have told him and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) exactly what the Leader of the Opposition has said and what constitutes party policy. That is where we stand. Today, we must decide whether the clause under consideration has merit and deserves the support of the House.
May I follow up the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase? Is it correct that the Leader of the Opposition told Conservative peers that this was a third-term issue?
I was not present at the meeting. [Interruption.] I might add that I would be very surprised if the hon. Member for Cannock Chase had been present, unless he entered as a poltergeist. We should focus on what the Leader of the Opposition says in public, and on how we have voted in public. The Secretary of State’s tactic seems to be diversionary—more displacement activity, in which, as I have said to him previously, he appears to have specialised in recent months. I suppose that that is the hallmark of the successful politician.
My hon. and learned Friend talked about gimmickry. Does he agree that the chances of the Bill becoming law are now negligible? It will probably have a sixth day of consideration, which will be about the time of the February recess. The Bill will then go to the other place, which will not pass it by the time of Dissolution. The Bill is a gimmick that has no prospect of becoming law.
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. What he says has been apparent as the Bill has proceeded, which is regrettable because we agree with the Government that parts of the Bill are very desirable. However, the Government seem to spin out the Bill for longer and longer by introducing extra measures.
When the Secretary of State reflects on the matter, I would like to think that he will view Opposition Members wishing to protect him from dishonour as not a bad thing. For those reasons, we will seek to have the clause, which is a hallmark of the Government’s utter bad faith on the matter, removed from the Bill.
I have just two points to make. The references to Lord Irvine give me a certain nostalgic pleasure, as they remind me that the apotheosis of my parliamentary career was being the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Irvine during the period in question. I remember well much of what is being discussed. I have also spent more time than I care to remember deliberating on reform of the House of Lords. Until today, I had taken a vow that I would not deliberate further on the matter. I have come to the rather dismal conclusion, fortified by more than a century of history, that there will not be a big bang as far as House of Lords reform is concerned. At the very least, there will be a series of rather minor bangs, which will be entirely in the tradition of how we do things: we shall muddle along, we shall deal with problems as they arise, we shall do a bit of tidying up, and, in any foreseeable future, we shall probably not do a great deal more than that. We shall go on having such debates at great length, with great interest, into a very pleasant infinity.
That has always been the nature of House of Lords issues, and I am sure that it will be ever thus. It could have been different. I never quite understood why a reforming Government with a large majority treated the reform of the House of Lords differently from other major constitutional issues. We had a settled position on freedom of information, devolution and a range of constitutional reform issues. We used our majority in the House to implement such proposals. In the case of House of Lords reform, we did not. We sought to construct what was never there: a majority for a consensus position in the House. The late Robin Cook worked tirelessly to achieve that end and it collapsed around him. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor has spent more parts of his life than he probably cares to acknowledge trying to work towards some sort of solution. There will not be a solution in any near future. A great reforming moment may come again in a different political cycle but that moment in this cycle has gone.
The answer to the question posed by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) is to say that it was not intended to be like this, although what was intended was never very clear. There was to be a kind of amorphous stage 2 that was going to do things of a rather more significant kind to the House of Lords, but the mountain has turned out to be a mouse. There is nothing exceptional about that; that is often the way of these things. The truth is that the various provisions of the Bill are looking at a kind of stage 2. There will probably be a stage 3, a stage 4 and probably a lot of other stages along the way. That will not be because anyone intended that to be the case; as I said, the late Robin Cook tried heroically to forge a stage 2 of a rather major kind and to persuade the House to move in a big reforming direction. The House instead preferred to play games and the whole thing collapsed. There was a good intention to try to move the House towards a serious reform position but the House was not to be moved on a consensus basis in that way.
What we have is a stage 2 that deals with a number of immediate problems. It does a bit of tidying up of a necessary kind. It deals with the absurdity of elections of the hereditary peers. It deals with resignations and with removals. I wish it also dealt with putting the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis; that would be a sensible bit of tidying up. That is what stage 2 is; if it is seen in that way, it is a recognition of political reality, which indicates that we will go on having further stages beyond this.
It is a most ingenious argument but is it not rather like the Government saying in respect of the Lisbon treaty and their undertaking to hold a referendum on it that it was not a treaty? The hon. Gentleman is saying that a bargain should be dishonoured because we now have stage 2. That is palpable nonsense.
I am grateful for that but I will resist the temptation to have the Lisbon treaty argument all over again.
Is it not even more of a nonsense? The only element of the stage 2 that can be identified is the reneging on the previous promise. Apart from that, none of the list of subjects concerning the House of Lords that we will debate this afternoon is germane to the main issue of House of Lords reform at all. The only element of change is that stage 2 will now be the ditching of the solemn and binding promise that was made previously.
As I have tried to explain, as someone who was reasonably close to the issue, stage 2 had an amorphous quality; it had an intention and an ambition attached to it. There were attempts to fulfil that ambition. They failed. In the event of that failure, what does the House do? It tries to do the things it thinks it can do. That is why stage 2 has become the component parts of this Bill that are sensible and worthy of support.
My second point on the clause about the ending of the by-elections for hereditary peers is this: in some ways, this provision demonstrates a remarkable generosity of spirit. It invites the question why are we treating the second tranche—the remaining hereditary peers—differently from the first tranche? The first tranche was dealt with by a cull, because it was believed that it had to be removed from the House of Lords. The second tranche, having endured for a further 10 years, is to be removed not by a cull, but by a process of natural attrition. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told us how young the youngest remaining member of the hereditary peerage is, we know that it will go on for many decades.
I am perfectly prepared to accept this provision, because it is a way of making progress and getting some sort of support for a package of proposals. However, I think that it is generous, and it would have been open to the Government and to the House to say that the time has come to bring the hereditary peerage to a close. We have not said that; we have offered a very generous transitional arrangement. On that ground alone, it probably deserves support.
I fear that there might be something in what the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) just said. I wish to start my contribution by citing the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911, which states:
“whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”.
They didn’t mean it either.
That “immediately” was said in 1911. The hon. Gentleman says that they did not mean it. The Liberals did mean it then, although there might well have been an internal compromise within the parliamentary party not to attempt to go further and to put that promise into the Act.
The hon. Gentleman may recall that, given that this was Asquith’s Government, the Cabinet at the time was very much against women having a vote. Thus, one wonders what the popular vote that they had in mind in 1911 might have entailed.
I suspect that the factions on women having the vote and on going further on House of Lords reform might well have been the same; the Cabinet was also split on that.
I listened to the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and the Secretary of State, and it appears that it might be another 100 years before that promise is fulfilled. I have heard the Secretary of State’s statements and speeches on this issue for the past five years and it seems that we have got very little progress out of him towards the ultimate goal of the reconstitution of the second Chamber on a popular basis. A number of documents have been published, including two White Papers during my time in this place, yet apart from one vote on the Floor of the House, which had no binding consequences, no progress has been made towards reconstituting the House of Lords on a popular basis. When listening to the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield, I got the distinct impression that there will be no enthusiasm for introducing specific proposals to this House early on during the time of any Government he is a part of.
The Conservative party must speak for itself, although it is having great difficulty on this matter, but I must say, for the Government, that the hon. Gentleman parodies all the work that has been done, including by the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). We laboured long and hard in the cross-party group to reach a position, 96 years after the 1911 commitment, where at long last clear agreement was reached by the House. Such agreement had eluded us for all that period; we did not get it before the war, in the ’60s or in 2003. We got that agreement, and we produced the details in the 2008 White Paper and then what amounts to the guts of a draft Bill—that is real progress.
We were happy to take part in those discussions, but we were frustrated all the way through that one discussion had to lead to another discussion and then to another discussion. The Liberal Democrats have been clear about our policy since 1911, and the fact that everybody else seems to take such great time to come to the same conclusion and then not to implement it is a source of even greater frustration.
I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that even among those of us who believe in a wholly or largely elected second Chamber—I am in that camp—there is a great division of opinion on how, and on what basis, its Members should be elected. On that second issue—the nature of the franchise and the nature of the election—there is considerable division of opinion, and it is that, as much as anything, that stands in the way of rapid progress.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right that there is that difference of opinion, but it seems to me that we have never got to that important part of the debate. However, we are not talking about that issue, but about the abolition of by-elections for the hereditary peers. I still come back to his Front Benchers’ lack of enthusiasm for progress; the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) was right to ask about that.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase mentioned the phrase “third-term issue”, which has been bandied about, and which the Leader of the Opposition perhaps used. It is not clear whether he used the phrase, but it is clear that in Total Politics magazine last year, when asked about House of Lords reform, he said:
“to be frank it is not an urgent priority”.
That is on the record.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I am one of the most committed supporters of a democratic second Chamber, but even I would balk at bringing in a measure for that purpose at this time, given the debt crisis and the deficit crisis. Everybody knows that taking through such a measure would result in some kind of constitutional upheaval, and possibly a crisis. The public would find it utterly incomprehensible if we engaged in a battle like that for a year or so, while distracting attention from the crucial tasks that most affect people’s livelihoods.
The trouble with that argument is that it assumes that economic management is a matter of legislation; I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, above all others, does not agree with that. Economic management is a matter of Government policy away from the legislative process. Constitutional reform is a separate matter that we can continue to work on, whether there is a crisis or not.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that at the height of the second world war, the foundations of the welfare state, including the national health service, were laid, but that that did not distract the Government from the life-and-death struggle that was going on? There is no reason why constitutional reform should be a distraction from dealing with questions of economic management.
Secondly, it is clear from this debate what we must do if we are to achieve the necessary consensus on wholesale reform of the House of Lords—I think the hon. Gentleman agrees with us Labour Members that that reform is necessary. The Government have pledged that in the next term of a Labour Government, we will implement the draft clauses that we will publish, subject to any amendment as a result of discussion. Does he agree that the major obstacle to any consensus on wholesale, much-needed reform of the House of Lords is the attitude of the Conservative party?
Order. The debate is getting ever wider. It is a high-quality debate, because there are right hon. and hon. Members present who have a great deal of expertise, but I think that we have just reached the point where I need to remind the Committee that we are discussing a particular matter—that is, whether clause 29 should stand part—so I would encourage a little more concentration.
Thank you for that encouragement, Sir Alan. I will not go into any detail in my response to the Minister, except to say that he is right on his first point. On his second point, the Conservative party’s attitude is not the only obstacle to reform. Under the present Government, there has been a very long period in which reform could have been taken further forward but was not. Part of the problem is the notion that there has to be absolute consensus. I do not think that one will ever reach that point. There comes a time when one has to take the bull by the horns and take reform forward.
I share some of the frustration that Conservative Members feel about the clause, and I share the frustration about the piecemeal reform. Perhaps the hon. Member for Cannock Chase is right that all that we can hope for is piecemeal reform, but we should be bolder than that—indeed, we should have been bolder than that before now. It is immensely frustrating for those of us who do not accept the hereditary principle that all that the clause proposes is the ending of the by-elections. We Liberal Democrats were never party to the various deals and arrangements between Lord Irvine and the Marquess of Salisbury. Those are the kind of deals in which, perhaps fortunately for us, we are never asked to take part. So we are seeing this from the outside.
Although the Secretary of State is quite right that the process removed by clause 29 is risible, it seems to us that the hereditary principle is as risible and that there is no reason why there should be hereditary peers in our Parliament at all. The Government have promised action on this several times going back to the 2003 Queen’s Speech and in five White Papers since then, but nothing has happened. I am as frustrated by that as any radical Member of this House going back to 1911, but that frustration should not mean that we vote against the clause. Inadequate as it is, it is still progress towards getting rid of an absurdity.
The hon. Gentleman is claiming great purity for not being part of this shoddy deal. Of course, when the Liberals were last in government they were precisely part of a shoddy deal. One can be pure only when one is in opposition.
I am not saying that all deals are shoddy, but this particular deal was one that excluded us and, as has been explained, was a method of getting a Bill through the House that did not go far enough from our point of view. We have been consistent in our policy about this for a long time and our exclusion from that deal follows from the fact that our policy has always been clear.
It comes back to whether this clause should be supported in itself. It is a very minor reform but, as the Secretary of State says, it gets rid of absurd elections. He mentioned the election when there were 11 candidates and three voters. The winning candidate won by 2:1—after extra time and a penalty shoot-out, no doubt. It sounds like something from “Blackadder”. Lord Steel mentioned in the debate on his Bill in the other place that even Old Sarum had 11 voters and would have higher turnouts than these elections in the Lords.
The only argument that has been put forward for voting against the clause is that which the Secretary of State rightly calls the Trotskyist argument—the Tory-Trotskyist argument—that the situation is so awful and so silly that such action would encourage further reform. It is possible that that might work, but the only problem is that this has been the situation since 1998. It has not worked yet and shows no sign of working in the future. Even though it is quite right for Members of the Conservative party to berate the Government for reneging on a deal, if that is what it was, they should nevertheless not reject this clause.
I take notice of your earlier injunction, Sir Alan, to focus on the clause, but, like most people here I am disappointed that in the 11 years for which we have had a Labour Government we have not moved faster on this and brought forward a democratically elected upper House. My dream was that I might one day be the first of the new and offer myself as a candidate for an elected upper House. I do not think that that will happen, but we do need to move this on. I welcome the measures that the Justice Secretary is introducing by bringing this Bill to the House and, at least on the margins, altering the present arrangements. I also look forward to draft proposals that will be enacted in the next Parliament if Labour is returned to office. I welcome that.
The principal Opposition spokesperson, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), may suggest from the Dispatch Box that because undertakings were given by Lord Irvine to Lord Cranborne, I am somehow committed to them, but I must say that that is not so. There may well have been agreements between so-called Privy Counsellors, but those of us who are nature’s privy counsellors, to paraphrase Tony Hancock, think that such agreements have to be abrogated sometimes.
I have considerable sympathy with that view. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is bound by anything, but the Secretary of State was a Privy Counsellor at the time and a party to the agreement. The hon. Gentleman may think that it is rather extraordinary to renege on an undertaking that had been expressed by Lord Irvine in such solemn form.
I can only speak for myself, but one of the paradoxes is that Viscount Cranborne and one or two other hereditaries are the most radical advocates of reform. The history shows that he had to persuade and show leadership to some very conservative people who did not want change, for a whole range of selfish reasons.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). The hon. Gentleman is not bound by anything, but members of his Front-Bench team are. A solemn undertaking to the House should not be abrogated. He should not support an abrogation, even though he himself is not personally committed to that undertaking.
I know what the noble viscount says, but I do not agree with him. I certainly want to see this Parliament be much more effective. I am one of those who believes that, despite the perverse constitution of the other place, its role and function are extremely important.
As I look around this Chamber today, I see an overwhelming majority of colleagues who believe that we should not go to one Chamber of Parliament but that we should instead enhance and buttress an arrangement that will be an impediment and a frustration to arbitrary government. That is what is most needed: we must diminish the opportunities that arise, under the House of Commons’ majority system, for parliamentary dictatorship, with things being ill thought out and railroaded through.
By-elections are the core of this clause, and reference has been made to the practice of the Scots and Irish peers, but I do not think that one can use the Scottish peerage to buttress the change proposed by the Government today. Up to the 1950s, the Scottish representative peers were elected for each parliamentary Session. They met in the Parliament House in Edinburgh, and had an election to determine who should come to this place.
The Irish peerage is much more interesting. Under the Act of Union 1800, the Irish peers would elect their representative peers for life. When the Government of Ireland Act 1920 came into force, the existing peerage was allowed to wither on the vine. The last Irish representative peer was the fourth Earl of Kilmorey, who I think expired in 1957 or thereabouts. Colleagues in this House will recall Richard Needham, who became the fifth Earl of Kilmorey and did distinguished service here as a Northern Ireland Minister.
Members of the Irish peerage could have argued that the change amounted to a reneging on the Act of Union and that the existing arrangement should have been in place in perpetuity. However, that arrangement was broken by the 1920 Act, when common sense prevailed and the existing Irish peers were allowed to wither on the vine.
Alternatively, a person with a hereditary peerage who loses his right to sit in the other place can be nominated for a life peerage by his political party. That has happened, and I think that it is implicit in what the Justice Secretary is proposing. A great example is the late Earl of Longford. He did not sit in the House of Lords under that title, although we always knew him as the Earl of Longford by virtue of his Irish peerage. He was there as Baron Pakenham, a title that was personal to him.
On a point of detail, Lord Pakenham was made a life peer before he became an hereditary.
Yes, I acknowledge that, but he could not have gone into the House of Lords as the Earl of Longford. That is the point. To complete the picture, he was one of the most distinguished, because he was Baron Pakenham for life and the Earl of Longford, and I think he was given a further life peerage when an adjustment was made in the House of Lords a few years ago.
Indeed, an awful lot of funny things have gone on. There was a Viscount Hailsham who managed to renounce his peerage and return to this House of Commons. Later, along with the 14th Earl of Home, he went back to the House of Lords as a mere baron—the ignominy!
Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that perhaps that composite picture might now be considered complete?
You have been most patient, Sir Alan.
The Conservative party is embarrassed as there are an awful lot of Conservative backwoodsmen up in the Lords who are desperately anxious about the loss of privilege and they are struggling to square this reform, but it is modest and surely most sensible people should accept it in the hope that whoever forms the next Government immediately makes proposals to create a democratic, elected House. The principal Opposition spokesperson, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield, was so embarrassed and so incapable on this reform because it is clearly the intention of any Conservative Government, should there be one, to make any change in the second or even in the third term. That is the flaw in his argument.
I urge the House to take this step forward, signalling to Governments that we want, first, to protect the bicameral system, but, secondly, that we want, as swiftly as possible, the other House to be based on legitimacy provided by some form of democratic election, not on accident of birth.
I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). May I also say—I know I speak on behalf of a lot of Members in this place—how sorry I am that he has decided to stand down? He will be a true loss to the House, and I say that in true friendship.
Put him in the House of Lords.
You will go a long way in my Government.
I once again declare my interest: I have a contingent interest in the matter.
I shall support the position adopted by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) on clause 29. Like the hon. Member for Thurrock—indeed, like the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)—I believe strongly in the second Chamber. My remarks on this aspect will be brief, Sir Alan, because I know that you do not want us to go wide of the debate. Those of us who have attended a lot of debates in the House are conscious of how much legislation is not discussed here, and the idea that we should not have a second Chamber that can address that lacuna is deeply troubling. Therefore, and to that extent, I wholly disagree with the observations made by the Scots nats. They are just plain wrong on that.
Not just on that.
No, not just on that.
My position has always been to support an elected or wholly elected second Chamber. My basis for that is that I want the powers of the other place to be very substantially increased so that they are more in line with those of a Senate, but I recognise that the only basis for increasing those powers is a proper franchise for constituting the second Chamber.
However, one problem—I made this point to the hon. Member for Cambridge—is that it is difficult for us to agree the franchise and the nature of the constituencies that would give rise to such an election. That has been one of the important sticking points. I for one would be very sorry indeed to see parties having great control over the selection of candidates for the other place. Moreover, I would want there to be relatively small constituencies. If I could not get that, I would rather stick with what I already have.
May I briefly acknowledge the role of the hereditaries in the other place? Often, they bring a degree of independence of mind—sometimes eccentric independence—that this place often lacks. It would be very sad if we did not see that continue in the other place.
I accept that the by-elections are difficult to justify in principle. I agree that I would have difficulty standing on a public platform and defending the exact mode of both by-elections, or any by-election of that kind. That does not, however, cause me to accept the Justice Secretary’s proposal, because I have two profound difficulties with it.
The first—it is a view that I adopt entirely as expressed by my hon. and learned Friend—is the objection to piecemeal legislation. It is very important that we address properly the reform of the second Chamber, and I am against piecemeal legislation because in the end we would remove the incentives for a substantial reform of that other place. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) does not agree with me on this, but I wish to see a substantial change in the nature of composing that other place.
The second point—I am sorry that I do not agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock on this, or with the hon. Member for Cambridge—is that I believe in the binding character of undertakings given by Ministers to Parliament. Perhaps that is because I am a lawyer. The Justice Secretary is a lawyer too. I believe that words once given are binding, unless there is an overwhelming reason why they have to be departed from. There is no doubt at all that a deal was made between Lord Irvine of Lairg and the Marquess of Salisbury—Lord Cranborne, as he then was. That was an agreement. As a result of that agreement, legislation was passed which would not otherwise have been passed. This part of it, the by-elections, in the end formed part of the deal.
I was not implying that what was said to the House should not be binding and honoured. I was simply making the point about privity of contract. It was a deal between two other parties.
I was not trying to attribute to the hon. Gentleman a sentiment that undertakings should not be honoured. If I gave that impression, I apologise to him. It certainly was not my intention.
When Ministers come to either House, they are committing their party to what they say. My hon. and learned Friend is entitled to say that he will not assist the Government to depart from their word. It is on that principle more than on any other that I stand today. For that reason I shall, with enthusiasm, support the position he has taken.
I feel like an innocent abroad, straying into a debate on constitutional reform, but I have done so because there are some interesting questions up for discussion this afternoon. I was truly surprised as the Conservative argument unfolded. If I were trying to be generous, I would say that they were making the case that the best should be the enemy of the good—that because there was not wholesale reform, they would stand in the way of a small but important step in the right direction.
I have had conversations with constituents at public meetings who have berated me for the Labour party’s not seeing through the process of Lords reform. There is surprise among a number of members of the public in a well educated constituency such as mine—I see the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) nodding—that there are still people in our legislature who draw the basis for their representation from the hereditary principle.
However, Conservative Front Benchers are not arguing for the ideal. It is clear from the range of contributions made by Conservative Members that they do not think that wholesale reform is ideal. They are extremely divided on the matter. There is opposition from Conservative Members, in this House and the other place, to serious democratic reform, which a majority of Members of this House wish to see. The largest majority of Members wish to see a wholly elected second Chamber, and there is a majority—albeit not quite so large—for a largely elected Chamber, so the view of this House is very clear, as is the public’s. When people look at this debate and see which way the Conservative party voted, bang in a puff of smoke will go the pretence that it is a modernising democratic party. They will see the Conservative party supporting hereditary privilege, because that is what it is doing today.
The hon. Gentleman was present for the indicative votes in this House, so he can see for himself how the House voted. Indeed, there were cross-party positions throughout the House, with people doing slightly different things. However, if he will notice that the overwhelming majority of Opposition Members voted for a largely elected second Chamber. That is my recollection.
The puzzle, then, is why the hon. and learned Gentleman has made his argument to our House today. If his party, root and branch, were wholly committed to radical reform and to creating a wholly or largely elected second Chamber, he would have said so—to ringing applause from his Back Benchers. But he did not, because his party is divided, and he therefore has to manufacture an argument to explain why his party believes that the clause should not stand part of the Bill.
From reading the Government’s proposals, which we are debating in Committee of the whole House, not on a substantive motion about the future of the House of Lords, I fail to see that radical reform programme. All I can see is the Government’s going back on a solemn undertaking that Ministers, including the Minister present, gave some time ago as part of a reform package. Given those circumstances, that is what we have to consider.
The hon. and learned Gentleman is a talented wordsmith, but he is diverting the argument at this point from the fundamental question: does this Committee of the whole House vote in favour of removing the hereditary principle from membership of the House of Lords? There will be a clear vote on that this evening, and people will see that my party and the Liberal Democrat party want reform to remove the hereditary principle from the legitimacy—the appointment—of Members of this Parliament, and that the Conservative party wants to retain it. That is the long and the short of the issue before Parliament.
Throughout this debate we have been considering the solemn undertaking, to which we were not party, as Members have already said, and it is important to remember the context in which, and the implied condition on which, it was given. The context and condition were a sense of urgency about the total reform, which we were expecting. That sense of urgency has been extremely difficult to divine, as the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged, in the current Government; and it is impossible to divine, from what the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) has said, in the Conservative party. There simply is no urgency for reform, and that is why the undertaking has so little value, unfortunately.
The hon. Gentleman puts the point succinctly. In one quotation that was read out to the Committee this afternoon, the expectation in Lord Irvine’s mind when the undertaking was given was that the whole process would be finished within two or three years. This is not two or three years later, however; this is two or three Parliaments later.
I respect the hon. Gentleman’s urgent wish for radical reform, and I am on board with that, but no one can call a system that could endure for up to 50 years an “urgent response” to something that many of us in this House seek—an elected and accountable House of Lords.
I am not arguing that clause 29 is the radical, second-stage reform of the House of Lords—nor, I think, are those on the Government Front Bench. It is a good step forward, because it will remove the possibility of any further Members coming to speak and vote in our legislature on the basis of an hereditary principle. That is a modest but important step forward, whereas the radical reform would be wholesale reform along the lines of one or other of the two options that gained support from this House when we voted on the matter. Let us not confuse the two things. This is not the radical reform, but it is an important democratising step forward; and, sadly, the public will see that the Conservative party is opposed to it.
During this debate people have been quite disrespectful about Lord Irvine. However, who knows what went on inside that great mind? At one level, what he did was extremely shrewd. He created a system in which a risible way—to use the Lord Chancellor’s words—of having by-elections would ensure reform. There has been a lot of debate about this, so I do not need to go over it again. I just want to say—because nobody else has—that, as so often happens with the law of unintended consequences in our historical development, we have ended up with a pretty good system. Everyone who has spoken so far has played the democratic hand and said, “What I really want is a democratically elected upper Chamber.” Some have argued that we must move along the lines suggested by the Lord Chancellor, and others have expressed another point of view, but nobody has said that what we have ended up with is a great British compromise.
I say to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that there is nothing wrong with piecemeal reform, and I say to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) that there is nothing wrong with shoddy backroom deals. This is how the British constitution—God bless it—has always developed.
If one is content with the powers that currently rest in the second Chamber, there is a lot to be said in favour of my hon. Friend’s argument. The problem is, however, that if we want to extend the powers of the second Chamber, the current settlement is wholly unacceptable.
Accepted—but I am entirely content with the powers that the second Chamber has at present. We all know that there are perfectly sound and good arguments for not increasing the powers of the second Chamber. The second Chamber is a good revising Chamber, it does hard work, and nobody is complaining about the quality of its debates or anything else, so let us leave that on one side. We all know that if we have an elected Chamber, it will be stuffed with inferior Members looking for ministerial office. Most of this place is stuffed with people looking for ministerial office—why should an elected second Chamber be any different? Why get rid of something that is doing an excellent job?
However, Mrs. Heal, I do not want to be held to account by you for getting into that wider debate—I want to concentrate on why the compromise brokered by Lord Irvine was a very good one. The Lord Chancellor was extremely rude about the candidates who have been elected under that system. He said that an ancestor of one gentleman had taken part in the massacre of Glencoe—
Let me finish this point and then the right hon. Gentleman can come back with some bon mot to crush me.
What is wrong with that gentleman, just because his ancestor took part in the massacre of Glencoe? It is the old argument that Harold Wilson used against the 14th Lord Home. There was a 14th Mr. Wilson, and there is a 14th Mr. Straw. Perhaps, way back, a Mr. Straw took part in a massacre, but the Secretary of State is a worthwhile candidate.
The difference is that I do not sit in this House because I am the 14th generation after the first Mr. Straw.
You sit here because you were Barbara Castle’s private secretary!
Yes, but that was different.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) suggested that I was rude about those who had been elected. I was not; I was mocking how they had become part of that constituency. If they have merit, it could be considered through the merit-based process of appointment to the House of Lords.
The Secretary of State was mocking the process because there may be 30 candidates and only 40 electors. I might have got the figures slightly wrong, but I would have thought that that would mean that high-quality people would apply. It may produce a higher quality of elected candidate than if there were 60,000 electors and one elected person. I do not want to be accused of attacking parliamentary democracy, but we should not assume that the people elected under the current system are any less worth while than those appointed to the House of Lords by any other means. I suspect that such is the nature of the competition to get into the House of Lords through that elected route that the candidates with whom we emerge are of a very high standard.
I do not want to go too far down that road, because that argument suggests that I believe we should defend the constitution entirely in terms of logic. I do not. I defend it in terms of our traditions, our history and what works. Is the royal family entirely logical? Is the House of Lords in any sense entirely logical? Of course, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham is entirely right. The logical step forward is to have an elected Chamber, but we all know that if we had one, it would not result in better legislation, so why not leave good alone? This is the tyranny of the logical over the practical and of endless constitutional change over what works.
Let us think about this for a moment: is what we have got so very bad? There is a vast amount of expertise in the House of Lords, with people who are not politicians and who have worked all their lives in the professions and in business. They speak only when they have to speak and vote only when they really feel strongly. They do a good job.
This will be a controversial comment, and I know that I do not carry many people with me, except perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who is a sound trooper in this respect. Is there any harm in making a slight bow to our past by having some hereditary peers? The Secretary of State mocks it, but these people are part of history and part of the fabric of what we are. They do not have a great deal of political power. There are only 92 of them, in a revising Chamber, and we know that they have no power to block any legislation that this House sets its heart on.
I am indeed entirely with my hon. Friend. The House needs to bear in mind the fact that so long as the 92 are there, they uphold the hereditary principle and therefore support the monarchy. If they went, it would expose the monarchy as the only hereditary institution in the land. Does he believe that that would endanger the monarchy? I certainly do.
That must be right. I defend the current arrangement as something that, whatever I say, will probably last many, many years. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) is absolutely right that this argument will go on for eternity, and long may it go on. By the way, some argue that the House did a great moral thing and voted for a 100 per cent. or 80 per cent. elected Chamber, but we know that that vote was a farce. Many colleagues deliberately voted for a 100 per cent. elected House of Lords because they knew that no Government would ever wear it.
My hon. Friend shakes his head, but I know for a fact that many people trooped through the Lobby to vote for the most extreme option precisely to ensure that it never happened. That happens on a lot of occasions in this House, so we should not imagine for a moment that either Front-Bench team or a majority of Members actually want there to be a 100 per cent. elected second Chamber. Do they really want that? Do they want this House battling with, and losing half its power to, an American-style senate? [Interruption.] There may be a few enthusiasts in the Chamber, but we all know it is not going to happen. It will not happen—thank God!—if there is a Conservative Government, and I doubt whether it will happen if there is a Labour Government. I like to think that in 30, 40 or 50 years’ time, or perhaps on the hundredth anniversary of the 1999 Act, we will still be debating the matter.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is wholly and utterly opposed to this House adopting electoral arrangements that exclude British citizens who are black, and almost all women, from standing as a candidate. Yet by maintaining this curious, risible system—the words of the Lord Chancellor—for electing 90 of the Members of the other place, we are condoning and endorsing an electoral system that is discriminatory against people of ethnic minorities and women, because they are simply not eligible to be candidates. Surely to goodness that is a good reason to vote tonight to get away from such an absurd electoral system and the hereditary principle.
We all know that the House of Lords has changed dramatically in the past 12 years in terms of bringing in minorities. There is absolutely no bar to any of that happening. The hon. Gentleman is exaggerating by suggesting that there is a vast hereditary peerage exercising great power, but we know that there are just 92 hereditary peers, and that they are a small part of a revising Chamber.
At one level, I am saying only that that puts pressure on the Government to bring in real reform, if that is what people want. However, if that does not happen, I argue that the hereditary peers lend colour to the other place. Do we really want an entirely appointed Chamber and to go along with the Canadian model? The Canadian second Chamber is the least effective second Chamber in the western world. Hereditary peers, and the way in which they refresh themselves through by-elections, add something to the House of Lords. They might be younger and different types of people. We could have a House of Lords that is completely diverse in every respect by appointing everyone, but why get rid of a system that works and that creates pressure for progress? I am just a reactionary, and I do not want any progress at all, so I am very happy with the current arrangement.
I am sorry I was called away earlier and so was absent from the Chamber, Mrs. Heal.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) has been characteristically blunt and expressed the point of view of a good number of Opposition Members. Let me say that the official position of the official Opposition is that they want a fully elected second Chamber, but they know, as everybody in this House knows, that had it not been for the Labour victory in 1997, there would have been no change in the composition of the House of Lords, which would have remained a largely hereditary second Chamber.
Of course, the hon. Gentleman would have liked that to be retained. He spoke about the hereditary principle, but word for word, he gave the reasons that were given in the years prior to 1997. The arguments for continuing with hereditary peers were put as strongly before 1997 as he put them today. As I said in an intervention, because of the Labour Government, 90 per cent. of the hereditaries went. It is true that there was a prior attempt at reform—I was here at the time—but that was in a very different Bill. Perfectly understandably, there was a cross-party alliance between Enoch Powell and Michael Foot. As far as I was concerned, they were right to do what they did, because that measure would not have resulted in the outcome that many Labour Members wished to see.
The by-elections are indefensible. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who used to represent Grantham, said that he was not in a position to go anywhere publicly and defend them, but if they are indefensible, why should they not be changed? I am in favour of the Government’s proposals, because having an electorate of four or five is farcical. It reminds me of the situation before the Great Reform Act, when at least some constituencies had only 20 or so electors. Anything that is so indefensible and, frankly, farcical should not be retained.
I do not happen to belong to the group—there are some Labour Members in it—who say that the real solution is the abolition of the House of Lords. I do not take that view, because, as in most democracies, there is a strong case for having two Houses. One thing is certain: if we had only the House of Commons, all the blame would be attached to it. Any measure that was shown to be faulty would be blamed on the House of Commons, because we would have responsibility for everything. Having a revising Chamber is right and proper, but I do not want a change that results in increased powers for the House of Lords. Some say that the powers should be equal, but I certainly do not belong to that school of thought. I want the House of Commons to be dominant. I would strenuously oppose, as I hope the majority in the House would, any change that would give added powers to the House of Lords.
I am certainly in favour of a revising Chamber with no hereditary peers, but I must concede some of the arguments against a fully elected Chamber. Very recently, the House of Commons unfortunately passed, by nine votes—we know how those nine votes were gathered—for 42 days pre-charge detention. I have no hesitation in saying that it gave me a good deal of pleasure that that was rejected by the Lords. I was so pleased that I wrote a letter to The Times to congratulate the Lords. I doubt whether the measure would have been rejected if there had been a fully hereditary House. It might have been rejected, but if a Conservative Government had been pushing for it in a hereditary House, it would not.
I accept that a fully elected House of Lords could, to some extent, be a duplicate, whatever the election arrangements. Nothing is perfect, and I accept that there are weaknesses. At the end of the day, a fully elected House of Lords may not be as independent or different from the House of Commons as I would like. That is one of the drawbacks, but all in all, what cannot possibly be defended and justified is for 92 peers to sit in a 21st-century legitimate Parliament simply because their ancestors were given a peerage in the 13th, 15th, 17th or 18th centuries. Surely that is as indefensible as the by-elections that happen when a hereditary peer happens to die. That is why I hope, having done what no other Government have done by ending at least 90 per cent. of the hereditaries, we go further, and end the situation in which 92 hereditaries continue to sit, for the reasons that I have stated. That is indefensible. Any step that can be taken by a future Government to end that would certainly have my support.
I appreciate that the Lord Chancellor’s memory may be failing him as to the events of 2002 and 2003—at least that is how it appears from the Chilcot inquiry—but we need to remind him of the reason for some of the 1999 safeguards that he is now seeking to remove. I entirely agree with the sentiments of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) in that regard.
Crucially, there is a bloc of 92 remaining hereditary peers, who are kept in place pending stage 2 of House of Lords reform, to which the current Administration have notionally been committed since 1997. I listened with great interest to the passionate speeches from the hon. Members for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), but one must ask why so little progress has been made, given that we have had a Labour Government for the past 13 years who have been committed throughout to a democratic House of Lords, and who have had a huge parliamentary majority during the first eight years and a very satisfactory one in the past five.
We had an interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), which went into some of the detail of that history. It is perverse—given the radical reforms made in relation to Scottish and Welsh devolution, for example—that the Government have not moved more quickly on this issue, even as a second-term issue.
An integral part of the present system is the superficially anomalous by-election procedures that have been ridiculed in this debate. However, without such procedures—and we have seen some 12 deaths and 10 by-elections since the 1999 arrangements were put in place—we would see the dying off of all hereditaries and with them the safeguard to which I referred. The history of this issue is clear. As the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) pointed out, House of Lords reform often sees a short and intense burst of activity followed by many decades in which not much else happens. The worry is that Labour would have zero commitment to stage 2 reform if we did not have this safeguard in place.
This proposal is the worst sort of partisan gesture by the Government. Weeks before an election, they are dragging up the issue to try to draw a dividing line and portray my party as the party of privilege for the few and not the many.
I am truly bewildered by what the hon. Gentleman has said. What incentive will there be for a Conservative Government to make reforms if this proposal is not passed today? He obviously hopes for a Conservative Government, but what would make a Cameron Government introduce comprehensive reform? We have invited his Front Benchers to comment, but there has been silence.
The fact is that we have known for almost three years that the settled will of this House has been for a fully or 80 per cent. elected House of Lords. Why has there been a delay when the Government have had a working majority? That is the issue.
It is because it has been necessary to translate that decision—the first ever such decision—into legislative proposals and to try to achieve not just agreement across the Chamber but broad, cross-party support. On the issue of the construction of Parliament, I subscribe to the old-fashioned view that it is important that it should not be in the ownership of any one political party. We have worked hard to achieve that, and I am about to publish the major part of a Bill on the issue—I hope that it will have the hon. Gentleman’s and his party’s active support.
Again, I have to say that that is far too little, far too late. I would understand that argument rather better if the Secretary of State had not introduced the clause at this juncture. We could have waited and incorporated the clause into any new Bill in the next Parliament, if his party were to win the election.
I have some sympathy—although I do not agree with—the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). In many ways, much of the constitution is not logical. As he rightly pointed out, having a hereditary royal family is not logical and, if we had started with a blank sheet of paper, we would not have had the House of Lords as it existed before 1997. However, we did not start with a blank sheet of paper: we started with many years of history. My hon. Friend’s arguments were persuasive in the run-up to the debate in 1999, but I am afraid that the pass has been lost, and that is why we must now move to a fully elected second Chamber, if we are to have such a Chamber at all.
I am slightly depressed because I fear that my party, if it gets into government, will press ahead and have a raft of new life peers almost immediately both on our side and across the political divide. I wish that we would treat the situation with more urgency and move rapidly towards an elected, democratic second Chamber. In reality, it will be the life peers on both sides who will be the main road block. I endorse the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) when he pointed out that the phenomenal economic difficulties that the incoming Conservative Government will face will mean that their political energy will be directed at correcting those rather than considering some of these grand constitutional issues. As I say, that depresses me, not least because I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) shares many of my views on this matter. However, such reform will not be an early priority as we do not want our programme to become log-jammed by constitutional difficulties that would be inevitable. Conservative life peers would be just as difficult as Labour life peers in trying to prevent the fundamental democratic reform that is close to all our hearts.
I agree with much of what my hon. Friend says, but does he intend to vote against clause stand part on the basis that he does not like the piecemeal approach, or will he vote in favour because it is a step in the direction in which he wishes to go?
I shall vote with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield because the system is an important safeguard and I want to see clause 29 removed from the Bill.
Over the past 13 years, the House of Lords has been packed with 174 Labour peers and 66 Conservative peers—402 new members in total. The last thing that we need is yet another sizeable intake of often relatively low-grade members of the House of Lords. I may also be low grade in the House of Commons, but I am elected and in a democracy that matters. Those of us who are standing for re-election will do so some time in the next 15 weeks, and people will have a chance to vote for me or not. We run the risk of having ever more life peers with an unacceptable life-long tenure.
These issues are very difficult. All of us know that we are potentially getting ourselves logjammed into some major constitutional problems. As a slight aside, it is interesting to note, courtesy of The Sunday Times, that, in the expenses scandal in the other place, not one of the peers who has taken money for asking questions or for lobbying services—or through their second home allowances—is a hereditary peer. Every one of the 25 or so peers who has so far been accused is a life peer—[Interruption.] I am not sure that it is entirely a coincidence. It is wrong that we have packed the House of Lords as we have in the last dozen years. I fear that more is to come.
If we are to have a fully appointed House of Lords, which is where I fear this clause will eventually lead, I would prefer to see it abolished in its entirety. I hope that common sense will prevail and clause 29 will be vanquished. Whoever forms the next Government, I hope that they will rapidly return to this issue—although I fear that that will not be the case—and ensure that we have a proper, democratic, fully elected House of Lords, whereupon these temporary arrangements for hereditary peers would fall by the wayside.
It is extraordinary that English gentlemen in revolt against the Crown two centuries ago could form a constitution with a second Chamber. They did so for good reason. We are taking for ever, under the Lord High Panjandrum’s ministrations, to gain an inch, and then we are retreating. The proposal before the Committee is that the only elected part of the upper Chamber should be abolished and all the appointees should remain in place. What is the difference? I start from a proposition that has always informed democratic debate: those who make the laws should be accountable to those who bear the laws. Yet we have this extraordinary anomaly that the second Chamber, which this Chamber voted to democratise, remains an appointed House. How can that be, and how can it be that I want an elected House down the passageway there—past the tumbleweed?
An important point needs to be made. Nearly 35 years ago, the father of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) gave an important Dimbleby lecture in which he looked at the conventions and party arrangements in this Chamber that made tolerable a concept called the sovereignty of Parliament—all the little checks and balances within our procedures and arrangements. We are driven by the desire to legitimise the House of Lords, so that it can be a proper check and balance. I have been a Member for nearly 31 years, as has my right hon. and learned Friend. During my membership of this House, it has increasingly become a tyranny. Largely, there are no checks and balances within this Chamber—it is the rule of majoritarianism. So it was to the House of Lords that my party turned when, looking forward to an age more democratic than was ever envisaged by the present Government, it voted to accept the concept of an 80 to 100 per cent. elected second Chamber.
In answer to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), I give praise in the extraordinary situation where those Lords act gently as a small check and balance. The cry goes up from whomever is on the Government Benches, “This is ridiculous. What legitimacy do they have? This is about the legitimacy of the arrangements in the Lords.” Over the years, I have been frustrated by the grip that Governments have had on this House—it has strangled our very legitimacy. We need to have a debate about that. We need checks and balances. That is what all our revolutions were about—to check and balance the power of the Crown. It has taken us a long time to get where we are.
One hundred years later, we are still trying to grapple with the proposition put forward by the Liberal Government early in the previous century of an elected House of Lords. I do not think that that was cynical. I enjoyed the cheerful cynicism of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh)—but that is all it is, in the end. This is a serious proposition regarding the ship of state and the nature of the construction that enables the people of this country to hold to account their Governments. Do we honestly think that we do that?
So I look beyond this place—I think that many other Members do so, too—for a remedy in the other place. For some years, the few checks on this long cavort have been in the hands of the Secretary of State, sitting on the Bench there. The matter has been danced around, but there is no consensus, and I am as frustrated as anyone about this reform stuck in the Bill. What is it? To get rid of the one elected element of the House of Lords? Are we not to question why 40 per cent. of the Members of the House of Lords come from the south-east of England? Of whom are they representative? They are professional people representing special interest groups. Yet they stand as our last defence in the sorts of causes mentioned by the hon. Member for Walsall, North—our freedoms, 42-day detention, and our historic rights and liberties. That was our function, but it has gone. So I support my Front-Bench colleagues on this matter. I do not want to trade off, for a gesture by the Labour Government—sinking fast as they are—the little block and niggle that might one day drive us to find a solution for a properly elected, accountable House of Lords.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham made a point about franchise. We do not want to replicate this Chamber. We want to give the Lords the democratic legitimacy to say, “We think you are wrong. We do not agree.” The oldest democratic constitution of which I know is the American constitution. It has survived for more than 220 years, and we are still fiddling with the abolition of the elected Lords, who constitute a small proportion of that House—I say “we”, but I am not! What do the Government do? Who appoints these Lords? Look at it. I presume that a swathe of retired Conservative Members will be pushed into the Lords, although, of course, that will be to give some balance, and undoubtedly they will be the most competent Members. But why?
I do not share the cheerful cynicism of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). It startled me in a sense, because it was so weary a speech. Where are the fire and belief that we can accomplish something? “Oh, experience of this tired old House has taught me”, he told us, “that we muddle along, and what difference does it make? Somehow we’ll get through it all.” That is true, but there is no sense of an ideal there. This place was built in the democratic age on the ideals and aspirations of the party that he represents and on behalf of which the Lord High Panjandrum, the Secretary of State, is now promoting his ambitions. That party was an agent for change. It was not the only one by any means. My own party has had a role in this, as too did the Liberal party and the trade unions. That was the voice of the people. This House used to march to that tune.
I want checks and balances, so I will not support the clause. By removing elections, the Lord High Panjandrum will feel that he has accomplished something, but he will not have. This has been at root a failure. I cannot discern any successes in any of the policies that he has promoted to the House over 11 years. I will give a prize to whomever can name one. Here we are, dug in, making no progress whatever. We have to reach out and stand for something. Those who make the laws shall be accountable, and furthermore there must be more of the checks and balances that make for proper exchange and debate across this Floor. I shall, therefore, support my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) in the Lobbies.
First, I think that it is extremely unlikely that this Bill, and certainly this clause, will end up on the statute book, and I suspect that the Government know that. Nothing controversial will get through in the wash-up, so we are having an academic debate.
My second point is in reference to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who unfortunately is no longer here. He talked about the tyranny of the logical and praised reaction. It might surprise him, if he reads Hansard, to discover that I think there is something to what he says. Burke said that politics ought to be adjusted, not to human reason, but to human nature. There is a lot in that. Institutions, above all, should be organic, and traditions and customs play an important role in that. However, it is also important constantly to be reconciling that organic development with an undercurrent of logic and reason. That is why we cannot carry on with the House of Lords as it is. It is not enough to say that it is refreshing that we have by-elections of hereditary peers and that they add a bit of colour—that was another phrase used—to the other place. That will not do at all. I do not see how I can oppose a clause that will remove the hereditaries, so I shall support clause 29 in the Lobby.
There are two issues to consider—one of principle and one of political tactics. The issue of principle was not much discussed in the first half dozen exchanges, but it has started to be discussed near the end of the debate. The point of principle is very straightforward—it is the one that we have just heard and which we also heard from the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick).
In the 21st century, there should be no place in our Parliament for people who have inherited the right to make our laws. It is very straightforward. Some people may disagree with that, but there are not many of them and they are completely out of step with the electorate and the spirit of the age. Allowing hereditaries to continue to sit in the second Chamber can only erode the credibility of our Parliament and only weaken the second Chamber, making it more difficult for it to perform a meaningful constitutional role. Clause 29 will do no more than end the absurd by-elections—“risible” and “absurd” were the words used by the Secretary of State—that would otherwise keep the hereditaries going in perpetuity under the current legislation. We have had numerous quotations from Lord Steel about Old Sarum, and the absurdity of those by-elections tells its own story. They do no credit to our parliamentary system.
Does my hon. Friend not recognise that the credibility to which he refers applies equally to all the life peers in the House of Lords? However undesirable and risible the electoral system might be, at least in the election for the Labour vacancy to which we have referred the peer concerned won two votes, which is two more than any life peers have ever won.
That is a little tough on the life peerage. I do not carry any cards for the life peers, but one can make a case for saying that quite a few of them have done something in life that at some point has led people to think that they will be able to make a contribution. Furthermore, some of them—perhaps some of the unlikely ones who have been put there—turn out to make very good contributions.
I will give way to my hon. Friend, but I do not want to give way too much, because this debate has gone on for rather a long time and I can sense that that is the mood of the Committee Chairman.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way on that basis. He always dances elegantly between reason and common sense—indeed, he gave a nod in the direction of conservatism, for which I suppose we must be grateful—but I wonder where, in his attack on hereditary power, he sees the monarchy. I did not know that he was a republican and I am rather surprised to hear that he is. If he is indeed a republican, I would like him to describe his views in slightly more detail.
I had the impression from that intervention that my hon. Friend thinks, if one is exercising reason, one could not possibly be a member of the Conservative party, but I will have to look at Hansard to check. As for the monarchy, I cannot see any connection and I am not going to persist.
Order. I do hope that the hon. Gentleman is not tempted to stray down that path.
I am not at all keen to pursue that argument, but if I may be permitted a one-sentence reply, I do not see any necessary connection between retaining the hereditary principle for a constitutional monarchy and having a bicameral elected Parliament.
This Labour Government should be ashamed of themselves. They should be ashamed of the fact that the clause is necessary in the first place. Labour will probably leave office in a few months, having reneged on its crucial pledge to replace the hereditary peerage with a fully democratic House of Lords, and that after 13 years and two Parliaments of gigantic majorities—indeed, they have been unprecedentedly large in modern times. We need to remind ourselves that we are debating clause 29 because Tony Blair—not anybody else—stitched together a cynical deal with Lord Cranborne to retain the hereditary peerage. However, even after the passage of clause 29, it will take another generation for the remaining hereditaries to go. As it happens—and this point has been made by one or two people—many of the remaining hereditaries have been diligent and have tried hard to make the work of the House of Lords more meaningful. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) on that point. However, the fact is that there cannot be a place for hereditary legislators in a 21st-century Parliament. That is simply an unanswerable point of principle.
However, that still leaves the point made from the Front Benches, which deserves a great deal of care and attention, about the question not of principle, but of political tactics. The argument that was used at the time to justify the deal—it was also the one that led my party to vote for it in 1999—was that the hereditaries would be kept as hostages until a more radical and democratic reform proposal came forward. I wish it were like that, but the truth is much more tawdry. It suited both parties to do that deal. It suited Labour to keep a weak House of Lords without a democratic mandate in place for as long as possible, because it knew that it would be in for trouble if it did anything else. As for the Conservatives, the party was in a considerable state of disarray at that time. The Lords were close to open rebellion and Lord Cranborne had to be sacked from the Front Bench—in fact, he was sacked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) shortly prior to that vote. The only semblance of an opportunity to act as a check on the Government, faced with such an unprecedentedly large majority, was the House of Lords, and frankly it was risky to offend it further.
The truth is that what emerged was a shabby deal that confers little honour on anyone involved. I am not sure whether dishonourable deals confer further dishonour on those parties that break them afterwards, but that is what we need to think about before deciding whether there is any point of honour that should be fulfilled by either side. The idea that we created hostages for change was, in any case, dealt a hammer blow during the passage of the relevant clause in the other place. The amendment was moved by Lord Weatherill from the Cross Benches, who made no secret of his preferences. He let the cat out of the bag when he described the possibility that his amendment might put off further change indefinitely as
“a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
Already more than a decade has passed. Those of us who want a fully functioning democratic second Chamber need to make a judgment: will the retention of the hereditaries be a brake on further reform or a spur to more change? That is a difficult and balanced judgment, but I have come to the conclusion that the hereditaries are not hostages for change or democracy; rather, they are hostages for inactivity and delay. I recognise that hon. Members in all parts of the Committee might disagree with that judgment, but it is the one that I have come to this evening.
Given that, as I said at the start of my speech, it is unlikely that much or any the proposed legislation will end up on the statute book, the point of principle seems to me to be crucial and, as a matter of a principle, I cannot support in the Division Lobby the retention of hereditary legislators.
With the permission of the Committee, I would like briefly to respond to part of this debate. I commend all who have spoken for the high quality of the debate—it was witty, too—and for the seriousness of the discussion that has been provoked by the important issue sparked off by this relatively modest clause.
Let me deal first with the suggestion, made not least by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), that the clause is some partisan device. I say to him and those on his Front Bench: it is not. The only way in which it could conceivably be made a partisan device would be if the Conservative party thought in error that there was some reason, to do with Conservative party philosophy and ideology, that required it to vote against the clause. However, I would suggest that there is no such reason. I do not presume to be as expert on Conservative ideology and philosophy as Conservative Members are; however, I would suggest that the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) does have some claim to that. I therefore hope that his right hon. and hon. Friends will take note of the fact that he has just said that he intends to vote, on a point of principle, with the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party for the clause.
The clause is not remotely partisan; nor is it, just to repeat the point, in any sense designed to harm the Conservatives’ representation in the other place. Let us be clear about that. I am glad that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster is nodding to suggest that he understands that.
The clause will not affect any of the existing hereditaries. If the clause becomes law, as I believe it will, it will be open and normal for the leader of the relevant political party to make a nomination in the case of a vacancy following the death of an hereditary peer—as it is in the case of a life peer. Even if those who had been elected as hereditaries had sufficient merit in the eyes of the Conservative party leader, for example, there is every reason for them not to be nominated, for them not to sit in the other place as life peers—measured against the claims of anyone else to sit there in an appointed Chamber—and for them not to be drawn from the completely ludicrous constituencies that have been mentioned. Not a single person who has spoken today has defended that system of election. Indeed, the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said that he was not going to take to the stump to defend such a system, and he is quite right; the truth is that it is indefensible.
Yes, there was a deal, and that is why the 90 ended up in the House of Lords. If the hon. Member for Chichester were to ask whether I would personally have done that deal, the answer would be that I do not think so. I am always careful to say, “I do not think so”, because it is one thing to score goals from the sidelines, but quite another to be in the shoes of the person taking part in the negotiations. Something that was not shoddy but honourable, however, was the desire of Lord Irvine and the Labour party of the time to try to reach an agreement, and not to use our huge majority to drive through these measures under the Parliament Acts. I have had to use the Parliament Acts on two occasions, and it is not a particularly happy experience.
It has been suggested that we should not do anything until we did everything, or—in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley)—that we should make the best the enemy of the good. All the arguments against doing that remind me of the wonderful skit on academic politics written in 1908 by the Cambridge philosopher, F. M. Cornford. In it, he said:
“There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing.”
He then went through all the arguments for not doing things, which included the principle of unripe time, the principle of the wedge and the principle of the dangerous precedent. He concluded:
“It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.”
Frankly, the arguments that have been advanced by the Conservatives today come down to the idea that the time is not ripe, given that no one has been prepared to defend the principle of elections of hereditary peers.
The deal was made 11 years ago, and no one anticipated that we would be here debating this now. We were asked whether we were at the next stage. Yes, we are proceeding to that, and it will happen next month with the publication of the major part of a draft Bill.
On the issue of the measures being piecemeal, I would simply say that it is possible to parody any legislation at the time of its introduction. With the single exception of the 1689 Bill of Rights, all legislation has been piecemeal. The Reform Act of 1832 was actually relatively modest in scope. It took another 60 years to get anywhere near a universal franchise for men, and 100 years to achieve a franchise for women. The Parliament Act 1911 was seen as a relatively modest interim measure, yet we now see it as having huge importance.
My record on the Freedom of Information Act 2000 has been mocked. The damnation of it by the Opposition was that it was not much more than a recapitulation of the non-statutory freedom of information code, although I did not agree with that. I think that the facts speak for themselves. The Human Rights Act 1998 might have been dismissed as piecemeal, but that is not what is said about it now. So far as the House of Lords is concerned, the Life Peerages Act 1958 could have been seen as piecemeal change—
It was radical for its day.
Indeed, and it was of major importance. The House of Lords Act 1999 has changed the composition of the other place, as well as making a major difference to its assertiveness. It has led it to being much more active in regard to change.
Is the Secretary of State saying that, when the history books are written, clause 29 will be a shining highlight of the reform of Parliament?
No, that was not the point that I was about to make.
I was going to say that we should not make the best the enemy of the good. There seems to be no one who will defend the principle behind the election of hereditary peers. No one has done so today. Every argument has been a body swerve. Furthermore, we all believe that this will be a step, albeit a modest one, towards reform. I hope that everyone accepts that keeping the hereditary by-elections would not be a provocation for further reform but simply a blockage to the further reform to which all the parties are apparently committed. If we add all that together, we can see a strong case—which was made most eloquently by the hon. Member for Chichester—in favour of this change, and not much of a case against it. With that, I commend the clause to the House.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 29 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Removal of members of house of lords etc
I beg to move amendment 92, page 15, line 32, at end insert
‘or a term peer within the meaning of section [Term peerages] of this Act’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment 93, in schedule 4, page 52, line 36, after ‘(c.21)’, insert
‘or a term peer under section [Term peerages]’.
New clause 25—Life peerages—
‘(1) The Life Peerages Act 1958, is amended is as follows.
(2) In section 1(1), after “life”, insert “or such other period as may be specified in the letters patent”.
(3) In section 1(2), after “conferred” insert, “or at the end of such other period as may have been specified in the letters patent”.’.
New clause 47—Term peerages—
‘(1) Her Majesty shall have power by letters patent to confer on any person a term peerage having the incidents specified in subsection (2) of this section.
(2) A term peerage conferred under this section shall entitle the person on whom it is conferred—
(a) to rank as a baron under such style as may be appointed by the letters patent; and
(b) subject to the relevant provisions of sections 30 to 33 above, to receive writs of summons to attend the House of Lords and sit and vote therein accordingly.
(3) Subject to subsection (4), a term peerage conferred under this section shall expire on the appointed day of poll for the third General Election after the day on which the term peerage was conferred.
(4) Where a period of two years or less has elapsed from the day of conferment of a term peerage under this section to the day of poll for a General Election, that poll for a General Election shall be disregarded for the purposes of calculation under subsection (3) above of the time of expiry of that term peerage.’.
This is a relatively modest proposal that I worked up last year with my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). New clause 47 and the consequential amendments will create a new class of peerage: term peers. As their name implies, term peers would be appointed for a fixed period rather than for life. The length of their term could and probably should be based on the approach already agreed by the major parties in their discussions on the make-up of a democratic Chamber—namely, that a predominantly elected second Chamber would comprise those serving a single long and non-renewable term of probably three Parliaments.
The term length was a proposal that came out of the talks on the White Paper, but I recognise that, in the search for consensus, some further changes could be considered for the way in which term peers are appointed, which concerns the Liberal Democrats.
I am proposing a modest step—certainly much more modest than the democratically elected second Chamber that I believe the British people deserve. If I thought that a democratic option could get through by consensus at this time, I would support it wholeheartedly, but I know that it will not. If we tried, the result would be a controversial Bill leading to a huge row. As I said, the plain fact is that the British people would find it extraordinary if the next Government, faced with the biggest economic mess since the 1930s, with the highest level of debt to GDP and the highest deficit since the second world war, decided to embark on a major constitutional upheaval. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) said, such a reform would absorb all the political energy of this place for at least a year. It would be irresponsible to engage in that with so many crucial economic questions facing us.
However, all three major parties support democracy for the Lords. It is also true, although the figure is not often mentioned—my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) did mention it—that 59 per cent. of Conservative MPs voted in 2007 for a largely or wholly elected second Chamber. There were even higher majorities in favour of democracy in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. The point has been made that some of that voting might have been tactical; of course that is true, but some of the voting against democracy might have been tactical, too. That tells us absolutely nothing. The fact is that there is a clear majority in this place for democracy—there probably has been for a long time. It is regrettable that using their large majorities the Labour Government have not found an opportunity to take us further down the road.
The problem is that any major Bill simply would not get past the Lords. I have no doubt that the Lords would oppose it. An early Bill to introduce democracy for the second Chamber would lead us straight into a constitutional crisis that the public would not understand, even though two thirds or three quarters of them support such a measure. They will rightly expect the Government to get on with the economic crisis in front of us.
By contrast, the term peers measure will not cause a constitutional crisis. Its advantages would be relatively modest, but they are at least straightforward and I hope that colleagues will agree that they are worth having. First, they would take the House of Lords a step along the road of what Lord Jay, the Chairman of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, described as moving along the curve from honour to job. We need a Chamber of people who are committed to fulfilling a parliamentary role and to doing a job of work in the 21st century, not a status House or a legacy status House. There is an increasingly important job for the second Chamber to do and the term peers proposal will increase the chances of getting a higher degree of commitment and quality from the people who are put there to do the job.
The second argument in favour of the proposal is that a major problem of the existing House would be addressed: the inevitable upward ratchet in the size of the House, given the way that it is presently constituted. The Government have been concerned about that problem, which occurs because an incoming Government inevitably want to make sure that their party is the largest single party in the Lords. The first thing that they will do under the existing rules—they have no choice—is to appoint a large number of life peers. Of course that life term is likely to be longer than the average life of the incoming Government and so those peers will still be there afterwards, leading to a ratchet effect each time and to an ever larger House. That becomes even more true as parties, as they have begun to do, seek to appoint somewhat younger lifers in order to get plenty of work out of them. That means that the peers will be there for even longer, even before we take into account increased life expectancy. The Lords will continue to grow.
At 740 Members, the Lords is already the largest democratic Chamber in the world—if we exclude the Chinese national party congress, which is the only other chamber as big. Britain, as far as I know, is also the only bicameral democracy with a second Chamber larger than the main Chamber, which is quixotic. Ending the ratchet will be hugely valuable and term peers will take us a long way down the road to dealing with it.
A third reason for supporting term peerages might seem paradoxical—particularly coming from me—but it is that the proposals would leave the existing life peerage wholly unaffected. That would minimise the risk of friction as term peerages are introduced. Should the parties decide so to do while in government, life peerages could be phased out or brought to an end, so the life peerage could be replaced by the term peerage, albeit quite slowly. That was how, gradually—not immediately—the hereditary peerage was phased out after life peerages were introduced in 1958.
Given that, for various reasons, neither party has the stomach for fundamental reform of the Lords and that this is probably an inappropriate moment in the economic cycle to attempt such reform, we need to make the best of what we have—the existing House—and I hope that this modest proposal will achieve that. It will provide the maximum benefit with the minimum disruption and it will address the ratchet, so I hope that it will be supported by Members across the House.
It was interesting to hear the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) for tabling this helpful and illuminating amendment. The Conservatives do not stand in the way of reasonable reform; we are very much in favour of it. No institution can remain static lest it stagnate, and it is important that reasonable steps to reform should be carefully taken. The vast majority of Members of this House are agreed that some sort of reform of the other House is necessary, and I am pleased that he has tabled these carefully considered amendments. The amendments and new clauses, taken together, may well provide a useful transitional measure while we await—it might take yet another 11 years—the Government’s final proposals for the proper debate on and reform of the other House.
I also agreed with what my hon. Friend said about Lord Jay, because it is right that in considering the appointments process in the House of Lords we should be moving along that curve from honour to job. Almost all of us are agreed that sitting in the upper House is a serious time-filling job, and one of responsibility. The upper House is a brilliantly effective reforming Chamber.
It is a brilliantly ineffective reforming Chamber, but it is a brilliantly effective revising Chamber.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman, because the Lords is more of a revising Chamber than a reforming one—I am perhaps rather taken up with the idea of reform this evening. As I have said, I am all in favour of reform, but it should be carried out at the right pace and in a reasoned and logical way. As he rightly says, the Lords is an effective revising Chamber and the people of this country deserve to have as effective an upper Chamber as possible. Amendment 92 and the associated provisions might make the House of Lords more effective.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester was right to make the point about the size of the House of Lords, and his argument was persuasive. In redressing the balance of numbers among the parties in the other House, every new Prime Minister rightly has the power to appoint more peers and does so. As a result, the size of the Lords grows and grows. Thus, my hon. Friend was right in his analysis, in his comparison of our bicameral system with other such systems, and in his comparison of the number of people sitting in the Lords with that in any comparable Chamber in the democratic world. Rather than leaving the culling process—I hope that I may call it that—in order to limit the size and overall membership of the Lords to the grim reaper, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) put it, it would seem sensible for us to consider the possibility of introducing term peerages.
As a matter of principle, the Conservatives are always in favour of strengthening Parliament and thereby strengthening democracy, and my hon. Friend’s proposals could be a small step in strengthening democracy. They are no substitute for full, considered reform, but he is not pretending that they are. They are possibly a small step in the right direction and for that reason we will not be opposing them.
The hon. Lady just said in closing that she would always support measures that strengthen democracy. The only trouble is that she has just voted, along with her colleagues, to maintain the hereditary peerage, so it is difficult to make out a coherent case.
The two acts—strengthening democracy and voting as we have just done—are entirely correct and compatible. [Interruption.] Contrary to what the Minister is saying, they are totally compatible. One of the main reasons why we voted as we just did was to show how much we appreciate the importance of an undertaking—a promise—made by the Government of the United Kingdom; it is a promise that should not be broken. That is about strengthening democracy; if the Government are allowed to break promises, democracy is not strengthened.
Order. The hon. Lady is very experienced, so she will be aware that her interventions should be brief. I think that she has made her point.
I concede that in a different logical universe there is a consistency to what the hon. Lady is saying.
I wish briefly to say something in support of the proposal made by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) for term limits. The only thing that gives me pause for caution is that he said in his previous interesting speech that everything we are saying today is irrelevant and that all this is an academic exercise, because it will not happen. Given that spirit, I am on his side, because I think that term limits would contribute something interesting to a package of reform measures, for the reasons that he has outlined. The biggest reason relates to the looming problem of the number of peers in the second Chamber. I have come to think that House of Lords reform will eventually be driven not by any great principles that we may hold, but by the need to attend to problems that we can no longer avoid addressing.
Perhaps the biggest of those problems is the exponential growth in the number of Members of the Lords, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has described. It will make the place completely unmanageable and something will have to be done. The other measures in the Bill—the removal and retirement provisions—will help, but far more is required, and the move to term limits is sensible. All of us who subscribe to one or other version of House of Lords reform usually include term limits as part of our package. Even those in favour of a wholly democratic House usually have term limits as part of the package that they advance. That is entirely consistent, whichever direction one is coming from.
We all have our own approach to House of Lords reform, and we all recite it at every possible opportunity. We are all wholly unmoved by what other people say when they describe their position; that is one great feature of this debate. We never change our positions, but simply repeat the positions that we have always held on the issue. I long for the day when someone says that they have just heard an argument that has persuaded them that we should move in the direction of election or appointment. That never happens. Year in and year out, there is simply a repetition of the positions that we hold, immune to argument, and I am as guilty of that as anyone else.
With that proviso, let me just say, as someone who has always been in favour of a vigorously mixed House, that as long as one can defend the integrity of the ingredients of the mix, in reasonably democratic terms, term limits contribute something to that mix. Whatever we do, in a mature sense, about changing the composition of the House of Lords, or if we simply want to attend to the problems of today, term limits are a sensible ingredient in the package of measures that we are being offered in the Bill today.
May I join the consensus? It is rather cheering that so far there has been total consensus of view among hon. Members who have spoken. Indeed, I ventured to table new clause 25, which has the same purpose as the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie).
I, too, favour fixed-term peerages. I came to that position after balancing the arguments, because there is, in fact, an argument the other way. That argument, which in the end I did not accept, is that life peerages add to the independence of mind of the individuals who are made life peers, because they know that they will be in the Lords for ever, as it were, and have nothing to fear. When Members are independent in that sense, there is a more independent second Chamber, and I am strongly in favour of that.
That is the argument on one side, but there are counterbalancing arguments that I accept and prefer, and my hon. Friend advanced them. There are four of them, and I can set them out very briefly. First, the second Chamber is too large. My hon. Friend spoke about the ratchet effect; he is wholly right, and the second Chamber will get still larger after this coming electing.
Secondly—we have to deal with this point with a degree of caution—many noble Lords have, in fact, made their contribution, and have perhaps a limited contribution yet to make. That is because age has an impact on even the most able. That is, of course, recognised in judicial appointments. When my father was Lord Chancellor, judges could go on for ever, and often did. That became quite bad news for some litigants. The truth is that we recognise that through a retirement age. We do not have one in the other place, and that is not always a good thing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester, echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), made the important point that being in the other place is not just an honour; it is becoming a job—an important job that contributes very much to our constitution. If it is a job, it should be a job only for as long as a person is capable of doing it. In parenthesis, may I say that the other place would be sensible to look to salaries, rather than allowances? We all know the problems relating to allowances, so if it is a job, the other place would do well to consider a salary.
I have one further point to make, and it relates to GOATs. The House will be conscious of what I mean by GOATs—Ministers in a Government of all the talents. A number of noble GOATs appointed to the other place found that their ministerial functions entranced them only for a few months, but thereafter they were able to graze on the red Benches indefinitely. That is slightly distasteful to the public as a whole. That is not my principal argument in favour of fixed-term peerages, but it is a consideration that this Committee might want to take into account.
I have two further points to make before I sit down and allow the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) to speak. First, the terms should be quite long. How long is a matter for debate, but they should last for some significant time—certainly more than two Parliaments—so that there is a degree of continuity in the other place. Also—this is a slightly different point—that would enhance the sense of independence that I think is so important.
To pick up on my right hon. and learned Friend’s point about GOATs, if someone is appointed to the other place specifically to be a Minister, does he think that the term of their peerage should be tied to the length of time for which they hold that office? Once they cease to be a Minister, should they not cease to be a Member of the other place?
That is a very serious point that I have considered. Probably, one cannot be doctrinaire about it. I am inclined to answer that question in an ad hominem way. If I were the Prime Minister, I would be inclined to ask myself whether the GOAT in question was likely to make a continuing contribution after he or she ceased to be a Minister. If the answer to that was no, I would appoint the GOAT for the period for which the GOAT was likely to remain in the field, and not beyond. If, on the other hand, I thought that the GOAT was likely to make a continuing contribution to us all, I would give the GOAT a longer expectation of life.
My final point is on reappointments. Assuming that we go down the road of fixed-term peerages, which I commend to the Committee, and assuming, too, that the period is quite long, we might well find, at the end of the stated period, that the person still has a real contribution to make. I hope that in those circumstances, the person could be reappointed for a further term, albeit a further term of significantly shorter duration than the original term. That does not fall within the scope of the amendments—I do not think that it has to—but it is a proviso that I would make to the Committee.
At the risk of making this all fuzzy and warm, I, too, welcome the proposals set out by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie). I abhor appointment to a democratic Chamber. It is ludicrous and embarrassing, and we should be ashamed of our constitution, but his proposal is less ludicrous, embarrassing and shameful than the situation that we would otherwise be stuck with, and I therefore think it sensible in the circumstances.
It is interesting to consider what we are debating. We are debating how to end people’s term of office in the House of Lords and how they should be removed. We are not proposing giving the people of this country the power to remove them—a power that, thank goodness, the people of this country have over us. I look forward to the day, hopefully when I am still a Member of this House, when the people of this country get that power.
It is worth looking at who else has the power to remove Members of this House. In clause 30, there is a power to remove Members of the House of Lords if they commit a particular kind of criminal offence or become bankrupt. There is a provision that if Members of this House are sectioned under the Mental Health Act 1983, they can be removed.
Order. I ask the hon. Lady to recall that that subject would come under a clause 30 stand part debate, rather than this debate on amendment 92.
I stand corrected. I hope that this is a matter we can address very quickly, and I shall stop talking about this very sensible amendment.
I forbore to stand to catch your eye earlier, Mrs. Heal, because I wanted to listen to the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) discuss their amendments and new clauses.
I shall maintain the spirit of consensus that has predominated in this debate, but not because I believe for one moment in the concept of appointed term peers or non-term peers. I am wholly against that concept. As most hon. Members know, I have always argued in favour of an elected second Chamber, but the amendment has some merits in the context—and only in the context—of an unreformed House and how we might limit some of the more deleterious aspects of its form and function at the moment. One thing that I have noticed about those who are elevated to another place is that they tend very quickly to believe that the process by which they were elevated must be extremely wise and sensible given the outcome, which is that they are now a Member of that House. The longer they stay in the House, the more they are convinced of that fact and the less likely they are to change.
The merit of what the hon. Member for Chichester has proposed is that it provides an envelope for that patronage to end. That must be right. It limits, at least to a certain extent, the effect of prime ministerial patronage. I also think that it would have the function of focusing those who were in that House for a limited period on the job that they were there to do. A great number of life peers, particularly those who have been recently created, seem to have only the haziest view of their function as members of a legislature, as evidenced by the fact that they rarely attend. When they do attend, it is usually on a matter that directly affects them rather than because they have any view of their function in a working democracy. The fact is that the work of the other House is carried out by a very limited number of people. All credit to those who shoulder the burden—they do a terrific job—but the fact is that many Members of the other House are rarely seen and rarely contribute.
The truth is that the less the House of Commons scrutinises legislation, the greater the burden on their lordships in their purpose of scrutiny.
Precisely so. It irritates me enormously when someone has the perks and honours associated with membership of the other House but does not do the work involved. It is sad to say that a lot of them do that. We might feel that some Members of this House, on occasions, contribute relatively little, but at least they occasionally turn up to vote. Some in the other place do not even find that that is a necessary part of their function.
As I said, I think that term limits might focus the view of those who receive such preferment on the role that they are expected to perform. My only quibble, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Chichester, is the time period for which they might be expected to serve. He mentioned three Parliaments. I would be happy with that if we had fixed-term Parliaments, but we do not. Having a specific time might be better than expressing it in terms of Parliaments, because there would not be a direct relationship between the peer’s activities in the other House and elections to this House. However, I am a strong advocate of a fixed-term Parliament in any case, which would solve that difficulty.
I have to say that I do not agree with the arguments made by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham in favour of reappointment. There is a considerable benefit in not having reappointments, largely for the reason he enlisted in favour of some of the things that he said—that is, independence. When people know that there is nothing to be gained by reacting positively to the prospect of future advancement or patronage, they have an independence of mind that might not be quite as strong in other circumstances. If we have a fixed term without the possibility of reappointment, that frees anybody who is in that position from the sometimes adverse attentions of the Whips or party colleagues. They will clearly be free to speak their own minds.
An interesting and important point mentioned by the right hon. and learned Gentleman at the end of his comments and picked up on by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) is the position of Ministers. I take a view, which is not shared by everybody, that we should not have Ministers appointed from the House of Lords anyway. Ministers should come from this place and should go along to the House of Lords to argue their case for particular legislation and we should remove yet another tier of patronage. However, that is not the position at the moment.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. May I put this slightly different question to him? Given where we now are, would he support Ministers in the other place being able to come to this place to respond to questions and perhaps to advance arguments in debate?
Order. I am afraid that that question, interesting as it might be, is not relevant to the amendment that we are discussing.
I accept your guidance, Mrs. Heal.
On term limits for Ministers appointed as Ministers to the other place, I think that there is a very strong argument—we dealt with this in our cross-party discussions on the future of the House of Lords—that, if someone is appointed as a Minister, the term should be for the duration of their role in the Administration. There is no argument for its coming automatically with a permanent seat or even a 15-year seat or whatever in the House of Lords. It should be an ad hoc position, if it is our view that Ministers should continue to be appointed from that House. Entry to the House should be for the duration of the time for which that person is a Minister.
If there is then an argument that the person involved has performed distinguished service, perhaps in the role of Secretary of State, and merits a term peerage, so be it. Their appointment should not be a disqualification from a term peerage, but it should not automatically be assumed that because someone has been an Under-Secretary for a few weeks that person merits a permanent place in the revising Chamber of our legislature. That seems to me to be an unanswerable argument.
I would have preferred it if this amendment had included a section on Ministers, but I appreciate the fact that we are talking about a principle. It is a principle on which we will divide, if the hon. Member for Chichester presses his amendment to a Division. I shall recommend to my right hon. and hon. Friends that the amendment should be supported. I shall not do so, however, because I think that it is a perfect amendment or that a reformed House of Lords with term peers in it would be a reformed House of Lords. It would be just slightly better than what we have at the moment and I suppose that any advance is better than none.
I want briefly to contribute to the debate. I agree very much with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I, too, want to see a full democratisation of the House of Lords. In many ways, the term peerages that we are debating will tend to recognise the perpetuation of the life peerages that I would like to see done away with.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) alluded to what would probably happen if elected term peerages replaced life peerages. I think that that would be a sensible and desirable way to go forward, but I agree that there are some deep concerns about the appointment of Ministers specifically from outside the political sphere.
In many ways, what happened with Lord Carter, Lord Jones of Birmingham and others has rather discredited what was a very good initiative on the part of the Prime Minister of the time. I think that it is desirable to have certain ministerial talent coming into Parliament, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham was right to say that the difficulty with those two individuals and the others was that they were enamoured of Parliament and politics for only a matter of months. After that, they ended up with the life peerages that were bestowed on them, which cannot be taken away. That would be less undesirable if there were evidence that they wanted to play a part in matters political even in their post-ministerial lives, but there is little evidence of that.
The amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) is in many ways a sensible interim development. Some trimming of the notion that a peerage is for life would be very desirable but, in the absence of the radical reform that I would prefer, I suspect that over the years and decades ahead we will move towards all peerages being term peerages and not life peerages. To an extent, that would get around some of the concerns about Ministers expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper).
The whole thing is a bit of mess, to put it mildly. This has been a worthwhile debate although, for the reasons set out just now and earlier this evening by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester, it is likely to be academic, as it is unlikely that the amendment will end up on the statute book.
Would my hon. Friend encourage our Front-Bench team to make it plain to Government Front Benchers in the wash-up session that we would support the concept of life peerages at the end of this Parliament, as part of a compromise Bill?
Yes, I would join my right hon. and learned Friend in trying to make that plain.
I hope that the Minister has some food for thought for his response to this brief debate but, assuming that the amendment is pressed to a vote, I shall join my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester in supporting it.
I say this with genuine regret, but I am afraid that I am going to break the consensus and tell the Committee that, unfortunately, the Government cannot support the amendment.
My regret is genuine, as the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) has done the Committee a real service. My thanks go as well to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), whose name also appears on some of the proposals.
The amendments are serious, imaginative and constructive, and they deal with an issue of real importance in our national life. I am particularly sorry that we cannot support them, as I think that there is real consensus across the Committee—and I include myself in that—about the three main objectives and premises that I have discerned to be driving the proposals.
First, everyone who has spoken is, like me, in favour of comprehensive reform of the House of Lords on a democratic basis. I think that we can take it for granted that we all want a wholly elected House of Lords
Secondly, I see all the merits for term limits, for all the reasons that have been set out. I shall not rehearse them, but I would like to sign up to all the arguments put forward by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee in favour of term limits.
Finally, I think that everyone can agree that the House of Lords is too large and is growing even larger, for all the reasons that have been advanced so cogently. That is regrettable, and the trend needs to be reversed. On all those grounds, I think that the Committee is in agreement.
However, the problem with the amendments is that they are based on a fundamental premise with which the Government must disagree. That premise is that the comprehensive reform of the House of Lords is not going to happen in the near future. I understand why people may say that, as the process has been going on for 100 years or more. I also understand that there is a certain cynicism or weariness about the matter, so I completely understand the motivation behind the amendments, but we have to look at the arguments a little more closely.
The hon. Member for Chichester advanced two main reasons why he thinks that reform of the House of Lords remains a distant prospect. The first was that the next Parliament, whoever forms the Government, will be wholly preoccupied with dealing with the current crisis in the economy. As a result, he said, radical constitutional change will simply not be an option.
I fundamentally disagree with that proposition. We can all accept that there are real pressing challenges in the economy that need to be dealt with, but it is manifestly not true that the House will be able to concentrate only on that one thing. It was not true at the height of the second world war: the nation faced one of the biggest challenges to its existence that it has ever faced, but wholesale programmes of economic and social reform were driven through. The foundations of the national health service were put in place, as were radical reforms of the educational system, and so on. Of course this House, and Parliament as a whole, can do more than one thing at a time.
The Minister will accept that the Butler Education Act of 1944 and the Beveridge reforms were based on consensus in the House of Commons that spread throughout the political sphere. The issues were debated at some length, it is true, but broadly speaking there was consensus. The difference now is that reform of the House of Lords would be a matter of great contention, with the result that the Government would have at least one eye off the ball when it came to the economic crisis.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at his history books, I think that he will find that there was not a consensus about the NHS—very far from it. The Conservative party did not support it at the time, but I shall not take that historical analysis any further.
The second argument put forward by the hon. Member for Chichester for his amendments was that there would be a constitutional crisis—I think that that was the term that he used—if reform were to be driven through in short order. I understand the argument, and accept that Members in the other place are very sceptical about the idea and reluctant to envisage the sort of radical reform that every hon. Member who has spoken here tonight wants. The consensus in the House of Commons on the matter is broad, with almost everyone supporting reform, but I put it to the hon. Gentleman that we would not see the sort of crisis that he predicts if every major political party’s manifesto contained a commitment to drive through radical reform of the House of Lords in the next Parliament.
If the manifesto commitments were expressed in those terms, I think that the other place would recognise that the will of the people had spoken. Sadly, we have not heard quite such a definite pledge from the Conservative party here this evening, but there is still hope.
I do not think that full reform of the House of the Lords is, by any measure, inevitably a distant prospect. The House of Lords could be reformed, as long as the proper political will existed. The Government are willing to commit to that prospect, but the premise for the reform proposed in the amendment is misplaced. The amendment can have the merits advanced for it today only if a change to a wholly elected Chamber is not going to happen imminently.
Such a change would be phased in over time, as we discussed at great length previously, but signing up to these amendments would send the signal that we had given up all hope of radical reform of the House of Lords. I am simply not prepared to do that.
I want to offer some comfort to the hon. Member for Chichester, the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and all those who have spoken in the debate today. The Government will publish draft clauses for that wholesale reform very shortly, within a matter of weeks. I hope that we can focus the debate on the content of those clauses, which we are publishing in draft because we genuinely want contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House on how best to achieve the wholesale reform that everyone has signed up to today.
We have known for a very long time that this part of the Bill would be debated in the Chamber today, so why have the Government not already brought forward the draft Bill to which the Minister just referred? They could have put it before us this evening, so that we could have debated this matter knowing what they intend.
I think that the hon. Lady is being slightly disingenuous. The Government’s broad intention has been clear for a very long time. We are talking about bringing forward specific clauses so that the details of our intentions can be scrutinised and discussed.
That is where I hope the energy of the House will be directed. The quality of today’s debate shows that Members of the House have a considerable contribution to make in achieving that radical reform—not temporising or providing transitional measures. That is where I hope we can focus the debate.
I shall not dwell on them, but there are technical problems with the proposal and unanswered questions such as who would decide whether a person should be granted a term peerage or a life peerage, against what criteria the decision should be made and what would happen at the end of a fixed term, although we had a little discussion about reappointment. All those technical problems could be fixed if there were broad agreement that this is the right way forward because reform of the House of Lords is so distant. I do not agree with that.
Does the Minister understand that what he is saying is slightly different in its general tone from the position adopted by the Secretary of State? The Minister is saying that if we agreed to the amendment, which is intrinsically good, we would send a signal that serious future reform was not intended, but during the previous debate the Secretary of State asked us to accept reforms that, adopting the Minister’s argument, send exactly the same signal. Why were we asked to support clause 29 when we are being asked not to support the amendment?
I completely understand what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying, but he is an extremely distinguished lawyer and he knows that the devil is always in the detail. The whole point about clause 29 is that we have a system that is risible, to use the Secretary of State’s term. We cannot expect the dignity of the House not to be impaired when we have a system that involves more candidates than electors. I do not want to revisit the previous debate, but that was clearly not envisaged. The two situations are categorically different, and we cannot simply apply the badge, “The best is the enemy of the good.” That simply does not fly, although I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for allowing me to make that clear.
I think we all share the same objectives, broadly; it is a question of how we get there. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for Chichester will consider withdrawing his amendment. I understand why he has made his proposals, but will he devote his considerable intellectual energies and creativity to getting the wholesale reform of the House of Lords that we all want to see when we introduce the draft measures on that very shortly?
I am grateful for the Minister’s generous words at the end of his speech, but less grateful for the unfortunate fact that, uniquely among those who have spoken, he has decided to oppose the measure—indeed, to lead the Government’s opposition to it.
I am fortified when I receive support from such a varied crew from around the House: the Chairman of the Select Committee on Public Administration, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright); the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart); my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg); and my Front Benchers and so on. Their support—not to mention that of the whole of the Liberal party, which I think is also aboard—suggests to me that there might be something in the proposal.
The Minister put two arguments against the measure. First, he said that we should rush ahead with radical reform even though the economy is in crisis, adding that that would be perfectly doable based on the historical precedent of radical reforms that took place during the second world war, although he did not mention the fact that we had a coalition Government in the Commons and Lords’ support for them. He then alluded to controversies about the NHS as a further example, without realising that the NHS was created well after the war under the Attlee-led Labour Government. I feel that he needs to look at the history books, which he invited us to look at.
The Minister had another main objection. He seemed to say that now we have this solid proposal ready on the blocks, we should act on it and that nothing could be an obstacle to it—we could act within weeks. The Labour party has been in power for 13 years with huge majorities, so why on earth did it not find an earlier opportunity to push reform through? I find that quite astonishing.
First, I said that the foundations of the NHS were laid during the second world war. I think the hon. Gentleman will find that that is true. The fact that the NHS was delivered after the war is another matter. Secondly, and more importantly, he knows very well—he heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explain it this afternoon—that we have tried for the past 12 years to build a consensus for reform. We have made considerable progress in doing so, and I hope he will recognise that at least.
We have made some progress. Eventually, perhaps, we will be able to move further in that direction and measures might be introduced when the country is more prepared to allow its focus to be taken away from the issues that matter most to the vast majority of households. I am sure they will be focused on economic issues for the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, I am surprised and disappointed that the Government have not realised that the measure would address the effect of the ratchet—the fact that the House of Lords is getting ever larger. It had been heard in Government circles that that problem was being increasingly discussed.
Given that there is such widespread, cross-party support for the measure, except among those on the Treasury Bench, I have decided to press it to a Division.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 30 provides that a person who is an accepted hereditary peer or life peer will be removed from the House of Lords if he or she meets the conditions in part 1 of schedule 4, which deals with disqualification for a serious criminal offence or bankruptcy, or is expelled by a resolution of the House under clause 31, or resigns from the House under clause 32.
I notice, having looked at the reasons for removing someone from the House of Lords, that there is nothing about whether the Member of the House of Lords has either the physical or mental capacity. There is a provision affecting Members of this House whereby they can be removed under section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, but the recent Speaker’s Conference report suggested that the provision be removed. Does the Minister have anything to say about how that may affect Members of the other place?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) raised earlier. I should like to take this opportunity to make it clear that there is no justification, in my view, for a distinction between mental and physical illness in that respect—none. Therefore, the current situation is clearly untenable. Nevertheless, particular issues must be discussed in terms of the representation of constituents. If a Member is incapacitated for whatever reason, we have to look at how their constituents are best represented. Our view, like that of the Speaker’s Conference, is that the issue is best discussed by a Select Committee, and we hope that that will happen without delay. I hope that that provides some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend.
The Minister is right that I raised that issue in an out-of-order way earlier in today’s proceedings. However, he over-complicates the matter. I was, for example, unable to represent my constituents for many months when I was away, because I had cancer.
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, and perhaps I should have intervened on the Minister earlier, but this debate is specifically about the House of Lords, not about the House of Commons. The remarks of both the hon. Lady and the Minister must be restricted to that.