[1st Allocated Day]
I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
I am extremely grateful, as will be the House, to the Deputy Prime Minister. Before we get the debate under way, I can inform the House that several dozen right hon. and hon. Members are today seeking to catch the eye of the Chair. The Deputy Speakers and I have compiled a list, very painstakingly. We are doing our best to accommodate as many colleagues as possible, but let me say at the outset that I ask colleagues please not—repeat, not—to come to the Chair inquiring whether and, if so, when they will be called to speak. Colleagues must display some patience. Just wait, attend to the debate and hope for the best. The Chair is trying to accommodate colleagues. To that end, in view of the level of interest, there will be a six-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
No one doubts the commitment and public service of many Members of the House of Lords, but dedicated individuals cannot compensate for flawed institutions. The Bill is about fixing a flawed institution, so let me begin by setting out why our upper Chamber is in need of these reforms—the three simple reasons why I hope Members will give it their full support. The first is that we—all of us here—believe in democracy. We believe that the people who make the laws should be chosen by the people who are subject to those laws. That principle was established in Britain after centuries of struggle and it is a principle that we still send our servicemen and women halfway across the world to defend, yet right now we are only one of only two countries in the world —the other being Lesotho—with an upper parliamentary chamber that is totally unelected and instead selects its members by birthright and patronage.
I should like to make a little progress.
The House of Lords is an institution that offers its Members a job for life; an institution that serves the whole of the United Kingdom, yet draws around half its members from London and the south-east; an institution in which there are eight times as many people over 90 as there are people under 40; an institution that has no democratic mandate—none whatsoever—but that exercises real power. The House of Lords initiates Bills, it shapes legislation and, as Governments of all persuasions know, it can block Government proposals, too. These reforms seek to create a democratic House of Lords, matching power with legitimacy.
I shall make a little progress before giving way again.
Under our proposals, 80% of Members would be chosen at the ballot box, with elections taking place every five years, and the remaining 20% would be appointed by an independent statutory commission. There would be no more jobs for life—we propose single, non-renewable, limited terms of about 15 years—and our reforms would guarantee representation for every region of the United Kingdom. At the heart of the Bill is the vision of a House of Lords that is more modern, more representative and more legitimate—a Chamber fit for the 21st century.
A moment ago, the Deputy Prime Minister said that one of the functions of the House of Lords was to introduce legislation. Can he give us an example—of importance—of a Bill introduced in the other House that has affected this country but that did not have the Government’s permission to be introduced and seen through? Is not the Lords job different from ours? Our job is to initiate and pass legislation on the condition of the Government; the Lords job is to deliberate on that legislation.
All legislation, whether it originates here or in the other place, of course requires the support of the Government of the day to make its way on to the statute book.
The second reason that the reforms will lead to better laws—this may help to answer the right hon. Gentleman—is that the Bill is not just about who legislates, but about how we legislate. Right now in our political system, power is still over-concentrated in the Executive. Governments, quite simply, can be too powerful. During their political lifetime, many Members have seen landslide Administrations able to railroad whichever Bills they like through the Commons, and we have all heard colleagues complain about different Governments trying to ram Bills through the other place when they should have been trying to win the argument in both Houses. Despite its assertiveness, too often Governments believe they can disregard the Lords.
My intervention was prompted by the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement of the principle that those who make the law should be elected by those who bear it. Of course, the older and greater principle is that those who make the laws should be accountable to those who bear the laws, and there is no accountability in the process that he is introducing.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman, I would say that there is neither accountability nor legitimacy in the status quo. These are jobs for life, which are entirely discharged without any reference to the British people. Surely, it is simply time to trust the British people.
I shall make a little more progress, if I may.
The Bill, by creating a more legitimate House of Lords, gives it more authority to hold Governments to account—a greater check on Executive power. That does not mean emboldening the Lords to the point that it threatens the Commons—I shall come on to those concerns shortly—but it does mean bolstering its role as a Chamber that scrutinises Government. It means forcing Governments to treat an elected upper Chamber with greater respect. The aim of the Bill, to quote the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell), is to create a second Chamber
“more independent of the executive, more able to exercise independent judgment”.
That will mean not only better laws, but fewer laws, restricting, again in the words of my right hon. Friend,
“the torrent of half-baked legislation”
that Governments are capable of.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. The Blair Government were defeated four times in the House of Commons and 460 times in the House of Lords. Does the right hon. Gentleman really believe that an elected House of political placemen will do a better job of opposing than does the current House of Lords?
It will be able to discharge that considerable authority with greater legitimacy, and therefore it will be harder for the Executive to ignore the opinions of the House of Lords. I would have thought, if I may say so, that it was a long-standing Conservative principle that it is the people who should be in the driving seat and the Executive who should be kept on their toes.
The third reason to support the Bill—
I will give way in a minute, if I may make this point.
Right now, we have an upper Chamber that is ever-expanding. That is one of the main consequences of the unfinished 1999 reforms. Very simply, after a general election, new Governments will always seek to reflect the balance of the vote in the Lords. But it is impossible to get rid of Members: the only way to leave is to die. So new Administrations inevitably have to make more appointments to get the balance right. [Interruption.] The current membership is 816. That will soon be over 1,000. Clearly, the status quo is unsustainable. [Interruption.] The House of Lords is already—
Order. I apologise for interrupting the Deputy Prime Minister. There is a permanent cacophony in the Chamber and Members might think that it is some sort of laughing matter, but as far as a lot of people observing our proceedings are concerned, it is just discourteous. The right hon. Gentleman has a right both to speak and to be heard with reasonable decorum. That is what Members would want for themselves; that is what Members should extend to the right hon. Gentleman.
If, for whatever reason, the Deputy Prime Minister is unsuccessful in getting the White Paper through this afternoon—[Hon. Members: “It is a Bill.”]—will he pledge today that he and other senior Liberal Democrats will not take their places in an unreformed House of Lords?
I am making the case for the Government’s Bill. I am not going to make predictions about a vote tomorrow, which I firmly believe will be carried.
The Bill reverses that trend. It gradually reduces the membership and caps it at 450, plus 12 bishops. Some people have said that the numbers could be dealt with much more easily, that we can slim the other place by disqualifying convicted criminals or allowing Members to resign.
I will give way shortly.
The first solution would bring the total down by a handful, potentially; the second perhaps by none. Others have said, “Yes, cap the House at an appropriate limit, but make it fully appointed.” But how could we possibly justify dramatic reform of the Lords that did not introduce a democratic element? That would be unthinkable. It would be in direct contravention of each of the three main parties’ manifestos, flying in the face of our collective promise to renew our politics. The only way to get to grips with the numbers is fundamental democratic reform. That is what the Bill does.
I think that a referendum is not justified in this instance, for the following reasons: first, unlike other issues that are a source of great disagreement here, all three main parties are committed to delivering House of Lords reform, by way of their own manifestos, which they put to the British people at the last election, the one before that, and the one before that; secondly, it would be very expensive—£80 million—for something on which we are all supposed to agree; and thirdly, it would detract attention from the much more important referendum taking place in this Parliament: the referendum on the future of the United Kingdom.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the Bill in the name of his right hon. Friend Lord Steel, the House of Lords (Cessation of Membership) Bill, which addresses the issue of over-membership in the other place and has widespread support there?
Of course I have examined that Bill and discussed it with Lord Steel extensively. Any reasonable person who subjected it to any scrutiny would conclude that it would not deal with the practical issues to which I have alluded—the House of Lords getting bigger and bigger—because voluntary resignation or the kicking out of convicted criminals simply will not deal with the unsustainable trajectory of the size of the House of Lords.
I will make a little more headway, and then of course I will give way.
Democracy, better laws and the urgent and practical need for reform are the three reasons why Members of this House should give the Bill their blessing and wish it a swift passage into law. Before addressing some of the concerns about the Government’s proposals, I would like to make the point that the Bill, although it has been introduced by the coalition Government, in many ways is not just the Government’s Bill. These reforms build on the work of our predecessors on both sides of the House. As with all the best examples of British constitutional reform, the proposals look to the future but are respectful of the past. Veterans of these debates will know that the coalition parties cannot claim full credit for the reforms presented here. If we go back to the White Paper produced by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) in 2008, the late Robin Cook’s “Breaking the Deadlock”, the House of Lords Act 1999, Lord Wakeham’s royal commission and everything that went before over the past 100 years, it is clear that these reforms have a long bloodline that includes all our parties and political traditions.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister not see that there is a degree of inconsistency between his view that we in this House are too powerful and therefore need neutering by the House of Lords and his voting to maintain the strengthening of the Executive and the boundary changes by keeping the number of Ministers yet reducing the number of Back-Bench Members of Parliament?
One of the Bill’s intentions is absolutely not to neuter the House of Commons, but to work in partnership with the House of Commons in holding the Executive to account. I would have thought that Members on both sides of the House would celebrate and support anything that means that Parliament as a whole can hold the Executive more fully to account. Indeed, in 1910, when Government proposals to limit the power of the House of Lords were introduced, it was Winston Churchill who said:
“I would like to see a Second Chamber which would be fair to all parties, and which would be properly subordinated to the House of Commons and harmoniously connected with the people.”
He ended by saying:
“The time for words is past; the time for action has arrived.”—[Official Report, 31 March 1910; Vol. 15, c. 1572-83.]
More than 100 years later, I could not agree more.
Many of us who have sympathy with the need to reform the other place are still deeply concerned about these proposals. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what it was in his recent experiences that has suggested that the kind of democracy we need is one where politicians can say what the hell they like, stay for 15 years and never have to face the voters again?
I think that it is preferable to their being there, making the laws of the land and never being put before the British people. I would hope that the hon. Gentleman, if he believes in House of Lords reform as strongly as the Labour party always has—it used to be a long and noble campaigning tradition for the party—will not only will the ends by backing Second Reading, but will the means by backing the programme motion.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend, but will he cease to quote Churchill on these matters, given that they relate to Churchill’s views on the House of Lords at a time of great conflict between the House of Commons and the House of Lords in the 1920s? As he grew up through his political life, he dropped those views and had great reverence and respect for the institution of the House of Lords—something that I suggest my right hon. Friend should have as well.
Of course I will always refer to the views of Winston Churchill with a great deal of respect, but I point out only that he expressed those views in 1910, when of course he was a Liberal, not in the 1920s. I know that he changed his views later, and they are a matter of record.
If the Labour party’s views have evolved over the past 100 years, which in this matter, if not in others, they may have, I hope none the less that the right hon. Lady will confirm that there was a clear manifesto commitment from the Labour party not only to support the principle of House of Lords reform, but to deliver it in practice.
I shall make a little more progress, if I may.
In 2007, the Commons voted overwhelmingly for a mostly elected second Chamber. Each of the main parties stood on a platform of Lords reform at the last election, and since coming into Government the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), and I have looked for every way to take it forward by consensus.
We convened a cross-party Committee, which I chaired. We then published a White Paper and a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny.
I shall make a little more headway.
A Joint Committee of both Houses spent nine months considering that White Paper and draft Bill, and I remain extremely grateful for the Joint Committee’s forensic and detailed analysis. We accepted more than half its recommendations and reshaped the Bill around its advice.
This Bill is therefore the sincere result of long and shared endeavour. Its history belongs to us all: to Liberals, to Conservatives, to Labour and to all other parties in this House, as well as to the great political reformers and pragmatists of the past.
The Deputy Prime Minister is making an articulate case for a position to which he holds with great conviction, and I respect his integrity in that, but does he accept that many of us fear that by electing the second Chamber and giving it the greater legitimacy he talks about, we will end up creating a rival to this Chamber, rather than the revising Chamber that we all want.
I know that the hon. Gentleman holds his views, although different from mine, with great sincerity, and I respect him for that, but in a bicameral democratic system there is nothing unusual about having two Chambers, both of which are either fully elected or mainly elected, and in which there is a clear imbalance, an asymmetry—a hierarchy, if you like —in the relationship of one Chamber with the other. I am sure that we can manage it here. The predictions that it would lead to gridlock and to rivalry between the two Chambers were made when reform took place in 1958 and in 1999. They did not materialise then; I really do not believe that they will this time, either.
If I can make a little more progress, I will give way.
Of course, this does not mean that every Member of this House agrees with every clause—[Laughter.] That is an understatement! There is no perfect blueprint for a modernised second Chamber. Even within each of the main parties, differing visions of reform can be found, and this Bill reflects a number of compromises that have been made to accommodate differences across the House. I say to Members of this House who have specific worries about particular aspects of this Bill that this is precisely what further scrutiny of the proposals, in both Houses, will be about. The concerns that remain fall into two main camps: the myths, which I will now seek to dispel; and the fears, which I hope to address. But before doing so, I give way to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).
The Deputy Prime Minister knows that I support reform and have done for a very long time, but there are elements of the Bill that I do not like, such as the 15-year term and the fact that it is not clear enough about the respective powers of the two Houses. If the Government are going to end up Parliament-Acting the Bill because the Lords refuses to deal with it, it is all the more incumbent on us to get it right before we send it down the corridor. That is why I say to him, regretfully, that his programme does not fit the bill.
I would be intrigued if the hon. Gentleman could tell me—if not now, afterwards —exactly how many days Labour Members want.
The right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) said today in The Guardian that the reason he is opposing the programme motion has nothing to do with scrutiny of the Bill:
“Within the rest of the legislative programme are loads of right-wing bills which will damage people in Britain. So I don’t think it is any part of our responsibility to try and get those bills into statute.”
In other words, Labour’s ulterior motive appears to be to disrupt the rest of the Government’s business. That is not a legitimate way of dealing with a programme motion, which is a perfectly reasonable way for the Government to try to make progress on this important piece of legislation without disrupting all other parts of our business.
I will make a little more progress and then give way again.
First, let me take the myths in turn. I have heard the accusation that the reforms will be too quick and too abrupt and that the Bill amounts to some frantic act of constitutional violence. The truth? These reforms would be implemented over about 15 years. New Members would be appointed or elected in three tranches over three elections. The political parties and groups would have maximum discretion over how to reduce their existing numbers.
I have heard it said that the modernised Lords will cost the earth. The truth? Taken as a whole, and once completed, the Government’s reforms of Parliament will be broadly cost-neutral.
I will give way later.
The additional costs attached to running a reformed House of Lords—which, incidentally, are much more modest than some of the estimates doing the rounds—will be offset by the saving from reducing the number of MPs. Once all this is implemented, the real-terms cost of running Parliament is expected to be roughly the same as it is now; the only additional cost will be conducting the elections themselves.
The reason is that the electoral system that votes Members to this House is a matter on which there is profound disagreement between the parties, whereas the principle of House of Lords reform is something to which we have committed ourselves in all our party manifestos over a prolonged period.
It is essential that we make a start by having the first 120 elected peers elected in 2015. If the hon. Gentleman or other Members of this place want further reassurance about the triggers that would then allow the second and third waves of election to take place, of course I, and the Government as a whole, will be prepared to engage with that.
I will make a little more progress and then give way again.
I have heard Lords reform presented as some kind of Liberal Democrat crusade. The truth, as I have said on a number of occasions, is that it made its way into all the party manifestos—in the case of the Labour party, as the right hon. Member for Neath has indicated, going all the way back to Keir Hardie’s 1911 manifesto.
The final myth is this: I have heard it said that the House of Commons should not be concerning itself—
May I first deal with this important point? The hon. Lady has raised it with me personally on a number of occasions, so perhaps she would care to listen to my answer.
The final myth is that the House of Commons should not be concerning itself with Lords reform at a time of economic difficulty. My answer is this: let’s get on with it—proper scrutiny, yes; years of foot-dragging, no. I do not remember this complaint being made when we legislated to create elected police commissioners, or when we were debating local government finance or legal aid reform. It is odd to suggest that Parliament cannot do more than one thing at a time. I certainly agree that jobs and growth are the priority, so let us not tie ourselves up in knots on Lords reform. We do not need to—all the parties are signed up to it. We should vote for the Bill and the programme motion so that we can scrutinise the Bill properly while still allowing ourselves to make progress on other Government priorities.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. It happens that he has just hit on the very point on which I agree with him entirely. We do have a duty to reform the House of Lords, even though we are doing other things at the same time. He is absolutely right about that, but what a pity that he does not accept Lord Steel’s Bill and get on with the necessary reform that everybody agrees with. If all three party manifestos gave no choice on House of Lords reform, is that not a good reason to put it to the people in a referendum, because in the election they had no chance to vote against it?
I know, but it was not in the manifestos of two of the three main parties.
The second point that I make to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who was a distinguished member of the Joint Committee, is that although she and I do not agree on this matter, I hope she does agree that the Government listened meticulously to the conclusions of the Joint Committee, which supported the main tenets of the Bill on a cross-party basis and was chaired by a Member of the other place who was not from either of the coalition parties. That shows how consensual we have been in working up our ideas.
I will move on from the myths that have abounded to some of the fears about the Bill, many of which, I accept, have been expressed in good faith. Broadly, there is a worry that we risk upsetting a delicate constitutional balance, creating a second Chamber that is too assertive and therefore a threat to this place, as was alluded to earlier. I am not surprised by that. It is part of a—
I will give way in a minute, if I may make progress on this point.
I am not surprised by that fear because it is part of a normal and familiar pattern. Every time the other place has been reformed, questions over the primacy of the Commons have arisen, with predictions ranging from disaster to apocalypse. In 1999, some said that the new life peers would not accept the traditional conventions and would block manifesto Bills in which Governments legislate on their election promises, resulting in endless gridlock over Government priorities. As with all such predictions, that was completely wrong. The reformed House accepted that the conventions would continue and adjusted to its new status without overreaching its role as a junior partner, as it will again.
I will just deal with the issue of primacy. Although questions of primacy are important and must be answered, we must remember that these fears are the routine reflexes to Lords reform. The Bill will not turn the other place into some kind of monster. It relates to size and composition only and contains no new powers for the other place.
If we may go back to myths for a second, one myth is that it is an important principle to the right hon. Gentleman that people who initiate legislation should be elected. If that is such an important principle, why does he not insist on elections for European Commissioners, who initiate far more legislation in this country than people in the House of Lords?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the European Commission has no right to adopt legislation. If he applied part of his well-renowned fervour against unelected bureaucrats in Brussels to unelected peers in the House of Lords, we would make a considerable progress.
Ultimately, the primacy of the Commons will remain grounded in our conventions and absolutely guaranteed by our laws.
If I may, I will make progress on the issue of primacy.
To ensure that there is a rock-solid legal backstop, the Parliament Acts will remain. We have reaffirmed those Acts in the Bill to make that point crystal clear. The Government will still be based in the Commons, the appointed element of the new Chamber means that it will never be able to claim greater electoral legitimacy, and the Commons will, of course, continue to have sole responsibility for money Bills.
The Deputy Prime Minister has referred on a number of occasions to the Joint Committee on which I and other colleagues served. Does he think that it best served the purposes of reform when the Government declined, despite our encouragement, to give us any information about funding and refused us legal advice in the form of the Attorney-General?
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his work on the Joint Committee. As I hope he knows, we have published the costings of our proposals in full and in detail. Everyone can scrutinise them line by line. Of course, we were not in a position to provide him with a line-by-line analysis of the costings at that stage because we were waiting to change the Bill in view of the conclusions of the Joint Committee. Without finalising the Bill, we could not finalise the analysis of the costs.
I will give way in a moment, but I want to make a couple of points.
A separate but related fear is that opening up the Lords to election will politicise it, creating a Chamber of career politicians likely to rival MPs and robbing the Lords of its wisdom and expertise. Let us be clear about the current situation. The other place contains some extremely eminent individuals who bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to Parliament, but it is hardly entirely dispassionate, an institution somehow untouched by party politics. More than 70% of its Members receive their peerage from party leaders—that is, more than two thirds of Members take a party Whip, and very few rebel.
Members of the House of Lords are more likely to come from this place than from any other profession, with 189 being ex-MPs. In a reformed House, Members will see themselves and their role very differently from us here, not least because of their longer term and the means by which they elected.
What we are doing is what the Joint Committee itself recommended. The Government not only accepted its recommendation that appointed Members should be able to combine membership with a role outside the House, but have extended that principle to elected Members.
I am answering the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh).
The Lords should be a place for people who are public spirited, have political and ideological affiliations and want to serve the country, but who also want to continue to lead a life outside politics. It should be for people who want or need to work and have neither the desire nor the inclination to be an MP. They will not be allowed to leave the Lords and immediately seek election to the Commons, so they will be encouraged to see their time in the House of Lords as their one real chance to make their mark.
The Deputy Prime Minister has spoken a great deal about the Joint Committee and his respect for it. Will he please think again about the central recommendation of both the Joint Committee and the alternative report, which is the necessity for a referendum?
I will not repeat the reasons why I believe a referendum would be unjustified, expensive and a huge distraction from the most important referendum of all, which is on the future of the United Kingdom. However, I will repeat what I said in response to an earlier intervention. If the hon. Gentleman or other Members feel that they need some assurances after the first wave of peers have been elected, so that the second and third stages of reform are subject to some type of trigger, I will of course be prepared to consider that.
The combination of elections by proportional representation, single terms and a specific duty on the appointments commission to consider diversity could encourage more women, more members of black and minority ethnic communities and more people with disabilities to serve.
May I just make this point? I have been very generous, and I will take more interventions in a moment.
Crucially, the list system will mean that the new membership will be properly representative of all parts of the United Kingdom. Right now, nearly half the Members of the House of Lords are drawn from London and the south-east, whereas only 5% come from the north-west and 2.6% from the north-east. Our proposals will correct that imbalance. Proportionately, the west midlands will see its representation more than double, and for the east midlands it will treble. The Bill has sewn into it the chance to create a richer, more diverse House drawn from many more walks of life.
Does my right hon. Friend not think that people watching this debate will be bemused? Back in 2010, they voted for three parties that had House of Lords reform in their manifesto, yet Back Benchers in some of those parties are now trying to block it. It has been 101 years, and the people voted for it in 2010; let us get on with it.
I agree with my hon. Friend that, given all the other major challenges that our country faces—particularly the economic and social ones—it is inexplicable to members of the British public that this Bill is the one thing on which opponents want to tie us up in knots for months if not years to come.
The Deputy Prime Minister has referred repeatedly to democratic accountability. Why, then, does he insist that the Lords should be elected by proportional representation when the voters of this country decisively rejected that in a referendum, which he now seeks to deny them?
Both coalition parties agreed in the coalition agreement that elections to the House of Lords should take place on a proportional basis to ensure that we do not create a carbon copy of the Commons, and to ensure a proper balance of power, reflecting all the different parties and regions of the country in the House of Lords, so that it can play a different role to the Commons, as I am sure the hon. Lady agrees.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister consider an amendment to the programme motion that I have tabled today? It would allow an extra three days’ debate, which would mean that the Committee of the whole House would be one of the longest on constitutional issues? That would allow us to debate the issues in depth, but it would also allow us to get on with the much needed reform of the other place, which is rotten and based on patronage and entitlement.
I welcome the hon. Lady’s support, hoarsely delivered as it was—she has a cough. It is crucial to wait to hear from the official Opposition what their attitude is to the programme motion. Will they not accept any form of programme motion, or do they have suggestions of their own on the number of days required to deal with the legislation? The Government have been very generous already.
The Deputy Prime Minister spoke earlier of the need to reform the other place to make it fit for the 21st century. Does he accept that science and technology are very much part of our future? Will he accept an amendment that would mean greater recognition of expert Cross-Bench expertise in engineering, science, technology, maths and medicine? In addition, I am very happy to explain the correct use of the term “lobotomy”.
We can have precisely that debate and a multitude of others on the detail of the Bill as long as we make progress on Second Reading and the programme motion this week. As the hon. Lady may well know, the appointments commission envisaged in the Bill will be statutorily required to ensure proper diversity and representation of expertise in the 20% of non-elected peers in a reformed House of Lords.
Many hon. Members want to make their views known, so I should like to conclude my remarks. I have been very generous in giving way and would now like to make progress.
I shall conclude my speech as I began. There are three reasons to vote in favour of the Bill and its orderly passage: because we believe in democracy, for the sake of better laws, and because reform cannot be ducked. I welcome the reasoned and expert questions, arguments and concerns that I know many Members will raise. I also know that some will not be interested in rational discussion—those who would oppose Lords reform in whatever form, at whatever time and in whatever century, no matter what commitments their parties have made.
This project has always been dogged by those who fear change. What encourages me is that it is being kept alive by those who champion democracy: the reformers and modernisers who believe simply that power belongs in the hands of the people. We have a chance to finish their work. This has been a 100-year long project. Let us now get it done. I commend the Bill to the House.
I am pleased to be here to debate these important constitutional changes. I admit that while the country is stuck in a double-dip recession and millions are still out of work, this would not have been my priority if I were sitting on the Government Benches, but unfortunately we cannot set the Government’s priorities, and we are where we are.
I am pleased to be here because, frankly, the Deputy Prime Minister’s Bill is a bit of a mess, and I am afraid that his speech did not help matters much either. As a supporter of House of Lords reform, I want to do what I can to ensure that reform comes about, but that it is the right reform and is supported by the people. The Bill has huge implications for how Parliament and our Government operate, so we need to get it right. The reforms will form the basis of a lasting settlement between Parliament and the British people, so we need time to get it right—something I shall speak to a little later.
The Chamber has debated House of Lords reform many times, as anyone who reads the excellent House of Lords Library paper on the chronology of Lords reform will soon realise. It is 95 pages long—and that is only for the period 1997 to 2010. It does not include the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, the creation of life peerages in 1958 or other unsuccessful attempts at reform.
The Labour party remains very much in favour of reforming the second Chamber and will support the Bill on Second Reading tomorrow night. Ever since I have been in my current role, I have emphasised our desire to seek a consensus on Lords reform, as did Labour Ministers when we were in government. The Deputy Prime Minister referred to cross-party talks and consensus. I attended the cross-party discussions that he chaired, but unfortunately they were curtailed before we had the chance to discuss all the issues. Our last meeting was in November 2010.
When in government, we recognised that consensus building was crucial to the success of constitutional change, as well as the dangers of impermanence stemming from one Government imposing their will on our constitution, only to see their changes undone by the next Government. Our constitution deserves better than partisan self-serving change.
I shall give the hon. Gentleman a simple answer: wait and hear!
Rather than working with us on House of Lords reform, the Deputy Prime Minister has occasionally chosen to pursue a lofty, hectoring stance. I am afraid that his piety has done great harm to the cause of constitutional reform. Labour has decided to support the Bill on Second Reading in spite of his attitude, not because of it.
Let me take this opportunity to lay to rest the myths spread about Labour’s record on House of Lords reform. The changes that Labour enacted to the second Chamber between 1997 and 2010 were unparalleled. No political party—certainly not in modern times—comes anywhere near our legacy. Just 15 years ago, in 1997, the second Chamber was still full of hereditary peers, so the government of the country was still determined by a group of people chosen by birth right. It was the politics of a previous century and a different time. After considerable debate, Labour pushed ahead with the removal of hereditary peers. Many here will remember the enormous objections in the other place and from Conservative Members. In fact, 13 of the current Cabinet voted against the Second Reading of the House of Lords Act 1999.
And what did the Liberal Democrats do?
I will answer the question myself. On the Third Reading of the Bill abolishing 90% of hereditary peers, the Lib Dems abstained. I know a reshuffle is due, but the hon. Gentleman should stop reading the Whips’ sheet and listen to the debate.
The Lib Dems abstained. Subsequently, we introduced people’s peers and a proper appointments process, and we also sought to ensure that no single party would have a majority of Members in the second Chamber. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 resulted in a far-reaching separation of powers, with senior Law Lords removed from the other place. The UK for the first time had its own dedicated Supreme Court, which is now firmly established on the other side of Parliament square. It is also worth reminding the House what happened on that occasion. Thirteen members of the current Cabinet, including the Prime Minister, supported a reasoned amendment declining to give that Bill a Second Reading in 2005. What did the Liberal Democrats do on Third Reading? Yes, they decisively abstained. We are therefore comfortable with our record in government on good constitutional reform.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about creating a consensus across the Chamber about Lords reform, but is not the truth that this Bill, if enacted, will not reform the House of Lords, but effectively abolish it? The House of Lords is a fine institution. It is not broken, so why do we need to fix it?
The hon. Gentleman is right that the reforms, if carried through, will replace the House of Lords as we know it now. However, I will come to the semantics of the words “abolish” or “replace” in a moment.
It is fair to say that Labour would have liked to go much further. On occasion we tried to achieve much more, but we were held back. Our decision to proceed only with cross-party consensus acted as a restraint on the pace of reform. Proposals floated by Labour ran into fierce opposition. Despite healthy general election majorities, Labour did not seek to impose our wholesale reforms on a divided House of Commons. It is ironic that this has left us open to criticism by the Deputy Prime Minister—and, I hear, the Chancellor—for not doing enough during our years in government.
The House of Lords Reform Bill was first published on 27 June. A draft Bill was published in May last year, which was largely castigated in this Chamber and the other place. Before the Bill’s publication, the Deputy Prime Minister set great store by the findings of the Joint Committee established to look into the draft Bill. Let me take this opportunity to thank all the members of the Joint Committee, who spent nine months on the report. The Joint Committee published its report on 23 April, with an alternative report published by 12 of its members.
The right hon. Gentleman’s manifesto at the last election stated:
“To begin the task of building a new politics, we will let the British people decide on whether to make Parliament more democratic and accountable”
in a referendum. Is that still his party’s view?
We are in favour of reform. I will come to the issue of timing in a moment.
I note from his opening statement that the Deputy Prime Minister highlighted areas where the Bill had been amended as a result of the Joint Committee’s report, but he was less keen to highlight those where he has not taken on board the Joint Committee’s views. He knows as well as I do that he has cherry-picked from the Joint Committee’s report, while blindly ignoring its other key recommendations and concerns. Let me turn to the Bill itself. If I was being generous, I would have to say that the Bill as it stands is a bit of a mess.
Having sat on the Joint Committee for eight months, I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the report was critical of the Government’s Bill. The alternative report—signed by 12 of the Joint Committee’s 25 members—was even more critical. The Committee agreed that eight months was not long enough to give proper scrutiny to the Bill, so how could 10 days be long enough for this House?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She reminds us that there are still a number of major deficiencies, which will need to be looked at in Committee, if the Bill is to be improved. Our support for giving the Bill a Second Reading should therefore not be taken as a blank cheque.
We have many concerns—many of them major—about the content of the Bill, but I shall concentrate on three areas.
The area of powers and conventions deserves our greatest attention. With all the focus on form, the Government have neglected function. On primacy, the Government have sought to rewrite the inadequate clause 2 of the draft Bill and dropped any reference to the conventions governing the relationship between the Houses. It remains to be seen whether this will deal satisfactorily with the issue; constitutional experts are no doubt poring over this as we speak. As the Bill will be debated on the Floor of the House, and as new clause 2 was not considered by the Joint Committee, there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny. We simply do not know whether the provision is adequate. Labour Members want to ensure that the Commons maintains its primacy even when a second Chamber becomes elected.
It is impossible to predict what changes might develop in the culture of the House of Lords following reform, but it seems likely that elected Members will expect to play at least a fairly assertive role and that voters may share that view. When the European Parliament went from being an appointed to an elected body, it demanded more powers to reflect its democratic mandate. Why should elected Members of the second Chamber be bound by conventions that bind a Chamber of hereditary and appointed peers? The Bill effectively washes its hands of this issue.
Did my hon. Friend notice that in answering one of his colleagues earlier, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the coalition had decided on a change to the voting system in favour of proportional representation? Only a few months ago, however, the electorate rejected that, but the coalition is not prepared to accept the democratic will of the electorate.
It is worse than that. The Joint Committee did not even examine the type of voting system that is now being proposed. It was pulled out of a hat without any proper consideration.
Although the Bill recognises that conventions—[Interruption.] Ministers on the Treasury Bench need to calm down.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the semi-open list system was exactly the system that he personally asked for in the Joint Committee?
The Bill recognises that conventions may evolve, and assumes this will happen of its own accord during the transition phases. We believe that that is too passive and is a dangerous position. The obvious questions requiring clarification include the following. What is the position on the Salisbury-Addison convention about Bills and the prevention of manifesto commitments? What about the convention that the Lords does not usually object to secondary legislation? More than 1,000 pieces of secondary legislation go through Parliament each year; the Parliament Acts do not cover this. What about the convention that the Government should get their business through in reasonable time? The Parliament Acts still allow Bills to be delayed for 13 months. What is the position on the exchange of amendments between Houses? The Lords could force the Commons to concede on major changes or resort to the use of the Parliament Acts. I am not saying that those questions cannot be answered adequately; it is just that the Government appear not even to realise that these are live issues. They have their heads in the sand.
The shadow Secretary of State is making a powerful speech. He refers to the Government’s Bill. Is it not a fact that there are 10 Ministers sitting on the Front Bench today, of whom only two are Conservative and eight are Liberal? Does that not show where the real support for this Bill comes from?
It is not for me to get involved in private family grief.
It is simply not clear how any dispute about the use of powers or appropriate interpretation of conventions could be adjudicated or effectively enforced? We think the Bill will need to play a more active role in addressing powers and conventions, particularly if we are to placate the legitimate fears of colleagues on all sides and in both Chambers. Failure to do so risks storing up big problems for the future.
I should appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s comments on the function of this apparent second House. Does he share my fear that when the majority of its Members are elected and a small proportion will be appointed, there will be a divided second House some of whose Members will have more power than others? When it comes to a tied vote, who will really win?
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his statesmanlike address. He seeks credit for the Labour party for reforming history, and he is right to do so. The last but one Labour Prime Minister, who introduced devolution in Scotland and Wales and a Northern Ireland Assembly, and, indeed, introduced proportional representation for European elections without a referendum, deserves enormous credit.
Does the right hon. Gentleman feel comfortable about concentrating on the details now, and essentially asking for a prevaricators’ charter? Does he feel comfortable about being ranked as a pygmy alongside those giants of constitutional reform?
Does my right hon. Friend feel as uncomfortable as I do when listening to the Liberal Democrats lecturing people on referendum commitments in manifestos when they cannot even keep to their own commitments to their coalition colleagues, or on tuition fees?
My right hon. Friend is making some very good points. I have been in the House for long enough to have voted for many of the progressive measures introduced by a Labour Government, but one of the things that worry the reformers on the Opposition Benches who want change in the upper House is the quality of the people who would end up there—and there is nothing in the Bill to assure us that the party machines will not control all the people who end up there.
My hon. Friend highlights one of the problems of a list system. That is one of the reasons why we are surprised that the Joint Committee, which sat for nine months, did not consider the type of system that is being imposed in the Bill.
“I am a supporter of a fully elected House of Lords”.—[Official Report, 5 April 2011; Vol. 526, c. 879.]
Those are not my words—although I agree with them—but the words of the Deputy Prime Minister. However, his Bill proposes the establishment of an 80% elected Chamber. We are disappointed that it has not gone for a fully elected second Chamber. Even the Joint Committee was split, recognising that there was a case for that.
Our position is that we want a fully elected second Chamber, and that was also the position taken in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto. By allowing some Members still to be appointed, the Deputy Prime Minister is weakening his own arguments for having elected Members in the second Chamber. The Deputy Prime Minister’s pet phrase—although he did not use it today—is “Do not let the best be the enemy of the good”, but in proposing a hybrid Chamber he may be storing up problems for the future.
I was a little confused by the right hon. Gentleman’s criticism of the open list system. One of the things that we did after listening to the Joint Committee was adopt an open list system, in the spirit of consensus, as it is exactly what the Labour party put in its manifesto.
The Minister is wrong to suggest that the Joint Committee had an opportunity to consider the system that he has now put in the Bill. It simply did not. I am willing to give way to the Minister again. Did the Joint Committee consider the type of voting system that is in the Bill? Well, the Minister has decided to remain in his seat, which is his prerogative.
There are legitimate concerns about the possibility that this hybrid system will lead to tensions between the different types of Member, and that those who are elected and are full time will consider themselves more legitimate, and be treated as such, than those who are unelected and part time. There are also other concerns, which will no doubt be raised over the next two days.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the Joint Committee had considered the issue of open lists. Obviously we did not consider the specific clauses that are now in the Bill, but if he reads our report he will see that there is a section referring to open lists, and a recommendation that states
“In the Committee's view, the voting system chosen should give voters the widest choice… of where to cast their preferences, whether that is within a single party or across candidates”.
We did consider the issue, and the right hon. Gentleman may wish to correct the record.
In answer to an intervention from the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), the Deputy Prime Minister said there could be some kind of referendum or investigation after the election of the first tranche of peers. That shows that we need a more detailed investigation of the Bill, because the rules are changing as we go along.
It is worrying that the Deputy Prime Minister has today decided to pull a rabbit out of the hat by suggesting the idea of a referendum once we have some peers appointed or elected in the way that he wants.
We also need to be clear that the model is not quite as simple as the 80:20 split that has been portrayed. The Bill permits the Prime Minister of the day to appoint eight additional Ministers to sit in the Chamber. That will mean that, once again, patronage will lead to a place in the second Chamber—so much for accountability and the end of patronage! Over the period of a Government, that could accumulate, and result in a fair number of partisan ex-Ministers with full voting rights being members of the legislature for 15-year terms by appointment via patronage. This, again, is against the advice of the Joint Committee.
The right hon. Gentleman has discussed the problem with having different types of peers in the new upper House, but nobody has yet discussed the new ministerial Members, who will, of course—[Interruption.] Well, not in terms of numbers. The fact is that the Bill will allow the Prime Minister of the day to impose an unlimited number of ministerial peers who are not appointed by the independent appointments system.
The draft Bill advocated the Prime Minister having the power to appoint Ministers, who would be members of the legislature for as long as they were Ministers. However, the Bill published last week says they can stay for 15 years, which is really quite remarkable.
I thank my right hon. Friend for making public the historic levels of indecision on the Liberal Democrat Benches in respect of House of Lords reform. On the 15-years issue, the Deputy Prime Minister says this House contains career politicians. Surely, a 15-year job is a career.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: 15 years non-renewable hardly leads to accountability.
A key absence from the Bill is that there will be no referendum. The Government have opted to impose their proposals on the public, rather than trust the people with a vote on House of Lords reform. We think that is an error, and it runs contrary to the growing tradition that major constitutional change should be put to the people in a referendum.
It is not only Labour that calls for a referendum. The Joint Committee also unanimously called for a referendum:
“The Committee recommends that, in view of the significance of the constitutional change brought forward for an elected House of Lords, the Government should submit the decision to a referendum.”
This Bill is much weaker as a result of the Government refusing to include a referendum.
We heard a number of defences of that position from the Deputy Prime Minister. He said a referendum was not needed because proposals to reform the House of Lords were in all three main parties’ manifestos. The manifestos said very different things, however. While Labour and the Lib Dems called for a wholly elected second Chamber—albeit Labour wanted a referendum as well—the Conservatives sought only to find consensus. It is not simply semantics to argue that the Conservatives never actually gave a commitment to reform the House of Lords; they gave a process commitment to seek dialogue to find common ground.
I need to make some progress; I have been speaking for quite a while.
What is the best way to build consensus and to get a second Chamber that has legitimacy and public confidence? One way would be through holding a referendum. That would give consensus, public confidence and greater legitimacy.
Even if all three manifesto commitments had been identical, we would still push for a referendum. First, we would do so because it is in our manifesto. Secondly, as has been highlighted by a number of eminent commentators and colleagues from both sides of the Chamber, we would do so because someone who was opposed to reform of the House of Lords had no way of expressing that opinion at the last election. A referendum would allow a full and frank airing of views and allow voters the option to support, or oppose, the position.
I want to make some progress.
The fact is that, under these proposals, by 2015, let alone 2025, the way in which the Members of the other Chamber are elected and appointed will be totally different from how it is now. That is a radical change; it is not simply tinkering. If it were just tinkering, I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister would not be quite so keen to champion the proposals as he is now.
Moreover, Parliament has got into the habit—some would call it a convention, and a good one at that—of holding referendums on major constitutional change. When in government, Labour did so in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland on devolution proposals, and in London on the creation of the mayoralty and the assembly. We also did so on giving further powers to the Welsh Assembly. We gave the people of the north-east of England a referendum to vote on regional government —a proposal they rejected. Even this Government have held a referendum on changing the voting system. People will not unreasonably think that the Deputy Prime Minister fears that his latest set of proposals will suffer the same fate as his electoral reform ideas. Referendums were also held in towns and cities up and down the country on proposals for elected mayors less than eight weeks ago. So if a referendum is good enough for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, London, the north-east, Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, Wakefield, and for the alternative vote system, it is certainly good enough for Lords reform—an issue of national significance.
Time prevents me from dealing with the other areas where this Bill needs improvement, which include the length of the terms; whether those terms should be renewable; the cost of the second Chamber; the transitional arrangements; and the system of elections. There are more such issues, but time is running away.
We have made it clear that we will be voting to give the Bill a Second Reading; we support the principle of reform of the House of Lords. As the Government have decided to introduce this Bill, our job is to respond. We will oppose where we think things are not right and we will support them when we think they are the right thing to do. As I have said, on this occasion we will be supporting the progress of this Bill, but the Committee stage will offer the opportunity for the House to shape the Bill into something much better.
It is absolutely crucial—[Interruption.] I will answer the question that Ministers on the Treasury Bench have been chuntering about. It is crucial that the Bill is given sufficient time to be debated in detail. I know that the Chief Whip has now left, but attempts to shorten or stifle debate by the Government would be unhelpful. A fixed period of time for the Committee stage will not allow proper discussion of all 60 clauses and 11 schedules, and consideration of new clauses. Filibustering could render a full and frank debate impossible, which would be an utter travesty for a Bill of this importance. Let us consider the following:
“when there are really important matters before the House…a big Bill when Members want to say what they need on behalf of their constituents, they are unable to do so because of some ridiculous programme motion that does not take into account the gravity or importance of the measure.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 638.]
They are not my words; they are the words of the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons.
The right hon. Gentleman has not stinted from personal criticism of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, so why is he declining to tell the House of Commons how many days he thinks are necessary for this Bill? If he and his party are so committed to the reform of the House of Lords, why is it, if they oppose the programme motion, that they will find themselves in the same Lobby as those opposed, root and branch, to any reform at all?
Order. Liberal Democrat Members should not be yelling at the right hon. Gentleman. The right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) intervened and the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) is replying. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) is an aspiring statesman—
I have already told the House what the Deputy Leader of the House thought a few months before he had the burdens of high office. Only two months before he became part of the Government and part of the Executive, he said that programme motions are
“imposed by the Executive to prevent debate”.—[Official Report, 2 March 2010; Vol. 506, c. 819.]
Let me refer to the manifesto on which the hon. Gentleman stood and won in 2010. In a section on the House of Commons entitled
“Strengthen the House of Commons to increase accountability”,
it stated that Parliament would be given
“control over its own agenda so that all bills leaving the Commons have been fully debated.”
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. One problem is that when we debate important pieces of legislation, we sometimes expect them to be corrected in the House of Lords and choose not to have votes in this Chamber as they take 15 minutes, losing us time for debate. Is it not therefore all the more important, particularly on clause 1, which contains nearly all the issues of composition, that we have as much time as it takes to get it absolutely right and to have as many votes as we need to get it right? Otherwise, there will be no prospect of the Bill ever coming into law because we will be unable to Parliament Act it.
On a number of occasions, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have said that they will use the Parliament Act to get the Bill through, which means that the second Chamber’s ability to revise and improve will have gone and the Bill must leave this Chamber in the best state possible. If debate is guillotined, that will not be possible.
My right hon. Friend has made a point in his effective speech of referring to the previous Government’s record on reforming and improving the House of Lords and of the Liberal Democrats’ failure to support us. Let me remind him that when we introduced the House of Lords Act 1999, if I recall correctly, we allowed four full days of debate on the Floor of the House on the five-clause Bill and we did not programme that discussion in any way because it was a constitutional matter.
Does my right hon. Friend understand that if he is not prepared to say how long a programme motion should specify for debate, even in his wildest dreams, while saying that he wants reform of the second Chamber, people outside this Chamber might well feel that his position is contradictory? Will he therefore consider entering into proper negotiations should the programme motion fail tomorrow night, so that we ensure that everyone outside this place knows that the Labour party is still a party of reform of the second Chamber?
I thank the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for his helpful words. It is important for us to ensure that we do that so that the public can see that we are genuine and because we believe in House of Lords reform. We do not want the Bill to get stuck in the House of Commons so we will enter into discussions, but the Government must talk to us. The Deputy Prime Minister has failed to talk to us on the substance of the Bill and what is really important is that the usual channels operate—
Let me make it absolutely plain: we have tried to speak to the Opposition at all times during the development of the Bill to find out how they long they want for the programming of it. They have declined to tell us and the right hon. Gentleman is declining to tell us today. That is why we cannot reach consensus; the Opposition do not want to tell us how long they want for the Bill, but simply want to vote against the programme motion.
It will be for others to draw what conclusions they want to from those crocodile tears.
As the Leader of the House has returned to the Chamber, it is worth reminding ourselves of what the Conservatives believe about programme motions. He has said that
“today I can announce that we will abolish the practice of automatically guillotining Government Bills and give Parliament back the time it needs to make real improvements to the law.”
The manifesto on which he stood—the Conservative manifesto, not the Liberal Democrats one—stated that they would allow
“MPs the time to scrutinise law effectively”.
That is the point that we have been trying to make. Both coalition parties are clearly on the same page as Labour. The Bill before us today should be allowed to be fully debated and there should be no guillotining of debate by the Government.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is indeed the case that since 2010 we have tried to develop a consensual approach to the programming of legislation and on many constitutional Bills against which his party has voted on Second Reading, they have agreed to the programme motion. That has happened because we have had a sensible dialogue. I very much regret that, on this Bill, it has not been possible to have that dialogue and reach agreement.
The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 made a substantial parliamentary change in Wales. Due to the approach of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in the coalition, there was no discussion on the Floor of the House on the reduction from 40 seats to 30 for Wales. That is exactly what will happen if we have a programme motion for this Bill—we will be prevented from speaking out.
It is worth reminding the House what happened: MPs from Wales did not get a chance to discuss their seats, and nor did MPs from Devon and Cornwall, but the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) got his chance to discuss his seat.
The Government are not only trying to deprive the public of their say in the matter by not giving them a referendum, but seeking to deprive the people’s representatives of the chance properly to scrutinise the Bill. For the avoidance of doubt, I repeat what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has made quite clear: we want House of Lords reform and we do not want the Bill stuck in the Commons, but we need the opportunity properly to scrutinise, amend and improve it. Accordingly, we will vote against the programme motion tomorrow night, and hope that Members on both sides of the House join us.
Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that this is not just any Bill? The Bill brings about fundamental change to Parliament. It is a serious constitutional measure and, by convention, the House does not usually put a timetable—a limit—on a Bill of such constitutional significance.
I heard Lib Dem Members chuntering while the hon. Lady, who sits on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, sat on the Joint Committee and spoke for the Conservatives in opposition, made her important point.
The next two days offer an opportunity for views from all sides to be expressed. On previous occasions when the Chamber has debated House of Lords reform, there has been no shortage of opinions from across the full spectrum, all sincerely held and all genuine. I am certain that this occasion will be no different. I understand that more than 115 MPs have already indicated that they want to speak in the debate over the next two days. I know that there are siren voices of concern in all parts of the Chamber. There are those who favour reform, but have concerns about the Bill, and those who favour the status quo.
Let me end by saying that we can all agree that no one, except the Deputy Prime Minister, thinks that this is a perfect Bill. We will help the Government to give the Bill a Second Reading tomorrow night, but Government Back Benchers should vote with us on the programme motion so that we can all work together to achieve a better Bill.
In the modern history of parliamentary reform, there have been a number of noble milestones: the extension of the franchise in the 19th century, and to women voters in the 20th; the Parliament Act 1911, which gave primacy to this Chamber; and the expulsion of hereditary Members from the House of Lords. Those were all radical measures, and they were welcome and serious. I very much regret to say that the Bill that the Deputy Prime Minister has introduced does not come into that category.
The Bill is a puny measure. It is unwelcome and it will do far more harm than good to our constitutional structures and to the good government of this country. I say that because, essentially, two things will happen. First, the Bill will lead to the departure—the expulsion—of the vast majority of Cross Bencher and specialist Members of the upper House. We have been extremely well served by several hundred of our most distinguished citizens—industrialists, trade unionists, academics, diplomats, churchmen of many faiths, leading members of the armed forces—all of whom have carried out the task of revision, and only a small fraction of them can remain under these provisions. What are we to replace them by? Essentially, it will be a sham democratic Chamber, consisting overwhelmingly of Members who would rather be in this Chamber and who will be elected under a party list system that is an insult to the electorate.
I believe that this Bill needs to be opposed. I do not normally oppose measures introduced by the Government of whom I am one of the strongest supporters, but this Bill has to be opposed, because, essentially, what it is designed to do will damage the fabric of our government. I say that both to my hon. Friends who, like me, are perhaps willing to go along with an appointed House of Lords, and to other hon. Members who want a genuinely elected system that will continue to attract the brightest and the best to serve in the upper House.
I was not impressed when my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned that Lesotho provided the only example of a House appointed like our own. He must be aware that, for example, Canada has an entirely appointed senate, and that the Federal Republic of Germany has an upper House which is not elected by the people but appointed by the states—
There are no hereditaries in Germany.
My hon. Friend is right and he brings me to my next point, which is that if the Deputy Prime Minister really believes in a democratic upper House, why is he not providing for one in the Bill? What he is providing is form, not substance. The very name of the revised Chamber will continue to be “the House of Lords”. Not a senate, it will be the House of Lords, even though every Lord will have been expelled from it over a period of years.
When it comes to the proposed powers, the Deputy Prime Minister spends his time trying to reassure this House that the powers of the new elected, democratic Chamber will be—will have to be—exactly the same as those the appointed House has now. What possible justification is there for that, if he believes in an elected, democratic upper House? He is a Liberal Democrat; does he not remember the history of his own party? Does he not remember that the Parliament Act 1911 was passed because, until then, apart from on taxation matters, there was an equal right of veto in both Houses, and Asquith and his colleagues argued correctly that an unelected House could not have a veto on the business of Parliament? If the second Chamber is now to be elected, on what ground does he seek to justify his proposals—other than a desire to be all things to all people?
That is the sad problem with the Liberal Democrats: they always wish to be all things to all people—to go for the middle way. I am reminded of a remark I once heard, which I thought was rather good: if Christopher Columbus had been a Liberal Democrat, he probably would have been content with discovering the mid-Atlantic. [Laughter.]
What public interest will be served by the Bill in its current form? Does my right hon. Friend really believe that, compared with all these distinguished men and women from all over the country who serve in the House of Lords now, most of whom will not be able to continue to serve, a party list of candidates will result in more cerebral debate, more enlightened debate and more able contributions to the revision of legislation? Does he actually believe that and does he seriously want us to accept that, or does he recognise that that cannot, in fact, be the case?
I am greatly appreciating, as, I am sure, are all Members, the brilliance of my right hon. and learned Friend’s speech. Does he share my view that, as for Members of the European Parliament, Assembly Members in Wales and Members of the Scottish Parliament, the process of election can only empower this group, so that they start to throw their weight around even more?
Yes, but what worries me is the prospect of ending up with a party list system which, as we know from the experience of the European Parliament, has no legitimacy with the electorate, is not regarded as a way of electing people to represent their interests, and has been entirely discredited, regardless of the view one takes of the European Union as a whole. For that system of all systems to be chosen for the purpose of deciding membership of the upper House is totally incomprehensible to me, never mind entirely regrettable.
I say specifically to the Deputy Prime Minister, because clearly it is his party that is behind the Bill, and perhaps the only party that would care much if the Bill never saw the light of day, that if he wants to eliminate the defect he rightly referred to of the continuing presence of hereditary peers in the House of Lords, that can be done very easily by means of a simple legislative measure. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to get rid of the extraordinary nonsense that we have almost 1,000 peers, that can be done by a compulsory retirement age. If he wants an opportunity to deal with the other anomalies in the House of Lords, he does not need to go down this road. The only argument for going down this road is if he believes in a democratic upper House which, by its very nature, will then share primacy with this House of Commons. Let him, if he wants that, admit that, rather than try to conceal that fact behind words that do not carry conviction.
I take no pleasure in not being able to support the Government and the coalition, in which I am a very strong believer, but it would be unworthy of anyone to argue that a constitutional measure which will have a profound impact on the well-being of this country and of our political system should in any way be influenced by its impact, if it were to be defeated, on other legislative proposals.
I have not voted against my party on a three-line Whip for a very long time. I last did so in the 1970s. I do not know what effect it will have this time on my future ministerial career. All I can say is that the last time I did it, in the 1970s, two years later Margaret Thatcher appointed me to her Government. So my right hon. and hon. Friends should be of good heart and vote as they believe, and that means voting against the Bill and against the programme motion.
I regret to have to differ in this matter from my Front-Bench colleague, for whom I have the utmost respect, but in my years in the House I have never supported the establishment of a second House to second-guess this Chamber. I have voted for and would prefer the outright abolition of the second Chamber, if that is what it comes down to, but I have not voted and will not vote for an elected House. I have made that clear to my electorate on the rare occasions when they have shown any interest in the matter whenever I have stood for election—that whatever was said in my party’s manifesto, I would not be voting either for a change to the electoral system or for an elected upper House—and I have made that clear, I should add for the avoidance of doubt, in government as well as out, to a succession of Chief Whips.
I am very short of time.
I completely agree that further reform is both necessary and desirable. It is time, for example, to terminate the arrangement for the remaining hereditary peers which was the price in 1999 for ending their complete control of the upper House, and I share the approval of Lord Steel’s recent Bill, which makes many sensible suggestions. I entirely understand why, looking at an upper House whose Members had their place on the basis of being the eldest in their families—not even the best qualified or most interested—people should conclude that reform was necessary and that election was the only way.
However, that original hereditary House has been changing and evolving over many years, ever since the Conservative Government of the past introduced life peers. Nearly all those in today’s House are Members because of the contribution that they themselves have made in a variety of ways to the nation’s life, not because of the contribution, dubious or otherwise, of their ancestors. So gradually and with some reluctance, I have over the years come to recognise that there is some merit in an advisory and a revising Chamber with a membership of variety and experience, but my view that we do not want and we do not need a competitive Chamber remains unchanged.
I recognise the argument that is put that we can somehow prevent that Chamber from being a competitor, but I do not believe a word of it. Not only is that my own long-standing view, but it was powerfully reinforced. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) expressed dismay that the Government did not give the Joint Committee the services of the Attorney-General. A former Attorney-General, as I think he was, the late Gareth Williams, a brilliant and distinguished lawyer, told us that if the second House were elected, it would be entitled to compete for power with this Chamber. He said, “You cannot confine, for example, decision making on finance or discussion of the Budget to the House of Commons if you have an elected upper House.”
Two other matters lead me strongly to oppose the Bill. The first is the specific proposal for the elections. The Deputy Prime Minister has waxed lyrical about the fact that Members of the existing upper Chamber are there by reason of patronage, but that is also what a party list system is—everyone in this House knows that that is the reality—so he proposes replacing one patronage system with another. He also claims that the elections he proposes would convey accountability. As has already been said in the debate, people who are elected for a 15-year, non-renewable term do not need to be, and will not be, accountable to anyone.
That brings me to my other major concern. The Liberal Democrats have been particularly vocal about the need for constitutional change, on behalf—they always say—of the people of this country, but they have shown a marked reluctance actually to consult the people of this country. In the coalition negotiations that preceded the formation of the Government, they tried to blackmail each of the major parties into giving them a change in the electoral system without a referendum, and now they are trying to get us to change this whole Parliament without giving the people a chance to express their view. I know that in opinion polling people will say, “Surely it is better to elect the upper House.” As we all know, it all depends on the question that is asked. If people were asked, “Do you want to set up a second Chamber of politicians with all the facilities that would be required, certainly at a cost of tens of millions of pounds, if not substantially more?” I suspect we might get a different answer.
The Bill seeks to reshape this entire Parliament and, into the bargain, introduce a different electoral system for the upper House, and all without consulting the people. I shall not vote for it, and trying to force it through without a referendum is the most undemocratic thing about it.
In 1970 I had the privilege of sitting on the steps of the throne in the other place to listen to my father’s maiden speech. In 1995, following what I thought was his untimely death, I had the opportunity to go there myself to make my own speech. In the intervening period I often sat on the steps of the throne, largely because doing so was free and, as a trainee in the Savoy company, I was able to spend afternoons on split shifts there. I listened, watched and learned a great deal about the House of Lords. I remember many great noble Lords making many great speeches, but I came to the view that, however wonderful it was, it was no way to run a legislature. When I arrived in this place, in my maiden speech I made it clear, as I had done in speeches in the other place, that I would seek to work for reform of the Lords and would not rest until it was an elected House.
Therefore, I rise to support my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister’s Bill. When I made my maiden speech in this House, what I said on Lords reform was said more in hope than expectation, but let me tell him now that the expectation is high, because this is the right reform, at the right time and in the right context. I believe that for two fundamental reasons. First, in my view the House of Lords is broke. It does not actually work. An hon. Friend referred earlier to the number of Government amendments that the Lords voted against in the last Parliament, but the crucial point is the number that survived scrutiny afterwards in this place. As we all know, when an amendment that is made in the other place arrives here we are told that the Lords have asked us to think again but, as they are not legitimate or elected, let us, the legitimate and elected House, strike it down. That is the critical fix that we need to make.
If I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument correctly, he is now saying that, because Members of the House of Lords are to be elected, when they turn something down and it comes to this House we will be more likely to give way to their views. If that is the case, surely he accepts that we are in fact giving up part of our powers?
Let me come to that point in a moment, because it is a critical part of the argument.
The second fundamental reason I believe that the House of Lords should be reformed is that for the past 50 years the Executive have gradually been pruning the powers of Parliament. For 50 years the ability in this House, and in Parliament as a whole, to hold the Government to account has been diminishing. For me, the Bill is primarily about the primacy of Parliament as a whole. It is not a zero-sum game. Increasing the legitimacy of the Lords will increase the legitimacy of Parliament as a whole.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very interesting speech, but some people who support the Bill say that it will make the upper House stronger, some say that it will leave it the same, some say that the House of Lords is not broken, and the hon. Gentleman says that it is broken. Does he not agree that real constitutional reform requires a consistent vision of the problems—and of the objectives that one is trying to achieve?
No, I have given way twice, and that is it, so for the avoidance of doubt I will do so no more.
The critical point is that the other place is not regarded as legitimate by us, by the media or by the public at large. If we had an appointed upper House that was regarded as legitimate, as indeed Canada does, that would be worth considering, but we do not. As long as there is no election, the upper House will not be considered legitimate, so we have to move towards election.
We need to observe four key principles. First, we need to look at the role of the other place. It does its job up until the point at which what it has done leaves the other place and comes here, so I want the other place to be a place that continues to scrutinise and to advise.
Secondly, we need to take the best of what exists. For example, the reason the House of Lords works well is that the Whip is lighter—some would even say, “consensual” —up to a certain point, because one cannot be thrown out. By seeking, therefore, to replicate that with long terms and no re-election, that same flavour will come through. Further to that point, and absolutely fundamentally, there should be no competing constituency interests. That is why PR and large constituencies are so important—so that those who are elected cannot claim to represent a county, a division or a town. That is absolutely vital.
Thirdly, reform should be gradual: it should be brought in over a period to allow the customs and mores of the other place to survive the transition. The fourth point, which is also of prime importance, is that the upper House should not compete with the House of Commons as the place to form the Government.
So I look to what is in the other place now, but the one thing that none of us should be able to support is the status quo. It clearly cannot be right in the 21st century to have half our legislature composed of the rump of the aristocracy, together with the great and the good who have benefited from whatever their parties might have chosen to prefer them with.
It is extremely important that we look to an upper House that has legitimacy, has elections and replicates the good parts, but that does not replicate, or seek to replicate, the bad parts. I happily left the other place in 1999 to take my retirement from it, but when I did so I made a prediction to the colleagues whom I left behind, saying that the next stage of reform would not be nearly so easy. I did not for a moment believe that those who had kicked, screamed and gouged their way to party preferment, and had arrived in the other place after all that hard work, would be as happy as I was to leave. That, indeed, seems to be exactly where we are.
I have friends in all parts of this House, not perhaps political friends but none the less friends, and I know how many of them would like to see the other place reformed, so I say to all reformers in this House: we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity; for God’s sake, let us take it.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), who has some experience of these things.
This morning, Mr Speaker, I heard on the radio one of your most distinguished predecessors suggesting that this Bill was the end of civilisation as we know it. To me, it is a very small step on the road to a better civilisation that we might arrive at if we could get through some of the very tribal differences that we are expressing today. There are three questions to ask in this debate: first, should we reform the Lords; secondly, if we should reform the Lords, what should be the nature of the reform; and thirdly, should that reform be subject to a referendum of the British people?
I came into this House in 1997 on the back of a very important Labour manifesto. We had been out of power for 18 years, and so important was that manifesto that we took the unprecedented step of putting it to every individual member of our party in a programme called “The Road to the Manifesto”. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) was in charge of that process. As well as saying that we would get rid of hereditary peers, we said that that would be the beginning of
“a process of reform to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative.”
Ever since I have been in this place we have, very slowly but very surely, inched towards a consensus on this. That has happened because the quality of our parliamentary democracy must be diminished by a second Chamber that is wholly dependent on privilege or patronage for its membership. Only two countries in the world have a bigger second chamber than first chamber—Burkina Faso and Kazakhstan. Incidentally, I doubt whether they can match the fact that in our House of Lords 54% of Members come from London and the south-east, only a fifth are women, and there are more Members aged over 90 than under 40, which is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) once said that it is a model of how to care for the elderly.
It is a shame that that was said by a Government Member, but the hon. Gentleman makes a fundamental point about why Labour Members have sought reform—originally abolition, but then reform—of the other place. To me, I am afraid, it represents institutionalised snobbery.
I do not agree with Walter Bagehot’s comment that the cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it, but neither do I agree with the constant stream of self-regard that comes from those on the other side of Central Lobby about how it is the greatest, most expert revising chamber ever to be devised in the world. They have certainly been very expert at preserving the status quo. I am quite prepared to listen to and debate the very strong arguments for the status quo made by Members who, despite manifesto commitments, are perfectly entitled to come here and make that case. Incidentally, that is not the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), who believes in a unicameral system. However, the consensus that we have been inching towards says that the status quo is indefensible in a modern, 21st century democracy, and that view is reflected in the proposals in the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman tried to intervene on the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), and now he has got his intervention on the record.
The first question is, “Do we need to reform the House of Lords?”, and the answer is, “Of course we do.” The second question is, “Are these the right reforms?” I think that they broadly are. I say that not because they are Clegg’s reforms, but because they are Cook’s reforms. One of my great heroes is the late, great Robin Cook. There was no greater parliamentarian and no greater defender of this place. As Leader of the House, he sent us through the voting Lobbies seven times. We voted against every option, from a fully elected to a fully appointed House of Lords. The option that nearly got through—it failed by only three votes—was an 80-20 split. Incidentally, the other place voted almost unanimously for a wholly appointed second Chamber.
After that, Robin Cook worked with the current Foreign Secretary, the current Leader of the House, the current Lord Chancellor and another great Labour parliamentarian, Tony Wright, the former Member for Cannock Chase, to develop the argument with the “Breaking the Deadlock” proposals of 2005. Those proposals are very similar to this Bill, and to various other attempts, such as that of the Public Accounts Committee and the White Paper published by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) in 2008. The Labour Cabinet agreed to that paper, which incidentally involved a 50-50 split between elected and appointed Members.
In the end, Labour proposed a 100% elected House in the 2010 manifesto. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) knows, because he was a member of the Cabinet at the time, we knew that we might have to concede an 80-20 split because anyone who is serious about pursuing House of Lords reform does not want to take on the disestablishment of the Church of England at the same time, because that is a recipe for permanent procrastination.
“Breaking the Deadlock” said that there should be single terms covering three election periods, as did the royal commission under Wakeham in the late ’90s and as have various other documents. It said that Members would be elected by proportional representation, as did our election manifesto in 2010. The reason for that is to keep the primacy of the Commons. When a large proportion of the second Chamber is elected, we need to ensure that they do not seek ministerial office, that they are not after a career and that they will not be difficult with elected local MPs and seek to replace them. That is why everybody who has looked at this matter in any depth has come to the conclusion that there should be long, single terms with no further right to stand again.
All of the current proposals are right. I should probably say that they are nearly right before I get into trouble with the Whips—there are obviously some improvements that can be made in Committee. However, to get a consensus and to take advantage of what is an unprecedented opportunity to do something about this issue, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said, I believe that a referendum of the British people is needed. I ask those on the Treasury Bench to consider that. To have legitimacy, the proposals have to be approved by the public. We can then ensure that they are implemented in full.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson). Although I disagree with a lot of what he says, I have respect for the way in which he says it. I certainly agree with his last point about a referendum.
There is wide agreement in this House and in the other place that we want reform of the second Chamber. Sadly, the Bill before us is standing in the way of measured, necessary reform. If only we had a small Bill that proposed to do what we all know needs to be done, we could get on with it. But we cannot, because the Bill is fundamentally flawed. It undermines democracy in three specific ways: first, it damages accountability; secondly, it has not been subject to proper consultation; and thirdly, it ignores the will of the people.
First, a person who is elected for a 15-year, non-renewable term of office is accountable to nobody.
I do not know what proposals I would support for the House of Lords, because we have not had proper consultation or proper consideration of what ought to be done. I believe that we ought to have a constitutional convention to consider the reform of Parliament as a whole. Once we have done that properly, I will be happy to give the hon. Gentleman my answer.
Worse still on the matter of accountability, a body of people who, having been elected, claim to have a democratic mandate, will behave as though they had one. There will be no stopping them. They will flex their democratic muscles and challenge this House of Commons. No matter what any Bill or any convention says, they will challenge the primacy of this House.
When these people are elected to the House of Lords, or the House of senators, or the second Chamber, they will be elected by millions. They will therefore say, “Millions of our people have put me here, so I have a better democratic right than MPs to speak for them.” That will mean a challenge to this Chamber.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the challenge will be not just here in the Chamber but in every marginal constituency? That is what happens in Australia, where they have the system in question. The equivalent of a Liberal Democrat Senator in a Conservative seat becomes that area’s parliamentary representative, and so it is in every marginal constituency.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Joint Committee took evidence from the Australian Parliament, and Members ought to look at that evidence and pay heed to Australia before giving away our primacy.
The most worrying thing of all is that as the primacy of the House of Commons is challenged, the unique link of accountability between the elector and his or her representative in Parliament—their Member of this House —will be undermined, so Parliament’s very accountability will be undermined as well.
Quite apart from the fact that there is no reasonable question to which the right answer is 450 extra elected politicians, having a second House of Commons at the other end of the corridor will not increase the chances of holding the Government to account. It will do exactly the opposite. A clash between the two Houses and a squabble over when and whether the Parliament Acts could be used will lead to a challenge in the courts, and I for one do not want vital political issues to be decided not by Parliament but by the judiciary. Our electors expect us to take responsibility, and they expect the buck to stop with us, their MPs. We ought to fight to preserve that.
I turn to the matter of consultation. The subject of Lords reform may have been talked about for 100 years, but we are not considering it in a proper, wider context. Reform of one part of Parliament is reform of Parliament as a whole, but we have been able to consider only the narrow proposals that the Deputy Prime Minister has put forward. I sat on the Joint Committee for eight months, and we recommended a constitutional convention so that the subject could be properly examined in context. The Government have ignored that recommendation, and now we face the possibility that we might not even be able to examine the Bill fully here in the House of Commons because of a narrow programme motion. At the same time, the Government are afraid of a referendum. They are afraid to ask the people. No constitutional convention, no referendum, no proper scrutiny in the House of Commons—that is not democracy.
No, I will not rule that out—not that I ever expect to be offered a seat, and certainly not by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench. I am probably not the most popular Smartie in the tube today, but I do not care about that: I am here to do my duty for democracy.
The Bill ignores the will of the people. Only one year ago, we had an expensive nationwide referendum in which the people overwhelmingly rejected a proportional representation voting system. The Deputy Prime Minister now ignores the will of the people. PR for this House was rejected, so he says, “Let’s introduce it for the other place.” What contempt! What duplicity! Why does he do it? The answer to that non-rhetorical question is that a proportional election system will give the Liberal Democrats a permanent hold on the balance of power in the second Chamber. That is not democracy; it is blatant party political advantage. It is short term and small-minded, and I certainly cannot vote for it.
There is very much more to say on this subject, and I hope the House votes to give all the time necessary for proper scrutiny of such fundamental parliamentary reform.
The most fundamental principle of any democracy is that those who exercise political power over us must be elected by us, yet everywhere in the UK it is evident that the long march to extend the franchise has a long way to go. The most powerful and influential in our society are not directly elected—the media, the bankers and the civil service. Even the chief executive of our Government is not directly elected. We are still one of the few western democracies in which the people are not trusted to elect directly their Prime Minister—the top politician in the land. Our problem is not too much democracy, but not enough democracy.
Elections are almost a guarantee of powerlessness. Anyone contaminated by contact with the ballot box is edged around by regulation, oversight and rules that dull our enterprise and inhibit our leadership. For example, locally elected councillors are bound by 1,500 Acts of Parliament, which render them as little more than agents of the centre. Elected Members of Parliament have a fleeting existence as an electoral college on general election night, but thereafter are laughably alleged to hold to account the very Executive that whips them to vote for them several times a day, every day, every week.
I very much hope that Government Members exercise their independence in pursuit of parliamentary sovereignty and a wider democracy rather than in pursuit of any special interest—I am sure that will happen.
In all those areas, reform is a relatively simple matter, but the most centralised state of all western democracies is blocking the way—the sclerotic relic of an empire, with England as the last country to throw off its yoke. The regime is so suffocating and so clueless about the alternatives that some of our blood relatives in the nations of our kingdom feel driven to break free of it.
There is an alternative, as there always has been, and as the best elements of the philosophies of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal parties have always known and for which they have always fought: the ballot box. No one, and above all hon. Members, needs to be afraid of the ballot box or of spreading electoral possibility. The ballot box is the weapon feared most not by those outside the House, but by Executive power, whether in the House or elsewhere. The vote can deliver devo-max not just for the nations of the UK, but for this Parliament and for locally elected councils, and above all for individuals in our country.
Today, we will see whether this elected House, this poor, whipped, dwarf of a legislator, can reconnect with its historic mission to extend the franchise, or whether we decide to pull up the drawbridge so that none can share our meagre status. Can we outgrow this fairytale of parliamentary sovereignty and our self-delusion about the primacy of the first Chamber? The cold, harsh reality is that we have Executive sovereignty and the primacy of Government. That is what dominates British politics, not some fairyland where Members of Parliament dominate the political scenario.
My hon. Friend makes his point, but anyone looking objectively at this House would see two competing teams, one for the Government, the other against, and it is rare that there is rebellion or independence of mind, as he well knows.
We should not fear the liberty and the improvement of the second Chamber. It might actually be the making of the freedom of the first Chamber. It might be one step on the road to having a free and independent legislature that would challenge the power of the Executive.
I wouldn’t hold your breath.
My right hon. Friend, having been a strong member of a past Executive, knows where he is most powerful. Is he most powerful sitting on the Back Benches here, or was he most powerful when in Whitehall and commanding a Government Department? We could discuss how effective the scrutiny was that he went through.
To have an un-elected Chamber with a say in passing laws over our citizens is a democratic abomination. It is not a deficit, an anachronism or a quaint ceremonial corner; it is an insult to every elector in the land. It is hobbling and repressive. It says to our citizens, “You are not capable or worthy of deciding your own future, of deciding who should run your country.” It says that this country is about deference and patronage, about a lack of self-confidence and belief, and about insiders and those who know better. It is about our past, not our future. It is an open wound in the body of our democracy and it must be healed.
That wound can be healed only by introducing the elective principle to the second Chamber. That is what this generation of parliamentarians in both Houses can achieve over the next year, and it can be done without beheading those whose service in the second Chamber deserves our respect, not our abuse. For those of us who for 25 years or more have worked for reform, standing on the shoulders of a century of giants before us, these proposals are the most serious attempt yet to bring about a change in our democracy and bring it into the modern era. Their courage and ambition mock the flaccid indecision of recent years.
Are the proposals perfect? No, of course not. Only the 650 different plans in the minds of each hon. Member are perfect, but that is why, theoretically at least, we have a parliamentary process. There is a—