[2nd Allocated Day]
Question (9 July) again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
We have listened carefully to the debate so far, confident that we will get a significant majority on Second Reading tonight. But for Lords reform to progress, it needs those who support reform to vote for reform and to vote for that reform to make progress through this House. It is clear that the Opposition are not prepared to do that, so we will not move the programme motion tonight. We remain committed to making progress on Lords reform, and with Second Reading behind us we will then consider how best to take this agenda forward and how best to secure progress through the House for reforms that have the backing of this House. The Government will move a timetable motion before we make progress in the autumn, in accordance with the rules of the House.
The Government’s decision to withdraw the programme motion today is a victory for Parliament. The Leader of the House has talked about a timetable motion, but will he now confirm, so that there is no doubt, that if this Bill passes its Second Reading tonight, it is the Government’s intention to bring forward immediately a motion to commit the Bill to debate on the Floor of this House? Will he also confirm that it is not now the Government’s intention to bring forward a guillotine on this Bill, having effectively lost the argument for a timetable today? We must have the time to debate this Bill and scrutinise it adequately.
I say to my right hon. and learned Friend that I am ever optimistic, but, as he will have noticed during the exchanges yesterday, despite repeated requests, the Opposition were never able to put a figure on the number of days that they would have found adequate.
Will the Leader of the House give way?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is indeed a gentleman and always has been. Will he confirm what he said a moment ago in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle): that a timetable motion will actually be brought forward in the autumn by the Government, and as a consequence the only way in which this House can show its displeasure at this constitutional abomination of a Bill is to vote against it on Second Reading tonight?
I respect the right hon. Gentleman, but I would not draw that conclusion. The issue on Second Reading is whether the House supports the principle of the Bill, and I very much hope that the House will do so. As I said, there will subsequently be a timetable motion, which the House will have an opportunity to debate and vote on, and it is at that point that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to express any concern that he may still have.
May I commend the Government for the wisdom of their decision today? But may I put it to my right hon. Friend that whatever moral authority this Bill had it has now lost? I commend his determination to reflect on what to do next, but may I beg him to make no further commitments about what might be decided, because I think that the authority of the coalition will be undermined if it proceeds with a Bill that it is unable to obtain?
With great respect, I have to disagree with my hon. Friend. Whether the Bill has “moral authority”, to use his words, depends on the verdict of the House on Second Reading. If the House gives the Bill a majority on Second Reading, the House is perfectly entitled to make progress with it, and I indicated in my statement that in the autumn we hope to come back with a timetable motion in order to make progress. But we do now have some moments for reflection.
I am enormously grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Let me make it clear from the Conservative Benches that the very substantial opposition from within the Conservative party, not just that from Labour, was responsible for the withdrawal of the motion. That should be perfectly clear and reflected in the record.
On these matters, I listen to my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary, who indicated some dissent with the proposition put forward by my hon. Friend. I always agree with the Patronage Secretary.
In response to your injunction, Mr Speaker, I shall now move on to what I was going to say about the merits of the Bill on Second Reading. I want to address the issue of the primacy of the House, which was a matter that concerned many hon. Members yesterday. As the first Conservative Front Bencher to speak in the debate, however, I hope the House will understand if it I say why I think my party should continue to support the Bill.
The House will recognise that I could have no conceivable problems with the Bill, given that some of the ideas originate in a book that I co-authored in 2005, to which the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) referred yesterday. I have spoken in favour of reform in just about every debate since 1997—and there have been many—and, like many colleagues, I have supported reform in the Lobby. I respect the views of my colleagues who oppose our reforms, but I point out that the last time the House voted on this topic in a free vote in 2007, the majority of Conservative Members voted against a fully appointed second Chamber.
Some have branded the Bill a Liberal Democrat measure, but I invite the House to look at the list of the Bill’s sponsors. As far as I am concerned, the Bill has strong Conservative antecedents, and I would have been happy to introduce it if we had had a majority Conservative Government. My party has a long and proud history of constitutional reform. Although other issues might make the hearts in North West Hampshire beat a little faster, we have always been concerned with the health of Parliament.
At the 1955 general election, the Conservatives under Anthony Eden announced in their manifesto:
“It has long been the Conservative wish to reach a settlement regarding the reform of the House of Lords, so that it may continue to play its proper role as a Second Chamber under the Constitution.”
Three years later, it was a Conservative Government under Harold Macmillan who navigated through Parliament one of the few reform Bills of the past 100 years, the Life Peerages Act 1958. I say to my colleagues who are unhappy about this Bill that when the then Government introduced the 1958 Bill, it was in the teeth of sharp objections from some Conservatives in both Houses, but I believe that everyone now accepts that that was a sensible reform. I believe the same is true of our proposals to move progressively from an appointed to an elected House. I see nothing Conservative about retaining a wholly appointed upper House in the 21st century.
My right hon. Friend referred to the free vote in this House in March 2007. I remind him that in the vote on the wholly appointed element of the proposals, 17 current Conservative Ministers and six Conservative members of the Government Whips Office voted for that 100% appointed Chamber. They will now be compelled to vote against their beliefs.
I am sure that my hon. Friend’s point is absolutely accurate, but that does not destroy the point I made a few moments ago, which was that on a free vote in the previous Parliament, the majority of Conservative Members voted against a wholly appointed House. As a matter of interest, the whole House voted by a majority of two to one against a fully appointed House.
The Leader of the House is making the perfectly fair point that different parties at different times have had manifesto and party commitments to reforming the House of Lords. We can be agreed on that. The Prime Minister is offering a referendum to the people of the Falklands and a possible referendum on Europe and we have had a referendum on the alternative vote system, so will the Leader of the House explain why the British people are not being offered a referendum on the biggest constitutional change since 1832 as a final part of the Bill?
I say gently to the right hon. Gentleman: what happened to the Lisbon referendum? I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber yesterday, but my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister dealt with the question of a referendum on several occasions. He dealt with it again in Deputy Prime Minister’s questions today and it is dealt with in our response to the Joint Committee’s report. In the 1990s, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, the Conservative party opposed Labour’s changes to the composition of the upper House, not because we wanted to retain the hereditary peers, but because we took a principled stand to argue—with very little dissent—for “no stage 1 without stage 2”. Our fear, disputed forcefully by Labour at the time, was that if we did not move immediately to an elected House after the abolition of the hereditaries, progress would inevitably stall. That was my party’s view at the time, and how right we were.
Let us remember that, in their response to Lord Wakeham’s report in 1999, the previous Government said that they would
“make every effort to ensure that the second stage has been approved by Parliament before the next general election.”
That was the 2001 election, when they told us we were going to elect the first tranche. Yet with three large majorities, three White Papers, two Green Papers, one royal commission, one Joint Committee, two Acts of Parliament and two sets of free votes, Labour missed a golden opportunity to move on to the second stage, despite support from many Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
I propose to make a little more progress, and then I may give way again.
No political party ever voted for the halfway House that we now have, and no one wanted that to be the lasting settlement, or imagined that it would be. Although their Lordships do a diligent job, I believe their work is undermined by their lack of democratic legitimacy. It is simply unacceptable that just five people have appointed over 75% of the Members of our second legislative assembly. Tony Blair appointed 316 peers during his time in office. I find that difficult to defend.
Should we not just go home? The Leader of the House knows it is all over; Government Members know it is all over. We have more important things to debate and decisions to make today. Let us just say, “Enough is enough,” and call the whole shooting match off.
No, I am going to make some more progress.
We have ended up with exactly what the Conservatives warned against at the time. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said when he was Leader of the Opposition:
“if we are not careful we are going to have a House of Lords dominated by the cronies of the prime minister of the day”.
I say to Members of my own party that they cannot argue for “no stage 1 without stage 2” and then block stage 2. We have been committed to a mainly elected second Chamber since 1999 and this commitment was in our last three election manifestos.
Let me address briefly the issue of primacy, which came up repeatedly during yesterday’s debate—
Some colleagues accept the case for reform, but are opposed to the idea of election. We heard yesterday that giving the House of Lords a more democratic mandate might somehow undermine the primacy of this House. I have never believed in the one-dimensional view of the relationship between the two Houses, in which if one Chamber gains in authority, the other must lose. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso)—the only Member, incidentally, who has experience of both Houses. I have always believed that a reformed, more accountable second Chamber will strengthen Parliament as a whole. As the Wakeham report concluded:
“Our ambition for the reformed second chamber is that it should enhance the overall ability of Parliament as a whole to hold the Government to account. It should do this by using its particular strengths to develop arrangements which complement and reinforce those of the House of Commons.”
Most of the time, the Commons and the Lords are not rivals, but partners in holding the Government to account. I would argue that over the past 10 years, the House of Lords has gained in authority, not at the expense of this House, but at the expense of the Executive. I would further argue that if the legitimacy of the House of Lords were to be enhanced by the injection of some democracy, its authority would be further enhanced, not to the detriment of the Commons, but better empowering Parliament as a whole to do its job. Those who believe in a stronger Parliament should welcome, not obstruct, a more effective second Chamber.
I now regret giving way to the right hon. Gentleman, because I am sure that there are other Members who would have made a more worthwhile point if they had intervened. Looking around, I see a large number of colleagues behind me, and I have all the support that I need.
On primacy, the fact is that Members of this House are all elected on the same day, on the basis of a party manifesto. We are elected to the pre-eminent House in Parliament—pre-eminent because it sustains the Executive, controls supply, and produces the Prime Minister. We submit ourselves for re-election, which is when the country gives a verdict on our performance. None of those conditions would apply to the second Chamber as proposed in the Bill. Elected Members would not be elected all at the same time, but over a longer period—a move supported by the Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill. The other place would have no mandate to rival the mandate of those in this House; indeed, some Members of the other place would be not elected, but appointed. The notion that they could somehow convert themselves into an equally legitimate Chamber that could challenge the authority of this House is simply far-fetched.
No, I am pressing on. Nothing in the Government’s Bill changes the current status of the second Chamber, which is clearly defined as complementary and subordinate to this House. Its only powers are those given to it by this House, which remains pre-eminent. The second Chamber would simply not be able—even if it wanted to—unilaterally to change its powers after reform, any more than it can now.
Another misconception relates to the Government’s preferred electoral system for the second Chamber. An assumption has arisen that, somehow, Members of the upper House who are elected on party lists will have been parachuted in by the party leadership. I say as delicately as I can that this has not been my party’s experience with Members of the European Parliament, some of whom have proved robustly independent in their opinions, and in expressing them, and were certainly not the preferred candidates of the leadership. Indeed, this argument ignores totally the democratic hoops through which candidates must jump before being selected: primaries, public meetings, and the scrutiny to which people seeking election are properly subjected.
Whereas there is a closed list in the European Parliament, we propose a semi-open list, so voters can overturn the order predetermined by parties. Ultimately, colleagues who have an issue with the Government’s proposals will want to analyse and probe them in Committee, but I do not believe that the list system will have the consequences that some have suggested.
My right hon. Friend mentioned elected Members of the European Parliament. Does he not agree that just because another elected Member has one’s constituency as part of their region, it does not mean to say that they are interfering in one’s work all the time? No MEP has ever interfered with my work.
And how very wise Members of the European Parliament are not to interfere in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
I turn finally to the issue of the progress that we have sought to make with the Government’s legislative programme, and with the Bill in particular. The Deputy Prime Minister established and chaired a cross-party Committee to develop policy and explore the contentious issues. There was a five-hour debate once the White Paper and draft Bill were published in 2011. There has been more than 22 hours of debate on the subject in the upper House since the beginning of the year.
The hon. Gentleman almost tests my patience. We are always open to discussion through the usual channels on issues such as this. I have to say gently to him that before we had even tabled the programme motion, the Labour Opposition said that they would vote against it. That did not indicate the sort of consensual interchange of ideas that the hon. Gentleman has just invited me to engage in.
We established a Joint Committee to consider the draft Bill. That Joint Committee held evidence sessions on 16 separate days—approximately 48 hours of parliamentary time—with the Minister giving evidence on four separate occasions. After the Joint Committee had concluded, we responded to it and we have amended the Bill before the House in the light of its recommendations.
As I confirmed to the House at the beginning, the Government will not proceed this evening with the programme motion. I want sufficient time to debate and vote on these issues, but I also want sufficient time for the House to scrutinise other important Bills in our legislative programme—major reforms to the banks, public service pensions, electricity markets, adoption and support for children with special needs, the state pension, the creation of a national crime agency, and the rest. Some substantial constitutional measures have passed through Parliament in the past two years—on fixed-term Parliaments, the referendum on the alternative vote, reducing the size of the Commons and the referendum lock on powers to Europe—yet the coalition also pressed ahead with sweeping reforms to public services and getting on top of the deficit.
I know that a number of my colleagues on the Government Benches have objections in principle to what is in the Bill, and I listened to them with respect yesterday. They are likely to register their objections on Second Reading. But if the House gives the Bill a Second Reading, I hope they will respect that decision and the need to make progress with others measures in our programme for the current Session.
I hope that Back Benchers on both sides of the House will see the Bill for what it is: a serious attempt at long last to strengthen Parliament’s ability to hold the Government to account, which will raise the game of the Executive and empower the individual citizen. I commend the Bill to the House.
Yesterday we heard a string of passionate and heartfelt speeches about this, the most persistent and difficult piece of unfinished business. On the way into the Chamber we had a flurry of Twitter traffic and nudges and winks which culminated in the statement made by the Leader of the House.
After yesterday’s Liberal Democrat day in this two-day debate, we have arrived at the Conservative day. The right hon. Gentleman promised me last week that there would not be any difference in tone and approach between the two days. I have detected a slight difference since he made his opening statement, but we have now arrived at the Conservative day, opened by the Leader of the House with his usual courtesy and good humour. At least, I thought his speech was a bit dodgy at the beginning, but he recovered his humour and courtesy. The debate will be wound up by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper).
The Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform embarked on a kamikaze tactic on the radio yesterday in support of the Bill when he asserted that Winston Churchill would vote for it if he were here tonight. Let me give the hon. Gentleman a little friendly advice. Never think that it is possible to know more about the political views of a great statesman, a parliamentarian and a war leader than his grandson does. If his grandson happens to be a Member of the House and might be listening to the radio while re-reading his op-ed which torpedoed Government policy in The Daily Telegraph, it is probably better to keep such dubious insights to oneself.
The Deputy Prime Minister did not make himself any more popular among those on the Government Benches when he appeared to denigrate the work of the Lords during his opening speech yesterday. It was noticeable that it took an age before any of his Liberal Democrat colleagues decided to try to help him cope with the friendly fire from behind. His cause was not helped by the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Oakeshott, who referred to some thankfully unnamed peers as “deadbeats” and “has-beens”. I presume he excluded himself from that colourful description of his colleagues, although I am not sure the compliment would be returned.
Surely we should be able to discuss this important constitutional reform without resorting to such abuse. Surely the issue is not so much about the personal attributes of individual Members of the second Chamber as about how they came to be there.
It is my position, as the husband of a Member of the upper House, to speak dispassionately and without disparaging that House, but surely the hon. Lady must recognise that, as in this House, a wide variety of personalities are to found there, although not a very wide variety of ages, but all its Members have one thing in common: none of them was elected to be there.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I support replacing the current House of Lords with a wholly elected second Chamber. At the last election I stood on a manifesto that contained a commitment to legislate for a wholly elected second Chamber. On all the occasions when the Commons has considered Lords reform in the 20 years I have been a Member of this House, I have always voted for a democratically elected second Chamber, unlike everyone on both Front Benches. It is a matter of principle for me that those who legislate should always bring a democratic mandate to the task.
The Labour party is committed to an elected second Chamber, which is why we will vote for one tonight when we support the Bill on Second Reading. We will do so despite our reservations about the Government’s current proposals, which I will turn to in a moment. The Government’s decision to withdraw the programme motion today is a victory for Parliament. Although we will support the Bill’s Second Reading, we could not have supported the Government’s attempts to curtail debate with a programme motion. We welcome the fact that they have faced up to this reality and withdrawn the motion.
I am trying to give the hon. Gentleman an answer that befits the scale of the issues we face, rather than answer a silly question in the way he asked it.
As I was saying, we need to ensure that the Bill has proper scrutiny, because it would replace a wholly appointed second Chamber with an elected one. It would not have been right for the Government to limit the time that a democratically elected House can spend debating proposals to extend democracy. The Opposition believe that it is important that Parliament, not simply the Executive, is in control of the debates on the Bill. We believe that every part of the Bill needs proper scrutiny, because under the terms of the Parliament Acts it is possible that this Bill, as it leaves this House, will be the one that makes it on to the statute book. That makes it absolutely imperative, in our view, that all parts of the Bill are effectively scrutinised here.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful point, but it should not be up to the Executive or the shadow Executive to determine how much time the House takes to debate the matter; that should be for the House to decide. The Bill should not be programmed in any way whatsoever.
We look forward to seeing what proposals the Government actually bring forward. I tried earlier to get a few hints from the Leader of the House, but he seems not to know the answer yet. I hope that we will know soon what the Government intend to do, but the principle that the entire Bill must have adequate scrutiny and that when it leaves this place, it must be fit for purpose is the one that is in our minds.
Opposition Front Benchers asserted yesterday that the timetable motion on today’s Order Paper would not give adequate time for the Bill to be debated as it goes through the House, so they must have some idea of how much time is adequate if they were able to reach that conclusion. Just why was the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) on how many days are adequate a silly one in that context?
Programme motions are, in fact, a modern convention. Constitutional measures used to go through the House without any timetable motions, or even guillotines, at all, and with any major constitutional measure on which the Government are determined to deny any referendum, a proper discussion of the relevant Bill is the only check and balance that this House has on change in our constitution.
But one practice that has existed for hundreds of years is the one whereby, when a Bill receives its Second Reading, it is committed by virtue of a resolution of the House either to a Bill Committee—since 2006, a Public Bill Committee—or to a Committee of the whole House. It looks as though if the Bill gets its Second Reading tonight, it will be in complete limbo, which the Pope abolished several years ago. So is it not essential that we have some clarity on where the Bill is going to go, preferably before it gets its Second Reading?
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and that is why I attempted to obtain some clarity from the Leader of the House when he made his bombshell announcement at the beginning of this debate. We would appreciate some certainty from Government Front Benchers on how we can deal with the issue.
The Leader of the House and I have something important in common: we were both Members prior to the introduction of the routine programming of business, and we both know that it is possible to scrutinise effectively a Bill that does not have a programme motion attached, because we used to do so all the time. The Government, following their climbdown today, will have to come forward with new proposals, and the Opposition look forward to seeing what they are, but let me confirm for the record that, after adequate scrutiny, we want the Bill to go to the other place.
Labour has a proud record of reforming the Lords. We have been responsible for all the major changes to the other place over the past 100 years: the removal of hereditary peers, the introduction of an elected Speaker and the creation of the Supreme Court. We wanted to go further and tried in the previous Parliament to pass legislation in favour of an elected Chamber, spending extra time trying to forge a cross-party consensus.
This Government seem to spend so much time on inter-coalition diplomacy, however, that they keep forgetting to work with Her Majesty’s official Opposition, and on issues of constitutional change, that is an insult and a mistake. We will support the Bill’s Second Reading, but the Government’s proposals give us cause for concern in a number of areas that we will need to explore further, so I thought that it would be helpful to the House if I set some of them out.
I was elected on a manifesto promising a referendum on House of Lords reform. That is why the Prime Minister’s and Deputy Prime Minister’s argument—that a referendum is not needed because reform featured in all three party election manifestos—is so disingenuous. Our manifesto offered people a choice. It is the Government who are seeking to deny the electorate a say once the new arrangements have been forged and decided here.
I support the point made by the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin). I was first elected to this House in 1997, when the question of replacing the pound with the single European currency was active. The Government and the Opposition said, “Wait and see—we’ll let you know after the election whether we’ll keep our own currency,” while the Liberal Democrats said that they were going to scrap it and replace it with the euro. The electorate had no choice on that matter. I think that everyone agrees today that there should have been a referendum if there had been such a proposal.
The Liberal Democrats stood on a manifesto that said:
“Liberal Democrats will do things differently, because we believe that power should be in the hands of people, not politicians. We will give people a real say in who governs the country”.
I would say that people need no bigger say than on the constitutional changes that are being proposed. I do not see what is any different about the need to have a referendum and talk to people about who is going to be governing the country.
The hon. Lady makes a point of great insight and acuity. I merely say to her that the Liberal Democrats also campaigned on the slogan, “No more broken promises”.
Our Government held referendums on setting up the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the office of London Mayor. This Government have legislated so that every tiny adjustment to European treaties now requires a referendum. Only last year, there was a referendum on extending the powers of the Welsh Assembly. Although some might like to forget it, there was a referendum on adopting the alternative vote for UK general elections. Only this May, a number of English cities held referendums on directly elected mayors. I cannot for the life of me see why the people of Birmingham and Bristol got to vote in a referendum on an elected mayor but are to be deprived of a vote on an elected second Chamber. On major constitutional questions, by convention and by right, the British people have the final say in a referendum. It follows that we believe that there should be a referendum on an elected second Chamber.
I think that my hon. Friend was in the Chamber earlier when the Deputy Prime Minister justified the lack of a referendum on the grounds of cost. She might reflect on the fact that the same Deputy Prime Minister deferred the elections for police commissioners from May, when the cost would have been minimal as they would have coincided with the local elections, to November, on the grounds of their importance. Those elections may be on important matters, but I suspect that they are not as important as total constitutional reform. Why can the Government spend money on one form of election but not on a referendum of this importance?
The hon. Lady asks why the Government do not want to go ahead with a referendum. I wonder whether the answer might be that if a question were put to the British people the affirmative answer to which was, “You will have 450 extra elected, salaried, full-time politicians,” the British people might say no.
I am not sure that the answer to the question is “823—and counting—appointed politicians who legislate” either, so I am sorry to have to disagree slightly with the hon. Lady. The important principle is that when changes of this importance are being decided, the British people should have a say.
Is not the significant difference that in our 1997 election manifesto there was a clear and discrete commitment to the removal of hereditary peers, and that in our 2010 manifesto, there was equally a clear commitment to hold a referendum? Does that not show the consistency of my hon. Friend’s position?
I have given way a lot and I want to get on to another worry that we have over the legislation, which we want the debate to focus on in the days and weeks ahead.
The Bill makes an interesting and controversial assumption on the powers of the second Chamber. We are asked to believe that, despite the shift to 80% election, there will be no change in powers. It is important to safeguard the supremacy of the Commons after any reform. Unless the powers and privileges of the two Houses in relation to each other and the conventions covering the way in which they interact are dealt with explicitly, there will be the strong possibility of more frequent conflict between the two Houses post-reform. A mere statement about the supremacy of the Commons in clause 2 is unlikely to be sufficient for the purpose.
Even as we speak, the Salisbury-Addison convention is crumbling away before our eyes. On previous experience, we can expect it to be disregarded much more when there is a Labour majority in the Commons than when there is a Conservative majority.
This is a crucial point. Is it not the case that the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 presumed that if there was election to the upper House in the future—what would be described as a popular mandate—it would inevitably regain further powers? Clause 2 eliminates the preamble, but not the point that it was making back in 1911.
My right hon. Friend is right that the move from a wholly elected Chamber to one that is almost entirely elected inevitably raises questions about the relationship between and the powers of the two Chambers which we should debate in this place.
With issues that do not feature in the party manifestos, the situation will be even more fraught. The situation with secondary legislation will also be problematic. This is uncharted territory. That does not mean that we should run away from reform, but we must not simply cross our fingers and hope that these issues will miraculously be resolved or will not crop up.
Among all the discussion about reform, does the hon. Lady agree that the great opportunity for reform that is being presented, which those from every part of the House should support, is to ensure that, in future, any major constitutional change of any sort in this country goes through a proper procedure, including a referendum? That would bring us into line with every other democracy of the 21st century, about which we have heard so much.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree that I have been making the case as strongly as I can for a referendum on this issue.
The matter of powers has to be dealt with effectively in primary legislation. We cannot behave as if the Parliament Acts never existed. Merely asserting that they are still on the statute book is not nearly adequate as a mechanism for determining the relative powers of the two Houses.
There are also questions over the length of the terms and the term limit. The core principle of a democratically accountable Parliament must surely be that the legislators are accountable at the ballot box for their decisions. Members of the current House of Lords, as was pointed out more than once in yesterday’s debate, never have to account for their decisions at the ballot box. That is the essence of the democratic deficit that we are all trying to address. However, the Government are proposing a second Chamber where Members will never be accountable for their decisions, because they will be prevented from standing for a second term. That needs to be looked at again.
Along with our concerns over the restriction on re-election, we also have concerns about the proposed length of the terms. Members of this House are elected for five-year terms. It is not immediately apparent that electing Members to a second Chamber for terms as long as those that are proposed will provide much democratic legitimacy, especially when the terms are drawing to a close. There is merit in having longer terms of office in the second Chamber, but we hope to reach agreement on Report on more sensible and practical terms.
We also have concerns about the Government’s proposed electoral system, which we could probably spend many hours talking about. Their preference is a semi-open list, whereas we favour an open-list, proportional representation approach. We will explore the chances of a change in that system during the passage of the Bill.
On the hon. Lady’s point about safe seats and unaccountability, the average time in office for a Member of Parliament is two terms, which was previously eight years. The Bill would enshrine safe seats for 15 years, which is double the expected length of time spent here by a Member of Parliament who has to face the public.
The hon. Lady makes some important points, but does she not agree that it is important that we stop playing politics and start actually doing politics? If we do not put through a proper reform of the House of Lords, we will lose a once-in-a-generation golden opportunity. To achieve proper reform, will she now work with the Leader of the House, whom she clearly respects, so that we can get a proper timetable for seizing that golden opportunity?
I respect the hon. Lady, but it is important that she recognises that it is not playing politics to disagree with a programme motion on such an important matter on which the Government decided without consulting the Opposition. I hope she has realised from listening to my speech that the Opposition are serious about achieving reform of the second Chamber. I hope that we can work together to make progress on scrutinising the Bill appropriately.
The Government propose an 80% elected second Chamber, and 80% is better than zero, but a wholly elected second Chamber would be better still. A House in which one in five Members are not elected could still be one in which the unelected hold the balance of power. Indeed, they could decide every vote. Would that Chamber be truly accountable to the British people? That needs to be reconsidered.
May I take my hon. Friend back to the issue of programme motions? She came here before we introduced them, and by the way, I regret that we ever did. [Interruption.] Yes, and I have been consistent on that. Does she accept that before programme motions were introduced, a number of major and constitutional Bills went before the House and were dealt with satisfactorily? New Members perhaps do not properly appreciate that a programme motion not only closes debate according to a timetable but restricts the rights of Back Benchers much more than an ordinary and open motion of committal to the Floor of the House.
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. As I said earlier, both the Leader of the House and I have experience of getting Bills on to the statute book perfectly sensibly before the era of programme motions. The House is capable of doing that, and it can do it again.
The Opposition have other concerns about the Government’s proposals which we hope to explore further in Committee and on Report, but we will support Second Reading, because we believe the House should ensure that the Bill is properly scrutinised.
It ought to be recognised that the hon. Lady has made very constructive points this afternoon, but she is not really arguing for a motion that ensures that issues that she and other hon. Members regard as important are debated with some protected time. At the end of the day, it should not be possible to block the Bill merely because some hon. Members will continue talking with that deliberate intent.
The difference between filibuster and debate is usually easy to see. The Opposition have said that we want the Bill to go to the Lords.
This is a historic opportunity to reform the House of Lords and I hope we achieve it, but Lords reform alone will not solve the big democratic challenge we face in the UK, which is the disengagement, apathy and cynicism that is such a notable feature of our society. Ours is not the only advanced democracy with that problem, but we must tackle the anti-politics mood. I believe passionately that politics can transform lives and help us to rebuild our society, but the corrosive cynicism of the anti-politics age in which we live is hard to overcome.
I fear that an elected second Chamber will not solve that. Lords reform is long overdue, but we face even greater challenges to our democratic system and values that we can meet only by believing more deeply in democracy and by having more and not less accountability. I do not underplay the profound impact that big constitutional change has on how we do government—it shows that we are putting our democratic values into action where it counts. We should seek to spread the light of accountability and democracy into all corners of our society and challenge the move to plutocracy that has been so evident in the developed democracies in the past 30 years. The Labour Government’s decision to devolve power to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has had a beneficial impact on how we do government in the UK. Although Lords reform is unfinished business and business we must get right and get on with, it is only a small part of the answer to the more profound problems we face.
Every argument I have heard for the status quo runs up against the fact that the British people are shut out of the House of Lords. Each large new influx of coalition peers makes the ever more bloated House even more unsustainable—it now has 823 Members and rising. That is especially true as the size of the Commons is being reduced for narrow party political interest to its lowest number since the Great Reform Act of 1832.
The hon. Lady mentions the influx of life peers. Will she support a ballot of life peers, as was held for the hereditary peers, to bring their numbers down to something more manageable?
There are all sorts of issues with exits from and entry to the House of Lords, which we should debate in the time we now have available for the Bill.
It is plain that the Lords as constituted is absurd and unsustainable. We should propose to the British people replacing it with a wholly elected second Chamber. Except during the interregnum, the House of Lords has existed for hundreds of years, but never once have the British people had a say on whether it should continue to exist. Let us therefore reshape the Bill and reshape the Lords, and ask the British people for their endorsement.
Order. Before I call the first Back-Bench speaker, may I, for the benefit of the House, now respond substantively to the point of order raised with me earlier by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)? Standing Order No. 83A provides that, where notice is given of a programme motion, Standing Order No. 63 shall not apply. That means that, if the Bill is read a Second time this evening, it will not be possible for Ministers or others to move to commit the Bill, whether to Committee of the whole House or elsewhere. The Bill will remain uncommitted for the time being. I hope that that information is helpful to the House.
The six-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches now applies.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am not sure what I am more surprised about—the fact that we are having this debate at all or the fact that I am the first Back Bencher called to speak. I am very grateful to you, Sir.
It is ironic, therefore, that I speak with some reluctance. I have never defied the party line before, and it is something I hope not to do throughout my time in Parliament, but the Bill is fundamentally wrong. I have been a loyal supporter of both the Government and my party, but I am proud to be British, proud of our constitution and proud of our Parliament. The other place forms an essential part of our constitution, our heritage, history and culture, and once it is gone, it is gone. Seven hundred years of history will be undone if we support the Bill.
I want to be able to look my children in the eye and say, “I did not forsake the British constitution. I said no.” The House of Lords is unique because Britain is unique, and we should celebrate that fact, not try to change it. If MPs are not going to protect Parliament, who is? The Lords will just be seen as looking after themselves, as and when they block this measure, so it is down to us. There is nobody else.
When my hon. Friend stood at the last election, did he draw his electors’ attention to the contents of the Conservative party manifesto that read:
“We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current house of Lords, recognising that an efficient and effective second chamber should play an important role in our democracy and requires both legitimacy and public confidence”?
There was no commitment in the manifesto I stood on effectively to abolish the House of Lords.
We need to be brave enough to say that the Lords works. It is not perfect, but it works. These proposals will ensure that the Lords operates in a party political manner. Legislation will be blocked or supported for purely party political reasons, rather than simply because the Lords believes that the legislation is wrong.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Very few Members of this House think that the House of Lords is perfect in every way, but we do not want radical overhauls and an elected House of Lords, as suggested by this fundamentally flawed Bill.
Governments are currently created by single elections—general elections—and the reviewing Chamber acts as a check and balance without—[Interruption.]
The reviewing Chamber acts as a check and balance without the necessity of playing to the gallery. The contradictory nature of the two Houses of Parliament ensures that genuine revision of legislation takes place, and it is that essential difference between the two Houses that the Bill seeks to eradicate.
I oppose the principle of an elected second Chamber, but the details of the Bill are also wrong. Fifteen-year terms fly in the face of democracy. Even Robert Mugabe has not tried a term of office for that length of time. Fifteen years without any possibility of facing the electorate gives a mandate to that senator without any kind of accountability. The wealth of expertise that exists in the Lords will go, to be replaced by people who really wanted to be Members of this House.
There are 79 Members in the other place who have expertise in engineering, medicine and health, and science and technology. Does my hon. Friend agree that all those specialties would be lost, despite the requirement for eight years or more experience?
And there are many more, of course, who have expertise in government.
The Lords will end up as a dumping ground for failed party candidates and those who do not fancy facing the electorate more than once every one and a half decades. The Bill states that the Commons will remain supreme. That much we can legislate for, but we cannot legislate to control the amount of influence that the new Lords would have. A senator with a higher proportion of votes in a region will claim greater legitimacy than an MP in the same area. For centuries the Commons and the Lords have tended to work well together. A democratically elected Commons is complemented by an appointed and hereditary revising second Chamber, but the proposals in this Bill will set both Houses against each other. More than that, they will set senators against each other—those who are elected against those who are not. Make no mistake, Mr Speaker: this Bill does not just reform the House of Lords; it effectively abolishes it in all but name.
In conclusion, I feel bitterly disappointed that I shall be voting against my party—sick to the pit of my stomach, in fact—but I shall leave this Chamber with my head held high, able to look myself in the mirror. The House of Lords works. It has stood the test of time. We abolish it at our peril.
I was a member of the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill. We sat from July 2011 to March 2012, for about 90 hours in total. We heard from many witnesses, who had very different and sincerely held opinions. The Committee members also held divergent views. There were those who thought that we should have sat for longer, but I am not sure that those divergent views would have been reconciled, however long we had sat.
I do not intend to go into every detail of the reasoning behind every recommendation, but I want to draw the House’s attention to one important division, on a recommendation that the Committee agreed by 16 votes to six: that if there were to be elections, there should be 80% elected and 20% appointed, as a means of preserving expertise and placing the mandate of the Lords on a different footing from that of the Commons. That proposal has been criticised. However, I would point out that it will retain the best features of the existing Lords, with room for independent experts from outside politics. There will be 90 independent Members, which is more than currently turn up to contentious votes in the present House. The evidence is that the electorate favour an elected House, but there is also evidence that they value independence in their representatives. I am sure that if there had been a proposal to have a 100% elected second Chamber, there would also have been strong criticism from parts of this House. In fact, it is difficult to foresee any proposals that would not be subject to criticism.
Some of the proposals in the Bill are not new. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) made similar proposals on size, appointments, powers, remuneration and long, non-renewable terms in the 2008 White Paper, which said:
“Provision that members of the second chamber could serve only a single term would help enhance the independence of, and reinforce the distinct role for, members of the second chamber…There is widespread consensus that elected members of the second chamber should serve a single, non-renewable term of 12-15 years.”
The White Paper did not become a Bill.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the proposal that we agreed for long single terms of between 12 and 15 years derived from the recommendations of Lord Wakeham and his royal commission back in 2000? It might be wise for hon. and right hon. Members on the Government Benches to look at what Lord Wakeham had to say in support of that.
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend.
That White Paper did not become a Bill. There was a banking crisis at the time, and, as we have seen over the past 100 years, it is never the right time to reform the Lords. There is always a good reason not to change. However, the present House of Lords is unsustainable, simply on a practical level. If the current pace of patronage were to continue, its membership would rise to about 1,100. There would be so many peers that, soon, every town in the British isles would have its name in some Lord’s title. There is also a health and safety issue, with so many bodies in such a limited space, all trying to squeeze through the Division Lobbies.
Some say that the answer is to limit the numbers, but I have little confidence that the House of Lords could do that. For example, there was a debate recently in the Lords on a proposal to change the way in which their lordships address each other. One peer said:
“I think it is a retrograde step to start changing an age-old custom, particularly when it comes to ‘noble and gallant’, ‘noble and learned’ and ‘noble friends’. As I said on an earlier occasion, a right reverend Prelate shall ever be a ‘right reverend Prelate’.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 8 November 2011; Vol. 732, c. 160.]
The motion was lost. Change comes hard to the House of Lords. At some point, however, the numbers will have to be dealt with. Does anybody seriously believe that numbers can be dealt with, and patronage not?
Reform of an unelected House in which some Members sit by virtue of their birth and others sit courtesy of their friends is inevitable. Reform of the House of Lords is as inevitable as reform of the expenses of Members of Parliament. Then, as now, this House thought that it could hold back reform, but it could not do so. This issue is not about us preserving our privilege and our position; it is about what is in the public interest and what makes for good governance. The electorate are changing. Social media are changing the way in which we interact with our electors, and their expectations of us are changing.
I am in the same position as many Members of Parliament, in that more people voted for other candidates in the last election than voted for me, but I represent the constituency of Stockport: those who voted for me and those who did not. In this House, we value that constituency link, and many of the issues that Members pursue are pursued on behalf of constituents. Indeed, there are many examples of excellent cross-party co-operation on issues that do not, and should not, divide the parties. Part of the frustration for Back Benchers in this House results from getting Ministers to listen to those issues and to make sensible amendments to legislation.
I believe that, if Ministers knew that they faced a more assertive House of Lords, they would be less inclined to dismiss the genuine concerns of Members of this House about particular aspects of policy or legislation. They would know that, even if they could dismiss the concerns in the Commons, they would face the same concerns in the Lords, but without the same willingness of the Lords to back down as they do now. Ministers might also consider giving this House more time to discuss Bills. That might put a stop to successive Governments making amendments in the Lords that they have refused to make in the Commons, thus sending out a message that the Commons is ineffectual.
There are many excellent Members of the House of Lords whose opinion and expertise I value. This is not about the power and privilege of the House of Commons versus the power and privilege of the House of Lords; it is about improving governance in the public interest, and improving the way in which we fulfil our role as representatives of the public. It must ultimately be about the people we serve.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate. I am a new MP; I have been in the House for only two years. Yesterday, I sat for a number of hours listening to the various speeches, and I found some of them quite surreal. As I understand it, there is a majority in this House who support House of Lords reform. The three political parties have had it in their manifestos for many years—or for ever, in the case of the Liberals—but I genuinely found some of the speeches in yesterday’s debate surreal. Reflecting on some of the contributions of my colleagues on the Government Benches, I noted that a number of them who spoke so actively, nay aggressively, against democratising the other place happen to be very Eurosceptic. Over the last couple of years or so, I have often heard them express their loathing of the European Union as an institution, usually by saying that it is undemocratic, unaccountable and thrives on patronage. Curiously, however, many of them spoke yesterday about how much they loved the House of Lords. I found that surreal.
I look forward to that day because it will mean that the hon. Gentleman will be supporting the democratisation of our Parliament, which I think is a good thing.
Equally, a number of esteemed colleagues on the Government Benches expressed outrage at the alleged threat from the Liberal Democrats over this Bill. I must admit that I found that quite rich because unless my memory confuses me, many of those very colleagues, outraged at the perfidious Liberal Democrats’ threats over the Bill, have been vituperatively threatening the Liberal Democrats—day in, day out—ever since the coalition came into being. To misquote the esteemed Corporal Jones from “Dad’s Army”, “Perhaps they don’t like it up ’em.”
I can answer that by moving on to my observations about the contributions made yesterday by some of my Opposition colleagues, which I also found surreal. Let me go through them. [Interruption.] Talking of coalition, whatever the challenges of two parties working together as we are in this coalition, which I actively support because of the state of the economy, it is interesting to look at the coalition between Blair and Brown in your 13 years, which was internecine every week. I take no lessons on that from Opposition Members.
Order. The House is lapsing into improper use of language. I do not know why the hon. Gentleman is referring to my 13 years. Debate goes through the Chair. I think he is referring to Opposition Members, but he should avoid using the word “you” in this context.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; I stand corrected and apologise.
Another point I discovered yesterday was that when it comes to debating the House of Lords, reactionary views are not restricted to my right-wing colleagues, as I heard some of them coming from Opposition Members. Even though the Labour party has supported House of Lords reform for many years and some Labour Members spoke with great passion, insight and conviction, I was struck by the unadulterated hatred towards the Lib Dems that was expressed in a number of speeches—[Hon. Members: “Aah.”]—for the temerity to try to bring in an elected second Chamber at last. It was quite incredible.
I am going to continue. I was talking about a parade by some Labour Members of brute tribalism over a Bill that is uncannily similar to one that their own party tried to introduce in 2007-08. It reminded me why, thank God, I left the Labour party 30 years ago. I believe that the Labour party’s official position on this Bill, which provides the best chance to democratise the second Chamber in 100 years, has been absolute humbug. Labour’s decision to vote against the programme motion would have killed the Bill, but if that had happened, the party would have said, piously and publicly, that they would have supported Second Reading. Government Members and not a few Labour Members know that that was absolute humbug.
I agree that the Bill is not perfect and that it is a compromise. I would make some improvements to it, some of which I hope will be implemented in Committee. The fundamental reason why I will support the Bill on Second Reading and, hopefully, as it goes through its subsequent stages is quite simple: in the year 2012, it is the people who should decide who represents them. The House has some unfinished business from 100 years ago. It really is time to bring democracy to the House of Lords. I will be supporting the Bill.
As the House will be aware, I spent the last four years of the previous Labour Government leading on the issue of Lords reform. The House voted decisively in March 2007 for an 80% or a 100% elected second Chamber and against all other alternatives. I then chaired the cross-party working group, which worked hard and constructively to develop detailed proposals for reform. The Deputy Prime Minister has taken that work forward. Many, though not all, of the Bill’s proposals have come, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) pointed out, from the proposals that we brought forward. That includes the key proposal—I am sorry that I do not have time to go into all the arguments in its favour—for single, non-renewable 15-year terms and a ban on those elected to the other place from being able to stand immediately for this place. Although there is much in the Bill that could and should be improved, I support the measure, and I shall vote for it if the House divides tonight.
In the limited time available, I want to focus on one key omission from the Bill—a proposal for a referendum. During our period in government, I probably piloted through this House more constitutional Bills than any other Minister.
I had such wonderful support from my right hon. and hon. Friends for all those measures.
On some, such as the Human Rights Bill and the Freedom of Information Bill, there was an understanding across the Chamber that it was appropriate for Parliament to have the final say. On others, however, there was a growing consensus that matters affecting the location and balance of powers in our constitutional arrangements required the endorsement of the British people because the fundamentals of the constitution belong to the people and not to us.
Among the measures I sought to introduce was the European Union constitution Bill, which made very significant changes in respect of our obligations within the EU. The Labour Government’s initial view was that we should do what successive Governments had done, most notably over Maastricht, and have this House make the final decisions. In making that case, as in previous debates on the principle, I advanced arguments against introducing a referendum for that Bill that were similar to those put forward by the Deputy Prime Minister. Those arguments related to cost, complexity and the fact that two of the main parties—his and mine—supported the measure. I have to say, however, that behind that—unwritten and unspoken—was the fear, particularly among my colleagues who were enthusiasts for the measure, that the British people might give the wrong answer. I believe that that fear also lies behind the refusal of a referendum in this case, even though I want a referendum and will passionately argue for a yes vote in any referendum.
I entirely accept the hon. Lady’s point. In my written text, the word “wrong” is in inverted commas. Of course I accept what she says—that there is no wrong answer from the British people, and we have to respect the result of what they say.
The more I made the case against a referendum on the EU constitution, the less convinced I became by my own arguments; and, significantly, it was, among others, Liberal Democrat leaders who were most influential in causing me to change my mind. The Liberal Democrats were strongly in favour of the constitution, but argued that the measure was of such constitutional importance that it should be for the British people to decide. I then persuaded Tony Blair and the Cabinet that we must organise a referendum, and we would indeed have done so but for the fact that the French and the Dutch voted “no” before we could do it.
For reasons about which I wrote to you and the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Speaker, I could not be in the Chamber yesterday, but I have read the report of the speeches with great care. The Deputy Prime Minister made many points of considerable substance, but I have to say that on the referendum issue he was, at the very best, treading water. His argument against a referendum lacked both conviction and coherence. He talked about cost and about the distraction caused by a Scottish referendum, and he claimed that a referendum was unnecessary because all three parties had agreed on the principle of reform.
The Deputy Prime Minister knows that the £80 million cost of a referendum is a one-off which creates no continuing liability. That is what the contingency reserve is for. As for his point about the alleged distraction caused by the Scottish referendum, it is frankly absurd. The Scottish referendum has a different time scale, and will involve just one UK voter in 10. However, the Deputy Prime Minister was at his most disingenuous when he claimed that agreement between the Front Benches trumped the need for the British people to decide. It does not.
The right hon. Gentleman has accused the Deputy Prime Minister of being disingenuous, but he has also cited an instance in which, he says, he persuaded members of his Front Bench to change their minds and support a referendum. Is he telling our Front Benchers that they should do the same, but should then change their minds again and break their promise?
Order. May I say to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who is immensely versatile in his use of legitimate parliamentary language, that he might wish to reconsider his use of the word “disingenuous”? He has a very versatile vocabulary, and I feel sure that he can deploy another word.
I am happy to do so, Mr Speaker. I will substitute the word “unconvincing”.
I hope that the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) will concede that I was persuaded by the arguments advanced in this place in favour of referendums. I am now urging the Deputy Prime Minister to do the same.
As I was saying, the fact that those on the Front Benches may agree on this measure does not trump the need for the British people to decide. Indeed, it strengthens the imperative for the British people to have the final say.
I apologise, but I will not.
It is precisely when the political elite agree that our democracy is most at risk. In any event, is there not a prior question which should decide the issue of whether or not to hold a referendum, namely whether the measure is of such constitutional importance, and affects the balance of powers in our arrangements to such an extent, that it is owned by the British people and not by the political elite in the House of Commons?
The Deputy Prime Minister ignores two other facts as well. First, whatever the agreement between the Front Benches, this measure, as we have seen, is highly contested within, certainly, the two main parties. Secondly—and I offer this very practical point to those on the Front Bench in a spirit of support for the measure—for as long as a referendum is refused, those who take a contrary view, regardless of whether the Bill is subject to a programme motion, will use every method offered by the Standing Orders of both Houses to disrupt its progress, because this House on its own lacks the legitimacy to pass it. In contrast, the moment the Deputy Prime Minister agrees to a referendum, he will find both Houses much more constructive. That is exactly what happened in the case of the EU measures.
The Deputy Prime Minister destroyed the arguments that he was advancing against the principle of a referendum when, in responding to the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), he conceded the possibility of referendums on phases 2 and 3 of the reform. He has conceded the principle of a referendum on a subsidiary issue; what he must do now is concede it on the main issue as well.
Yesterday we were treated to nearly 40 speeches on this topic, of which only 10 were in support of the Bill. However, the speech that stuck in my mind more than any of the others was that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), who was in danger of giving politics a good name by putting her principles before her career. I think that her speech united members of our party behind her, and behind those who, sadly, take a view that is very different from that taken on our Front Bench.
I use the word “sadly” with great emphasis, for, like my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), I am not a rebel. I once abstained on an issue of importance —the imposition of VAT on static caravans, as it happens—but that is about as big a nuisance as I have been in the two and a half years for which I have been here. The decision to vote against the Bill, however, has been the easiest that I have had to make in those two and a half years.
I will leave the constitutional expertise to others, but I will say that my decision was made so easy by three regrets. The first is presentational. I may be in a small minority, but I am one of those people who do not become infected by the view that we must have a democratic House of Lords. I do not want a democratic House of Lords, and that is precisely why I shall vote against the Bill. I want objectivity, expertise, experience and wisdom, all the qualities that we are told so often that we do not have in this House. I do not want Members of the House of Lords to be subject to the electoral and party pressures to which we may be subject here.
We seem to have spent the last goodness knows how many hours—some would say years—worrying desperately about what this place should look like, and not worrying nearly enough about what it should actually do. To those who keep saying, “This is all very tedious, so let us just get on with it”, I would respond, “Yes, this is all very tedious, so let us get on with not doing it, and instead do the work for which we are paid.”
My second regret is constitutional. It reflects the view expressed by the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), that the constitution is not the property of the Government. In fact it is not really the property of Parliament, and it is certainly not the property of the Liberal Democrats. However, it is the property of the nation, and I find very indigestible the experience of standing here and watching it being used—some would say “abused”—for the sake of what will be, at best, two and a half years of coalition management. That is one reason why the decision that I shall make at 10 pm will be such an easy one.
Let us be honest. We talked a great deal about the timetable yesterday, but this is not really about the timetable. Of course the timetable is important, but the reason we are so agitated is that this is actually a rotten Bill. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It will do nothing for the reputation of Parliament, nothing for the reputation of politicians, and nothing to reconnect us with voters who, after several years of disconnection, are looking for inspiration. They want to see us doing the things that we were elected to do, rather than becoming involved in self-indulgent vanity projects inside this building.
I have to say, with enormous sadness, that if we get anywhere near the Parliament Acts as a means of concluding this particular debate, we will convert a rebellion into a mutiny. The strength of the arguments presented yesterday demonstrated that the legislation needs to go back to the drawing board. It demonstrated that those who genuinely favour constitutional reform, improvement and devolution in the House of Lords are willing to do business, but not with a gun held to their head. That would be an act of extraordinary vandalism.
My third regret is political. Last week, again with great sadness, I supported measures to disband 17 Army units. This week, we are being asked to create 360 new politicians to add to the 122 who have already been created in this House, all of whom will earn a great deal more money than our servicemen could ever hope to earn. That is simply too big a pill for me to swallow.
No, I will keep pressing on, if the right hon. Gentleman does not mind.
An obvious reason for regret, which I think we all recognise, is that this Bill is not for the benefit of the nation. It is for the benefit of coalition management, and some would say that it is perfectly justified for the purposes of our Liberal Democrat colleagues. However, it is difficult to march behind generals whom we know are not particularly committed to this either—we know that because the Prime Minister has indicated it to us and because we speak to our own Ministers. This measure is not in the DNA of the Conservative party and actually the party is united on this point. The vote may say something else, but the party, with one or two exceptions, is pretty united in its opposition. We have only to look at the Hansard record of the vote—
No. We have only to look at the voting records of our Members back in 2011 to realise that.
I shall finish now, although I know that is a great disappointment to our Front Benchers. This is a battle we do not need, it will cost money that we do not have and it will cause rifts that look unappealing to the outside world. This will do nothing for voters. We spent years combating the political and constitutional vandalism of the former Government. I do not want to be part of such vandalism, which is why I would vote against the programme motion, were we to have one, and why I will vote against the Bill on Second Reading this evening.
I want to make my position clear from the outset: I will be supporting this Bill on Second Reading, because, like many others, I was elected on the manifesto promise of Lords reform. However, there was a difference in my manifesto pledge, because Labour wanted a 100% elected second Chamber and a referendum on the issue.
Anybody trying to understand this reform will be confused, because the Bill is missing a guiding principle. The legislative drafters clearly failed to ask the question: what is the purpose? What are the Government trying to achieve? The Bill casts around attempting to placate both pro-reformers and anti-reformers at the same time: it quibbles between accountable and unanswerable; and it cannot pick between elected and expert. The Bill is trying to be all things to all people—it appears that it is entirely Liberal Democrat on that basis.
A full exploration of the failings of the Bill is beyond me in the time available, but I do wish to make three points. The referendum issue is a major one for me, but such provision is completely absent from the Bill. Major constitutional change should be very definitely put to the people, as Labour demonstrated when our Government agreed the devolution in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Other examples are, of course, available, including this Government’s referendum on the alternative vote.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is an exact parallel between the proposal in this Bill and what the Labour Government did in introducing the first direct elections by proportional representation for the European Parliament elections? Will he remind the House when the Labour Government held a referendum on that issue?
That is one example, as my hon. Friend reminds us from a sedentary position.
My second area of concern is the Government’s logic that an unelected House of Lords is also an unaccountable House of Lords. I cannot say that I disagree with that logic, but the Government’s plans to rectify the issue are wholly inappropriate. The Bill proposes a single, non-renewable 15-year term, and if we add that up, we find that it does little to improve accountability. Some would say that rather than improve the democratic element, it makes things less democratic. Once elected and safely in their 15-year term, these people will be able to do and say what they think, and they will not have to follow any particular line. In fact, they will not even have to turn up. This could be said to be just a bung for party loyalty: 15 years’ salary without really having to do much more than that.
The Government also seek greater democratic legitimacy, but state that they will maintain a 20% appointed membership. Those who disagree will say that that is not enough, while those who want an elected element will say that it is too much. The Government have tried to split the difference but have left us with a foot in each door, so we will not quite have an elected House but we will not quite have an appointed House either. The Deputy Prime Minister has argued for the need for electoral legitimacy but undermines his argument by maintaining an appointed element. Furthermore, the Government have failed to use this opportunity to reform the place and role of bishops in the Lords.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good speech. I merely ask him this: if he supports Lords reform, will he not take this opportunity to overcome the inertia over the past 100 years regarding the House of Lords, grab the opportunity with both hands and move the debate on, so that, in a democracy, we can have more elected people in a democratic parliamentary Chamber?
I absolutely support reform but, as I said from the outset, I am keen on reforming the Lords to the full and having a completely elected second Chamber. I am afraid that this Bill does not offer anything like what I stood for at the last general election. Surely if we are trying to increase democracy and legitimacy, having ex officio religious positions is, in itself, discriminatory.
I accept that the principle of this Bill matches the commitment of all three main political parties in this House, but the Bill is woefully inadequate in terms of achieving its goals. No more time should be spent on this Bill than is necessary, but the Bill fails to achieve many of its declared goals and, in some cases, might make the current situation worse. The Bill must be subject to full and proper scrutiny in the later stages. Constitutional changes are difficult to make, so we must we get this right.
This Bill is concerned with the very heart of the constitutional settlement of this country. It is not just about the abolition of a 700-year-old institution; it is about the way in which a Government are formed and sustained, and about the primacy of the Commons—the elected House. To pretend that nothing in the relationship between this House and the other place will change should this Bill pass into law is folly, whether it be wilful or unwitting.
I will not give way, because of time and the fact that many colleagues want to speak.
There are aspects of the House of Lords that should be reformed, but elections address none of them. On reform to improve the working of the scrutinising and revising Chamber, I am convinced that we in this House and those in the other place would come to a speedy consensus. There would be no opposition to the introduction of retirement procedures, to the reduction in the number of working peers, to the weakening of party patronage or to the forfeiture of the right to sit by peers who break the law. Such measures address the concerns of our time and could be enacted without affecting the constitutional settlement. There must be good reason to reject this path of consensus.
We are told that if we believe in democracy, we must support elections, that the laws of the land should be made by people elected by those who obey the laws of the land and that there is a democratic deficit in our polity because the upper House is not elected. That is disingenuous; there is no democratic deficit because the will of the elected House is unambiguously superior. The will of the people cannot be gainsaid. It is only through pretending that peers are law makers that one can confect a democratic deficit from the supremacy of the elected House. Of course, peers are not legislators; they are scrutinisers and revisers, and they accept that settled role in the constitution. However, it is absolutely true that those with the legitimacy of a democratic mandate will expect to be legislators. These new senators will not accept the limitations that are currently readily accepted in the other place.
The Bill would have the primacy of this House continue after reforms are made, but it does not explain why. Consent to taxation by the populace through its representatives in Parliament has been a thread that has endured through the near 800-year history of this institution. The House’s sole privilege of the purse has existed since the reign of Charles II. In the last century, the right of the Lords to frustrate the will of the Commons was denied it by the Parliament Acts and by the self-denying Salisbury doctrine.
When an elected upper House would have a mandate from the taxpayer why should it be denied a say in financial matters? On what legitimacy would the Parliament Acts rest if the House against which the Commons is imposing its will has been elected by the people? How can the Salisbury doctrine endure when the Deputy Prime Minister’s new senators will presumably be elected on party manifestos of their own? What will the Commons do but back down when an elected upper House opposes it with the support of the people? How can a Government endure when they cannot carry their legislation through the other place? In such circumstances, how can Governments continue to be formed solely on the basis of a majority in the House of Commons?
The Executive and the legislature derive their legitimacy from the same electoral mandate, which is why comparisons with the US are so bogus. Elections to a reformed upper House would weaken that essential relationship between the election of the Commons and the formation of a Government. Why is that not admitted? Why do the proposers of the Bill believe that they can hold back the natural forces of constitutional change with clause 2? That clause simply states that the Parliament Acts “will continue to apply”. No explanation is offered of their continued legitimacy. The clause would also repeal the preamble to the 1911 Act, because it is merely
“a short statement of the Government of the time”.
The preamble contains the seeds of the Act’s destruction, explaining that legislation would follow to create an elected upper House and to codify its powers, in essence nullifying the validity of the Parliament Act.
The Bill before us can seek to repeal a preamble, but it cannot repeal the self-evident truth: to change the Lords is to change the relationship between it and the Commons. The Bill labours under the delusion that nothing will change. In repealing the 1911 preamble, the Bill’s promoters admit that the powers of Governments are but transitory. The Government of today are soon the Government of yesterday and soon enough the Government of yesteryear. Constitutional reform is not an experiment; it can be undertaken only when there is just cause, not at the whim of whoever happen to be today’s politicians. The 1911 Act solved a constitutional crisis. There is no crisis now, but the Bill will surely create one.
Colleagues can vote on the principles of the Bill confident in the knowledge that the undertakings in the programme for government have been delivered. A commitment was made to whip both coalition parties to support the AV referendum, but there was no such commitment on Lords reform. Proposals have been made and it is now up to the advocates of those reforms to convince Members of this House that they are right. An unfettered debate will allow arguments on both sides to be made, and we can then vote on the principles of this momentous decision. I am glad that the programme motion will not be moved and the Government should comfort themselves with the fact that so many principled and sound constitutionalists sit on their Benches and stand ready to work on a Bill for Lords reform on which there is consensus.
The fact is that the progenitors of this Bill have tied a chain around one of the central pillars of our constitution and are pulling at it for all they are worth, cheerfully telling us as the marble begins to crack that its removal will not bring down the entire edifice. I will not be party to that; I will not support this Bill.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. Many Members on both sides of the House have already spoken with conviction both against and in favour of the Bill. They have made it clear that they will follow their conviction into the Lobby tonight, whatever the personal cost to their careers and so on.
It is also clear that there are those speaking both for and against the Bill, whatever their views in the past and now on House of Lords reform, who are motivated not by its contents but by what is happening in the politics of the coalition, and a decision on whether to support or defeat the coalition. It is clear that there are those who would not dream of supporting such a Bill in normal circumstances but are doing so to keep the coalition together or secure other gains, just as there are those who would not normally dream of trying to derail what some might call the best chance of reform there has been in years, or is likely to be for the foreseeable future, but are doing so to cause problems on the Government Benches. It is no wonder that people outside politics looking in sometimes feel a bit cynical.
When I heard the arguments advanced eloquently by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and others on a referendum, I cast my mind back to not so long ago when the Government of the day, of whom he was a member, espoused the view that there should be a referendum on the new constitution for Europe, in the Lisbon treaty. When some cosmetic changes were made to the presentation of that new European constitution, however, which certainly affected the balance of power between the House of Commons, Parliament and Europe, how people were governed here and how laws were made, we were told that there should be no referendum and that it was a matter for this House. We should now listen to the calls for a referendum while bearing in mind what people have said previously about referendums on what I regard as a more fundamental point—the relationship between this House, this nation and Europe—even than reform of the House of Lords.
Clearly, arguments have been advanced in favour of the Bill. The argument has been around for 100 years and was in the manifestos of the three main parties. There is clearly an argument about laws being scrutinised and made by people who are elected, which, again, is why I believe in a referendum on our relationship with Europe. Laws coming out of Europe should equally be democratically mandated.
It is quite right that if laws are being scrutinised and made, that should be done by elected representatives. If they are elected for 15 years on a party list system, however, is that really a way of holding any parliamentary body to account?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point and I shall come on to it shortly.
Let me complete my point about the arguments that have been advanced. The Government have made some efforts to protect the supremacy of this House and it is fair to point out that the other place is not currently reflective of age, demographics or all the rest of it. For instance, on the question of Northern Ireland, our party has more reason to complain than most about the current make-up of the other place. The powerful arguments advanced against the Bill must be taken into account in reaching an overall decision on how to vote on this important issue.
It is clear that the Bill has been brought forward now not for entirely valid reasons but for reasons primarily of political expedience. It is not the result of building consensus that such constitutional change is needed now and in this form. Whatever arguments are advanced against the House of Lords, in many cases the solutions that are advanced cause as many problems, if not more, than the things that they are designed to solve. Giving more democratic legitimacy increases the possibility of creating a rival Chamber that will challenge this House. Keeping a proportion of unelected Members in the other place is at odds with the arguments advanced about democracy.
What will happen, for instance, if a decision is taken in the House of Lords that depends on the votes of unelected Members, transitional or otherwise, who share the views of the majority in this House? That creates all sorts of problems. Having elections according to a different electoral system to that used in the House of Commons elections creates problems with authority. Having a different system for elections for Great Britain from those used in Northern Ireland causes difficulty and might have to be considered if the Bill advances. People who rail against the lack of democratic legitimacy seem to have no problem with the lack of democratic legitimacy in the EU institutions and laws.
The most important argument, in my view, is that this is a time of economic crisis when people are struggling with the cost of living, worried about their jobs and so on, so is it the right time for the Government and this House to be dealing with such an issue? I know that the Government and Parliament can multi-task and do all sorts of things, but this is about perception and reputation, and this House has struggled in that regard in recent times. This will add to the problems with politics overall.
The Prime Minister was right to say that Lords reform was a third-term issue rather than something that should be dealt with now. If we are going to deal with changes, let us address the problems in the House of Commons. Let us introduce the business committee to give Members from all parties a greater say in what happens. Let us deal with the two classes of Members of this House, with some who do not take their seats and some who do. Those who do not still benefit from all the advantages, including the extra advantage of party political funding, which they can spend on all sorts of party political interests whereas we cannot.
On balance, we will vote against the Bill tonight. We know that people have different views in our party and elsewhere, but collectively we will vote against it.
Mr Speaker, I reluctantly have to tell you that I will not support the Bill. The reason why is not that I am against reform of the House of Lords; I think that many of the criticisms of the House of Lords made by hon. Members on both sides of this House—for example, on grounds of age, demographics and lack of accountability—are valid. In fact, for many reasons I am in favour of reform of the House of Lords. Neither is my reason for opposing the Bill the one given by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) in what I thought was a good speech. He said that, yesterday, some right hon. and hon. Members seemed to show venom against the Deputy Prime Minister personally. I am not one of those Members. Indeed, I am not one of the people whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned who dislike Liberal Democrats; in fact, some of my best friends are Liberal Democrats. I support very much of what the coalition does and what our Liberal Democrat colleagues do. I am passionately against the Bill, however, because it would perpetuate a monopoly of the political classes in the legislative procedure.
We have here a Chamber to which 650—or, as it will become, about 600—people are elected, properly and democratically. Nearly all of us belong to one of the legitimate political parties. That is a very good system for the core of democracy. We do not need to replicate it in a second Chamber, where people are elected for 15 years, from exactly the same gene pool—exactly the same pool of political parties as we all come from. That is fundamentally wrong. It would deny democracy in respect of a large group of talented people who would not dream of standing for a political party. I include my party in that, the coalition parties collectively and the Opposition parties.
Democracy and legislation are a lot richer if a way is found to bring into the process people who would never dream of standing on a party political ticket. I am against the privilege and patronage of the current system in the House of Lords. I am in favour of reforming that House significantly. I want a proper system of appointment, as happens in Germany, of people from different sectors of society representing people of different ages, regions and interest groups. Politics is essentially a system of balancing interest groups. We have to find a way to appoint people without the patronage of Prime Ministers, Opposition leaders, donors and all the people who have rightly been criticised for their role in appointing Members of the House of Lords.
Under the proposed system, everyone would be a slave to a party manifesto, because saying “I am a scientist,” “I am a footballer,” “I am an academic,” or “I am a talented musician” would not get people who should be in the House of Lords on to a party list. They would be elected not because of their specialty, but because they agreed to a general party manifesto, which we do —something I agree with.
My constituents in Watford are already faced with elections for parish councillors, three district councillors, a directly elected mayor, Members of Parliament, Members of the European Parliament and now police commissioners. Do right hon. and hon. Members really think that an eighth category of election will really make this country more democratic? I do not. The number of people voting is going down time after time. I cannot accept that having people on party lists, as in the proposed system, will make this country more democratic by making the House of Lords more representative.
Consequently, Mr Speaker, on this Bill, for the first time and, I hope, the last time in my short and somewhat less than illustrious political career—unlike that of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of this Chamber and, of course, yours—I will oppose my party’s view and my coalition’s view. I urge Members on both sides of the House to consider the proposals carefully and to do what I and many of my colleagues think they should do, which is reject the Bill, not because they are against reform but because they are in favour of the House of Lords being reformed in a responsible, modern and sophisticated way that does not make it a further tool of party hacks.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington). I hope in my six minutes to pick up two of the key points that he made and that were made very forcefully by Labour Members yesterday. I have been spurred to speak by the fact that I find myself on the opposite side of the debate from some comrades on this side of the House with whom I have worked very closely over the past 10 or 15 years. I have asked myself why my view is so diametrically opposed to that stated by, for example, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who spoke passionately about the constitutional disaster that the Bill, he believes, represents. I do not share his view for two reasons, and I shall use my time to explain why.
First, my difference with my right hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken is that I take a different view of the inadequacies and dangers of the current system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) rightly drew attention to the Hansard Society study of how politics is held in disrepute. That study shows not just disengagement, but disaffection; not just misunderstanding, but deep mistrust; not just confusion, but contempt for politics and for Parliament. We have to take our share of the blame for that, but so does the House of Lords.
Once a fortnight, I teach A-level politics at my old comprehensive school. I was there this morning. That experience brings home the gap between the debates, the procedure and the structure of our Parliament and what exists outside. It is not just that a lesson on the British constitution seems like a trip to Hogwarts and games of quidditch; it is more fundamental than that. At a time when politics needs to be more transparent and inclusive, the unelected structure of the other place makes politics opaque and exclusive.
Yesterday, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) made the very good point that we need reform in this place, and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) spoke with real passion about that. I want to work with them on those reforms, but the need for House of Commons reform is not a reason to close our eyes to the need for reform of the House of Lords.
Clearly the antics of some Members—a very small minority—brought Parliament into disrepute, but I regret that, two or three years ago, more of us did not speak up and say that 95% or 99% of Members in all parts of this House come into public life for public purpose, not for private benefit. Our problems are, in a way, deeper than a couple of rotten apples who abuse the system.
I ran on a manifesto that included a referendum and I support it absolutely.
Let me deal with the argument that elected Lords will represent a shocking precedent and a threat to the constitutional order, because they will be political partisans—not to say apparatchiks—put on party lists. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that 80% of the current House of Lords were nominated by party leaders, and the figure is higher if we look at voting numbers in that House. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who is not in his place, said that the Lords defeated the Blair Governments 430 times and invited us to believe that that proved that the Lords were mighty enough already. The truth is that the problem was not the power of the House of Lords, but the fact that there was an in-built Conservative majority when we came to power in 1997.
The second issue that I want to deal with is more important. It goes to the issue of the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords—something to which the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) referred. I have long argued for a single package of reform for both Houses, but the alternative vote farrago or fiasco has put paid to that, and we need to cut our Lords cloth accordingly, given that we know that the electoral system for this place is not changing in the foreseeable future.
Many of those who have attacked the Bill have done so on two mutually contradictory grounds. They have said that election to the Lords will mortally wound the primacy of the House of Commons—the point that the hon. Lady made—and neuter the power of Government in the process. At the same time, they have argued that 15-year terms will not provide sufficient accountability for Members of the new House of Lords, and that it is necessary for the new elected Lords to have more regular engagement with the electorate, but opponents of the Bill cannot have it both ways. The truth is that 15-year terms were designed, in 2007-08, to minimise the challenge of an elected Lords to the Commons. The electoral alternative to 15-year terms is five or 10-year terms, with re-election. That really is a recipe for a challenge to the primacy of the House of Commons. To oppose 15-year terms is to oppose any direct election at all. That is a perfectly principled position, but not one that I hold.
I will come back to my right hon. Friend if I can. The real question is whether an elected second Chamber with 15-year terms will overwhelm the conventions and understandings that establish the primacy of this place, and that we all defend. I can see the truth in the argument that an elected upper House will be more demanding of the Executive, and lead to more robust debate. It might—probably will—make life more difficult for Government, though contrary to the editorial in The Times and what the hon. Member for Portsmouth North said, Cross Benchers will be protected, and will hold the balance of power in the new House. Personally, I think that a more robust challenge to the Executive from the second Chamber would be a good thing. It would make for a better Parliament. To be fair to myself, I argued for that when I was in government, as well as in opposition.
I cannot, however, see the truth in the argument that that greater challenge—that more robust debate—will lead to such difficulties that the Lords will overrun the Commons. This House will form the Government, control the finances, and have the constituency link; this House will always have the most recent—and only—electoral mandate; and this House will hold up its sleeve the ace of the Parliament Acts, which regulate the role of the other place on financial matters, and provide that this House will get its way.
In Lord Pannick’s submission to the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, he made the point that
“it is absolutely vital…for the reform Bill to specify with clarity whether or not it is the intention that the Parliament Acts should continue to apply”.
That is the Government’s intention. We must make sure, in Committee, that in all scenarios, the Parliament Acts are completely protected. The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), said yesterday that he did not want justiciability, and I understand that argument. If we are to go with that argument, we must be absolutely sure that we cement the role of the Parliament Acts, which Lord Pannick says is possible.
I just do not have time; I am really sorry.
Lord Pannick’s point is that if we want to achieve that aim, we must cement the role of the Parliament Acts in the Bill. We can do that in Committee, and must make sure that we do it properly.
I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles and the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), but I shall not be able to give way; I have only 25 seconds left.
The issue before us is not whether the proposals are perfect, or even whether a Bill based on the manifestos of all three parties deserves a Second Reading. It is whether the proposals improve on an unelected and unaccountable House of Lords, and the current indefensible set of arrangements. The Bill is not about neutering the Commons; it is about bringing our democracy into the 21st century, and I urge all colleagues in all parts of the House to support the Bill in the Lobby.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband). I appreciate that many Members have asked to speak in this debate, so I shall try to keep my contribution brief. I have a very clear view on the principle of reforming the other place. In essence, I am a strong believer in representative democracy. Of course, I fully accept that the House of Lords has many attractive qualities at present. The appointment of knowledgeable individuals from a wide range of differing professions and backgrounds adds to the diversity of our Parliament, as a number of Members have said, and ensures that legislation is scrutinised on a number of different levels. Nevertheless, appointments rather than elections to Parliament are, by nature, a second-rate form of democracy. Democracy is at its strongest when voters feel empowered.
I have been elsewhere for some of the debate, so I may have missed this point being made earlier, but does the hon. Gentleman think it significant that the former career that has the most representation in another place is that of MP?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Yes, I am aware of that, and I do think it is a problem. That is something that I would like reformed, and it is why, ultimately, as I shall go on to say, I will support the motion tonight.
Members of the other place often do great work, and I do not seek to diminish their efforts. However, our Parliament should reflect the full will of the public, and the make-up of our two great Houses of democracy should be subject to the will of those at the ballot box—it is simple democracy. After careful deliberation, I have reached a firm decision. Ultimately, I believe in a largely elected upper House, and will vote in favour of that principle. However, despite my underlying support for the end outcome, I have a number of concerns about the path that the Government have outlined.
First, I must express my doubts about the timing. As expected and feared by many of us, the Bill is attracting a great deal of attention and debate in the Westminster bubble—far more, I must say, than on the streets of York Outer. On the one hand, that may be reassuring. Any attempt to reform our constitution should be debated properly and in full. However, in the light of the economic uncertainty in the eurozone and the wider economic crisis, I simply do not believe that reforming the House of Lords is an urgent matter of governance. In truth, the timing is woeful, and that undermines the whole debate.
Secondly, some of the proposals cause me concern. As I mentioned, I am a believer in democracy and elections, and I respect what the right hon. Member for South Shields said on this subject, but offering those who aspire to election to the other place a 15-year term seems to be pushing the notion of representative democracy a bit far. We often defend our democracy by saying to the public that they can kick out a poorly performing MP or Government within five years. To triple that rule of thumb somewhat diminishes the principle on which the reform is based. I would be much happier with a term length nearer 10 years. That would strike a slightly more acceptable balance.
Well, they cannot do anything, and that is why I will vote in favour of the Bill on Second Reading, but I am expressing my concern.
Thirdly, I am concerned about the apparent rush to sign off this reform when there are many other outstanding constitutional matters. The West Lothian question—the hon. Gentleman might have a view on this—is one such example. Surely, if we are to undertake a democratic and fundamental piece of constitutional reform, we should simultaneously look to resolve wider constitutional dilemmas.
Lastly, I must ask the ministerial team to ensure that clause 2 is reinforced. If we are to maintain an efficient legislative process, we must ensure that the House of Commons retains its supremacy in the parliamentary process. I am sure that many Members present will be aware that Members in the other place are concerned that this supremacy would be threatened, under the proposals.
In conclusion, my message to the House today is that we should tread carefully. If we are to embark on this delicate and historic matter, we must do so properly. Many Members who are concerned about these initial proposals need the opportunity and time to debate them. We should either take our time and get it right, or not do it at all.
Nothing will persuade me to support the Bill. I opposed the Labour Government’s proposals, and this Bill is far worse. I have not heard any convincing arguments in its favour. Most of them boil down to the syllogism, “Something must be done. This Bill is something. Therefore this must be done.” Such sophistry has been augmented with the line, “We must act now to complete the unfinished business left for 100 years, and we must get on with it.” Well, if we have waited for 100 years, we really ought to try to get it right and not botch it, and the Bill is undoubtedly a botch.
The plain fact is that an elected second Chamber would be very different from an unelected House of Lords. No self-respecting elected Member would accept for very long being bound by the conventions that restrict the unelected Lords. If the Lords were to lose their democratic deficit, they would replace the deficit with a surplus—a democratically legitimate surplus—of the dynamism, commitment and energy that election brings to the political process and which we all try to demonstrate.
No. I ought to get on.
Not content with what the Lords do now, an elected Chamber would demand new duties to reflect their new democratic legitimacy, and with those duties would go new powers. I have to say to all those who are in favour of this proposal that “new powers” is the phrase that dares not speak its name in this debate. Until we get clear what job we want the second Chamber to do, we cannot sensibly decide how it should be made up. As I first said about 10 years ago, we are being asked to pick the team before we know what game it is going to play. An elected second Chamber would not play the touch rugby played under the present rules. An elected Chamber would lurch into the contact version of that game, crunching tackles and rucks and mauls with the Commons. Yet the Bill pretends that that problem does not arise.
Worse than that, the Bill does not look at what is wrong with Parliament as a whole. It has long been my view and long been my experience that Parliament is not working very well. It is not good at holding Governments to account. It is not good at controlling the raising and spending of tax. If anybody questions that, how can any of us justify the decades-long failure to pass laws which stop tax evasion? Parliament certainly is not good at passing laws that work as those who proposed them intended or that are readily understood by the people who have to try to make them work.
The House of Commons is undoubtedly the dominant Chamber, so most of the fault with Parliament must lie with us, not with the Lords, however good or bad that institution. We need to look radically at how we improve our performance. Then we need to consider, once we have done that, whether we need a second Chamber, and if so, what its functions can be. That is extremely important, because in these turbulent times people, and in particular young people, are becoming disillusioned with the political process, and not just with us. There is a danger that they will become disillusioned with democracy as a whole. We must start doing our job better before we start messing around with the House of Lords.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), especially as what I have to say will illustrate in a practical way the point at the heart of his speech, which was the importance of the specialist role of the upper House as presently constituted.
In a marvellously robust speech yesterday, the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), who is in her place again today, described the proposals in the Bill as a deceit.
“They are expressed in the language of high moral purpose”,
“but they are really about pretty low politics.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2012; Vol. 548, c. 71-72.]
She was absolutely correct. Having failed to gain an AV armlock on the Commons, the Liberals are aiming for a PR stranglehold on the Lords. Since legislation must pass through both Houses of Parliament, this will require perpetual appeasement of Lib Dem demands, even if the Conservatives or Labour win an overall majority in the Commons at the next election.
Yet much more is at stake than the institutionalisation of third-party power by creating an upper House based on proportional representation, for we will lose the ability to improve legislation—the point made by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras—by considering amendments purely on their merits.
Yesterday, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), a Lib Dem and a former Member of the second Chamber, said at column 54:
“First, in my view the House of Lords is broke. It does not actually work”,
and at column 55:
“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”.—[Official Report, 9 July 2012; Vol. 548, c.54-55.]
I shall now explain from personal experience why he was right in column 55 and wrong in column 54.
In the 15 years since I entered Parliament, I have managed to change the law only once, when the Labour Government allowed a rare free vote on a matter affecting the security of MPs. But in the 15 years before I entered Parliament, I worked closely in connection and in co-operation with a small group of peers and, between 1984 and 1990, it proved possible to alter the law on three important occasions. This was entirely because of the way the House of Lords works.
Consider the Trade Union Act 1984, when we briefed the Lords on the merits of postal ballots for union elections, compared with the counting of heads at tiny branch meetings. Dozens of peers were persuaded and, despite the best efforts of Government Whips against them, an appropriate amendment was carried. Back in the Commons, the same amendment stood no chance of success because of the much tighter controls on Back Benchers. Nevertheless, in response to the Lords amendment, the Government decided to offer a proposal of their own—to try making postal ballots the norm and to create central registers of trade union members. Four years later, this led directly to the introduction of compulsory postal ballots, as the Lords had originally proposed. If the upper House had been predominantly elected, and especially if it had been elected on a PR list system, the initial amendment, which eventually led to the introduction of postal ballots, would never have been passed.
Even more clear-cut were the changes to the Education Bill in 1986 and to the Broadcasting Bill in 1990, both of which were amended in respect of the balanced treatment of politically controversial issues. In each of those cases, the more independent-minded peers were willing to listen to, and be persuaded by, arguments that when such subjects were presented in the classroom or in the media, it must be done in an even-handed manner. Such was the strength of their case that the amendments made in the Lords to both those Bills were allowed to remain intact when they returned to the Commons.
An upper House filled mainly from party lists of professional politicians would have been no more receptive to any of those arguments than the House of Commons, where almost all the votes are strictly whipped and where defying the Whip is seen as an act of career-changing rebellion. The willingness of Members of the House of Lords to judge arguments on their merits, and to amend legislation accordingly, stems not just from the limited discipline which can be imposed upon them, however. It derives, in large measure, from the fact that many peers are appointed after reaching the summit of their professions. They therefore have an expertise which full-time MPs might have achieved had they not switched careers to enter the Commons.
It is not the same to be a potential expert who decided instead to become a full-time politician in mid-career as it is to be an actual expert, who entered the Lords after reaching the top of the medical profession, the armed forces, business, the Church or the arts. Even the ex-MPs in the Lords have generally left further career ambition behind them. By contrast, young full-time politicians may well be able to see the strength of an argument for amending a Bill, but their careers are still in front of them and only a minority will put ambition aside.
This dismal Bill would be the end of the House of Lords as a place where laws are fine-tuned, and I urge all colleagues to reject it.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and others, I served on the Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill and so have heard much evidence on the future of the House of Lords, but I want to refer later to the impact of all these proposals, and perhaps others, on the future of the House of Commons.
When I came into the Chamber this afternoon, I was of a mind—I still am—to support those on my Front Bench and vote for the Bill on Second Reading, but the more I see of the shenanigans on the Government Benches, including what has happened this afternoon on the programme motion, the more I wonder whether I am making the right decision.
What I do believe to be right, and my reason for serving on the Joint Committee, is that there is indeed a challenge and an opportunity for us to look at the House of Lords and come up with better ideas than have emerged thus far. I am comforted in that by “Erskine May”, and my interpretation of what he wrote is that if the Bill collapses, it is unlikely that a similar Bill will be accepted for a long time to come.
The Bill is imperfect. The alternative report, which I signed, indicated some of the difficulties, some of the arguments not addressed and some of the issues that should be put before this House. I came here today to support the Bill’s Second Reading, to support very strongly the referendum and to oppose a programme motion. Whatever else might be said today and whatever other changes might be made, that remains broadly my approach to the matter.
The alternative report to which I have referred was extremely helpful, and I am sorry that Members have not heard more about it. It mentioned, for example, the Scottish Constitutional Convention and its preparations for the Scottish Parliament. The convention called on the whole of civic society, including politicians, Churches, trade unions, community councils and many others, and on that basis of wide consultation we have the Scottish Parliament as it is today. Why, then, can we reasonably object to the referendum that these issues invite? Do we not trust the people? Time and again we are urged to listen to what people are saying, which I think is right. I hope that the alternative report helped to clarify matters. It did so to the extent that, on the advice of Lord Pannick and Lord Goldsmith—paragraph 227 of the report is the relevant part—reference to the Parliament Acts was included in the new Bill before us in an attempt to make greater sense of the matter.
My right hon. Friend’s reference to Scottish devolution is particularly appropriate in relation to a referendum. The Deputy Prime Minister said earlier today that the case for House of Lords reform was so big that no referendum was needed, yet my right hon. Friend has correctly highlighted the fact that, despite the strength of support for devolution in Scotland, the referendum procedure was still used there. It was used not so much to endorse that change, but to embed it. With an unwritten constitution, it is that embedding of a change that I think is most important.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and one that is worthy of more consideration.
The Joint Committee sought to serve both Houses in our report, and we were a very mixed group, including independents, Conservatives and Lib Dems. I note that its Lib Dem members voted the whole way throughout the Committee’s considerations, which leads me to think that there might just be another agenda, and some of us have drawn attention to that this afternoon. A number of us signed the alternative report, including six Privy Counsellors and the Bishop of Leicester, the Convenor of the Lords Spiritual. He said that it was not enough simply to talk about bishops because we ought to be dealing with inter-faith matters. This is a diverse society. The House of Commons has not as yet reflected that, but if we get the opportunity to do so in the House of Lords, we ought to take it.
I complained yesterday in an intervention on the Deputy Prime Minister, to which he responded inadequately, that the Joint Committee did not even have the opportunity to consider costs. Even today the Government have been very reticent in the information they have given the House. They refer to the Bill, but it leaves most of the decisions to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. There are varying levels of respect for IPSA in this House, but whether that is the right way to go in these matters is worthy of more thought.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is simply wrong that the Joint Committee’s report and the alternative report have never been debated in this House and that the debate we are having right now is about the narrow confines of the Bill, rather than the whole issue of parliamentary reform, and does he agree that we need a constitutional convention?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady and respect her contribution to the Joint Committee. Like me, she signed the alternative report. I think that we were entitled, and that that House is entitled, to consider the validity of elected Members in both Houses. If the Government succeed in taking the Bill forward, I think that it would be naive in the extreme to think that we could have another largely elected House that would be prepared simply to accept what we have to offer without saying, “Look. We were elected as well.” In some cases its Members will be elected by millions of people, in contrast to the small number who might have elected some of us. So concerned were the Government about those small numbers in this place that, almost without a whimper, we are approaching a situation in which the number of Members elected democratically to this House will be reduced by 50—hardly a democratic way of dealing with modern Britain.
I believe that the legislation governing the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, or whatever follows it, should include codified mechanisms for conflict resolution. I do not believe that existing conventions are enough, as I think we can see in the United States of America. Despite its difficulties, the House of Representatives found that when things changed it was less important than it had thought it was, and that is something we ought to bear in mind.
We have an opportunity in both Houses. The challenge is there for us to ensure that democratic, representative government applies to every part of our legislature. However, the Joint Committee could not even have the advice of the Attorney-General—my heavens, if there are criticisms of us I would accept that one—but this House is entitled to that advice. I will end on this point: some people ask whether this is the right time, but my question is whether this is the right Bill. On the evidence I have seen so far, it is not.
May I begin by warmly welcoming the Government’s decision to withdraw the programme motion this evening? That is unquestionably a victory for this House over the Executive, because we can imagine that the conversation between the Chief Whip, the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister did not go like this: “Well, Prime Minister, we are delighted to assure you that we have got the votes in the bag to pass the motion,” with the Prime Minister responding, “Oh, excellent—withdraw the motion tonight.” This is this House asserting its will over something very important to it. I look forward with interest to hearing more about the threat of the conversation between the usual channels—I always remember Tony Benn’s warning that the usual channels were the most polluted waterways in western Europe.
I want to start with this simple assertion: the House of Lords works. It does its job effectively as a revising Chamber, not as a rival Chamber, and that is demonstrated by the number of amendments made to our legislation in the Lords which we choose to accept here in the Commons.
I want also to deal with one of the arguments—
Let me just make some progress.
I want also to deal with some of the arguments that the Deputy Prime Minister has made. He says of the Lords: “It’s become too big.” I absolutely agree that it has become far too big—so we should stop sending so many people there, then it would not be so big. The average number of peers created under Lady Thatcher was 18 a year, under John Major 26 and under Tony Blair 37, but under the coalition we already average 58. I must say, do not make it too big and then say that is a reason to abolish it. Do not also accuse those of us—
The hon. Gentleman surely avoids a key point, which is that the previous, Labour Government faced an inbuilt Conservative majority in the Lords and tried to compensate for that. The coalition Government then wanted to deal with an equivalent imbalance against them, and the situation is unsustainable. We will go on expanding unless reform is dealt with.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the situation is unsustainable and untenable, and that is why many of us are in favour of reform: we are in favour of introducing a mechanism for peers to retire; we are in favour of a limit on their numbers; and we are in favour of strengthening the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission. In short, we are in favour of some of the excellent ideas contained in his right hon. Friend Lord Steel’s draft Bill.
Let us deal with the issue of how we legislate for our supremacy. What are the candidates going to do? Are they going to say to their electorates, “Vote for me, for I have no ideas, I am not going to publish a manifesto, I am not going to tell you what I am going to do if I go to the House of Lords”? Of course they are not. We cannot legislate for the supremacy of this House when another House is elected, and some of the people who tell us that we can are the same people who told us that we could insert clauses into the Maastricht treaty that would guarantee stability in the eurozone. We are setting off on the conveyor belt to conflict between this House and the other place, and it is an unsightly and an unseemly act for a Government to carry out.
I have always had a reverence for the institutions of our country and a profound love of history. The right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), the former Foreign Secretary, who has now left the Chamber, talked about this place and about showing it to young people, and when they come here they see how our democracy has evolved and the battles that previous generations of parliamentarians waged to have this place as the supreme will of the people. When we slam the door in Black Rod’s face, that is not some pantomime theatre; that is an assertion of our historic belief in the power and rights of this Chamber.
I thank my hon. colleague for giving way. When he takes his constituents, schoolchildren or otherwise, into the other place, does he think that they all find it extraordinary that the people who sit there are completely unelected—or do they think that it is wonderful?
I think they are impressed that we accept more than 80% of the amendments that peers send back to us, and that in the other place there are people with great expertise—world-renowned people who would never dream of putting their names on a party list, going to central office, seeing Gareth Fox and getting on to the candidates’ list. It just would not happen, in any way.
I received a text last night from my old history teacher, who spent his entire career inspiring young people with a love and reverence of our country and its institutions, and he said to me:
“An elected Chamber would be a disaster and lead to the dilution of the Commons.”
I could not put it better myself.
I faced tonight a dilemma that I have finally resolved in my own mind. I cannot support this Bill on Second Reading. I could not look myself in the eye if I voted for it on Second Reading, and clearly that is incompatible with membership of Her Majesty’s Government, so I informed the Chief Whip this morning that I have resigned as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
I am doing that in order to vote for something that I believe in strongly and on principle. I want to see a fully appointed second House, and I will go into the Lobby with the aim of trying to preserve that, in the same way that other, current members of the Government—17 Ministers and, indeed, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), to whom I was PPS back in August 2010—went into the Lobby in 2007 in support of a fully appointed second Chamber. I will go into the Lobby in the same way also that six members of the Conservative Whips Office went into the Lobby in 2007 in support of a fully appointed second Chamber.
What an Alice in Wonderland world we now live in, that voting for something which has been a mainstream view in our party for decades—indeed, generations—now leads to incompatibility with serving in the Government.
It is a very mainstream view within the Conservative party, and I totally agreed with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who still has my full support and loyalty, when he told the Association of Conservative Peers that this was a very urgent issue for a third term. As we have yet to win a first term on our own, a third term is quite a way off.
I support this Government in every way, and I bitterly regret the fact that I will vote against the Government tonight. I support the Prime Minister and I support what the Government are trying to do; I even have some coalition-coloured ties to demonstrate that support. I see my friends from Northern Ireland on the Opposition Benches, and I genuinely regret the fact that I will not be able to continue to make such a contribution in the Northern Ireland Office. As someone who was born in north Belfast, who spent the early part of their life there, who is a Catholic and a Unionist and who recognises, understands and, indeed, feels both traditions in Northern Ireland, I think that taking such action is a matter of great regret, but I do it with passion and belief, and confident that it is the right thing to do.
I tell the House—and this should worry every single Member, in every corner and on both sides—that the number of comments I have had from people expressing amazement that a Member of this House in 2012 is prepared to resign on a point of principle, shows us how diminished and deluded our politics has become in this country. We need more days such as today, when this House is prepared to assert its will and to tell the Government what they can and cannot do.
I end with this, because I think that she was a great parliamentarian—my hon. Friends think that I am going to quote someone else, but I am not. The right hon. and noble Baroness Boothroyd, who served with distinction in the Chair over many years, said in one of the papers this morning, to those of us who will do what I will do later this evening,
“you are doing the right thing by your constituents, by your country and by Parliament”.
In following the hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), I acknowledge the strength and sincerity of his contribution, but I strongly and sincerely disagree with his views on these matters. I pay tribute, none the less, to his conduct and to his positive contribution as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in relation to Northern Ireland, where his insights and instincts were hugely appreciated by all parties and by people outside of party politics as well.
The Social Democratic and Labour party does not take seats in the House of Lords. As a point of principle, we do not believe in taking seats in a Chamber that is unelected, and in any other situation people in this House would see a wholly unelected Chamber as being anomalous, anachronistic, absurd and, indeed, a constitutional atrocity.
Only a few weeks ago, here in this Parliament, we hosted Aung San Suu Kyi. The majority of the parliamentarians who were present and called to assemble to hear her speech, however, were unelected, and she was talking about the importance of elective democracy. That is an irony which should not be lost on anyone in this House or, indeed, in the other House.
I have listened to many arguments from Members on both sides of the Chamber, and people seem to be turning themselves inside out in relation to the different position that they now hold on programme motions, compared with how comfortable they were with such motions when their party was in government and was the absolute master practitioner of them.
I have listened to Government Members raise queries about the West Lothian question, and they might rightly feel affronted that in this Chamber elected Members who are not from England are able to pass laws that affect England, but they seem to have no problem at all with unelected people from wherever passing laws, or with their numbers being inflated and added to all the time.
There are easy ways of dealing with primacy. The Parliament Act needs to be affirmed, but it also needs to be amended and updated. There is no reason why that could not be done if the Bill receives a Second Reading and we go on properly to amend it. Primacy can also be reflected in ensuring that this Chamber is the sole seat of the Executive. There should be no Ministers in the other place. If it is meant to be a revising, second legislative Chamber, its role should be primarily to do with legislation and its revision, and it does not need any Executive membership. Ministers can go to that Chamber and speak to and answer for their Bill, but they need not be Members of the other House.
We have heard the arguments about 15-year terms. If the fixed-term Parliaments had been for four years, then three terms would equal only 12 years, which would be more reasonable than 15 years, but unfortunately we are stuck with that because the legislation gave us five-year terms. However, it is better that people are elected for 15 years than appointed for life.
As regards how we can justify the Parliament Act in terms of maintaining financial privilege in this House, we can do that because the people elected to the other House will be, in some ways, unaccountable. The only people who should have powers over taxation are those who will be accountably representative. The justification is to say that there should be no taxation without accountable representation.
I, like others, would criticise many aspects of the Bill and hope to see them amended and changed if it were to make progress—although of course it now has the “uncommitted” status that the Speaker told us about earlier. Many people have said that there is a strong case for having some appointed Members, but I am not sure about that. If there is such a case, I want to hear it tested and proved further. Perhaps that is the issue that would most justify a referendum. If there is to be constitutional reform with a democratic House of Lords, and if other people will continue to be appointed through some obscure system, perhaps that should be subject to the decision of the people. They will have the right to elect the first set of Members, so perhaps they should have a say in a referendum whether they want the other Members as well.
On the question of the bishops, I am not comfortable with the idea that there should be a Bench of prelates drawn from one Church alone. If there is a case to be made, as I have heard people argue, for a pastoral Bench from which people can speak on the basis of certain ethical and faith-informed values, its Members should not be confined to one denomination or one faith. Perhaps they should not have votes either, because they should not want to be sullied or compromised in relation to party political matters.
I would accept the hon. Gentleman’s point if he and his party colleagues had not voted against the bishops’ amendment on child benefit, which said that it should be excluded from the benefits cap. If there is a case to be made for the bishops on the basis of the contribution that they have made, which I do not decry, I still do not know why they should be solely confined to the Church of England and why that is ordained in the Bill.
Members are telling us that the Bill is not wanted by the public and that it will be a waste of parliamentary time and a distraction, yet some of them would have been prepared to vote against the programme motion to say that they wanted even more time taken up on it in this Chamber and elsewhere. A wise observation is that irony in politics is usually hypocrisy with panache. There is a lot of irony in the strange positions articulated by many Members on both sides of the House, and there is a lot of panache in the way that they have presented their cases, but of course, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have heard no hypocrisy.
We have heard many fine speeches over the past two days, but one of the finest was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns). Of course, I have absolutely nothing to lose personally by voting against the Government tonight, but he has. However, I assured him this morning that the French have a phrase, “Reculer pour mieux sauter”, which means, “To retreat better to leap forward”, and that is what he will do. The House always respects somebody who resigns on a point of principle, and it has always been a matter of great regret to me that I did not do it over Maastricht. I have lived to regret that, but he will not regret his decision, I assure him.
The good speeches have been those based on principle. There has been a lot of criticism of the Deputy Prime Minister, but I thought that he gave a good speech because it was based on his own principles, although I did not agree with him. He was like a young officer at the battle of the Somme, marching forward, assailed on all sides, ultimately to senseless destruction, but there was nothing wrong with what he was arguing for. I do not usually like to be party political, but the two weakest speeches came from the Opposition Front Benchers, who, like St Augustine, said that they want to stop sinning but not yet. They said that they are in favour of the Bill but have not been prepared to answer consistent questions about how much time they want for it.
On a great constitutional issue such as this, one has to be prepared to argue from first principles. I am afraid that I am a Conservative and therefore generally wish to conserve things. Certainly if something is working, I wish to conserve it. I know it is a bit of a cliché, but Lord Falkland’s dictum that when it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change is true of the House of Lords. Basically, it works, and I do not want to change it. I start from that point of first principle and will not easily be budged from it.
What is so important about this Bill that the Government are prepared to wade through months of purgatory to try to secure it? We heard earlier that apparently the Catholic Church has abolished limbo, but it has not yet abolished purgatory, and if this Bill is allowed to continue our party will be in purgatory, as we were over Maastricht, for week after week and month after month. What is the great point of principle? When the whole country is assailed by such appalling difficulties and problems, when we know that the economy is not going anywhere, when we are constantly having to wade through blood and make cuts where we do not want to make them, what is so important about this Bill? Why have the Government, with, dare I say it, some parliamentary incompetence, placed themselves in a position whereby they have handed power to the Opposition? I criticise the Opposition, but they are only doing their job. Labour is a ruthless operation when it comes to opposition—it is much better at it than we ever are—and it is playing this very well in trying to gum up the whole works.
What about all the other Bills? Are they not important? Are we not here to try to achieve something?
The hon. Gentleman has repeatedly talked about weeks and months. May I assure Members on both sides of the House that the Opposition have made it clear that we do not intend to wreck or filibuster the Bill? This is about genuine debate, and there is no confusion as to the position that the Opposition will be adopting.
I think that that was said with a bit of irony and that the hon. Gentleman protests too much. Of course the Opposition are not going to wreck the Bill, which, at an appropriate moment, they will allow to get to the other place—after they have ensured that the country has had the unholy spectacle of our discussing, week after week, while this appalling recession is going on, an issue that, I can assure him, is of no interest whatsoever in the Dog and Duck in Scunthorpe. What on earth are we doing?
What is so wrong with the House of Lords? The point that I make continually is that whereas over the past 15 years, we in the Commons have had the collective courage to defeat the Government only 10 times, our friends in the other place have defeated the Government no fewer than 576 times. That point has been made already, but it is a powerful one.
I argue against this reform from first principles because, inevitably, the people who will be elected to the House of Lords will be politicians. When I made that point to the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday, he said that they would be a different sort of politician. What is a different sort of politician? We are all politicians and we are all ambitious. Although we deny it, we all want office. There is nothing wrong with that. Therefore, to a greater or lesser extent, we are all creatures of the Whips Office. We have to accept that. We come into politics because we have the ambition to become Ministers and to achieve something. The point has been made again and again that many people in the other place are past ambition.
Why do we want to abolish an institution that has held the Government so closely to account that, in the past 15 years, it has defeated them no fewer than 576 times? The fundamental problem is that once the House of Lords is elected, it will become the poodle of the House of Commons. The real problem is not with the primacy of the House of Commons, but that the Executive are all-powerful. It is only in the other place that there is any decent scrutiny and that the Government are occasionally defeated.
I am not only worried that the Government will have an easier ride in the reformed House of Lords; we must ask ourselves why our friends in the Liberal Democrat party are so determined to get the Bill through. It is so important to them because once it is passed, half of our legislature will be elected by proportional representation and, therefore, the Liberals will have a permanent lock on half our Parliament. It will be impossible for people such as me who want constantly to come forward with radical ideas from the right and for Labour Members who want to come forward with radical ideas from the left to wade through the dominance of the Liberal establishment in the other place. There would never have been the kind of reforms that Mrs Thatcher achieved in office under that system. Many people in this House may think that that would have been good, but I think that it would have been a great shame.
That is why this is an important Bill, why we should be discussing it up and down the country, and why we have to defeat it. We cannot just measure this argument in terms of programme motions; we have to measure it in terms of what is right for our country. What is right for our country is to retain the system of an elected House of Commons and a revising second Chamber that does an excellent job of improving legislation. We must leave it alone and defeat this Bill tonight.
We have been here before, in the last Parliament. In those debates, I was one of many Labour Members who voted for the abolition of the House of Lords. In an ideal world, I would have that option today. As that option is not available, I also regret that we do not have the option of an indirectly elected second Chamber.
There are perfectly good and thriving democracies in the world, and indeed constitutional monarchies, that are unicameralist, such as Sweden and New Zealand. There are also indirectly elected second Chambers in some Commonwealth countries. For example, in India, each of the states elects people to go to the Rajya Sabha. Its Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was elected in that way and has never stood for a direct election anywhere. There are models that we could follow that would improve our democracy. However, instead of learning from international experience and establishing such a constitutional convention, we have this half-baked hybrid, which the Government had attempted to railroad through, until they realised today that it was not acceptable. If we are to have a second Chamber, it should be small and clearly subservient, have limited and defined powers, and should meet only occasionally.
Why do so many amendments come from the House of Lords, as has been mentioned? It is because we do not deal with legislation properly in this House, and because, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, we have the Ministers in this Chamber. The Executive dominate the parliamentary system. If we had a system like Sweden’s, in which many Ministers are not Members of Parliament, we could have a different relationship with the Executive and the scrutiny role of this House would be much stronger. Instead, we have a deal between whichever Government are in power and the Opposition Front Benchers in the House of Lords to get through certain amendments and clauses. Legislation comes back from the second Chamber that this House has never had a proper chance to deal with.
In my 20 years in this House and in my role on Select Committees, I have become increasingly frustrated about these issues. As a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office, I saw the Government face many defeats in the House of Lords, particularly on Home Office legislation. We had the clauses dealt with and when they came back to this House, they were never discussed properly. We need to reform this House and we need to have a stronger definition of the relationship between the Executive and the legislature before we give greater credibility—dangerous credibility—to a second Chamber that will undermine the democratic Chamber.
The Deputy Prime Minister claimed that he was introducing the Bill because people had voted for it in 2010. No they did not. Nobody voted in the 2010 election for these proposals and it is not honest to say that they did.
I also challenge the Deputy Prime Minister’s reference to “fixing” a problem. Yes, there is a fix going on. As the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) just said, the fix will ensure that people who would never get elected, and might even come fourth, in a parliamentary constituency anywhere in the country will get into the House of Lords for 15 years under the proportional representation regional list system. They will then be able to go around London, or whichever region they represent, cherry-picking issues and appearing at residents’ associations or religious groups, while we are here in this House attending to our parliamentary business. That will not be good for democracy. It will lead to cynicism and undermine the truly representative nature of the constituency link.
Having been in the House for 20 years, I had hoped that there would be a reasoned amendment on Second Reading. There is no opportunity for me to vote for a reasoned amendment. Therefore, for the first time in 20 years, I will go against my party’s Whip and vote in the No Lobby against the Bill tonight.
I commend the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who is breaking ranks with his party for the first time. It is a big step after such an illustrious career in this House.
The Government may well be withdrawing the programme motion, but I want to address the continuing threat of a timetable motion. Any attempt to force through a constitutional Bill of such significance and controversy represents an abuse of Parliament. Nobody whom I have heard speak in this debate is against reform of some form. Nobody supports the House of Lords as it is. The problem that this House always has to battle with is that, although there may be a consensus in favour of reform, there is no consensus on any particular reform. That is why so many seasoned Westminster watchers are so utterly perplexed about the determination with which the coalition is pressing ahead with this suicidal Bill. I suspect that it will prove to be a grievous self-inflicted wound for the coalition, perhaps even fatal, if it persists with it. Today’s dignified retreat nevertheless represents an abject defeat on the Bill, as there is little that saps the authority of an Administration more than an inability to obtain its business.
If a timetable motion were to be passed, it could prove the worst case for the coalition. A cobbled together, under-scrutinised proposal would undoubtedly get through this House in some form and then paralyse the upper House for the rest of the Session, only to be reintroduced in the next Session and forced through using the Parliament Act. I am describing not a worst-case scenario but the Government’s actual plan for conducting the progress of the Bill—to submerge this Parliament in a quagmire of Lords reform.
It is not as though the Government were not already beset by problems and challenges on an awesome scale, as many Members have said. Economic growth is well below forecast, borrowing is still far too high and the unresolved and unresolvable euro crisis is probably leading us towards some kind of economic precipice. We are facing an economic emergency, as well as all the other challenges of government in a time of recession. This is the last moment for any Government to choose to pick a fight to alter any part of the constitution, when there is clearly no real consensus or common understanding of what needs to be done.
The debate so far can leave no one in any doubt that this is a massive constitutional change, but the Government have utterly failed to address the most fundamental questions about the upper House. What is the House of Lords for? Does it operate effectively as it is? Would the changes be likely to improve or impair its effectiveness? The answers are pretty straightforward. First, it is intended to be a revising Chamber, not a senate or a rival to the House of Commons. Secondly, as the Deputy Prime Minister has himself admitted on many occasions, the current Chamber is very effective. Thirdly, the changes seem to be intended to supplant expertise and experience with more party politics, which is hardly likely to improve the Chamber’s effectiveness.
The Bill addresses no evident crisis of the legitimacy of our constitution, yet it threatens to create a political crisis on top of an economic crisis. There is no public clamour for the change, and there are no crowds in Parliament square crying out their support. That is why the Government fear a referendum on the Bill, because the voters would certainly reject the idea of replacing the current effective, proven and appointed House with more elected politicians, appointed to lists by their respective parties on ludicrous 15-year terms.
So what is the Bill really about? The Deputy Prime Minister should be careful about accusing others of having ulterior motives, because what is his? The Bill is about power. It is about the Government remaining in office now and about the Liberal Democrats building a power base for when they are not in office. It is the product of a stitch-up, a deal between two coalition parties to stay in power. It is a bid permanently to shift the balance of power away from this House and towards a more legitimate House of Lords.
May I address the extraordinarily charming and eloquent speech given by the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband)? He said that the Bill’s opponents were trying to have it both ways, but it is its supporters who are trying to have it both ways. They cannot argue that an elected Lords would be more legitimate but in the same breath insist that the relationship between the two Houses would remain the same. The issue of primacy is just one of the fundamental issues that we will need to address before the Bill leaves this House.
That brings me to the continuing threat of a timetable motion. To timetable a constitutional measure under the current circumstances would be unconscionable. I say to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that the much quoted Winston Churchill would be heaving in his grave with fury and indignation at the mere suggestion. The timetable is a modern invention, only introduced in 1997. The guillotine used to be an absolute exception, and even then was never used on a constitutional issue.
The Bill has 60 clauses and 11 schedules containing a further 158 paragraphs. The Government’s withdrawn motion would have allowed 60 hours in Committee, which would have been taken up by Divisions, urgent questions, statements and points of order as well as debate. That would have left, perhaps, an average of half an hour for each clause, let alone the schedules. Primacy, powers, accountability, remuneration, costs, expenses, staffing support, IPSA, financial privilege, the scrutiny of regulations, elections, voting systems, eligibility, constituencies, the question of a referendum or not—how many other topics will there be to debate, or must we have the freedom to debate should we so choose?
Constitutional measures used to pass through the House before there were timetables. Both the Parliament Acts themselves passed through the House without a timetable or guillotine. No timetable should be imposed, because our ability to scrutinise legislation in full is just about the only real check or balance in our constitution to protect it from the tyranny of a simple Commons majority.
As it stands, we are being asked to give a Second Reading to a Bill that will invite the Government to fast-track a massive constitutional change, which will nevertheless distract us from the crisis that demands our attention, which may fundamentally change the character of the government of our country, which fails to address the most fundamental questions about the upper House, which represents gerrymandering of the constitution and is the product of a stitch-up to stay in power, for which no referendum is to be provided, and on which the Government are determined to curtail debate.
I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin). I will seek not to respond to what he said but, if possible, to build upon it.
Like the Leader of the House, I have sat through debates on Lords abolition and reform for many a year. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) said yesterday that the Lords had far too many Members
“who are there simply because of who their fathers were”.—[Official Report, 9 July 2012; Vol. 548, c. 120.]
I remember the late Jack Jones going further in a party conference speech in 1977, saying that in those days three quarters of the Members of the House of Lords had inherited their position by birth, and that their ancestors were, by and large,
“cattle robbers, land thieves, and a few were court prostitutes.”
We are perhaps more subtle in our use of our language these days, as my hon. Friend showed.
The Leader of the House referred to a book that he had written in 2005 on Lords reform. I wrote a pamphlet in 1982 called “How to abolish the Lords”. I have to accept that the title was somewhat sexed-up by the Fabian Society, because it actually dealt with reform rather than abolition of the Lords. I have seen some of the suggested reforms come to pass, notably a Supreme Court of the judicature and the creation of a Ministry of Justice, all under a Labour Government.
I complained in my pamphlet that Labour had introduced only one reform, the Parliament Act 1949, but now I stand corrected. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) went through a number of reforms that Labour introduced during its term of office from 1997 onwards, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) built upon those points.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) told those of us who proposed to oppose the Bill that the current House of Lords was unsustainable, a point reaffirmed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey). And so say all of us—no one here supports the current House of Lords. We are all for reform, and many reforms have been referred to in the debate. To my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda and others who say that the Lords is unsustainable, I would quote Bernard Shaw, which Lord Kinnock has often quoted: “If your face is dirty you wash it, you don’t chop off your nose.” The Bill would hive off a part of our constitution. The Deputy Prime Minister spoke yesterday of the monarch giving up her prerogatives in relation to the Bill and reminded us that the constitution is the monarch, the Lords and the Commons. Yet a third of it is about to be hived off.
In what the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) said was a good speech—it actually reads better than the delivery—the Deputy Prime Minister also talked about what I call the alarums and scarums that there have been in the past when the Lords has been about to be reformed, from those who said that there would be an impact on the primacy of the Commons. The actual words that that the Deputy Prime Minister used were “from disaster to apocalypse”. The one thing the Deputy Prime Minister did not say was that, when we talked of a primacy conflict with the Lords in the past—the conflict never happened—the Lords was not elected. That is the difference. The proposals will mean an elected House of Lords, and that conflict is therefore inevitable. It is obvious.
I pray in aid the Liberal Democrats. Lord Ashdown said that an elected upper House would not challenge the supremacy of the Commons, but it would challenge its “absolute supremacy”. I can advise him that the only difference between “supremacy” and “absolute supremacy” is the adjective. He also spoke of checks and balances. He was supported by Lord McNally, a Justice Minister, who declared that an elected second Chamber would have the right to say no to the Commons.
I pray in aid further the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who declared that Members elected to the Lords by proportional representation would have greater legitimacy than those elected to the Commons under first past the post. I wrote to him yesterday to invite him to correct that statement if it was inaccurate. I have not heard from him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda picked up the suggestion of a Joint Committee that would be a concordat between the two Houses to resolve the question of the conventions. That can be achieved only if the House of Lords delaying powers in the Parliament Acts, on which the Government rely, can be reduced from 13 months to six months.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who said that he has never voted against the Whip in 20 years. I have never voted against the Whip in 29 years, but I will do so tonight. I will do it on principle, and because I do not believe in anything in the Bill. The Bill is in purgatory and limbo, and it will not survive in its present form.
It is unfortunate that the debate has turned into an attack on the Liberal Democrats. This is a huge opportunity for reform. There has been a lot of talk about the 21st century and democracy, and there is an important democratic opportunity in the Bill that I hope the Liberal Democrats will lead us in taking.
We have heard much about 21st century democracy. There are many different kinds of democracy. We have the trunk of the democracy, meaning the directly elected legislature, which in our case is this place; the crown of the tree, which is the rule of law; and the root, which is the constitution. The constitution is an example of something on which we can work together.
What kind of democracy do we have in that context? We can have as many different kinds as there are trees: we can have flowers on it, like a cherry tree, or strange brown leaves like a beech in winter, or needles like a pine tree. Within our democracy, we have judges who are not elected, as we have heard ad infinitum, and generals who are not elected. Certain powers are taken away from the House and given to non-elected people as part of our democracy. For example, the Labour Government were proud to take away control of interest rates from Parliament and to give it to an independent central bank. Government Members were proud to take control of economic forecasting away from this place and give it to the Office for Budget Responsibility. Indeed, there was a lot of consensus on taking away investigative powers from the House and giving them to the independent, judge-led Leveson inquiry.
Exactly what balance of elected and unelected people we want within a democratic constitution is an interesting question. Like the Chinese, we could elect our generals; like the Americans, we could elect judges; or, like the Canadians, we could have an appointed upper Chamber. What determines that balance in a democracy is what we want to do and the problems we are trying to solve.
The problems of 1909—this is my point about the 21st century—are not, sadly, the problems of today. The Senate in the US was created to deal with an over-mighty sovereign and the problem of the relationship between the territories, such as the states, and the population. The problem that the Liberals tried to solve in 1909 was that the hereditary peerage deliberately blocked financial regulation—the Liberals largely solved it with the Parliament Act 1911.
Since then, our countries and our parties have changed. Many things in our manifestos in 1909 are no longer in our manifestos today, because the nature of our problems has changed. The problems we are dealing with today are not the problems of 1909. We can see that in elected second Chambers throughout the world. The kinds of problems that led to the creation of the directly elected Australian Senate after 1900, which inspired the reforms in the UK, and the problems that led to the creation of the directly elected Italian Senate in 1948, have passed. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, there was a reduction in the number of bicameral legislatures.
We need to solve the problems of today. They are problems of local democracy, on which the Liberal Democrats should be proud of taking the lead; they are problems of accountability in large multilateral institutions such as the European Union, on which I hope hon. Members together can take a lead; and they are problems of professionalism and expertise.
However, perhaps the greatest democratic challenge for this country in the 21st century—I hope the Liberal Democrats will take the lead on this—is the root, meaning the constitution. It is in that respect that we are behind every other country in the world. Other countries have indirectly elected or appointed bicameral legislatures, but not a single responsible country remains that allows itself to change constitutional law as though it were ordinary law. The constitution protects the citizen from the Government. For that reason, the Government, who are temporary, have no right to interfere with the constitution of the people.
We felt differently about that in 1909. We flattered ourselves that we had a huge constitutional tradition, history and culture in the other place that forced us to debate and investigate those great issues. That time has passed, and today we find ourselves isolated in the world as the only country—the source of constitutionalism —that tries to behave as though there is no difference between constitutional law and non-constitutional law. Other countries, such as the Nordic countries, have a solution—they have a gap between two Parliaments, or they can demand a two-thirds majority or a referendum. In our case, we used to have a free vote and no guillotine motion.
Let hon. Members together take the great opportunity to ensure that constitutional change, which was positioned in the Liberal Democrat manifesto and endorsed by the Deputy Prime Minister and the majority of Government Members, happens in future only through a referendum.
I have been impressed by many of the speeches today and yesterday. I felt rather ashamed of the House last week—the debate on the banking crisis was not the greatest day for the Chamber—but these past two days have made me very proud to be a Member because the quality of the contributions has been rather fine, whether I have agreed or disagreed with them.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh)—he and I served as Chairmen of Select Committees on the Liaison Committee and know each other well—said that he was a Conservative and that people would not expect him not to be one. I came into politics as a radical, and hon. Members would expect me to continue as one. I have therefore been worried about my choices for this evening. I ran on the Labour manifesto, which contained a commitment to reform of the House of Lords. Like most hon. Members, I do not like voting against my party, but the fact is that the more I contemplated the situation today, the more I convinced myself—this happened quite early in the debate—that the House of Lords reform pledge in the Labour manifesto would not have resulted in this Bill. I am under no obligation tonight, then, to vote for a piece of legislation that no Labour Government, had we won the last election, would have brought before the House. So I shall not be voting for Second Reading.
Being a radical, I believe that the Liberal Democrats must be given a lot of recognition and admiration. Every way we look, political culture in our country is in a pretty bad way. In 1950, 85% of people were engaged in politics, but now that figure is down to 65%, and 6 million people do not even bother to register. Even in this time of crisis, with the economic challenges creating a serious situation for the people whom we represent, very few people vote in local elections. In general elections, too, there have been very low levels of participation.
Furthermore, membership of political parties is at an all-time low, as Members on both sides know. Labour and the Conservatives have the same miserable membership figures—there is not much between us—and the numbers of active members in our constituencies are not what they used to be. The Liberal Democrats are also struggling. Our political culture is in crisis, yet nothing in the Bill will radically tackle the malaise in our country and political system. In fact, the Bill takes our minds off the worrying aspects of our political system. We have to do something. Being old-fashioned, I would have liked either a constitutional commission or—dare I dig up this idea—a royal commission, the latter being much favoured by former Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.
We ought to give the Liberal Democrats credit, however, for recognising the malaise and coming up with a couple of answers. The first was proportional representation, although they were defeated on that and I did not think it the quick fix, or even the difficult fix, they thought. They have also come up with Lords reform. I think they do it with the best of motives.
I was trying to be kind to the Liberal Democrats, but obviously it has not worked.
By their own lights, the Liberal Democrats are trying to do something about the malaise in our political culture. The rest of us, in the other political parties, have to recognise that there is something deeply wrong with the levels of participation and democratic activity.
I understand that perfectly. I know the system and what the coalition Government are about, and I sympathise with the position that the two parties are in. They have to work together and make these agreements, and they are having a problem at the moment, but the fact is, as we all know, that the Liberal Democrats have persuaded the Conservatives to include certain things in the coalition agreement.
I want to look back over my time as an elected representative in this House. We have had more constitutional change in this Chamber in the past 30 years than at any other time in the history of our country, and everyone has become an expert on the constitution. The previous speaker, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), is an expert on the constitution. We have had many experts on the constitution. I can remember when people on both sides said that referendums were not British, and I can remember criticising the first referendum on membership of the European Union promoted by Tony Benn. I called it, “Tony Benn out of Benito Mussolini”, because dictators love referendums. They are a way out of the problems of weak leadership. The House does not need referendums for everything.
The Bill could have been amended to constitute a positive reform of the House of Lords. There is no need for an elected Lords filled with party apparatchiks similar to those down here. The danger of the Bill is not that the other place will get strong and flex its muscles and that we will become weaker; my concern is that it will simply become a pale and timid shadow of this place. Nobody wants that. I want a strong, reformed upper House. With the time and the opportunity, we could have reached an agreement on an all-party basis, but tonight I will not be voting for Second Reading.