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House of Lords Reform (Referendum)

Volume 548: debated on Tuesday 10 July 2012

We are not persuaded by the arguments for holding a referendum on Lords reform. All three main parties committed to reform at the last election, and the views of the public are clearly and consistently in favour of introducing democratic legitimacy to the House of Lords.

The Deputy Prime Minister said in the House yesterday:

“Surely, it is simply time to trust the British people.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2012; Vol. 548, c. 26.]

Can you explain why you do not trust the British people to decide on the House of Lords in a referendum?

First, as I said, unlike other issues on which we have held referendums, on which there were profound differences between the stated positions of the political parties, all the main parties in the House have committed to reforming the other place for many years in their manifestos. Secondly, at a time like this, on a subject on which we are supposed to agree and when much of the country expects us to instil democracy in Parliament, it would be difficult to justify wasting about £80 million asking the public a question that they do not find controversial in the first place. That would nonplus many members of the public.

The final, very important point is that we as a country are going to face a hugely important issue in a referendum on the future of the United Kingdom during the course of this Parliament. I genuinely ask the hon. Lady, other members of her party and others who advocate a referendum to reflect seriously on the wisdom of saying that there should be another, parallel referendum that the public are not clamouring for, at a time when we are seeking to settle the future of the UK.

The Deputy Prime Minister says that he is not persuaded; let me try. There have been referendums on devolved Governments in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, on devolution for the north-east, on the alternative vote and on city mayors. Why can he not accept the genuine argument that to ensure the validation of such a major constitutional change as he proposes, we must put the question to the people on precedence as well as on principle?

Both the hon. Gentleman’s question and yesterday’s debate have revealed that House of Lords reform is immeasurably more controversial here than anywhere else in the rest of the country. The rest of the country thinks that there is a simple choice to be made—are we in favour of more democracy or less? Are we in favour of the simple principle that the people who make the laws of the land should be elected by the people who have to obey them? No one else thinks that is controversial, only the politicians, so why do we not just get on with it?

What conclusions does the Deputy Prime Minister think the public will draw if this House is incapable, with or without a referendum, of reforming a House of Lords packed with prime ministerial appointees and hereditary peers?

We rightly take pride in our democratic traditions in this country. We send young servicemen and servicewomen to fight for the principle of democracy elsewhere in the world, and we tour the world talking to other countries about how they should instil greater democracy. I think the rest of the world would look at this great mother of Parliaments and ask why on earth it was not possible for us to practise what we preach.

Why does the Deputy Prime Minister not have the guts to admit that the reason he fears a referendum on this issue is that he knows perfectly well that when people get to examine his recommendations they will utterly reject them, just as they did with the alternative vote?

As ever, my hon. Friend brings to bear a healthy and consistent degree of suspicion. I have set out the reasons why the case for a referendum has not been made. It would be expensive, difficult to justify to the public, who do not think it is necessary, and ill timed when we as a country have a much bigger question to address, which is the future of the United Kingdom, let alone the future of one of our parliamentary Chambers.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that even without a programme motion, it is perfectly possible for the House of Commons to debate, scrutinise and amend the House of Lords Reform Bill, and get it out of the Commons, in a sensible time? If he does not agree, why did his manifesto and that of the Conservatives commit to abolishing programme motions for Committee stages?

My own view, which I have always been very open about, is that a Bill of this complexity and self-evident controversy—at least in this place—is unlikely to progress without being properly timetabled in one shape or form. I should just ask the right hon. Gentleman this: is it not time he had the courage of his convictions? He says he believes in House of Lords reform, but he wills only the ends, not the means—[Interruption.] Will he just listen? The history books will not judge him kindly if he takes refuge in procedural obfuscation when this is a time for people to stand up and be counted.