With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on House of Lords reform—or what is left of it. [Interruption.] Members will be aware that the Government have decided not to proceed with the House of Lords Reform Bill during this Parliament, and I can confirm that the Government have today withdrawn that Bill. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] I am not as happy about that as Members sitting behind me. I set out these intentions during the parliamentary recess, in the light of widespread media speculation over the reforms. At that time, I committed to making a statement to Parliament at the earliest possible opportunity, which I am doing today.
The House will be familiar with the sequencing of events, but let me give a brief recap. [Interruption.] No, I will not start as far back as 1911. Lords reform was in the coalition agreement, reflecting separate commitments in each of the main parties’ manifestos and based on the simple principle that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those who have to obey the laws of the land. In May 2011, the Prime Minister and I committed to holding the first of those elections in 2015. The Government’s proposals have drawn heavily on previous attempts at reform led by hon. Members from all parties in this House: the White Paper in 2008 from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), whom I am delighted to see here; the late Robin Cook’s “Breaking the Deadlock”; the House of Lords Act 1999; Lord Wakeham’s royal commission; and everything that went before.
Despite that long bloodline, it was always clear that delivering Lords reforms would require a degree of cross-party support, which the Government have sought for the past two and a half years. Soon after the election, we convened cross-party talks—I believe we had seven meetings. We then published a White Paper and a draft Bill, which were scrutinised by a Joint Committee of both Houses. When the Committee reported, the Government accepted the majority of its recommendations. I thank its members again for that work and I am only sorry that their contribution will not be brought to fruition, at least not during this Parliament. The Joint Committee endorsed a mainly rather than wholly elected Chamber—that was not my preference, but for the sake of progress, it was something we accepted. It also recommended that we increase the size of the reformed House from the proposed 300 Members to 450—again, we conceded on that. In order to alleviate fears over the primacy of the Commons, the Government also agreed to put the Parliament Acts on the face of the Bill. In response to continued concerns over the relationship between the Commons and the Lords, and at the request of coalition colleagues, we also amended the draft Bill so that elections to the Lords would happen on the basis of a semi-open list system, based on larger regions, instead of the single transferable vote.
So, shaping our proposals was a painstaking process, in which the Government courted compromise at every turn, and in July of this year this House voted—overwhelmingly—in favour of the Bill on Second Reading, with 462 in favour and 124 against. However, in spite of all that, it is now clear that we will not be able to secure the Commons majority needed to pass the programme motion that accompanies the Bill. Without that motion, the Bill effectively becomes impossible to deliver, because it cannot be kept on track; the Bill’s opponents will be able to block reform by unreasonably dragging out parliamentary debates. That is a situation I clearly cannot allow, not least with Parliament facing so many other pressing issues, particularly in terms of jobs and growth.
So, regrettably, the coalition will not be able to deliver Lords reform during this Parliament. The hard work of many Members of this House, and the other place, to shape this Bill has, I believe, inched us forward, and my hope is that we will return to this matter in the next Parliament, emboldened by the historic Second Reading vote. For now, the immediate decision for the Government is how we fill the gap in the legislative timetable. We will bring forward measures to promote growth—the Government’s priority and my priority—and the Prime Minister and I will shortly be announcing details of that package.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. We share his disappointment at the lack of progress on reform of the House of Lords as it cannot be right that in the 21st century we have an unelected Chamber making decisions on the law of the land. I join him in thanking the Joint Committee of both Houses. Despite the cross-party talks, the White Paper and the draft Bill, issues remained that needed to be resolved, not least those to do with the powers of the new second Chamber, the electoral process and a referendum. We should have been able to make progress and we share his disappointment on the stalling of Lords reform; it is unfinished business and we should return to it.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister give the House some clarity on an issue that he has linked with Lords reform—that is, the question of changes to parliamentary boundaries? On 6 August, he made a clear link between Lords reform and the boundaries. He said:
“Lords reform and boundaries are…part of a package of overall political reform. Delivering one but not the other would create an imbalance—not just in the Coalition Agreement, but also in our political system.”
He said that because of the stalling of Lords reform, he decided to press the “pause button” on the boundary changes. He stated:
“Coalition works on mutual respect; it is a reciprocal arrangement, a two-way street. So I have told the Prime Minister that…I will be instructing my party to oppose”
the boundary changes. As he has made it clear that he will not allow the boundary changes to proceed, is it not pointless and costly to allow the Boundary Commission to carry on with its work for a further 14 months?
Is it not right for Parliament to revisit the issue now? Will the Deputy Prime Minister look for an early opportunity for the House to express its view that the boundary changes should not go ahead? We assure him of our support for that. Will he turn his words of 6 August into action? The ball is in his court. Will he assure the House that we at least have a Deputy Prime Minister who is a man, not a mouse?
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her questions and I am sorry to hear that she has an early autumn sore throat to battle with. She gets 10 out of 10 for spectacular insincerity, nevertheless. The Labour party used to campaign against privilege and patronage. The Labour party used to say that it was the party of the people. The Labour party used to believe that the second Chamber should be abolished altogether. Yet when push came to shove, what did it do? It—[Interruption.]
Of course the Labour party does not like to be reminded that it has been converted from a party of the people to a party of the peerage. What did Labour Members do when they had the opportunity? They voted for the idea of reform but not for the means to deliver it. They delivered lofty speeches about the need to give the people a say about how to elect the legislators in the other place, but they would not even tell us how many days they wanted in the timetable motion to make that lofty rhetoric a reality.
I think the history books will judge the Labour party very unkindly indeed. When they had the opportunity to translate the great work of Robin Cook and of the right hon. Member for Blackburn into reality and finally had it within their grasp to be the friends of reform, they turned into miserable little party point-scoring politicians instead.
The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that his noble Friend Lord Steel has introduced an alternative reform of the House of Lords measure that commands wide support in the other House as well as in this House. As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, that measure would remove the hereditary peers, impose a retirement requirement, thereby bringing down the size of the other House, and ensure that those who have been convicted of offences cannot continue to sit in that legislature. Will he give some indication of whether the Government would support that proposal? Otherwise, he will throw away an important and serious opportunity to modernise the upper House. It might not be what he would ideally wish, but it is all he is likely to get.
I would like to correct the right hon. and learned Gentleman on one point: the Steel Bill would not remove hereditary peers. It would do three things, to be precise. It would extend the, in effect, voluntary retirement scheme that is in place in the other place, which I think has led to the spectacular result of two of its Members choosing to do that. Having seen the coverage of the views of some Members of the other place who are from my party, I can think of one or two whom I hope would take early retirement, but there would not be a mass cull in the way that the right hon. and learned Gentleman implies.
Another provision relates to crooks, but let us remember that that means future, not existing, crooks, who would—hey presto!—not be allowed to sit in the other Chamber. Also, any peer who did not attend once, not even for a few minutes to sign on for their £300 tax-free daily allowance, would be disallowed. I am afraid that any scrutiny of that Bill shows that it would barely trim at the margins the size of the House of Lords, so by its own reckoning it would not do what it purports it would do, which is dramatically to reduce the size of the House of Lords. While I have a great deal of respect for the considerable time and effort that Lord Steel has put into this, my view remains that there is no surrogate for democracy.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister not recognise that his relying on timetabling problems will be seen as a tawdry excuse for a lamentable failure of political will? To my certain knowledge, because I handled such Bills, plenty of controversial constitutional Bills, not least in the first Labour Administration, were not subject to timetabling at all. Such Bills can be got through the House, as this Bill could have been, either by informal agreement or, if necessary, by subsequent guillotining. If he had any courage, that is what he should have done with this measure.
Not only did I have the courage, but I had the courtesy to speak to the leader of the right hon. Gentleman’s party and ask a simple question: if there were objections from the official Opposition to a timetable motion, or even the concept of a timetable motion, how many days would they want? We were prepared to offer more days.
As the right hon. Member for Blackburn knows, under the Labour Government, time and again Bills of constitutional importance were timetabled, and for good reasons. Members in all parts of the House rightly said that at a time of severe economic distress they wanted us to get on with the House of Lords Bill, but for the Bill not to consume all available parliamentary time. What answer did I get, both publicly and privately? That the Labour party wanted individual closure motions.
I am not as much of an old hand in parliamentary procedure as is the right hon. Gentleman, but he knows just as well as I do that that would have led us into a morass and the thing would have been dragged out for months. That once again showed the skin-deep sincerity of the Labour party’s commitment to reform, and it is a great betrayal of his great work in the previous Administration that his party is becoming a regressive roadblock to political reform.
My right hon. Friend should comfort himself: he gave it his best shot, with all his sincerity, and we respect him for that. May I draw his attention to the fact that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 remains in force? Therefore, the boundary commissions remain under a duty to make proposals on a House of 600 Members. Does he have the power to instruct them to stop? No, he does not. Is he therefore not simply going to obstruct a constitutional process for his own party political advantage, which is a disgrace?
The hon. Gentleman seems to be delivering answers to his own questions, so I might be redundant in this, but he is correct that, unlike on House of Lords reform, where we had a commitment to deliver legislation, and indeed elections, come 2015, in the coalition agreement we are sticking to retaining legislation on boundaries, for which, by the way, as I know he is meticulous about such things, there was no timetable stipulated in the agreement. On boundaries, we are, I suppose, strictly speaking, adhering to the coalition agreement, unlike on Lords reform—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman wants a detailed answer and I am giving it to him. There is little else going on this first afternoon back at Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, because the primary legislation is still on the statute book, there is nothing in my power to stop the work of the boundary commissions, but I have made it clear that, since I think I reasonably believe that the constitutional reform package was exactly that—a package—and since this is the first time that either of the coalition parties has been unable to deliver on a major coalition agreement commitment, it is therefore right to rebalance things and not to proceed with an unbalanced package.
Substantial reform of the House of Lords, way beyond that proposed in the Steel Bill, could have been possible with 100% agreement across the House, had the Deputy Prime Minister chosen to take that route. I ask him this simple question: as the boundary changes have been linked to dropping the House of Lords Reform Bill, will Ministers under Liberal Democrat auspices—his Ministers—be asked to abstain or vote against boundary changes?
I have made it very clear that all Liberal Democrats, whether Front Bench or Back Bench, will vote against the changes coming into effect before 2015. On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, I wonder whether he could advise the House on what more the Government could have done to seek to understand what a cross-party approach would be. We convened cross-party discussions on seven occasions when the coalition Government were first formed. We published a White Paper and a draft Bill. We convened a Joint Committee, allowed it to continue its work for months and months, and adopted the vast majority of its recommendations. We chopped and changed our legislative text, taking on board suggestions from Opposition and Government Members. For the right hon. Gentleman to say that that was a capricious exercise unilaterally conducted by the Government ignores the painstaking work put in by the Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), me and many others to try to generate proper cross-party support for this now long overdue measure.
Now that Labour’s refusal to co-operate on a timetable has ensured that we will see a steady increase in the number of unelected legislators, may I assure my right hon. Friend that he was very wise not to invite my hon. Friends and me to support a reduction in the number of elected legislators?
As my right hon. Friend suggests, of course there is an argument that says that if one reduces the size of one Chamber—the House of Commons—but does not make the other more legitimate, all one ends up doing is strengthening the hand of an already over-mighty Executive. That argument has some force, but I have never hidden the fact that the reason why I believe that the boundary changes should not—and, indeed, will not—go ahead in 2015 is that the overall package of constitutional and political reform measures would otherwise be unacceptably unbalanced within the coalition Government.
Nearly all the Deputy Prime Minister’s party colleagues in the Lords oppose the measure; there is no doubt about their very strong opposition. Will he respond to the view that in time—in the next few months, or perhaps next year—the Prime Minister will persuade him to vote for the boundary changes? Is that a possibility?
This statement is about the Lords, but the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question on boundary changes is simple. I have said very clearly what we will do: we will vote against the boundary changes coming into effect in 2015. The legislation will continue, after 2015, as it is on the statute book, unless it is changed. I have been very clear about that, and nothing will change my mind.
As for House of Lords reform, it has not happened this time; if it was easy, it would have happened at some point over the past 100 years. I say this to Labour Members, who seem to be enjoying their time in opposition, in which they are taking responsibility for absolutely nothing and delivering on none of their commitments to political reform: one day, one generation of politicians will finally have to introduce a smidgen of democracy in the second Chamber. We in this country and this Parliament cannot continue trotting around the world lecturing other countries on the virtues of democracy while not introducing it in Westminster.
The right hon. Gentleman is right: it is a great pity that we have not made progress in modernising our system. It could have been done, as the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) has just said. The Deputy Prime Minister has confirmed that on 6 August, he said that, the House of Lords Reform Bill having been withdrawn, his party would no longer support the boundaries legislation. Does he recall that on 19 April, in answer to my questions, he told the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform that there was “no link” between the two issues? Does he accept that he cannot have been telling the truth on both occasions?
Since we are trading quotes, I remind the hon. Lady that she—[Interruption.] I will answer the question. She said on her website that we should not be wasting our time on constitutional reform—of almost any description, I think—that is not going to improve the life of a single person in the United Kingdom. I have the transcript of the meeting of the Select Committee in April this year. As she knows, I also said in my exchange with her that we were
“trying to press forward”
on all the issues in our constitutional and political reform package, and that
“I think we are successfully doing so—in keeping with the commitments we both made, both coalition parties, in the Coalition Agreement.”
I made it clear, therefore, that this was an overall approach to a package of measures which we had both entered into solemnly in the coalition agreement. Most people in the country would think it perfectly reasonable that when one party to such an agreement decides to pick and choose the measures that it will support, it is right for the other party to say, “Well, in that case we will need to pick and choose a bit ourselves so that we can continue with the rest of the very important work that this coalition Government are doing.”
Why does the right hon. Gentleman not just admit that it is obvious from their response today that his new friends in the Tory party have never been serious about Lords reform, and that on this, as on the alternative vote referendum, he has been badly let down by his friend the Prime Minister? Why did he not offer a referendum, which may have eased the passage of the Bill through both Houses?
I did suggest, in the latter stages of the discussions within the Government, that we should hold a referendum on election day in return for delaying both the first elections to the House of Lords to 2020 and the first boundary changes coming into effect in 2020, but that was not a position that found favour with my coalition partners on this occasion. The hon. Gentleman points a finger at Conservative Members about their commitment to political and constitutional reform, yet Labour has in many respects been a whole lot more cynical and insincere, claiming that Labour Members are fervent supporters of House of Lords reform and, as I explained earlier, refusing to will the means and talking only about the ends.
Why does the Deputy Prime Minister not believe that those who make the laws should be elected by constituencies of approximately equal numbers of electors? By the time of the next general election, my constituency will be approximately 90,000 electors. I love them all dearly and I am very proud to represent them all, but what possible justification can there be for a number of constituencies in this House to have 90,000 or more electors, and a number of Members of this House to represent 60,000 or fewer constituents? How is that fair? It is just as much gerrymandering as happened before the Great Reform Bill.
The hon. Gentleman’s public profession of love for all his 90,000 constituents must explain why he is such a well respected Member of this House and such a popular constituency Member. My answer is simple. I was and remain entirely supportive of the idea that we reform the House of Lords and also introduce boundary changes to this House. That is what was in the coalition agreement and that is what I was prepared to deliver and remain prepared to deliver. What I am not prepared to do, because I do not think coalition government can work like that, is to enter into a sort of arbitrary pick-and-choose process where one party baulks at something and the other party must none the less vote for things which are not very appetising or popular with that party. That is simply no way to run a coalition. On the substance, the hon. Gentleman is right. I remain still to this day prepared to support and vote for both, but in a coalition Government I am not prepared to allow things to collapse into a pick-and-mix approach.
I knew the question was going to be a nice one. No, I will not. [Interruption.] Let me explain. First, I do not think I would be very welcome in the current House of Lords, given my somewhat undiplomatic descriptions of the illegitimacy of that House. Secondly, I personally will not take up a place in an unreformed House of Lords. Call me old-fashioned—it just sticks in the throat. I have campaigned all my life, and my party has campaigned for decades now, for the simple idea of democracy, and that is what I will continue to do.
As one of the Government Members who favour an elected upper House, may I express my regret at the Government’s decision? The Deputy Prime Minister spoke of inching forward. Although we will obviously now have to wait until a future Parliament for legislation, I urge him to consider some means of inching forward by way of discussions and so on in this Parliament.
To be frank, I do not want to hold out to my hon. Friend and other reformers a great deal of hope that we will make progress, even by inches, during the remainder of this Parliament. We have taken the process a considerable distance and I do not think that those of us who are clearly disappointed that we were unable to cross the finishing line during this Parliament—I have always been very grateful for his support for the idea of democratic reform of the other place—should ignore the importance of a very significant majority on Second Reading in favour of a Bill that set out specific provisions for reforming the other place. It was just because of a reluctance to translate that blueprint into something that was legislatively workable that we cannot proceed. I do not think that I or the Government would have been forgiven, whatever one’s views on this, if we had decided, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn has suggested, to soldier on valiantly for months and months, getting into the trenches on this, when there are so many other things to be getting on with. The Prime Minister and I will make some announcements shortly on how we will use the opportunity of an unexpected gap in the legislative timetable to push forward measures that will help to create growth and jobs in our economy.
As I have explained, the primary legislation is as it is, and no one is proposing that we repeal it. My own view—I have made this perfectly public—is that it would be better not to complete the outstanding stages of the Boundary Commission investigations because the end result is now a foregone conclusion, but if that is what is felt necessary then a vote will be held and the boundary changes will not go through before 2015.
May I commend the Deputy Prime Minister on his remarkable statesmanship with regard to the boundary changes? He will be pleased to know that the commission was proposing a North East Somerset that would have been a safe Lib Dem seat, so I am in with a sporting chance of being back after the next election. However, now that he has said that Lib Dem Ministers will vote against Government policy, I wonder what his definition of collective responsibility is within a coalition Government.
The hon. Gentleman’s description of the psephological effects in his neck of the woods is the closest anyone has come to possibly changing my mind on the boundary issue, but I will not, and I have made our position very clear. There are conventions, and in time-honoured fashion they mutate and develop over time. Coalition government is clearly a novel thing, and I think that the conventions that govern government will need to adapt to the fact that in this instance the coalition parties will go their separate ways, and I am sure that we will be able to manage that.
The Deputy Prime Minister has just said, in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), that he could not persuade the Prime Minister to have a referendum on the package. Will he share with Members the reasons the Prime Minister gave?
No, I will not go into the conversation, but it was clearly felt that the approach of having a referendum on election day with a deferral for both the first elections to a reformed House of Lords and the entry into effect of the boundary changes was not sufficient to persuade those who had made it clear that they would not under pretty much any circumstances back a timetable motion for House of Lords reform legislation.
Is it not a fair summary of the position to say that the Bill has to be withdrawn because, although both coalition parties clearly signed up to delivering it, at the end of July there was an unholy alliance between Conservatives opposed to an elected second Chamber and the Labour party, which says that it is in favour, but absolutely refused to deliver the meat? Is that not the reason? There was therefore no other option in this Parliament. But we will come back to the issue—and in the end, the progressives will win.
That was a fair description of the politics inside the Chamber, but my right hon. Friend’s last point is more important. If anyone really thinks that we can duck these issues for ever—that the House of Lords can carry on growing in size or that, in the 21st century, it is comprehensible to the British people that Members in the other place should be able to craft the laws of the land, getting £300 tax-free every day just for turning up—they should think again.
The Deputy Prime Minister should be congratulated on his total honesty for saying that a pick-and-mix coalition is a waste of time. As we now have a pick-and-mix coalition, when will he and his colleagues cross to the Opposition Benches?
It is always reassuring to get the hon. Gentleman’s traditional welcome at the beginning of the parliamentary term. I thank him for his supportive remarks about all that my colleagues and I are doing in government to rescue, reform and repair the British economy, which was left in such a state of disrepair by the Labour party.
We are two and a half years into a five-year Government. The Prime Minister and I will make some announcements shortly—for instance, on the all-important issue of increasing the number of homes built in this country, to improve provision of affordable and social housing for people who desperately want to get on the housing ladder. If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, that is the kind of work that I am going to concentrate on.
As the hon. Lady knows, a lot of ink, paper and official time has been consumed, not just by this Parliament and Government but by previous Governments and Ministers who have sought finally to crack the conundrum of how we introduce more democracy to the House of Lords. The hon. Lady is right: if she and her colleagues had decided to back us on the timetable motion, all that ink and paper would not have gone to waste.
What message does the Deputy Prime Minister think it sends to the public when he votes in favour in principle of boundary changes but then, when he does not get what he wants, he throws his toys out of the pram and rejects the whole thing?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, I feel slightly as though we are looking at the matter from opposite ends of the telescope. The problem has arisen because of the refusal of her colleagues and others to will the means to deliver something to which she is committed, under not only the coalition agreement but successive Conservative manifestos. I have been looking at the long pedigree of commitments in favour of an elected element in the House of Lords in Conservative party manifestos going back to 2001. Interestingly, the 2005 Conservative manifesto states that
“proper reform of the House of Lords has been repeatedly promised but never delivered.”
That sounds more like a prediction than anything else.
This latest episode of omnishambles shows the public that Westminster is unreformable. Twentieth-century democracy has patently failed. Does the Deputy Prime Minister understand that this is yet another example of why, in the 21st century, Scotland would be better off making all its own decisions with independence rather than continuing under the cronyism in the House of Lords?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that one of the virtues of a reformed House of Lords would have been a voice in the second Chamber for the Scottish people as well as for the English and Welsh people and for all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom; we have spoken about that before. At the moment, that second Chamber has a very high preponderance of people from the south-east of England. There is chronic under-representation, not only from Scotland but from Wales and the north of England. That would all have been balanced by reform. I do not think that that point argues in favour of ripping up the United Kingdom altogether, but it does argue in favour of pushing for reform once again in the future.
The Deputy Prime Minister refers to his proposals as a simple matter of democracy. I wonder how he reconciles that with the greater principle of how it can be democratic to have a once-elected person who is never held accountable by an electorate.
We had extensive debates, in which the hon. Gentleman participated, when the Government set out our ideas in the draft Bill about the concept of a non-renewable term. I totally accept that there is an issue about legitimacy versus accountability. A non-renewable term improves legitimacy, but not standing for election again raises question marks about accountability. I would say two things. First, a 15-year term is better than an illegitimate life membership of the House of Lords. Secondly, we did not draw on something that this Government have suddenly invented; we drew on the work of countless cross-party committees in the past—the Cunningham work, the Wakeham work, and so on. Those all came up with the same conclusion—that if we were going to create a clear distinction between this House and a reformed upper House, and to make it absolutely clear that the legitimacy and accountability of this place was supreme, then the best way of doing that was, yes, to introduce democracy, but to do so on the basis of long, non-renewable terms.
I have some sympathy for the Deputy Prime Minister, because in our parliamentary history there are constitutional moments, but this is not one of them. I do believe, though, that the Liberal Democrats will be able to get House of Lords reform through when they go into the Lobby with the majority Labour Government after the next election. In the meantime, is it really a good use of public money—taxpayers’ money—to keep this extraordinary boundary change operation going? He has a duty of care to the taxpayer. He should finish it now.
I find it almost touching that the right hon. Gentleman thinks that his party has any credibility whatsoever left on political reform. Labour did not introduce democracy in the House of Lords during 13 years. An opportunity was delivered to the Labour party on a silver platter—[Interruption.] I am perfectly calm, but I am seeking to make myself heard, because I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman is listening. Given that the Labour party did not reform the bastion of privilege and patronage at the other end of the corridor—that it did nothing in 13 years to introduce democracy into the House of Lords—why on earth does he think that anyone believes that it will do so in the future?
I find the Deputy Prime Minister’s apologia at best confusing and possibly disingenuous in that he will know that the coalition agreement did not specifically call for primary legislation on House of Lords reform but for a settled cross-party consensus to be reached. We tried to do that and could not, but that consensus could have been formed around the Bill put forward by Lord Steel of Aikwood. On that basis, why has the Deputy Prime Minister chosen to resile from a solemn agreement to support fair and democratic boundaries?
As far as I can remember, I have not sought to make any apology over the past 45 minutes. I feel that the Government have acted in good faith to try to generate cross-party support for a reasonable set of proposals drawing on a lot of work from other members of other parties over several years. It is a great pity that the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues felt that it was not possible to get behind that reasonable package of proposals with a timetable motion. The coalition agreement said that this Government were going to come forward with proposals to reform the House of Lords. We are not a think-tank. The Government do not talk about proposals just to float them idly in a newspaper article and then do nothing about them. If one is going to propose something as a Government, one proposes it with a view to actually doing something.
The Deputy Prime Minister has been ducking and diving on the question of the Boundary Commission review. Is he aware that the Boundary Commission has today written to all Members of Parliament saying that it proposes to publish its revised proposals on 16 October? That will involve a huge amount of expense. Why does he not shut this exercise down and save a shed-load of money?
Because, as I have explained, the primary legislation remains in place, and—this is not rocket science—there is clearly no agreement between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in the coalition Government to repeal that primary legislation, so it stands. I happen to agree with the right hon. Gentleman that, given that the result of the final vote is a foregone conclusion, we might as well not push the issue to a vote; but, perfectly understandably, other members of the Government want to do so. I have made it crystal clear what my position and that of my Liberal Democrat colleagues will be when that vote occurs.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his robust stance on the boundary changes. I was delighted by that and remind him that a not inconsiderable number of Conservative Members were also delighted by his announcement. In light of his dignified and statesman-like statement accepting that House of Lords reform will not happen, is it not time for the Prime Minister to follow suit and make a similarly dignified statement to say that he accepts that the boundary changes will not happen, because they will not?
I am at risk of carbon-copying my previous answers. The legislation on boundary reviews stands, so the process continues. It is not in my power to stop that without reversing the primary legislation altogether. When and if the matter comes to a vote, I have made it clear what the voting intentions of the Members of my party within the coalition Government will be.
It is clear that the Deputy Prime Minister has linked everything about House of Lords reform to the Boundary Commission’s proposed changes. Every MP has received today a letter dated 3 September about the proposed changes coming in for consultation on 15 or 16 October. Does that not bring Parliament into disrepute? He has said that there is a gap in the legislative programme and that we will hear further announcements. Why cannot he and his Conservative colleagues introduce a Bill to get rid of the proposed parliamentary boundary changes?
Because, self-evidently, as I have answered previously, there is no agreement within Government to repeal that primary legislation. The hon. Lady can wave as many letters as she likes at me, and I am terribly sorry that she is upset about what appeared in her mailbag this morning, but that is the situation. I have been entirely open about it and I agree with her that what will happen at the end of the process is pretty much a foregone conclusion, because of what I have said about how Liberal Democrat Ministers and MPs will vote when the time comes.
Following the recent vote on House of Lords reform, one Conservative member of the Government resigned and another was sacked for voting against the Government. In light of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has instructed his party to vote against the boundary review, will he also instruct members from his party to resign from the Government?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the timetable motion for the House of Lords Reform Bill was not even been put to a vote, so Conservative MPs, whether they be Front Benchers or Back Benchers, were not asked to choose which Lobby they would go through. If we really want to draw a parallel, I have some sympathy with the argument that says let us draw stumps and not vote on either the timetable motion for the House of Lords Reform Bill or on the result of the Boundary Commission’s work.
The Deputy Prime Minister has failed to change the voting system and failed to change the House of Lords. Will he tell the House what constitutional change he is turning his eye to in the remaining half of this Parliament?
As the hon. Lady knows, there are issues to do with the recall of MPs who are guilty of wrongdoing; there are ongoing cross-party talks on party funding; and we are committed to taking measures to tighten up lobbying activity and make it more transparent. Those are all important issues and I hope that she will not lightly dismiss the progress that we will seek to make on them. There is also a bigger quasi-constitutional issue, namely: how do we, as we rebuild our shattered economy—which, in my view, suffered from excessive over-centralisation in the way in which economic decisions were taken in the past—also breathe life into local communities and local authorities so that they can play a role in rebuilding and rebalancing our over-centralised British economy?
As I sought to explain earlier, the Steel Bill would do three things. It would stop future crooks from sitting in the House of Lords; it would stop people who had never turned up to the House of Lords from sitting, but pretty well all of them turn up at one point or another; and it would offer voluntary retirement, which so far has not been taken up by more than two or three peers. If we look at the detail rather than declare that the Bill is a great alternative to an elected House of Lords, we see that it does not really stand up to scrutiny. It would not make much of a difference. Call me old-fashioned, but my view is that if we are going to reform the House of Lords, we should do it properly once and for all and ensure that it has democracy at its heart.
Is the Deputy Prime Minister satisfied that the Prime Minister did everything he could to support the Bill? If so, why does he believe the Conservative party rebellion was so large?
Of course I am satisfied that the Prime Minister did all he could. This happens in politics, but thankfully our political parties are not North Korean political parties that jump when their leaders say jump. I should know that as well as anybody after this weekend’s press coverage.
This debate divides opinion and provokes strong reactions in people. In this instance, as the Prime Minister has said, he sought to persuade Members of his own party, but the commitment that he and I made to having the first elections take place in 2015 proved not to be possible. What we have done is perfectly sensible, and it happens from time to time in politics. We have drawn a line under that issue and the boundaries issue, and we will move on with the many important matters, particularly economic ones, that we must now tackle.
The Deputy Prime Minister talks about the shortcomings of the Steel Bill, but he also speaks passionately about the unwieldy number of Lords, about patronage and about all the other things that we can get on and reform now. I implore him to produce a short Bill to get on with those reforms, building on Lord Steel’s Bill. Or is he just an all-or-nothing man?
As I have said, I suspect that if the situation was quite as straightforward as the hon. Gentleman feels, reformers in the past and over the past couple of years would have reached the eureka moment. As I explained, the Steel Bill would make only a tiny difference to the size of the House of Lords. As the debates over the past several months have proved, anything more substantial appears to be too controversial right now. That is why we have rightly said that the Government are now going to focus on the things that people want us to focus on, as I believe he has urged me to do in the past. We want to ensure that we create circumstances in which growth and an increase in jobs take root in our economy.
The Library has confirmed to me this afternoon that this wretched boundary review will lead to the wasting of £11.9 million of taxpayers’ money. Why has the Deputy Prime Minister been so hasty in rejecting the Opposition’s offer to support a Bill repealing the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 and ending this farcical process once and for all?
I have heard promises from the Opposition before about support for constitutional and political reform, and look where that got me.
I have set out the position clearly. The Act remains on the statute book, and it will not be repealed because there is no coalition Government agreement to do so. I have been clear about how I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues will vote when and if a vote is brought to the Floor of the House.
We have heard that the Deputy Prime Minister has gone on the record first as stating that boundary changes and Lords reform were not linked, and then as changing his mind and saying that they were. If the electorate had delivered a yes vote in the alternative vote referendum instead of a resounding and unequivocal no, would boundary changes and Lords reform be linked today?
The whole agenda of political and constitutional reform had a number of principal components as set out in the coalition agreement. Frankly, the way in which some of those measures were legislatively arranged is not really the point. The point is that it was clear that it was a broad agenda whose main components would be pursued by both parties in the coalition. For reasons that I will not rehearse again, that has proved not to be possible, so we have made an adjustment to that package. We will proceed with its other elements, and I hope we will have some success on party funding and make progress on recall and on regulating lobbying. Much more importantly, we will now have legislative time available to make progress on the economy, too.
A powerful argument in favour of House of Lords reform was that, if the current level of patronage continues, the membership of the unelected Chamber will be more than 1,000 by 2015. I hear what the Deputy Prime Minister says about the limitations of the Steel Bill, but does he not think that there is some merit in bringing forward a proposal to cap the membership of the House of Lords at that of the House of Commons? At least that would be some progress.
If one did that, one would hard-wire party political imbalance into the House of Lords, and that would not be acceptable without allowing the British people any say in its composition. There has clearly been a setback for people such as the hon. Lady, who believes in and has been articulate in her advocacy of democratic reform of the House of Lords. However, I do not think that it is the end of the story. The current trajectory of the House of Lords, even if the Lord Steel Bill were introduced, is impractical and unsustainable. I hope that, if not now, then in the next few years, we can return to the matter and both reduce the size of the House of Lords and make it more legitimate.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of a recent quote from Lord Prescott, who said:
“The House of Lords is a bit like a job centre, you have to go down there to get paid expenses, and it just gets totally tiring”?
Is not it a shame that we have been unable to help the noble Lord out of his and our misery?
No wonder he wants to be a police and crime commissioner, given all the hard work that he clearly puts into the House of Lords. It is one of my many regrets that we have not been able to make progress on the matter, and that I have been unable to put Lord Prescott out of his misery in the House of Lords.
Badly, I think, because if we in the coalition Government had been dogmatic about the Bill’s content, the critics of our approach would have had a point, but we were extraordinarily pragmatic and flexible, making a barrage of changes to the measure to try to secure cross-party support. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) and I clearly signalled on Second Reading that we were prepared to change the Bill further to make it more acceptable to as many people as possible in all parties, as long we retained the principle, in some shape or form, that the British people, not party leaders, would have a say in who on earth actually sits in the House of Lords. Although we were rigid about the principle, we were pragmatic about the details, and that is why I regret, given our pragmatic approach, that we were unable to build on that to create a cross-party approach to the matter.
Yes, of course. Just because the reforms have not been implemented, it does not mean that we will turn our back on the real world. The system is as it is, at least for a while longer, and we will continue to operate in it. I would be delighted to take my place in a reformed and more democratic House of Lords, but, as I said, I suspect that I am not wholly welcome in its current configuration.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The spectacle of Cabinet Ministers voting against a major Government Bill without resigning their positions will surely bring collective Cabinet responsibility into total disrepute. Given that the Deputy Prime Minister believes in making progress by inches, will he not support a single, simple, one-line Bill to allow the exclusion from the upper House of people who have been convicted of serious criminal offences?
As I said before, that barely scratches the surface of the issues that exist in the House of Lords. On the first point, the failure of collective responsibility is a political one in which one party in the coalition Government has not honoured the commitments set out in the coalition agreement to proceed with reform of the House of Lords. Let me be clear—[Interruption.] If I can make myself heard, let me be clear: I have asked Liberal Democrat Members countless times to vote for things to which they strongly object, because they were in the coalition agreement. The hon. Gentleman cannot reasonably ask me to ask Liberal Democrat MPs to continue as if nothing has happened, when the other side of the coalition chooses not to do so on an issue as important as reform of the House of Lords. That is coalition politics, and it will continue until one party—the hon. Gentleman’s party or another—wins an outright majority. That did not happen in the previous election; that is why we have a coalition, and the country is better for it.