Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Harriett Baldwin.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, for this all too short debate about what we affectionately refer to as “the other place”, although it would be hard to imagine or conceive of another place like it in the world.
The House of Lords must now be about the most bizarre, absurd and ridiculous political institution anywhere in the world. Bloated, ermine coated and never been voted, it is now an affront to every sense and notion of democracy. There are now some 847 souls inhabiting the place, which makes it the largest political legislature anywhere in the world, save the National People’s Congress of China. Like the Chinese politburo, it is a stranger to democracy, but, unlike that, it cannot even claim to have a constituency or represent anyone whatever.
Who are these curious, strange people who inhabit this gold-plated, red-upholstered Narnia? The vast majority are appointed: some by an independent appointments authority, but the vast majority by the Prime Minister from lists drawn up by the three establishment Westminster parties. No other legislature in the world is composed quite like that, other than Lesotho in southern Africa.
Peers are not all appointed: 86 hereditary peers have a role in our democracy because of birth right. They can scrutinise, initiate and consider our legislation because they are the first son of a family that won a decisive battle in the middle ages. This is not an episode of “Game of Thrones”, but the fifth-largest economy in the western world.
I agree with much that the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he feel that it is any less desirable for there to be the first-born son of a family who have had an hereditary peerage for six or seven generations than it is for there to be to be a large-scale donor to a political party or a superannuated council leader? That seems to be how most of the people in that House have earned their places over the past 15 years.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I have a few choice words to say about the appointees to the House of Lords. If he bears with me, I will come to those very points.
We have the hereditaries, but to make the place even more bizarre and surreal, 26 places are reserved for bishops—but not just any ordinary bishops: they have to be Church of England bishops. The House of Lords is the only legislature in the world that reserves places for clerics other than the Islamic republic of Iran.
We cannot get rid of these people; they are not allowed to retire and they are not accountable to any constituency or electorate. The only way to get rid of them is through not the public of Great Britain, but the grim reaper. One of the few House of Lords reforms there have been in this Parliament is to allow these people to retire, but only one has come forward—so we made inducements to try to get them to retire. They can now use House of Lords facilities if they choose to retire, but they still will not do it.
This is a ridiculous and absurd institution. The average age of Members of the House of Lords is now 70. How much does this political circus cost? Last year, it was almost £100 million. Our friends in the House of Lords do not come cheap—of course, they should not. They can claim £300 a day just for turning up to work. If that is too much trouble for them, they can claim £150 a day for working from home. The average peer—if there is such a thing—now costs a cool £28,000.
Some of them do work hard. We have lots of examples of hard-working peers who turn up diligently, day after day, to put in the work, but all too many of them do practically nothing for the money they are given by the taxpayer. I do not want to pick on my Scottish peer colleagues, but I had a cursory glance at the activity list of some of them who notionally, I believe, look after Scottish interests in the House of Lords. Again, although some are diligent, hard-working individuals, all too many do practically nothing for this taxpayer largesse.
In this debate, it is important that we look beyond House of Lords composition. The hon. Gentleman refers to Scottish interests being looked after by Scottish peers, but that is not their purpose. They do not have a constituency interest; they are there to scrutinise legislation. Will he go into a little detail about some of the worthy work done by a significant number of peers—perhaps not all 800 or so, but certainly several hundred of them—who play that important role even though they have no representative interests?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I beg for patience once again, because I am trying to paint some background on the activities of the House of Lords and the nature of its Chamber. I do want to come on to that point, but it is important that the taxpayers of the country understand the type of service that they get for the £100 million paid annually to sustain these people. Some of them work hard, as he said, but some do next to nothing.
It is right and proper that we should look at these people, because we cannot get rid of them or do anything about them. They are not accountable to any constituency. Just as the hon. Gentleman and I, as parliamentarians, are scrutinised, it is right that we should look at the activities of our colleagues and friends in the House of Lords to assess whether we get value for money.
That brings me back to the Scottish peers. They do not represent any constituency, but when Scottish colleagues and I turn up to events—I see that the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) is here—we always see Scottish Lords in attendance, and again and again they tell us that our interests are looked after in the House of Lords on that basis. However, what we find is that Baroness Adams of Craigielea has claimed an eye-watering £50,000 but spoken in only two debates and never asked a written question since entering the Lords in 2005. Lord Kirkham has cost us £49,239, but spoken in no debates and asked no written questions. Further down the list, there is our noble friend Lord Elder who has cost us £50,000, spoken in two debates and asked no questions. He did, though, as a good public servant, serve on the refreshments committee between 2008 and 2013.
That brings me to the impeccable, cultured tastes of their lordships. In the past four years, they have got through some 17,000 bottles of fine champagne, which cost more than £260,000.
Order. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the advice in “Erskine May” on reference to Members of the House of Lords. It says:
“It is considered undesirable that any member of the House of Lords should be mentioned by name, or otherwise identified, for the purpose of criticism of a personal…nature.”
It is, of course, in order for the hon. Gentleman to talk about what those Members do, how they are appointed and so on, but he is probably straying into inadvisable territory.
I am grateful, Mr Howarth, and I promise not to do it again.
On champagne, it seems that the House of Lords rejected the vulgar variety served in the House of Commons; according to a former Clerk,
“the Lords feared that the quality of champagne would not be as good if they chose a joint service”
with the House of Commons. That was reported to the House of Commons Governance Committee. The astonished Chair, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), said:
“Did you make that up?”
The former Clerk assured him that he did not.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify that the champagne in the House of Lords is not free? It is paid for.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman clarified that: the champagne is not free—but by God it seems that our friends in the House of Lords certainly like to quaff a good number of bottles of it over the course of a year.
It would be wrong and remiss of me, however, to claim that the House of Lords was totally undemocratic. That is not the case and I would not like to mislead this House in that respect. The Lords do have elections, when the earls, the dukes, the ladies, the lords and the barons—the hereditary peers of the realm—get together and have one of their now regular by-elections to decide which among their number should continue to rule over us. It must be the weirdest constituency in the world—the most privileged and aristocratic electorate to be found anywhere.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is waxing lyrical in his diatribe against the House of Lords and many of his sentiments will be shared across the nation. Perhaps he is coming on to this in his speech, but does he agree about the need for a more democratised revising Chamber or would he dismiss it entirely?
I am not a unicameralist, believe it or not; a nation as complex and large as the United Kingdom needs a functioning supervisory Chamber. I will come on to suggest—I hope the hon. Gentleman bears with me—how we might make progress. This debate is about House of Lords reform, which I promise him I will come to.
What is unacceptable, however, and what the British people should put up with no longer, is that circus down in the other place, with the ridiculous spectacle of lords, ladies, deference, forelock-tugging and the rest of it. We need a properly equipped legislature designed for the 21st century—not one designed for the middle ages, something out of the 14th century. I will come to that and to the clear principles that I wish to establish.
The hon. Gentleman has been extremely generous. He referred to the anachronistic election procedure for hereditary peers, but does he not recognise that that whole mechanism was put in place to ensure that the piecemeal reforms of 1999 were not the end of the matter? The sort of reforms that he and I would both support are perhaps more wholesale, but they require having the anachronistic hereditary element. Let us get rid of the entirety of what we have at the moment—sweep the whole thing away—but without the anachronism, there would probably be a reluctance to do the sort of radical reform that he and I would support.
As a result of the House of Lords Act 1999, the vast majority of the hereditaries were removed, but we are still left with 86 or so, which has always been considered unfinished business. Action has been a long time coming; they are still there—we still have people who have a role in our democracy due to birthright. That is unacceptable. We are all democrats in this House. We cannot allow people to have a role in our democracy because they are the first son of their family.
We might laugh, and it is easy to poke fun at an institution that is so singularly absurd and bizarre, but there is a sinister role in the activities of the House of Lords. It is sinister and open to abuse because it is an appointed Chamber. We do not bother with the whole exercise of letting the public decide and construct the Chamber down the road; instead, we leave it up to politicians—and the temptation for politicians is to stuff it full of their friends, cronies and placemen.
If we need an elderly Member of Parliament to move on for a dynamic, thrusting, new young Member, give the old one a place in the House of Lords. That dynamic, thrusting young Member might lose his seat—I am looking at the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), although he did not take a place in the Lords—so let us cushion the blow and let him continue with his political career by giving him a place in the House of Lords. All too commonly we find that that is how the House of Lords is being used and abused. It is a place for cronies, placemen and time-servers. That is not good enough.
Even that is not what bothers me in particular. The thing that concerns me most, and which should concern everyone in this House, are the donors—people who have a place in our democracy, in the second Chamber of Parliament, whose only qualification seems to be that they are able to give substantial and significant sums to one of the three main establishment Westminster parties. Those are the people who trouble me and who should trouble the rest of the United Kingdom, because lots of people appointed by the political parties seem to have no ability other than to manufacture large sums of cash to sustain those political parties. That is not good enough.
My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who I was hoping could be with us this morning, tested that issue to its legal limit in the previous Parliament. He looked at the situation in the House of Lords, saw connections with the highest levels of the then Labour Government and said, “There is something wrong here.” He then asked the Metropolitan police to investigate, and we had one of the most dramatic political police operations of recent years—the “cash for honours” investigation.
We saw a sitting Prime Minister, Tony Blair, being questioned by police and the arrest of his chief fundraiser and other members of his staff. Charges were dropped—none were brought—not because there was no case to answer or because a clean bill of health was presented, but because no evidence was found. The Crown Prosecution Service felt that it could not proceed with the case. We can all make up our minds about the type of influence that can be exerted on the CPS and the Metropolitan police to drop such a dynamic case. However, the situation was never given a clean bill of health and outstanding issues remain on donations to parties.
All we have to do is to look at the list of appointments to the House of Lords, such as that from last year. Those recently ennobled made a total contribution of £7 million to the three establishment Westminster parties. After cash for honours and something as dramatic as that police investigation, we might have thought that that place would be beyond reproach, that the Lords would have cleaned up their act and that there would be no suggestion, or even a whiff, of any type of abuse or wrongdoing. Not a bit of it! It would seem that they cannot change those ermine spots. Since then, we have had peers banged up in jail for abuse of expenses, cash for influence, cash for amendments and even some cash for honours.
The three biggest donors to the Liberal party—there are no Liberals here, so I am sorry if I am picking on them, Mr Howarth—[Interruption.] Sorry, the Deputy Leader of the House is here. This is something he might to pick up on. The three biggest donors to the Liberals, who just so happen to provide two fifths of the party’s donations, were given peerages by the Deputy Prime Minister. That forced a peer who has now departed, Lord Oakeshott, to concede that cash for honours was still very much alive and that, in his own words,
“my efforts to expose and end cash for peerages in all parties, including our own, and help get the Lords elected have failed.”
The House of Lords, because of its nature, because it is an appointed body and because it does not bother to go through the whole process of elections to be accountable to constituencies is rife with such abuse and activity. The British public deserve better. They deserve a scrutinising Chamber that is beyond reproach, that is democratically decided and that they can get rid of if they are unhappy with its activities.
Our political institutions have never been held in such contempt by the British public. We see that day in, day out. Trust and confidence in the Westminster establishment, the Westminster elite who run this place, has never been lower and that establishment has never been held in such low esteem by the British public. I suggest that when the public observe an undemocratic, ermine-ridden House like the one down the road, it compounds their strong sense of alienation from the whole process of Government.
I should tell the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that I am going to a Committee sitting shortly, so I will not be able to hear the end of the debate. I agree with practically everything the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he agree that any revising Chamber that remains should be 100% elected by proportional representation, so that it will also be a powerful check and balance on an over-mighty Government elected, as at present, by the undemocratic first-past-the-post system?
I know the hon. Gentleman’s record on these issues. He has been a big advocate of House of Lords reform, and I congratulate him on his efforts. I agree with him. I disagree, however, with the Labour party’s position on the issue. I debated it on television last night, in advance of this debate, and the Labour position—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman buys into it; we might hear about it from the shadow Minister—is like a secondary mandate, whereby the institutions of the United Kingdom somehow decide among themselves who should inhabit the second Chamber. I am interested to hear more—the shadow Minister is shaking his head, and we will hear from him exactly what the Labour party’s plan is—but that was suggested in the House of Lords when I watched a debate on it. I am sure that the shadow Minister has his plan, but the second Chamber should be elected, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith suggested. There is no substitute for democracy. We live in a democratic country, culture and society, so of course our Houses have to be elected.
Things have to change; they cannot go on as they are. We have tried to reform and democratise the place, but every effort over the past 20 years has failed. This might be hard for its 850-odd Members—likely to be 1,000 in the next Parliament—but it is now time to concede that the whole place is unreformable. It is time to rip the whole thing up and start again. That is the only way we can get reform.
As I have said, I believe that we need a second Chamber. We are a large and complex democracy, with asymmetrical devolution to all parts of the United Kingdom. I am open to any suggestion or plan for progress, but I do not think that it is for me, an oiky Nat Back Bencher, to suggest to the great and the good of the Westminster establishment parties the sort of model for reform that should be adopted. That is not my job—I will leave it to the great minds we see assembled on the Front Benches today to try to determine a way through. I am going to suggest several principles that I believe have to underpin a brand-new institution as we go forward.
The first principle, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith said, is that the revising Chamber must be exclusively democratic. We can no longer go forward with an appointed institution, and we certainly cannot have an institution with Members who are there only because of their family. That cannot go on—it has to be based on democratic principles.
Let me tell hon. Members something embarrassing about this situation. I am a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a task that I take very seriously because the foundation does fantastic work. I go around the world to speak in emerging democracies, to encourage good governance and support multi-party democracy as much as I possibly can. How can we give that message when we have the embarrassment of that undemocratic institution down the road? How dare we try to suggest to developing nations—countries that are struggling with democratic principles—that they emulate the United Kingdom? Are we asking them to get Lords or jump around like Santa Claus in their red cloaks? That embarrasses this nation. It is an embarrassment to me and to anybody else who does that work on behalf of this country around the world. The first principle, then, is that the revising Chamber must be absolutely democratic. That should go without saying.
The second principle is that its membership must be in proportion to the main Chamber. It is preposterous that we have a second Chamber of such a size, with 847 Members, soon probably to be 1,000. Its size must be in proportion to the main Chamber. I suggest that it should be a quarter to a third of its current size—anything between 200 and 250 Members should be sufficient for the task required of it.
That brings me to my third principle, which is also important: the role of the new Chamber should be clearly defined. My view is that that role should be exclusively scrutiny and supervision. I am unhappy when I see Bills initiated in an undemocratic House. During this Parliament, we have considered quite a few Bills that were initiated in the House of Lords and I am not happy about that. I do not think it right—elected Members should initiate legislation and design and shape it. Please, yes, let the other Chamber scrutinise and have a look at it, tell us when we have it wrong and improve it if necessary, but the second Chamber should be supervisory.
One reason why House of Lords reform failed a couple of years ago was the spurious fear of Conservative Members who suggested that any elected Chamber would be a challenge to the supremacy of the main elected House—as if that would be a bad thing and that a little bit of a challenge would not actually help the elected Members of the House of Commons. Myself and the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith are Members for Scottish constituencies and share constituents with MSPs—we even share constituencies with list MSPs. That spurs me on to make sure I do better, and I am sure that it is the same for the hard-working hon. Gentleman. The nonsense about having competition for the main House is spurious, but if we clearly define the roles and functions of distinctive and separate Houses, it would lay that issue to bed.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. When it comes to Lords reform, as he says, many Members of the House of Commons profess themselves to be very precious about the democratic integrity and authority of the House. However, they do not seem to be as precious about that when it comes not just to allowing Bills to be initiated in the Lords, but to allowing that the key amendments to Bills be passed there; even when there is a will for those amendments in the Commons, it consistently defers to the House of Lords to produce them.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There is increasing use of the House of Lords as a Chamber that puts through Government amendments. He and I—and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field)—sat through five days of proceedings on the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill. I have always thought that I was elected by the people of Perth and North Perthshire to scrutinise and try to improve legislation, but we were told that that was going to be done in the House of Lords, and the Bill would come back to us amended. The use of the House of Lords for the Government amendment of Bills is inappropriate and has to end. If we properly align our two different Chambers and make sure they are properly distinct, those sorts of issues would end.
My last principle is one I mentioned in response to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell): get shot of the deference and the 13th century institutions, which are something like “Game of Thrones”. This is the 21st century, for goodness’ sake. We need our democracy and its institutions to reflect the age that we live in. Forelock-tugging, curtseying and having lords, ladies, barons, dukes and earls is all nonsense—get rid of it. It is absolutely absurd and ridiculous. Let us have a modern functioning democratic Chamber that looks and feels like the community and society that we serve. If we can get that, we will be making real progress.
Those are my principles for how we should establish a new and democratic Chamber to look after legislation. As I said, it is not up to an oiky Back-Bench MP to try to suggest the model, although I am attracted to the idea of using the European electoral regions as a basis for an election by proportional representation, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith suggested, for the 200 or 250 Members we require.
I have been on my feet for half an hour, so I will finish. We are coming up to an election, and every time we do, manifestos are stuffed full of promises to reform the Lords. We have had it all before. The Labour party is the great reformer this time around. I listened carefully to the Leader of the Opposition setting out his stall in that respect a few short weeks ago. Do it this time. Just do it! Labour had 13 years in power. Although it made some progress when it got rid of the hereditaries, more is required.
I must say to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby that Labour has not been particularly good in its relationship with the House of Lords: it was the Labour party that oversaw cash for honours. If he has concerns about the House of Lords, particularly its bloated nature, the first thing that the hon. Gentleman might want to do is stop putting people in it. Just stop it! There is no need to make a bloated House even bigger. The Conservatives have different issues with and attitudes towards the House of Lords, so they will probably continue to put people in it, but the Labour party needs to stop stuffing that place full with more cronies and donors. That is the first thing that the Labour party should do demonstrate that this time it is serious about House of Lords reform.
I hope that, in the next Parliament, we can at last to make some real progress in ending this farce. It is a circus. It is not fit for purpose. It is anachronistic. It is ridiculous, absurd and bizarre. We need to ensure that it can do a proper job of scrutinising the activities of this House. Let us get rid of the whole shooting match and start again; let us put in place something that is fit for purpose and that the whole nation can be proud of.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart)—if he does not mind my calling him that, and if it is not too deferential for his standards—will realise all too well that, as a Conservative, my views on House of Lords matters are not particularly orthodox. In fact, even before his time in the House, I was the only Conservative to support the notion of a unicameral system—certainly unicameral compared with the appalling state of our current House of Lords. To be honest, as a Conservative, I have no problem with a little forelock- tugging. I do not mind having dukes, earls, marquises, barons and the like. I just do not want them having any place in the legislature. They can call themselves whatever they like, but the notion that they are able to vote through laws seems as anachronistic as he pointed out.
In discussing House of Lords reform, there is a great opportunity for us to make the link with something I had thought the hon. Gentleman would raise: English votes for English laws, and the disjointed devolution we currently have in the United Kingdom. I shall touch on that in my speech. I broadly share his view that the time has come for comprehensive constitutional change in the United Kingdom. If it were to be carried out precisely and without partisan party political consideration, I believe we would be capable of producing a solution that will benefit Britain for decades to come.
My instinctive and immediate proposal would be for the creation of a new federal Parliament. It would be an elegant solution designed to resolve effectively the four main domestic constitutional uncertainties of the United Kingdom, which have plagued the political arena during the past three decades and perhaps will continue to do so in the years to come. With a federal UK Parliament and four elected national Parliaments, we could maintain the monarchy, strengthen the Union, and resolve the questions raised by the disgracefully unreformed House of Lords, which we rightly debate today. I would also wish to give independent and equal Parliaments to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Like the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, I am a democrat. Since my maiden speech in the House some 14 years ago, I have supported a fully elected House of Lords. The case for the preservation of the so-called “ancient traditions” of the upper House—we heard much on that, even from younger colleagues of mine in the Conservative party, when the House debated the issue two years ago—was conclusively lost in 1999. Once the vast bulk of the hereditaries—all bar 92—were removed, so too should all appointed Members have followed. Instead, as has been pointed out, we have a ludicrously bloated House of Lords. I am afraid that the Lord Winstons of the House, who are often prayed in aid of the House of Lords, are, with their great broad-based experience, assuredly the exception rather than the rule.
Over the past 15 years, the ranks of the House of Lords have been swelled by hundreds of party hacks and large-scale political donors, along with legislators of very dubious quality who are often given the nod on politically correct grounds. Indeed, I remain staggered at the sheer gutlessness of this place, the House of Commons, as we waved through the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. That legislation was promoted by the Deputy Prime Minister, who heralded the fatuous-to-the-point-of-being-disingenuous saving to the public purse of £10 million a year, which was ironic, given how the Liberal Democrats have not only stuffed the House of Lords full of their own placemen but swelled the ranks of special advisers to untold numbers, both of which actions are entirely counter to the idea of making the cost of politics cheaper.
It appears that we all agree—or at least those of us present in the Chamber—on the need for democratic reform of the House of Lords. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we did not all support the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011—it was opposed by the Opposition.
On change in the House of Lords, although I understand the attraction of a radical transformation and move towards a federal Parliament, is there not a danger that we end up spending so many decades trying to get the correct solution that nothing ever happens? Is there a case for moving to an elected House of Lords now, and then moving on to further changes? Otherwise, nothing will happen, not only in our lifetimes but in the lifetimes of people yet unborn.
There is a danger of that. In many ways, much as I disapprove of what happened in 1999, from the point of view of the Blair Administration, they did the right thing in taking the view that they should partly sort out the hereditary issue. Of course, the risk of any reform is that a little flurry of it is followed by decades of nothing else being done—historically, that is what has happened with the upper House—with those who wanted some reform saying, “Well, listen, we’ve been able to achieve something.”
It is depressing that the House of Lords has become ever more a creature of the Executive, while House of Lords reform has ground to a halt. The truth behind what the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said is that it is down to the numbers game. The Whips can get business through the House of Commons, so we have the utter discourtesy of Government amendments being tabled in the House of Lords simply because it is known that the legislation will not get through without amendments, which are rubber-stamped when it comes back to the Commons. Instinctively, that feels wrong. Ultimately, it is in our hands in the House of Commons. We are now only 16 or 17 weeks away from a general election, and if the result is indeterminate, we parliamentarians will have the opportunity to stand up, have our say and make a difference, particularly if we are in the realms of a minority Government.
I must confess that, although I was happy to support the underlying principle of electing the House of Lords on Second Reading and in the programme motion of the House of Lords Reform Bill, I believed ultimately that, in many of its particulars, it was a shoddy, poorly drafted piece of legislation. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) said, if we try to work towards perfection, we will achieve very little. That is a great shame, because in many ways the British constitution has hitherto been one of the great success stories of modern politics. It has kept the country together—up to and beyond 18 September last year—united under a common Crown and common Parliament for more than 300 years. Not for us the coups, revolutions and counter-revolutions that have plagued much of the European continent over that period. So successful has the British constitution been that we Britons have often stopped thinking about it.
Until 15 or so years ago, no one lost much time worrying about constitutional niceties. We knew instinctively that, messy as it was, the British constitution worked well and worked for the whole of the British isles. The Blair Administration changed everything. They part-reformed the House of Lords by removing the independent hereditary element, but successive Governments since have created literally hundreds of new life peers. In response to the demand of the people of Scotland and Wales—a demand that I acknowledge the Conservatives were perhaps too slow to understand, and certainly to accept—devolved Parliaments and Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were created. It requires little cynicism to see that many of those changes were designed for Labour’s political advantage, and that they have not necessarily been properly carried through elsewhere. That has created many problems, especially in England, the neglected land in all those constitutional changes. England is a nation proud and undivided, but many of its people increasingly demand equal treatment with the other nations of the UK. Since last September’s Scottish referendum—lost, in case there is a doubt about it, by 10.6%—some Tory strategists feel that the time is ripe to play the English card.
There is a deep and increasing disquiet among many in England at the effects of devolution, and the most serious problems are the imbalances left by the somewhat partisan settlement of the late 1990s. Those are easily stated. MPs from Edinburgh and Cardiff can vote on health and education policies that affect my constituents and Manchester constituents, and those of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), but not on health and education policies affecting their own constituents—but why? It does not seem just. Under the Barnett formula, residents of Edinburgh had £1,300 more spent on their public services last year than my constituents did. Again, that seems less than equitable. There was a disgraceful situation before Christmas in the Northern Ireland Assembly when the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein worked together to put a gun to the head of the British Government, to try to ensure there would be more money on the basis that they wanted a Barnett formula for Northern Ireland. If there is an indeterminate general election result, we may go down that route, with a bidding war on similar grounds in May and June.
I am sorry—the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I did not mean that literally. I recognise that, within the context of Northern Ireland and Ulster politics, it might be seen as a loaded phrase. He is aware of what I was getting at. There was a sense that a lot of political pressure was being brought to bear by the political Assembly of one of the parts of the United Kingdom that has had a full constitutional change, which would have affected my constituents to a large extent.
There are great dangers for the Conservatives in promoting the prospect of English votes for English laws. The UK constitution is full of anomalies. Attacking Scottish MPs in that way comes across as partisan and negative. Our mission should be to maintain and strengthen the Union. It is all too easy for a negative-sounding solution to the West Lothian question to be portrayed by our opponents—
Order. I am listening carefully and with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. The title of the debate is House of Lords reform, and he is talking about wider constitutional questions and issues. Perhaps he could relate them back to the reform of the House of Lords. I am sure he would be happy to stay in order.
That is very kind, Mr Howarth. I very much accept that. The point I was trying to make was that we need to look at House of Lords reform in the context of many of the other constitutional reforms that would be at the top of the in-tray for a Government, because of the unbalanced constitutional situation. It seems to me that the English, and indeed the British as a whole, like and respect the concept of fair play, and there is a groundswell of unease about the somewhat one-sided constitutional deal, which is linked to reform of the House of Lords. As an MP for a seat in London, the capital of both England and the United Kingdom, I think that the Conservative party should offer all the British people together, whether English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish, a new settlement that is demonstrably equitable for everyone. As I have said, that links to the question of the House of Lords.
Since the expulsion of the great bulk of the hereditary peers some 16 years ago, I have in principle favoured the option of a wholly or largely elected House of Lords. I recognise that such an outcome is unlikely to be within the realms of practical politics soon, because the strongest opposition to an elected House of Lords comes from existing life peers from across the political spectrum. Their support for any reform will be essential if we are to avoid the constitutional deadlock that we have been beset by in the past. In addition, even if the principle of election were established, there would remain the question of the timing and process. Would it be first past the post, or proportional representation, a system that other hon. Members have supported? Would there be fixed or variable terms? The list of practical difficulties would be almost endless.
The solution I propose is the creation of an entirely new federal Parliament, with four full national Parliaments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with all the existing powers of the House of Commons, and over them a federal United Kingdom Parliament, which would debate defence and foreign affairs, make treaties and administer a broader cohesion fund for the poorer parts of the UK and broader strategic economic issues. There would be no need for extra politicians, because the national Parliaments would send representatives to the UK Parliament, which would meet in the old House of Lords Chamber, perhaps once or twice a week. That would mean abolishing the House of Lords, and moving to a unicameral system. That would work pretty well. It has not proved a problem in Edinburgh or Cardiff in the past eight years.
The proposal would cut the Gordian knot of House of Lords reform and provide an equitable structure that respected national differences, while strengthening our ties as a nation of equals. It would remove the growing sense of disgruntlement in England at the perception that the Scots can play the system to benefit financially from the devolution settlement that came into play 15 years ago. It would also save the cost of the House of Lords and the Scotland and Wales Offices and reduce the total number of politicians. It is perhaps a radical and bold solution for a Conservative MP to suggest, but I believe it will be the only way to balance the British constitution, which has served us so well for so long. It would say no to partisan changes and offer the British people a fairer alternative if my party were to hold power after the next election.
The debate is important and will continue. It is easy to be overly negative about the House of Lords. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire comes from a somewhat different political tradition, which means that, for him, the issue has a class war aspect. Even as a Conservative, when I watch the Queen’s Speech, the ermine and the pomp and ceremony of the House of Lords do not fill me with great joy.
Although I believe we should adopt a unicameral system and abolish the House of Lords, I should point out that a significant number of Lords make a big contribution. The composition of the House, particularly recently, has not been terribly satisfactory, but many peers have great expertise and are diligent in their work. They probably earn considerably less in the hours they spend on House of Lords business than they do in their other activities. We should recognise that, but like the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, I feel the time is ripe for constitutional change, to put things on a fair footing, equitable for all our people. I very much want to link House of Lords reform to general devolution reform, which is at the forefront of the Government’s mind.
I recognise, as does the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), that in the context of the crying need for House of Lords reform, it is easy to caricature the contribution made by all the Members of that Chamber. I recognise from my time in Parliament the worth of the work of some Members of the House of Lords. Nevertheless, that does not detract from the pressing need for significant reform.
Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I do not necessarily believe in a unicameral legislature at the level of a full sovereign state. There was recently a proposal to abolish the Senate of the Irish Republic, and I am among those who believed in retaining the second Chamber. However, the House of Lords needs significant reform, because it works on a strange electoral college system and is far from democratic and responsive. It is not the most satisfactory way to carry out the proper role of a revising Chamber.
In introducing this useful debate, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) rightly made a number of observations about the fact that everybody says they are committed to House of Lords reform. For more than a century now, the law of the land has been committed to House of Lords reform. Every time there are significant proposals in that direction, everybody ends up putting their own versions of reform, to show that they are on the side of reform; the situation is almost engineered to be a penalty shootout in which nobody actually scores. We just stay with what we already have, the only difference being that even more people are packed on to the Benches.
That is true even in this Parliament, which saw the House of Lords Reform Bill. We should remember that that Bill was passed on Second Reading with a significant majority; it ended up being pulled not because there was no support for it but because of a difficulty over a programme or timetable motion.
If people had been serious about reform, they could simply have come back with a different programme motion. If the Government really believed that the Opposition were being cynical and were conspiring with Tory rebel Back-Benchers on the programme motion, the Deputy Prime Minister could have brought back another programme motion and built into it measures and ample time to allow for specific consideration of the issues that Labour said were its main points of concern.
The Government could have met the obstacle full on. That would have done not only justice to the clear demand that exists for House of Lords reform but a lot of good for the credibility of the Commons Chamber.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he reminds us of the period when we last looked at this issue. In fact, the problem was more than that—there was actually a spat between both partners in the coalition, which ensured that the Bill fell. Why should an issue as important as House of Lords reform depend on the two partners in government not falling out with each other over a timetable motion?
I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman says; of course, that “spat”, as he calls it, related to the parallel or concurrent legislation that had been produced about the voting system and constituencies. That legislation turned out to be a case of premature miscalculation on the part of the Liberal Democrats. They wanted a Second Reading debate by the time of their first party conference in government and they wanted the Bill passed by the time of their second such conference—but, of course, the linked issues in and around Lords reform ended up meeting difficulty. Then, because of some other issues to do with the constituency changes, it was deemed easier to pull the House of Lords Reform Bill in a sort of fit of pique or a broad political huff than it was properly to pursue Lords reform, which we all say we support.
As you know, Mr Howarth, I come to this debate as a constitutional Irish nationalist. I have already said that I believe in having a second Chamber in the context of the Irish constitution. One factor that I have always believed the Seanad Eireann was able to accommodate, although it was not allowed to accommodate it as well as it should have done, is the position and the outlook of those members of the Irish nation who do not live within the 26 counties of the Irish Republic, not least those in Northern Ireland. Similarly, in the context of considering proposals about how to take forward a debate on a united Ireland after the Good Friday agreement—with its principles and promises, as ratified in a solemn act of articulated self-determination by the Irish people, north and south—my party has made it clear that in the event of a referendum in Northern Ireland ever bringing about a united Ireland, we would equally see the case for a reformed second Chamber here in the British Parliament accommodating and representing people from Northern Ireland who believed that they were part of the body politic of the British nation and who wanted to continue to be identified here as well. So, if the test in politics is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” we meet that test. That is one of the reasons why, as Irish nationalists, we are interested in this issue.
I am not particularly obsessed with the feng shui of arranging the various bits of furniture of the British constitution, even though I find myself shanghaied as a member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee into considering it. However, as an Irish nationalist with my own outlook and hopes, I have a legitimate and valid interest in House of Lords reform in terms of a future role for a reformed second Chamber here in Parliament.
As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire one of the things that frustrates me as a Member of the House of Commons is the fact that whenever voting reform of the House of Commons is proposed, time and again, many hon. Members—from all parties—step up to say that they are opposed to particular types of voting reform and that they are also opposed to electing a House of Lords, because they feel that such an elected second Chamber would somehow undermine the elected authority of the House of Commons.
Yet, at the same time, those Members are consistently prepared to engage in a dereliction of the legislative duty of the House of Commons by constantly deferring to the House of Lords when it comes to reforms. In this Parliament, that might be related to possible whipping challenges and the difficulties of getting some amendments through or allowing them through at the hands of the rebels and to saying, “Well, it’s easier if we come up with a recooked version of those amendments in the House of Lords.”
The situation was the same in the last Parliament. Then, although the Labour Government did not face those difficulties, again and again, it seemed to be the automatic convention that if they accepted that the case for an amendment had been made in the Commons, the due place for it to be made was not the Commons itself but the Lords.
Significantly, among the few amendments that were actually made to Government Bills in the Commons in the last Parliament were amendments to the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009. The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) managed to get an amendment made by a majority of just three votes. It was also in the context of the 2009 Act that I got an amendment directly accepted by the Government for the only time. The amendment inserted a reference to Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue into the Bill. Any reference to HMRC had been completely omitted before that, even though we could all consider the tax dimensions of the expenses scandal. The Government accepted the principle of one amendment but said that they would work up a better version of it in the Lords. However, they fully accepted another amendment.
That situation is a rarity, and it is a scandal that in an elected legislative Chamber, where our main job is meant to be to act as legislators and to provide due elective consideration, we are so derelict in our duty in relation to making amendments. That is why the House of Lords is credited with making an exaggerated number of amendments and why its status as a revising Chamber is inflated by comparison with the dereliction of duty in the Commons.
Changing that situation would lead to a challenge to the Whips system and, indeed, to Members of the Commons themselves. Let us remember that although it is easy to caricature Members of the House of Lords in the way that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire did in introducing this debate, reform of the House of Lords would lead to a significant change in the role and work load of the Commons Chamber, too, and of individual MPs. Whether or not we end up with any significant mechanism for recall or any other such reform, the fact is that we—as individual Members of that primary elected Chamber—will need to take responsibility. It would not take a conspiracy theorist to suggest that some of the reluctance about House of Lords reform that exists could be because people are not prepared to adjust to the changes and the new requirements that would then extend to them in the elected Chamber.
The hon. Gentleman has demolished the argument that is made—sadly, by some of my colleagues on the Conservative Benches—about this idea of the primacy of the House of Commons somehow being threatened by Lords reform. May I also say that, like me, the Minister who is here today is a London MP? We proudly represent our own constituencies, but of course London also has eight or nine Members of the European Parliament, an elected Mayor, members of the Greater London Assembly and 11 top-up members of the GLA, and indeed there are also about 30 councillors in our patch. However, because the responsibilities of all those offices are well-defined, there is no sense of our being undermined by them, and the same would apply to the Commons and the Lords if the House of Lords was to continue.
I fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, in circumstances where there is a moving agenda in relation to devolution, including demands for different forms of downloadable devolution for England, whether in the metropolitan cities or in other local government conglomerations, I recognise that there needs to be some sort of parliamentary or representative charter that makes it easier for the voter to understand which of the different elected offices is responsible for which issue. At times, there is quite a blur, and in the context of Northern Ireland, there ends up being confusion about the swinging doors between devolution and the Westminster Parliament.
My final point relates to appointments to the House of Lords. My party has never made such an appointment; we have always refused to do so, and that has included people who have served honourably in this House, such as John Hume and Seamus Mallon. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he and his advisers and coterie made strong suggestions to me that we should appoint people to the House of Lords. They were willing to appoint people and embarrassed by the fact that they were appointing more and more Unionists to the House of Lords and nobody was there to represent the dimensions and outlook of the Social Democratic and Labour party.
I pointed out why we do not appoint people to the House of Lords: we do not believe, as nationalists, that we are going to put the ermine into self-determination by taking seats in the House of Lords. I was told, “These would be working peers. Don’t see it as part of the honours system; they would be working peers,” and I suggested, “Well, if you want someone who would reflect an SDLP perspective, would be in strong sympathy with them and would be a working peer, you could always appoint somebody like Kevin McNamara, but he would probably be too much of a working peer for your taste,” to which I got a firm nod and a fair smile.
When I was leader of my party, I was approached with offers of money to nominate people to the House of Lords. That happened on more than one occasion. At one point, I was approached—not by the person who wanted to be appointed, but by somebody else who seemed to speaking on their behalf and certainly in that person’s interest—with an offer of £50,000 to change my position and the party’s position on the House of Lords. Of course, I refused, but I noted with interest that that person subsequently found a way on to the Benches of the House of Lords. I do not know whether any money changed hands or anything else. I have no evidence of that; I can simply give witness. That, again, is what adds to my sense of scandal over the fact that we have failed to deliver proper House of Lords reform, but I recognise that we do not have the luxury of simply pointing the finger at the inadequacies of the House of Lords. The House of Commons must bear some responsibility and would be significantly challenged by reform.
Thank you for giving me the chance to speak, Mr Howarth. I am very conscious of the time, so I will try to be succinct in my comments. I thank the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) for setting the scene, and I apologise for not being here at the beginning of his comments. I had to make a contribution at a Committee meeting before I came down to this debate.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute in the short time available. House of Lords reform has divided many of us—not just MPs, but members of the general public. Outside Parliament, it is a topic for debate. The reform of the House of Lords is not a recent matter, nor is it a 21st century matter. It dates back to the Parliament Act 1911, which was the last serious reform of the Lords. The importance of the debate cannot be ignored. The matter will have to be dealt with at some time—perhaps not here in Westminster Hall today, but certainly in the next Parliament. We look forward to that.
All Members who have spoken, and who will speak, are aware of the main issue, which is the immensity of the numbers in the House of Lords and their workability. The draft Bill of 2011 referred to 300 Members of the House of Lords, which puts things into perspective, as currently there are 900 Members. Although parties are divided, even among themselves, it would seem that if and when Lords reform comes up again—I believe it will—a reduction in numbers will be agreed fairly quickly. That is the key message. The figures could match the number of Commons Members, although others will suggest different figures.
Another issue that has been raised is whether to completely abolish hereditary peers, whether to reduce them or whether to leave them as they are. I confess that, although reducing them is a possibility, I am one for tradition. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) referred to the tradition of the House. Whenever visitors come here, they acknowledge the tradition of the House and how it works. I adhere to and love that tradition, as do my constituents, and it is important that there is some reflection of that tradition in the balance of the House of Lords, possibly including hereditaries. Tradition is extremely important. We want to maintain our great institutions, and although it is important to modernise, it is important not to forget where we come from. It is important to give institutions and their traditions their place.
Once a month we have a holy communion in St Margaret’s church, as we did this morning. It is an opportunity for MPs and peers to come together for a time of reflection before we start the day’s business. Today, our speaker was what is referred to as one of the Lords Spiritual—one of the Members from the Church of England. His contribution, qualities, experiences and knowledge enable debates in the House of Lords to be fuller, more detailed and more informational. When it comes to making policy and legislating, it is so important to have that. With that in mind, I am conscious of the role and the position of those who are placed in the House of Lords as Lords Spiritual.
Although we might want to consider some elected representatives for the upper Chamber, either by appointment or election, we do not want to end up with the Lords having more power or control than the Commons. That has been debated over the years and concerns many. It simply would not work out and would stop the Government working efficiently. Of course, while the Lords considers legislation, it might be a good idea to elect a number of peers, although what that number would be is something for another debate.
Let me give an example of legislation from my short time here as the hon. Member for Strangford. I tabled an amendment to the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Act 2014 in the House of Commons. The Opposition and the Democratic Unionist party supported it. We pressed it to a Division but lost by about 52 votes. However, Opposition Members, including those in the Labour party and others, spoke eloquently on the amendment’s behalf. That put a marker down. My colleagues in the House of Lords took up the cudgels, so to speak, and pursued amendments there. The reform package came back to the House of Commons and the Minister accepted it. We should not take away the role that the House of Lords can play in shaping legislation. If the Bill had gone through the Commons as it originally was, that is what we would have had. The Minister at that time indicated that she was not prepared to accept the amendment, but the House of Lords changed it.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who I have the utmost respect for, mentioned the changes that would happen from a nationalist point of view and that he would have to prepare for. For the record, I can say to him that he does not have to worry about that, because a national opinion poll last year indicated that only 21% of nationalists wanted a united Ireland. The issue of a united Ireland is a dream rather than a realisation. We can cast our minds back to the referendum as well. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire will know that not every Scottish nationalist voted in favour in the referendum. We should consider that.
We want to ensure that the general public feel that they can put their trust in Government, and that includes being accountable. Although measures have been put in place in recent years to ensure that MPs are held accountable for their actions, we must let the public know that their peers are also accountable. That is why having a mixture of hereditary, elected and appointed peers is important. As I have said, it would have to be balanced in a way that does not undermine the work of the Commons, because the Commons has to have pre-eminence over the House of Lords. We have seen legislative change that was started in the House of Commons, perfected by the House of Lords, and then endorsed by the House of Commons. That is what we are about—we are about balance. This debate has been useful, and I thank the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire for giving hon. Members the chance to contribute.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I welcome the opportunity to have this debate in Westminster Hall and I thank the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) for giving us this chance. We have had a good debate on House of Lords reform. Although there is a need for fundamental change—I will reaffirm Labour’s support for fundamental change—I think all hon. Members acknowledge the very hard work of many Members of the other place in scrutinising and seeking to improve legislation.
I will start by addressing what the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire set out as his principles for reform, because he set them out very well. They were, first, that the second Chamber should be democratic; secondly, that it should be smaller than it is now, but also smaller than the House of Commons; and, thirdly, that there should be a clear definition of the second Chamber’s role as scrutinising and improving legislation. That is very important. I have never accepted the argument that the primacy of the House of Commons is somehow automatically challenged by having a more legitimate and democratic second Chamber. Definition is a way of addressing that problem. As an aside, alongside seeking to make changes in the House of Lords, we need to recognise that the House of Commons needs to get its act together when it comes to the scrutiny and improvement of legislation. The Government need to get their act together by presenting to the House of Commons legislation that does not require, when it goes to the other place, the level of amendment that we have seen both in this Parliament and under the Labour Government.
Fourthly, as the hon. Gentleman said, we need to get shot of the deference. That, crucially, reminds us of the importance of completing the work to remove the remaining hereditary peers. I would add a fifth principle, which the hon. Gentleman accepted in his speech and which most hon. Members, apart from the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), have acknowledged, which is that there should be a second Chamber. Some hon. Members, including in my party, favour a unicameral solution. It is very important that we have checks and balances in our system; having a second Chamber that can provide scrutiny and improvement of legislation is very important.
This is not a new issue. It has been around for more than 100 years, as has been acknowledged, and it has been debated, certainly during the two stints that I have had in this place, at great length. When I was elected in 1997, the Labour party ran on a programme of very dramatic constitutional change, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, and I am very proud of what we did on devolution, freedom of information and the Human Rights Act 1998. We started the job of House of Lords reform with the 1999 legislation, and it is interesting to look at the experience of 1999 through to now, because it demonstrates some of the pitfalls of trying to reform the House of Lords.
The original legislation in 1999 was to remove all the hereditary peers, and then in effect a deal was done between the then Government and the Conservatives in the House of Lords—not the Conservatives in the House of Commons—to retain 92 hereditary peers. In one way, it was a dramatic reform, because the number of hereditary peers was reduced very significantly, but even so a compromise was accepted that the 92 would remain. As the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said, we have the absurdity of the only elected Members of the other place being the hereditary peers who are elected in the event of an hereditary peer leaving the other place through either death or retirement.
The aim was always to have a second stage. I served for a year, between 2001 and 2002, as Deputy Leader of the House of Commons. Robin Cook was the Leader of the House and was determined to see fundamental reform, both in modernising the House of Commons and in reforming the House of Lords. Colleagues may recall that we had a series of votes on reform of the other place. I cannot remember the exact order, but we voted on its being 100% elected, 0% elected, 80% elected, 20% elected—right the way through—and every single proposal was defeated. That reminds us that these things are not easy, that there is a range of views, and that we sometimes allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Personally, I voted for a 100% elected Chamber, but I also voted for one that was 80% elected. Some were purists and were not prepared to vote for anything less than 100% elected.
We have had further votes since in which there has been a clear majority in the House of Commons for an elected second Chamber. Under the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), the House of Commons voted for both 100% and 80% elected. As we have been reminded, the Bill in this Parliament received a very clear majority on Second Reading. We can therefore say that the will of the House of Commons is for a democratic second Chamber. The principles set out today are absolutely the right ones.
How do we take things from here? It is right to remind ourselves that a general election is coming up and there is an opportunity in manifestos for commitments to be made. It is very important to make those commitments, but we need to learn the lessons from past failings. There are two lessons. First, as is the case with any constitutional reform, the greater cross-party consensus we can forge, the better. People in all political parties will have different views, so the more cross-party consensus, the better. Secondly—I say this as a long-standing reformer—we have not tended to engage citizens. The more we can engage citizens in all parts of the country in proposals for reform, the better.
The Labour party’s position is that we want a democratic second Chamber. We have talked about forging a senate of the nations and regions that can be truly representative. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire rightly reminded us of the patronage in the appointments system and of the injustice of hereditary peerages. The third element that is worth emphasising is that there is no geographic representation in the other place. Its Members are heavily drawn from people who are from London and the south-east of England—just over half of peers are from London or the south-east of England. The region that I now represent in Parliament, the north-west, has just 6% of those who are in the other place.
I speak as a London Member and someone who has spent all his adult life in London. It is probably fair to say that many but not all of those—I accept that there is an imbalance—who are notionally from London and the south-east originated in other parts of the United Kingdom, but have spent much of their professional career in London and the south-east. That slightly skews the figures, but the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. The opportunity of a democratic second Chamber is clearly to have one that has fair and proportional representation from all parts of the country. Obviously, that would include London, but also Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England.
Let me finish by saying something about how best we can take this forward. Clearly, there are long-standing plans for reform, which were reflected in the legislation presented earlier in this Parliament, but there is a broader set of challenges. After the Scottish referendum, there are questions about England, and questions about devolution to city regions, counties and local communities. There is sense in looking at these issues in the round, which is why a number of the democracy and citizens organisations have argued for some time that we should have a UK constitutional convention to address them. Labour and other parties support that. The broader the support we can build for it, the better. It needs to happen quickly. We need to start the work now. I welcome the discussions that are already happening, but the right way to reform Parliament, including reforms relating to legislation that affects only England or England and Wales, and to reform the second Chamber, is through a constitutional convention that is led by citizens, that has a majority of members of the public on it, that reports back quickly after deliberation and whose proposals are then considered in this place. If we can get such a constitutional convention set up this year, there is an opportunity to get this right and get a blueprint that creates a truly democratic second Chamber—a senate of the nations and regions—and we can finally deal with an issue that has been in contention for well over a century.
To finish where I started, I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has given us the opportunity this morning to address this very important issue. We must not allow it to fall off the political agenda.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing this debate on a familiar but none the less very important subject.
The Government believe that the second Chamber should be more representative of the British people. In a modern democracy, it is important that those who pass legislation should be chosen by those to whom it applies. As hon. Members know, in 2012 the Government introduced the House of Lords Reform Bill, in line with commitments in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat 2010 election manifestos and the coalition’s programme for government. That Bill would have made provision for a reformed House of 450 Members, 80% of whom would have been elected and 20% appointed by an independent statutory appointments commission, plus ministerial Members and 12 Church of England bishops.
The proposal was a compromise. Personally, I would have preferred a 100% elected Chamber, but that is not the point that we reached. The House voted by a majority of 338 for that Bill to receive a Second Reading—a clear endorsement of the principle of reforming the House of Lords. However, as Members will recall, the Bill had to be withdrawn following the lack of agreement over a programme motion that might have led to an unacceptable amount of time being devoted to debate on the changes.
More recently, some minor changes have been made to the House of Lords as a result of the Bill promoted by Lord Steel, which became the House of Lords Reform Act 2014 and made three changes to the terms of membership of the House of Lords. First, Members of the House of Lords can now formally and permanently retire; previously, a peer could effectively retire only by applying for leave of absence. Secondly, a peer who receives a custodial sentence of more than 12 months will now automatically cease to be a Member of the House of Lords, in line with the provision for Members of the House of Commons. Finally, a peer who does not attend during a Session will now cease to be a Member of the House of Lords.
Those were sensible housekeeping provisions on which there was a cross-party consensus, which is why it was possible to introduce them. Clearly, however, they are not a substitute for real and genuine reform of the Lords. The Government remain committed to the principle of comprehensive and democratic reform of the House of Lords even though it has not been possible to bring forward legislation on the matter during this Parliament.
I, too, deeply regret the lack of progress. I was among the majority of 338 on Second Reading of the 2012 reform Bill. Given that such reform is an ongoing commitment of the coalition Government, can the Minister explain why the Government have continued to appoint more Members of the House of Lords on the old basis since that defeat? Surely a strong signal of the Government’s intention would have been to put an absolute embargo on any further appointments to the House of Lords. Why has that not happened?
That is not a decision that the Government took. It has not been possible to undertake the substantial reform that we wanted, so the Government have continued to appoint peers to ensure that the balance of peers and the parties that they represent is, broadly speaking, representative of that in the House of Commons.
I would like to pick up on some points that hon. Members have made. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire will be reassured to hear that he can call the other place the House of Lords. That is a minor change towards less deference, or at least greater clarity.
I get frustrated when hon. Members refer, as the hon. Gentleman did, to other major parties as “establishment” parties. The Scottish National party, which he represents, is very much an establishment party in Scotland; I am sure that some of his criticisms of the major parties here could be turned around and directed at him and his party in Scotland. I thank him for highlighting in his tweets what he was going to say in today’s debate. That gave us advance notice. Readers of Hansard will be able to judge for themselves whether the debate has been a good one, as he predicted it would be.
The hon. Gentleman said that only one peer had chosen to retire, but my understanding is that under the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, five have chosen to retire. Before that, three peers retired under a voluntary retirement system. Earlier still—I am sure we agree that we would not particularly want to trumpet this—five peers retired because of the rules that required those who were not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes to retire. There have been some genuine retirements in addition to the one that he mentioned.
The hon. Gentleman referred, understandably, to the question of donors who have subsequently become peers. To return to my comment about his party being an establishment party, I am sure that the same degree of scrutiny is applied, for instance, to the relationship between the leader of the SNP and Brian Souter, and to the donations that the party receives through that route. Indeed, I hope that the relationship, and the two dozen meetings that took place, between Alex Salmond and Rupert Murdoch received the same degree of scrutiny as do donors here.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on his work for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy—something that I have done in the past—which is an essential organisation that provides support to parties outside the UK. I agree that it is difficult for him as a trustee, as it was for me, to explain to other countries around the world why we have the House of Lords. I understand the difficult position in which that puts him.
I agree with all the key principles that the hon. Gentleman set out. However, I understood him to say that he did not want the House of Lords to initiate any legislation. If that is his position, I hope that he has considered the fact that such a system would present some significant logistical issues for the House of Commons legislative programme. If all legislation was required to start in the House of Commons, either there would have to be much less legislation or Members of Parliament would have to work much longer on the legislative programme and spend a lot less time in their constituencies.
We all agree with the hon. Gentleman that we want a modern, democratic Chamber. Slightly lacking in his speech was the bit in between—the route map that will take us from our concerns about the present system to the creation of a modern, democratic Chamber. That is the difficulty that we all face. The solution proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) was a federal UK Parliament with four national Parliaments. That has the advantage of being a straightforward solution, but there are significant risks associated with it. For instance, the Scottish Government has led to more centralisation in Scotland, and I am concerned that the simple solution of an English Parliament might suck powers upwards into such a Parliament, which is the exact opposite of what I want to achieve.
I believe that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) agrees. I would like to see genuine devolution to communities. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster that English votes for English laws, or proportional English votes for English laws, must move hand in hand with devolution. The knock-on effect on House of Lords reform must also be taken into account.
My hon. Friend had a pop at the Liberal Democrats for swelling the number of special advisers. On the cost of politics, I am sure he is aware that the number of ministerial limos is down. Ministers’ pay has been cut by 5%. Some Ministers—I do not know whether this was the case when the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby was Deputy Leader of the House—have unpaid ministerial roles. Successful attempts have been made to cut the cost of politics.
On the West Lothian question, we all agree that something has to be done, but the question is what is deliverable. There was agreement in party manifestos on the need for House of Lords reform, but when it came to doing it, it was not possible to get people to agree because although some, like me, were willing to make compromises, others were not.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said that he believed the solution to the House of Lords question would have been for the Deputy Prime Minister to press a different programme motion. I assure him that that sort of thing was considered at the time; if it had been the solution, it would have been done. I hope that his karma does not suffer too much from being shanghaied by the feng shui of rearranging our constitutional settlement. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is not in his place, highlighted the need to reduce the number of people in the second Chamber, which is something that we all support.
This has been an interesting and instructive debate, which has engaged questions that go to the heart of our constitution. I am sure that the next Government will return to the matter alongside other key constitutional questions. I hope—as does, I believe, the majority of the House—that a degree of consensus sufficient to support real reform will, at last, be forthcoming.