I beg to move,
That this House has considered House of Lords reform.
Not since 2011, when the then Deputy Prime Minister presented the case for reform, have Members of the House of Commons been offered the opportunity to debate and discuss the House of Lords on the Floor of this House. Therefore, before proceeding any further, I wish to extend my grateful thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, and to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) especially, for agreeing to this debate and for some sage advice, which was critical, given my novice plea.
During the general election there were various mentions of House of Lords reform. Critically, the Conservative party limited its vision in its manifesto to addressing only the size of the House of Lords, for clearly size matters to the Tory party. At its present velocity of expansion, the House of Lords will soon exceed the National People’s Congress of China. It has already exceeded the size of the European Parliament, which is elected by over 400 million European citizens. Clearly, Parliament envy will soon see even this House displaced by the Prime Minister’s expansionary tactics.
I know that at the previous general election the British Labour party took a more pragmatic view. I give credit where credit is due by recognising the work the previous Labour Government did to limit the hereditary peerage, although that work was sullied by the cash for honours scandal uncovered by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil). I wonder where my Labour colleagues are today.
At least on these Benches we have spoken with one voice. At the general election the Scottish National party placed our proposal before the entire community of Scotland: “Abolish it!” If this Parliament is to work as an effective and legitimate legislature in the British state, its upper Chamber should resemble less the congress of a communist state and more the revising and advisory role of a Parliament of a 21st century liberal democracy.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about abolition, which is a theme I wish to speak about later. Does he agree that the power of patronage of Prime Ministers to appoint people they choose to the House of Lords is even more pernicious than having hereditary peers, who at least have the advantage of being independent?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He need not worry, because I will get there.
Let us return to the hope of many Members of this House—a hope that is shared, in particular, by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who cannot be here today—that any future reform of the upper Chamber should not only consider its size, but limit it and remove with haste its ability, as an unelected and unaccountable Chamber, to generate legislation. That is an affront to my constituents and an aberration at the heart of the British political system.
Only a few months ago the Government were keen to play down any reform agenda. Their latest antics have the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) as Citizen Camembert rather than Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Prime Minister playing the good cop and leading man as the Black Fingernail. This is indeed a farce, if not a “Carry On”.
While many Members across this Chamber would seek a long-term resolution of the undeniable illegitimacy of the upper Chamber in its present form, the Government tinker at the edges with the Strathclyde review, a botch job done in jig time for Christmas. Although the review offers a way forward, it seems to confuse the role of the House of Lords. Is it to be a mere stamper of Government policy, or is it a revising Chamber that tackles the Government on the tough subjects of the day? Critically, all options would offer an additional burden on the workings of this House and highlight the behemoth that is the Palace of Westminster. If the report were at least linked in some way or form to improvements in working practices such as electronic voting, which would allow us in this place to deliberate more robustly, in more depth, and with reduced recourse to statutory instruments, it would have been a slightly more useful document. For the record, however, I wish to commend Lord Strathclyde and all those involved for seeking to overcome the Government’s obstacles.
While the report is welcome, it highlights the Dickensian, if not medieval, machinations and dubious working practices of this Parliament. It accidentally shows the Alice in Wonderland antics of the so-called liberal democratic practices of the mother of Parliaments. If the review was worth the paper it was written on, it would be my hope, and that of my hon. Friends, that it would seek to uphold the nature of our polyarchy and at least promote its first pillar, namely that control over Government decisions about policy should at all times constitutionally be invested in elected officials—Members of this House elected by their constituents, from whom they derive their political mandate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and apologise for being unable to stay for the whole thing. He speaks about the legislative powers of Members of the House of Lords. Does he agree that even more pernicious and insidious is the soft power that is held by unelected Members? They can spend much time in all-party groups, have access to Ministers behind the scenes and all the other trappings that are not visible or even open to scrutiny through live coverage of the Chamber because they happen behind the scenes.
I could not agree more. The way that operates within this Parliament is pernicious.
Sadly, I believe that in this Parliament, at least, the aspiration and will for change are a lost cause, given that in the previous Parliament alone the Prime Minister appointed 200 new unelected, unaccountable members of the peerage, and a further 45 in the short period in which my hon. Friends and I have been returned to this House. Appointees covering the great and the so-called good include, of course, large-scale donors to political parties and former bigwigs of county halls the length and breadth of the country.
Of the peerage, let me turn specifically to a certain cadre—the archbishops and bishops of the established Church of England. While much has been made of likening their position to that of the theocrats of the Islamic Republic of Iran, my direct challenge to them is this: they have no place in debating—or voting on, should it occur—the civic or religious life of Scotland. I draw Members’ attention to early-day motion 952, submitted by my own hand and signed by many of my hon. Friends from Scottish constituencies, which calls on the Lords Spiritual to desist in their well documented, historical interference in the affairs of the community of Scotland since the times of our late and noble King David. Their interference must end if this Parliament is truly to reflect the broad kirk of representation and communities of this political state.
Let us turn our gaze on the other members of the peerage of the realm. Yes, I will admit, through gritted teeth, that within their ermine-clad utopia there are a few souls who work hard. Yet, as exposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire in a debate in Westminster Hall only a year ago, we can see the limited work of so many who stipulate that their position is to stand for Scotland in the upper Chamber. The peerage has no constituency—we all recognise that—and yet they purport in that unelected Chamber to ensure that our constituents’ needs are met. One prime example is those peers who have given attendance and full participation a cursory glance and claim substantial sums of taxpayers’ money for the privilege of access to the Bishops’ Bar.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for a good laugh, but the answer is no.
As per convention, I shall name no names, but I direct hon. Members to acquaint themselves with the debate held in Westminster Hall on this very day one year ago, where the record of the peerage is seen to be damning indeed.
The hon. Gentleman is delivering a great deal of passion in his speech; it is just a pity that his passion is not shared by the public at large, or indeed, evidently, by Labour Members. What would he say to those who do not necessarily disagree with some of what he is saying but for whom, nevertheless, this is a low priority?
I could not disagree with my hon. Friend on that very important matter.
The upper Chamber and its shenanigans reflect more a debauched imperial Roman senate than a functioning democratic parliamentary Chamber, bowing and scraping in a place in which the modern world is seen as an inconvenience. Since my election to this House, I have visited the unelected, unaccountable Lords, where I took my place in the Members of the House of Commons’ balcony—a lofty vantage point across which to view the stoor and the oose of ages. It would seem that their lordships are followers of the Quentin Crisp school of housework. Like him, they firmly believe that after the first four years, the dirt doesnae get any worse. Four years of accumulating dust is nothing compared with the accumulation of centuries of privilege and unaccountability. It must end.
There are those who will see this as nothing other than Celtic hyperventilation against a conspiracy of anomalies, arrogance, absurdity, vanity and venality that poses as a pillar of the mother of Parliaments—and they may be right.
It is not simply a matter of vanity. In 2005, as I am sure Members are aware, the Scottish National party had a democratic vote at its conference never to accept seats in the House of Lords, confirming a convention that had been in place since the 1970s. At no point in the party’s history has it ever considered taking a position in the unelected Chamber.
My very hon. Friend has given the answer from a sedentary position: Wales does not have a separate jurisdiction. That in itself is a disgrace and one of the main concerns for my hon. Friends in Plaid Cymru.
As I said, all this could be seen as pure Celtic hyperventilation about the unaccountability of the House of Lords, yet there are Members from beyond the Celtic fringe—although I wonder where they are today—who find the unelected and unaccountable nature of the House of Lords an affront to liberal democracy.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I do, of course, count Cornwall in the Celtic fringe.
Any debate that links the Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition to some of the most damning political consequences and incompetence, as highlighted in the last Parliament by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, will fill even those Members—those hardy souls—with dread. Cash for honours sends a collective shiver down the spine of this House and, indeed, our parliamentary system. I seriously doubt that we have seen the last of it, not only in the upper Chamber but even here. The appointment process exposes beyond doubt the privileges of those Members of the House of Lords. In reality, there is no substitute for democracy and direct election.
I am delighted to join the Chamber to hear my hon. Friend’s speech at such late notice. Does he agree not only that this debate is vital—it is a sheer disappointment that more Members are not here—but that it is incredibly perverse that we are about to reduce the number of democratically elected MPs in this Chamber from 650 to 600, at the same time as the House of Lords is ever increasing?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interjection. He raises an important point. I am grateful that the Front Benchers of Her Majesty’s Opposition are here, but where are the great reformers? Where are the Liberal Democrats, the great changers of the British constitution? They are in the House of Lords.
As to the future—I wish to address my hon. Friend’s question directly—one clear clarion call should go out to the British Labour party and the British Liberal party: no more appointments. Enough. Stop. Renew, here today, the commitment to reform—not piecemeal; not lacklustre; not fiddling while the parliamentary democracy of this political state is sullied by the illegitimacy of the House of Lords. Be clear. Be concise: no more Labour or Liberal peers. Call the Government’s bluff. Call the bluff of the unelected, unaccountable mire of cronies and warmehrs. Join us in demanding an end to privilege and patronage at the heart of Government.
There will be Members who will seek a resolution to this issue: unicameral or bicameral, one or two Chambers. I am open to persuasion about a bicameral system, although a unicameral system, as evidence from across the world shows, is no less a robust and decent system of parliamentary liberal democracy. If a bicameral system is to exist, here in this Parliament, then let it be fully elected. Let it be representative of the communities and nations of this political state. Let it reflect the lived experience of my constituents. While I am no Unionist, I believe in the sovereign will of the community of Scotland. If we should remain in this place, my constituents have been clear: change, and soon.
With a Prime Minster appointing more peers than Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and all before, I doubt that change will come, and the consequences for Scotland and the Union are well known. When unelected and unaccountable peers of the realm can stipulate the governance of Scotland while the evidence and proposals from its elected Members of the House of Commons are thrown in the Thames, the case for the re-establishment of a sovereign, democratic and independent Scotland is made not by members of the Scottish National party, but by the very apogee of the British state. It would be easy—indeed, it is easy—for me to vent frustration at the pace of House of Lords reform, but that is not enough.
Today, just like every other day, I am wearing a tie, as deemed by convention in this House. The tie I am wearing today represents to me hope for a more equal and just society, in which the pupils of Bonhill Primary School in the mighty Vale of Leven—whose tie this is—should hope to live. That hope should be placed in a Parliament that reflects them and their peers, not a Parliament in which the oligarchs, cronies and chancers of an upper Chamber go about their business unelected and unaccountable. Let us be in no doubt that those pupils will place that hope closer to their experience and, indeed, to their need at home in Scotland. For sure they know,
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s aboon his might,
Guid faith he mauna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities, an’ a’ that,
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.
Order. There are nine Members who wish to catch my eye before 4.30 pm, which is when I want to bring in the Front Benchers to wind up. That calculates at roughly 10 minutes each, so if Members can informally keep to about 10 minutes, that would be great.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) on securing this debate and on his interesting, entertaining and, I think it is fair to say, at times angry speech, quite a lot of which I agreed with, because I would sweep away the House of Lords and replace it with an almost entirely elected Chamber.
I accept the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) said in an intervention, the issue is not exactly top of the charts for our constituents. I have only one constituent who writes to me about it and other issues, such as the changes to the Act of Settlement.
My hon. Friend is an extremely assiduous constituency MP and I suspect he spends most of his weekends knocking on people’s doors to get their views. Is he able to recall the last time a constituent on the doorstep badgered him on the subject of House of Lords reform? I am really struggling to remember the last time a constituent troubled me on that matter.
My hon. Friend is right. I cannot recall anyone on the doorstep raising this particular issue, even when it was being debated day in, day out in this Chamber. The fact that it is not on the public’s agenda suggests that it will not be on the Government’s agenda—and, of course, it is not. The fact that the public do not care a great deal gives the Government an opportunity to kick it into touch.
Had I been here in the late 1990s when Tony Blair was tinkering with the House of Lords and sweeping away most of the hereditary peers, I would probably have been opposed to that, as a typical traditional Conservative. It would appear to me that they were doing no great harm, and if we are to be ruled by an unelected body, I would rather it be an unelected House of Lords than an unelected European Commission.
The reality, however, is that we cannot go on as we are. Changes, both significant and minor, have been made to our constitution over the centuries and we have tended to muddle along and accept them. On the whole, I think that the system has evolved into one which, with all its faults, gives us a better existence and life. We are well governed and have a functioning, honest judicial system and the like, so I think we have a lot to be thankful for with regard to the way in which things have evolved over the centuries.
Personally, I would go for a 90% elected upper House—or senate, as I would want to call it. The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire addressed the issue of bishops, archbishops and so on. My remaining 10%, the unelected Members, would be faith leaders. Mostly, they would be Christian leaders, since we are a Christian nation, but they would include representatives of the Church of Scotland.
As a practising Christian, I must say that I am not comfortable with defining any nation as a Christian nation, or indeed as a Jewish or an Islamic nation. Is it not more correct these days to say that we are a group of nations historically ruled by people who in their words purported to follow Christianity, but whose actions were very far from the true teachings of Christ?
It is certainly true that there are now fewer practising Christians throughout the UK than there were in the past. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, however, our heritage is of a Christian nature and the eternal virtues taught by the Christian Church are the basis of our society.
The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that, in the last census, some 31% of the population said that they had no religion and that they do not feel that they would be represented be people of faith. I am a vice-chair of the all-party humanist group. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that humanists should also be represented?
Humanism has always seemed to me to be the absence of faith. We could debate the hon. Gentleman’s rather philosophical point endlessly, and I would be very happy to do so some time.
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire referred to a unicameral system. It would be a mistake to move to a system with only one Chamber. However, I would point out that, with devolution, Scotland is almost a unicameral Assembly; I will leave that matter to Scottish National party Members.
In essence, however, it is fair to say that Scotland is becoming almost a unicameral nation.
It is often said that we benefit from the expertise of experts, many of whom are ex-experts. Many people at the other end of the corridor have a great deal of expertise and a lot to offer society, but that does not necessarily mean that they should be Members of the legislature. Over the years, Governments have found ways of including all sorts of people they wanted to bring into the process of governance—by establishing royal commissions, boards of inquiries and committees for this, that and the other—and it would be perfectly possible to get eminent lawyers, scientists and doctors into a group that provided the expertise that those of us in this Chamber certainly need.
I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has raised the issue of experts. If the public think about the upper House, they often think of it as a Chamber full of experts. Many of them are experts, but the trouble is that there is nothing more “ex” than an ex-expert. That point supports the argument he is advancing. To avoid the ex-expert phenomenon, should we put a limit on the number of years for which peers serve?
I certainly agree that, if we are to continue with an appointed or predominantly appointed House, a time limit would be desirable.
The point about such experts is that they tend to be London-centred experts. The reality is that an expert—a doctor, a scientist or whatever—is far more likely to be appointed to the upper House if they are from Kensington than if they are from Cleethorpes. There are exceptions. A few weeks ago, I was privileged to attend the swearing in as a Member of the upper House of the leader of North Lincolnshire Council, which covers part of my constituency. Not only has Baroness Redfern, as she now is, served the community through elected office, but she has roots deep in the Isle of Axholme, the part of North Lincolnshire from which she comes. However, peers such as the noble Lady are few and far between. It is a very metropolitan gathering.
It is often said that if there were two elected Houses, there would be power grabs by one House over the other. One mistake in the Bill that was introduced three or four years ago was that it said that the powers of the upper House would stay pretty much the same. That is fine, but it should be laid down in statute if we are to move in the direction that I am suggesting. Other countries seem to manage with two elected Chambers that rub along reasonably well, without constant power grabs by one or the other. It is important that the lower House should retain the power over financial matters. Any conflicts between the Houses should not be passed over to the judiciary. That is why the situation should be laid down clearly in any statute.
As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), whether there is an appointed House or an elected House, there should be time limits. If I recall correctly, the Bill that was brought forward by the then Deputy Prime Minister in the last Parliament proposed terms of 15 years. Perhaps that was too long, but it would give people, although many of them may be party people, the independence that is necessary in an upper House.
I seem to remember that under the proposed legislation that was introduced in the last Parliament the elected Members of the House of Lords would have been elected by huge electorates of 3 million or 4 million people. Inevitably, people elected under such a system would say, “I had 2 million people voting for me and you had a poxy 66,000. Whose mandate is more important?” That was one of the problems that I had with the proposed legislation in the last Parliament.
I agree. I was not happy with that part of the proposals.
I am an advocate of first past the post when it comes to elections to this House, but I acknowledge that some form of proportional representation would be more appropriate for an elected upper House. Having said that, we must accept that people do not identify with massive areas or regions, such as those to which my hon. Friend refers. They tend to identify with their town or village and their county, as well as with their country. We need to devise a system that recognises those innate loyalties.
In closing, I urge the Government not just to tinker. I suspect that we will have more tinkering with the Strathclyde proposals, which I am not particularly enthusiastic about. The Government should go for it. I would rather have a Conservative Government reforming the House of Lords, because Conservatives recognise the value of evolution within the constitution and do not want to go for a big bang change. We have an opportunity to think carefully about this matter over the next year or two and to put forward serious proposals. We must recognise that an appointed House—an unelected Assembly—is not acceptable in the 21st century. It is time to think seriously about the way forward. I urge the Minister to acknowledge that it should be a Conservative Government who put forward the proposals. I very much hope to hear some dramatic proposals at the end of this debate.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I will start by reading an amendment that was moved in this place during a debate on the House of Lords by a former leader of the Labour party. It was to add the words,
“the Upper House, being an irresponsible part of the Legislature, and of necessity representative only of interests opposed to the general well-being is a hindrance to national progress and ought to be abolished”.
I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of that former Labour party leader, Mr Arthur Henderson. He tabled that amendment during a debate on the House of Lords on 26 June 1907—never let it be said that Westminster rushes to reform. Predictably, the amendment was defeated, although it was part of a national debate that led to the introduction of the Parliament Act 1911, which made the supremacy of the elected Chamber over the unelected Chamber clear and beyond doubt. That was a very good thing, but we must go further.
I contend that radical change to the constitution is overdue, and that there is no place for a bloated, unelected Chamber of retired politicians, cronies and placemen in the modern day. It is 105 years since the Parliament Act, and I ask the House—not before time—to embrace democracy in all that we do. That means moving to an elected second Chamber and the abolition of what we currently have. Democratic change is normal, and we must move towards that.
We must bring the governance of the United Kingdom into line with the 21st-century standards of democratic accountability to be found across the developed world—we would all like to think we are part of that. In 2016 we have a Tory Government who are committed to the protection of this unelected, unaccountable, political establishment, and whose only desire to reform the House of Lords stems from the Lords’ own efforts to stymie and oppose Government legislation. That problem was created because the previous Government were so effective at stuffing the place with their own appointees, and this Government would rather stuff more voting fodder into the already bloated second Chamber in order to get their way. Perhaps they are not content with the fact that the UK has the second largest appointed parliamentary Chamber after the Chinese National People’s Congress, and they want to show the world that when it comes to undemocratic and unaccountable government, nobody does it better than the UK.
In 2015, 45 new peers were appointed to the House of Lords, including 26 on the Government side. Make no mistake, the House of Lords is not impotent, despite the fact that the Parliament Act 1911 has only been used, I think, seven times. The Chamber possesses the ability to halt legislation that affects no fewer than 64 million people. That is not the democratic will of the people; it is the will of 821 unelected, permanent peers, 92 of whom hold their seat for their entire lives simply through an accident of birth.
A small clique in Downing Street gets to determine who sits in the Lords. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that gives rise to a fundamental unfairness and means that there is no correlation between the number of votes cast and the composition of the Chamber? For example, it is possible for a party to get 4 million votes in an election, but have zero appointed peers. Is that fundamentally unfair?
I am noting the hon. Gentleman’s comments on appointees, and such appointments are ultimately made by people who are elected. The concern that people overseas have, particularly in countries that are developing their democracies, is that here in the mother of Parliaments we still have as part of our legislature Members of the House of Lords who are hereditary peers. Although I have the greatest affection and admiration for many of them individually, and they give great service, it is a rather difficult thing to explain to people in other countries who are growing their democracies and who look to the United Kingdom for a lead.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and we must move to democracy. That means that the hereditary peers—they really do stick in the craw—will be among many who have to go. We should have elections to determine that, and perhaps we should be holding conversations about how, not whether, we do that. I would certainly like us to move towards that point.
I support the idea of UKIP having a Member of the House of Lords. It is rather sad that there is no UKIP Member of that House, and I look forward to it happening. May I suggest that it might give the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) a certain amount of pleasure if that Member’s first name was Nigel?
I will let the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) speak for himself on that one. My own view is simply that, whatever the country, people should get the representative Government they vote for. Whether I happen to agree with the hon. Gentleman’s party or not, if people vote for it then that is who they should get as a Government—that is what I believe in terms of democracy.
How does the crooked, anti-democratic nature of the House of Lords manifest itself? To answer that, let us consider for a moment the curious case of the quite inappropriately named Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats were hammered at the ballot box—not before time, many of us would say. That happened first in Scotland in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, when they were reduced to a rump of five MSPs out of 129, and was followed up at the UK general election last year when they were reduced to a rump of just eight MPs out of 650. In a democracy, the people speak and the message is sent. That is not the end of the story, however. The Liberal Democrats defy democracy thanks to the House of Lords. There are an incredible 111 of them along the corridor there sitting—or sleeping—on the red benches, grazing, collecting their tax-free £300 when they pass go, occasionally contributing to the debates and maybe even voting. They are down at the other end of that corridor, unelected and unaccountable. They are Westminster’s own political zombies. We really have to move forward. They are not elected and the people’s views must be paramount.
Some would say that the House of Lords provides access to expertise that cannot be found among MPs in the House of Commons. I acknowledge, because I have met some, that there are some Lords who certainly have expertise, but there are many hon. Members in this place and it cannot be beyond the wit of this place to find experts on a range of issues.
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There are a number of things we could do and that suggestion is certainly one of them.
One of the many problems with the House of Lords is that it is stuffed to the gunnels with former politicians who failed to win seats but are none the less looked after by the powers that be. One of my predecessors as MP for Stirling is one such. Michael Forsyth has not won an election since 1992. In his 14-year career as MP for Stirling, he was democratically chosen by the people of the constituency to serve in that role. He has now spent 17 years in the unelected Chamber along the corridor. This illustrates a fundamental problem. There is a long, long list of such former political big beasts out to pasture at the end of the corridor; former elected politicians of such inestimable stature as Jeremy Purvis, for example. There are then those apparently picked at random, perhaps for saying the right things at the right time to help the party in government, or making the requisite donation to their political party.
The hon. Gentleman makes many trenchant criticisms of the other place, a number of which I agree with. In the interests of even-handedness, however, does he accept that the House of Lords does some good and effective work in holding the Government to account, and that from time to time it makes a very principled stand, such as on tax credits?
Even a broken clock is right twice a day, but that does not mean you do not need a new clock.
Margaret Thatcher, at the end of her term as Prime Minister, said:
“I calculate that I was responsible for proposing the elevation to the Lords of some 214 of its present numbers.”
My problem is that some of those 214 are still there after all this time: unelected spectres interfering in legislation to this very day. The serious point here is that they have legislative authority over the lives of millions of people across the UK with no democratic mandate whatever. Radical democratic reform or outright abolition of this tired, antiquated and undemocratic institution is necessary and long overdue. Just as successful reform was passed in 1911, reform in 2016 must effectively represent the necessary change to bring our democracy, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) on securing a debate on this most overdue of reforms to the UK’s political system. As he said, what might seem like Celtic hyperventilation and hyperbole to some, to others is passion to mend that which is wrong.
As we have heard, membership of the House of Lords is fast approaching 1,000. As we have also heard, it is one of the largest Chambers on earth, second only to that in China, which, it is worth remembering, has a population 28 times the size of the UK’s. Of course, not one of the 1,000 peers in the other place is elected by the public, although a few are elected by their peers, which is interesting. The House of Lords does not reflect the political views of the people or society in general. Over three quarters of peers are male and over half are over 70. I wanted to work out their combined age, but it was far too difficult, and we would have got into dinosaur aeons, I suspected. Seats are guaranteed for bishops of the Church of England, but not for the Church in Wales or the Church of Scotland, let alone for any other faith. Do the Government consider a non-Christian to be less of a citizen than a Christian? I hope not, but the existence of the House, in its present form, suggests otherwise.
I was astounded to learn that the fudged compromise whereby 92 excepted hereditary peers, who survived the cull of 1999, not only continue to attend the House of Lords and influence the democracy of the UK, but are replaced by yet more hereditary peers in in-house elections. I thought they were a tail that would gradually disappear, but, no, they are self-perpetuating. The evident democratic injustice of people being there because they were born to that position is perpetuating itself. The House of Lords is crying out for reform.
Plaid Cymru sees no place for a patronage appointments system in a modern democracy. None the less, for as long as decisions affecting Wales continue to be made there, we will push for Wales to have an equal voice in that Chamber. After all, we are not as fortunate as Scotland. Wales has not had a separate legal jurisdiction since 1536.
Most of the laws made here also affect Wales, and if we are to influence them, we must take part. We have long been cursed with the “for Wales, see England” mentality, although things have changed since 1999 and might well change again in the elections this spring.
The House of Lords should be elected through the single transferrable vote system, with a Welsh constituency and weighting to ensure that Wales is heard in all matters. Some value the apparent freedom with which the second Chamber can hold the Government to account, but I remind them that more than 70% of peers vote along party lines and that 25% of those appointed since 1997 are former MPs who either resigned or were voted out by the public. It is the only legislature in the world where losing an election helps a person win a seat.
I appreciate that many in the other place are considered experts in their fields, but we have heard mention of the ex-experts. I do not accept that this is an argument against democracy. If they are experts in their fields today—as opposed to 20 years ago—they should be persuaded to stand for office in a local public election. I also suggest that the House takes note of figures from the Electoral Reform Society, which found that 27% of peers had “representational politics” as their main profession prior to entering the Lords. Most of them were MPs. A further 7% were political staff, and twice as many peers worked as staff to the royal household than worked in manual or skilled labour, which is extraordinary, given that most people work in the latter.
I am listening intently and enjoying this debate a great deal, because I agree with so much of it. Would it be a good idea for sections of society, such as doctors, teachers, dustbin men—if that is the right term these days—and nurses, each to have a part of the House of Lords that they appoint, so that they can decide who represents them?
Were we to legislate for such a thing, we would need to consider that in detail, but we ought to consider whether these representative bodies actually represent society, and we should be judging them accordingly.
The House of Lords is not the oracle of all-encompassing knowledge that many would have us believe. I remind Members that while the Houses of Parliament include almost 1,000 Lords and, at present, 650 MPs—it is interesting to note that the number of Lords is going up and the number of MPs down—the Welsh Parliament, which is responsible for the NHS, education, economic development and many other vital policy fields in Wales, has only 60 AMs. When we discount Welsh Government Ministers and other office holders, only 42 of those 60 AMs are available to hold the Welsh Government to account and scrutinise legislation. That is 42 Members to scrutinise everything from the NHS to education, from business support to inward investment, and—soon—to hold the Government to account on income tax policy. That is 42 Members in Wales in comparison with the Palace of Westminster in England, which has in excess of 1,500 MPs and peers holding the UK Government to account on their performance.
I suggest that a proportionately elected second Chamber with a drastically reduced number of peers, coupled with an increase in the size of the Welsh Parliament, would make the UK a far more modern, balanced and effective democracy. This debate has indeed shone a light on the long-overdue need for reform, but it is now up to the Government to bring forward proposals to ensure that our democracy adheres to modern standards and reflects society and its views.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, which I greatly welcome. I particularly enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty). It was entertaining, but also serious, making many important points. The House of Lords has, of course, been in the news again recently, and the Government are clearly threatening change to rein in our allegedly noble colleagues. Yesterday’s debate in the other place seemed to suggest that even Conservative peers were not entirely happy with what the Government want to do. My interest in speaking today is to argue for a unicameral Parliament. The majority of legislatures across the world are unicameral, and some European nations—Sweden, for example—have chosen to become unicameral. We should at least discuss that possibility and, I hope, move towards that system in time.
When I first entered the House in 1997, the New Labour Government—I emphasise New Labour with a capital N—established a royal commission to consider possible reforms to the House of Lords. Shortly into my time here, I attended a Labour party so-called regional policy forum—I am sure that Mr Deputy Speaker would understand what regional policy forums were like. It was in Watford on a Saturday afternoon with about 25 to 30 party members attending. A chairman had been allocated by the party machine, and we were addressed by a learned professor from the royal commission.
The terms of reference set out by the Government for the royal commission made no mention of abolition of the House of Lords as a possible option. I asked why that was, and suggested that abolition should be a possible option for discussion. Another member suggested that we should have a show of hands to test opinion and see how many members at the meeting favoured abolition—an innocent little test of opinion. At this, the chair became very agitated and said, icily, that there would be no votes. Clearly, not even a show of hands in Watford among a small number of Labour party members on a Saturday afternoon—it was no doubt raining outside—was allowed to express a majority view that we should abolish the House of Lords. I suspect that there was probably a majority for abolition in that room, but it was not to be discussed. It was clear that our leaders wanted to keep the House of Lords in some form and that discussing possible abolition was not to be tolerated. It was most interesting.
Some reforms were later enacted by the Blair Government, and remain in place, but abolition is still not being discussed. Some longer-standing Members may recall the later discussions and debates on reform, and the series of votes on possible alternatives that took place in March 2007. One Division effectively permitted a test of opinion on possible abolition of the House of Lords. Among Labour Back Benchers, 169 of my hon. Friends voted for a bicameral Parliament, but 155 of us voted against that, effectively in favour of a unicameral Parliament and the abolition of the House of Lords. That was almost half of the Labour Back Benchers, showing a substantial body of support for a unicameral Parliament. The fact that this option was deliberately excluded from consideration by the earlier royal commission was, I think, a scandal and clearly a political fix.
I tabled an early-day motion to that effect at the time, which received the support of 50 Labour Members, some 14 of whom are still Members today. It was clear that that was due to the simple fact that the Prime Minister at the time wished to retain his power of patronage to appoint Members to the Lords, for a number of reasons. I might add that, subsequently, many argued strongly for an appointed House of Lords, and for retaining a substantial proportion of appointed Members even if it became democratic.
One of those reasons was obviously the ability to offer Members of the House of Commons the prospect of elevation to the Lords, both as a means of keeping control and reducing the potential for rebellion in the Commons and, possibly, to help to persuade older Members with safe seats to agree to retire at a convenient time for the party machine to slot leadership supporters into those safe seats.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman recalls that, last time there was a major review of the boundaries in Scotland, the Kingdom of Fife was reduced from five parliamentary constituencies to four. The then Member of Parliament for Dunfermline, East, by the name of Gordon Brown, found himself without an obvious successor seat. The MP for Kirkcaldy agreed to retire from the House, Mr Brown became the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, and very shortly afterwards the former MP for Kirkcaldy became a Member of the House of Lords. Is that the kind of democratic process to which the hon. Gentleman was referring?
I do not wish to mention particular examples, because there are still hon. Members here who may or may not have experienced this process, but in my party I want individual Members to have the power, rather than party machines, and I certainly do not want leaders to have the power to select candidates.
I used the word “possibly” about selections of this kind because I cannot prove that such things occurred, and I do not wish to imply any criticism of other hon. Members who may have been selected in strong party seats. That may, of course, occur in other parties as well. It is clearly the case, however, that successive Prime Ministers, before and since, have jealously guarded their powers of patronage. I want to see those powers taken away in the interests of a more vigorous, intensive democracy in this House and outside, and to rein in the excessive power of the Executive.
I think that this is a serious matter, and I hope that, as and when we come to discuss the possible future of the House of Lords, the possibility of a unicameral Parliament and getting rid of this patronage will be raised again.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) for securing the debate and opening it in his own inimitable and passionate style, and to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for it.
I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss how and why the second Chamber should be reformed to allow Parliament to work more effectively and democratically for the electorate throughout the United Kingdom. In its current form, the House of Lords can only be seen as an affront to democracy, and it has no place in a modern democratic decision-making process.
Since my election in May, I have become familiar with the strange traditions that surround this place. There are many outdated rules and conventions that range from the slightly odd to the ridiculous, and from trivial matters such as fancy dress to much more important issues like 15-minute votes which stifle the democratic process. However, the most outdated relic with which we have to deal is the unelected second Chamber of peers. What does it say about us that here, in the 21st century, we need to rely on an undemocratic body that includes religious leaders, defeated MPs, party cronies and donors to oversee and scrutinise the work of the democratically elected representatives of this place?
That bloated and out-of-date Chamber is the second largest legislative body in the world, with 821 peers. It is second only to the National People’s Congress in China, which has a similarly undemocratic basis. The number of peers in the House of Lords is growing continually, and after the recent election we saw the Government appointing party loyalists to “serve” there. Kenneth Gibson, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, has obtained figures showing that nearly 75% of those appointed to the Lords since the election are defeated, retired or deselected MPs, or former advisers. The United Kingdom also stands out among other western democracies in giving religious leaders seats in its legislature, as of right.
The Scottish National party does not put forward any individuals to be appointed to serve in the House of Lords. We have a long-standing opposition to that costly, undemocratic and bloated Chamber, and will continue to oppose it at every opportunity. In contrast, all the other parties regularly put forward individuals to serve as peers. In fact, 586 of the serving peers come from one of the main political parties that are represented in this Chamber.
As well as the long-standing democratic outrage, there is the equally long-standing financial cost of having such a ridiculous Chamber. In 2014-15 it cost nearly £95 million to run the House of Lords, with over £20 million going on Lords expenses and allowances. If we contrast that with the £87 million it cost to run the Scottish Parliament, we can easily see why so many of our constituents are royally fed up with the Chamber.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is new to the House. I have been here for five years now and I just want to say that not a single constituent of mine has ever mentioned the House of Lords. How many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have brought up this subject?
This point was made earlier on. Although many other issues do come up and this is far from being the No. 1 topic of conversation on the doorstep, it has certainly come up many times, and I am about to come on to the question of public levels of support.
It is clear to most people that the second Chamber needs radical reform if we want to be able to call ourselves a true modern democracy. In a YouGov poll of September 2015 people were given a range of options, and it found that 41% believe the House of Lords should be entirely elected, but crucially only 5% thought that the system was acceptable in its current format.
Even though the recently published Strathclyde review did not comment on the composition of the House of Lords, it provides an ideal opportunity to discuss the future of the House of Lords in more detail. This review was hastily announced by a Government in a petty huff following their humiliating defeat on tax credit cuts in the Lords. It is clear that this review was set up to curb the second Chamber’s ability to hold this Government to account. These issues need to be properly debated, not pushed through hastily without the revising Chamber having full powers of scrutiny.
The UK Government want to muzzle the Lords in the same way as they have already muzzled charities and others who have criticised welfare reform and austerity. I accept that the Government have a majority of MPs in this Chamber; however, they should not confuse that with having a majority of wisdom. On matters of parliamentary procedure and set-up, the Government should be willing to listen to, and work with, those with different views, whether they be other MPs, parties or Parliaments, outside organisations, or indeed the second Chamber.
The SNP does not support the current approach to the House of Lords, how we pay those who attend and the privilege associated with it, but we have to acknowledge that on occasion the Lords can be useful, for example in helping to force the recent tax credits U-turn. The recent Lords review on the impact of the planned cuts to employment and support allowance led by Cross-Bench peers is another example of the kind of invaluable review of policy that we need a second Chamber to take forward.
I do not support an unelected second Chamber and believe fervently that the House of Lords must be abolished. In such an eventuality, there is the option of having a unicameral Parliament, as outlined previously, with a beefed-up Committee structure somewhat like that of the Scottish Parliament, rather than a bicameral set-up. However, for the purposes of this debate I have presumed there is a settled will for having two tiers. Whatever arrangements are made, we must be able to properly scrutinise and hold this Government to account.
I have to be honest and admit to being very conflicted when we are forced to rely on the unelected Chamber to defend the welfare state against the cuts planned by this Conservative Government. It took the House of Lords, as flawed as it is, to tackle the planned cuts. It may well be down to the second Chamber to face the Government again as they seem determined to cut ESA, further penalising disabled people, some of whom lobbied Members in Westminster Hall yesterday.
It highlights the absurdity of the UK’s current constitutional arrangement that we are relying on unelected peers to protect us from some of the worst aspects of this Government’s policy agenda. This situation has caused a lot of anger in Scotland. Why are we forced to rely on unelected peers to defend our fellow citizens and their families? Scotland has seen unprecedented levels of democratic engagement during and after the referendum, so the idea of having to rely on this outdated, out-of-touch and undemocratic institution to defend the welfare state does not sit well with people—and it does not sit well with me.
The second Chamber in its current form is nothing more than an affront to democracy, and the way successive Governments have used the patronage system to reward party loyalists is only the tip of the iceberg. We recently learned that once again friends of Cabinet Ministers have been rewarded for their services with a place in the Lords. The numerous former MPs, special advisers and party aides who were awarded peerages after the election make the House look like a dumping ground or a retirement plan for party cronies. The numerous expenses scandals involving the Members of the second Chamber also do nothing to improve people’s image of the Lords.
Whatever my feelings on this issue, however, I recognise the benefits of having a second Chamber at Westminster with the current Government in office. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. A range of reviews have been carried out into the current set-up, and several organisations have done a lot of work on the issue and come up with several options. Groups such as the Electoral Reform Society and the University College London constitutional unit have carried out in-depth research into the House of Lords and possible alternatives to it. We need a comprehensive and transparent debate on this matter in Government time, but I imagine that this Conservative Government would be reluctant to grant such a debate, judging by the way in which they have rushed through the Strathclyde review.
Labour and the Conservatives have been guilty in the past of failing to follow through on their intentions to reform the House of Lords. The introduction of the Parliament Act 1911 was the first indication of any Government’s intention to reform the Lords, but after 105 years we are still waiting for any real reform to take place. The recent tax credits U-turn shows that the second Chamber has its place, but we need a Chamber that can hold the Government to account and properly scrutinise legislation. At the moment, the House of Lords is just one more outdated Westminster relic that should be consigned to history. Until that happens, and until we have a second Chamber that actually works, I will continue to speak up for change. It is time to ensure that we have a modern and flexible democracy by abolishing the medieval House of Lords. We need to look ahead, not backwards.
When I first wandered into the Chamber today, I thought I had come into the wrong debate, because the Annunciator shows the title of the debate as “House of Lords reform”. Neither my colleagues nor I believe that there can be any reforming of something that is so deeply undemocratic and rotten to the core.
There is no doubt that the general public across the UK are deeply disengaged from and alienated by much of what goes on in this place. It is dangerous for democracy when the very people it is intended to serve lose so much interest and faith in it. We can come up with warm words and grand ideas about how to tackle that, but perhaps the single most important thing we can do to repair some, although not all, of the damaging rift between those of us who serve and those whom we seek to serve would be to hear the calls—a deafening din in Scotland—to abolish the House of Lords. It is no better than a carbuncle on the face of democracy across the United Kingdom, and there is a deep sense of frustration with it across communities in Scotland. It has already been pointed out that this archaic, outdated and medieval and anachronistic institution has no place in any state that purports to be a modern, enlightened and forward-looking democracy. Just to be clear, we do not simply object to the personnel in the House of Lords, although we do; we do not recognise its legitimacy or its right to legislate over the citizens of the UK.
I agree very much with what the hon. Lady is saying. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) suggested earlier that this subject never came up on the doorstep. Does she agree that that is because people’s first concerns are jobs, housing, poverty and the health service? However, if people are asked about the House of Lords, many would say that we should abolish it.
I absolutely agree with what the hon. Gentleman has just said. When people talk to us on the doorstep, their priorities are of course job security, benefit sanctions and putting food on the table, but if we scratch the surface, we find that the House of Lords is universally hated, across the UK in my view. There might be small pockets of support among what might be called traditionalists, but for the ordinary man and woman in the street, the House of Lords is an affront to modern democracy.
What I am about to say has already been mentioned earlier in the debate. That is one of the disadvantages of being so far down the speaking list. It is bad enough that the House of Lords is unelected, but it really is quite incredible to think that we are the only state in the world apart from Iran that has clerics pontificating on legislation. That further illustrates the absurdity of this relic.
Despite all the plaudits and feeble attempts to justify the other place, perhaps by those who have pals or cronies there or those who seek to retire there themselves when the voters reject them, it cannot be justified to retain those who are unelected. They have often been actively rejected by the voters. It is arguably worse that some of them have shied away from presenting themselves to the voters at any time at all, despite having political ambitions. That really makes the House of Lords a laughing stock in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that this Government, who made their one MP from Scotland Secretary of State, had to aggrandise or ennoble someone and put them in the House of Lords to fulfil the role of deputy—Under-Secretary of State—in the Scotland Office?
Indeed, I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. I wish to add my disappointment at the fact that the Leader of the Opposition, who considers himself to have very left-wing credentials, has co-opted Members of the House of Lords into his shadow Cabinet. That is a travesty if ever there was one.
I may have been a huge fan of the political novels of Anthony Trollope in my formative years, but I have no wish to live in the 19th century. Madam Deputy Speaker, if you will indulge me for just a moment, I feel that I must share some figures with the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) has shamed me into doing this, and marital relations would become strained if I did not mention the fact that the distinguished—certainly he is in my house—MSP for Cunninghame North unearthed some figures that showed that nearly 75% of appointments to the Lords are defeated, retired or deselected MPs or former advisers. After every election, we actually hear the stampede towards the ermine, from this place to that place. If this matter were not so serious, I would be laughing. We have hereditary peers and Church of England bishops—I have often wondered whether that means that God is an Englishman.
Absolutely. We have in the Lords cronies, party donors, party-placed men and women—although there are fewer women than men—failed politicians, and retired politicians who are looking for a wee hobby in 2016. Perhaps that was fitting in Anthony Trollope’s time, but, for the love of God—Madam Deputy Speaker, forgive me—let us get a grip. I bet that when we do get rid of this relic, just like the smoking ban we will wonder why it took so long and why we waited so long. No one on these Benches is saying that there are not some folk in the House of Lords who are well intentioned or who have much expertise and skill to offer their country’s legislative process. No one is even saying that we should not enter into a debate about the relative merits of a second Chamber to revise legislation. That is a debate that we could and should have in the future. What we are saying is that anyone who seeks to pontificate over, revise, introduce or influence legislation in our Parliament should be elected by the people whom they purport to serve. It is as simple as that.
I am almost embarrassed to repeat the numbers for China’s National People’s Congress—as I have now made comparisons with China and Iran, I can see that we are in good company with those beacons of democracy.
In his book “The Point of Departure”, the late Member of Parliament for Livingston recalled an incident at a Europe-Africa summit. A president of one African country said that they could not be criticised for failing to introduce full democracy after only 50 years of independence when Britain had failed to get rid of the hereditary principle after 500 years.
As I have said, we are becoming a laughing stock all over the world.
In addition—and this is a very, very serious point—we are told that these are austere times. We cannot afford to help the so-called “benefit scroungers”, but we can afford to help the “strivers”—and the House of Lords is full of them. We must punish families with more than two children, because everyone knows that if a person has a third child, they are clearly trying to get money out of the taxpayer. Yet here we have in the House of Lords what many of my constituents would call a trough. It is costing £94.4 million. This dripping roast, as my constituents would call it, costs more than the Scottish Parliament—elected, accountable, forward-thinking, enlightened and representative of the people—and has even more Members than the European Parliament.
In my view, Clement Attlee was being extremely kind when he described the House of Lords as
“like a glass of champagne that has stood for five days”.
I much prefer the analysis that the best cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it. When we sanction vulnerable folk on benefits who are five minutes late for an appointment at the jobcentre, when we hammer women born in the 1950s by moving their retirement age further away, when my constituents see Scotland’s budget being squeezed and we hear this being called “a sustainable economic plan”, I and many others ask how that sustainable economic plan impacts on the waste, the affront to democracy, the dripping roast that is the House of Lords—and these people dare to pontificate on Scotland’s constitutional future. Even the Lords themselves hardly take it seriously: attendance is around 60%, although it has improved recently, perhaps because the dripping roast is drying up and much must be suckled in the dying moments of the House.
What a tragedy it is that the 2015 Conservative manifesto indicated that the party did not consider House of Lords reform a priority. No, let us instead prioritise bashing the vulnerable and taking benefits away from the poor. The Strathclyde review was a wasted opportunity —then again, turkeys do not vote for Christmas. They can tinker at the edges all they like; they will never make this affront to democracy palatable enough for the people in my constituency that they see it as having any legitimacy. Let us abolish this carbuncle on the face of democracy. Let us listen to the people. Then, they may begin to listen to what this place has to say. I urge the Minister to screw his courage to the sticking place, to get a grip and to get rid. It is time the UK grew up.
When the first automobile engines were developed, they were dirty, unreliable and inefficient, but they evolved and improved. When I want to get from A to B in a timely, reliable and comfortable fashion, I look to use a suitable vehicle. I do not use the 45-year-old project that I have propped up on bricks in my garage. Although there is a place in my heart for the 1967 Sunbeam Alpine with twin Venturi carburettors, a 1725 cc engine with overdrive, a soft top and skinny tyres, I recognise that it does not fulfil the necessary criteria for day-to-day driving. Over the past 100 years, transport, communications, healthcare, education, foreign policy and defence have all evolved and are barely recognisable from their younger selves, yet the House of Lords has not kept pace. Utilising the House of Lords as an effective, efficient second Chamber of this Parliament in this day and age is as practical as using a horse and cart to travel down a busy motorway.
We have continued to govern from a cloistered and privileged place rooted in the past. Parliament should reflect the society it wishes to create. The House of Lords does not reflect any society that I wish to be part of. No doubt, there are capable, compassionate people who wash up in the Lords and who do care, can help to govern and are, in fact, the very people who could and would be democratically elected to a second Chamber, but far too many are there by accident rather than design. We require a second Chamber that reflects the 21st century—a Chamber that represents all religions and none; a Chamber that sits during recognised working hours; a Chamber that is elected and is not inhabited by the fourth generation offspring of long-forgotten generals, admirals and landowning aristocracy; a Chamber where seats cannot be bought for political favour; and a Chamber that is accountable for the behaviour of its Members.
Of course, reform of the House of Lords is not a new idea. The proposal to elect Members directly was first made over 100 years ago. It is probably due for a Second Reading any day now. Much more recently, when the lords a-leaping refused to play ball with the current Government and kicked out the proposals on tax credits, the Government sprang into action and ordered a review—nay, a rapid review, and who better to chair a rapid review of the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament than a former Leader of the House of Lords, a hereditary peer who had never been elected to any Chamber?
The outcome of the rapid review was—hon. Members should not get too excited—a new procedure. This new procedure would
“invite the Commons to think again”.
But Lord Strathclyde did not leave it there. Oh no. With the full force of Parliament he wielded his mighty pen and suggested—yes, suggested—that a review should take place, to be known henceforth as “son of rapid review”. The Government responded and allowed a full debate—in the House of Lords. On the back of this earth-shattering outcome, we all went home for Christmas and forgot all about rapid review and his offspring.
Not surprisingly, MPs continue to ask questions regarding the reform of the House of Lords. As recently as 14 September 2015 the Prime Minister responded to such a question by assuring us that he will be
“looking, with others, at issues such as the size of the Chamber and the retirement of peers.”
By size I presume he meant the number rather than the dimensions, as he is the Prime Minister who has created more peers than any other Prime Minister since the system was overhauled in 1958. I can only presume that he has looked, with others, and decided that we do not have enough.
There are many ways in which the House of Lords could be reformed—a Chamber composed of Members elected directly by the electorate, set terms for elected Members, a significant decrease in the number of Members, a secular Chamber, a fair distribution of seats for the UK’s nations and regions, and measures to encourage a more diverse range of candidates, designed to represent civil society and minorities. There are many possible changes that could improve the House of Lords, but rather like the old joke, “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?—One, but the lightbulb has to want to change,” the House of Lords has to want to change, and this place has to want to change it.
Is reform required? Unquestionably. Are there many practical ways in which this could be done? Of course there are. Is there a will? If there is a will, let us hope that it did not bequeath a hereditary peer to the next ermine-robed incumbent in a long line of ermine-robed incumbents. Let us make this will a testament to reform. I appeal to this Government. If they genuinely want change, they should put it on the agenda and make it happen. If not, if they are content with the status quo, they should stand up and say so.
I commend the Backbench Business Committee for making time for this debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) on his outstandingly passionate speech. I hope he will not mind my mentioning that he has had other reasons over the past week for earning our warm congratulations and best wishes. We all wish him well in the new life that he is leading. All the best to him.
My hon. Friend started the preparations for the birthday of Robert Burns by quoting from not only the greatest work that Robert Burns ever wrote, but arguably the greatest humanitarian work in the history of literature. I was a bit disappointed because I thought he was going to continue with a section of that song that would almost sum up this debate in a few words:
Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that,
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a cuif for a’ that.”
I have to confess, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I was very careful indeed not to check the dictionary before I came in here because I have a nasty feeling that if I had done, I would have realised that the word “cuif” could not be used in the Chamber. I am not entirely sure what it means.
I am very grateful indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker, not least because I intend to quote the bard later on.
I find it astonishing that when we started the process of review of and consultation on how to repair the fabric of this undoubtedly magnificent and historic building, it was based on the assumption that Parliament would continue to operate in exactly the same way as it presumably always has done. May I suggest that a golden opportunity was missed to start to reform the processes of not only this Chamber, but the second Chamber?
Indeed, this might be an opportunity to ask ourselves why we need a second Chamber at all. Other modern, inclusive, democratic countries manage perfectly well with one Chamber. If we think about it, the argument that the second Chamber is good at scrutinising and checking the actions of the first Chamber suggests that we are saying that the first Chamber is not doing its job, so perhaps we should literally get our own House in order and then consider whether we want another House just down the road.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Imagine that this Parliament had historically consisted of a single, elected Chamber. Then imagine that someone comes along and suggests that we need a second, unelected Chamber in order to become more democratic. They would be laughed out of court.
I think that there are options available to us if we are prepared to look at having a second elected Chamber, assuming that we need a second Chamber at all. That would give us a chance to elect the House of Lords on a different electoral cycle from that of the House of Commons, in order to avoid the temptation for Governments to time their announcements and legislation with a view to getting re-elected in a few years’ time. It would give us the chance, importantly, to elect a second Chamber by a different electoral method to help even out some of the undoubted inequities that exist in the first-past-the-post system. Yes, the SNP benefited from that system at the general election, but the system was not fair when it worked to our disadvantage, and it is no fairer when it works to our advantage.
Comments were made earlier about the place of the representatives of the Church of England in the House of Lords. I will defend and warmly commend the actions of a number of Churches and faith groups in helping to act as a social conscience of our nations. I think of the important work that various Churches have done in critiquing benefit sanctions and nuclear weapons, or in reminding us that the refugee crisis is about human beings, not burdens on our benefits system. I hope that faith groups, including humanists, who in my view are a legitimate faith group, will continue to do that. However, in this day and age should they have an automatic right to make laws that apply to the majority of citizens in these islands who choose to follow a different interpretation of their faith? I fully appreciate that that will be a difficult conversation for many, but it is one that we really cannot shy away from for very much longer.
It can be argued that there is a benefit in allowing people from all walks of life to play a part in scrutinising legislation, rather than just the relatively narrow “political elite”. There are two problems with that argument. First, the House of Lords is not a representative sample; if anything, it is more dominated by the political elite than the House of Commons. Secondly, the House of Lords does not just scrutinise legislation; it can block it. It can even initiate legislation and ask us to scrutinise it.
As the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) mentioned, if there are benefits in having experts who are not Members of Parliament, or lay people, advising and scrutinising legislation, why not set up a system that allows appointed people to scrutinise and examine, but not to legislate or to overrule the will of the democratic Chamber? That is an option that I think is well worth further investigation.
There will be those who appeal to a deity called tradition, as if tradition was always a good thing. I think that tradition is important. Our traditions are what make us who we are, and if we lose sight of who we are, then we really are in trouble. But if we allowed tradition to be the judge of what happens in future, we would still be sending children up chimneys and down mines, and we would still be exploiting slaves from other parts of the world. More topically, if we continued to judge things according to the traditions that applied in this Chamber for so long, the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland would have had to resign this week. Thank goodness we have moved away from traditions that were indefensible 300 years ago and are no more defensible today.
What does it say about democracy in this Parliament when the only organisation that consistently blocks any kind of proper reform of the House of Lords is also the one with the biggest vested interest in not reforming it? Most people in these islands simply cannot understand that. Even those who are not 100% convinced that the Lords should be abolished cannot understand why, when what is supposedly the sovereign Chamber in Parliament takes a decision to reform the House of Lords, the Lords itself can block any attempts to do so.
Even without legislation that can still be blocked or delayed indefinitely by the Lords itself, party leaders could give commitments that would get rid of some of the potential abuses, which, let us face it, we all know have happened. Although it is not possible to point to an individual appointment and know for certain that it was based on financial transactions, or on a deal made when somebody was still a Member of Parliament, the fact that the system can be vulnerable to that kind of abuse means that in the eyes of the public it very probably has been abused in that way in the past.
Let us look at the three worst abuses, which cause a lot of concern. I invite the Minister not to commit to dealing with them but at least to give serious consideration to how the parties could, right now, start to make the appointment system of the House of Lords a bit more acceptable, pending a proper and rapid review sometime in the next two or three hundred years. First, politicians who get kicked out by the democratic process can come back, arguably better off than they have been here, by being appointed to the House of Lords. Why not ban appointments of former MPs to the House of Lords, at least for a period of five or 10 years afterwards?
Secondly, there seems to be a high correlation between new appointments to the House of Lords and previous donors to party coffers. I am told that about 25% of all recent appointments by the Prime Minister were of people who had made substantial donations to the party coffers. I do not object to people giving money to causes they believe in, but there is an issue there that damages the reputation of this place in the eyes of the public. Why not set a limit and say that anybody who has donated above a certain amount to a political party cannot then take a place in the House of Lords, again possibly with a five-year or 10-year cooling-off period?
Finally, there is an abuse of the system that we have seen here. Page after page of improvements to the Scotland Bill put forward by the people who were elected to represent Scotland were rejected by MPs who have no mandate to represent Scotland, and then promptly reintroduced by those same MPs through their friends in the House of Lords. When the amendments came back to the House of Commons a short time later, the people who had voted against them trooped through the Lobby to vote for them. That is a wrong use of the process. Why not invite the Government to consider the possibility of putting themselves under a voluntary ban whereby they will not introduce major legislation in the Lords unless it has been passed by this Chamber first, and will not introduce large numbers of significant amendments in the Lords when they have had the opportunity to have them considered in this place first?
Even those changes would not go far enough for me, or for a lot of people, but they would at least start to show the people of these islands, in good faith, that the Government are serious about tackling an appointments system, in particular, that has no place in a representative democracy.
Earlier, someone referred to Westminster as the mother of Parliaments. I have heard the story that once, during a hustings debate probably somewhere north of the border, somebody announced in a very pompous manner that he was proud to serve in the mother of all Parliaments, and a voice from the back asked him if he had any idea who the father was. I am not going to say which of those comments I prefer.
I started by quoting the greatest poem, or song, that Robert Burns ever wrote, but I think that the greatest piece of writing by Robert Burns is, surprisingly, not a poem or a song, but a piece of prose:
“Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others—this is my criterion of goodness. And whatever injures society at large, or any individual, in it—this is my measure of iniquity.”
The way that Members of the Lords are appointed right now means that we have an iniquitous situation in this Parliament. If the Lords is not prepared to accept fundamental reform, then it can, will and must be abolished.
I am delighted to speak on behalf of the SNP in this Backbench Business debate on the House of Lords. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) secured the debate, although I am rather glad that he spoke some time ago, so that everyone could forget how brilliant his speech was by the time it came round to mine.
As has been mentioned, this issue is not something that gets people exercised. However, I would suggest that, in Scotland, membership of the SNP is not insubstantial. There are quite a few members of the SNP, and at the SNP conference in Aberdeen, at which there were 3,500 delegates, there was a huge cheer when it was suggested that the House of Lords should be abolished. This is something that gets members of the SNP excited. It is something that genuinely gets mentioned on the doorsteps when we knock on doors. It is perhaps not the first thing that comes up—absolutely not—but parliamentary and constitutional reform come up a lot on the doorsteps in Scotland.
I am particularly pleased that this debate follows the one on space policy, because this place—these Houses of Parliament—is in another world from the one I normally inhabit. I have spoken to people previously about why they should dislike the House of Lords. Within the SNP and among people I have spoken to, there is a visceral, immediate dislike of the House of Lords, but people should not dislike it because the Lords swan along in ermine robes; they should dislike it because of the level of power that the House of Lords has.
This is not a way to run a democracy. Nobody creating a democratic system afresh would come up with the undemocratic, unwieldy and unaccountable second Chamber that we have. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) mentioned that the UK muddles along, and that is what has happened. It has happened with parliamentary reform and, as I will mention a little later, with reform of the Standing Orders in this place as well.
This is bicameralism at its worst. Of the 192 parliaments recognised by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, 77 are bicameral and only the UK, Belgium, Zimbabwe and Lesotho have hereditary legislators. Belgium does not really count, though, because its hereditary legislators are related to the monarch and do not vote on anything, so the wonderful United Kingdom—proud defender of democracy; the mother of parliaments—is a member of a very select group that allows landed gentry to make law for our countries. Zimbabwe and Lesotho and us—there is nothing good about this situation.
I would like to take Members back to 1997. It is some time ago now, and things have changed a fair bit since then: I was still in primary school, Hanson were topping the charts with “MMMBop” and the Labour party was popular in Scotland. The Labour manifesto in 1997 said:
“The House of Lords must be reformed…the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute.”
Despite a massive majority for the Labour party in 1997 and a clear manifesto commitment to rid our democratic system of hereditary peers, nearly 20 years on we still have 92 of them—92 Lords who are allowed to make legislation because their family owned land.
I was talking to a peer recently about hereditary peerages. The defence mentioned was that there was a hereditary peer who could trace her family back 400 years. The nature of humankind is that all our families can be traced back 400 years; otherwise, we would not be here. It is ridiculous, patronising and wrong to argue that a tithe paid to a monarch hundreds of years ago should qualify any individual to make legislation. The Conservative Government make all sorts of claims about working hard being the best way to get on in life and achieve a high-salary job, for example. There is a wilful downplaying of the inbuilt advantage accorded to those whose families owned large country estates. Many of those estates were won by force and held by oppression. There is not a meritocracy in these islands. Working hard does not necessarily get anyone anywhere; where they are born and who their family are does.
Having said that and made clear my absolute disagreement with any system that accords a higher level of importance to anyone simply because of an accident of birth, I want to make clear my absolute lack of regard for the appointments system for life peers. Cross-Bench peers tell me how rigorous the process is for appointing them. I agree that it is thorough and they have to make major commitments to how much time they are going to spend in the House of Lords. However, there is no compulsion on the Prime Minister to ensure that non-Cross-Bench peers—or even Cross-Bench peers, for that matter—are appointed in that way. There is also no limit on the size of the Chamber, and one of the best ways to receive an excellent salary for life is to donate money to either the Conservative or Labour parties and be appointed to the House of Lords.
I want to expand on what my hon. Friends the Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) have said about former parliamentarians. Since 1997, 152 former parliamentarians have been ennobled. Twenty of them were given peerages within five years of losing an election to the House of Commons. So within five years of being rejected by the electorate, they were given a seat in the other House to make legislation for the people who had rejected them. It is a ridiculous situation.
The reforms enacted in 1999—which I admit were good and took us a step along the way, but nowhere near far enough—did have an effect on the behaviour of the House of Lords, including on the turnout figures. However, they also made the House of Lords more powerful, because peers felt that they had more of a right to be there and to make decisions about legislation, but that is not the case. The House of Lords is still an unelected legislature and it should not be making laws for this country. There is no accountability. Members of the public cannot access the Lords—they do not know who they are. Peers are out of touch. There is no compulsion on them to listen to people in the general community. What they learn about the general community is often garnered from newspapers, and we all know that they are not a true reflection of society.
The House of Lords is also massively lacking in diversity, which has been mentioned by various Members. Only 26% of peers are female, which is even worse than the figure for this place. The record in the House of Commons is deplorable, but the record in the House of Lords is much worse. In June 2015 there were more people who had been peers for more than 30 years than there were peers under the age of 50, and there were only two peers under 40 among the entire 800-odd Members of the House of Lords. That compares hugely unfavourably with elected politics in the UK. It does not constitute representative democracy.
The youngest age at which a current Member of the House of Lords received a life peerage was 32. Although I fundamentally disagree with appointments for life, it is bizarre that half of our legislature should exclude anyone who I would class as young. It is no wonder that, as a result, young people do not trust the democratic system. They look at this place and they see a bunch of old people who they cannot relate to. If we look at elected Members as a whole, we will see that we are still woefully unrepresentative.
As has been said, some peers, particularly Cross Benchers, work very hard, but that cannot be used to legitimise the existence of the second Chamber, which is incredibly expensive. Some Cross Benchers have been, and continue to be, very active in their areas of work and fields of expertise, but there is no check on that. As the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) has said, people become ex-experts—their expertise goes away—very quickly.
The House of Commons has utterly failed to amend or rewrite the Parliament Acts to make any meaningful change to the House of Lords, which has not happened for the best part of 20 years. Actually, we have not made much change to the powers of the House of Lords since the Parliament Act 1911 and, subsequently, the Parliament Act 1949, which just tinkered with it. As I have said on previous occasions, I do not believe that the procedures of the House of Commons are fit for purpose. Given the opportunity, I would tear up the Standing Orders and start again, dramatically reducing the Executive privilege accorded to the Government of the day, thus requiring them to use their majority far more often.
The situation in the House of Lords is even worse. It is all done on the basis of convention. The Government got into such a pickle over tax credits because there is a convention—there is nothing in legislation—that the House of Lords does not vote on such things. On paper, the House of Lords is an incredibly powerful institution, and that is something we need to change.
The House of Lords is not a revising second Chamber. Nobody who makes the case for a revising second Chamber can hold up the House of Lords as the place that can revise legislation. It can still introduce primary legislation. It is not elected, but it can introduce legislation on behalf of the people of this country. It should not do so.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. As she knows from mine, I share her ambition to do away with an unelected second Chamber. However, can she explain her party’s support for membership of the European Union, where real power lies with the unelected European Commission? The European Parliament is really a sideshow.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, which I am sure will be discussed at length during European debates. Today, however, we are discussing the House of Lords, which is something that we have the power to change. Members of this place could pass a new Parliament Act. Elected Members have the ability to make mass changes to the House of Lords, and we should make big changes to it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be beneficial to introduce some of the European Parliament and European Commission’s ways of working to this place? For example, the European Parliament has the power to sack the entire European Commission. Does she support giving the House of Commons the right to sack the entire House of Lords? I think that is what the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) was referring to.
I am coming to the end of my speech, so I will now wrap up. The power of the House of Lords is dramatically greater than it should be. It has the ability to appoint people who have been rejected at the ballot box. People troop into that House rubbing their hands with glee at the untaxed £45,000 a year they can now earn. The expenses system and the payments system for the House of Lords—getting £300 day, which is classed as an allowance, and is not taxed—are abominable. That should not be happening.
The composition of the House of Lords is ridiculous. It is unrepresentative, and in no circumstances should it include hereditary peers and those appointed by religious organisations, whether from the Church of England or of any other religious organisation. I do not think there is any place for religious appointments in a legislative system. Lifetime appointments to any legislature are undemocratic. There are peers sitting there who have been peers for 70 years, which is an incredible length of time. Some of them are no longer active, but they still have the right to troop into the House and vote. How good is a peer at voting if they have been a peer for 70 years? They have a length of experience behind them—fair enough—but most people want to sit with their feet up and watch TV by the time they get to such an age. Appointments for high heijins and party donors are wrong and should not be happening.
The House of Lords is beyond reform. People have tried to reform it in the past, but it is still not an elected, accountable second Chamber. We need to abolish it.
I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) on opening the debate and on his very colourful and well-informed speech. I must say that many good points have been made. I emphasise the point made by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), which is that we must have a debate. It is very important to recognise the complexity and difficulty of reform, and we must begin by having an honest debate.
I congratulate Scottish National party Members on the consistency and uniformity of their arguments, by and large. They showed discipline. The number of times I heard reference to China’s National People’s Congress, I would not like to say. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) did talk about reform, rather than abolition. I welcome that because it is healthy to have a difference of emphasis within a political group, if not a complete difference.
Few people would genuinely say that our parliamentary system does not need fundamental change. It is important to remember that the biggest change to the composition of the second Chamber came under a Labour Government, when we secured the abolition of most of the hereditary peers. That was the start of a reform that we must complete as soon as is practicable, and it must be a radical reform. I say radical reform, rather than abolition of the second Chamber, because I am not convinced that we should move away from a bicameral parliamentary system.
Clearly we have a difference of view on this. My hon. Friend says that there has not been enough discussion about reform. There has been a lot of talk about reform, but there has not been much of a debate about the alternative of having a unicameral Parliament. That is what I want to see.
I respect my hon. Friend’s view. That is one of the discussions that we need to have in this Chamber. He is perfectly right that we need to discuss not just how reform might be brought about, but whether we even need a second Chamber. I am of the view, although I am willing to take part in a debate, that we should have a bicameral system. There is a need for a second Chamber to scrutinise, modify, suggest amendments to and delay legislation, although I think that legislation should always emanate from this House.
It is deplorable that we are seeing two sustained attempts not to introduce more democracy into the second Chamber, but to exercise control over the second Chamber’s ability to hold the Executive to account. It is important to remember that this Government have appointed more Conservative peers than Margaret Thatcher did in her 11 years as Prime Minister. There is also a debate taking place about Lord Strathclyde’s report, which I would argue is all about undermining the ability of the other place to hold the Government to account.
We know why the Government are trying to control and weaken the Lords. It is not because they believe in democracy or because they have accepted the arguments of the SNP, but because they do not like to be scrutinised or challenged, no matter where it comes from. The issue is not the primacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords; this is about the Government trying to minimise challenge and push aside opposition.
In the last Parliament, a great deal of time and effort was spent on debating reform of the House of Lords. Sadly, it came to nothing because the Liberal Democrats refused to have a constructive dialogue with reformers on the Opposition Benches and because—it is important to remember this—the Prime Minister did not deliver on his promise and Conservative Back Benchers defended the status quo.
What is needed now is a nationwide debate about the kind of democracy we need for the 21st century. The 19th-century, highly centralised nation state based on London is surely a thing of the past. Decentralisation must be the order of the day, not just to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but to the regions, cities and localities of England. There is therefore a strong case for a second Chamber—call it a senate if you like—made up of representatives of the nations and regions of the UK, possibly with people drawn from local government as well. Such a second Chamber might be made up of indirectly elected representatives or directly elected representatives. It would have the advantage of providing informed scrutiny by individuals drawn from all parts of the United Kingdom. It is a shame that most Members of the other place are either drawn from, or have a focus on, London and south-east England. That cannot be acceptable.
When we talk about fundamental change to our constitution, it is important to remember three things. First, there must be debate and dialogue between all political parties and, if possible, a high degree of consensus about what kind of changes are needed. If it is believed that political advantage is a motive behind any constitutional change, that change will not work effectively and will ultimately fail. Secondly, it is important not to see Lords reform in isolation from other changes that are needed for our democracy. I have already referred to devolution, but I believe that in our country there is a widespread thirst for popular engagement. No longer are people prepared simply to sit back and allow those who are unelected to make important decisions. It is therefore important to have a broad perspective when considering changes to our democracy.
Thirdly, we must not believe that there can be a top-down approach towards political reform, or that we are the repository of all knowledge on these matters. The people of our country need to be fully engaged in the debate on democratic renewal, and that is why we believe that there needs to be a people’s constitutional convention. Such a convention ought not to be made up of the great and good; rather, it should draw in people from all walks of life and all parts of the country. It must be focused in its discussions, and it must also inspire and enthuse people so that we give our democracy fresh life and inspiration.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) on securing this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. I think he said that it was his beginners plea when he made his case, but he knocked any sense of being a beginner into a cocked hat with his speech. He hoped that we would forgive his tendency for Celtic hyperventilation—I think that was the phrase he used. He was also kind enough to mention that he counted Wales and certainly Cornwall as part of the Celtic fringe. I may not represent Cornwall but I have a Cornish name, so I am glad to hear that he would include me in that group. I will try not to hyperventilate either, and the hon. Gentleman made a powerful and good case.
We also had the opportunity to compare and contrast our debate with the previous debate on space policy, which contained many quotes from David Bowie. In this debate we had many quotes from Robbie Burns. I will leave Members here present and those reading Hansard later to come to their own conclusions about the relative merits of those two bards, one ancient, one modern. I suspect that they will both be clasped firmly to different people’s hearts during this debate.
Let me echo a point made by a number of colleagues during the debate and ask: where on earth are the Liberal Democrats? Where have they got to?
Many of them are in the House of Lords. They are reduced to a small number of MPs, and none of them is here today. I regard that as a real tragedy because in the last Parliament, and in previous Parliaments, they—they have not been the only ones—were pressing the case for reform of the Lords and other constitutional reform. All of a sudden, when they are hugely over-represented in the House of Lords relative to their representation in this House, they are nowhere to be seen. They are Macavity’s cat when it comes to reform of the Lords and this debate. That is a tragedy, and people will draw their own conclusions about their relative levels of interest.
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire encapsulated a series of criticisms about the Lords, which have been widely echoed by many Members. I will not go through them all in huge detail when summing up the debate, but broadly speaking he made the point in a variety of different ways that the level of democratic legitimacy in the House of Lords is incredibly low. The only group that are elected are the 92 hereditary peers, and they are elected from an electoral college.
There are other criticisms—that the House of Lords is very large, and the bishops and hereditaries should not be there—that buttress the central charge of a lack of legitimacy and democratic principle in the Lords as it is currently constituted. I agree and that is reflected in my personal voting record on the issue. The hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) mentioned the series of votes on the issue in the 2005 Parliament. It was my first Parliament and I voted consistently for anything that would increase the level of democratic involvement in the House of Lords. In the 2010 Parliament, we had an incredibly long and drawn-out attempt to reform the House of Lords. I do not think that anyone could claim that there was not a determined attempt—probably the most determined attempt for several generations—to reform the House of Lords and to make it more democratically legitimate. I voted consistently throughout for those reforms, even though the form of election might not necessarily have been to everybody’s taste—even mine. They were a step in the right direction, however, or at least they would have been had they been passed. I cannot argue, therefore, either from a personal or Government point of view, that the central charge is not valid. That is why the Conservative party’s election manifesto said we remain committed in principle to reform. Our approach is not driven by an opposition to the central charge made by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire and echoed by many other hon. Members today.
If I can ask the hon. Gentleman to hold his horses, I hope to come back to that later. I am sure he will pick me up on that if I do not address it sufficiently.
At this point, I should declare a small, non-financial family interest. A couple of years ago, my wife was appointed to the House of Lords. When she was appointed, I had to point out to her that I had a long track record of voting multiple times to abolish her, and anybody like her, from the House of Lords in due course. She has forgiven me and I am sure the House will be delighted to hear that relations over the family breakfast table are not too strained. However, I can reassure hon. Members that my personal views have not changed, despite the family involvement. Given the chance, I would vote to make them far more democratically legitimate.
I started by assuming, I think not necessarily entirely correctly, that the SNP was exclusively and purely a unicameralist party. I think we have heard support for that view during the debate from many SNP Members, the hon. Member for Luton North and, to some degree, my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). I hope I am not putting words in anybody’s mouth, but I think I heard some degree of qualified willingness to at least consider a more democratically legitimate second Chamber as an alternative to the perhaps favoured unicameralist view.
Just to clarify that point, the view of the SNP and the Scottish Government was that, had we won the referendum last year, we would not have needed a second Chamber in Scotland because the Scottish Parliament works effectively. This Parliament, in the view of the SNP, is not working effectively and so a second Chamber is beneficial, but it must be democratically elected.
That is very helpful in clarifying the SNP’s view and it leads me to talk about opportunities for reform. I, and the Government, would certainly favour keeping a second Chamber and making it more effective if the opportunity ever presented itself. There are huge advantages to having an effective second Chamber here. I say that because often the level of scrutiny imposed on any Government by the second Chamber is not a comfortable experience. It has not always been a comfortable experience for previous Labour, Conservative or even coalition Governments. Even though it is not necessarily easy or comfortable—on occasions it can be incredibly frustrating—I believe it is democratically justified and desirable, and that it results, at least in Westminster, in better law. I went along to the Lords yesterday and stood at the Bar, listening to its debate on the Strathclyde review. I challenge anybody to say it was not a high-quality and capable discussion, conducted at a high level and very clearly expressed. It has a great deal to offer, regardless of its legitimacy, and our democracy would be the poorer without a revising second Chamber.
As colleagues on both sides have said, however, we need to be careful about the Lords’ powers and composition. The problem is agreeing not on the need for reform but on how we do it. As the hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) said, we should be discussing not whether change is needed but what kind of change could be achieved. That is where we all come up against a serious and fundamental practical problem. While many people agree that some kind of reform and improved democratic legitimacy for the upper House is vital, agreeing on its form and creating a democratic consensus about what it should look like—as opposed simply to agreeing that there should be something—is a great deal harder. And that is what politics is all about; it is about forging the necessary democratic consensus. I think the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) mentioned the need for a democratic debate.
We need to forge a democratic consensus not on the need for change but on the form it should take. That is where the previous attempt in the last Parliament came unstuck. There were far too many competing recipes for what the revised House of Lords might look like and a plethora of different approaches. It came unstuck not because of a lack of ideas but because there were too many ideas and not enough people agreed on any one of them, and therefore the opponents of reform won through.
I would broaden out that point. It is hugely helpful, although not essential, for any constitutional change to be made with some cross-party agreement, if only because—this is one of the fundamental points of Britain’s unwritten constitution—people need to be happy not just with how things work when they are in government but when the shoe is on the other foot and they are in opposition, because they need to bear it in mind that at some point they might not be in government. Good Governments and good Oppositions remember that point and proceed with caution and agreement wherever possible. It is not always possible, but when it can be done, it should be.
The challenge is not to agree that change is necessary but to define precisely what form it should take and to form a sufficiently large consensus to overcome the forces of inertia, which, if we are not careful, naturally tend to win—I do not know whether it is inertia or entropy, but either way, it is what happened last time.
Will the Minister agree that part of the difficulty in arriving at a consensus is the many vested interests served by the Lords and the history of the appointees to it? It would be useful to bring in members of the public to open up the outlook on what a new constitutional arrangement might be.
That is one of the principles that underlie the support of the many people who are in favour of an increase in democratic legitimacy. With a democratically elected second Chamber, it is much, much harder for the forces of reaction and special interests to win through, because the antidote to most of those things is normally greater democratic involvement. So I think the hon. Lady’s question enclosed its own answer, if I can put it that way; I certainly support her point.
Our problem therefore is choosing—not if, but how. There are currently too many different forms of possible election that could be looked at. There is the alternative vote, for example, and dozens of different forms of proportional representation. I regularly get letters from people who are cleaving to one or more of dozens of different kinds of electoral system. I am not sure what the democratic consensus would be on which one would be right, but I know that without a democratic consensus on choosing one, we will not be able to win the argument and get it done.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) interestingly suggested something based on occupation rather than on geographical constituencies, and all these ideas are possible. They would all create alternative franchises that would not clash directly with the one used for this Chamber. Finding a non-clashing democratic mandate would be an advantage, but until such a thing can be done, we are inevitably on the back foot.
I hope the Minister is not saying that because it is so difficult, we should not do it. As the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) suggested, now might be a good time for this Conservative Government to think about taking this forward. If hardly any Members keen to maintain the House of Lords in its current form are willing to pitch up, it clearly means that there is an appetite for reform. Now is the time.
The hon. Lady made a series of powerful points, many of which I agreed with, but on that particular one I am respectfully going to disagree with her for a couple of reasons. We have heard from a number of different sides that the level of unprompted interest in the Dog and Duck in reform of the House of Lords is remarkably low. It might be quite high if we went along to the Bishops Bar, but that is probably the only bar in the entire country where that topic of conversation would come up naturally. Members of all parties are right to say that, when prompted, many people will agree that it is important to reform the Lords in some way. Without that prompt, however, it ranks a long way down people’s lists of priorities.
We need to form and forge a democratic consensus, but it is difficult for all of us to do so when the issue is low down the list of priorities because other things are more urgent, more immediate or loom larger. It would be wrong to overstate the appetite for reform and wrong to ignore the practical difficulties of achieving it. I do not want to assume that because something is desirable but not simple, it can therefore be wished for and produced with a wave of a magic wand. We all understand, as elected politicians, how hard this is, and we can all see the trail of failed attempts to make big reform changes. We have seen how difficult equally talented politicians, some of them extremely talented politicians, have found it.
That said, there is a possibility for smaller steps to be made. In the last Parliament, there was a series of small reforms. I do not want to let anyone get the impression that we think that small reforms are a substitute for more thoroughgoing things, but in many cases they represent progress in the right direction. It would wrong to let the best be the enemy of the good. When in the last Parliament, the House of Lords chose to change the rules on the retirement of its Members, this House agreed with it and it was a step in the right direction.
Many other issues are currently being discussed in the House of Lords, led by senior parliamentarians at that end of the building, including further reduction of the size of the House of Lords, looking at retirement ages and doing all sorts of other things. Those might not be to everybody’s taste as a complete answer—many certainly do not deal with the point about democratic legitimacy—but they are steps in the right direction, and I think we should encourage their Lordships to proceed with them. We must not be guilty of saying that just because it does not fulfil our perfect world scenario, we should not give it at least the time of day.
I encourage House of Lords Members as well as hon. Members here present and others elsewhere—anybody who is interested—to try to address the question of how to achieve greater democratic legitimacy. What kind of franchise can be chosen that will not clash with the franchise of this Chamber? What levels of powers do we think should be approved for the upper Chamber?
Incidentally, there has been some criticism of the Strathclyde review today. Let me gently suggest to those who are critical that, while they may wish that the review had a broader mandate, at its heart is the aim of making the primacy of the elected House apply. I hope that Members can at least agree that that is desirable. The outcome will of course depend on which of the options are followed, but the current formulation would move us towards a much more regularised and clearly defined system of powers between this House and the upper House. A series of options are being considered in respect of the length of stay of those who are currently in the upper House, under the existing system, along with such matters as retirement ages. All those things are vital, but if we are to have reform, I urge all Members who are present today to try to create a democratic debate, and perhaps form a democratic consensus, with the aim of reaching a conclusion.
I want to give the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire a chance to sum up the debate for a couple of minutes—and perhaps to give us a little bit more Robbie Burns; I do not know—so I shall do something unusual for a politician, and sit down and keep quiet. I thank everyone who took part in the debate for their useful and thoughtful contributions. I should also respond to some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), because he asked me particularly to do so. He made a number of specific suggestions about people who might or might not be appointed to the House of Lords. I will take that as a submission, and will relay it to those in the House of Lords so that they can consider it as part of their current deliberations.
I look forward to hearing the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire sum up the debate.
I thank the Minister for participating in the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for informing the House about how we can make progress in the reform of an upper Chamber. I should make it clear, however, that for me and for my fellow SNP Members, the mandate from the constituencies of Scotland is that the reform must begin with the abolition of an unelected, unaccountable peerage which can generate legislation in that other place.
I also thank the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I managed to say that very quickly—my hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), and for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), who is no longer in the Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson), who I know is about to leave the Chamber to go home, and my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant). I especially thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), who did much of the groundwork for the debate.
Let me now place before the Minister a couple of caveats on reform. The appointment of ex-Members of this place should be forbidden for a minimum of 10 years. It is abhorrent that those who are thrown out of public office by the electorate can be duly thrown into the upper Chamber. The 26 archbishops and bishops of the Church of England should be removed immediately and prevented from debating the legislation of the civic and religious life of Scotland.
Members of the House of Lords should be automatically forced to retire by the age of 80. Even members of the Roman Curia are forced to retire as cardinals of the Roman Church. Fundamental, real change requires abolition.
This is an issue in Scotland. It may not be seen as an issue in the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—and I know that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) would have been present if he could have been—but to us it is an issue of inequality that is at the heart of our liberal democracy. I reject the House of Lords, because my constituents told me to reject it—for they are nothing, at that other end of the Corridor, but a bunch of sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beasties, and their time is up.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered House of Lords reform,