[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered reform of the House of Lords.
Happy new year, Sir Gary. Before I was elected to this place, I was opposed to the House of Lords. Indeed, in 2005 I proposed a motion to the Scottish National party conference that confirmed the party’s position that no SNP member would take a seat in the House of Lords. However, after being here and seeing the role that the House of Lords plays in scrutinising and revising legislation, how it holds the Government to account, and the expertise and experience that its Members bring to the parliamentary process, I am now really opposed to the House of Lords. When I say that, I mean no disrespect to any individual member of the House of Lords—and I know that some peers are paying extremely close attention to this debate.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has noted that there is a peer present: Baron Foulkes, who was elected to the Scottish Parliament. Does my hon. Friend agree that if Baron Foulkes, who is unelected, wants to have anything to do with legislation, he should perhaps seek election, rather than sitting in the Public Gallery and no doubt tweeting throughout the debate?
I will leave my hon. Friend’s comments on the record. However, it is possible for people to be elected to the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, our former colleague, Winnie Ewing, has the distinction of having been elected to the Scottish Parliament, the House of Commons and the European Parliament; I think that she is the only person ever to sit in all three of those legislatures. I do not know whether a seat in the House of Lords was then offered to her, but if it was she certainly never took it.
However, this debate is not about individual Members of the House of Lords. Many of them have immensely valuable skills and experience that sometimes are not found or replicated in the Commons. Nevertheless, there must be better, more imaginative and more innovative ways of using such experience for the public good than simply appointing people to the legislature for the rest of their lives and just letting them get on with it.
Even the majority of peers themselves think that the current arrangements are unsuitable and unsustainable. The Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House published a series of recommendations in 2017 aimed at reducing and stabilising the composition of the House of Lords, but under recent Prime Ministers the House of Lords has become even more bloated. Famously, the National People’s Congress of China is the only legislative Chamber in the world that has more members than the House of Lords.
That is one of those amusing anecdotes that some of us like to tell guests when we show them around this place. Another one is that Lesotho is one of the two countries in the Commonwealth where hereditary chieftains retain the right to make law, the other being the United Kingdom. Another is that Iran is one of only two countries in the world where religious clerics sit as of right in the legislature, the other being—again—the United Kingdom. Those statements are not just anecdotes; they are anachronisms. They are not really amusing; they are absurd. Sometimes, when we show guests, particularly those from developing countries, the opulence of the Lords Chamber, words begin to fail us. How do we adequately describe what the Lords actually is, how it is composed and why it functions in the way it does in what is supposed to be a 21st-century democracy?
Sometimes, visiting delegations—perhaps under the auspices of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Inter-Parliamentary Union or the Westminster Foundation for Democracy—come to Westminster from countries in Africa, Latin America or eastern Europe. They meet parliamentarians such as ourselves around antique tables and oak-panelled walls and they talk about good governance, democratic accountability and anti-corruption practices. Although such learning and sharing among parliamentarians is always valuable, many eyebrows are raised if in discussions it happens to come up that one in 10 Conservative peers have donated more than £100,000 to the Conservative party, and that in the past seven years every former Conservative party treasurer has given at least £3 million to the party, and almost all of them have been offered a peerage. There seems to be an uncanny connection between donating vast sums of money to the Government, or indeed to some of the official Opposition parties, and the chances of being offered a seat for life in the House of Lords.
I am glad that my hon. Friend is making that strong and powerful point. We have some gall to lecture the developing world about good governance arrangements, when we are prepared to stuff a political institution full of people who are little more than donors, cronies and political place-people, in order to ensure their place in what I would not call our democracy, but our legislature, just for the fact that they have some money to give to political parties. Does he agree?
I do not disagree with my hon. Friend. As he and I have said, the connection is quite uncanny. Of course, no one is levelling specific accusations, but that connection is out in the open. It is a simple fact; it is simply numbers. In conjunction with Brunel University, openDemocracy calculated that the odds of so many major Tory donors in the UK population all ending up in the House of Lords are the equivalent of entering the national lottery 12 times in a row and winning the jackpot every time. That is quite astonishing.
As we know, there are limits on the collective ability of the Lords to veto or overrule the elected House. However, as my hon. Friend alluded to, the rights available to individual peers are very similar to ours in the House of Commons. They can put written and oral questions to Ministers. They can vote on and seek to amend legislation during a three-stage process that parallels that in the Commons. Incidentally, that means they can also bump into Ministers privately when they are in the voting Lobbies, which is supposed to be one of the great advantages of in-person voting.
Peers can introduce their own private Members’ Bills. They can sign up to inter-parliamentary bodies such as the CPA and the IPU, and they can join all-party parliamentary groups. There is, rightly, a lot of scrutiny at the moment of the operation of all-party parliamentary groups, but I wonder how many colleagues present have had to leave early or arrive late at an APPG meeting that they were interested in because they have had to deal with urgent constituency casework, or get to the Chamber for an urgent question or a statement relating to their constituency. Meanwhile, colleagues from the Lords at such meetings are content to run on and opine about the topic under discussion, whatever that happens to be, and build their connections with stakeholders and the secretariats of those meetings, whoever they happen to be.
In return for all that, peers are entitled to claim £332 for every day they attend the House, tax free. Sometimes it is pointed out that over an average of 150 sitting days a year, that works out at slightly less than the salary of a Member of the House of Commons after tax. However, in the Lords it is guaranteed for life. Members of Parliament are, without doubt, very well remunerated compared with most of our constituents. However, our constituents can, quite rightly, choose to stop that remuneration and elect a different representative in our place every time an election comes round.
Would my hon. Friend put on record the fact that the tax-free allowance that Members of the House of Lords are given is based on a system of them just coming and clocking in? We saw with Lord Hanningfield that they can literally be on the Estate for five minutes, then beaver off and get on with the other jobs that they have.
It comes back to the point about accountability. Members of Parliament who behave in such a way would be taken to task, first by their Whips, secondly by the local party members, and finally by the electorate.
Since the end of the second world war, 65 countries have gained their independence from the United Kingdom. Although many have based the design and practices of their legislatures on might be called a Westminster model, I am not sure whether any of them have chosen to replicate a wholly unelected, appointed, partially hereditary Chamber where members serve for life. Even in Lesotho, with its hereditary chieftains, appointed members of the Senate serve a five-year term. Its Senate has 33 members, not over 800.
SNP manifestos in 2015, 2017 and 2019 called for the abolition of the House of Lords. When Scotland becomes the 66th country to achieve independence from the United Kingdom, there will be an opportunity to consider how the enactment of legislation, scrutiny of the Executive and representation of the population can be most effectively —and perhaps innovatively—achieved.
There have been proposals for an upper Chamber of some kind, perhaps based on the model of the Irish Seanad. There have been calls for an increase in the number of MSPs, both under current devolution and indeed under independence. There are more radical ideas for pre-legislative scrutiny and a greater use of citizens’ assemblies and other forms of direct democracy that could feed into the main legislature.
However, nobody, as far as I am aware, has suggested that when Scotland becomes independent, or when any other country has a good hard look at its constitution, it would be a good idea to have a wholly appointed second Chamber. The idea is just incomprehensible and incompatible with a modern democracy.
This has always been a quandary for me: what does an independent Scotland do with existing peers who have Scottish titles or who are from a Scottish part of the world? It struck me that, just to show generosity and good spirit, perhaps we could donate all the Scottish lords to the rest of the United Kingdom as a parting gift? Does my hon. Friend think that is a good idea?
During the independence referendum campaign my hon. Friend was probably so busy making the case for independence in the House of Commons and in his constituency that he missed the fact that the peers dwelled on that issue for some considerable time and that it was a matter of great concern to them. They came to the conclusion that because they had been appointed for life and were peers of the United Kingdom, the fact that they once lived or served—or even continue to live—in Scotland was irrelevant and they would all be safe in their place. After that they appeared to lose interest in the question of independence.
I am sure it is a relief to many people paying attention to the debate. Anyway, that information was meant to be just for background and context, but it turns out that simply by describing the absurdity of the current system the case for reform of the Lords starts to speak for itself. My point today is not so much about what kind of reform of the House of Lords is necessary or what should replace it were it to be completely abolished, but about why reform has not happened or is not happening and the ongoing failure—indeed, the impossibility—of any kind of meaningful reform. There seem to be two main reasons for that.
First, it is not in the interests of the governing party at Westminster or the Prime Minister—any Prime Minister—to weaken the immense power of patronage that the ability to make appointments to the Lords represents. Secondly, it is simply not possible to reform the Lords in any meaningful way without reforming the Commons, and that would mean not just procedural reform but electoral reform, followed by a review of the entire structure of the UK’s constitution. That would never be in the interests of any incumbent party of government.
Members may be aware that there have been some significant interventions on the issue of Lords reform in recent months, and these have, intentionally or otherwise, conceded both of those points. The Lord Speaker addressed the issue of Lords reform in the Hansard Society’s 75th anniversary lecture just before Christmas. His proposed framework was thoughtful and pragmatic, and it is easy to agree with several of the key principles he outlined about why reform was needed and what it could start to look like. He made a key point that the more radical the change to the composition of the Lords, the more radical would be the change to the role of the House, even if there were no explicit changes in its powers. However, to me it then follows that there would inevitably also be a change in its relationship with the Commons, and the Commons would want to find new ways, quite rightly, to assert its democratic mandate.
The Lord Speaker diplomatically regretted the decision of recent Prime Ministers not to show restraint in making new appointments, and remarked that the House of Lords has increased from 778 members in June 2019 to 828 today, with more to come. Those figures show just how irresistible the power of patronage is to many Prime Ministers. Other than various absolute monarchs and dictators, who else in the world has the power to confer a job for life on any person of their choosing? That is a power that rests with the UK’s Prime Minister, exercisable over wavering Back-Bench rebels, potential advisers who need to be enticed away from the private sector and, it seems by more than mathematical coincidence, over many wealthy party donors.
The Lord Speaker also pointed out that a change of Government could easily lead to a further surge in membership of the Lords in order to reflect the changed balance of power in the Commons. That shows, once again, that it is impossible to speak of meaningful reforms of the Lords in isolation, and not consider the effect that reform would have on the UK’s wider political system.
These points are raised in the other recent major intervention on the issue, the recommendations published by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, after he modestly accepted a commission from the Leader of the Opposition to produce a report on the future of the United Kingdom.
Yes, what an achievement!
Incidentally, it is a bit odd that this debate is not being led by a Member of the official Opposition. People would think the report would have inspired a rush of applications from Labour Members eager to share their thoughts on constitutional reform and the role of the House of Lords, but in reality, barely a month after its publication, the status of that report is not clear.
Media coverage at the time suggested that it would form the basis of Labour’s next manifesto, which would mean the next election would become a de facto referendum on the constitution. A vote for the Labour party would be a vote to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an assembly of nations and regions, for further regional devolution throughout England and for reform of the powers of the Scottish Parliament and Senedd Cymru, never mind that they were established by a Labour Government after popular referendums, or that previous extensions to their powers came as a result of cross-party commissions, including representatives from those institutions. Now it seems a Labour Government elected on 40% of the UK-wide vote will claim a mandate for sweeping constitutional reform.
Would it not be a simple way for Labour to show commitment to true House of Lords reform if it just stopped making appointments to it? A better gesture might be to even remove a few of them now and again, including the ones who do not turn up. Maybe that is a suggestion that my hon. Friend could make to our friends on the Labour Benches.
There are a number of Members, including the spokesperson for the official Opposition, present, so they will have heard that. They will have also read the repeated reports of the Lord Speaker’s Commission. The irony is that the House of Lords is more keen on reform than the Government are.
I do not wish to burst my hon. Friend’s bubble on Labour party commitments, but is he aware that since 1910 the Labour party has made manifesto commitments to abolish the House of Lords? Given that it has not happened in 110 years, how seriously can we trust the report by Gordon Brown?
That is the point; the pattern continues. We keep talking about but never actually implementing any meaningful or wholesale reform. The report does at least recognise that we cannot tackle one part of the system without tackling all of it. For all the fuss and media fanfare, it will just sit on the shelf and gather dust, as my hon. Friend suggests. Reform of the Lords and of the wider constitution becomes a second-order or a second-term issue, and the Executive can get on quietly putting to use the accumulated powers that they enjoy under the status quo.
That probably helps to explain, at least in part, the current Government’s position. They have said in various contexts that reform of the Lords is “not a priority”, despite the Conservative manifesto saying that the role of the House of Lords should be “looked at”. But now, even the modest suggestion of a cap on numbers, endorsed, as I have said, by the House of Lords itself, is too radical. The Minister who is in his place told me on 8 December at Cabinet Office questions:
“The Government do not have a view on the upper limit of the House of Lords.”—[Official Report, 8 December 2022; Vol. 724, c. 510.]
So there we go. It is quite remarkable—to infinity and beyond, the House of Lords filled with Tory donors, cronies and time servers. I have maybe saved the Minister his entire summing-up because the position appears to be that constitutional perfection in the UK has been achieved, and nothing needs to change again. Indeed, his colleague, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, seems to have said that he does not believe there should be any further devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament, either—now or in the future. Fortunately, it is not up to them to decide.
Those of us who support independence for Scotland are often accused of obsessing about the constitution. We are told that we should focus on the priorities of our constituents—the cost of living crisis, improving public services. I agree—
Now you are doing my summing-up speech.
The Minister might be interested to hear this, then. I certainly do agree that those are the key priorities for people, families, businesses and communities in Glasgow North and beyond, but to really address those priorities, we need to address the fundamental systems underneath. One way of putting it would be to say:
“While many of our immediate economic problems can be fixed by pursuing better policies, by stopping the race to the bottom in our economy, Britain needs change that runs much deeper—giving the people of Britain more power and control over our lives and the decisions that matter to us. Changing not just who governs us, but how we are governed, will address a system of government that the British people perceive is broken.”
Those are not my words. Those are the words of Gordon Brown in the introduction to his report on the UK’s future. They make the case that constitutional change is needed if we are to drive radical, social and economic change. The difficulty for the Labour party, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) has said, is that it has been promising that for 113 years, and for 13 of those years, starting in 1997, it had a chance to change it.
At the end of those 13 years, there was a certain amount of devolution across the UK, but there was still a first-past-the-post system that stoked division rather than built consensus, and a system that allowed an individual Prime Minister to appoint whoever they wanted to a seat in Parliament—and there were 92 legislators who still had a seat in Parliament because of who their parents were.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, which is a topic of great interest to me, because I have I have introduced a Bill that is scheduled for debate next Friday. Its purpose is to end the scandal whereby eight seats in the upper House are effectively reserved for men only. I urge the hon. Gentleman to put his support behind my Bill next Friday.
I would be very happy to support the hon. Lady’s Bill, and I commend her on her work with the international institutions that I mentioned earlier.
I would also be happy to come back to Westminster Hall and debate how we can reform the private Member’s Bill system, because the chance of many of those Bills getting through is another aspect of Westminster democracy that many of my constituents find incredibly frustrating.
That takes us back to the point that real change to how we in Scotland are governed cannot, and will not, come through gradual, grudging and piecemeal change at Westminster. Frankly, it is independence for Scotland that is most likely finally to force the rest of the UK to look at and reform its constitution, including the role and composition of the House of Lords. For those of us from Scotland, that will perhaps be the topic of some fascinating future inter-parliamentary roundtable, while the democratically elected and accountable Parliament and Government of an independent Scotland gets on with building a fairer, greener and healthier society in what will be the early days of a better nation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I come to this debate somewhat prepared and somewhat remembering my A-level classes, where we had to debate the idea of House of Lords reform. As I stand here now, a few years on from my A-levels, and think about the merits of the House of Lords, I fear that the wolves are circling.
When SNP Members turn up to a Westminster Hall debate and promise to improve the constitution of the United Kingdom, I feel they are somewhat acting like pandas: they want to eat, shoot and leave our constitution. I worry about that and about the damage the proposals from the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) might cause. In his typically erudite way, he came up with a whole host of reasons for some of the mistakes and problems that can be seen in the House of Lords. Of course, we can see mistakes and problems in the House of Commons, and we should not be outright opposed to some reforms or changes. However, what the hon. Gentleman typically forgot to do was to talk about some of the positive aspects of the House of Lords and the important work it does, or about many of the occasions on which the SNP has been led to support the House of Lords when it has checked the Government on important pieces of legislation.
I will start with a few points of rebuttal, since I do believe this is like an A-level debate.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, supporting something and agreeing with a decision are two very different things. Just because, on occasion—particularly during Brexit—the SNP has agreed with decisions that the House of Lords has made, that does not mean that we support it or have ever said that we support it.
I was not suggesting for a second that the SNP had done so. I was more making the point that, although I hope Scotland always remains part of the Union of the United Kingdom, if the SNP wants to not be part of it, perhaps it should not be making comments on this topic.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North made a point about opulence and tradition—that he was not so in favour of it and that he is lost for words when he stands in the House of Lords. I, too, am lost for words when I stand in the House of Lords—because of the sheer magnificence, the history and the tradition. No nation was ever weakened by a love of tradition; in fact, a nation can be strengthened and improved by it. We can use tradition to our advantage.
When we talk about that tradition and that opulence, we can also talk about the important pieces of legislation that start in the House of Lords and make huge differences to people across the land, not because those in the Lords have necessarily been elected by the people, but because they bring with them a specific understanding and knowledge of sectors that would never normally put individuals into the public eye to make pieces of legislation.
An interesting consideration about an elected second Chamber is how it would retain its huge expertise across so many industries, which is very important to legislative scrutiny. Does the hon. Member have any thoughts on how that could be done effectively?
I worry about that, because one thing we may find common cause and agreement on is that being in public life is becoming increasingly hard for us all—both Members of Parliament and Members of the House of Lords. It is difficult, and it is unfortunate that we are so often in the glare of the public eye, with all of the trials and tribulations that come with that. I would not want to see the House of Lords elected, because I do not think we would achieve that aim of encouraging specialists to be part of it. I will develop those points later in my remarks.
I have to say that Baron Mangnall has a ring to it that we could all get behind. The hon. Member spoke about some of the wonderful specialists in the House of Lords. Could he develop his point a little more by talking about the specialisms of, say, Baroness Michelle Mone?
If I may, the hon. Member’s colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow North, started off by saying that he was not going to be specific about individuals, and I do not think it is right that we are specific about individuals. However, if there is an individual who has done extremely well in business as a woman in the 21st century, I think it is important to note that. But I might also point out that the House of Lords has been a welcoming home to refugees, in the form of Baroness Helic, who fled the war in Bosnia. It also has extraordinary scientists, such as Lord Winston. These extraordinary people make an extraordinary contribution, and they are not the minority—they are the majority.
In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for Glasgow North pointed out only a few small issues, rather than the vast majority of positive things that go on throughout the House of Lords. He made the point about cronies in the Lords; the House of Lords is still conditioned to the standards that Parliament sets, and it is still compliant with the rules that we too must follow. It is important to remember that it is not some lawless upper Chamber in which people can do what they want. It is set to the same procedures and scrutiny that we must follow. I do not think we should put that aside.
I have a few points to make. First, the House of Lords serves as an important check and balance. I notice that not a single SNP Member was at yesterday’s debate on the Procurement Bill, apart from the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), who was on the Front Bench. Dry, difficult and sometimes dull as procurement might be, it is a perfect example of how a Bill can be introduced in the House of Lords, shaped by fantastic expertise from across the Chamber and then brought to the House of Commons, where it passes its Second Reading, not with great confrontation and difficulty, but with acceptance that it is a good piece of legislation that will make a huge difference.
I would be interested to know whether the hon. Member thinks that the Government will undo some of the amendments the Lords put in and that the Bill will end up looking more like it did when the Government introduced it—rather than retaining what those experts in the House of Lords did to it?
It is perfectly acceptable to say that there will be scrutiny and change, as there always is, but that is not to say that the job has not been well done by Members of the House of Lords. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Aberdeen North may laugh about that, but that is exactly the point of the process. We want to be able to make use of that expertise in the House of Commons, and we want our legislative agenda to be scrutinised in the House of Lords. That is the way the system works.
Those important checks and balances have meant that pieces of legislation that have been passed on the fly—I have felt that, in some cases, they have perhaps been passed too quickly—have been checked and sent back by the House of Lords. When it comes to international development, which I am deeply concerned about, the House of Lords has been extremely effective in that regard. That is something that those on the Labour Front Bench might agree with me on.
The vast majority of Members of the House of Lords are not people who have donated cheques, but people who have done extraordinary things in society. If the hon. Gentleman would like to go back and look at those numbers, I would be happy to do battle with him—the numbers are in my favour here. The vast majority of Members of the House of Lords need to be applauded, not ridiculed and pursued for being cronies and for not serving their country. They serve their country just as much as we do.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech supporting the work done in the other place, but surely he would agree that there is a need for incremental reform? Surely he cannot support the fact that an eighth of the seats in the other place are reserved for men only? Will he, too, support my Hereditary Titles (Female Succession) Bill?
I am used to being a constant rebel to the Government, so I am not entirely sure whether I am allowed to support anything, but I agree in principle with what my hon. Friend is doing. If primogeniture is going to be used, why should it not include women being able to take on titles? However, that perhaps goes over my head and is there for the constitutional experts.
The important point, which should not be overlooked, is that a vast number of Ministers who work in the House of Lords do so not for the extra salary, but because they are interested in the subject. That is something to be supported and encouraged. We need to note more often that Members on both sides of the House of Lords—including on the Cross Benches—work incredibly hard, and not for huge renumeration. They often work far longer hours than those in the House of Commons. It is important to say that we support this system. We can look at minor reforms to improve it and to ensure that Ministers who serve the Crown do so under their own hard work—not with the remuneration of the State.
I have made my points regarding the checks and balances, the value of the scrutiny of the Lords and the hard work that Ministers and peers put in, but it is also worth looking at the composition of the House of Lords. I have mentioned people such as Baroness Helic, whom I know as a friend and whom I have worked for, and I have followed individuals such as Lord Winston. Too often, we are scared to stand up to public opinion, but in the House of Lords we have a body of people who are governed not necessarily by public opinion but by the expertise and knowledge they bring to that place. They can discuss the issues not because they have read a briefing paper that morning or been briefed by a group, but because they have real-life, world experience. They have the expertise to be able to tease out the legislation that needs to be passed. That is something to be grateful for and to be cherished. It improves our legislation and the system we have in this country.
It is easy for individuals, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North did in his opening remarks, to talk about things such as China and to make an anecdotal point I have made on a number of occasions. In fact, I have often made the joke that when a young Member is introduced to the House of Lords they usually get a cheer when they run up the stairs, because they are so young. Perhaps it is rather unfair to say that, but I would make this point: yes, we can change the numbers in the House of Lords—maybe that could be up for discussion in the future, but that is up to the Government—but we need to ensure that we retain that expertise.
I will use an international example, as that is what the hon. Member for Glasgow North did. The Cabinet of the United States Government is not made up of elected individuals. They are appointed, albeit not for life—I accept that point—and they wield huge power, so let us not say that we are out of kilter with the rest of the world. We have a body of people who check themselves and who are required to have parliamentary scrutiny and the rigours of debate. This arrangement does work in other countries in certain systems. That is the important point, not the comparison to China or Lesotho, which the hon. Gentleman made. We should look at where this works and where we might be able to improve things.
I have taken far too long already, but there is another important point to make. There is value here. Improvements can always be made in both Houses. We should all be aware of that. I fear the day when we are unable to ensure that experts can go into the House of Lords, because they fear the rigours that we all have to deal with as elected Members. It is not easy being a Member of Parliament—we all know that. I do not think people would be readily able to stand up in the House of Lords and say, “I’ll go for election and the scrutiny and difficulties that come with that from the British public.” It is deeply troubling and unfortunate that so many people are persecuted and subjected to such appalling things on social media.
We must continue to use the House of Lords as a check and balance, a place of expertise, a place where we can celebrate the hard work of our Ministers and a place to which we can attract some of the most extraordinary people from around the world. It is typically generous of this country that we take migrants and end up putting them into the House of Lords. That has happened, and I think we should celebrate it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing the debate. As a democrat, it is one that I welcome. I believe that those who are responsible for our laws should have democratic legitimacy. If they do not, our politics, which already struggles to hold the confidence of many members of the public, will continue to ebb away. Of course, it is not entirely correct that no Member of the Lords has a democratic mandate. Last year, there were half a dozen by-elections to replace hereditary peers. As we know, it is a very selective electorate, with only other hereditary peers able to vote. The last election saw a grand total of 37 votes cast. I suggest that anyone who believes that that should be the limit of our ambitions for democracy in the House of Lords should aim a little higher.
As has been reflected on, many Members of the House of Lords do make excellent contributions, but some are, sadly, a little less assiduous. We know that an average of only between a half and two thirds of the Members of the upper House actually attend, and many Members have not spoken or voted in a considerable time.
The House of Lords currently has a huge number of peers—over 800. Does the hon. Member agree that reducing that number could be one aspect of initial reform, along with looking at ways to increase the diversity of the membership of the other House, as the Chair of the Treasury Committee, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), said.
I believe that it was Government policy not so long ago to reduce the membership of the Lords. I am not sure that that has been kept on track—like many Government policies.
Many Members do not speak or attend at all, but they appear to be able to do so without any accountability. That is an affront to democracy and an insult to the public.
When we talk about the House of Lords, one thing I find amusing is the concept of working peers. We do not talk about “working refuse collectors” or “working brain surgeons”. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be some sort of threshold, at least in the beginning, such that if a peer has not spoken or voted, they automatically lose their place in the House of Lords, by virtue of not being a working peer?
That is an interesting suggestion. I would suggest that lords in that position should do the honourable thing and resign. We have spoken about the Government wanting to have minimum service levels; indeed, they want to sack nurses and teachers who do not keep to those. Perhaps they should apply the same standards to Members of the Lords.
I am certainly not claiming that there are no valuable elements of the current House of Lords. As we have heard, there are many extremely talented Members who demonstrate high levels of integrity, expertise and independence. However, we make a huge mistake in assuming that the second Chamber is naturally imbued with those characteristics because of the way that Members are appointed. As we have heard, there is a growing tendency for those with the biggest cheque books to be offered a seat at the table. That is not democracy; that is not the way a modern country should operate. I see no reason why those who have a place because of their skills, experience or abilities would not have a good chance of continuing to serve if they put themselves forward for election by the public. Ultimately, for all the positive qualities that those particular Members show, their contribution is fatally undermined by the lack of democratic legitimacy.
We essentially say to the public, “We trust you to decide on our future relationship with Europe. We trust you to elect Members of Parliament, councillors, police and crime commissioners, and Mayors. But we do not think we can trust you to elect the upper Chamber of Parliament.” I have no truck—we have already picked up on this—with those who are recent converts to the merits of the House of Lords just because, on a particular occasion, it voted in a particular way that suited their political views. That does not negate the overall democratic deficit that, in its current form, it represents. Let us not allow the day-to-day decisions, and the painfully slow incremental process that we have seen, to cloud the bigger picture: the House of Lords belongs to a bygone era of privilege, establishment and a closed political world, when we are, I hope, becoming a more open society.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) made a fundamental point: if we reform the House of Lords, we effectively reform the House of Commons. My hon. Friend is suggesting direct democracy for the House of Lords. Does he agree that that would necessarily diminish the powers of the House of Commons? It would put another House in opposition to our House, which would be a bad thing.
That is not necessarily the case, and that is not where the argument need take us. That kind of argument is often put forward by people who want to stifle change and reform.
I cannot believe that anyone would think that the current arrangements are satisfactory. We have, in effect, a halfway house between the medieval institution the Lords once was and the modern democracy that we, or certainly I, hope to see. When the number of hereditary peers was reduced in 1999, Baroness Jay described the Lords as a “transitional House”. It is clearly an anomaly that we have certain people entering there by different routes, and it is time that that was ended.
I will have two bites of the cherry. The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the House of Lords being a place of privilege, but the vast majority of people are not appointed from a background of privilege; they are appointed from a background of expertise and specialism in their subjects. He references the 92, but they are not the vast majority of the House of Lords.
That is 92 too many, in my opinion. I do not believe that having a place in our legislature by reason of birth has any place in our modern democracy.
As has been picked up on already, the recent report from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown sets out the case for reform very well; it contains serious proposals for what a modern, democratic second Chamber could look like, which could be implemented without us necessarily having to change the way we in this House work. Some of the big messages in that report about the loss of trust in our democratic institutions are ones that we should all be concerned about. The fact that more than 50% of adults believe it does not matter who they vote for and that nothing will change, and that more than 60% of people believe that Britain has a ruling class that will always rule the country, should ring huge alarm bells for single one of us who cares about democracy in this country.
My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. I would like to pursue the point. If a second Chamber were elected after the House of Commons had been elected, how would conflict between the two Houses be resolved if they had two contrary mandates? I agree that the current House of Lords is not justifiable, and I believe in its abolition, but I do not think we should set up an alternative democratic base to the House of Commons.
I refer my hon. Friend to the recommendations set out in the Brown report, which outline the limitations on a second Chamber’s ability to reject legislation. The suggestion is for it to have a defined constitutional role and this will cover when it is able to reject issues. Those are matters for further discussion, but nations around the world manage to have democratically elected second Chambers without creating chaos. I believe that is something we should aim for.
Coming back to the figures, we should take very seriously the fact that so many people have so little faith and trust in us representing them. Democracy is fragile and should not be taken for granted. We ignore those findings at our peril. We have to make our politics more open and accountable to the people we serve. An appointed body cannot have a future in that respect.
I will finish on this point. There are always pressing priorities, but we need to look at the bigger picture and at how the world is radically different from just a decade ago. We cannot allow our institutions to remain static forever. We must listen to what the public are telling us.
I am just finishing. The public want change and a political process that they feel a part of and that is not geographically weighted towards London and the south-east, as the second Chamber is at the moment. They want people with a mandate from the whole nation, and a body that is not just invitation only. They want accountability and representation. In short, they want democracy. Reform of the House of Lords is unfinished business, and it is about time we had a Government who intend to see that through to its conclusion.
I would like to begin by posing a scenario. We go to the public and we say to them, “We have a good idea for constitutional reform. Let us double the number of Members of Parliament.” How do colleagues feel that would go down? Not very well, I think. Suppose we then said, “Let us double the number of Members of Parliament, but elect half of them at one time, and half of them at another time.” How would that work in practice?
Alternatively, we could say, “Let us elect them all at the same time, but sit them in two Houses.” In which case, they rubber-stamp each other. Finally, we would say, “Let us elect one group under one electoral system and the other group under a different electoral system, but one will clearly be subordinate to the other, even though they are both democratically elected.” I wish anybody luck in trying to resolve the arguments and the deadlock resulting from that.
If we were having a debate about Scottish independence, I would be happy to engage with that. Our Scottish colleagues have quite rightly chosen to participate in the UK national constitutional debate, and that is what we are considering this afternoon. I have a firm view that if the House of Lords had to go, it would be far better to have a single elected Chamber, rather than two elected Chambers that would perpetually be either deadlocking or rubber-stamping each other.
I agree with the thrust of the right hon. Gentleman’s arguments. Does he agree that there is a fallacy in the comparison with other countries that have two different systems and an upper House? They rely on a written constitution and the courts interpreting it. That fallacy is deep within the Brown report—somehow, constitutionally, we will limit one House when we do not have a written constitution. Is that not a nonsense?
The hon. Gentleman is an independent thinker on his party’s Benches. Not for the first time, I find myself in total agreement with him. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said that the system of two elected Houses works well in other democracies. I am not sure that the citizens of the United States would entirely endorse that opinion, great though their democracy is.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is always courteous. I am an abolisher of the House of Lords, but the UK is a complex democracy and some sort of revising Chamber would be required to take care of all its specific demands. The right hon. Gentleman and, I think, the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) were here when Robin Cook proposed a series of reforms. I think we voted 11 times on a number of proposals, and none of them went through because of the very arguments made by the right hon. Gentleman. We cannot have competition with the House of Commons, but surely abolishing the House of Lords would not mean that we were left with nothing. There must be something we can think of to go in its place.
I remember that series of votes, because I voted against every one of those propositions. I was absolutely convinced that all of them would have changed matters for the worse.
Having said that, I agree with the hon. Gentleman as far as saying that there surely must be ways in which reforms can be made to the existing, non-elected upper House. I am sure that many thoughtful Members of that House agree with that proposition, not least the noble Lord Cormack and Lord Norton of Louth. They run an effective campaign for an effective second Chamber that is constantly looking at ways in which the existing upper House can be successfully improved.
After a promising start, having given a nod or two to the expertise of many Members of the upper House and to the quality of their debate, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), to whom we are all grateful for introducing the debate, fell into the traditional trap of complaining mainly about what the House of Lords is rather than what the House of Lords does, and does very well. In the short time that I wish to take up, I will give an illustration of that—if my technology will allow me.
I have a confession. I have been a Member of Parliament for over 25 years, and in all that time I, as an individual legislator, have managed to change only one piece of legislation, and that was because of the most unusual occasion of a free vote in the lower House. However, in a six-year period in the latter part of the 1980s—before I became a Member of Parliament—I was able, with the essential help of Members of the House of Lords, to change no fewer than four pieces of legislation. For the record, one was to require postal ballots for trade union elections, which was incorporated in the Trade Union Act 1984 and the Employment Act 1988. The second was to outlaw political indoctrination in schools, which was incorporated in the Education Act 1986 and carried forward in the Education Act 1996. The third was a measure prohibiting local councils from publishing politically partisan material on the rates, and that was incorporated in section 27 of the Local Government Act 1988. Fourthly, a more strict definition of the concept of due impartiality in coverage of politically contentious issues on television and radio was incorporated in the Broadcasting Act 1990.
I imagine that SNP Members in particular are sitting in horror at the prospect of all those legislative changes having gone through, but whether or not we agree with the particular changes, the fact is that they were possible only because the unelected House has a very limited whipping system. If a Member persuades thoughtful and independently minded Members of the upper House of the wisdom of a proposed amendment to a piece of legislation going through the parliamentary process and convinces them to back that amendment, there is every prospect that the upper House will insert it in the legislation, and it will remain there when it returns to the lower House, thereby forcing the Government to consider it seriously.
I mentioned the issue of postal ballots in trade union elections, which are now accepted by all. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) tabled an amendment on that issue in the lower House, it got nowhere. It was voted down—not on its merits but because of the whipping system. The vast majority of Members who voted on it probably did not have much idea of what his amendment contained. They did what they were told. In the upper House, if I could convince people that something was sensible and they voted it through into the legislation, I found that it had a better than 50% chance of remaining in that legislation when it went back to the lower Chamber.
There are, of course, undeserving people sitting in the House of Lords, but there are also many people who chose not to become professional politicians. They chose to stay in their own professions and to rise to the top of them. They became top academics, lawyers and people in the field of, for example, medicine or any other profession or trade. I am not in any way being disrespectful to the abilities of those of us who chose to become full-time, or more or less full-time, Members of the House of Commons, but when we made that decision we gave up our ability to maintain and develop our level of expertise such as it was before we took that career path.
Having an unelected second Chamber, even though some people may be put there for the wrong reasons, should nevertheless not blind us to the fact that many people who have great intellect, knowledge and expertise can bring those talents to bear on legislation as it goes through and improve it. It is precisely because they are not elected that they can never seek to usurp the powers of the House of Commons, but always be rightly subordinate to us in this House while we benefit from the value added that they bring to the process.
I appreciate you taking the time to chair this debate so excellently, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for securing this debate. When I was first elected to the House of Commons, I was made the SNP spokesperson on the House of Lords. It is the easiest job an SNP politician can do, because when they do something, we say, “Abolish them,” and when they do something else, we say, “Abolish them,” again. There is just one line you need to know. That is why this debate has been interesting. It has been a thoughtful debate with lots of issues and concerns raised about the House of Lords. Some Members have talked about how great they think the House of Lords is, but we have also discussed a number of different issues.
I will focus briefly on the issue of constitutional obsession. We all have a constitutional obsession. Indeed, hon. Members would not be here if they did not think that things that were not working needed to be changed. It is not just about improving a single constituent’s life by writing to an energy company to complain about a wrong bill. We can improve all of our constituents’ lives by changing the system. That is what all of us are here to do. We are all here to talk and think about the constitution and the changes we want to make to it and to the systems and the ways in which we operate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North is correct that Governments of any type, in any country, have less impetus to deliver change than anyone else. Governments are appointed by whatever system they work within. That means that the system works for them: it has put them there and entrenched their power. Why would they want to lessen their future chances of getting that power?
That point is neatly summed up by the fact that one in 10 Conservative peers have donated more than £100,000 to the party. I do not know which came first: did they donate money and then happen to become a peer, or did they become a peer and then happen to donate money? I do not know the order in which it works, but surely that is a symbiotic, beneficial relationship for both groups of people. It is great for the Conservative party that it can get so much in donations, and it is great for peers that they can get £332 a day, as well as the power and prestige that comes with being a Member of the House of Lords as a result of their relationships, patronage and appointment for life.
I will now talk specifically about how the House of Lords works and operates, and what it looks like. The most recent figures I could find in the Library are from 2019 and show that the average age of Members of the House of Commons is 51. That is not as young as it should be and does not reflect the general population or even the general voting population. However, the average age of Members of the House of Lords is 71. The hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) may be interested to know that he is younger than the youngest peer in the House of Lords. Although he and I are relatively young Members of Parliament, we are far from being the youngest MPs these days.
As a 71-year-old Member of the lower House, I will not take offence at the hon. Lady’s ageism. I will just point out, however, that if people get to the top of their professions before they get seats in the House of Lords, where they can apply their expertise, they will tend to be older rather than younger.
My issue is not with the actions of individuals at certain ages or with the fact that there are many 71-year-olds who could run rings around significant numbers of us younger ones—I absolutely agree that that is the case. My issue is that it does not represent the population. We are supposed to have a representative democracy but it fails to be so because its membership does not look like the rest of the population.
I will take a moment to tackle another thing that the hon. Member for Totnes said. Some 57% of Members of the House of Lords went to private schools, which is ridiculously high.
It is going down, yes, but much more slowly than if we had an elected Chamber where Members were not appointed for life. Some 6% of Members of the House of Lords are from a minority ethnic background, whereas 13% of people in the UK are from such a background. Because the unelected Chamber is over 800 people large, every person appointed to the House of Lords over a period of years would need to be from a minority ethnic background in order for the membership to look like the population. The unrepresentative nature of the House of Lords is a problem that cannot be fixed easily or quickly because of the fact that people in that House are appointed for life.
The issue of attacking the House of Lords because of what it is rather than what it does has been raised. That is the opposite argument to the one we hear from the Labour party, which suggests that we should not attack the current constitutional arrangement because of what it is—that we should not attack the current constitutional arrangement. The Labour party says that just because the Conservatives are in power, that does not mean that the constitutional arrangement for the devolution settlement is less than perfect, and that once we have a Labour Government it will be grand and everything will be significantly better than it currently is. I am not going to buy that. I am going to attack things for what they do and what they are. It is completely reasonable for us to have issues with the actions of the House of Lords or of the Government in the House of Commons, and with the way that those institutions are set up and run. I see no contradiction in making criticisms of both those things and am quite comfortable doing so.
I do not think that anybody here believes—I really hope they do not—that the current constitutional settlement and the way the House of Lords currently works and interacts with the House of Commons is 100% perfect. I do not think that anybody is willing to defend the current system as absolutely the best possible system we could have. I do not think that is the case, because the system is indefensible. We have a massive House in the other place, and one of the things that frustrates me most about the House of Lords is the fact that it can originate legislation. It is a checking and balancing system; how dare they originate legislation? Lords are unelected. It is done for reasons of timetabling. That is completely shocking if it is to continue to be an unelected Chamber.
I very much appreciate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North having secured this debate and allowed me to have a bit of a rant about the House of Lords and my criticisms of it. Obviously, the way to resolve this—I am quite happy to eat, shoot and leave—is for us to leave the United Kingdom and leave youse to it. In the meantime, while we are members of this United Kingdom, although currently against our will, we would like to improve it. We would like to try to make it better, and to do that we need to abolish the House of Lords.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship this afternoon, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing this debate. I often say that a debate is timely, but this debate really is: we are at a crux of time in our country when we are looking at who we want to serve us. There is a real crisis of trust in our democratic institutions, so it is only right that we talk about this issue.
I am proud to be given this opportunity to speak about Labour’s plans to make our Parliament fit for the 21st century. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for his contribution and I agree with him. I speak as a democrat, proud to be part of a democracy but shocked to be part of only half a democracy at many times. There is a democratic deficit in an unelected Chamber belonging to a bygone era that undermines the value of the expertise that has been rightly pointed out by many Members in the debate. Change is needed.
I cannot continue without paying tribute to our tireless Labour peers. Time and again, they have stood up against the Government’s worst excesses, whether that is by blocking attempts to strip refugees of their rights and dignity in the Nationality and Borders Bill or by inflicting a record 14 defeats on the Government’s anti-protest clauses in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Many lords are expert and hardworking, and deserve the respect of us all on the Opposition Benches.
In the past year the House of Lords has considered 5,244 changes to 100 Bills. Members in the House of Lords raised concerns, pressed the Government for action, questioned decisions with debates, asked daily oral questions and tabled urgent questions, in more than 3,350 hours of business. We are not saying that the House of Lords does not do a lot of hard work or that lords are not, often, experts in their field; we are saying that the Lords could be far better with a democratic mandate.
The time has come for change. We need a Lords that is properly accountable, where the expertise is strengthened by that democratic mandate, and that is up to the task of rebuilding the whole of Britain after 13 years of Conservative failure. The next Labour Government will scrap the House of Lords and replace it with a new second Chamber that truly represents people across the UK.
May I ask for a bit of clarification? Is the hon. Lady saying that the Labour party is wholly committed to a wholly elected Chamber of the House of Lords? If she is, does that mean there will be a referendum, as has been promised on previous occasions when Labour policy has suggested large constitutional change?
I do not think the hon. Member is alone in having questions about our policy, which is to have a conversation with the British people to decide what the future policies would be. I am not going to be outlining all the dotted i’s and crossed t’s of Labour party policy, because that would be wrong. We need to have further conversation about the result of our conversations. Later in my speech, I will go into what will underpin that.
The SNP has used this debate about the second Chamber for game playing, to undermine the strength of the Union, and has denied Scottish people a voice in the second Chamber by boycotting it—by just leaving it alone. It has no interest in making Westminster or devolution work. Labour will work with the Scottish people to give Scotland and other parts of the UK an even greater say in UK-wide legislation through a new second Chamber. Under a Labour Government, a second Chamber that is more representative will give Scottish people more of a mandate to deliver for Scotland and undo the damage caused by the SNP and the Conservatives.
There are three reasons why we need reform, the first of which is trust. Trust in Westminster is at an all-time low, and in many ways who can blame the public? Never before has the privilege of power been used and abused for personal gain so much and so frequently. The mantra of “It’s one rule for them and another for us” is said far too frequently; people should not feel like that about their elected bodies, and the Lords is a prime example.
Take the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). He recommended 87 new life peerages, but two of those people have not made maiden speeches, even though one was appointed in September 2019 and the other in July 2020. His brazen attempt to subvert democracy by rewarding donors, lackeys and friends makes him the latest in a long line of Conservative Prime Ministers who have gamed the system by installing a conveyor belt of their cronies into the House of Lords, undermining it as a result. Instead of rewarding Conservative donors, we should be rebuilding trust in politics.
I do not know, but we are talking about the system. It should not be the patronage of the Prime Minister that gets to recommend those who vote on our behalf; the people should decide who is going to make those decisions. That is the point I will be making, whichever party the Prime Minister comes from.
In the past seven years, every former Conservative party treasurer bar one has been offered a seat in the Lords, and 22 of the party’s biggest donors have been made lords since 2010. We cannot keep on sheepishly asking for the trust of the people: we need to show how things will be different. Reforming the second Chamber has to be part of that.
The second reason is democracy. Devolution was a major achievement of the last Labour Government, and the next Labour Government are committed to continuing that proud democratising tradition. We have shown that we will put our money where our mouth is when elected. We must go further than the devolution that has already taken place, which includes making the second Chamber of our Parliament fit for the 21st century. It must be more democratic and accountable, and therefore effective, and must accurately represent the people of our diverse regions and nations across the United Kingdom.
We need reform that retains expertise, yes, but the right expertise from throughout the country, not just expertise in knowing the right people. Consecutive Conservative Prime Ministers have ridden roughshod over the system of appointing people to the House of Lords. If things continue as they are, there will not be many experts left; instead, the House of Lords will be packed to the rafters with those who owe their place to favours and dodgy dealings rather than talent and expertise. For too many, a peerage is a fancy title or an Instagram photo opportunity, which undermines the work done by so many hard-working peers.
Hansard tells us all we need to know. There are 41 Members in the House of Lords who have only made one contribution since the beginning of the 1992-93 Session—one contribution in 30 years—yet those Members can claim more than £300 a day for attending and can vote on any issue, changing the lives of people up and down the country. They are not accountable; there is no check or balance. Those Members do not have to look into people’s eyes and be accountable for what they have done, how many times they have attended, what they have said and what they have voted on.
I think the hon. Lady mentioned 41 lords; could she help me with something, because it is important to be accurate? Of those 41, how many have claimed allowances, how many have actually voted and how many have attended the Chamber at any point? How many of them actually have parliamentary passes? I ask because we need to be clear about this matter; otherwise, someone can start setting a narrative that is not accurate about the important work that is done in the Lords.
The fact is that they have the right to come and vote if they want to, the right to attend and the right to take the money for their daily attendance, no matter what happens. It is just a job for life. They have the notoriety and the title, which gives them some credibility, yet they are not doing the work that should accompany their position. They should be accountable. If they are not attending, not taking the money and not voting, they should do the right thing and resign their positions.
YouGov polling from August last year shows that the public have had enough. Only 6% of British people favoured a House of Lords that is mostly appointed, whereas 48% supported a House of Lords that is mostly elected. Our plans are not just democracy for democracy’s sake, though, even though that would be reason enough. That brings me to the third reason for why reforms are vital. We cannot fix the economy without fixing our institutions and we cannot bring about the social change that we need in this country without fixing our institutions. They are fundamental to our decision making. Inclusive growth must go hand in hand with inclusive governance. A second Chamber packed with the mates of former Conservative Prime Ministers, all of whom have given up on the levelling-up agenda as far as I can see, will not deliver equal growth and opportunity for all nations and regions.
Labour will consult members of the public from throughout the UK to determine the exact size and make-up of the new second Chamber. We launched the commission on the UK’s future, which was chaired by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and involved people from throughout the country, including people from academia, local government, the legal profession and trade unions. As a result, we have articulated three clear principles that will underlie our vision of reform. First, Members of any new Chamber should be elected by voters rather than being appointed by politicians; secondly, it should be truly representative of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom and play an important role in safeguarding the devolution settlement; and thirdly, it must remain a second and secondary Chamber and continue to have a role complementary to the work of the Commons. It will not replace the Commons.
We have to earn back trust. That will happen only with a Labour Government. Only Labour has the ideas and the credibility to fix our politics as well as our economy, and we are the only party that sees the intrinsic connection between the two and that will make the change that is needed.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship today, Sir Gary.
I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing this very interesting debate. I often think that we do not spend enough time in the Commons debating our constitution in the broadest sense, although I know that the hon. Gentleman is more interested in the constitution in a narrower sense. If a party is a single-issue party, it is important for it to adhere to that single issue; otherwise, what is it? Nevertheless, it is genuinely interesting to hear what the SNP thinks about the House of Lords because, notwithstanding the fact that the party has a shadow Minister for the House of Lords, as I discovered today, we do not often hear its views on such broader constitutional issues.
That said, it is atheists musing on the divine, in that, like some sort of mystic panda, the SNP intends, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) put it in his truly excellent speech, to “eat, shoot and leave”. Were SNP Members proposing long-standing major constitutional reform with the intention of living in that new constitutional structure, I would probably have slightly more time for their arguments, but alas it is not to be. We heard today a range of complaints and grievances about the House of Lords without any alternative proposal other than that there should be an independent Scotland. The SNP is entitled to hold that view, just as it is entitled not to engage with the House of Lords by having SNP Members of it.
I cannot help but think that after the 2014 referendum which, as the SNP acknowledged at the time, was a vote for a generation, it was somewhat churlish of the SNP not to join the current House of Lords, even if it disagreed with the structure and wished to see it reformed. That would have been a way of representing Scottish views in the United Kingdom, which people in that country voted to remain part of. Because the Union continues, I am proud to say, I encourage the SNP to rethink its position of—I was about to say “abstinence”, but that is the wrong word entirely—abstaining, or staying out of, the House of Lords.
Much as I disagree with the SNP’s views, I think that the Lords Chamber would be richer for the presence of SNP Members. I would like to see more people from more parts of the United Kingdom represented there. Would that it were not so, but a lot of people vote for the SNP, and it would be good if there were SNP expertise in the House of Lords to seek to influence legislation that would have a bearing on people in Scotland. But that is a decision for the SNP. I did not come into the House of Commons to give advice to the SNP.
My own experience of the House of Lords is rather different from that of the hon. Member for Glasgow North, who is grudgingly prepared to acknowledge that maybe one or two Lords have some expertise and something to say. As a Back Bencher and as a Minister, I have attended a large number of debates in the Lords, and I am always struck by how well informed they are and their courteous nature. It is acknowledged that people on the other side of the argument are worthy of respect, even if one disagrees with their views. I have also been struck by the fact that in that forum there is a great deal of highly positive soft diplomacy on legislation. As a Minister I have seen that. You hear and absorb the views of learned folk in the upper House and you start to wonder how and whether they should be reflected in policy.
When I was first elected to the Commons, I had a conversation with—I hope he does not mind my mentioning his name—Lord Young of Cookham. I asked how he was getting on as a Minister in the Lords and he said, “Well, it is a bit of a change from being a Minister in the Commons. In the Commons you get your briefing pack from your officials, you stand up and you can feel fairly confident that you’re on firm ground. When you stand up at the Dispatch Box in the Lords, five former Secretaries of State, three former heads of the civil service and a whole bunch of expertise from the wider world are all waiting to hold you to account.” That is a level of scrutiny of which we should be proud and that we should think twice about before seeking to remove. This is a good-natured debate, but we cannot just chuck away the life experience and professional experience of people we all know are making a positive contribution to legislation in our country.
The Minister is making a good case for a culture change in the House of Commons. There should be more listening to experts. When we consider the Procurement Bill, will he and his colleagues listen to the words of those giving evidence? Will he listen to their expertise and consider making changes? Or will the Bill come out with no amendment that any expert has put forward other than in the House of Lords?
We have already listened very closely to arguments made in the Lords, and we have already started to make policy improvements based on some of their recommendations. That does not mean that the Government will agree to all of the amendments that the Lords have made. The important thing is the debate, because iron sharpens iron. We can pretend that we will get similar expertise—as the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), said—from a democratically elected second House, but that simply is not true, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes made clear.
There are a great many people in the Lords with huge experience, perhaps towards the end of their careers, who will not want to stand for democratic election. They will not want to put themselves through that and on the doorstep, and I have sympathy with them. I understand. It would be terribly sad if we lost those people from our legislature and if we did not have their expertise. Also, alongside that expertise, there is space for people in our legislature who are of no party affiliation. I know that the hon. Member for Glasgow North has a passionate, political viewpoint. He is a passionate member of his political party, but not everyone in the country is; not everyone in the world is. There are a great many sensible, intelligent people who have a lot to give our democracy, but who do not wish to stand for election under the flag of a particular party. If we were to move to a system of proportional representation, they would have to. There would be no independence in the Commons or the Lords. That, too, would make our Houses poorer and, I think, weaker.
The Government accept, as I think everybody here accepts, that our constitution evolves. It has been in a constant state of evolution for centuries. We are alive to the fact that we will always need to consider changes. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and the Opposition spokesperson spoke in favour of radical reform. Were a future Government to undertake that radical reform, it would bring major risks with it. There would not just be the loss of expertise, but a conflict of mandates, as described by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), who is no longer in his place. It is very easy to brush that aside and pretend that we will deal with it later or that it does not matter. I can guarantee that in the event that we had a fully elected upper House, it would start to use its mandate against the mandate of the Commons from day one, and voters would not know how long the mandate in one House would last over the other. We would very likely find ourselves in a constant cycle of elections, rather than being in a position where one party or a coalition of parties could be elected for a term and deliver based on their mandate. Those are all risks that we as parliamentarians must be alive to and aware of.
I have greatly enjoyed the debate today. It is important that from time to time we engage in debate on these major issues.
The Minister said the constitution evolves. As a bare minimum, do the Government agree with the findings of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the size of the House of Lords, which said in 2017 that there should be a cap on the total number and efforts to reduce from the current number?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave him just before Christmas. If people do not turn up, they do not get paid. If people turn up and are involved, why not have their expertise? The Government depend on a majority in the Commons on an elected mandate. If there are more people in the upper Chamber who are capable of bringing decent scrutiny to bear on Government legislation, I have no problem with that. As I was saying, I think it is very good that we get to debate these issues, but it is also important that we do not come at debates such as these pretending that there is a perfect system out there—that we pretend that what we are doing here is laughable, and that, in other countries, they have got it absolutely right. What I do know is that, in this country, we have a fine set-up in which there is one House with a democratically elected mandate, and another House whose job it is to scrutinise and which can advise, refine and, if necessary, delay. It is a system that I think has served us well, and I believe can serve us well in the future. That said, the Government are aware that there is always room for evolution and improvement.
Thank you, Mr Streeter. I would just say to the Minister that I prefer to think that we are on the side of the divine, musing on the behaviour of the atheists, and I will not take any lessons on being a single-issue party, given that the Conservatives all got elected on the three-word slogan of “Get Brexit done”.
I thank the Minister, the Opposition spokesperson—the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson)—and my colleague from the SNP Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), for their contributions. I also thank the hon. Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), and my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), for all of their contributions.
It has been a thoughtful and useful debate, and I want to reiterate that none of what any of us have said —I think—has meant any disrespect to any individual Member of the House of Lords. I think we can all recognise, as the Labour Front Bench did, the significant contribution that many of them make.
As SNP MPs, many of us do not want to be here—we want Scotland to become an independent country. There are actually many Members of the House of Lords who do not want to be there either; they want to see it reformed in such a way that it will probably cost them their positions. But I think that makes my point, which I was trying to get across to the Minister in my intervention. When the Lords themselves support reform, yet such a simple measure and straightforward framework as the proposals in the Lord Speaker’s Committee cannot get enacted, and the Government do not just ignore it but actively work against the recommendations in it, then my point is proved; reform might be a nice idea, but it simply ain’t going to happen. That means that the answer for people in Scotland who do want constitutional change to drive economic and social change—which is what the Labour party’s position is—is that the route for them is going to be independence.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered reform of the House of Lords.