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House of Lords: Reform

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they consider it appropriate to use the Parliament Acts to enact legislation on House of Lords reform.

My Lords, the Government are seeking a broad consensus on House of Lords reform. The Parliament Acts have been used only five times in the past 60 years. Consideration of their use in this case would be extremely premature.

My Lords, I take it that consensus will also be sought in your Lordships’ House. Will my noble and learned friend not simply ask leaders of political parties, because they do not necessarily represent their members? Obtaining a consensus among 750 members will be difficult but some leaders of political parties find it difficult to gain a consensus with themselves. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, whom I have heard speak on two separate occasions, is finding it difficult to agree with himself.

Does my noble and learned friend accept that if he asks around in your Lordships’ House he will find that there is little consensus on a hybrid House, whether 50 per cent or 80 per cent elected? However, there will be a consensus for the status quo with some modest adjustments. If that is the only consensus available, given that the Government have ruled out the use of the Parliament Act, will they accept that consensus?

My Lords, we will seek consensus everywhere, including in your Lordships’ House. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is busily seeking consensus on his own side in relation to reform of the House of Lords and his views are well known. The consensus must be across Parliament and across parties, and that is what one is seeking. However, seeking a consensus requires effort. Finding a common agreement may involve some people moving their positions.

My Lords, I have no difficulty agreeing with the premise behind the Question. I cannot find in my mind a more obvious example of a Bill that should not be pushed through under the Parliament Act than a Bill to reform a great House of Parliament. Does the noble and learned Lord recall that on 23 November in this House he said:

“The Government strongly believe that consensus on further such reform is not only critical but a requirement”—[Official Report, 23/11/06; col. 440.]

That was not quite what he said in his initial response when he talked about a broad consensus. If it is a requirement, I reckon that there would need to be a consensus not just between the parties but between the Houses as well.

My Lords, I do recall saying that. It is my position and it remains my position; we need to work for consensus. That may involve people changing their positions; for example, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde.

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor confirm or deny that the Prime Minister made an explicit promise to Labour Peers that the Parliament Acts would not be used; and can he explain how he can make that promise when by definition he will not be around to fulfil it? Will he also comment on the fact that when the recent Joint Committee commented on the Parliament Acts it made it clear that they were the bedrock for the relationship between the two Houses; and that the primacy of the Commons is something that that committee, and I presume this House, supports? Will the noble and learned Lord therefore say what he expects the reaction of the public and indeed Members of the other House would be if in due course we turkeys were allowed a veto against Christmas?

My Lords, I am not going to comment on what anyone said to our party meeting. The Cunningham committee’s report is excellent. It accurately describes the relationship between the two Houses. If there was any reform in composition, most people would want that template to apply to any reformed House. We must seek consensus. One should not be so depressing as to talk about failure in relation to consensus. We should try to work towards it.

My Lords, I understood my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor to say that it was very unlikely that the Parliament Act would be used in House of Lords reform. However, after reading the newspapers over the weekend, I am given to understand that my right honourable friend in the other place, Jack Straw, has said that it will introduce the novel idea of a preferential vote, which will guarantee some kind of decision in the House of Commons. If that is the case, is it constitutionally correct to apply the Parliament Act?

My Lords, I do not think that the use of the Parliament Act could possibly depend upon the precise method of voting in the House of Commons. It is entirely a matter for the other place to decide how it reaches a decision on this issue.

My Lords, what if there is agreement between the two Houses on the proportion of Members of this place to be elected but the Government insist that the method of election shall be a party-list system, which would result in party toadies arriving in this place? Would the Parliament Act be used when there was agreement about composition but disagreement in this place as to the method of election?

My Lords, it would be awful if toadies came into the House. I very much admire the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who people remember as the Chief Whip in another place. The last thing that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, liked was a toady; he wanted independent-minded Tories to vote on a regular basis. It is marvellous that he admires us so much. I am not going to go into various connotations of what we might or might not agree on; we are looking for consensus on the principles.

My Lords, is the upshot of these exchanges that everyone in the Government now agrees there should be no reduction of powers in the House of Lords?

My Lords, I have made it clear that we regard the report of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, as an excellent definition both of the current powers and of what the powers of the second House should be. I agree with my noble friend Lord Cunningham that they depend in part on conventions, for which you cannot legislate because they must be flexible.

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor define what a consensus on the independent Cross Benches means?

My Lords, “consensus” means broad agreement across the parties. We shall certainly speak, as we are doing, to the Cross-Benchers. The Cross-Benchers have a Convenor who, although he does not represent them, is involved in the on going discussions and loyally expresses their views. But from time to time he says that there is not a concluded view among the Cross-Benchers or, indeed, only one view.

My Lords, having listened to my noble and learned friend, it seems to me that the search for a consensus will begin with a White Paper. Can he confirm that a White Paper is coming on this, and can he tell us when?

My Lords, the search for consensus has begun; it has taken two steps already. First, there have been the discussions to which I have referred in which the noble Lords, Lord Williamson and Lord Strathclyde, are involved. Secondly, the search for consensus has been greatly assisted by the report of my noble friend Lord Cunningham of Felling. There will also be a White Paper, and that will come in the New Year.

My Lords, given that many of the most important constitutional changes in this country, including the Parliament Act 1911, have been achieved without consensus, does the Lord Chancellor accept that, while consensus may be desirable, it is not essential?

My Lords, I said that it was necessary. I think that for the reform of this House, at this time, consensus is necessary.

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the search for consensus began with the royal commission? When that body first met, its members were strongly divided between those who wanted a totally elected House and those who wanted a totally appointed House, with all shades of opinion in between. Under the very skilful chairmanship of that commission a real consensus was achieved. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that the consensus achieved then is still worth taking very seriously?

My Lords, the search for consensus began with the Civil War, and that was not altogether a thunderous success.

We are talking about a search for consensus after the report from the commission of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. Many people are now going back to the report and saying that there is a lot of good in it that perhaps we should have adopted at the time.

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend confirm or deny what he said earlier? Most of us recognise that the Prime Minister had said specifically that he was ruling out the use of the Parliament Act. Does my noble and learned friend deny that?