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House of Lords: Reform

Volume 689: debated on Monday 19 February 2007

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made earlier today by my right honourable friend the Leader of the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the procedure for the free votes on the composition of the House of Lords. In my Statement to the House on 7 February, I set out the Government’s proposal for using an alternative vote ballot to establish the House’s preferences on composition. I told the House that I believe that this would be the most effective way of the House being able to come to a decision on this issue, and outlined the difficulties posed in the use of our traditional Division system in eliciting multiple preferences. I took the view, and I still do, that this new system had many advantages.

“However, it became evident during the exchanges in the House on my 7 February Statement, and the next day during Business Questions, that my own enthusiasm for the new system is not as widely shared as I had anticipated”.

My Lords, the Statement continues:

“Indeed, there was vocal opposition to it from many honourable and right honourable Members on both sides. As Leader of the House, I have listened carefully to these views and reflected on them over the recess. I do not want discussions about procedure to overshadow the important substantive debate we will have on the future of the House of Lords itself. I think we all agree that we must not let process get in the way of a reform to which all parties are committed.

“I therefore wish to tell the House that we shall not be proceeding with the alternative vote proposal. Instead we shall revert for all votes to the traditional Division system. This will mean that there will be a series of resolutions put to the House for separate votes at the close of the promised two-day debate on Lords reform.

“We will consult the usual channels and interested Members on the exact form of the resolutions and their order.

“I hope that what I have said is for the convenience of the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement made by the Leader of another place. The House will appreciate that this Statement was delivered by my right honourable friend the Leader of another place about the voting procedure for the other place. It has implications for voting in your Lordships’ House about which, with the leave of the House, I will say a few words.

We intended that your Lordships’ House should have the opportunity to decide whether to use any new voting method adopted by the other place. I refer to paragraph 11.7 of the White Paper. As the alternative vote proposal is not now being pursued in the other place, we do not intend to propose it for your Lordships’ House. The usual channels will discuss how to conduct the votes on the options, using the normal Division Lobby method of voting.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for repeating this most unusual, but equally perfectly welcome, Statement and for confirming that this House will not have proportional representation-style STV voting of the kind so championed by the Liberal Democrats from time to time.

I am sure that the noble and learned Lord will recall that only two parliamentary days ago, shortly before the short recess, he made a Statement on reform of your Lordships’ House. He then waxed lyrical about his plan for preferential voting. He said it was,

“specifically designed to enable those voting … to come to a decision on this issue”.

He attacked the traditional way of voting, saying it was,

“no good—it does not work”.—[Official Report, 7/2/07; col. 713.]

Now, here he is popping up again, bold as brass, advocating the very system he told us only a couple of days ago was no good.

I hope that the noble and learned Lord will say what happened in the intervening period. It is all very well having a change of heart, and that is welcome, but what happened? Was it a change of heart from No. 10 or, indeed, from No. 11? After all, he did not answer when I asked him last time whether the Chancellor was fully behind the 50:50 plan. Well, is he, my Lords? Why does not the noble and learned Lord tell us and make our day?

The noble and learned Lord has either come out on the wrong side of an internal row in government, or he and Mr Straw have been mugged by the parliamentary Labour Party. Which is it? The whole House is agog to learn why what he swore blind so recently was right he today tells us is not. Can he promise the House that he will not be recommending preferential voting again on Wednesday?

When I had the temerity to suggest that not everything in his plans for the House was right and that we should take some time to think things through, the noble and learned Lord did more ho-hoing than a Santa Claus in a shopping centre in December. “Everything’s worked out”, he said. “It’s time to press on. We’ve looked at everything”. What a pity for him that he did not see the garden rake he was about to tread on over the recess. We should now take that opportunity to reflect carefully on the other details of his predictably poorly received 50:50 plan. I expect that before this process is over he will have changed his mind once again; but, like him, I look forward to the debates that we will be having in a few weeks’ time.

My Lords, it is fair to say that two weeks ago the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and I had some fun at the expense of the Leader of the Conservative Party, when I compared him to Blackadder in the First World War. When I tried to sum up my own feelings on the performance of the Lord Chancellor, I have to say that the Charge of the Light Brigade came most immediately to mind. I feel a little like one of the cavalrymen sent into the valley. I was so impressed with that image that I looked up an assessment of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Under the heading “What went wrong?”, it said:

“In a nutshell, a commander failing to take account of the fact that he was on a hill and could see what was going on and his troops could not!”.

Although I am willing again to join any charge that Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan—or is it the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and Mr Straw?—call for, I get the impression that they are conducting a battle at the bottom of a hill where two maps join. I hope that the noble and learned Lord realises that, whenever you make a Statement such as that, you should look at who is smiling to find out whether one side or the other has won. I am afraid that the forces of reaction will take the most pleasure from this retreat.

It is important that we get a clear and settled view from the House of Commons. Can the noble and learned Lord confirm that the House of Commons will have a debate and make its decision before this House does so? That will inform the debate here. I support what he said about having the same voting system. It is essential that the same system is used at both ends. Therefore, although I regret the retreat from the alternative voting procedure, I support the fact that we shall have exactly the same system.

Finally, can the noble and learned Lord confirm that the Government are still committed to carrying forward reform of this House? As he said, all three parties were committed to that at the last general election. Will he also make every effort to ensure that reform is carried through with some sense of the dignity of this House, rather than the kind of shambles that he has had to report to the House today?

My Lords, it is a great honour to be described as Santa Claus by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. It is hard to imagine anyone who looks more like Santa Claus than the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, particularly when you see him at the Prorogation ceremony. My wife and children will be delighted that I was described as a member of the Light Brigade. I have not been described as that for some time.

We have eaten humble pie in relation to this matter—but not much humble pie in my case, being a member of the Light Brigade. We searched for consensus in the House of Commons and found it rather more quickly than we thought we would—namely, no to the AV procedure—and we responded to it straightaway. I do not think that any further explanation is required: as is obvious, we are a listening Government.

We are very keen that Lords reform be properly debated. I thoroughly agree with what my right honourable friend the Leader of the other place says: let us focus on the substantive issue, not the process. We are committed to allowing a free vote to take place. In relation to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, the debate in the Commons will take place before the debate in the Lords. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said on the previous occasion, everyone will have an opportunity to discuss it. Let us discuss the merits of the issue rather than the detail around it.

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord not agree that the Charge of the Light Brigade analogy was a little unfair? In this case, it was not the general who was on the hill and could see and not the troops; it was the troops who were on the hill and could see and it was the general who could not see until the troops pointed it out.