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House of Lords: Reform

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

When they expect to publish the Bill on House of Lords reform.

My Lords, I am not too disappointed by my noble and learned friend’s Answer because the Question may be considered a hypothetical, but I shall be only faintly hypothetical in my supplementary question. By “Government” I mean whoever is the Prime Minister in the next Government, and I will assume that that Prime Minister is a member of the present Government. Perhaps I may ask my noble and learned friend a specific question which will help the House and might even help him when he winds up the debate by saving him a bit of time. I shall not assume that there is a consensus anywhere. Do the Government still have it in mind, even if there is no consensus, to introduce such a major constitutional Bill without giving a great deal of time for consideration of its contents? Would they do so without recognising that such a major constitutional Bill will inevitably take up so much time as to make it impossible to pass other important Bills during the rest of this Parliament?

My Lords, part of the reason for seeking a consensus on Lords reform is to try to narrow down the issues as much as possible and avoid precisely what my noble friend Lord Barnett said; namely, excluding time in Parliament for other important issues. That is why, as we have always said—and we say it completely seriously—we are engaged in a serious search for consensus.

My Lords, given that the introduction of House of Lords reform is presumably in the spirit of improving our democracy, will my noble and learned friend tell us whether the Government intend to consult the public after educating them about the workings of this House in full and then taking proper soundings in an open situation to see what they desire in their upper House?

My Lords, it is extremely important that debates about this place are not simply private discussions between this place and another place. We have an important role in leading the debate, but the debate must be a national debate. That is why the White Paper that has already been produced and any further White Papers will seek to engage the public as a whole in this important discussion.

My Lords, can I make a suggestion that may help the noble Lord, Lord Barnett? If the new Prime Minister announced a moratorium on Home Office Bills, it would have a dual benefit: it would both enable the Home Office to become fit for purpose without another load of legislation and give us all the time we need to get through a Lords reform Bill.

My Lords, I have always envisaged that one of the purposes of this great House is to deal with Home Office Bills. What would happen to us without Home Office Bills?

My Lords, if nobody else wishes to speak, perhaps I may take a little of the rest of the seven minutes available on this Question. Does my noble and learned friend seriously believe that there is the slightest chance of the Government achieving a consensus between your Lordships' House and the other place to get a Bill through without huge delay? Listening to the debate in this House, I find it hard to believe that anybody could assume that.

My Lords, I say as an aside that perhaps there were no other questions because we have set aside 19 hours for debate on House of Lords reform. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, on getting in on the debate without the obligation to stay until the very end. On the question of consensus: yes, I am completely serious. One of the things that we have done, over the years and over the centuries, is to find a way forward.

My Lords, I understood my noble and learned friend to say that he would engage the public. As a major constitutional change is being proposed, does he believe that a referendum will be necessary?

No, my Lords, I do not. This is a matter to debate, and the public should be involved in that debate, but ultimately we must decide.

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord believe that a consensus might be achieved by having Back-Bench representation on the Joint Committee as suggested this morning by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, and yesterday by my noble friend Lord Forsyth?

My Lords, Back-Bench representation on the Joint Committee is obviously a matter to be discussed. My own view is that the debates that we are having in this place and those in another place allow all views to be considered. There is not much point, however, in the Front Benches making proposals if they cannot carry them with the Back Benches.

My Lords, if the nation felt it appropriate to have a full debate and a referendum on the European Constitution, why should it be wrong, as a previous answer seemed to imply, to do so when it comes to the UK constitution?

My Lords, in 1999, for example, we made a very substantial reform of the House of Lords. As I am sure noble Lords who have been following the debate in this House over the past two days will agree—I think that everybody agrees—that reform has had a significant effect on this place. We did not have a referendum on that issue and I do not think that we need a referendum on subsequent changes.

My Lords, I was interested in my noble and learned friend’s reply to my noble friend Lord Davies of Coity. We had a referendum on the Assembly in Wales. I also know that we were defeated by Italy on Saturday by an English referee. And I think that further consideration be given to a referendum.

My Lords, I am not sure whether the question was about a referendum on the decisions of the referee or a referendum on further House of Lords reform. I think that I have answered the question very clearly. I am not in favour of a referendum on that.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Winston, asked the Lord Chancellor whether he would consult the country after ensuring that it was properly informed. I am sure that that is a desirable end. But how can that be achieved when we have heard in this debate from many former Members of the House of Commons—the noble Lord, Lord Steel, is an example—that they sat there for many years without having any idea of what went on in this place? How can that be remedied before the public are consulted?

My Lords, it is our responsibility in this House to ensure that people know what we do and the good work that we do. That has been a problem for a very considerable time, but we cannot wait for 200 or 300 years until that has been achieved. We need to take steps now.