My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
It might be useful to explain first why this Bill is being reintroduced when the Bill of my noble friend Lord Steel, of which it is a subset, had its Second Reading and first day in Committee just over a month ago. My noble friend’s Bill has attracted a large number of amendments, and it seems unlikely that the time needed to dispose of them will be available. My Bill is concerned with only one issue: the by-elections for maintaining the number of hereditary Peers at 92, as provided for in the Weatherill amendment of 1999. None of the existing hereditary Peers would be displaced by the Bill, nor would the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain be affected by it, and the hope was that such a modest and uncontentious reform would be readily accepted and would attract only a very short Committee stage. However, if any noble Lord was determined to oppose it, purely on the grounds that the Weatherill scheme was binding on us until the second stage of comprehensive reform, they would find that it is not susceptible to the wide range of amendments that have been tabled to my noble friend’s Bill. I am advised that its strictly limited purposes restrict the scope of amendments to the situation of the hereditaries, and would not allow for debates on the many other issues raised in the 200 or so amendments to my noble friend’s Bill.
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that what he has just said is not my view. This is a Bill to amend the House of Lords Act 1999. Therefore, any amendment in Committee that amended that Act would be wholly in order.
My Lords, only an amendment that amended Section 2 of that Act would be in order, but I suggest to the noble Lord that if he wants to test it, he should go to the Public Bill Office and table his wide-ranging amendments. I have already had the privilege of receiving detailed advice from the Public Bill Office, and I suggest that the noble Lord does the same.
My Lords, I am very much looking forward to amending it, and amending it substantially, in Committee.
My Lords, we will see about that when the time comes.
My Lords, I am afraid that I rise to support my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. If the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, thinks that this new doctrine, expounded originally by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, that amendments to any Private Member’s Bill can be made only in accordance with the principles of the Bill as set down by the promoter of the Bill, then I am afraid that both noble Lords are bitterly mistaken. The Long Title of the Bill is absolutely clear. It is not confined to Section 2, as the noble Lord may imagine; it is: “Amend the House of Lords Act 1999”. It does not confine itself to any particular passage in that Act, and I assure the noble Lord that if this Bill receives another reading, as I dare say it will later on, I for one will table large numbers of amendments to deal with a number of defects, as I see them, in the 1999 Act.
My Lords, the noble Lord is frivolously wasting the time of the House when he has every opportunity to test whether his opinion or mine is correct by going to the Public Bill Office and seeking to table his amendments on the conclusion of Second Reading. Might I suggest that in order to avoid detailed discussion on this matter, noble Lords reserve their judgment until they have had the opportunity of doing so?
My Lords, I strongly object to the noble Lord saying that an intervention of mine, which was wholly serious, was frivolous. It was nothing of the sort. If anything is frivolous, it is the noble Lord’s Bill.
My Lords, we will see about that. After all, that is what we are here to discuss. If the noble Lord will allow me to get on with my speech, he is welcome to make his speech later on and to try to put down whatever amendments he likes.
As your Lordships know, the 1999 compromise settlement on the composition of the House was that 92 hereditary Peers, elected by their colleagues voting within party groups, were retained. That was the deal made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg.
My Lords, what the noble Lord has just said is not strictly accurate. The 92 were not all elected by party groups; 15 of the 92 were elected by the whole House.
My Lords, that is perfectly correct. Seventy-five were elected by your Lordships, there were 15 chairmen of the committees and two royal officers of state.
As I was saying, that was the deal made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne—now the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury. It was subsequently modified by the Weatherill amendments so that until the next stage of the reform process, whenever a noble Lord dies there is a by-election within the remaining hereditaries of his group to keep the number constant.
My Lords, I did not intend to speak but I happen to know, because I was told by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury—the then noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne—that that was not modified. That was part of the verbal deal made between him and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine. I only intervene. I am not speaking. I have said more than enough and I am leaving this debate. I just want to get that straight on the record. That was a deal between those two Members of the House and it has to be honoured.
My Lords, the noble Lord may have a very good memory, but others may think that there is some doubt about this, in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. In Committee on my noble friend’s Bill, he said:
“There can be argument about whether an amendment that in time reduces that 10 per cent is actually a departure”.—[Official Report, 17/1/08; col. 1521.]
That is a departure from the original bargain made between the noble and learned Lord and the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury—the then noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne.
My Lords, there have been a number of interventions.
My Lords, he was on the back row. Yes, he can speak.
My Lords, I am all right in the middle of the back row.
A number of noble Lords opposite have quoted a so-called deal between noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine. Can I assume that if the noble and learned Lord says that their interpretation is not correct, they will remove all these objections?
My Lords, that is a good question, which we may come to in Committee. I have spoken to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, and I hope that he will have refreshed his memory by looking at the correspondence and the papers by the time we are in Committee. Therefore, let us not waste any further time arguing about precisely what the bargain was. Let us get on with talking about the Bill as it is.
It surely cannot have been the intention of the two noble Lords that a very large number of hereditary Peers should have the right in perpetuity to confer membership of the legislature on some other hereditary Peer who belongs to their party, a process which has had no parallel since the pocket boroughs were abolished in 1832.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for interrupting him yet again, but he simply cannot go on saying these things that are not based in fact. The by-elections took place only after the end of the first Session of the following Parliament and only because a stage two reform had not taken place. I am sure that noble Lords will speak to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg. His view, and those of others in the House—if one re-reads those debates, one will see this—was that it was extremely unlikely that the by-elections would ever take place. They took place only because that Bill did not come forward.
My Lords, the noble Lord confirms the expectations that people had at the time that the process of by-elections would be a purely limited and temporary phenomenon. At the time, that was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, the then Leader of the House. So I thank him very much for strengthening the case that I am making. It was never the intention that the supply of hereditary legislators, by means of these elections in which the right to vote is confined to the handful of hereditary Peers, should continue indefinitely, a process which I submit is bizarre, irrational and undemocratic. It was sold to the House only on the basis that it was a short-term, temporary fix. So far, it has lasted for nine years and on the most optimistic assumptions, it will continue for the next three.
My Lords, I do not want to be a spoilsport. I know when the House is having fun, I hope as much as anyone, but this is a Second Reading. It is important that the mover of the Bill should be allowed to make his Second Reading speech without too many interruptions. Of course, interruptions are allowed, but noble Lords will have an opportunity to make their own speech and be able to answer back. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me, but it is time to allow the mover of the speech to get on. Then we can move on with the debate. I hope that this is not a wrong interruption.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for what he said.
My Lords, having been very generous in giving way so far, I shall accept that advice and refrain from doing so from now on, so that we can get on with the debate. I am looking forward to hearing what the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and others have to say. We can pursue all the matters that they wish to raise when we are in Committee.
This figure of 10 per cent, which was agreed in 1999, is not sacrosanct. In October 2000, there were 695 Members of your Lordships’ House in total, compared with 734 today. The noble Lords who are insisting that the 10 per cent figure should be set in stone for all time should, logically, be agitating for the election or appointment of more hereditaries to balance the intake of more life Peers in the mean time. However, if they consider that minor variations in the 10 per cent are permissible within the original agreement, obviously the infinitesimal reductions that will take place as a result of the abolition of the by-elections can equally be accommodated.
Even if the two noble Lords who cut the deal now say that the Weatherill amendment, as well as the original retention of the 92, was binding in honour on them, what about the rest of us who had nothing to do with that private bargain? To say that we have no choice but to accept the letter of what was carved up without our knowledge or consent is utterly intolerable. That bargain, which was taken over by the then Government, was a breach of the Cook-Maclennan agreement on constitutional reform, as my noble friend Lord Lester pointed out. Let us not talk about honour.
The practical argument for the by-elections, advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Northbrook, and others, is that they act as a catalyst for the further reform of the House. Catalysts stimulate change and the by-elections have had no effect on the rate of change, which is now dependent on reaching the mirage of a consensus that allows us to embark on second stage reforms.
The cross-party talks have continued in a desultory fashion since October 2006. In the Statement made by the Secretary of State, Mr Straw, in July 2007, they were expected to lead to a White Paper around the turn of the year, accompanied by draft clauses that would form part of the eventual Bill. That timetable has slipped badly, first, to early in the new year—in the Minister’s speech at Second Reading of my noble friend’s Bill in November—and then with the Secretary of State “working to gain consensus” on a White Paper which is now due “before the summer Recess”.
Those delays reflect the difficulty of arriving at agreement on any of the issues, even if the committee is composed, as it may be, of people who share the Secretary of State’s views and prejudices, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, claims in a letter to the Times. Her letter, and that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, which criticises the notion of a consensus that he says ignores the judgment of those best qualified to consider such questions, reminds us that an agreement reached by a small group behind closed doors may be vehemently opposed when it comes to be presented on the Floor of the House for approval.
In 1969, Harold Wilson found that to his cost in another place. He had thought that he would get cross-party agreement rubber-stamped by Parliament, but he was forced to abandon it after 21 sitting days on the Floor of another place, as I well remember, having taken a small part in those debates of 39 years ago, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will be aware.
It would be rash to assume, therefore, that whatever formulae emerge from the cross-party talks will be slavishly copied into manifestos and enacted by whichever party wins the next election. Even if the all or mainly elected solution can be agreed—and my impression is that many noble Lords and perhaps many in the Commons have on reflection backed away from the idea—there would still be difficult problems to solve, such as how to make the transition. If all the existing life Peers are dismissed, would it be by sudden death or, if not, would the proportion of elected Peers be ratcheted up to 80 per cent or 100 per cent over a number of Parliaments? I only mention this as an example of the controversial issues that the all-party committee is having to address and the unlikelihood of unanimous conclusions being reached on all of them.
Your Lordships have been frequently reminded over the past 97 years of the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 which states that it was,
“intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of a hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”.
It would have been unfortunate if the reforms since then, including the 1949 and 1999 Acts, had been rejected on the basis that nothing should be attempted until Parliament was ready to implement that principle. I suggest that it would be naive today if, banking on the second stage to complete the 1999 proposals, we denied ourselves all opportunities to tidy up some of the loose ends on which there can be no argument whatsoever on merit.
Of course I agree with my noble friend Lord Steel that this is not the only thing that is wrong with the composition of your Lordships’ House as it is presently constituted and that in an ideal world his recommendations, and those of the Select Committee on Public Administration in another place, should be enacted as interim measures. But the very fact that the Select Committee made these proposals for certain reforms falling short of stage two indicates that as far as that committee is concerned, we are perfectly entitled to act incrementally rather than waiting for the whole package to mature. This is also the view of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, the honourable Member for South Staffordshire, and their colleagues who prefer the gradualist approach in the campaign for an effective second Chamber.
If, however, your Lordships sit back and wait for what is coming down the track from the secret cross-party talks, you will have only yourselves to blame for not having lifted a finger towards any of the reforms that are necessary to make this House more credible while retaining its unique blend of practical experience in many fields of national life and great expertise in the business of legislation. The Ruritanian customs of hereditary by-elections have long outlived their only useful purpose of persuading the Tory Front Bench not to obstruct the 1999 Bill. Let us take one small pace towards legitimacy by abolishing the by-elections now.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Avebury.)
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will have taken actuarial advice on this matter. How long does he think hereditary Peers will last in this House on the basis of his Bill? In other words, how long will it take for them to die out?
My Lords, I have not taken actuarial advice, but there are hereditary noble Lords who are a great deal younger than I am so the process would take several decades. But that is not the point; it is not that the hereditaries should continue indefinitely because they may well be swept away by further reforms such as that of my noble friend Lord Steel. This is a purely short-term and interim measure.
My Lords, I gather that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is 48 years old today. As we all hope and expect him to live a very long life indeed, one can assume that the by-elections would last for 50 or 60 years.
My Lords, despite the potential problems of longevity, I hope that I might now be allowed to speak. I take some of the blame for this Bill, if blame be due. It was a short conversation in the Prince’s Chamber that initially got the thing going. Roughly, the exchange was as follows. My noble friend asked, “Shall we do something about this ridiculous series of by-elections?”. I said, “Yeah, go on, then”, or words to that effect. My noble friend, needing no encouragement, rapidly went away and did it. We and those on the Labour Benches differ slightly on this. I recall that in the last debate I had prepared anecdotes about rotten boroughs and how four of us have to sit down for a little chat about who we would like to join us to make a group of five, but the Labour Party beats us because only two or perhaps three noble Lords discuss who they want.
The system produces one or two parliamentary anomalies. My noble friend Lord Glasgow, who spoke in the last debate, is the only Member of Parliament who has been elected with 100 per cent of his electorate not only turning up to vote, but voting for him. Four of us did it. We can jump up and say that this is a great system—I probably will later—but it is an absurdity. It looks silly and it is demeaning to Parliament as a whole. We may produce some decent people from the system who work hard—we hereditaries punch our weight in this House in terms of contribution and effort—but that is about it. We have got to get a move on.
We hear a great deal about stage 2—stage 1A—which gives us another 25 shots at it, and it is the sort of system where you can have another go. Also, does one Parliament now bind the next? I am sorry, but the people who made this deal are, first, not here, and secondly, not in office. We would not do this with anything else. We need to look at ourselves as we are seen from outside.
I shall not speak for much longer because before the debate began there was a slim chance that I would have to leave before the end, but that chance is now growing slightly. The essential element here is that, as my noble friend said, it was a deal done because it was convenient at the time. Anybody who wants to build it up to be something more is, in my opinion, trying to rewrite history. Just because someone made a deal in the past, that does not stop us doing something now. Let us get on and be realistic. This Bill provides a way forward so that at least we will look slightly less silly and do not give journalists this very easy strap-line once every two years.
My Lords, I have listened to the last words of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, with some dismay. He appears to think that undertakings given in honour are binding for perhaps a short period and in the end can be abandoned. What sort of a society is it in which honourable people enter into agreements in good faith and then in a short time, without the circumstances changing, it is suddenly decided that those agreements are of no consequence? Let me remind your Lordships—
My Lords, the noble Lord is talking about undertakings given in honour being binding. Surely they are binding in honour only on those who undertook them and not on the rest of your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I was just about to come to the undertaking and explain, as I see it, how it came to pass and to assert that it is indeed still binding. I ask noble Lords to cast their minds back to 1999. At that time, your Lordships’ House was some 1,200 strong, of whom 700 or so were hereditary Peers. The Government, as they were entitled to do, brought forward a measure to remove the hereditary Peers forthwith and without qualification. It became apparent during the consideration of that Bill in your Lordships’ House that that proposition was unlikely to find favour with the hereditary Peers as a body, not just the Conservatives, so the Government understandably came to the view that the Bill might well not pass this House because of the votes of the hereditary Peers. Of course they could have forced the Bill through by the Parliament Acts, but for reasons best known to themselves, I suggest properly that they decided that that was not the way to proceed. Discussions took place between the then Leader of the Opposition in your Lordships’ House, now my noble friend Lord Salisbury, and the noble and learned Lord the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg. An agreement was reached which secured the passage of that Bill through your Lordships’ House. The essence of the undertaking that was agreed by the noble and learned Lord and my noble friend was that 92 hereditary Peers would remain in the circumstances which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has described.
That undertaking was time limited to the extent that it would last only until full and complete reform of your Lordships’ House had been achieved. There is no need, I suggest, for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, to refresh his memory on the matter because the undertakings were referred to in your Lordships’ House, and any noble Lord who wishes to refresh his mind on them can go to the columns of Hansard for that purpose. I am in absolutely no doubt that the undertaking that was given to secure the passage of the 1999 Act, and for no other reason, was to the effect that the 92 hereditary Peers would remain until House of Lords reform was complete, and that as noble Lords sadly passed away they would be replaced in the by-elections that were arranged.
My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend a question. He will remember that the undertaking was given by the noble and learned Lord on Privy Council terms and that that was regarded as important by your Lordships’ House. I wonder whether he has considered how that will affect that undertaking in the future as opposed to one which was given as a normal part of the debate.
My Lords, I believe that an undertaking given on behalf of the Government of the day, whoever it may be, to secure the passage of legislation is binding on that Government for so long as they remain in office. Although there have been elections since, the Government have remained in office and therefore the undertaking continues to be binding upon them. Indeed, I do not think we need to press that point because the Government have reiterated the undertaking and their adherence to it much more recently than that.
My Lords, the noble Lord said that he was going to address the question I put to him a few minutes ago—whether he was arguing that the undertaking given on the Floor of the House, whether on Privy Council terms or in any other manner, was binding on the whole of your Lordships’ House or only on the Government of the day.
My Lords, I think it is certainly binding on those who gave the undertaking—the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. If the noble Lord feels that the Liberal Democrats were not part of that undertaking and therefore are not bound by it, he is entitled to take that view. But the House, I think, would take the view that the undertaking was binding on all those who are affected by it.
My Lords, the undertaking was given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, on the understanding that the main reform would follow very shortly afterwards, probably in the next Session. That was nine years ago. We are now told that no further reform will happen in this Parliament—that makes it 11 years—and it will not be taken as first business in the next Parliament, so we are getting on to a very long period.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, is correct: it was generally expected at the time that the Government would bring forward further legislation for the reform of your Lordships’ House. That they have not done so is, frankly, a matter for them. It is not for me and not for others; it is a matter for the Government alone. They are not prevented from bringing forward legislation except, apparently, by other legislative priorities—those considered more important.
My Lords, surely it is a basic principle of our constitution that no Parliament can bind a successor Parliament.
My Lords, I am not entirely sure that that is correct in the context we are discussing. I believe that the undertaking given by the noble and learned Lord the then Lord Chancellor, entered into with my noble friend Lord Salisbury, is binding on the Government for so long as they remain in office. But that is an academic question because the Government much more recently have declared themselves to be bound. They have repeated the undertaking and therefore continue to be bound by it. Whether or not the noble Lord is right, the Government have accepted that they continue to be bound by the undertaking. I regard that as right and satisfactory.
My principal objection to the Bill is that it rides against the undertaking that was given that the by-elections would continue for so long as we remained essentially an unreformed House. In due course I hope that the Government will bring forward considered legislation for the reform of your Lordships’ House. Whether that leads to an appointed House or an elected House is a matter for the Government to decide and propose—I look forward to hearing about it in due course—but, for the moment, we have the House as it is, largely unreformed.
I turn now to the question of amendments to the Bill. During the consideration of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, a novel doctrine—one I reject absolutely—was introduced to the effect that amendments could be tabled only if they fell within the principles of the Bill as defined by the promoter of the Bill. Amendments to the Bill may be made in accordance with the Long Title of the Bill, and the Long Title of this Bill—I shall read it again to your Lordships—is to:
“Amend the House of Lords Act 1999”.
My Lords, what the noble Lord says is a novel doctrine is nothing of the kind. I beg him, as I did earlier, to discuss these matters with the Clerks because he will find out that he is wrong.
My Lords, I am greatly obliged to the noble Lord. I have been a Member of your Lordships’ House for just as long as him, and perhaps rather longer. I have consulted the Clerks on matters such as these on hundreds of occasions over the past 44 years, I think it is, that I have had the privilege of being a Member of this House, so I dare say that I know as much about it as any noble Lord. Of course I always take the advice of the Clerks, as necessary, but it is only advice and ultimately it is a matter for the House to decide what amendments can be allowed.
My Lords, it is not necessarily a matter only for the House. If the Clerks believe that an amendment is not in order and a noble Lord insists on tabling it, they have occasionally written to the Lord Speaker and, before that, to the Lord Chancellor. The effect of the letter, in the only recent case that has occurred, has been to persuade the noble Lord in question to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am afraid the noble Lord is not even correct in that. I have on occasions tabled amendments which were against the advice of the Clerks. What actually happens is that the Leader of the House advises the House that the amendment is contrary to the advice of the Clerks, and then puts the matter to the House as to whether it should be allowed. In the end, as I said, it is for the House to decide whether amendments are within the provisions of the Standing Orders or not—and my contention as of now is that any amendment to the 1999 Act would be authorised within the provisions of this Bill, the Long Title of which I have already read twice to your Lordships. Whatever the noble Lord may think, if he gets a Second Reading of his Bill today, as I dare say he will, and if he then refers the Bill to a Committee of the Whole House, as I dare say he will also, I shall most certainly table large numbers of amendments because it is a very bad Bill.
The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, which we were considering previously, also has very serious shortcomings and I took the liberty of tabling a large number of amendments to that, which caused no difficulties with the Clerks, may I add. To be fair, the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has one or two small points in it with which I do not necessarily disagree—for example, the exclusion of Peers who may be committed to prison and so on. Those are reasonable provisions which may or may not find the light of the day, but they are certainly worth considering.
Sadly, the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has no such merit to approve it; it is a thoroughly bad Bill. I hope that he will not proceed to a Second Reading with it but, if he does and it comes to a Committee of your Lordships, I shall seek to amend it in a great many ways which I hope that he and your Lordships will find acceptable.
My Lords, I, too, offer my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, on his birthday. It may help your Lordships if I remark that I share an office with the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, who is a little bit younger still. He is certainly the youngest hereditary left in the House, although he is not the youngest Member of the House any longer.
I find this Bill, and another Bill that I am thinking of, proactively pre-emptive and pernicious. They pre-empt the party manifestos. One of the more sensible ideas that the Government have had was to say that, since it is all so difficult, why do we not let the parties put in their manifestos what they would like to do and let the country decide. I thought that we lived in a democracy, so I think that it is rather a good idea to let the country take some view on this. I am sure that it will get teased out at the time of a general election, when we might get a feel for what the electors think about the whole thing and about how the legislators should get to their position. I am being careful what words I use here.
The trouble with the Bill is that it results eventually in a totally appointed House. I have a great problem with that. I have heard a suggestion that some appointed Peers had hoped that perhaps such a reform would take away pressure for any further reform. That brings me to the real point: what happened at the last stage of reform was that Parliament could not decide as a whole whether it wanted an elected or an appointed House or a mixture of the two. If we had got rid of all the hereditaries, we would effectively have ended up with the results of the Bill: a rump of the appointed Peers and a method of appointing new ones. Parliament clearly did not want that; if it had, it would have agreed to it at the time. To pass this Bill would be to go against the wishes of Parliament as expressly declared the last time we had a proper vote on this subject.
The purpose of retaining hereditary Peers here was to try to force a proper second stage. The fact that it has been difficult does not matter; it just proves that it is a difficult issue to get around. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was elected to stay here with that purpose, which he is now abrogating. I find it difficult that he should have stood for election to this House on the grounds that he wanted to get rid of the hereditaries when the very purpose of his position here is to ensure that we have a properly debated and thought-out second stage reform that does not accidentally result in something that we did not want.
I may as well declare my position for two minutes, although I do not want to extend the debate, which has gone on for an awfully long time already. My own feeling is that we have to end up with an elected House—perhaps not totally elected, but primarily so—because nothing else has any democratic authority. Anything else will end up with Peers being appointed by senior bureaucrats, which will not give the House the authority that it needs in order to retain some power. All residual power will eventually be removed. That would be the structure we bequeathed to our grandchildren—and do we really want unicameral government by the Commons? I do not know; your Lordships may well want that. We all talk about the supremacy of the House of Commons. Maybe we like that.
I am not going to have a long argument about what we should have; I just do not think that this is the right way to go about it. I am quite sure that this would produce a talking shop. If we look at how Parliament arose and think back to Magna Carta—I know that this is not exactly how Parliament arose, but this is what happened in principle—we see that we had a monarch who executed wars; the nobles said, “If we’re paying for it, we want to have some say over it”, and we ended up with a legislature trying to control the powers of the Executive.
Unfortunately, we now have a situation where the Prime Minister, who is head of the Executive, is also the leader of the majority party in the other place. The monarch has also abrogated power to the Prime Minister, so suddenly we have the modern manifestation of the monarch sitting in another place. When there is a large majority, as there was under a previous Conservative Government and there has just been under a Labour Government, we find that the Executive can exert unwarranted control over another place. At that point we need a second Chamber with some powers to say to another place, “Hang on, maybe you should think again about these issues”. I would be very sad if we bequeathed a system to our grandchildren in which that power disappeared. I am certain that, if we were to pass the Bill, that would be the inevitable result in 20 or more years’ time. I hope that we do not vote ourselves into oblivion.
My Lords, it is interesting that so far—and we have been talking for 45 minutes—no one has touched on the merits of removing by-elections. It is odd that in 2008 the axiom of the Bourbons, who learnt nothing and forgot nothing, seems to be the guiding principle of many people on the Benches opposite. Obviously there are other factors that go into what Parliament may now wish to do. I shall mention one that has also not been mentioned: the Labour Party manifesto. That manifesto was pretty ambiguous about what a more representative Chamber would mean, but it was not at all ambiguous that this Parliament would remove the hereditary principle. To put it in very simple terms—as would be used in Lancashire—this is the best offer that the hereditary Members are ever going to get.
No, my Lords. Very soon there will be a White Paper for a wholly elected senate. Some of us would quite like to stand for that.
My Lords, that is all very well for the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, on his secret committee with the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and Jack Straw. In the interests of democracy and the democratic revolution, the Committee for Public Safety is going to produce in secret the same stitch-up, the same problem of honour—
My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for his kind remarks, I point out to him that the White Paper will be subject to full consultation, on which it is hoped that the political parties will then be informed, leading to manifesto pledges that will then lead to legislation—soon after the next election, we hope.
My Lords, only this week, on Monday, in a reply to Sir Patrick Cormack in the Commons, Jack Straw said that it was not in the interests of public inquiry that there should be any public scrutiny of the work of the Joint Committee by way of publishing its minutes. That is precisely the sort of deal, if you like, that is a total affront to democracy and the total antithesis of it.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lea, is a distinguished member of the Labour Party, about which he is complaining so vigorously. Why does he not make these representations to his own Chief Whip and to Mr Straw himself?
My Lords, I do not know why the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, would not conclude that I am already doing that as well. Of course I am. I thank the noble Lord for saying that I am a man of honour. The question needs to be addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, the noble Earl, Lord Strathclyde, and others who take the view that he does. The fallacy is that he is removing a scenario that is illegitimate. If the White Paper—
My Lords, I took umbrage at the same thing as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, when the noble Lord, Lord Lea, impugned my honour by suggesting that it was in my personal interests to vote for this because I would stay here. I do not see myself in this House for political advantage—unlike, perhaps, some others. The noble Lord is suggesting that hereditary Peers all think the same way. I am here in order to see a better Parliament come out of it, not in order to have my own seat in the Lords kept warm. I dislike any suggestion that we have the same motives as some other people.
My Lords, that point is not apropos of anything that I said.
My Lords, it was exactly what you said earlier. You suggested that it was the best deal that the hereditary Peers were going to get, which suggests that I am interested only in my longevity here, not in leaving a better Parliament behind me.
My Lords, again, I play the spoilsport. I have to remind noble Lords of the Companion, which says:
“A member of the House who is speaking may be interrupted with a brief question for clarification”.
“a brief question for clarification”.
“Giving way accords with the traditions and customary courtesy of the House. It is, however, recognised that a member may justifiably refuse to give way, for instance, in the middle of an argument, or to repeated interruption, or in time-limited proceedings when time is short. Lengthy or frequent interventions should not be made, even with the consent of the member speaking”.
I am conscious that some extremely senior Members of this House are present and taking part in this debate. Everyone wants the debate to flow and these are important matters, but it is worth all noble Lords remembering that this debate—of all debates—should be in accordance with the conventions of the House.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that clarification.
The problem with the doctrine of this Bill contradicting what may or may not be on the Hansard record as having been agreed between the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, is that it presupposes that they defined the scenario that would constitute stage 2. I can give noble Lords a perfectly plausible scenario, which I think is the most likely as we stand here today. There will be no big bang or finality and, until one happens, the noble Earl, Lord Strathclyde, the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and others—not for any Machiavellian reason, but because this is their understanding—have, like Mr Gromyko, a veto. Any time they say “Nyet” that is it. There is no discussion in this Parliament at all. I put it to the noble Lord that that is an impossible situation. Let us look at the merits of the matter. I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Strathclyde, on being 48 today.
He is not an Earl!
My Lords, I am sorry, I promoted him. I am not used to this hereditary business. In 50 years’ time, in 2058, he will be 98 and he may pop off. If we have not finished stage 2 by then, his progeny will be candidates—
My Lords, they would be potential candidates. On the Gromyko principle, that would be that. We could not even discuss it, whereas I would be quite surprised if my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath would give accord to the assertion made five minutes ago that, if there were an incremental approach in the White Paper, if the Labour Party manifesto on this point were implemented and if finality had not been reached on every point by a big bang, the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, would be able to say, like Mr Gromyko, “Nyet”. It is patently obvious that that is absurd.
I now turn to the argument that these by-elections are a hostage for a stage 2 deal. On the political merits of the matter, is this a wise approach? Is it not about time that, instead of fiddling around in secret, we had a bit of straightforwardness and transparency about how people think that these matters will go forward? I have heard nobody say that, other than in interpreting a deal, there is any merit in continuing the by-elections.
This year, we celebrate 50 years of the life peerage. The Lord Speaker, if I may say with great respect, is doing a fine job of putting on events to mark the 50th anniversary and the life peerage system has been a great success. People out there in the country looking at it would recognise that. Now is certainly the time to do the minimum and meet the commitment to remove the hereditary principle. I commend the Bill to the House.
My Lords, we have heard some interesting contributions. The first was from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who showed how easy it is to rewrite history, even very recent history, and come up with an entirely different view on what many of us thought had happened. I would like to introduce a new rule when it comes to discussions on the deal between the noble and learned Lord and the noble Marquess. As far as I can see, those who were furthest away from the negotiations have the strongest view about what happened, and it seems to be directly opposite to the view of those who were actually there, but never mind. What is clear—this was confirmed by my noble friends Lord Salisbury and Lord Campbell of Alloway, who asked me to add his name to this—is that they both expected reform would come sooner rather than later. That is why the deal was agreed. We all expected that, and it is a surprise that we have not had any stage two reform.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said that the Government would produce a White Paper. Rather surprisingly, that means that I have a certain amount of sympathy for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Lea. A White Paper usually outlines government proposals, and a Green Paper allows discussion of a subject. Equally, we had a letter from the Leader of the House saying that the Minister,
“would … welcome the opportunity to engage with”,
“working towards proposals for an eighty per cent elected or fully elected House of Lords”.
It seems to me that the Government have already decided to accept what another place has put forward. It does not inspire confidence that there will be any open discussion about any other type of Chamber, whether appointed or elected in a different way. The letter from the Leader of the House seems to rule out that possibility. Will the Minister comment on that?
There has been some comment on the cross-party group, and I see that the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, is extremely concerned that the minutes of the meetings are not made public. Indeed, the Minister has rejected two applications under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Why is that? If we are to have an open debate from all parties, why should that happen? I ask that particularly in the light of the letter in today's Times from the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers, the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, who says that as a,
“member of the cross-party group on Lords Reform, chaired by the Lord Chancellor, I feel it important to point out that I have not at any point supported a wholly or even 80 per cent elected House”.
So it seems to me that some people do not accept the premise on which the Government are proceeding. Will the Minister comment on that?
I have a further question for the Minister. The Government have always said that they would not use the Parliament Act to push through any reform. Can the Minister confirm that that is that still the case?
I return to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. Part of the deal was that there would be an electoral system that would allow the hereditaries to remain but stage two reform would still go ahead. It is not the fault of those of us who are hereditary Peers that stage two has not happened. For various reasons, the Government have been unable to produce consensus. Indeed, this House and another place do not agree on how reform should proceed. One can argue for an appointed House or an elected House. Two entirely different Houses would result from the two options.
The Bill is wrong for several reasons. First, we are waiting for the Government to say what their proposals are and, as we heard, they are going to consult. Therefore, the Bill pre-empts that process to some degree. Secondly, the only way in which we shall achieve substantial reform is for members of both major parties to agree a stance among themselves—the parties do not have to agree with each other—and put it in their manifesto. One party will win the general election, and that will probably be the moment when reform happens. That seems to me the most sensible process. The country will be able to decide the right way forward.
I do not think that the Bill is right. I will support the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Trefgarne. I agree with him that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, put forward a rather strange doctrine that seemed to say, “You can’t put down amendments to my Bill if I don’t think they should be put down”.
Finally, views differ around the House on whether we should have an appointed or an elected second Chamber. My views change sometimes, usually depending on whom I have last heard speak. So I hope that noble Lords who are wavering after hearing my speech will not suddenly stop supporting an appointed second Chamber and switch rapidly to support a fully elected one.
My Lords, I commiserate with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. It is bad enough to have to spend your birthday at work but being made a member of the Committee of Public Safety and compared with Gromyko must be special presents that he probably did not expect. I wish him a long life. I see that he shares a birthday with Bruce Forsyth, and that cannot be a bad sign.
I have always been for a wholly elected House. Although the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, called his approach gradualist, it is not—we have been very gradualist about House of Lords reform as it is—it is incremental. I do not like incrementalism because, as I said in Committee on the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, it is likely that a Bill like this, once passed, will make people think, “Oh, we’ve reformed the House of Lords. What is there left to be reformed”? I want the big bang. I make no apologies for that.
I very much follow the arguments made by the noble Earl, Lord Erroll. I want an elected House because that would be the only guarantee of a binding restraint on the Executive. As we are right now, talented and marvellous and handsome as we all are, we always hold back and say, “Another place has been elected, therefore it must have primacy”. As long as that continues, the Executive here will misbehave. We know that Executives of all parties misbehave and that only a strong legislature can keep them under control.
Having said that, the Bill before us is curious. It does not get rid of the hereditary peerage at one fell stroke, as it were, as the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, was trying to do. It does not do very much except attempt a slow and steady erosion of the number of hereditary Peers. Therefore, I do not quite know in what sense it would reform the House. I know that people do not like the by-election clause. For historical reasons, 75 Peers—10 per cent of the 750 hereditary Peers—are elected from party constituencies, and 15 elected by all of us. If people do not like small electorates, let us assume that every vacancy could be filled by all of us. That is perfectly doable, and it would remove small constituencies in by-elections and give us all a stake in which hereditary Peer got in next. If the smallness of the electorate bothers people, it can be amended.
If people do not want hereditary Peers here at all, they will have to remove the entire Section 2 of the House of Lords Act 1999, and not just reform it. Any parliament can change—
My Lords, I am trying to listen as carefully as I can to the proposition that he has just put—that there could be a different system of election. Is he suggesting that all the Members of the House of Lords could decide who a Labour-whipped Member would be, or, if it was to be on an open list, that they could be all Labour or all Conservative and so on? Has he thought through how exactly that system would work, given that—he did not quite put it this way—under the absurdity of the present system we are down to, I believe, two or one electors in the Labour Party for an incoming Member?
My Lords, I am a generous, non-partisan sort of person. I am happy to have anybody run for a vacancy because, in a sense, what distinguishes us is not so much that we are in different parties but that we come here on different grounds depending on whether we are hereditaries or life Peers. Therefore, all hereditaries should be able to compete in a by-election. Nobody is asking me to reform the House or the world, sadly; I am just suggesting ways in which one could improve the current system if the narrowness of the constituencies is the objection.
If the objection is the very presence of hereditary Peers, as I said, the entire Section 2 would have to be removed. Although one Parliament can reverse what another has done, constitutional change can be made only with consensus. It cannot be made incrementally. In that I agree with noble Lords opposite, not because some fundamental understanding may have been arrived at between two privy counsellors. If you go through the history of this country, you will find that all sorts of betrayals and reneging have been done on Privy Council promises. I shall not go into that murky area.
We have to agree consensually that the reform is necessary. We have to wait for the White Paper. I hope that a House of Commons decision to have either 80 or 100 per cent-elected House will be implemented as soon as possible by whichever party has to do it after the next election.
My Lords, before we start the wind-up speeches, may I ask for a ruling on appropriate intervention? The Government Whip read out paragraph 4.37 of the Companion to the Standing Orders, stating that lengthy or frequent interventions should not be made even with the consent of the Member speaking. This is not Committee stage; we are having a Second Reading debate. Behaviour that would be appropriate in Committee seems, in a House that polices itself and therefore has to impose self-restraint, out of order today. I ask for a ruling on this for future purposes.
My Lords, I hesitate to rule on anything. However, the Companion makes it clear that, as one listens to a Second Reading speech, it is perfectly in order to ask a question on a point of clarification if one is not entirely sure what a noble Lord has meant. That is entirely different from intervening in order to make a short speech, to contradict or, as sometimes happens—not today—because one has not put one’s name down to speak in the debate. In my view, it is inappropriate to do any of the latter, and that is certainly where the Companion stands.
We are a different House. We pride ourselves on listening, even when severely provoked by noble Lords. It is one of the joys of this House to be provoked on occasion intellectually and sometimes even emotionally. We should relish that, but we should also hear each other out.
My Lords, I entirely support the noble Baroness the Leader of the House in what she has said. I thought that the timing, and indeed the wisdom, of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, on this occasion was entirely appropriate. He read from the Companion before we started to get out of order. That was extremely helpful and, as a result, we have had a very good debate.
My Lords, I now expect to be heard in total silence and with a degree of respect. First, I associate myself with the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, on his 48th birthday. He beats my birthday by two days but, alas, I beat his by 17 years. Working with the noble Lord keeps me young. Apropos the last intervention, I think that the problem lies with these early morning sittings. Your Lordships come in well rested and far too feisty.
I saw the list of attendees that was sent round. The two most assiduous attendees from the Liberal Democrat Benches were my noble friends Lord Addington and Lord Falkland, two of our hereditaries. It also has to be said that, of the seven speakers today, five were hereditaries, and of course the noble Lords, Lord Lea and Lord Desai, both belong to the aristocracy of Labour, so we have had a good hearing.
My noble friend Lord Avebury got it right when he said that the present system was “bizarre, irrational and undemocratic” but that is exactly what the deal was. It gives a lesson that surely we should have learnt some time in the past 500 years: always beware deals with Cecils. The family has some record and some skill on these matters, which a poor Scottish advocate may not have had
My Lords, certainly the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, left Labour with a tar-baby. What has not been said today is that one reason for the deal—a view shared by all Benches—was that, unless there was some kind of hostage to the future, the then Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, might have liked to continue with a House of patronage, as it provided him with all kinds of ways of dealing with, and stocking, this House. That has been readily proved in the delay in bringing forward reform. I remember talking to our Leader at that time. I was furious about the deal because it was a betrayal of a previous one—the Cook-Maclennan agreement—between Labour and the Liberal Democrats before the 1997 election. I remember saying to my noble friend Lord Rodgers, “Never mind. We’ll get full reform in two or three years”. My noble friend, being the wise old owl that he was, said, “I don’t think we’ll see another Bill for reform for another 10 years at least”. I was shocked, but how right he was.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Desai, I am in favour of full reform, but I voice one concern. Something like more than half the Members of this House were created Peers during the Blair years. Although a few of them were younger, most entered the House in their 50s and 60s. If that situation remains untouched, it will not be long before this House has nearly 1,000 Members, with a large proportion of them being over 70, popping in for their tick and drawing their expenses. I say to your Lordships that, when that happens, the high regard in which this House is held by the general public will begin to fade. Therefore, I worry that, if reform is left indefinitely and these anomalies are left unresolved, there will be a problem with the reputation of this House.
As to the way forward, if you put the noble Lord, Lord Lea, and me in a room—in the past, we have often been in a room trying to reach agreement, and it has not been easy and has rarely been brief—we will never agree on Lords reform. I disagreed with the noble Lord, Lord Desai, when he said that the only way to get constitutional reform was by consensus. We have never got constitutional reform by consensus; we have achieved it by threatening revolution or by threatening to create 1,000 Peers. We would have got full reform in 1998 if the Labour Party had not bottled it when it had the full authority of a massive majority. However, we are where we are and the only way that we will get Lords reform is, as suggested by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, for the major parties to put in their next manifesto a clear determination to reform this House. I shall answer the noble Viscount, Lord Astor: I believe that with such a clear determination, endorsed by the electorate, the Government of the day would be entitled to use the Parliament Act because without it this House would be left with a veto on constitutional reform, which is unacceptable in the light of the opinion of another place and the endorsement of a general election.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Avebury for raising this issue. It should spur us on to reform, because unless we reform we will find that the high reputation that this House enjoys begins to fade as the public become aware of the absurdities of the present situation.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have been kind and generous in their birthday wishes, much to my embarrassment. I was hoping to wish the noble Lord, Lord McNally, a very happy birthday two days ago. Sadly, I know that he has not been well, but regardless of what was wrong with him, he is all right now and on very good form.
The whole House will know that Lords reform is one of my favourite subjects. I always enjoy speaking on it. This has been a vintage debate with the noble Lord, Lord Lea, accusing me of being like Gromyko, saying “nyet”, and promoting me to an earl, which I take in very good spirit. If the peerage and membership of this House are ever separated, there is no reason why earls should not return—not to this House, but as part of the honours system. The days of the earls are not yet over, I suspect. As I said earlier, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for reminding us of the proper procedures during Second Reading.
When I thought about speaking in this debate I could not help but reflect on groundhog day when looking at the list of speakers. However, I looked up the last time that we debated this Bill and to my amazement I discovered that I had not spoken on it; I just thought that I had. My noble friend Lord De Mauley in fact wound up on behalf of the Opposition on that occasion, but he has had a busy week and so I thought I would take the task off him. I was also sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, did not speak on this occasion, but I am delighted that he is here because he and I agree on a great deal on this subject, and have done for some time.
I was baffled why the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, reintroduced this Bill which had had a Second Reading less than a year ago. I was also puzzled because I could see that nothing had changed sufficiently to bring this Bill forward again for another go. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, answered that question and said that it was all his fault because of a brief conversation that they had had in the Prince’s Chamber. All I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is beware of brief conversations in the Prince’s Chamber from now on.
Not a great deal has changed as regards the background to this Bill, but much has changed otherwise. The Steel Bill has been reintroduced in this Chamber and one of the great differences between the two Bills—the House knows that I have suggested one or two improvements to the Steel Bill—is that at least the Steel Bill tries to tackle some of the more fundamental issues surrounding a wholly appointed House. That is one of the merits of the Steel Bill; one of the demerits of this Bill is that it does absolutely nothing else.
Secondly, the Government have said that there will be a White Paper over the next few months, so we shall have plenty of time to debate and to discuss the wider issues of reform and the timetable. We now know that it is extremely unlikely that a reform package will be introduced prior to the general election, so we have plenty of time to get it right and to search for that consensus. Whether we shall succeed, I do not have the faintest idea. However, it is right that there should be a search for consensus and that as many people as possible should be included in the debate. That is why I do not regard myself as being part of secret talks. I have no difficulty in this being an open process. I have suggested that there should be parallel committees. I have no difficulty with others seeing the papers, the minutes, the timetable or anything else.
My Lords, I am sorry I promoted the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. He says that he has no difficulty with publication of the minutes of the Joint Committee. I doubt whether the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who will correct me if I am wrong, has difficulty with open government and I doubt whether the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, has any difficulty. Without embarrassing anyone on my own Front Bench by asking them inappropriately direct questions, I am pleased to be able to tot up a majority on the Joint Committee for publication of the minutes, so that there is no alarmist talk about what they are up to or about stitching things up in secret. Is the implication of the noble Lord’s remark that he will vote on the Joint Committee for publication of the minutes?
My Lords, votes were certainly taken, but I was going to say that it is not my committee: it is the Government’s committee. They have invited some of us to come along and discuss these issues with them, and have taken the view not to share the papers in quite the same way that I think would be all right. I have no difficulty with that because there is nothing hugely secretive about these papers. There is nothing very surprising; they go through an analysis of what an elected House might look like. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lea, and others do not approve of that, but they will have plenty of time to look at that in the near future.
Thirdly, I will not follow other noble Lords in a huge analysis of the Irvine declaration. Those of us who were there know what it was about; the Minister has repeated it and he is right to do so. If there had not been provision for the by-elections, what would have been the point of the hereditary Peers accepting that there should only be 92 hereditary Peers—although they would be life Peers—staying behind? It was because of the promise of stage 2 that they agreed to go and the Bill was passed, actually surprisingly quickly, as was the rest of the Government’s legislation.
My Lords, surely the main incentive for the hereditary Peers when they were all about to be abolished was that 92 of them could continue to sit in this House. Surely that was the main consideration, not whether they could pass it on to their sons.
My Lords, there would have been no incentive to go on to stage 2. Some were unsure whether Mr Blair and his Government meant it when they said—not, I might say, the noble Lord, Lord Richard—that they wanted a full democratic House. Some of the advisers around the then Prime Minister have confirmed that they never had any intention of going forward to an elected House. So when the hereditary Peers left as they did, it was on the understanding that stage 2 would be brought in and the by-elections would continue until that took place and be, in part, an incentive for it to happen. One reason we have this White Paper is that the by-elections are still in place. In that context, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, was indeed one of those wise people who foresaw that stage 2 might not happen for some time.
What is all this about? What is getting at the noble Lord, Lord Avebury? Why has he come forward with this Bill? I listened to his speech and am still as baffled as I was at the beginning. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, is angry. He is very steamed up about the outrage of a failure to bring forward stage 2. He is right to be, but he must concentrate his ire on the Government, not on us. We are the incentive that will provide the force for change that this Government need.
Since 1999, the edge between hereditary Peers and life Peers has become very fuzzy, but the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is in fact a hereditary Peer. It may shock the House to know that he was elected to this House by his fellow Peers. I find it inexplicable how he, who stands up for human rights, freedom, liberty, justice and democracy on so many issues around the world, can take advantage of a system and immediately pull up the ladder to ensure that nobody else can be like him. That is what is so shallow and disgraceful in the manner in which he has brought forward this legislation. That is his first incentive, I suspect.
The second incentive is entirely partisan. Nearly half the former hereditary Peers are Conservatives, so perhaps his plan is to ensure that the Conservative Party cannot elect new hereditary Peers and keep its numbers up. That is a perfectly valid political aim, but why does he not say so? Why does he not come forward and tell the House exactly what he is after?
The third possibility is that he does not want any further change at all. He prayed in aid my noble friend Lord Norton and my honourable friend Patrick Cormack, the Member of Parliament for South Staffordshire. Neither of them is very keen on further changes to this House, so perhaps the noble Lord is with them. I do not know, but why does he not tell us what his incentive is for this change?
When my noble friend Lord De Mauley spoke last time, he said something so good I could have said it myself, so I shall read it out:
“This is the wrong Bill at the wrong time, dropped into a House that is functioning well and targeted at a rare category of new entrants untainted by the accusation of impropriety over their means of entry to your Lordships' House, a category that few outside the House, against the background of cash or loans for peerages, see as the most urgent target for reform”.—[Official Report, 18/5/07; col. 438.]
I agree. If the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, insists on taking this forward to Committee, I shall certainly be one of those who seeks to amend it.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on introducing the Bill. It is four weeks since we last discussed reform of your Lordships’ House and I have been suffering withdrawal symptoms. It is good to come again to debate this matter. I also congratulate him on his skill in technical drafting because my officials have not been able to find anything wrong with the Bill. I am sure that will not prevent noble Lords moving amendments when we come to Committee.
The formal position of the Government is, of course, that we do not oppose Private Members’ Bills in your Lordships’ House at Second Reading, and we will not seek to do so on this occasion. However, I should say to the noble Lord that the Government would not want to see his Bill on the statute book. I shall repeat quite plainly and clearly that we are clear that it would breach the commitments made by my noble and learned friend Lord Irvine during the passage of the House of Lords Act 1999. We wish to see the removal of the hereditary Peers as part of the comprehensive reform package that will be proposed for your Lordships’ House. My noble and learned friend has been quoted by many noble Lords in this fascinating debate. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Lea posed the question of what my noble and learned friend made of the pledge that he gave. Only God and my noble and learned friend know what was meant by the pledge and, so far, my noble and learned friend is not telling—I suspect that he would be very wise to continue not to tell.
It is worth noting what my noble and learned friend said in 1999. He said that the Weatherill amendment,
“reflects a compromise negotiated between Privy Councillors on Privy Council terms and binding in honour on all those who have come to give it their assent”.
He also said that,
“the 10 per cent. will go only when stage two has taken place. So it is a guarantee that it will take place”.—[Official Report, 30/3/99; col. 207.]
I know my noble friend Lord Desai thought that talking about privy counsellors and Privy Council terms was rather a murky area. As the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council is sitting beside me, I refer such murkiness to her. The fact is that those of us who were in your Lordships’ House—I was the government Whip on the Bill—were quite clear what the Irvine pledge meant. On 11 May 1999, my noble and learned friend said:
“I respond to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, by saying quite unequivocally to the House that that figure of 90 will be honoured by the Government throughout the period of the transitional House”.—[Official Report, 11/5/99; col. 1094.]
It was made clear that the basis of the composition of your Lordships’ House remains as it was when my noble and learned friend made that commitment. The Government said that while this transitional House exists, we will honour the figure of 90 hereditary Peers. We continue to do so.
It is worth pointing out to the House that in explaining what the transitional House meant, my noble and learned friend said:
“Time and again we have emphasised that the Bill itself is a transitional measure providing for a transitional House”.—[Official Report, 26/10/99; col. 169.]
He also said:
“The transitional House which will be created as a result of the Bill will be exactly that: transitional and not permanent. The Government are absolutely committed to moving to stage two in the reform process … I make it absolutely plain that stage two reform will take place and when it does the hereditary Peers who remain … will cease to be Members of this House”.—[Official Report, 11/5/99; col. 1092.]
It is of course true that the current transitional House has existed for longer than was originally envisaged. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, acknowledged the theoretical possibility of that in 1999. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that we should beware of negotiating with the Cecils, but I do not agree. The agreement in 1999 was a sensible and pragmatic way of seeing through reform of your Lordships’ House. I pray in aid the then noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne—now the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury. Referring to by-elections, to which he said that he attached great importance, he said in 1999:
“If we subscribe—as I certainly do—to the theory that the principal reason for the existence of the 92 hereditary Peers in the transitional Chamber is that it is a continuing incentive for the government of the day to progress to a full stage two reform, then evidently it is of interest to maintain that full number so long as a full stage two reform has not taken place”.—[Official Report, 25/5/99; col. 899.]
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that the by-election system is hard to defend, but it is the guarantor of a fundamental reform of your Lordships’ House, which is what we are engaged in. Noble Lords seem to find objectionable the prospect of a cross-party group taking forward proposals based on the votes of the Commons, which clearly voted for the two options of an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected House. That will lead to the production in a few months of a White Paper, then to full consultation and debate, then, one hopes, to consistency among the political parties in their manifestos and, then—again, one hopes—as soon as possible after that to legislation for fundamental reform. That seems to be neither an objectionable nor a secret process, but a sensible way to go forward on the basis of the votes of the Commons, which has primacy, allowing for full debate. Surely that is the way forward.
My Lords, the Minister spoke about a process of agreement and a manifesto, and said that we would go forward. I presume that he meant a manifesto and then going forward after a general election. Am I correct?
Absolutely, my Lords. I know that the noble Viscount asked earlier whether it was really a White Paper or a Green Paper. The answer must be that we will of course produce a White Paper; it will be a government White Paper, but helped and informed by the discussions in the cross-party group. Inevitably, it will have some green tinges as well. I suspect that we are not going to agree on matters to do with a voting system to be adopted, given the views of different parties. There may be other aspects on which there will not be unanimity of view, which can be reflected in the White Paper. What will be important is the commitment among the principal parties to fundamental reform based on the votes of the primary Chamber, the House of Commons.
It is in that context, therefore, that, while I fully accept that the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for whom I have great admiration, is put forward with the best intent, I do not believe that it could be considered to be in accord with the Irvine pledge, to which this Government remain committed. It is not part of fundamental reform, which we believe is the way forward. Talks within the cross-party groups have been enormously constructive, and I am confident that we can see fundamental reform of your Lordships' House in the next few years. That is surely the way in which we need to go.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some of us do not believe that the doctrine of primacy is as he states? With general legislation, whether it is to nationalise a bank or whatever, that must of course be true. However, while in a banana republic you may not need a two-thirds majority and both Houses involved in whether one or the other is going to be abolished, is it not the case that, on a constitutional question, simply pointing to a slim vote in the Commons does not decide the matter?
My Lords, Parliament will decide this matter when legislation is brought before it. I find it interesting that those many Members of your Lordships' House who are opposed to an elected element always say that one of their great fears in having an elected second Chamber is that it will challenge the primacy of the Commons. Here we have a clear case in which, after the last White Paper, which again was informed by the cross-party discussions, the Commons reached a very clear view that it would support an 80 per cent or a 100 per cent elected House. We are taking forward the White Paper on that basis and we have said that we have hoped that it would then be reflected in political parties’ manifestos leading up to the general election. On that basis, I should have thought there would be clear authority for a future Government after that election to put proposals before Parliament for reform of your Lordships' House. In that event, the whole parliamentary process will take its course.
My Lords, first, I echo the good wishes expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, on the occasion of his birthday, which I was unaware of when I spoke at the beginning of the debate. I am very happy to mark that now and to see him celebrating it in such an appropriate manner. I also thank him for the kind remarks that he addressed to me, particularly his epithets of being shallow and disgraceful, which I am sure will do me a great deal of good with my party. I also appreciated the remarks that he made about the Bill itself.
The noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, said that no one in this debate had defended the by-elections. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, did not attempt to defend them and neither did the Minister, who said that the by-election system was very hard to defend but that it was the guarantee of fundamental reform of your Lordships' House. That was precisely what I said it was not. When people agreed to the by-election system, they may have thought that it was going to lead to fundamental reform in the near future. The fact that it did not shows that it was ineffective—and still is.
Nothing in the Bill affects one way or the other the process that leads to fundamental reform, which was outlined just now by the Minister. Whether or not the Bill goes through your Lordships' House, we will have a White Paper in the near future and the process will certainly be reflected in the party manifestos in the next election. As I understand it, every party has agreed to fundamental reform, even if not all the details can be ironed out in the cross-party committee. Party manifestos from the three main parties will include a commitment to enactment of fundamental reform, whether or not the details are identical. That Bill, which will then be introduced in the next Parliament, will have a legitimacy that will probably make use of the Parliament Act unnecessary, because everyone will realise that the process has been agreed universally and that only the final settlement of the details in the election remained to be accomplished before its implementation.
Nothing in the Bill changes that. All that we are doing, if noble Lords are correct, is saying that in the meanwhile—in the three, four or five years before a Bill is introduced in the next Parliament to implement whatever fundamental reforms are agreed—we shall not have any by-elections. I have not heard anyone say a word against that idea. My noble friend Lord Addington characterised the by-elections as silly and demeaning to Parliament, and no one contradicted those adjectives. I hope, without going into any further detail at this stage, that we shall have a productive and short Committee stage and that my expectations about the nature of the amendments that will be tabled will be realised.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 1.16 pm.