Question for Short Debate
My Lords, no one would have enjoyed this debate more than my beloved friend and our good colleague Richard Acton. He loved this House and the House loved him. He made us laugh, but his contributions were always telling and to the point. He was immensely proud to have been reappointed to this House as a life Peer after his service as a hereditary Peer. I was proud to have been his friend. Our sympathies go to his wife Patricia, to his son Johnny and to his family and friends. We will miss him very much.
I am delighted that so many noble Lords have chosen to speak in this debate and that we have been promoted to a prime time spot. I want to debate the purpose of our second Chamber both now and in the context of promised reform. I have no doubt as to the vital role of the House of Lords in the revision and scrutiny of legislation. While I do not agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said in his article in last week’s edition of The House Magazine, he was certainly right about this Chamber’s effectiveness. My experience as a Minister for 10 years, with the many defeats that I suffered, confirms that, but I have no complaints because the Lords was doing its job in holding Ministers to account and improving legislation. However, I did not follow the logic of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, when he gloried in the defeats suffered by the Labour Government but warned off Labour Peers from challenging what he called the “clear mandate” of the elected House of Commons. I am not sure what mandate he had in mind: the Conservative mandate, the Liberal Democrat mandate or the coalition mandate? Which of those mandates said that child benefit would be cut and which of the many mandates will hold on tuition fees?
I remind the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and noble Lords opposite that, in its excellent analysis of the conventions, the Joint Committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Cunningham, in its description of the Salisbury/Addison convention, refers to manifesto Bills—but which manifesto? We are indeed in new territory and I suspect that the noble Lord, whom we all admire, is developing a new convention, which in essence says that the coalition Government ought not to be challenged in your Lordships’ House. This House has won a deserved reputation for its ability to cause Governments to think again, but a Government will think again only if they are defeated or believe themselves to be in danger of defeat, and that means making necessary concessions.
We now have the new circumstances of the de facto majority that the coalition enjoys in your Lordships’ House. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, when he winds up, will say, “Well, the Government have already lost some votes”. So they have, but let us see what happens when the heavy legislation reaches us. Let us see what happens when a number of substantial Bills have been through your Lordships’ House. If the coalition is determined to win every vote in this place, the work of your Lordships’ House is bound to be devalued. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that he should not dismiss this concern out of hand. It is shared by many Members and is highly pertinent to the more substantive reform of your Lordships’ House, because it goes to the heart of what it is that we are here to do.
The Government have made clear their intent to bring forward for pre-legislative scrutiny draft legislation on Lords reform by the end of the year. This is prior to a substantive Bill being presented to the Commons by November next year. The cross-party group under the Deputy Prime Minister is working on a draft Bill, so this is an excellent time to debate the role of the House in a post-reform world.
All too often, discussions on Lords reform have been confined to membership and the form of election and have shied away from an analysis of the impact of democratic legitimacy on the work and nature of the second Chamber, but surely it is time to grasp that nettle. I have no doubt that, with an elected House, the dynamics will change; an elected House will have a major impact on the Commons and on our constitutional arrangements. Vernon Bogdanor wrote in the magazine Political Insight:
“An elected upper house … would replicate the Commons with its confrontational politics and whipped majorities. It would be more powerful than the current House of Lords, because it would conceive of itself as being more democratically legitimate. For that very reason, it would make Britain more difficult to govern”.
As a supporter of reform, I am entirely comfortable with a more assertive House, but I am puzzled as to why many of my fellow reformers are so reluctant to acknowledge it. An elected Chamber will behave differently—and so it should. Otherwise, what on earth is the point of an elected Chamber? I do not fear for the primacy of the Commons; that is reflected in the Parliament Acts, supply and confidence, all of which underpin that primacy. I know that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has said that the Parliament Acts should continue to be the basis of the relationship but, equally, I have no doubt that an elected second Chamber will use all the powers at its disposal and I doubt that the conventions will hold very long. After all, they are merely voluntary constraints reflecting our current lack of democratic legitimacy. As Cunningham said,
“conventions … are flexible and unenforceable”.
The debate would be much more honest if the Government acknowledged this and opened up a discussion now. We need to discuss and consider whether we want an elected Chamber to be able to use all the current notional powers of the Lords or whether we need to codify or legislate to define the powers that are considered suitable for an elected, though subordinate, Chamber. I am convinced that we need to do so.
What about secondary legislation? In theory the Lords can veto all secondary legislation. Would an elected second Chamber turn that into reality? Ought it to be able to do so? Cunningham said:
“If the Lords acquired an electoral mandate, then in our view their role as the revising chamber, and their relationship with the Commons, would inevitably be called into question, codified or not”.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, may think that those who wish to raise these kinds of questions are opposed to reform and see this as a delaying tactic. He will know that I support reform, but, equally, I believe that unless the issue of powers is resolved now it risks unfolding when legislation reaches Parliament and this reform attempt will go the way of many previous reform attempts.
The House of Lords, of course, will debate this in detail when the reform Bill reaches us. I wish to ask the Minister about timing. In a paper slipped out by the Government just before the Recess, it is stated that the reform Bill will go to the Commons in November 2011. I assume that that would mean the Bill coming to your Lordships’ House in or around February 2012. However, the Session is due to conclude at the end of April 2012, so there will be little time to consider the Bill, particularly taking into account half term, Easter and the pressure of other legislation. Under the terms of the Parliament Acts, if a Bill has had longer than a month in the Lords and has not been agreed to, or the Lords has passed amendments that are not agreed between the two Houses, the Parliament Acts could be used to force the Bill through. I do not think that that would be acceptable.
Let us be clear: this House should scrutinise Bills in reasonable time and not procrastinate or filibuster. This Bill will be of immense importance and it is surely right that we should be given sufficient time to deal with it effectively and for amendments to be able to go back and forward between the two Houses. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to satisfy me on that point and on the Government’s willingness to lead a substantive debate on the appropriate powers for a reformed second Chamber.
My Lords, I feel as if I have bumped into a Radio 4 programme, “Just a Minute”, where you have to speak for two minutes without hesitation or repetition on a given topic. The Question before us, on what the purpose of this House is, is the key question that we need to answer. I believe in the supremacy of the House of Commons. I believe that this House is here to reform legislation and to pass it down to the elected House, which is accountable to the voters, for its consideration. In the end, the Commons must have its way.
I enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord. He was honest enough to acknowledge that making this an elected House, or having an elected element, will change the nature of this Chamber. If we are going to have an elected House, I shall stand for election, but I am not going to knock on doors, saying, “Vote for me. I’m very good at reforming legislation but I won’t do anything to upset the House of Commons”, or, “I am going to do this for you and I’m going to challenge the House of Commons”. I certainly do not think that would be appropriate, because it would undermine the authority of the Commons, lead to conflict and, most importantly, mean that no one was here doing the very important job that this House does.
The Deputy Prime Minister is very fond of telling people that he wants to “repair our broken politics” and that we need reform. I say to those in the House of Commons that they should first put their own House in order, for that is the bit of the system that is broken, and leave this place alone. How many people in this Chamber would stand for election? I suspect very few. What sort of people would stand for election, including me? They will be the B team; they will be the people who could not get elected to the House of Commons, or felt that they were not able to. All the expertise and knowledge which come to this House, and the experience of people who have had careers and done other things—all the things that people complain about a lack of in the House of Commons—would be lost. This Chamber works. Leave it alone. It is not broken.
My Lords, I suggest that we do not regard Lords reform as solely about future changes to the membership of this House. We also need to address how the existing House can and should perform its functions better. A week ago, a booklet was circulated to your Lordships on the work of the House in the past year. On page 19 is set out the policy committees’ reports for the year. Vast areas of public policy are entirely absent. There is nothing on any of the public services, education, health, law and order, energy, transport, defence, immigration or on welfare, yet in all these areas Members of the House possess great expertise which is largely untapped. In my entire five years as a Minister in the education and transport departments, I was never once called upon to give evidence to a committee of the House on domestic policy. Our record as a deliberative assembly—if I may differ from the noble Lord—is not much better. In my year as Secretary of State for Transport and as a Cabinet Minister accountable to this House, there were three major government policy decisions: on the third runway at Heathrow, on high-speed rail and on the ending of motorway construction. The House did not debate any one of those three policy developments.
A century and a half ago, Walter Bagehot said that the cure for admiring the House of Lords was to come and look at it. I fear—if I could dissent from what I know is the consensus in your Lordships’ House—that this is still too often true today. Being objective about ourselves, I recognise that we are diligent and public-spirited, that now and then we strike a chord of issues of public interest and that, occasionally, we act as a constitutional backstop. However, we have failed to develop modern procedures or committees for scrutiny or deliberation, and, across large swathes of public policy, we are practically non-existent as a parliamentary assembly. We need to improve our existing House as well as debating a future one.
My Lords, on that theme of improving the existing way in which we operate, perhaps we could have one reform this afternoon on which we all agree: that is, that we should take charge of the time allocated for debates. It is surely ridiculous that this extremely important subject allows only two minutes for individual Members of your Lordships’ House, while the debate on the Olympic Truce permits 10 minutes.
On the timing of this debate, I am bemused by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, because he was the very distinguished co-author of the 135-page, 2008 White Paper. If he wanted to spell out exactly what the role of your Lordships’ House should be, why did he not do it in 2008 and why now?
We have had 100 years of discussion about the role of your Lordships’ House, and it is clear that some want it never to end. Some believe that a snail’s pace of reform is the appropriate approach—some very big and important snails have recently arrived from the other place who clearly take this view—regardless of the fact that they presumably stood on successive manifesto commitments for reform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005. I presume that they also took note of the overwhelming majority in the other place in favour of democratic reform. It is extraordinary that those who want to codify the role and responsibility of your Lordships’ House do not want to go the whole hog and introduce a written constitution, because that is what it is.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, may believe that, but I do not believe that many of his colleagues who support hastening very slowly indeed also want a written constitution. This is a ploy to paper over party divisions and delay the very proper parliamentary scrutiny of the draft Bill that is now due next year.
Those who believe in the primacy of the Commons should look carefully not only at the White Paper but at all the previous analyses of the best way to elect your Lordships’ House. I believe in evolution not revolution. Those who insist on pinning down precisely what your Lordships’ House should do post-reform are revolutionaries.
My Lords, the coalition is already making heavy weather of its agreement to replace this House with an elected Chamber, so we must be vigilant. The frank account of the Government’s thinking by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in our debate in June gave fair warning of the dangers of forgetting principles and playing politics. He talked about the Government’s thinking and said that an elected Chamber would do what we do and have the same powers that we have. He said that its priority was,
“how people get here, rather than what they do once they get here”.—[Official Report, 29/6/10; col. 1666.]
I have heard many clarion calls for radical change in my time, but never one as feeble and unconvincing as that reply that he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. He might just as well have said, “I know this is topsy-turvy but it’s part of our deal with the Lib Dems so we are stuck with it”.
The Leader of the House was more forthright when he was in Opposition. He raised the same pertinent questions that need an answer now. Commenting on Jack Straw’s White Paper, he said:
“Lords reform is like opening the lid of Pandora’s box: who knows where debate might lead if there is no firm guiding principle behind it? So will the noble and learned Lord answer, just this once, the basic question? Exactly what problem is this package aiming to solve? Is the House too strong or too weak? Is the aim to enable us to defeat all Governments more, with “more legitimacy”, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, used to say, or what?”.—[Official Report, 7/2/07; col. 714.]
Those were valid questions then and they are even more valid now, so I look forward to hearing from the Government later this afternoon what they have to say on those issues. Vague assurances on a vital issue of constitutional reform simply will not do. Until we know precisely what powers a reformed second Chamber will have, we cannot subscribe to the wanton destruction of this House in the interests of a new political class that lacks the acknowledged expertise and cherished independence of this institution.
Three years ago, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, urged the Labour Government to be brave about the powers of a reformed Chamber. I quote his stirring words. He said that,
“this House has been more assertive since 1999, and government has been none the worse for it. Some of us might say it has been a lot better. If a reformed House kept and used its existing powers with even more confidence, things might get even better still”.
He continued—and I ask your Lordships to mark his words—
“as to statutorily containing your Lordships’ procedures or reducing your Lordships’ powers, I can promise the Minister nothing.—[Official Report, 19/7/07; col. 393.].
That was three years ago. We should promise nothing either. If the Government want a serious dialogue, they must pay more attention than lip service to transparency or face unremitting opposition.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Hunt’s call for codification. As noble Lords will know and as we have heard again today, the key issue that has bedevilled House of Lords reform for so long is the potential for challenges to the primacy of the House of Commons if the composition of this House is elected. I understand those concerns, which arise logically from the greater democratic legitimacy of an elected Chamber. But such concerns are not necessarily justified. They could be an outcome, but they are not inevitable.
I believe both in an elected House of Lords and in the primacy of the House of Commons, and I do not believe that they are axiomatically incompatible. The key to resolving any incompatibility must lie in the codification of the functions of this House—to put beyond doubt the respective roles of the two Chambers and their relationship. Convention and custom, upon which we can often rely successfully in our constitutional arrangements, always need to be scrutinised for their adequacy in radically new circumstances—and a wholly or partly elected House of Lords would be radically new circumstances.
I recognise the deep concerns that are felt about codifying our constitution, and to some extent I share them. But we must also recognise that our constitution has in recent years been subject to a creeping codification with no adverse consequences—quite the opposite, in my view. So I do not believe that we need fear such codification of the functions of this House. However, any constitutional codification raises complex and challenging sets of issues, and this debate has illustrated again the importance of fully exploring them so that that debate can be adequately informed.
For that reason, I conclude with a plea to the Government. The previous Government established a working group—a galaxy of wise and distinguished experts from all the main parties and from none, including distinguished Members of this House, to explore these issues without any assumptions about the outcome. The general election intervened before this group could get under way. Please would the Minister commit to getting that group under way? It makes no assumptions about the outcome or its conclusions, and I have no doubt that it will produce invaluable work that will aid policy-making on all sides of the debate. If he will not convene the group, perhaps he could tell the House why not.
My Lords, on 29 June, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, asked:
“At what point will the House get the chance to debate what a Second Chamber is for, what it is to do and what its powers are? Surely, all we are talking about at the moment is its composition, which seems to be the wrong way round”.—[Official Report, 29/6/10; col. 1666.]
He was right—hence this afternoon’s debate. However, there are some prior questions. What is any Parliament for, whether unicameral or bicameral? What is its role in relation to government and, in a bicameral arrangement, what are the relations between the two Houses, their respective functions and the basis or bases of their legitimacy? Those questions must be addressed in any consideration of the purpose of the House of Lords. Although in life we often have to get on with practical action without answering all underlying questions, there can be times when to do so implies some definite answer to those questions while they are still being debated. I do not need to quote again what the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, quoted from the rather feeble answer that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, gave to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on that occasion, or her comments about it.
Reference is frequently made in debates on this subject to democratic legitimacy, and the assertion is made that only election as we have come to understand it can deliver that legitimacy. It is not enough to assert that principle to make it true. Democracy is used to describe many quite different political systems. In our own society, criticisms are often made of a political class that seems to have lost the confidence of the population at large. The evidence for that is the low turnout in elections, and not what is said in cheap and cost-free comments to pollsters on doorsteps. In trying to understand and respond to why the electoral legitimacy of the other place is not quite all that it is cracked up to be, we really do need to discuss long and hard what we believe society to be and how we call our rulers to account. The Prime Minister may be on to something with his talk of the big society, even though it is rather hard to understand. The current enthusiasm for fairness as a guiding principle also has much to commend it, but again raises more questions than it answers. Even my own favourite yardstick of what makes for human flourishing does not automatically translate into specific policies.
Some things are clear, however. In a complex society such as modern Britain, increasingly a community of communities, it is more important than ever that our political processes are genuinely transparent and accountable. What our representatives do is more important than how they get there. No less important is who they are and the extent to which the rich diversity of peoples in our country have people to speak for them and their multiple needs and aspirations. Unless we answer some of those prior questions about the nature of politics and the role of government and parliaments, it is very difficult to engage directly with the narrower focus of this afternoon’s debate.
My Lords, I think that we are all very clear what the purposes of this Chamber are: first, to act as a revising Chamber with regard to legislation, which was tremendously important in the last Parliament because the House of Commons had virtually ceased to legislate and programmed everything; and, secondly, to hold the Government to account. That was, again, demonstrated very clearly in the previous Parliament, when the Government were more preoccupied with passing Acts on terrorism and so on than with human rights, liberty and so forth. We therefore have tremendously important responsibilities.
I do not propose to repeat the very well rehearsed basic arguments about election and non-election, although I suddenly discover that we have great publicity as a result of the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, pointing out that it would undermine the sovereignty of the House of Commons. He failed to mention that it would also undermine the position of individual Members of Parliament in their constituencies. Instead, I want to draw attention to what seemed to me a considerable danger: that some developments since the election may undermine the status of this House, and consequently make it easier for people to say, “We should have an elected Chamber instead”.
I start with two-minute speeches. I do not recall any precedent for them, but I would be rather surprised if the media do not suddenly say, “Well, here they are, all making two-minute speeches at a new rate of expenses”, then work out the cost-effectiveness of those speeches. The arithmetic is not terribly difficult, but this is not a laughing matter. In that context, one should also say clearly that the bureaucracy has somehow come up with a form for claiming expenses where you have to decide each month what rate to claim, whereas we all know perfectly well that we come here sometimes for a short time and sometimes for a very late-night sitting. We ought to have the flexibility to be able to decide the appropriate level within given ranges.
The other thing that somewhat endangers us is that we are clearly in a coalition now and, as a result, it will be more difficult for the opposition forces to defeat the Government by way of persuasion, whereas in the previous Parliament we certainly had the opportunity to do that by persuading the other parts of the House to go along with us. It appears that that will no longer be the case.
Finally, on the size of the House, again there is a considerable danger that we are getting so large as to be open to ridicule. We ought to be gravely concerned about that, because all these recent developments lead to the position of the House being undermined and the call for it to be an elected Chamber.
My Lords, the role of the appointed House of Lords is entirely clear. It is advisory: to advise on policy, to scrutinise legislation and to offer revisions to it. This House is well fitted to performing that role, drawing as it does on the knowledge and wisdom of the two principal groups of its Members: senior and experienced politicians and very distinguished individuals from many other walks of life. This House invigilates the Government and presses and prods them and the House of Commons to think again, to think harder and to explain themselves. It is never a rival to the elected Chamber. An elected second Chamber could not perform the same role, nor would its ambitions be so modest. Its Members would believe that they had a duty to those who had elected them to use their democratic authority not just to advise and advance a point of view but to insist on what they thought was right. The gentle and persuasive critique of an appointed House would be replaced by the clash of two elected Chambers.
It may be that the Deputy Prime Minister has a cunning plan to define and constrain the role and powers of the elected second Chamber. Perhaps he intends to legislate to entrench the existing conventions, or something like them. There would be two possible consequences of that. The parties could use the list system to place pliant individuals in the second Chamber. What benefit would that be to politics and to the country? It would lose the virtues of the existing House and gain nothing worth having. If the governing party were in the majority, it would reinforce the dominance of the elective dictatorship; if the opposition parties were in the majority in the second Chamber, the second Chamber would become a second arena for the party dog-fight, and no more. Or, if people worth their salt did stand for election to the second Chamber, the lid would quickly blow off the pressure cooker. Those people would indeed insist on what they thought to be right. They would strike down legislation, particularly when they and the country thought that the Government have got it wrong. Armed with democratic authority, they would challenge the primacy of the House of Commons. We would risk legislative impasse between the two Houses.
Codification will not work. We have seen how the European Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have all gradually gained powers. Elected Chambers will always seek to do that. For the umpteenth time in these debates, I ask the essential question: how will the replacement of an appointed House by an elected House improve the performance of Parliament? To say that it will make the second Chamber more democratic or legitimate does not answer the question. I suspect that the Government are not interested in improving the performance of Parliament. All Governments regard Parliament as a nuisance. We must be on guard to ensure that so-called reform does not weaken Parliament, which is—or ought to be—a restraint on executive absolutism and the safeguard of our liberties.
My Lords, the House of Lords, according to our website, is,
“a forum of expertise, making laws and providing scrutiny of Government”.
As we have heard, we are a check and balance for the other place, a wise counsellor and an adviser. Where those in the other place are inexperienced, we are experienced; where they are partisan, we are objective; where—it could be argued—they are lightweight, we are definitely heavyweight. If only the public understood—and if only the other place understood—the work that we do.
When I look around the Chamber, I struggle to think of another legislature in the world with such a deep well of expertise in every field you can think of. We have healthcare professionals, lawyers, athletes, television presenters, journalists and so on. When one looks at the 100 members of the Senate, one sees that 57 list law as their occupational background, 27 list business and 16 list education—real diversity there.
The reason that 40 per cent of amendments made by this House are accepted by the House of Commons is the quality of this House's advice and the level of our expertise. This would be lost were we to be elected. We have heard that we would challenge the primacy of the House of Commons. This House is unlike any other upper Chamber in the world in the way that it is made up. We do not have to copy another nation or nations. This country has never copied; historically it has always created and originated. We have always led the way. The idea of this Chamber becoming a proportionally representative elected House stinks of the European Parliament. MEPs are unknown to their constituents and have no idea who their constituents are: it is a farce.
In building a business from scratch, I have always tried to change things and build through relentless, restless innovation; but with this House, we should heed the old saying: “If it ain't broke, don't fix it”. To change the nature of the House would be completely to devalue it. The whole purpose of this House as a check and balance would be diluted and destroyed. This cannot happen, because—ironically—it is the appointed House that is the guardian of our nation, the unelected House that is the cornerstone of our democracy.
I believe firmly in an elected House, a House elected indirectly on a list system geared to the result of a general election. Some who are of my view believe that the Cross-Benchers would represent those who have abstained. I believe that the problems raised by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, can be sorted out in a new constitutional settlement between the two Houses. My only concern is to what extent during the course of the reform debate we are taking into account the agenda that is being pursued in the House of Commons following the Wright recommendations.
The House of Commons has set up a group called Parliament First. Noble Lords should be far more engaged in the work of that group in the Commons, which is currently dealing with the powers of Select Committees, carryover, the treatment of Lords amendments, the treatment of Private Members’ Bills, pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny, the taking of evidence by Public Bill Committees, parliamentary commissions of inquiry, the role of the Merits Committee and a number of other issues, all of which would be affected by any change in the constitutional settlement between the two Houses.
My Lords, the late Lord Hailsham used to say that if the House of Lords were abolished, we would have an elected dictatorship. Sometimes I wonder whether this House in its present state would be strong enough to stand up to a House of Commons of the extreme left or the extreme right with a large majority. An elected senate would be a stronger House. It would also be more democratic, with its Members called senators.
We have to separate the peerage from this House. Every photograph of the House in the press shows Peers wearing robes, which cuts us off from another place and the general public. An elected Chamber is some way off, particularly one called a senate, but I think it is the way we should go.
My Lords, despite the views of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, I believe that this House works remarkably well. Last week, as has already been mentioned, my noble friend the Leader of the House had an article in the House Magazine in which he set out some of our achievements. We saw off the attempt to kill trial by jury; we cut back the scope of identity cards, which we are now—I am proud to say—going to abolish; and we protected freedom of belief and speech. It is clear that this House serves the public interest. The Question of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is about the purpose of the House, though he spoke about powers. My answer as to the purpose of the House is simply that it is to serve the public interest. Any reform must not undermine that.
In my brief time today I will say what any reform of this Chamber should avoid if it is to continue to serve the public interest. First, this House must not become just another place of partisan politics in a pale, or even more highly coloured, version of another place. Elections, which will be controlled by the party machinery, will take us firmly in the direction of a politicised House.
Secondly, this House must not lose the wealth of expertise and experience that an appointments system delivers. We see this in particular on the Cross Benches but all parts of the House possess an extraordinary breadth of experience and knowledge. We must not forget the particular contributions of the Bishops’ Bench. Elections simply will not deliver what our current system does deliver.
Thirdly, we must not undermine the primacy of the House of Commons. As has been said today, it is inevitable that an elected upper Chamber will robustly challenge the conventions that preserve the current balance between the two Houses. We must ask ourselves whether it is more or less likely that another House of elected politicians, jostling for position with another place and stripped of the experience and expertise that we currently have, will achieve what we have achieved in the past. Will that serve the public interest? I think the answer to that is clear.
My Lords, I am thrilled to join this succession of tweeters. The abolition—that is what it would be—of the House and its replacement by an elected second Chamber would be a constitutional upheaval, the outcome of which cannot conceivably leave us with an unchanged relationship between the two Houses. The 2008 White Paper advised us that a reformed second Chamber would almost certainly be more assertive, but rather strangely went on to state:
“A second chamber that is more assertive than the current House of Lords, operating against the background of the current arrangements for its powers, would not threaten primacy”.
This position has been swallowed hook, line and sinker by the coalition Government. On what grounds do the Government make the assumption that “a more assertive House” will wish to continue to operate,
“against the background of the current arrangements for its powers”?
Those of us who claim that an elected House would demand more powers are accused of failing to explain how such powers would be granted if they were dependent on the agreement of the primary Chamber. This is the point. There is of course no guarantee that they would be granted. As the noble Lord the Leader of the House told us on 29 June:
“The view at the moment is that the House should continue to have the powers that it holds and do the work that it does”.—[Official Report, 29/6/10; col. 1666.]
What is virtually certain is that an assertive elected Chamber would none the less demand greater powers. If, as is likely, the primary Chamber refused the demand, the scene would be set for a continuing and bitter struggle between the two Houses. The Government and those on other Benches advocating an elected Chamber clearly do not wish to acknowledge that possibility. Such self-deception is worrying and dangerous.
I have not said anything that has not already been said, but the more people who say it and the more often they say it, the greater the hope that the coalition Government may see the light. I certainly hope that is the case.
My Lords, though I had spent a lot of my life on the political fringes, the range of exceptional experience, ability and independence of view that I found on my arrival to your Lordships' House came as a very welcome surprise and has convinced me that the balance and value of what history has delivered to make today’s House of Lords is more than worth fighting for. What we have is a typical British accident, but one that works supremely well.
As your Lordships will know, normally I find myself making the case for equality and non-discrimination, but on this issue I want to strike exactly the opposite note: that is, that the membership and composition of the two Houses of Parliament are, and must continue to be, absolutely different from each other, for that difference makes all that is best out of the partnership between the two Houses. The crucial difference, of course, is that one is elected and the other is not, and that the elected House is the master and has the last word while the other—misleadingly called the upper House—does not. The Members of the first House, the elected House, are recruited, rather like soldiers in a regimental system, and are bound to each other in solidarity, whereas the membership of this House is much more individualistic and independent. Most of us are selected through a very strict process.
In short, we all have independent experience and expertise that are very different from those in the other place, and we must remain so. Why, otherwise, should we need—as others have said—two different Houses? It is because the deciders—the Commons—may well be able to take a broad view but they have to take account as well of the distinct and often different judgments that emerge at this end of the Building. That very difference—the input from two directions—is the fundamental of our Parliament: in other words, vive la différence. If either of the two Houses was to lose its distinctive quality, which is what would happen if elected Members began arriving here, the mother of Parliaments would become a much less effective place and much less of a model to the world, and the British constitution would suffer a gravely damaging blow.
My Lords, were we to move to a wholly elected House of Lords, in my view we would do immense damage in three directions. First, we would make the job of trying to create a Government hugely more difficult for the Prime Minister of the day. When confronted with the results of the democratic process, Prime Minister after Prime Minister shudders and sends people here to complete his Government. We all know that that is true not just of the previous election but of election after election. That is one reason why we have the marvellous noble Lord, Lord Adonis, sitting here—he could not find a position as Transport Secretary in the other House—and we are very grateful to him for that.
The creation of a wholly elected House of Lords would do immense damage to the House of Commons as Members elected to this House, by whatever method, will not replicate the size and number of constituencies of the other House. The respective elections could not be held on the same day: to do so would be utterly pointless. Elected Members of this House could say to Members of the other House, “I have a much better mandate than you, my friend. I was elected by more people and I was elected more recently, so you just listen to me”. Anybody who thinks that the balance between the two Houses will remain as it is today has another thing coming to them. You do not need to know very much about constitutional history to know that the United States Senate was first an appointed body. Then the House of Representatives was foolish enough to allow the Senate to be elected. Who is top dog now? That process did not take very long and will inevitably happen again, whatever restrictions are imposed on the relationship between the two Houses. This House will say, “I want supply—to hell with the Parliament Act—and I want more Cabinet Ministers”.
The third place where the damage would be done is quite clearly in this House. We would lose the Cross-Benchers, and that would be a terrible thing. There would be no military experience to speak of here. There is none down the other end; you can be quite sure of that. You would lose the Bench of Bishops. I think we made a great mistake in getting rid of the Law Lords. There just would not be the experience. You would have just the B team, the failures and the duds who could not even make it there and who were insufficient in number to make a Government. That is what you would get in this place, and then you would get the pernicious influence of the Whips. I have said enough.
My Lords, grateful as I am for this short debate on the important issue of the function of the House of Lords, I hope that at some point before we consider legislation we will have a proper, full-scale, two-day debate, because the most important issue is: what function do we wish the House of Lords to perform? Once we have decided on that, you tailor everything else to make us able better to fulfil that function.
I regret to say that I agree entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said at the start of this debate as regards the folly of electing a House and hoping that it will stay the same as the present one. The Scottish Parliament has been in business for slightly over 10 years. It is already seeking more powers. If the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, were to be elected—I would be one of his constituents because we live in the same part of the world—what would be his platform for election? How would I know whether he had delivered on that platform? We do not yet know, simply because the previous Government, I am afraid, used the term “election” as an emotive slogan and shied clear of trying spell out exactly what they meant. That was probably because they knew that the majority of Labour MPs were against election—as indeed were a majority of Conservative MPs. It is only the Liberal Democrats who carried the day in the House of Commons.
You have the choice of either having re-election, in which case you get accountability—undoubtedly there would be people wanting to get the power to demonstrate to their constituents that they had delivered what they had promised—or not having re-election, whereby, frankly, you have no accountability whatever; you elect me on day one and I do precisely what I want for the rest of the 15 years or so for which I may be elected.
We have at the moment a constitutional convention—the Cunningham agreement. It is vital that we decide, first, whether we wish to change that in any way. If not, we stick with what we have, because we change the Cunningham convention at our peril. We are living in very strange times in politics. Things that would have been thought impossible a year ago are now happening. Coalition government is one; changes in the Scottish Parliament are another; and the Welsh Assembly is becoming a Scottish-style Parliament. If we have an elected House, you do not know where that is going to lead.
My Lords, I spoke in the reform debate of 1999 and now speak in a similar debate, having spent the intervening years outside this place. This distance from Parliament has confirmed for me that the purpose and reform of the Lords is too important an issue to be left as a wrangle between the two Houses, between parties, and over primacy. My concern is rather how we should further democratise Parliament as a whole. I should like to see the issue decided much more by the public; but first we need better to engage and inform them about aspects of the current system which we Members of this House know would be lost in a fully elected membership, but that the public might think are worth retaining.
For example, it would be a tragedy not to keep in some form that part, currently 25 per cent of this House, which is independent from party politics—namely the Cross-Benchers. That is attainable through a mixed membership. Independence brings many beneficial features, including the chance for Members to think, act and vote according to their consciences, and to debate freely the contentious topics untouched by the other place. Indeed, a modern reformed House of Lords should recognise that, rather than being a lesser other place, it could be celebration of public involvement in government.
Rather than narrowing down politics to tighter control by professional politicians, should we not be opening up our second House to the British people? If we retain an appointments system to introduce expertise and life experience into the Lords, should it not be decoupled from party-political involvement, perhaps by bringing ordinary citizens into government of their peers through a jury system, and asking—as indeed our Prime Minister might say—not just what Parliament can do for the people, but what the people can do for Parliament?
My Lords, the theme running through the ongoing debate about the future of this House is the ignorance in the other place of the working and—dare I say it?—the effectiveness of this House. It applies to all parties and has certainly, so far as I can recall, ever been thus. One of the effects of this is the unawareness among many of our colleagues in the Commons of just how well they are presently served in the current legislative relationship between the two Houses. To take one example, flagship Bills have been given six times the amount of Committee time in this House compared with the other place. We pose no constitutional threat.
The pros and cons of an elected House have been rehearsed many times during this debate: the expense, and the problems of finding candidates of sufficient quality. However, transcending all that in constitutional terms are the powers that an elected House would seek—nay, demand. There is only one place that those can come from—the House of Commons, and how popular would that be down there?
Much has been made of the present lack of democratic legitimacy in your Lordships’ House. Perhaps I may respectfully suggest that that is precisely how it should be—no challenge to the supremacy of the other place. Rather, we would do well to build on the present structure of our House, which, it can be argued, is probably working more effectively than it has ever done in the whole of its history, but with one major proviso: we must have a strong statutory Appointments Commission and, indeed, one that is proofed from any gerrymandering on its composition.
Finally, there are two bedrocks which any changes in this House must enshrine, so well articulated by my noble friend Lord Forsyth. The first is the ability of this House to get the Government to think again and the second, which to some degree is a corollary of the first, is to provide that in principle the Government should in the end get their business.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath for putting down this Question for debate today.
As a new Member who joined your Lordships’ House in June this year, I am fully aware that this is the second Chamber in our parliamentary system. We are the revising House that sometimes asks the other place to think again. No party has a majority and the Conservative Government have to persuade the House of the merits of their case. However, at the end of the day the will of the Commons takes precedence if no agreement can be reached.
If we move to an elected second Chamber, this noble House will become democratically legitimate. No matter what is put in place to guarantee the supremacy of the Commons, the fact that Members sitting on these Benches are elected will change the whole relationship between the two Houses. That may be something that this House wants to do but, if that is where we go, we have to be prepared to face up to the consequences of that fact.
What we will not get away with is having elections at the same time as the local or European elections on some national or regional PR list system, with Members being returned and this House carrying on as before because we have the Parliament Acts and the Salisbury convention. Maybe we will need a Clegg or a Taylor convention so that we codify how the Government would deal with a newly elected House of Lords elected midway through their mandate. The candidates will have stood on their parties’ manifestos and some Members will have been returned to this House with the democratic authority to oppose specific elements of the Government’s manifesto put to the country some years before.
From my few short months in this House, I suggest that there is much here that the other place could learn from. No one likes change and that is as true of this House as it is of any other organisation or workplace. As we begin these discussions, we should do so with caution, proper debate and careful consideration of the consequences of any proposals for change.
My Lords, the purpose of the House of Lords is to scrutinise legislation, especially legislation which the Commons has not had the time or the inclination to scrutinise; to hold the Executive to account from a less partisan perspective than exists in the Commons; to create and sustain a core of men and women of knowledge and experience with a duty to contribute to public debate in Parliament and outside; and to act as an ultimate backstop to prevent a temporary Commons majority riding roughshod over Britain’s constitution and its people’s liberties. A moment’s thought should convince any objective observer that these functions are best discharged by an essentially appointed rather than elected House.
My Lords, I had the privilege of being Chairman of Ways and Means for five years when the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, was Speaker. Both she and I believe totally in the primacy of the House of Commons. Having said that, I hope that the coalition Government will fully take on board the probing questions which she asked earlier this afternoon.
I have one thing to add: the public trust the House of Lords and at the moment it is a fact of life that they do not trust the House of Commons. We have a very strange situation in that the one part which the British public trust is to be removed or dramatically changed and the other part is just to be tinkered with. As many noble Lords have said today, we are here to revise and to challenge the Government of the day and to do that you need men and women with experience of life and experience of how to legislate. In the 10-plus years in which I have been a Member of the House, that is how this House has proved its validity. However, this House has had an opportunity but still has not acted on the Bill presented by my noble friend Lord Steel. The Bill may need some additional elements added to it, but it is there and could be very usefully implemented.
My Lords, speaking at the end, it seems to me that this debate proves that we are a House in transition. Being a House in transition we have to tread very carefully; for instance, during this period there surely must be a balance of party groups. You cannot have an unelected House of Parliament in transition where one group of unelected party politicians has a majority. Not only is it a mockery of democracy, but it also inhibits our current work of revision. The triumphs of the House, listed in the article by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and repeated in this debate, happened because the Labour Government did not have a majority in this House. A majority in this House also allows the Government to be sloppy—perhaps the Opposition too, but that does not matter so much.
I know that the public’s attitude to the House of Lords is very mixed, but for how long will they put up with unelected Peers, in a majority, with real power over their lives? In my view, it will not be long because the public are becoming more interested and more informed about the work of this House. As Liz Hallam Smith, our Director of Information Services points out in her paper to the Information Committee, if we are to have a reform agenda, the process will be enriched if we have an informed public. The public are becoming well informed and soon they will ask what is our purpose and what are we here for. It will not just be a matter for parliamentary debate. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to that point.
My Lords, I wish to speak in the gap, which is somewhat unexpected in this debate. We are debating the function and not the membership of this House, although they are closely related. The essential function of an appointed House in a democracy is to protect the electorate from any structural or systemic failure in the elected Chamber which leaves them exposed to overmighty Government or the leeching away of their freedoms. I wonder how many of the electorate know that if it had not been for this House, any one of them could, on any day, have been told, without warning, that their name was on a piece of paper signed by the Home Secretary and that they were to be put in detention for three months without appeal and without access to a court, a judge or a jury. We stopped that on the day and night of 10 to 11 March 2005. That is what the House is for and that is what it did.
The other House had lost control of the Government, although they had a huge majority, because the Government control candidature and standing again, and Members’ careers depend entirely on pleasing the party. Therefore, when Members’ salaries increase inexorably, that is a sharpened power which the Whips carry. The need to be elected, the need to be approved and the need to be re-elected are the three elements that caused that trouble and they are precisely the three elements which the current Government are now foolishly proposing to introduce in place of this independent, unelected, unpaid House.
My Lords, my party’s manifesto on House of Lords reform stated that we will hold referenda for moving to a democratic and accountable second Chamber. However, as is rather painfully obvious, we are not in power and therefore await the new Government’s draft Bill with eager anticipation. Will it include mention of a referendum, for example? Almost as fascinating will be the reaction of Conservative Peers. As the Leader of the House has so often told us, and as appears so clear from this debate starting with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, they are absolutely eager for reform of this House. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has said it so many times and with such conviction that I almost believe him.
In the limited time that I have, I want to ask the Minister two direct questions. One is about the existing House and the other is about a reformed House. First, the here and now. Commentators and experts rightly argue that since the coalition was formed, the Government have a political majority in this House and can get their way at the first time of asking. Labour never sought a political majority. This House lost its political majority with the removal of the vast majority of hereditary Peers, but it is back again. Therefore I raise this question: is the role of the Liberal Democrats in this House now the same as that of the departed hereditaries? In other words, is it to back up a Conservative Government with their votes when necessary? How can the Government justify this state of affairs? How can the House be an effective revising and scrutinising Chamber if the Government have an inbuilt political majority? This is a question not just of political importance but of constitutional importance and I believe that it deserves an answer.
As regards a reformed House, the question posed by my noble friend Lord Hunt about timing needs an answer and I hope that we will get one this afternoon. Is the Minister confident that there will be sufficient time for the Bill to complete its passage through Parliament, having been debated properly in this House in keeping with its significance as a major constitutional change?
The noble Lord has not been asked to answer many questions in this debate. I have asked two and I very much hope that he will answer them.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for bringing forward this short debate and I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. It has been a good debate containing a great deal of wisdom, distilled and concentrated through the pressure of time. It is perhaps a good thing that it was moved from the dinner hour business, so that therefore we have had a little longer to speak. I shall just explain to noble Lords that the time constraints are laid down in the Companion. I hope that we will have the opportunity to discuss these matters at greater length on another occasion because the content of the debate has shown how justified that would be. After all, most noble Lords have an opinion on this subject and views are held with passion and conviction. I shall do my best to do justice to the speeches and hope that I shall be forgiven if I fail to cover every contribution and point raised. However, a number of specific ones were made and I hope that I shall be able to satisfy noble Lords opposite on them.
Several Members raised issues that might be described, as my noble friend Lord Elton observed, as commenting on the nature and character of the House and the style and manner in which it fulfils its purpose. Although not strictly speaking the terms of the debate, I understand why noble Lords consider those issues important and hope to be able to refer to them if I have time. The debate is on the purpose of the House of Lords, and many Members have given examples of what they think that is. The Government believe that its purpose can be summed up as threefold: first, to scrutinise legislation; secondly, to hold the Government to account—exactly the words used by my noble friend Lord Higgins; and, thirdly, to conduct investigations. I hope that this tallies with the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. Indeed, I think that all noble Lords have shown agreement with those three principal purposes of the House.
I will say a little more on each of those in turn, but I will do so in a constitutional context which recognises the primacy of the elected House of Commons. That is the cornerstone of this country’s parliamentary system. The work of this House should complement that of the House of Commons. That was widely recognised by noble Lords. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, that it is increasingly important that the two Houses work closely together, whatever the shape of this House.
Let us turn to the purposes in more detail. First, there is scrutinising of legislation. This House shares the role of law-making with the other place. However, this House, rightly, has a reputation for thorough and detailed scrutiny of legislation line by line. In the 2008-09 Session, Members spent 60 per cent of their time debating and scrutinising legislation. We made 1,824 amendments to Bills. It is a matter of pride in which all noble Lords will share that legislation leaves this Chamber much improved as a result of the thorough consideration it receives here.
I should like to tackle the canard laid by the noble Lords, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and Lord Bach, about the arithmetic of this House. The arithmetic of this House has not been fundamentally altered by the existence of the coalition. After all, those on the Benches opposite greatly outnumber that of any other single party in this House. An argument will be won by winning the support of noble Lords across the House. It always has been so. Indeed, the Cross-Benchers are there to be influenced and their opinions supported. No Government have a majority in this House, even in coalition. It is argument that is sovereign, I like to think, in your Lordships’ House.
The second purpose is described as holding the Government to account. In their speeches, many noble Lords considered it to be key to the House to hold the Government to account. I guess that that is what is happening at the moment. In the Chamber, about 40 per cent of time is spent this way. Through Questions and debates, this House challenges the Executive and holds it to account. In the 2008-09 Session, noble Lords asked 484 Oral Questions and more than 5,500 Written Questions. Many noble Lords have stood at this Dispatch Box and can testify to the rigour with which noble Lords hold the Government to account. The partially reformed House has no doubt become more assertive, defeating the Government on average on 50 occasions per Session. Outside the Chamber, in the Grand Committee Room, a further purpose is conducting investigations. The Committees of this House are one of its great resources. Their membership draws on a wide range of experience, and their reports are influential and well respected.
While respecting tradition, the House of Lords has also been prepared to embrace change and look forward with a renewed purpose. We need procedures which will help us to continue to fulfil our purpose. Over the past 18 months, this House has made a number of changes to improve its ability to scrutinise legislation and to hold the Government to account—for example, the new approach we have adopted to scrutinise Law Commission Bills. I am sure that the Leader’s group chaired by my noble friend Lord Goodlad will look into the working practices of this House and will propose further improvements. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, considers that we should be clear about the purpose of the second Chamber before we consider further reform. I reassure him that the cross-party committee on which served my noble friends Lord Strathclyde and Lord McNally and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, will consider this issue with their colleagues. As part of their remit, they are considering the function and powers of a reformed second Chamber. There is no reason to suppose that their recommendations will impact on the conventions of the House without them being fully considered by that cross-party committee.
The noble Lord, Lord Wills, asked about the working group to consider the constitutional implications of reform. I can confirm that it will be necessary to put the conventions on a statutory basis to reduce the powers of the second Chamber. A reformed second Chamber should have the powers that this House currently holds. The Government are not setting out to reduce the powers of this House. The cross-party group will be considering the conventions and codification as part of its deliberation. I hope that that satisfies the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, who also asked about that issue.
I am not a member of the joint cross-party committee, but the advice I have is that that is the case, that the Parliament Acts will not necessarily be changed as a result of this and that the conventions under which the House currently operates will continue to be the framework in which a future House will operate. I hope that satisfies noble Lords’ curiosity on that point.
A further matter for the cross-party committee will be how to handle the potential risk to the expertise of the House in the independent Members. The committee will address outstanding issues, including the proportion of Members who should be elected. If the reformed second Chamber were mainly elected, there would still be a role for Cross-Benchers. As with the current House, Members of a reformed second Chamber could access expertise and experience in a number of ways, including via the committee system. The noble Baronesses, Lady Boothroyd and Lady Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, asked what role there would be. If there is a mainly elected House, there would be a role for the Cross-Benchers.
Several noble Lords suggested that only an appointed second Chamber could continue to fulfil the functions and purposes of the House as the Government have described them. The Government do not accept that. We believe that elections will not undermine the ability of the House to fulfil its functions but will enhance it. There is no doubt that this House will continue to develop its role during its transition to a wholly or mainly elected Chamber. The Government recognise the need for an orderly process of transition from the current House to a reformed second Chamber. The Government are clear that this House performs its role well and can be proud of the work that it does. We strongly believe that there is not a noble Lord, whatever his or her views, who does not want the best for this House. The Government share this view and hope to have a constructive debate when we publish a Bill in draft early next year. I can assure noble Lords that there will be no pressure to rush pre-legislative scrutiny of this draft Bill. I can almost hear my noble friend the Leader of the House saying it in those terms. Indeed, I am sure that there will be many further opportunities to debate this issue, and I look forward to them.
My Lords, perhaps I may take the noble Lord through the timetable. Before the Summer Recess, the Government published a programme showing that they hoped that the Bill would go to the other place by November 2011. There is not much time between November 2011 and April/May 2012 for a Bill to go through both Houses. Can I assume from what he has said that the intention is that the timetable will be lengthier than that?
I can assure the noble Lord that the pre-legislative process is extremely important. We cannot get a satisfactory resolution of this issue unless all parties to the discussion feel that they have a proper opportunity for debate and for giving their input. At the moment, a relatively small group of people is setting about the task with a purpose. The all-party committee is representative of the senior figures of this House and of the House of Commons. Its draft Bill is the material with which Members of this House will be able to debate and the whole process of pre-legislative scrutiny is vital if we are to get a proper solution to something for which I think that many Lords have indicated their support—that is, the reform of the House of Lords and the bringing about of an elected Chamber.