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Parliament: Elected House of Lords

Volume 727: debated on Monday 16 May 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they will take to secure the primacy of the House of Commons if the House of Lords is replaced by an elected Chamber.

My Lords, an important part of the plans for reform of this House is the continued primacy of the House of Commons. The Government are clear that the role of this House is, and should continue to be, to complement the other place.

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for his reply, which I think to an extent recognises the considerable anxiety not only among Members of your Lordships’ House but among members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place about the failure to address adequately the question of primacy of the other place. We all await with eager anticipation the statement from the Deputy Prime Minister and his draft Bill to determine whether they provide further insights into this important constitutional issue. However, I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree that the profound constitutional implications that attend abolition of your Lordships’ House and its replacement with an elected second Chamber require that any proposals that come forward enjoy genuine confidence. In this regard, will the noble Lord confirm that there will be a free vote on the Bill in both your Lordships’ House and the other place?

My Lords, I join the noble Lord and, I expect, many others in eagerly anticipating the announcement that will be made shortly by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. With regard to understanding the profound implications of any change that might take place, again I agree with the noble Lord: they would be profound if this House became a wholly elected body, as I think is well understood by those who propose such a change. We would decide the issue of a free vote when we came to a final conclusion about what would appear in a Bill, if any, and when it would be presented to both Houses of Parliament.

My Lords, I remind the Leader of the House of the conclusion of the Cunningham committee that, should any firm proposals come forward to change the composition of the Lords, the conventions between the two Houses would have to be examined again. Can the noble Lord assure me that if, as we understand will be the case, a Joint Committee is set up, it will be charged with looking at the conventions between the two Houses?

My Lords, it is proposed that there should be a Joint Committee of both Houses—an authoritative body of senior parliamentarians who would meet and examine the White Paper and the draft Bill. They could look at any aspects of them, which might include the conclusions of the Cunningham committee. My own view is that in the long term, if the composition of this House were to change, the conventions might change between this House and another place but there is no reason why they should. That will be up to decisions taken by the Members of either House.

Will my noble friend take this opportunity to denounce the ludicrous reports that have appeared in the press that the size of this Chamber could be reduced by holding some kind of lottery? Is that not insulting to this Chamber and to its Members?

My Lords, I dare say that I ought to say I cannot pre-empt a statement from my right honourable friend, the Deputy Prime Minister, but on this occasion I am prepared to confirm that it is an absurd suggestion and will not appear in the White Paper.

Have the Government, whichever part of the coalition, still not picked up the overwhelming voice of the British people as expressed in the referendum a week last Thursday, which showed by a majority of between two-thirds and three-quarters that the British people do not want expenditure, time and energy spent on fancy constitutional change, even if they are being proposed relentlessly by such an important and significant figure as the Deputy Prime Minister? Can I suggest something very helpful to the Government? They would save two precious commodities—time and money—if they did not go any further with these proposals.

My Lords, it is always useful and helpful to have some advice from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who was a Member of the Government who published several White Papers on this subject in their period in office. We hope to publish only one.

Does the Minister accept that even if there were to be no formal change in the powers of this House, in practice a wholly or largely elected House would find it very difficult to show the sensitive respect for the primacy of the House of Commons that this Chamber does with, from time to time, a few justifiable aberrations?

My Lords, it is a good point that a wholly elected House may well wish to use the powers of this House in a more assertive way and no doubt that is one of the issues a Joint Committee would wish to look at.

My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, did my noble friend see the statement by Mr Hilary Benn last week that the Labour Party is now committed to a 100 per cent elected House and that nothing less will do? Does he agree that the balance of responsibility and power between the two Houses will inevitably be affected by the number of people elected to this House and does he therefore think that the primacy of the Commons should be reflected in the draft Bill by at least keeping in the option of 80 per cent elected?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point. Different Members of either House will feel differently about the role of primacy of the House of Commons depending on what proportion of this House were to be elected. I noted too, as he did, that the shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Mr Hilary Benn, said that the Labour Party was now entirely in favour of a 100 per cent elected House.

My Lords, might I press the Leader of the House a little further on the point raised by my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition? The noble Lord said in relation to the Cunningham committee report that the issues round the conventions “might” be revisited. I remind him that the Cunningham committee report was accepted by both Houses unanimously and was unequivocal in saying that the conventions must be revisited.

My Lords, I would have to refresh my mind on the conclusions of the Cunningham committee, but I do not think that it was an absolute requirement that the conventions must be revisited. The committee stated that if this House were to be substantially reformed, that could have an effect on the conventions, which should be re-examined at that stage. I see no difficulty in that.