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Draft House of Lords Reform Bill

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 7 June 2011


Moved by

That it is expedient that a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons be appointed to consider and report on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill presented to both Houses on 17 May (Cm 8077), and that the committee should report on the draft Bill by 29 February 2012.

My Lords, given that my Motion has attracted an amendment, I should say a few words about it. The Motion proposes a Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill published last month, and does so in the usual way by referring the draft Bill and accompanying White Paper in their entirety to the Joint Committee for its consideration.

The noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, may shortly move his amendment and I have no desire to pre-empt him, but I hope that it is helpful to the House if I point out that Clause 2 of the draft Bill provides that:

“Nothing in the provisions of this Act … affects the primacy of the House of Commons, or … otherwise affects the powers, rights, privileges or jurisdiction of either House of Parliament, or the conventions governing the relationship between the two Houses”.

The White Paper includes several paragraphs on the powers of the two Houses, essentially providing,

“no change to the constitutional powers and privileges of the House once it is reformed, nor to the fundamental relationship with the House of Commons, which would remain the primary House of Parliament”.

It goes on to say:

“The Government believes that clause 2 of the draft Bill is the best way of achieving this because it does not attempt to codify the existing powers of the Houses in legislation but rather, as now, accepts that the position is a matter of convention”.

That, of course, is the Government’s view, but as I have already made clear, the Joint Committee will be able to consider each and every matter raised in the Government’s White Paper and may reach its own conclusions.

There is, therefore, nothing in the Joint Committee's remit to prevent it from doing exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, proposes. I cannot possibly second-guess how the committee will choose to approach its work, but I imagine that it would wish to have regard not only to the conclusions of the report chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, but to the exchange we are having today and to related points that will no doubt be raised in the debate later this month.

Therefore, although I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, for tabling his amendment, which concerns something which has the potential of being quite a controversial matter during the discussions in the Joint Committee, I hope that the House and he himself will accept that the amendment is unnecessary. I beg to move.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

After “(Cm 8077),” insert “and, mindful of the need to protect the primacy of the House of Commons, that it be an instruction to the committee to take into account the conclusions of the Joint Committee on Conventions which was noted with approval by both Houses”.

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord the Leader of the House for his comments and for the even-handed way in which he introduced the resolution. However, I am bound to say that there are some people—I do not ascribe this view to the Leader of the House—who propose a wholly or partially elected second Chamber in our Parliament who assume that their policy can be enacted and that nothing else will change. They believe that the de facto abolition of this House and its replacement by an elected Senate can be seamlessly accomplished and Parliament and Government will continue as before, completely unaffected by the change.

I believe that they are wrong. I believe that there is plenty of evidence from previous Joint Committees to enable us to come to the conclusion that they are wrong. I welcome the decision to establish a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons to consider the draft Bill, as long as that committee is balanced, of varied views and not a repetition of the committee set up by Jack Straw during the previous Parliament—in other words, not made up of people who all begin and end by sharing the same view of the future.

The purpose of my amendment is to ensure that the evidence, conclusions and recommendations of the Joint Committee on Conventions are fully taken into account. I cite the summary of the report, on page 3:

“Our conclusions, however, apply only to present circumstances. 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. Should any firm proposals come forward to change the composition of the House of Lords, the conventions between the Houses would have to be examined again”.

It is a central conclusion of the unanimously agreed report of the Joint Committee—and, as I have said in this Chamber before, unanimously approved by both Houses of Parliament—that that would have to be considered again. Therefore, it is important that we get that established with the new Joint Committee.

An elected second Chamber with a mandate would assert its right to a view. The evidence in the Joint Committee report says that, as do the conclusions. The other House and the Government of the country could not escape the consequences, which would most likely be profound and unpredictable, but would probably destabilise the conventions of Parliament. If change is required, and I believe it is, the better alternative is set out in the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, in his Bill, which I certainly support, and more recently the proposals—at least most of them, I had better say, in case of an early intervention—made by the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad.

The Government should support those proposals, while still pursuing their right to establish a Joint Committee. I regret very much that in the previous Parliament the then Government consistently blocked the work of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and his Bill. That was a mistake. We should take care that blind adherence to outdated thinking does not produce outcomes that make our Parliament less effective than it already is today.

My Lords, I support everything that the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, has said. I believe that he has performed a signal service for the House this afternoon by putting down the amendment and by moving it so eloquently. It is crucial that this committee, when established, reflects the varying positions and opinions held in this House and in another place and that it is not a duplicate of the Straw committee, as the noble Lord has said. It is also crucial that it has plenty of time. Bearing in mind the approaching long Recess, the date of 29 February next year does not give it a lot of time during parliamentary Session to go into this extremely serious matter.

We are concerned about the abolition of this House and its replacement by something entirely different. It is right that the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, should have moved his amendment because he touches on a crucial factor: conventions that apply between this House and another place apply between this House and another place. If this House becomes another place, they cannot apply. We talk of Parliament Acts or Salisbury conventions or the conventions into which the noble Lord’s committee looked in such great detail, but there will be two totally different Houses of Parliament if the Government’s intentions, as outlined in the White Paper, come to pass. Many of us will oppose those. Whether they are good or bad is for individual noble Lords to decide.

On one thing we can surely be united: if we are abolished and replaced by an elected Chamber, whatever conventions bind us or relate us to the other place will cease to exist because this place will have ceased to exist. We have to recognise that, as do the Government, and they cannot blithely say in their White Paper and draft Bill that all will be the same. All will not be the same because we will have changed something fundamental.

Although this is not the time and place to go into great detail, I recall a conversation which I had with the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, yesterday. He reminded me that, when the founding fathers established the constitution of the United States, they had it in mind to have a powerful House of Representatives and a consultative body in the Senate. Look what happened there. Our colleagues in another place in this Parliament should bear in mind that if we are replaced by an elected Chamber, the new elected Chamber cannot be bound, “cabined, cribbed, confined”, by the conventions that currently pertain. I warmly support what the noble Lord has said and urge noble Lords to bear that in mind. I urge the committee, when it is established, to look at these points with extreme care and diligence.

Why do the Government consider it necessary to impose any deadline on completion of the work of the Joint Committee? Given the importance and complexity of that work, would it not be more appropriate to trust the Joint Committee to determine how long it requires? The Leader of the House said a few moments ago, “I cannot possibly second-guess how the committee will choose to approach its work”. Those were his words. The deadline does precisely that.

My Lords, I strongly support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Cunningham. I do so because it goes to the heart of what the debate about reform of the second Chamber should be. It focuses on the powers of the two Houses and the relationship between them, which, in my view, should be considered before we discuss the composition of the second Chamber. My noble friend is a cautious man and he has put down a cautious amendment. I would like it to be stronger. I would like the Cunningham committee to be reconvened so it can consider the new set of circumstances—which is exactly what it suggested in its report unanimously adopted by both Houses— before we go on to the second consideration, which is what the composition of the new second Chamber should be.

I am alarmed by the position of this Government, just as I was alarmed by the position of the previous Government. We have the constant repetition of the mantra of the primacy of the House of Commons as if that in itself will deliver the primacy of the House of Commons. I have heard Jack Straw say time and again, “Don’t worry, you’ve got the Parliament Act and the financial privileges of the Commons”. I have heard exactly the same from Nick Clegg. With regard to fatuous clauses—I do not want to be too rude in this—I thought the Leader of the House quite wisely read out Clause 2 rather quickly. I will read it more slowly so it can sink in. It says:

“Nothing in the provisions of this Act about the membership of the House of Lords … affects the primacy of the House of Commons, or … the conventions governing the relationship between the two Houses”.

If that is not a clause which is wishful thinking, I have not heard one. Why not have a clause saying that the new House shall have a turn-out, at elections, of at least 60 per cent? Why not have a clause saying that the new Senate will cost less than the old House of Lords? If you have wishful thinking clauses, then the options are pretty wide. I support my noble friend’s amendment but I do not think it goes far enough.

Following the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, regarding the date, I have to speak through the Leader of the House to the Deputy Prime Minister, who has been the prime mover of these things, whatever his current position. When a date is set for the committee to report, the phrase “Physician, heal thyself” comes to mind, because we have the precedent of the Clegg committee, which was set up in May last year and took 11 months to report. It had essentially the same remit as the proposed committee, but it had the massive advantage of being much smaller—it had eight members—and if I may say so without causing offence, they were hand-picked to agree. If you have a committee of eight members hand-picked to agree, I would suggest that that is likely to lead to a more speedy conclusion than one of 26 members of widely differing views. At the very least, considering that the Clegg committee took 11 months to make up its mind before anything was presented to the House, I would suggest that anything less than 11 months for the committee that is being proposed would be wishing for something that is probably unattainable.

Why does not the Leader of the House revert to his own good sense? When he set up the Goodlad committee—which was a Leader’s Group—he very wisely did not give it a date when it should report. I was very fortunate to serve on it, and it took, I think, nine months. That was without a date. It did a good job—very busy, hard work—and to expect a committee looking at the future of half of Parliament to report in less time than the Goodlad committee took, and substantially less time than the Clegg committee took, is wishing for an awful lot. I would appeal to the Leader of the House not to set a date and to indicate that the date is by no means binding. I would also appeal to him in his capacity as Leader of the whole House. As he repeatedly reminded us when our positions were reversed, the Leader of the House is not just leader of a great political party, as our leader was and is in this House, but is Leader of the whole House. As such, does he not agree that his prime responsibility to this House on Lords reform is to ensure that the 12 Members who speak for this House on the committee accurately reflect the division of opinion in the House on Lords reform? It is not entirely within his power to do that, but he could give the House advice. In the last poll that I saw, 80 per cent were opposed to a directly elected House. I do not wish to overstate my case, but I suggest that it would be appropriate for nine of the 12 committee members to have the good sense to wish to keep this House free from direct elections, which we know would damage the relationship between the two Houses.

My Lords, I will express a view that is shared by a minority in House—perhaps a very small minority. I start by saying clearly that I am in favour of a 100 per cent elected House. However, there are consequences to some words in the amendment of my noble friend Lord Cunningham about which we should draw out more information. He refers to the need for the committee to report on the draft Bill by 29 February 2012. In the event that the date were to pass and the committee had not reported but instead sought to report by February 2013, which would be distinctly possible because it will be in the next Session of Parliament, that would have implications both for the introduction of the legislation and the creation of the new constituencies. There must be a timetable. If one takes into account the fact that it is distinctly probable that the Parliament Act would have to be used to secure the passage of the legislation—because on the basis of what one hears, it would be impossible for this legislation to go through without the use of the Act—the Government must already have had in mind a timetable when they set the date of 29 February 2012. We as Members are entitled to know what the timetable is, taking into account the need to create the new constituencies and the fact that the Parliament Act may well have to be used.

My Lords, any proposed reform of your Lordships' House clearly puts the cart before the horse. Given that a majority—or at least a very great deal—of our national law is now made in Brussels, with the House of Commons and your Lordships' House irrelevant in the process, why do we not start by retrieving our democracy from Brussels for the House of Commons and your Lordships' House? We could then work out how the Executive will be held to account in the House of Commons by a new committee structure, perhaps with new powers for the House of Commons and your Lordships' House. When we have done that, we could work out the job that we want your Lordships' House or any second Chamber to do. Only when we have done that should we decide who we want to sit in the second Chamber and how they should come here.

My Lords, I first make two declarations of interest. The first is that I was a member of the Government that consistently brought back proposals for 20, 40, 60, 80 and 100 per cent of Members of this Chamber or its replacement to be elected. The second declaration is that I voted against every such proposal on every occasion. I did so for two reasons. First, it was not self-evident that such a change would increase the efficiency of government. More importantly, as I had spent my life in the House of Commons, I wanted to protect the primacy of the House of Commons. It was obvious that it was impossible to bestow democratic legitimacy on a Chamber that was widely perceived as being slightly more mature, both in years and wisdom, and certainly more full of expertise, and in all practical terms to stop it becoming the senior Chamber. I still believe that.

When I look at Clause 2, which the Leader of the House has read out, it reminds me of the simple fact that you can have a clause that calls an elephant a camel, but that does not make it a camel. You can have a clause that defies all the practical circumstances of the world, but that will not change the world. Therefore, in a sense, we have to do a service, not only to this House, but to the House only 100 yards from here, by pointing out, in our wisdom and maturity, that it is inevitable that, if you choose a second Chamber by democratic means and those democratic means—that is, proportional representation—are considered at the highest echelons of this Government, meaning the Deputy Prime Minister, as being more legitimate than first past the post, and if the term of office of those elected by those democratic legitimate means are three times as long as those of the Members of the other Chamber and their constituencies are much bigger, you will not find 300 fools in this country who will, on that basis, come here and say, “We are lesser than the other Chamber”. Everyone who comes here, with the expertise and the maturity enhanced by democratic legitimacy, will say that it is they who ought to be the primary Chamber—and they will be right—just as the Senate in the United States, with the enhanced powers of democratic legitimacy, as was pointed out by my noble friend on the other side, became the premier House in the United States. That is the reality.

The second reason that I gladly support my noble friend’s amendment is—this is one thing that the Leader of the House forgot to highlight in the difference between the Motion and the amendment to the Motion—that the Motion currently before the House allows for the consideration of the previous report but does not require it to be considered. If the complexion of the Committee was such that it was inadvertently composed—I speak hypothetically—of people who supported these proposals, there would be no requirement on them to take into account the deep study and the full implications of that report. My noble friend’s amendment includes an instruction to the Committee that it must take that report into account. Therefore, there is not just a rhetorical difference between the two sides but one that would have huge practical implications for this House. The only way that we can ensure that the fundamental findings of the previous report—on which there was unanimity here and in the other House—are taken into account is to ensure that this amendment is incorporated. Outside of that, all is rhetoric, as nothing practical will be required; the members of the Committee could nod in assent and in deference to that report without taking it into consideration at all. The least that we ought to expect, on the basis of the report that was formed by that Committee, is that the new Committee will be required to take that report into account.

My Lords, I would like to speak on this issue, although I must break a rule that I have had for many years, which is never to speak on House of Lords reform. In July, I will have been here for 20 years —it says something about this place that I am still one of the youngest people in the Building after being in the job for 20 years. Having listened many times to hundreds of debates on Lords reform, I want to mention that what convinced me many years ago not to take part in these debates was when a Peer stood up, 90th on the list, and said, “My Lords, everything that can possibly be said on this subject has been said, but not by me”.

If we agreed to this amendment, it is quite clear that we would be trying to kick this into the long grass. I have heard some fantastic speeches. When we discuss Lords reform, we do not mention these facts but I was one of those who voted for an entirely elected House of Lords—I am quite happy to say that and I will be voting for it again. We might be in the minority and we might lose—it has happened to us over AV—but we will happily go through the Division Lobbies. Some of us will be for it; some of us will take an opposing view. However, it is better that we have the ability to take this forward in a quick and judicious matter, rather than give the impression that we do not want to come to any conclusion at all. I very much hope we can move forward as quickly as possible on this. It is not for me to say that other people should not speak at great length on this, but I think that we all already know what the conclusion is, and therefore moving on to the next business would be very helpful.

I will say two things to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. First, I do not share the view that the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Cunningham would kick this into the long grass, despite the fact that, as fair parts of the House know full well, I have been a supporter of a predominantly elected House for almost as long as the noble Lord has been a Member. It therefore seems to me that there are two things that this Committee will have to do. One is to look at the terms of the Cunningham amendment. Of course the Committee has got to look at the primacy of the House of Commons. It would be silly to try to produce a report without looking at that issue. The primacy of the House of Commons has to be preserved. The second point that the noble Lord made is also pretty fundamental and obvious: the Committee will have to look at the conventions that exist between this House and the other place.

For the life of me, I do not really see what the issue is on this. An awful lot of speeches are being made which, if I may respectfully say so to some of those who have made them, would perhaps be better made in the debate on 21 and 22 June, when we are yet again to look at the whole issue of Lords reform. No doubt we will have, yet again, the same sort of speeches made by, yet again, the same sort of people, which, I fear I must say to the House, will probably include me. The fact of the matter is that on any view of this Committee, it will have to look in detail and take serious account of what is in the Cunningham amendment. I do not share the noble Lord’s view that this is kicking it into the long grass. On the other hand, I share some of the misgivings that have been raised about the date. This is a big, fundamental, constitutional issue. It is not feasible that it can be done by January next year.

My Lords, I shall speak very briefly. The British community has mulled over the question of the reform of this place for over a century. It is now the case that a Committee will be asked to exercise its collective wisdom within the short compass of nine months. It may well be that it can achieve that. If, on the other hand, it comes to the conclusion that it honestly and conscientiously would wish more time, will the Leader of the House confirm that it would be given that time with the blessing of both Houses? Secondly, all noble Lords who have spoken have made the point that the questions of powers and membership of this House are utterly intertwined. Is it not very strange that in 1911 the whole discussion was about powers, as it was in 1949, whereas since then the whole discussion has been about membership? I do not think for a moment that you can discuss one without the other, and I do not think that you can contemplate a reformed, elected House without the question of powers being revisited. Anybody who believes that that can be done is using a monumental self-delusion.

I hope the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, will forgive me for being quite angry about the aspersion that was cast on those of us who share the views expressed about the importance of the primacy of the Commons, about the conventions and about the future relationship between both Houses. If those of us who take the view that that must be done first, before membership, are going to be accused of kicking the issue into the long grass as blindfolded escapists on the issue, the tenor of all the debates that take place in your Lordships' House and in Committees will not be of the quality that they ought to be. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, will not imply that kicking the issue into the long grass is the only motivation that some of us have. I wish to leave a better system in the Houses of Parliament for my children and, particularly, my grandchildren, but jumping without looking at what is down the hole is not the way to do it.

My Lords, I apologise if any aspersion was taken on board, which was not my intention. I did not mention powers or scrutiny. I just hoped that we could move on more rapidly because this already has been covered. I remember the extremely detailed Jenkins committee report, but many Members were not here for that. Perhaps reading that report would give an impression that this matter has been covered a number of times.

My Lords, I just want briefly to say that, as the sole surviving Cross-Bench Member of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, I strongly support his amendment. If he decides to seek the opinion of the House, I shall vote for it.

My Lords, this might be a good time for me to reply. My purpose in laying out the Government’s view at the outset was to try to pour some oil on troubled waters, a task in which I spectacularly failed. A number of key issues have been raised and perhaps I could deal with them. This is all part of an important debate and, as one or two noble Lords have rightly recognised, we are due to have a two-day debate starting on 21 June. I urge noble Lords to prepare their speeches for then. Therefore, we do not need to extend this debate much longer.

First, on timing, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, rightly asked why, if we are not going to second-guess the Joint Committee, we are directing it as to by when it should report. I can tell the House that in a government Motion to set up a Joint Committee it is entirely normal practice that the Committee should be given a target date. It is equally entirely normal practice—in the past few weeks I have moved Motions to this effect—that, if the view of the Committee is that it needs more time, it is given that time, which would of course apply in respect of this Joint Committee.

Secondly, on membership, this Joint Committee cannot be set up without the agreement of this House to the names put forward. I know that different parties, including the Cross-Benches, have different processes as to how names are chosen, but those names will be agreed by the House. I fully expect them to reflect the wide variety of views that exist across the House, as I expect will be reflected in the names that come from another place. This will be a Joint Committee of 26 people, 13 from each House, including a Bishop and Cross-Benchers. In setting up this body, it would be inconceivable for it to have a unanimous view right at the very start.

Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, is the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, and by the noble Lords, Lord Reid and Lord Richard, about the amendment in particular. I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Richard. It would be a most odd Joint Committee on this subject if it were not to look carefully at all the clauses, including Clause 2, or to look at the paragraphs in the White Paper that have a view on the subject of the primacy of another place and of the conventions that bind us.

The noble Lord, Lord Reid, said that this amendment would issue an instruction. In itself, that would not be useful if the Joint Committee chose to ignore it or not to take it sufficiently seriously. It would be far better for us to trust the Joint Committee to use its innate wisdom. The noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, characteristically offered a very good critique not only of the Bill but of the White Paper. Of course, we will hear much more of that in the debate to come. But overwhelmingly, I hope that the noble Lord and the House are satisfied that there is no intention on the part of the Government to railroad this Joint Committee to come to a preconceived conclusion. That would not be an easy thing to do, not least when we look at the history of the past 12 months and the committee that was brought together under the excellent chairmanship of the Deputy Prime Minister. He brought together all the parties, and they came to a consensus on reform of the House of Lords.

Is the Leader of the House saying, in other words, that the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Cunningham is acceptable?

My Lords, what I am saying is that, first, it is unnecessary, and secondly, everything in the noble Lord’s amendment will, I am sure, be taken into account by the Joint Committee.

Will the noble Lord tell the House how many times the committee led by the Deputy Prime Minister met in order to arrive at the conclusions that are now represented in the White Paper and the draft Bill?

The Clegg committee met nine times between May and December last year before the draft Bill and the White Paper were brought forward last month.

I hope that, having heard this, the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, will feel that he has had a good outing on the subject and that he is confident, as I am, that the Joint Committee will look at these matters. We can leave it up to the Joint Committee to decide whether it can meet the deadline of the end of February next year.

If this matter is to be put to a vote—I do not know whether it will be—it is important that we should know what it is we are voting on. As I understand the amendment, it is to be an instruction that the joint body should “take account” of something. To my mind it is inconceivable that the Joint Committee will not take account of noble Lords. Again, it is inconceivable. So what are we worried about?

My Lords, I think that we have had a useful debate because for the past few weeks there has been an air of controversy over what the conclusions of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, meant when they were initially published. But I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, that the amendment to the Motion is not necessary. I therefore invite the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, to respond and, I hope, to withdraw his amendment.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House. I have only one or two brief points. This amendment is carefully couched in terms that could engender cross-party, if not universal, support in this Chamber. It is not about kicking anything into the long grass, and I regard that intervention as complete rubbish. It is about trying to ensure that, as we move forward on the reform of our Parliament, we end up with a better system of governance—not a worse one—for our country and the people we are here to represent. There is no mention of the date in my amendment, and I accept what the Leader of the House has just said. On one occasion when I had the honour to chair a Joint Committee, it became obvious very quickly that the time as set down in the original resolution was not sufficient. We wrote to both Houses and the date was extended. There is no reason why that should not happen again if it is necessary.

I am still not sure why the Leader of the House has not said that he will simply accept the amendment because it seems that if I were to insist on dividing the House, there is little doubt about the outcome. However, I am content to say that on this occasion I will not press for a Division, although of course there will be other occasions. I conclude by making this statement: I believe that the amendment has been carried nem con, and I therefore beg to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment withdrawn.

Motion agreed.