Motion to Take Note (Continued)
My Lords, like many noble Lords in this House, I have had my say on Lords reform many times in the past. It is 10 years since my royal commission reported, and I still think it was probably the best way forward. At the time, the then Government referred to it with approbation in their election manifesto, and slightly embarrassed me by actually using my name in their election manifesto. I think the Conservative Party would have accepted it, but I accept that the Liberal party did not think it was a sensible way forward.
Our difficulty was that what we proposed then was a compromise, and nobody wanted to make any efforts at all at compromising. We proposed a partly appointed, partly elected House with the appointed part considerably larger than the elected. It was essentially a compromise, and nobody was prepared to make that sort of compromise. That is one of the lessons that the all-party committee ought to bear in mind when it considers this.
One curious fact about the royal commission was that I did not ask any of the leaders of the parties to give evidence, but I waited upon them all and asked them what they thought. I will not recount what they thought. I could not get Ted Heath the slightest bit interested in the subject, but I had a very interesting talk with Roy Jenkins before the royal commission report, and he said he was very happy with the way the House of Lords was working and did not favour any great reform. I pressed him. I said that that was what the royal commission was there to propose and that he must give me some idea. Hard pressed, he did say that he would like there to be a senate; I hope Nick Clegg can take some comfort from that view. Roy Jenkins believed that it should be of 120 Members, but I am afraid that I came away from the meeting convinced that he had put forward that proposal because he thought it was the least likely that Parliament would ever accept.
A number of important things in this draft Bill find an echo in what we said 10 years ago. First, it separates the peerage from membership of the upper House. That is what we said then and I still think that it is probably the only way that we will ever get proper reform of this House. Secondly, it recommends 15-year terms with no re- election, as we recommended. However, we made the quite important point that the House should have the power to reappoint someone who had been elected if it thought that they would be valuable for a further term in the House. If you think of some of the expertise, that ought to be considered.
There was also, on the face of it, no great dispute about the powers of a reformed House and the supremacy of the Commons. The most worrying feature about the Bill, as has already been said eloquently by a number of noble Lords, is the question of whether that will survive in the sort of reform that this draft Bill implies. The fundamental question is—
I am listening to the noble Lord very carefully indeed. May I ask him to consider this thought? There are, in all, 77 bicameral systems in the world, so the House of Lords Library informs me, of which 61 are elected. Apart from Canada, by the way, we are the only major democracy that does this by appointment. Within those 61, in not one case is the primacy of the lower Chamber challenged. If it is not the case in those 61 elected Chambers, why should it be a danger for us?
I would say two things to the noble Lord. First, I am not absolutely sure that he is completely right about that. If I recall rightly, for example, in Australia there have been moments of considerable difficulty between the two Houses. Secondly, at the time of the royal commission, if I remember rightly we looked into a number of different systems in different parts of the world and concluded that most of them had much more to do with the traditions and history of their own countries than they did with some more academic system. I do not therefore accept the view that this House should be fully elected although, as the House will remember, our royal commission recommended an element of elected Members. We were not absolutely certain. It was partly elected—a much lower part than the Government’s proposal—but partly appointed.
The real worry is that if we have a substantially or wholly elected House, we will have politicians coming here with a view to undermining the position of Members in the House of Commons. I tried to say in the royal commission that anybody who ever served in this House could never serve subsequently in the House of Commons. I was told by the lawyers that that would now be ruled to be a breach of their human rights, so would not happen. We did not think that it was a very good idea to have too many elected Members. Frankly, the sort of House that I envisage is a revising Chamber with, in the final analysis, an advisory role and with the House of Commons always having to be supreme in the end. The most important part of that advisory role is that we have people here capable of giving advice of value.
The House of Lords has of course been reformed many times in the past 100 years and will continue to be reformed if it sets about it in the right way. In my view, one of the most constructive tasks that the all-party committee ought to consider is the way that parliamentary procedure should operate in order to reform this House. We have the example of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, which is a perfectly good and acceptable measure, but no business manager—I have spent a lot of my life being a business manager—would ever dream of bringing it in because of the chaos it would cause to the parliamentary timetable in view of all the amendments that would be added to it. If one accepts that this measure will probably not be achieved because it is a wholesale reform, we should continue with gradual, piecemeal reform. We should look at how to set about doing that because I do not believe that the present parliamentary procedures are adequate for the task of dealing with incremental changes to this House, which in the past we were able to negotiate and agree. I think it would be very difficult at present.
My Lords, although I have never spoken before in a debate on the reform of this House—I nearly refrained from doing so now—I do not intend to make any general remarks, save to say that, like many others, my approach is twofold: first, a fundamental respect for the need to ensure that the primacy of the elected House is not undermined; and, secondly, to express the view that, whatever changes may take place in this House, the way it exercises its powers will change considerably.
I wish to speak on one issue alone: the possibility of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 being used to ensure the passing of the draft Bill. As I understand it, the attitude of the coalition Government is to point a pistol at our heads by threatening the use of the Parliament Acts. The coalition approach may sound strange to the Conservative part of the coalition, which knows the historical Conservative stance towards the Parliament Acts. Duress has never been the best way of achieving constitutional changes.
If the proposed Bill is to be rammed through regardless, this House and, in particular, the Joint Committee must have the best legal advice on the problems of applying the Parliament Acts. What, if any, are the limitations on their use? I recommend the study of the judgments in both the Court of Appeal and the Appellate Committee of this House in the, by now, famous fox hunting case of Jackson v Attorney-General 2006. I shall refer briefly to the learned judgments in that unusual constitutional case of considerable importance to our present deliberations. The 14 judges in the three courts who considered the issues had differences of view. More than one judge expressed reservations about whether there were limits to the supremacy of Parliament—in this context, the supremacy of the House of Commons.
Last week, I placed a Motion on the Order Paper, inviting the House to instruct the Clerk of the Parliaments to seek the advice of the Attorney-General on whether a Bill which provided for the change in the composition of this House, where the provisions of the Parliament Acts had been complied with, is capable of having legal effect. I invite the Joint Committee to take the same course.
There are sound precedents for seeking, from time to time, the Attorney-General's and others’ advice, as I know from my own experience. Only a believer in a flat earth would opine that this matter could, and probably would, not go before the courts. I trust that the Government will build this into their timetable. Is such an issue justiciable? That clearly was the view of the Appellate Committee in the case of Jackson and, in the words of the late and learned Lord Bingham, such consideration,
“involves no breach of constitutional propriety”.
The reform proposals go to the heart of membership of this House as we know it. It is arguable that they are tantamount to abolishing it, at least in its present form—with or without changes in name and title. I invite the Joint Committee to consider at its earliest opportunity the Bill’s title, “House of Lords Reform Bill”, which should reflect its contents. Would it not be better and more appropriate to call it something like “Abolition of the House of Lords in its Present Form Bill”?
The possible limitations on the use of the Parliament Act were considered in the Jackson case. Reservations were expressed by a number of judges. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, put it succinctly when he said that it was sufficient to note,
“that a conclusion that there are no legal limits to what can be done under section 2(1)”,
of the Act,
“does not mean that the power to legislate which it contains is without any limits whatever”.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, went further when he said that he was deeply troubled by,
“an exorbitant assertion of government power in our bi-cameral system”.
Having conceded that the Attorney-General might be right in his arguments, he went on to say:
“It may be that such an issue would test the relative merits of strict legalism and constitutional legal principle in the courts at the most fundamental level”.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and other Law Lords instanced some fundamental subjects that might not be amenable to change under the Act, such as the Act of Union with Scotland—which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, mentioned—judicial review and access to the courts by citizens. The noble and learned Lords, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, Lord Carswell and Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, all expressed their concerns in different words. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Carswell, said that he was inclined “very tentatively” to the view that the instinct of the Court of Appeal might be right and that,
“there may be a limit somewhere to the powers contained in section 2(1) … though the boundaries appear extremely difficult to define”.
The weight of opinion, despite the expressed reservations and concerns, may well lead towards recognising a considerable supremacy for Parliament. The supremacy of Parliament, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, said, is a construct of the common law. The issue may be whether there are exceptional circumstances that are so fundamental that even a sovereign Parliament cannot act. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, added that,
“the courts have a part to play in defining the limits of Parliament’s legislative sovereignty”.
Whether Parliament would wish to have such an issue before the courts is questionable. Unless the Government withdraw that threat, it is a possibility that we cannot ignore.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble and learned Lord; in my enthusiasm to get at the arguments, I attempted to barge in ahead of him. That was not my intention and I hope that he will accept my apology.
I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that in a democracy the minority is always right. That thought has given me much comfort over the years as a Liberal, and it appears that it will have to give me comfort in this debate as well. I spent an engaging hour and a half yesterday in the House of Lords Library, looking through opposition speeches made in December 1831 to the Great Reform Act 1832 and to the Reform Act 1867. Five arguments were put forward. The first was: there is no public call for such reform beyond those mad radicals of Manchester. The second was: we should not be wasting our time and money on these matters; there are more important things to discuss such as the Schleswig-Holstein problem, the repeal of the corn laws or the crisis in the City that caused Anthony Trollope to write his wonderful novel.
Not in 1832.
No, but in 1867.
The third argument, which was put so powerfully—indeed, in bloodcurdling terms—by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, was that if we were to embark on this constitutional terra incognita, the delicate balance of the constitution would collapse around us; mere anarchy would rule upon the world.
The fourth argument put forward in those debates was, “No, no, let us not disturb the quiet groves of wisdom within which we decide the future of the nation by letting in the rude representatives of an even ruder republic. God knows what damage we shall do if such a thing should happen”. The last and fifth argument was the argument actually used by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, just a moment ago: “if it ain’t broke, don’t mend it”.
Those are the arguments that were put forward against the 1832 Act, the 1867 Act, the 1911 Act—every single reform that we have ever had—and they are the arguments that are being put forward now. They were wrong then and they are wrong now. Perhaps I might explain before I come to the substance of the argument.
The first argument is that there is no public interest in this matter. Of course there is not; it is our business, not the public’s. The public have made it very clear that they do not trust our electoral system in its present form. Is there anyone in this Chamber who does not realise that the dangerous and growing gap between government and governed that is undermining the confidence in our democracy must be bridged? It must be bridged by the reform and modernisation of our democratic institutions, and we have a part to play in that too. This is not about what the public want, it is about us putting our House in order.
The second issue is that there are more important things to discuss. I do not think so. Frankly, we have been very fortunate to have lived through the period of the politics of contentment. The fragility of our democratic system has not been challenged because the business of government and democracy has been to redistribute increasing wealth. If we now come to the point at which we must redistribute retrenchment, difficult decisions, hard choices, I suspect it will come to something rather different, as we see on the streets of Greece today and as we saw on the streets of London not very long ago. This is very important.
The third is that we are embarking on a constitutional journey into terra incognita. Of course we are. We do not have a written constitution in this country. I wish we did, but we are told that the genius of our constitution is that it is unwritten, that it responds to events, that it develops, that it takes its challenges and moves forward. Oliver Cromwell did not have to say, “We will delay the Civil War until we have worked out the proper constitutional relationship between Parliament and the King”. In 1832 they did not say, “Let us hold this up until we have decided what proper constitutional balances would be achieved”. If you believe in the miracle of the unwritten constitution, you must believe that our constitution will adapt. You cannot argue that that is a good thing and then say that we cannot move forward unless we know precisely and in exact detail what will happen next. Of course this will change the balance between us and the other Chamber. It will not challenge the primacy of the other Chamber, but it will challenge the absolute supremacy of the other Chamber—that is called check and balance.
The fourth argument is that this will disturb the gentle climate of wisdom in this place. I have no doubt that there is unique wisdom here, although I have to say that I do not believe it is necessarily evenly distributed—maybe in some places it is, but not everywhere. However, I am not persuaded that there is less wisdom in the 61 second chambers that are elected, that there is less wisdom in the Senate of the United States, or the Sénat in France or the Bundesrat in Germany. I do not believe that the business of election will produce less wisdom than we have here now—rather the contrary. It is not wisdom that we lack; it is legitimacy. My old friend, Lord Conrad Russell—much missed—used to say, “I would happily exchange wisdom for legitimacy”, and I will tell your Lordships why.
This is where we come to the final point—the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd: “If it ain’t broke, let’s not fix it”. It is broke; it is broke in two fashions. First, our democracy now and our institutions of democracy in this country do not enjoy the confidence of our people in the way they did. That confidence is declining. We have to be part of the reform that reconnects politics with people in this country. If we do not, our democratic institutions will fall into atrophy and may suffer further in the decline of the confidence of the people of this country. If noble Lords do not realise that, they do not realise just how difficult the current situation is in Britain.
We in this Chamber cannot leave this to others to do. We must be part of that reform, modernisation, reconnection and democracy. It is said that this House does its job as a revising Chamber well. So it does. It is allowed to revise, change, amend legislation, but is it allowed to deal with the really big things? It does the small things well, but is it constructed in a way that would prevent a Government with an overwhelming majority in the other place taking this country to an unwise and, as we now know, probably illegal war? No, it would not because it did not. I cannot imagine that the decision to introduce the poll tax and the decision to take this country to war would have got through a Chamber elected on a different mandate and in a different period, or if there had been a different set of political weights in this Chamber from the one down the other end.
The truth of the matter is that we perform the function of a revising Chamber well, but that is not our only function. We are also part of the checks and balances in this country. The fact that we do not have democratic legitimacy undermines our capacity to act as a check and balance on the excessive power of the Executive backed by an excessive majority in the House of Commons. That is where we are deficient and what must be mended.
The case is very simple to argue. In a democracy, power should derive from the ballot box and nowhere else. Our democracy is diminished because this place does not derive its power from democracy and the ballot box but from political patronage—the patronage of the powerful. Is it acceptable in a democracy that the membership of this place depends on the patronage of the powerful at the time? We are diminished in two ways. We are diminished because we do not perform the function that we need to perform of acting as a check and a balance on the Government, and we do not do so because we are a creature of the Government’s patronage. I cannot believe that noble Lords find that acceptable in this Chamber .
Perhaps noble Lords will forgive me, I will finish now. I have already strained my time but I ask for patience. The Leader of the House is right. We have spent 100 years addressing reform in this House. It is time to understand why that is necessary—both to make our place in modern democracy and to fulfil our proper function to provide a check and balance on an Executive who may get too powerful. We turned our hand to this 100 years ago; it is time to finish it now.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, has just given a speech that I am sure will be used by every Liberal Democrat candidate who wishes to stand at an election to this House in the future. It was a virtuoso performance. I am afraid that my contribution will be somewhat more modest. I believe that the question we should be asking ourselves is how we get both Front Benches off the hooks on which they have each impaled themselves with their pride and their principles intact—I refer to my own Benches and those of noble Lords opposite.
In a Statement a few weeks ago, my noble friend Lord Strathclyde needed to be brave because he had little support from this side of the House. What perhaps was even more extraordinary was the response from the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition. Her speech could almost have been written by any Back-Bencher on this side of the House who was against reform. Listening to her today, I was still no clearer on Labour Party policy.
While I am having a swipe at Front Benches, I was also disappointed to hear the speech of the right reverend Prelate. Neither today nor at the time of the Statement did any right reverend Prelate make any mention of the other faiths which surely deserve a place in this House. Despite the fact that we have an established church, other churches and faiths should be represented here.
We will have a committee full of the great and the good who will be drawn from this House and another place. The proposed committee will be full of experienced Members but they will not in any way reflect the diversity—whether it is the background, the age, or the views—of the Members of this House, which is disappointing. I worry that its remit will be too narrow and based solely on the White Paper and the draft Bill. Will my noble friend the Leader of the House assure us that its remit can be wider than just the White Paper and draft Bill? Will the committee also be able to consider what changes are required to the working practices between the two Houses?
There are a numbers of issues about which most of us agree, even if we disagree about the solutions. First, we all, or nearly all, accept that this House is too large. In fact, it is ridiculously large. As seen earlier today, there is not room to sit down. I make no apology for repeating again that we are the second largest parliamentary Chamber in the world, second only to the Chinese National People’s Congress. We must cut the numbers and have a retirement plan. We are the only second Chamber in the Commonwealth larger than the first. We must make some changes. As we have heard, most of your Lordships disagree with this proposed reform, but often for different reasons and with different preferred outcomes.
However, we have to accept that both main parties in their manifestos—and the Lib Dems—proposed an elected element for this House. But in a year, time has moved on. We have a coalition governed by an agreement, which included reform of this House. I believe that that needs to be rethought, as it is not clear that a majority of MPs now favour a fully elected second Chamber. If we are to have an elected House, it must be based on parliamentary constituencies. I worry that 300 Peers could not manage all the work. We still receive legislation that has been guillotined by another place, and it looks as though we will continue to do so.
Any election must be on a first past the post system. The idea of having a list system when it has been convincingly thrown out by a near 3:1 majority in the recent referendum is ridiculous. What about the plan for 100 senators to be elected in 2015, another 100 in 2020 and a final 100 in 2025? These senators will be paid a salary. The remaining Peers will not be paid any salary but will be expected to work just as hard. The new senators would be elected but unaccountable to their electorate. They would serve a term of 15 years and any change of Government could not be reflected.
Can my noble friend cite any other parliamentary Chamber in the world that has a 15-year term? The nearest I can get is Liberia, which has a nine-year term. In France, there used to be a nine-year term but it was reduced to seven years. I believe that before we ever go down the road of major constitutional change, the proposal should be put to the people, which means that any change must be put to the country in a referendum. If we can have a referendum on AV, we surely deserve one for this major constitutional reform. The referendum could be held at the same time as the next general election. There could be a simple question: should this House be appointed or elected and if so how? If the Bill appears in this House, I will move a referendum amendment and I hope that your Lordships will support it. I also believe that we should take the campaign for a referendum outside this House and not just keep it within.
However, there is a second alternative that I hope your Lordships will consider. It is based on the premise that constitutional change should be agreed by all sides and brought in as part of a gradual transition. I believe that we should have a number of elected Peers. I do not believe that we can ignore all the manifesto commitments made by the major parties. Perhaps we should have 76 Peers based on the Euro constituencies, which we know and understand. It should be first past the post and for five years. That would allow Parliament—both Houses—to understand how it works, and to look and see how to develop the next stage.
It is a pity that the Government and the coalition seem to have ruled this out, as it would fulfil their manifesto commitment and the coalition agreement. It would allow all those who are knowledgeable, able and effective in this House to continue, and those who wish to retire to do so. We need a second Chamber that complements the work of the first and does not compete with it, but will hold the Executive to account. One must always remember that political parties in opposition love the House of Lords. It is the only place where they have any chance of defeating the Government. However, we have all seen on both sides that, once parties get into power, the House of Lords is seen as an irritant which disrupts the carefully thought-out Bills of various ambitious Ministers in another place. I intend to continue to be an irritant but I hope in a constructive manner.
My Lords, there have been several plans for the demise of your Lordships’ House over the past century or so, but today I have in mind a little known example dreamt up in a fleeting moment almost exactly 114 years ago by an Independent Labour Member of the other place, John Burns. The occasion was the great naval review off Spithead to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, and the date was 26 June 1897. Mr Burns, along with his fellow MPs, was aboard the huge Cunarder, the “Campania”. Just ahead of the great liner was a much smaller vessel, the “Danube”, on which their Lordships of the day serenely sailed as they passed along the lines of the most powerful fleet the world had ever seen. John Burns suddenly piped up with a suggestion that if the captain of the “Campania” could be persuaded to put on a quick burst of speed and ram the “Danube”, the question of the House of Lords would be settled for ever. We have been living in the shadow of a possibly terminal collision ever since the crisis summer of 1911, and the draft Bill before us today, if it succeeds, will be it.
The future of your Lordships’ House has been a part of the recitative of British politics and constitutional history ever since, at Sir Edward Grey’s insistence, a passage was inserted into what became the Parliament Act 1911, describing it as an interim measure until,
“a second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of a hereditary basis”,
could be brought into being. However, the conditions of your Lordships’ collective probation have altered very substantially since the great constitutional showdown of 1911, when your Lordships’ hands were prised from money Bills and this House’s delaying power set at a tariff of two years. In 1949 that tariff was reduced to a single year, and in 1958 Parliament passed the Life Peerages Act, the most beneficial and cumulatively transforming of all the Lords-related statutes.
One of the most surprising things the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Nick Clegg, has said about the current question of your Lordships’ House is that he wishes to “gently cajole” us “from the 19th into the 21st century”. This was in conversation with Jon Snow on “Channel 4 News” on 5 April this year. It is as if in composition and provenance, we were unchanged from the Peers aboard the “Danube” in 1897. Mr Clegg’s knowledge, too, of the ingredients of the 1911 Act is lacking. The White Paper before us asserts the coalition’s belief,
“that the powers of the second chamber and, in particular, the way in which they are exercised should not be extended and the primacy of the House of Commons should be preserved”.
In other words, the Government declare that a largely elected second Chamber will not by its very existence create a potential rival to the other place. This was not the view of the Deputy Prime Minister’s Liberal ancestors when they framed the 1911 legislation. For, as my former student Dr Andrew Blick has reminded me, there is another paragraph in that famous preamble to the Parliament Act which is about powers. It reads like this:
“And whereas provision will require hereafter to be made by Parliament in a measure effecting such substitution”—
that is, of an elected House for a hereditary one—
“for limiting and defining the powers of the new Second Chamber, but it is expedient to make such provision as in this Act appears for restricting the existing powers of the House of Lords”.
The key verbs are “limiting” and “defining”. In other words, Asquith, Lloyd George and Grey acknowledged that a popularly chosen second Chamber required a statutory limitation of its powers—that, without a redefinition of the relative powers of the two Houses, the dangerous prospect of duelling Chambers would arise. It is the question of powers that is the fault line into which this draft Bill will sink.
So, how to proceed? How best to secure a dignified recognition of reality on the part of the proposers of this legislation? One way is to arrange for the Bill to start its passage in your Lordships’ House, thereby avoiding a grade 1-listed row about the use of the Parliament Act. Could not the Joint Committee, on which I shall have the honour to serve, be given longer to pursue its scrutiny and evidence-gathering than is currently expected? This would increase the chances of a mature debate, without the clock ticking, between the Joint Committee reporting and the next general election, allowing a well informed choice to be made by the electorate on at least those sections of the party manifestos that deal with the future of the second Chamber.
There need be no shame and no loss of political face in such a timetable if it could be agreed to soon, before hardened positions are taken up and a debilitating, time-eating trench warfare breaks out, without dignity and shorn of the possibility of a consensual outcome. This would provide time, too, for a set of organic reforms to be given a parliamentary run along the lines suggested in the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, and the reports produced for the Leader of the House by the noble Lords, Lord Hunt of Wirral and Lord Goodlad.
Reform of our Chamber is needed and we must avoid what de Tocqueville called a “perpetual utterance of self-applause”. But every page of the coalition’s proposals before us today carries an invisible watermark which reads, “All this will end in tears”. There is a better way and it lies in organic reform, not abolition, of your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, the tone with which the noble Lord has just concluded his most interesting address reflects an observation made by our Prime Minister, before he achieved that office, when speaking to the entire party of both halves of this building. He said, “We keep what is good and we change what needs to be changed”. That strikes me as a sensible foundation on which to address this matter. Our constitution is not written, but it is there and it has worked not too badly with gradual change for a long time. The burden of making the case for change rests on those who propose it.
In many ways we have a very eccentric structure. Our two Houses are different from each other. The other place can be told that the Prime Minister is dissolving it, or the other place can, by taking the right voting decision, dissolve the Prime Minister. In this House, none of those facilities is open to us. We are very different but—I hope I will be forgiven for sounding conceited on our behalf—we seem to be working increasingly well with some of the moderate changes that have taken place. Ping-pong works. In a brief intervention on my noble friend Lord Strathclyde the other day, I said that the right analysis of the way in which this system works is that we in this House are rather like the trial judge and the other place is like the jury. Members of this House have a diversity of experience—I do not want to use the word “expertise” too frequently—and a diversity of background, so that we are able to analyse in a way not driven by pure politics. We then present that analysis to the other place saying, as though one was addressing the jury, “This is entirely a matter for you, the Members of the Commons”. That gives us the best of both worlds and does not cry out for change.
If one asks people specifically what fault they think will be corrected by the admission of elected Members, one gets no real answer. If one asks what improvement will be brought about by the simple admission of elected Members, one gets no positive answer. One goes back to an early analysis of reform of this House, in the Jay White Paper, which was published in 1999. It summarised the most valued features of the present House using the following words: “distinctive”, “expertise”, “well regarded”, “distinguished” and “particularly valuable”. Our strength is based on our diversity, which is itself a consequence of our not being elected.
I looked at a couple of representative debates some time ago to see just what we contributed to the subject. In a debate on the National Health Service in November 2001, the 19 speakers included two former deans of university medical schools, a practising dentist, a consultant obstetrician, a consultant paediatrician, a former GP, a former professor of nursing, a former director of Age Concern and the president of Mencap. What wider complement of expertise and analysis would one get if one exposed this House to election? In a debate on 24 September 2002, when the Iraq problem arose, the speakers included three former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, three former Foreign Secretaries—for what they are worth—two former Home Secretaries, six Bishops, two former ambassadors, two former Defence Secretaries and many others with service experience. It is a treasure to have that diversity of expertise available in the institution as it now stands. One has to be very cautious, therefore, about steaming ahead with major change.
Several people today have said that there may be a lack of confidence, that eggs may be broken, that there is disenchantment with the existing structure and that change is therefore necessary. I go back to the analysis made by the Wright committee in the fifth report of the Commons Public Administration Committee, from which I have quoted before. It found that the principal cause of today’s widespread public disillusionment with our political system is the virtually untrammelled control by the Executive of the elected House. It came to two conclusions. The first was that there is a need to ensure that the dominance of Parliament by the Executive, including the political party machines, is reduced, not increased—one would not achieve that by introducing the party machines directly to the composition of this House by elections. Secondly, it said that the second Chamber must be neither rival nor replica but genuinely complementary to the Commons and therefore as different as possible. That leads one to the conclusion that we would be taking a significant and not well proven risk by opening the doors of this House to elected Members in a shrunken senate, with less representation of a diversity of expertise than we have now.
In the present structure, Cross-Benchers make up about 200 of the 800 Members in very general terms. If one reduced the House to 300 Members in total, one would have 30 Cross-Benchers and 30 Members from other parties. We would be looking pretty anxiously to try to find anything resembling the diversity of experience that is available if we were to shrink this organisation in that way.
I come back to the conservative proposition with which I started: we keep what is good and we change what needs to be changed. The reduction in the House’s size needs to be kept under control, or we will reduce the chances of it containing very much, if any, of the talent that it contains today. The burden of proof for making such a fundamental change is on those who seek to achieve it. In my respectful judgment, they have not begun to do so to the satisfaction of the people of this country.
My Lords, those of us—and there are many in this House at the moment—who have been through the various constitutional proposals that the coalition has brought forward in the past year could be forgiven for thinking, “Here we go again”. This is, after all, the third major constitutional proposal within a year, or the fourth if you consider the first Act as being in effect two major constitutional proposals.
This proposal, the House of Lords Reform Bill, comes from the same production company that brought us the referendum on the alternative vote. We are told that the Bill is compensation to Mr Nick Clegg for losing the referendum, so wonderfully won by the no campaign. I dread to think what would be happening now if he had won the referendum; you wonder what kind of proposals we would have to deal with.
The Bill has many similarities with the proposal for the alternative vote referendum. It proposes to spend money that the country cannot afford in order to answer a question that the country has not asked.
We were told earlier that the noble Lord and his colleagues are absolutely united in opposition to the current White Paper. Can he tell us how united he and his colleagues were in support of Jack Straw’s White Paper, which in all material respects is identical to the present one?
My Lords, when the alternative vote was put to the country—and I suspect that the situation would be very similar with any other proposal—it was overwhelmingly defeated, not only by people in the noble Lord’s party but by people in my party as well. The noble Lord is waving a document around, but I am probably a reasonably good judge of opinion within the Labour Party—the Labour Party was hostile to that document in the country and I suspect that it would be hostile to anything similar that was put before us today.
I need to remind the House that that referendum produced an overwhelming defeat. I have no doubt that those of us who object to this draft Bill will have the same comments addressed to us as were made during that referendum. We will be called dinosaurs; we will be called roadblocks to reform; we will be called the opponents of people who want to mend our broken politics—a phrase which I heard the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, use earlier and which is a favourite of his leader. The AV referendum was supposed to mend our broken politics. I simply say to this House that the public do not think that our politics and constitution are broken in the way that the Liberal Democrats constantly repeat.
I want in the short time available to me to address the fundamental question which keeps coming back but which both Jack Straw—to whom we have already had reference—and Mr Nick Clegg have refused to address: what would the effect be of a directly elected House of Lords on the House of Commons? The clause in the Bill that deals with this must be—and there is a lot of competition for this accolade—about the most vacuous clause ever included in any parliamentary Bill, proposed or otherwise, faced by this or any other House. It states:
“Nothing in the provisions of this Act about the membership of the House of Lords … affects the primacy of the House of Commons”.
That is nonsense; it is palpable nonsense. Every attempt to explain that case away has failed. I shall mention just one or two respects in which it is nonsense. First, this House does not exercise the powers that it has. It is not a question of giving this House any more powers; this House has massive powers already. It chooses not to exercise them in defiance of the House of Commons. Frankly, it is ridiculous to suggest that, somehow or other, 300 democratically elected senators would exercise the same self-control in dealing with legislation coming from the House of Commons. It is clear that they would not. It is also quite clear that it would be ludicrous for an elected senator, faced with a Bill that he or she did not like coming from the House of Commons—let us say that it was the health Bill and let us say that it was a Labour senator and let us say for a moment that it was Senator Grocott, which has a ring to it—to say, “I know the people of the West Midlands have elected me, but I know the House of Commons knows better, so this health Bill is going to go through”. That is inconceivable.
It is also inconceivable, and I say this directly to the Liberal Democrats, that they would for long resist the temptation to say that a Chamber of Parliament elected on the basis of first past the post was somehow less legitimate than a Chamber of Parliament elected under proportional representation. It would be beyond their self-control to resist saying that within moments of the new constitution being enacted.
How can I resist? I ask the noble Lord the following question yet again, because he makes a lot of it. Of the 77 bicameral Chambers in the world, 61 are elected. In no single one of those has the primacy of the lower Chamber been affected. Why then should it be a risk for us if it is not a risk in any one of those cases?
My Lords, the noble Lord tried that intervention once before and it did not work then. I shall answer him very simply: the overwhelming majority of other constitutions are written constitutions precisely defining the powers of the two Houses. The difference with our constitution—the noble Lord ignores a statement of fact—is that this House already has powers that are almost equal to those of the House of Commons, yet he expects that elected Members would reject that. He says that an elected House of Lords would be a more effective check on the House of Commons. As an ardent supporter of the coalition, he knows perfectly well that if this House was now elected on proportional representation there would be an overwhelming government majority in this House and that, when proposals came from the House of Commons, they would be rubber-stamped. They pretty well are now, but they would certainly be rubber-stamped if whipped Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members or senators were faced with proposals coming from the lower House.
Despite the interventions, I shall take only another minute. I need to address this issue because the only substantial argument that the proposers of the Bill put forward is that people who oppose the idea of a directly elected House of Lords are hostile to democracy. Many in this House have fought a number of elections—not many have lost as many as I have—and our democratic credentials are fairly substantial. My case, as a democrat, for rejecting direct elections to this House is simple. It is that the absolute heart of our democracy is the House of Commons, which is elected by the people and from where the Government come. We have the people, the Commons, the Government and vice versa: if the Government lose the confidence of the Commons, they go back to the people.
Anything that diminishes the House of Commons diminishes our democracy. That is why I, as a democrat, am so concerned about the proposals in this Bill. It is not because I am concerned about the future of this House, although I am, and it is not because I think that this House is perfect—it is certainly not filled exclusively with the great and good and outstanding people of talent and ability; if it is, then quite a few of us have got here under the wire. That is not the justification for retaining this House as a not directly elected House. The justification is in order to protect the primacy or the supremacy—I do not mind using that word ultimately—of the House of Commons.
With regard to those Members of the House of Commons who are wavering on this issue—I have heard Jack Straw suggest this in the past—and those of us who keep repeating our belief in the primacy of the House of Commons, the argument is sometimes made that we should accept the vote of the House of Commons of a couple of years ago and simply lie down and agree that this legislation should pass. I say simply this: of course, ultimately the House of Commons must prevail. I make no argument about that; that is the heart of our democracy. However, if my friend is determined to jump off the cliff, I will do my utmost to prevent him from doing so. That is the risk that the House of Commons takes if it establishes, votes for and insists on a directly elected House of Lords.
My Lords, if I were to spend my eight minutes talking about the proposals in my Bill, to which frequent reference has been made, I would be guilty of tedious repetition before I got halfway through my first sentence. I do not propose to do that. However, I thank the Leader of the House for the kind words he said about my Bill. He said that all the four proposals were included in the Government’s plans—so that is all right then. The difference between us is that his plans are for the years 2015 to 2025; the proposals in my Bill are for this Session, here and now. I repeat the offer I have made frequently that my Bill is not appropriate for private Member’s legislation; the Government should take it over—it is ready to go into Committee—and get on with these immediate reforms.
I am strengthened in that view by the seventh report of the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I do not have time to read it all out but it states that,
“those proposing radical reform need also to address other incremental, urgent reforms that would improve the functioning of the existing House of Lords”.
It went on to talk about the effective functioning of the House and said:
“This is a pressing issue that cannot wait four years to be resolved”.
I rest my case and I hope that the Government will do that.
On the present White Paper, I have a strong view that there are two intellectually credible solutions to the future of this place which could be advanced. One is its total abolition and to have a unicameral House; that can be perfectly logically argued. The other is to have a small elected second Chamber with full powers, rather like in the United States. That, too, can be intellectually advanced. When my noble friend Lord Ashdown was working himself into a lather a few minutes ago on this issue, that is what he was arguing for—a House that could say, “No, we do not go to war”. That is not in the White Paper; it is not what is before us.
What is before us, I am afraid, is something of a dog’s breakfast. All the previous reforms of the House of Lords—1911, 1949, 1958 and 1999—have tilted the balance away from the House of Lords towards the House of Commons. The difference with this one is that it tilts it the other way; for the first time we are going to have a House which will be elected and therefore will attract more power to itself.
The White Paper is very interesting on this subject. In paragraph 7 it states:
“The Government believes that the change in composition of the second chamber ought not to change … the existing constitutional relationship between the two Houses of Parliament”.
It says, “ought not”, but we know from our own Cunningham committee, which has been approved by both Houses of Parliament, that that is simply not true. They have already said that if an elected House came into being the conventions between the two Houses would have to be completely rewritten. So that statement in the White Paper is simply wrong— both Houses have already agreed that it is wrong—and I do not see how it can still be maintained in that way.
Two other points occur in the White Paper. First, there is the suggestion that 20 per cent should not be elected but appointed. That is almost an admission that we will miss something if we have an elected Chamber—namely, the expertise that we have, particularly on the Cross Benches, in this House. A hybrid House of that kind is very dubious.
Secondly, the dreaded list system has reappeared as a possible option. That is a terrible thought when combined with the 15-year term of office and, of course, the cost of replacing this House with an elected Chamber. I say to my noble friend that going to the country and saying, “We have reconnected with you; we have got rid of the House of Lords and instead we have got an expensive elected Chamber of party political professionals—are you grateful?” would meet with a deafening silence.
There is only one basis on which the argument for the White Paper rests. As my noble friend Lord Tyler said, it is a simple principle and I shall quote him. I am grateful to him for helping me to find this quotation from him—which I am now going to attack. He said in an article in the Guardian:
“Legislators should be elected by the people whose lives they affect”.
That is the simple principle upon which the whole of the White Paper is based. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, has already said, it is not based on the fact that it is going to be better or anything like that; it is based only on the fact that we are not elected. My noble friend Lord Marks spoke eloquently to that principle.
My noble friend Lord Tyler went on to say:
“Everyone seems rightly determined that this should hold true in North Africa and the Middle East, yet so many are willing to eschew it for our own Parliament”
With no power over the finance of the nation, with limited scrutiny powers and only able to ask the House of Commons to think again on some issues—as we did with the previous Government on civil liberty issues and as we have done in this Parliament on health matters—to suggest that this House is somehow comparable in evil with single-party elected states with military apparatus and security services is simply fanciful nonsense.
We must distinguish between power and influence—this House has no power, since any revision we make can be undone by the other place, but we have influence. That is why it is perfectly acceptable to have a House that is dealing with influence and not power that is not necessarily elected. My main concern is not that this Bill may get through—it is the opposite, that it will not get through but will gum up the works of the coalition Government when they should be concentrating on getting the economy back on its right footing.
My Lords, it was Oliver Cromwell, I think, who abolished the Chamber in 1649. It is not a particularly good example for the Government to follow; although, to give the Government credit, they have produced an alternative way forward. I go along with the view that reform is needed, but not change and reform through an elected House. What we need is a substantially improved appointed House. That is why I am so glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Steel, with his proposal for a statutory appointments commission, where we would have a House reduced in size, appointments for a certain length of time—therefore a retirement system—and proposals for improved working practices, which we will be debating on Monday. It is not a question of “No change”, it is a question of “What change?” in my view. That seems to be the mood of the House.
We have heard from many noble Lords. We have had evolutionary change over the past 100 years, but we have lost our way since 1999 when we had no coherent alternative following the abolition of hereditaries. You would expect me to defend the Government’s position and welcome the fact that they propose having 20 per cent appointed Cross-Benchers. However, the strength of the Cross Benches is that they are relentlessly united in being divided. We pride ourselves on our rationale of complete independence and the expertise that some of us can offer—although I am not speaking for myself. If anyone thinks we are capable of being whipped, they are off their heads. Anyone who has attended a meeting of Cross-Benchers will see that it is worse than trying to herd cats. That is the whole point of the Cross Benches. What I regret very much is that it should just be confined to the Cross Benches being appointed. I see no earthly point in that because, if we go back to the first principles about the purpose and function of the House that we have just been debating so fully with the last two or three speakers, the whole purpose must be to have a fully appointed House. We surely determine what the composition should be based on that. Paragraphs 6, 7, 8 and 9 in the early part of the White Paper all confirm, absolutely clearly, that the Government believe there should be no change whatever in the role of the House of Lords: it should remain a revising Chamber, complementary to the other place—which would have primacy—and acting as a longstop.
The Joint Committee has a formidable task and some challenging questions to ask. I hope it is going to take whatever time it needs to determine the answer to these questions—how will an elected Chamber be affected in terms of the constitution; and what will it mean to the relationship between the Houses, if the Government want the relationship to remain the same? How will it affect the system of accountability, which is at present undivided—with the other place being the primary source of influence and power—if we move to a completely different system of accountability that would be shared with this elected Chamber? Then there were the arguments about legitimacy. I was very proud for 21 years to be an elected representative in the other place—legitimate for that particular purpose for that Chamber. However, I am equally privileged to be appointed to this Chamber, playing a role that is different but equally legitimate.
How will an elected House improve scrutiny, if we do away with the knowledge, the expertise and the wisdom of experience? The danger is that the powers of patronage will be strengthened rather than weakened. The power of the Whips will strengthen. Of course, we have to have a party-political structure in this country, but it is a time too when trust in Government and in Parliament has been in decline, which needs to be reversed. Many Members of the other place come to that place without any experience of other walks of life. In recent years the trend has been that they work in the party or in local government and they have limited experience. This Chamber balances that. As a former Minister, I would have found answering questions and debates in this Chamber a far more formidable prospect than I ever did in the other place. That says a lot for the strength of this Chamber.
It is not as though we are lacking elected representatives in this country. If you take the Commons, the Scottish Parliament and the Assemblies of Wales and Northern Ireland, there are just under 1,000 elected representatives. If you add to that the elected mayors, the elected local councillors and the MEPs, it is not as though we are underwhelmed with democratic elections in this country. The value of this House in counterbalancing the other is that you can guarantee more easily that an appointed Chamber will have a better cross-representation of this country in terms of gender, regions, ethnic minorities and professions, in a way that an elected Chamber cannot guarantee.
I conclude by saying that the British way of doing things, in a pragmatic, incremental and evolutionary fashion, is the best. In the words of Burke:
“A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve”.
What is the point of saying, “Hooray, we are democratically legitimate” if, in the process, we can no longer so effectively fulfil the function that this Government rightly want this Chamber to fulfil? I end with an incentive to this Government: if they are prepared to drop these proposals and go for a reformed, appointed House, I will volunteer to retire. Surely that is an offer they cannot refuse.
My Lords, I agree entirely with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Luce, has said except his offer of retirement. That is the last thing that I would like to see. Apart from that, I agree entirely with every word that he so wisely spoke.
When my noble friend the Leader of the House opened the debate today, he did it with his customary good humour and elegance—and a complete lack of merit. However, he did say one thing that had some merit, which was that the way ahead should be by consensus. It is clear already, in what we have heard so far, that the closest thing we have to consensus is that this is a thoroughly bad and wholly undesirable Bill and that the only thing we should agree on is how we can best give it a decent burial—and the sooner the better—not merely, incidentally, in the interests of the country but in the interests of the Government themselves. As my noble friend Lord Steel said, this is going to gum up the Government’s important legislative programme and the other important things it has to do on the economic front in a way that cannot make sense, even from the Government’s own narrow point of view.
The starting point for this debate needs to be the recognition that all these countries—the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown mentioned 61 or 41 or whatever it was—are the products of their own history. For historical reasons, we possess, in this country, the weakest second Chamber of any mature democracy in the world. This is arguably all the more serious because we lack the protection of a written constitution. The question is whether the powers of the second Chamber can in practice be significantly increased and, if not, how they can be most effectively exercised. The plain fact is that any significant enhancement of the powers of the second Chamber can only be at the expense of the Government in Whitehall and the relative powers of the House of Commons. Even in the unlikely event of a Government wishing to tread this self-denying path, the Commons would never permit it to do so. That was the lesson of the fate of the Crossman proposals in the 1960s—it was precisely that. The Government of the day suggested that in return for moving towards a more democratic form the House of Lords should have some small increase in powers; the House of Commons said no, and killed it.
In that overall context, and only in that context, can the question of the composition of the second Chamber be sensibly addressed. The unanswerable case for democracy—and it is unanswerable—is that the people should choose by and large the Government whom they desire and, much more importantly in practice, that at regular intervals they should have the opportunity peacefully to remove a Government whom they no longer want. Since the Government are formed by whatever party or parties can command a majority in the House of Commons, it is self-evident that the House of Commons has to be wholly elected. There is no dispute. But this democratic imperative no more applies to the method of selecting Members of the second Chamber in this country than it does to selecting either the judiciary or, indeed, the very important members of the Monetary Policy Committee of the independent Bank of England, whose legitimacy is not in dispute.
I concede that it would be a different matter if, as in most other countries, the second Chamber had the power to reject government legislation. I fully accept the case for two wholly elected, broadly co-equal Chambers, as in the United States, where the ever-present possibility of legislative gridlock, which some fear, does not seem greatly over the years to have held back the prosperity and security of the American people. But that is not on offer, nor ever will be. So the practical question is, given the puny powers of the House of Lords—and the Government are adamant that they should remain as puny as they are today—how can the House of Lords best be equipped to exercise most effectively its threefold role of expertly scrutinising legislation, providing an informed debate on the great issues of the day and acting as the watchdog of the constitution, even if it can only bark and not bite? That is where the considerations of power and composition are, in practice, most obviously interconnected.
Understandably, most people of ability are disinclined to enter the overexposed hurly-burly of electoral politics. Some of us have been sufficiently mad to do so, but there is a limited supply of such mad men and women. The best of those few who are prepared to take the plunge will rightly seek to enter the House of Commons, where political power overwhelmingly resides, at least in principle, on whose support the Government of the day depend and from whose Benches high government offices are filled. There may also be some men and women of ability who, recognising the importance that the institutions of the European Union now play in our national life, may be attracted to membership of the European Parliament. In Scotland and Wales, the devolved Assemblies offer another possibility of a worthwhile and high-profile role. Even local government in England provides a greater opportunity to influence real events on the ground than does membership of the second Chamber at Westminster. That is the reality.
So which would serve our country best? Would it be an elected senate composed of, at best, second-rate but, more realistically, third or fourth-rate politicians, or a House made up of men and women of proven achievement in all walks of life, appointed for life and thus crucially possessing the robust independence that life tenure confirms? The answer is clear.
In conclusion, there has been some discussion of whether, if and when the Bill embodying these foolish and misguided proposals comes before the House, it should be whipped or not. So far as I am concerned—and I am sure that I am very far from alone in this—there will be free votes whether or not the whips are on. As a former Whip myself in another place and as a great admirer of our Government Chief Whip here, I hope that the Government, of whom I am a strong supporter, will have the courtesy and common sense to spare her and themselves the embarrassment that will otherwise ensue by not attempting to whip what will in any event be de facto free votes.
My Lords, in following such a magisterial speech by the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, I am even more conscious that I am joining a very select minority in welcoming the fact that this White Paper has finally emerged and welcoming its openness to debate and dialogue—and, yes, in welcoming its commitment to an elected House of Lords.
In my view, whatever the merits of the way in which your Lordships' House currently operates—and they are considerable—they can be replicated in an elected Chamber and there can be no substitute for the democratic accountability of all legislators to those they serve. However, I do not intend to detain your Lordships today by rehearsing again the arguments for that position. The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, has already done so powerfully, and I suspect that there will be some others at least who will do so. I have no doubt that there will be further occasions when we can rehearse further all these arguments.
Today, I want to confine my remarks to the approach that the White Paper has taken to what is perhaps the most important single point at issue. It is because I want to see an elected House of Lords that I read the detail of this White Paper with a heavy heart. There are many specific proposals, such as the length of term, that are open to question, but I want to focus today on an issue that the Government have once again dodged around, which is fundamental to reform. It is an issue which, because the Government have failed to tackle it adequately, will, I fear, doom this White Paper and draft Bill. That issue is the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament.
In the debates that your Lordships' House has had over and over again on this subject, and again today, this issue has been the focus of concern among those opposed to reform. I have no doubt that over the remainder of the two days devoted to this debate we will hear these concerns articulated again and again. It is a fundamental concern. It really should be beyond dispute, on all sides of this debate, that a democratically elected second Chamber would acquire greater legitimacy, and this could lead it to challenge the pre-eminence of the House of Commons—and that could lead it to the sort of undesirable outcomes that so many noble Lords have so eloquently described in the past.
How does the White Paper address those concerns? It addresses them with a series of heroic assertions for which there appears to be no serious argument or evidence. The Government’s words have already been quoted by my noble friend Lord Grocott and the noble Lord, Lord Steel, but they are worth repeating because they are so very revealing of the flaw that lies right at the heart of the White Paper and the draft Bill. The White Paper says:
“The Government believes that the change in composition of the second chamber ought not”—
not will not, but ought not,
“to change the status of that chamber as a House of Parliament or the existing constitutional relationship between the two Houses of Parliament”.
Again, the “general saving” clause in the draft Bill optimistically states:
“Nothing in the provisions of this Act about the membership of the House of Lords, or in any other provision of this Act … affects the primacy of the House of Commons”.
My noble friend Lord Grocott referred to that as vacuous; I would more charitably refer to it as remarkably optimistic. I am afraid that there is no reason to believe that that will turn out to be the case—none. Indeed, as many other noble Lords have already argued, and I am sure others will argue, there is very good reason to believe that it would not turn out to be the case unless specific action was taken to ensure that it did not turn out to be the case.
The Government say that they believe that Clause 2 of the draft Bill is the best way of achieving the primacy of the House of Commons because it,
“accepts that the position is a matter of convention”.
However, conventions can change, often in response to significant changes in circumstance—and an elected House of Lords would be a very significant change in circumstance. In his opening remarks, the noble Lord the Leader of the House recognised that conventions may change. However, this is not some remote possibility, as he seems to suggest. There can be very little doubt that an elected House of Lords would challenge the existing conventions.
As I have said previously in such debates, I personally believe that the way to resolve this fundamental issue is to codify the functions of the two Houses and put beyond doubt the respective roles of the two Chambers and their relationship. The Government have rejected that approach, although, in my view, not very persuasively. Of course there are arguments against it, but surely the issue is so important that it should have been open to the dialogue and debate that the Government say that they want to have on all these issues. Without that—I say this in a spirit of friendship to the Government’s proposals—the Government have only the flimsiest of arguments against all those who worry about the effect that an elected House of Lords would have on the primacy of the House of Commons.
It is not axiomatic that an elected House of Lords would lead to gridlock in our constitutional arrangements but, if that is not to happen, the Government need to put rather more thought and effort than they have done so far into finding solutions to this significant potential problem. Without that, I fear that this latest attempt to produce a democratically accountable House of Lords will suffer the same fate as its predecessors.
My Lords, I shall follow in a little while a certain amount of what the noble Lord, Lord Wills, has just said. His speech was most welcome.
This is the first time that I have spoken on the subject of Lords reform, having read all the Hansard debates for the past 20 years and thought about reform myself for 34 years. As others have done, I shall try to address the arguments against the Bill that I hear—there is not much point in doing anything else—and have heard over 20 years from so many Peers. In doing so, I welcome the draft Bill.
The first argument is, “Why change an institution that works perfectly well, particularly now when there is no clamour from the public and the country is in a dire economic situation?”. My answer is that this is an institution which works but which could work better. There will never be a clamour from the public for reform, unless the House votes in favour of the slaughter of the first-born, and there will never be a perfect time. My overriding principle is that if we are to have the power of legislating on behalf of the people, we should have a mandate from the people. It is as simple as that.
To those who say, “But what if there is a very low turnout because the public can’t be bothered to vote for an elected House of Lords?”, I say give them the chance. The House may not have any power over money Bills, and it still will not under this Bill, but it certainly has power over all kinds of other important decisions in legislation that affect people’s lives, from the creation of criminal offences to the organisation of the health service. Democracy must mean an elected legislature as well as the rule of law, a free press and other things. I am entirely with my noble friend Lord Marks here. To the charge that the institution is working well, I say that it could work better. An elected House would have Members with up-to-date knowledge and experience of what goes on in all regions of the country, who would put work in this House first before other commitments.
The next big argument is that not only do we not want a clone of the Commons but an elected House would want more powers vis-à-vis the Commons—exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Wills, talked about, and something that the Commons will not like. My answer to that is that if we get the Bill right, there is no reason why an elected second Chamber would be a carbon copy of the Commons, particularly if there were to be no re-election. I would even go so far as to suggest a higher age limit for candidates to this House—perhaps 35 or even 40. The voting system would be different from the Commons and elections would be staggered, so it would not be a clone of the Commons.
I am not naive enough to think that elected Members would not want more powers eventually. However, this House has quite a lot of powers already, despite what my noble friend Lord Steel says—it just does not use them very much. For example, it has unfettered power over most delegated legislation and over Bills that start in this House, which are not subject to the Parliament Acts. The threat of delay for a Bill that started its life in the Commons often results in important amendments being made to that Bill.
While on the subject of legislation, I must at this point say why I believe it is imperative that this House maintains its focus on legislation. Bills start in the Commons in a blaze of publicity, sometimes, but that soon disappears when the Bill goes to a Public Bill Committee. The press generally lose interest. Perhaps two months later the Bill has its Report and Third Reading, by which time the world, the press and the pressure groups have got to grips with it and it comes to this House with the major issues flagged up. The process also happens like that in reverse. For myself, I would have fewer general debates so that the House could concentrate on more pre-legislative and post-legislative scrutiny.
Before my time is up, I will lay a few more of my cards on the table. I favour a House of 450 rather than 300 to enable proper scrutiny of legislation and committee work. I also favour an 80 per cent elected and 20 per cent appointed House, which would do much to ensure the primacy of the all-elected House. That would also allow people of particular expertise and experience to be appointed, as long as they put their work in the Lords first to justify a salary that I presume everyone would have.
We should not give in to complacency by accepting the status quo. We are good at saying that this House is full of people with expertise and experience, as though these qualities trump those that elected politicians bring. The House is a political Chamber first and foremost and, welcome though a certain amount of expertise may be, it does not trump political judgment. This draft Bill is a start and it should be given a fair wind.
Like many others in this House, I have immense respect and regard for the noble Baroness, but she slightly puzzles me on one point. She lays tremendous emphasis on her conviction about the need for Members of this House to have a mandate from the public. How can you have a mandate that is valid for 15 years?
Forgive my intervening in this interesting dialogue. I admire your Lordships’ stamina in having sat here for hour after hour listening to speeches, some of which, however fascinating, have had a certain repetitive and soporific effect. I have been using a lot of my energy to keep my eyes open. Anyhow, we are all in the same boat.
The beginning of wisdom is to leave well alone. What on earth is this House doing spending two precious days debating an issue that has no interest outside the Westminster village and for which there is no demand in this country at a time when we are facing a domestic crisis of major proportions? We have problems with the health service—the mind boggles at how we are going to get through that—and a world economic crisis. What kind of a world are we living in when we give priority to this subject which, however interesting to the few, is of no major importance?
Over the past months we have tinkered about with our constitution. We may not have a written constitution but we have a constitution and we are treating it in a very cavalier way. What on earth is the Lord Chancellor doing sitting in the House of Commons when he should be sitting in this House? This is the place for the Lord Chancellor, not there. I know that Mr Jack Straw likes dressing up and he does it very well. I confess to a weakness myself in that regard. I remember once saying in Cabinet to the Prime Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, “Could I leave the Cabinet early, Prime Minister, because I am going to a function?”. “But Chancellor”, she said—I was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster then—we are both going to the same function”. I replied, “But Prime Minister, it takes me much longer to change than it does you”. That became a Whitehall gem.
The hallmark of our constitution is its flexibility, which is in stark contrast to the rigid rules and parallels of the United States constitution. It would be a terrible thing to lose that flexibility. One of the things that we have done is introduce fixed Parliaments. I do not know why we did it. I certainly did not agree with it, although I was seduced by the charms of our Chief Whip into voting for it. I am not in favour of fixed Parliaments at all. I can only think that the Chief Whip persuaded me to vote for it through the exercise of feminine wiles. Who wants a fixed Parliament? A proper fixed Parliament has all sorts of conditions attached to it.
The other horror with which we have been landed is that we will in future, apparently, be elected by a list system, or those who stand for election will be. How did that get in by a side wind? That is a major constitutional disaster as it severs the link between the elected persons and the persons who elect them. If that is started here, it will not be very long before it is adopted down the Corridor. This will be a major disaster and will be looked back on as part of the midsummer madness that seems to get infallibly worse every year, particularly when we get tired, exhausted, slightly grumpy and worn out by the long hours that we spend here.
This Bill threatens not one House but two Houses. It is an extraordinary thing to have two elected Houses when we have so far escaped that peril. We have developed our constitution by experience, instinct and history, not by peddling rules to different people and trying to persuade them of their merits. Disraeli, in one of his two great orations—the Crystal Palace speech—never mentioned the word “constitution”. He said that the duty of the Conservative Party was to maintain our institutions, uphold the empire of England and,
“elevate the condition of the people”,
but it was institutions with which he was concerned, not constitutions.
I listened with very great interest to the contribution of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, who said that the first thing that should be done is to take the issue of principle raised by the Parliament Acts, particularly the Parliament Act 1949, before the Select Committee and ask, “What is the truth about this? Can this Act be used to subvert one House of the constitution?”. I firmly believe that it cannot. The shade of Dicey is hovering over us in considering these matters. I do not believe that it can be done and I do not believe that it should be done. Of all the points that have been raised in this marathon, that point, which was raised by the noble and learned Lord, is the single most important point that has come to our notice. We must not allow that to go by default. The Select Committee’s first task should be to clarify the position in that regard.
Parliament is not a coelacanth; it has changed very radically over the years. The argument that because 100 years have gone by since the Parliament Act 1911 was passed and therefore something must now be done has no validity whatever. If nothing has been done for 100 years, that is because it did not need to be done. That is just as good an argument. In fact, some very important things have been done. I single out two of them. One was the creation of life Peers by Harold Macmillan, who pinched the idea from our dear old friend Walter Bagehot, who put it forward in The English Constitution many years earlier. Secondly, we have introduced in the House of Commons—I hope that it will follow in this House—a comprehensive system of Select Committees. That has been one of the real advances in exercising control over the Executive by Parliament as a whole. I would like to see that imitated here, but the essence of it is its comprehensive nature. I remember arguing with the Prime Minister over this, who said to me, “Oh, Norman, wouldn’t one do or two or three?”. No, everyone must be included. It is a comprehensive system, otherwise it has no value.
It will be of great relief to noble Lords at this late hour, when they have shown the nobility of their nature by their stamina, that I am going to go no further.
There is no need to be quite so enthusiastic. In view of my humility and generosity, perhaps a faint murmur of assent would have been more appropriate.
I must say to the Leader of the House—having myself been the Leader of the House in another place—that the role of the Leader is not the role of the Chief Whip. The Chief Whip’s role is to get the Government’s policy through. The Leader of the House—and I say this with the greatest respect and admiration for him—has a perfect right to his own views on a fully elected, 70 per cent elected or 80 per cent elected House, but that is not his function. His function, if he can do it, is to present to the Cabinet the view of this House of Lords on the issue. That will be quite difficult, in view of the speeches that we have heard. However, that is the duty laid upon him.
Like all our debates, this debate has been extremely informative. I have learnt a great deal from it, as one always does when one comes here. One may be exhausted, but one can take things in. This has been a very enlightened debate because it shows that there is no consensus on this Bill and this White Paper. That consensus does not exist in any part of this House. It does not seem to exist in any part of the other place. It certainly does not exist in the country, so where on earth is it coming from? It is like the ghost train. Where does it come from and where does it go? I suspect that it will end up in a Liberal scrapyard.
My Lords, it is the first time that I have followed the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, in a debate, and it is a dubious privilege. Let us just say that the quality will go down, if not plummet, and I am afraid that I am bound to be a little repetitive. I apologise for that. It is also pretty clear that over today and tomorrow the Government will come in for quite a bit of head bashing. If I may summon up as much of a spirit of generosity as I can, I congratulate the Government on achieving something that I did not think was possible. The Bill and the White Paper make the previous Government’s attempts and forays into trying to get an elected House of Lords look almost—I stress, almost—coherent.
About 10 years ago, I spoke relatively frequently on House of Lords reform, and then I stopped, because—quite simply—the arguments did not change. The debate did not move on. We are all familiar with the two basic arguments. One is that a legislator ought to be elected, and the other concentrates on the balance between the two Houses. I come down very firmly on the latter side.
I first want to deal with two minor points. The Bill places great emphasis on the accountability of the new elected Members of the second Chamber; but surely the fact that Members will be elected for a single non-renewable 15-year term simply flies in the face of any idea of accountability. You can be held to account only for what you have done. The fact that you cannot be re-elected actually has the opposite effect and will make Members utterly unaccountable. This sort of confusion runs through the whole White Paper and the Bill. It is a total conceptual mess in a constitutional conundrum.
The Government also propose that Members of the new House will not have a constituency role. Who is going to stop them? Is a Minister going to be ordered not to reply to letters? Is a candidate going to stand for election and say, “Vote for me, but I won’t help you”? Is that the sort of thing that will happen? On this issue, it does not matter what the Government say or what is in the Bill because, at the end of the day, the electorate will force the Members to play a constituency role, whether they like it or not.
The White Paper and the Bill have a number of serious weaknesses that have to be examined in the context of the approach that the Government have taken. There are basically two problems here. One is that the approach fails to recognise the interaction between composition, powers, functions and conventions. If you change one, you are bound to create implications for the others. That sort of understanding is completely missing from the Bill.
The other weakness is that it is a totally a-historic document. It betrays complete ignorance of how the constitutional development of this country, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, came about, and what it led to in terms of defining the relationship between the two Houses. The Parliament Act was not some nice little piece of constitutional drafting but the product of a power struggle between two Houses—one elected and one unelected. In the context of a growing democracy, the elected House was able successfully to assert its supremacy. Why? It was because it had a monopoly of democratic legitimacy. That is how it was able to do it. If the Commons loses that, it inevitably changes the relationship between the two Houses and, as was said earlier, moves the weight back in favour of the second Chamber and away from the Commons itself.
Traditionally, the House of Commons has been sceptical of establishing a directly elected second Chamber, although I admit that in recent years there has been greater enthusiasm for it. However, I detect that things are changing and the House of Commons is beginning to revert to its traditional position. Why? The penny has finally dropped. Increasingly, Members of the Commons have realised that their primacy rests upon their monopoly of democratic legitimacy. If the Commons loses that, perhaps not immediately but eventually, fundamental change will take place in the relationship between the two Houses. In the context of our constitutional development, the justification for the second Chamber being subordinate simply disappears when elections are introduced. I am at a loss to see how the conventions governing the relationship between an elected House and an unelected House can long survive the creation of an elected second Chamber.
On this sort of issue, we do not have to theorise or speculate, because we have evidence readily to hand. We know how political institutions develop. The Scotland Act 1999 established a strong model of devolution in Scotland and a Scottish Parliament with wide-ranging powers. Some saw it as a settlement, but as soon as it started work the debate started again on it claiming more powers. After the Recess we are coming back to debate and, we hope, to pass a new Scotland Act which will give the Scottish Parliament more powers.
The important thing to realise is that political institutions are not static; they are dynamic. Once you have election to the second Chamber, the direction of travel is clear. As the relationship between the two Houses is at the core of the debate—many speakers have rightly emphasised that—it is deeply worrying that there seems to be confusion over the issue at the heart of government. My noble friend Lord Grocott and other noble Lords cited the heroic Clause 2 of the draft Bill. Let me summarise it by saying, “Nothing changes. You can have an elected Chamber, but it does not change the relationship between the two Houses at all. Powers remain the same; conventions remain the same; everything remains the same”. However, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said:
“I fully expect the conventions and agreements between the Houses to change, to evolve and to adapt to different circumstances; it would be very strange if they did not do so”.—[Official Report, 11/5/11; col. 1279.]
I think that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, got it right. That is why this is a bad Bill.
My Lords, I have had the pleasure and the privilege of serving for 13 years in the other place and now five here. I like to think that during my time in your Lordships' House I have loyally supported these Benches but, in my view, major constitutional change transcends party politics, and I am totally opposed to an elected House. In my view, an elected House means abolition. If you change something's name, the method of entry, the relationship between the two Houses and phase out existing Members, that is abolition. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, I am against the wholly unnecessary destruction of what I regard as a great British institution.
The public mood does not indicate a wind of change. Indeed, there is barely a breeze out there. Not only is there virtually no public support for an elected Chamber, in discussions I have had most people are incredulous that we are even contemplating an elected House. There is near zero public support, near zero media support and near zero support from serious political commentators.
The truth is that the idea of an elected House is Lib Dem-driven. It has been Lib Dem policy for a long time. The argument is that, to be legitimate, we have to be elected. I respect that deeply held view, but I reject it. All the practical arguments are the other way: the relationship between the two Chambers, cost, and the huge loss of experience and expertise. Senators would be elected from the same pool as the other place. Elections would be party-political-list dominated, apart from the occasional personality such as, perhaps, Alex Ferguson or Joanna Lumley, who might succeed.
Much has been made of manifesto commitments to a predominantly elected House. Let us look at the Conservative manifesto. On page 67, it states:
“We will work to build a consensus for a mainly elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords”.
That is hardly a wholehearted commitment. We hardly have consensus, with 80 per cent of Peers opposed and the current other place as yet untested.
The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, questioned the attitude of Lib Dem Peers. We now have approaching 100 on these Benches. My personal analysis is that we have four distinct groups on these Benches. The first group—I concede that it is the largest—is in favour immediately of an elected House. The second, a smaller group, favours an elected House but not now; now is not the time. The third group is torn between party policy and private doubts; and the fourth group—what I may term the Steel group, of which I am a member— essentially wants to retain an appointed House and favours reform and evolutionary change.
Any attempt to use the Parliament Act to drive the Bill through for an elected House would be a gross abuse and stretch party loyalties to the limit. So: reform, yes; abolition, no. In that famous phrase: “If it ain't broke, don’t fix it”.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, with whom I completely agree. I hope that the noble Lord will ensure that his leader, the Deputy Prime Minister, takes proper note of our debate, because Mr Clegg has shown no sign yet of acknowledging that there are valid views on the House of Lords other than his own. He needs to understand that there are strong arguments as well as strong feelings in this House. He must also understand—and he has shown no sign of this yet—that it is the public interest of avoiding constitutional vandalism that drives the opinions of this House, rather than self-interest.
Let me be very clear. I favour reform of your Lordships' House. I stand four-square behind the Bill championed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and therefore completely support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. I am sure that the opinion of the House will be perfectly clear over this two-day debate, but if the noble Baroness chooses to test the opinion of the House, I shall enthusiastically support her.
I shall focus my remarks on the role of democracy and take as my text the third paragraph of the foreword to the White Paper. It reads:
“In a modern democracy it is important that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by those to whom those laws apply. The House of Lords performs its work well but lacks sufficient democratic authority”.
If we disregard the rather foolish adjective “modern”, the first sentence is unobjectionable, but there is nothing in the sentence that would lead to the logical conclusion that both Houses of Parliament need to be elected. As others have pointed out, the balance of powers between the two Houses is predicated on the primacy of the other place, and its authority is protected by the Parliament Acts. It is hugely important that the other place is democratically elected—which it is—but I have not discerned, not least from the White Paper, what the argument is for election being a necessary qualification for a secondary Chamber.
The second sentence of the passage I quoted starts with a grudging admission that we do our job well, but it then veers off at a tangent by saying that we lack “sufficient democratic authority”. I look forward to hearing whether my Front Bench can explain which of our functions require democratic authority and why. Our job is scrutiny. Why does a revising Chamber need democratic authority? I might understand the need for democratic authority if the Government were proposing to give more powers to the new House, but I am puzzled by how a House with substantially the same powers, as is the intention, is deficient in the absence of elected Members.
In the other place, the Deputy Prime Minister tried to justify his ideas on the basis of what he called a “basic principle”, which is that,
“people should be able to hold to account those who make the laws of the land”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/5/11; col. 160.]
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, that a single, 15-year, non-renewable term, elected on a list system with no power of recall does not amount to anything which could resemble holding to account. Can my Front Bench explain how this holding to account will work? Electors can hold parties to account by not voting for their candidates, but how exactly will they hold elected upper House Members to account?
Where is the evidence that the general public think that there is a democratic deficit which undermines the work of your Lordships’ House? I have to say that I found the attitude of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, to the relevance of public opinion quite breathtaking. Of course the opinion of the public is important. Has any noble Lord ever had a complaint about the lack of elections to this House when they have been out and about campaigning on the doorsteps? Of course not—it is not a subject that the public are interested in. Indeed, if the topic of your Lordships’ House ever arises, I hear only praise. I have heard the gratitude of rural communities, who comment that only the House of Lords stood up for the continuation of their way of life against the elected House when the Hunting Act was forced on to the statute book. Many know that it is this House, without the aid of democratic elections, which protected civil liberties against an overenthusiastic Executive in recent years. The democratic case is simply not made.
I could have talked this evening about powers, about the impact of politicising the upper Chamber and about the wasteful additional costs that will arise from this Bill if it is ever enacted. I shall not do that today but, if the Bill ever appears before your Lordships’ House, I promise my Front Bench that I shall speak on all these topics and at length.
My noble friend Lord Strathclyde ended his speech by saying that it was time to take the next step forward. I have just one bit of advice for him—the next step should be in the direction of the long grass.
My Lords, the beauty of Britain is that we have the best of both worlds. We have centuries of history—the mother of all Parliaments that goes back 800 years—combined with a country which is at the forefront of cutting edge, world-class innovation. Last week, I wrote the foreword for Big Ideas for the Future, University UK’s publication showcasing the incredible innovations that are coming out of our universities and changing lives here in Britain and around the world. We have a Royal Family that is a magnet to the world. We are a country that is constantly moving forward and changing. However, we have always been a country that is conscious of the precious, delicate thread that goes back many, many centuries and delicately goes forward into the future, maintaining our link with our wonderful traditions. Break that thread, as this draft Bill and White Paper will do, and we are doomed.
It is this thread that makes us unique and allows us—a country with no written constitution—to have an unelected upper House. No one has mentioned today that it is the only self-regulating Chamber in the world. In my view, it is without doubt the most respected and venerable upper House in the world. Now, this coalition Government want to throw away all that is special about the House of Lords. As has been mentioned before, the draft Bill says:
“The House of Lords performs its work well”.
But the Government state that it “lacks sufficient democratic authority”. Therefore, it is very simple: election equals legitimacy.
But where are the Government’s priorities? What matters? Is it the means or the ends? Are we not meeting our role as the guardian of this nation? Are we not meeting the ends as a revising Chamber that, as has just been mentioned, scrutinises and amends the work of the House of Commons? A huge proportion of our amendments are accepted by the other place. The country at large listens to and respects our views, our scrutiny, our opinions and our debates. Do we not have credibility? The expertise of this House, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, clearly illustrated, is absolutely tremendous in every field, yet the Deputy Prime Minister, in particular, is willing to push through this badly thought-out reform and sacrifice all that precious wisdom and knowledge.
As has been asked many times, where is the uproar and the demand from the public for this kind of reform? I have not heard it; most of us have not heard it. I am afraid that I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown. I am sure that the public would feel that we should be focusing on the numerous issues that have us and the world today in a very fragile place. We have the domino effect from the financial crisis. We have a sovereign debt crisis and the eurozone in absolute crisis. We have had a great recession, and we have the Arab spring, the global threat of terrorism, Afghanistan, the welfare of our defence forces, the health service, and welfare-to-work reform. We also have higher education funding and increasing student fees. Those issues need to be addressed. Instead we are trying to break what is special about Britain. We are trying to break something that has taken centuries to build and develop.
Who says that we have not changed? That has been brought up time and again in this debate. In the previous century, we had the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, and the House of Lords Act 1999. We have had lots of change in this House, having reduced the size of its membership. We have just increased the number to 800 and now we want to cut it to 300. Anyone would say that that was absolute hypocrisy. We need a critical mass that delivers the breadth and depth of expertise of people who can bring real-world experience to this House. We have academics, university chancellors, business leaders, doctors and former senior politicians, all with a wealth of experience and at a fraction of the cost of the other place. What proportion of these academics, business people and doctors would run for election? I fear that the answer is very few. This House would instead be filled to the rafters with career politicians—most probably second-rate ones—with none of the precious world-class excellence and expertise that make this House so great.
The Government say:
“We propose 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”.
That has been the essence of this debate so far. We are at the quarter mark with another 75 per cent to go. Which fool’s paradise are the Government living in? There is no way that an elected second Chamber would not vie for powers similar to those of the House of Commons. There is no way that we would not demand that, once again, a Prime Minister came from this House. What happens when there is deadlock between these two powerful Houses? Do we have a president with veto power? Do we have a Supreme Court with strike-down powers?
With this draft Bill, we are playing with fire. In fact, these are not a draft Bill and White Paper on House of Lords Reform. If we are not careful, they may be the first draft Bill and White Paper on the Republic of Great Britain. I question the proposal for the single transferable vote or proportional representation as a method of election after the public would not even accept AV. I question having an election system similar to that of the European Parliament voting in MEPs. We know how useless that is. I bet that 90 per cent of the individuals in this House, let alone the other place, cannot name the MEPs for their region. There is no representation whatever. One mentions legitimacy, but is this the route we want?
Let us make it clear: this is not a case of turkeys not voting for Christmas. This draft Bill is so contradictory, full of holes and not thought through that it lacks complete credibility. All three major parties have a manifesto pledge to reform the House of Lords. However, reform does not mean all but abolishing the House as it stands today. This is throwing the baby out with the bath water. I completely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, would deliver a path of evolutionary change, not revolution or the wholesale destruction of one of this country’s greatest assets, as would be the case with this draft Bill.
I go back to the precious thread which runs through the centuries and which we need delicately to carry us into the future. I predict that if we put these reforms to the British public in a referendum, they will be rejected wholesale, because this country is proud of its precious traditions, its uniqueness and its ability never to copy any other country or anyone else but to stand out as a nation that the whole world has for centuries admired and respected. As the noble Lord, Lord St John, said, we are renowned for our great institutions. These institutions have not been built overnight; they have taken centuries to build, and the pinnacle of them is the House of Lords. This unelected House is, ironically, the cornerstone of our democracy.
Talking of cornerstones, as I have said before, the fundamental lesson in home improvement is that you can move the walls and raise the levels but, when you play around with the foundations, you risk bringing the whole House down.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, ended her speech by talking about the long grass. A good many people have said that that is the best place for most of the proposals in the White Paper and the draft Bill. I agree with that but, on the other hand, there are a couple of things that need to be done and need to be done quickly. The House of Lords is far too big with a membership of around 800. Something needs to be done urgently about that. My American friends say to me, “800 people in the upper House? We manage with 104 in our upper House. Why do you need 800?”. It is urgently necessary to bring the numbers down. The suggestion to reduce the number at each election down to 300 is one bit of the proposal that I rather agree with. I would have preferred to reduce the number by 200 at the next election, then by another 200 to bring it down to 400 and for that to be the cap on the membership. So there is work to be done. I would like us to have legislation to bring this into effect at the next election and I would like the Government to take over the Steel Bill. When he winds up tomorrow, I would love to hear from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that the Government will accept the Steel Bill.
However, the main question before us tonight is whether the House should be elected or nominated. I am opposed to the proposals in the White Paper and the draft Bill. I served in the House of Commons for 33 years and in many ways I am a child of that place. Paragraph 10 of the White Paper states:
“The Government believes that the powers of the second chamber and, in particular, the way in which they are exercised should not be extended and the primacy of the House of Commons should be preserved”.
That is just about the wildest pious hope that I have ever heard. Is it the serious view of those who are pushing this Bill that that would be the likely attitude of elected Members in this place? They just would not have that. They would want to take on more powers. It has to be understood that an elected upper House would be a direct challenge to the Commons. That is one reason why I am opposed to it.
The second reason why I am opposed is that we should not be destroying the expertise of this House. The breadth of knowledge here is unique. My noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon talked about that most eloquently. Once you start having elections and bringing elected Members into this Chamber, you will naturally have domination by the parties and therefore much greater domination by the Whips’ Office than now. I have some knowledge of the Whips’ Office in another place and all I can say is that, if you want the domination of the Whips in this place to be similar to what it is down the Corridor, then have elected Members.
I believe that the proposals in the White Paper and the draft Bill will not be agreed by Parliament—nor should they be. To enact this will dominate the rest of the Parliament. I can assure the Government of that. Instead, what we need is a fallback situation to try to get a consensus and to save the face of the parties that say that they are committed to elections. I think that it is better to abandon the proposal for direct elections and to have a House of Lords that reflects the composition of the Commons after each general election within the overall cap on membership, having allowed, say, 20 per cent of the House to go to the Cross Benches nominated by a independent body. If this House reflected the composition of the Commons after each election, you would be saving the face of those who say that there must be greater electoral legitimacy in this House. It would not go all the way, but I think that it would be an acceptable compromise, because you would give each party a quota within the 80 per cent, not including the Cross-Benchers, and you would say that the governing party could not have more than 40 per cent of the total vote. Therefore, you would preserve what most people want, I think, which is that the governing party should not have an overall majority here.
That would mean that after each election the parties would top up their membership from a list system. I heard what my old and noble friend Lord St John of Fawsley said. He does not like the list system, but I point out to him and others that the vast majority of us in this House are here on what has, to all intents and purposes, been a list system. We are here because we have been nominated by the parties, and we say that this House does a good job, so what is wrong with having each party’s quota topped up under the list system?
On the other hand, where a party reduces its membership after an election, I would have the membership of that party decide in a party caucus who should stay and who should go. We did that with the hereditary Peers. It is a perfectly well known method, which works very well. Of course, it would mean urgent action between polling day and State Opening, but that could be done as long as the preparations were made before the general election. I dislike very much age limits and set terms. I think that 15 years is a disgrace and I reject it totally. The fact is that the members of each party group know best who is past it and who does not pull their weight. This is what happened with the hereditary Peers and I do not see why it should not happen again.
It is said that a good idea is a proposal whose time has come. It may be that my ideas are not yet ripe, but my hope is that their time will come. I have circulated a paper on these ideas to many noble Lords and I am happy to make it available to anybody who asks for it. I hope that it will be looked at.
My Lords, it is interesting to follow the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, particularly as he has been a Chief Whip. It was quite interesting to hear his views on the list system. I agree with him, but I think that it should be an open list system. Many people who are here and who were in the Commons were selected by the party, which is a list system in itself.
This has been a very interesting debate. My noble friend Lady Royall spoke with great candour in opening the debate. She said that there would be differences of opinion on our side. When the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was speaking as the Leader of the House, I thought that there were stony faces behind him. I did not expect that there would be much support from the people behind him for the proposal for an elected House. I am in favour of a 100 per cent elected House. However, it is not the division on those Benches that is surprising but the division on the Liberal Democrat Benches. There it is: the Deputy Prime Minister has brought this forward, yet the difference of opinion that we have heard today is quite large. There is quite a difference between the views of the Members who sit on those Benches, which in itself is interesting.
Having said that I would like a 100 per cent elected House, I am not in favour of the proposals before us, because this needs to be thought through. My noble friend Lord Grocott said that he might be described as a dinosaur, but I could not think of anybody less like a dinosaur than him, because he has always believed in democracy and the primacy of the lower House. Nevertheless, he has a point: the one thing that I do not believe has been thought through is the relationship between the two Houses if this comes to pass. A lot more consideration of that needs to be built in, because it is quite right that, if you have an elected House, it is bound to demand more authority and more powers. Not enough attention has been given to that in the proposals that have come forward.
Another thing that has not been mentioned is the relationship with the established church, which will have its numbers reduced from 26 to 12. You could debate whether there should be any representatives at all, or more, but why has the number gone down from 26 to 12? You could also have a good debate, if we were discussing this, on whether more religions should be represented in the upper Chamber. I see the nods coming from the Benches opposite. That could be discussed and soundings could be taken with other churches. However, why there should suddenly be an arbitrary change from 26 to 12 I am at a loss to understand or begin to explain.
As I say, on these Benches we have been quite honest in saying where we stand and what we believe. There are many questions about what has been brought forward. How do we do it? I agree and have always agreed that there should be a mandate. This House should have a mandate from the public—the electorate—but I agree completely with my noble friend Lord Sewel when he asks, “What kind of mandate is 15 years?”. Once a person has been elected, what relationship will they have with the electorate? There can be no relationship. Imagine somebody being given 15 years and being told, “Come on lads—you can do what you want in those 15 years”. You can imagine that they will, but it will bear no relationship to a democratic House if they then have no contact whatsoever with the electorate and know that they are going at the end of 15 years. That seems to be nonsense if we believe in having an elected House, because there ought to be some mandate for those who have been elected. As many noble Lords have asked today, why change it if that is what you are going to do? That proposal in itself is wrong.
This has been an interesting discussion. The noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, said that there was repetition. However, we are only half way through, so this is all going to be repeated tonight and again tomorrow, with another 51 speeches the same. I am sorry for all of us who sit in this House, because we shall have to listen to it whether we like it or not.
This committee has a big job on. It is right that this issue is going to a committee to look at. The committee will decide what is right and wrong with the Bill and how it can be strengthened, then it can bring it back. At the moment, having thought it through and believing that there ought to be an elected House, I think that this is a dog’s dinner. I do not believe that this is what is needed and I certainly reject the idea that anybody who comes in should have 15 years to do whatever they want and go at the end of it. If we are going to have that, I ask again, as somebody who believes in an elected House, why change it at all?
I will listen with interest to the repetition that may occur. We have a lot of that to come but I feel that this Bill, while it goes part of the way to meeting my demands, is ill thought out and ill conceived. The committee should look at it carefully and I hope that it will come back with more positive proposals than we have contained in this draft Bill.
My Lords, it is a very great honour indeed to be making my first speech in your Lordships’ House. I was rather surprised—astonished, even—to be invited to join such eminent company. In fact, when I took the phone call, I wondered whether they had rung the wrong Strasburger. Then I remembered that apart from my daughter and my wife there are no other Strasburgers in this country, so far as I know.
From the moment I arrived for my introduction to this place, I have been given an extremely warm welcome by everyone I have come across. Noble Lords from all parts of the House have been very kind and helpful. So too have all the officials who I have dealt with, especially Garter and Acting Black Rod, as he was then. Yet my most vivid impression of your Lordships’ House is of the unwavering courtesy exhibited by everyone, both during debates and outside the Chamber.
I have taken a keen interest in politics for some time but, unlike most of your Lordships, I have no experience of politics at the sharp end. My career has been in creating new businesses from scratch, mostly in the computing and security industries. I attribute whatever small success I may have had in business to my habit of being clear about where the exit door is before I go in, and in always aiming to delight my customers. I managed to retire—at the third attempt—six years ago, since when, as is frequently the way with these things, I have never been busier.
My wife and I are involved in supporting the arts locally in Bath, where we live, and in helping disadvantaged people, especially children and young adults. We have had the pleasure of seeing youngsters whose only failing was to be dealt a bad hand in life seize the small opportunity that we have had the chance to give them. We have seen them break out of the cycle of deprivation and criminality in which they found themselves. We are also keen environmental activists; I have seen for myself the rapid effects of climate change on the polar ice cap, during two expeditions to the Arctic. We are in the process of building a new house that will be carbon-negative, generating more energy from renewable sources than it will use.
Since being introduced to your Lordships’ House, I have spent much time in this Chamber just listening and learning. I have been impressed by the quality of the debates, the wisdom and common sense that your Lordships bring to this House and the open-minded approach which means that divisions are not always along party lines. That brings me to the subject of this debate. Before I arrived in this place, I was firmly of the view that this House needed to be wholly elected to have any democratic legitimacy. I dare say that is the view of many who have no experience of this House and what it does. I am more convinced than ever of the need for proper scrutiny and improvement of the legislation that the other place sends us. That can often be most charitably described as work in progress, so there is an important job to be done by this House and the current membership seems to do it well.
Most of us here have outgrown the raw ambition that afflicts us in our youth, and that allows us to take a more balanced view of the world than elected politicians jostling for their place in the hierarchy. It is therefore vital, in my view, that any reforms do not jettison the benefits of the wisdom that come only from experience and that the skills of some of those who have chosen a career outside the world of politics are included in the new arrangements. So I would now favour a mostly elected Chamber with a significant minority of appointed Members. That way we can have the best of both worlds: democratic credibility and wisdom based on genuine achievement and experience.
My Lords, on behalf of the whole House, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, and congratulate him on his maiden speech. It is always good to welcome another voice from the south-west to this Chamber. I am particularly encouraged that among his interests is a concern for the welfare of young people, particularly those who suffer from a range of disadvantages, and for the environment. Many on these Benches and across the House share those concerns. With his background in business and industry and his interests in the arts, we very much look forward to hearing his contributions on these and other matters in our future debates. Dare I say, I hope that his stay among us will be a long one?
As has been consistently said from these Benches, in terms of size, composition, working practices, representation from other faiths and provisions for both appointment and retirement, we believe that there is a clear case for reform of this House. That case is strengthened by those changes in the wider constitutional context of which we are a part, not least devolution, and the setting up of the Supreme Court, separate from the High Court of Parliament, some of the consequences of which we have yet to see. So a case for a variety of reforms can be made, but whether that case justifies the proposals for abolition and replacement, which we have before us in the draft Bill, is another matter.
However, whether the issue is one of reformation or transformation, it is with function that either should begin. Without clarity of function, it is not possible to be clear about form, and it is in the capacity to serve function that a form has to be judged. In 1896, the architect Louis Sullivan put it like this:
“It is the pervading law of all things organic, and inorganic … that form ever follows function. This is the law”.
The fundamental starting point of the proposals before us is the contention that, as currently constituted, the House is unfit for purpose; our form is not adequate to our function. The prime reason, as set out by the Deputy Prime Minister, is that although this House is,
“known for its wisdom and expertise, [it] is none the less undermined by the fact it is not directly accountable to the British people”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/5/11; col. 155.]
It is a bold assertion and it would be very helpful if the Minister could provide the hard evidence of this undermining. Is it that the House is not effective in carrying out its core functions? Is it a lack of power, particularly in relation to another place? We have heard different views on that. Is it to be found in a lack of public confidence, or is the lack of confidence a bigger problem, which is primarily directed elsewhere?
That brings us to the issue of being directly accountable to the British people. The question has to be asked: accountable for what? Is it accountable for policy? I would hope not. For many years, it has been accepted that the locus for this is primarily in the House of Commons. As the great constitutionalist, Ivor Jennings, put it, public policy is made by the Government deciding, according to the political principles on which they were elected and having regard to the needs of the moment, subject however to the consent of the House of Commons and subject to the constant warning that the last word rests with the electorate. Is there not a danger that a directly elected senate, with members holding seats for 15 years, might claim a legitimacy from the principles on which they were elected, but without the constraints and accountability at the ballot box that are so important in the other House?
Supposing the accountability is not for policy but for improving legislation, probing intent, and raising matters of public concern in a way that is not possible in heavily whipped circumstances elsewhere. In May of this year, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, spoke of securing,
“a more assertive House with the authority of the people and an elected mandate”.—[Official Report, 17/5/11; col. 1279.]
Again, I have to ask: assertive of what, and to what end? If the end, the function, is to serve the policy that is set in another place, by helping to scrutinise and produce better legislation, then the “authority of the people” and an “elected mandate” may not be one and the same thing.
We tend to speak of democracy as if representative democracy through the ballot box is the sum total of what we mean, but that is far from being the case. A much broader, and not to be neglected part of democratic understanding is to be found in the concept of participatory democracy, which is about ensuring that all citizens are enabled to be actively involved in the decisions which shape their lives. The right to vote is one aspect of such democratic participation, but it does not exhaust it. People participate in key decision-making through their membership of trade unions, professional associations and churches and through engaging in voluntary activities and in supporting charities. In Britain today, where turnout for elections at all levels is low and there is mass apathy about the value of the ballot box to many people's lives, there is a manifest democratic deficit. Legitimacy, as we have recently been reminded, comes not merely through being elected, but also through being trusted. If a key issue before us is truly about accountability and engagement, I have to wonder whether it is in further elections and more paid politicians that we will find the answer we need. Is this the form that the function of increasing democratic participation really requires?
Harold Laski, in his magisterial work A Grammar of Politics, in considering the need for a second Chamber, said:
“Single chamber government is the apotheosis of democratic rashness. We need a brake on the wheel. We need a mechanism that enables us to delay the first rough impulses of a body fresh from its contact with the electorate and eager, in its inexperience, to embrace every kind of novelty. A second chamber provides exactly this safeguard; and it is regarded as noteworthy that practically every State of importance in the modern world has adopted a two chamber system”.
But he then goes on to warn of the dangers of thinking that any one model of a second Chamber can always contain all the elements to meet this need effectively. He wrote:
“The hereditary second chamber is excluded (it being a denial of equal citizenship, and of the basis of the state in its faculty for protecting the equal interests of members in its results). The elected second chamber, if made simultaneous with the first, is merely a reiteration of it; if made at a different time is merely a hindrance to policy making. The nominated second chamber suffers from the fact that if nominated on party principles it is ... entirely noxious, and, if on the principle of eminent service, it does not necessarily relate the service it distinguishes to the political process”.
There is no perfect system. Different legislatures have adopted, and adapted, different forms to meet different needs. There is a need for clarity, and not least for clarity about the different functions of the two parts of any bicameral scheme, the form which such functions require, and the relationship between the two parts of the greater whole.
The draft Bill before us proposes no change to the functions of the present House. So with no change of function there must be clear evidence that this function is better served by a new form. Will it be? What is proposed is a hybrid, a House with 240 elected and 60 appointed Members. Yet it is still not clear to me whether these proportions were arrived at with function in mind. Is there an evidence base to which to refer, drawing on the experience of similar legislatures in other parts of the world? What work was undertaken to explore how different models of hybridity might best serve the functions for which a second Chamber in the British system is clearly deemed to exist?
As to relationships between the new House and the House of Commons, we are told that the powers of the two will evolve, but that these should not be anticipated now. Is not the very function of a second and subsidiary House for it to be so constituted as to scrutinise and anticipate precisely the pitfalls and elephant traps that may lie on the way ahead, and to do so in such a way that a body with an eye to immediate political and media approbation is not always best placed to do.
When I was an undergraduate, reading history and politics, I was struck by one lecturer arguing forcibly that the UK does not really have a bicameral legislature, but a unicameral one, with a revising and scrutinising Chamber attached. It is an observation worth reflecting on; and it is also worth asking whether a change of form, without proper regard to function, will itself result in a changed view of the functions of Parliament as a whole and an unforeseen outcome which may not be the most effective legislature that the nation needs.
My Lords, debate on House of Lords reform is apt to be somewhat polarised and the present one has not disappointed—if one can call a score of something like 23 to four against the Bill “polarised” as opposed to “a walkover”. Either election is all good and appointment all bad or vice versa. Ed Miliband probably got it right when he said to Cross-Bench Peers that both systems had pluses and minuses and that ultimately it was a matter of judgment which side one came down on. In a debate that can all too easily become shanghaied by polemic, that seems a balanced and sensible point of view that one can disagree with only if one has given up thinking.
The Government's proposals are manifestly unsatisfactory. They contain more holes than a Gruyère cheese. The number of unresolved questions and matters open to challenge is legion—from the name, to the reduction to as few as 300 Members, to the system of election and whether one could get the requisite coverage of expertise with only 60 independents, to the 15-year non-renewable term and to the 20 per cent appointed or hybrid element, with all its implications for legitimacy and accountability. More fundamentally, the big bang approach to dealing with the problems of the House of Lords by abolishing it completely fails to go with the grain of constitutional development and ignores the British genius for bringing about necessary change in the evolutionary and organic fashion that the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, spoke about without courting the dangers inherent in taking a sledgehammer to the delicate mechanisms of the British constitution, with unintended consequences that one can only guess at.
I have not come across a serious commentator—pace the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown—who believes that the abolition of the present House of Lords and its replacement with a wholly new second Chamber populated largely by a new breed of senators elected on long, non-renewable terms by a system of proportional representation will not upset the balance between the two Houses of Parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, made clear, Clause 2 of the Bill may insist to its heart’s content that nothing in the Bill affects the conventions governing the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament, the primacy of the House of Commons or the powers of each House, but one might as well prescribe that the sun shall not rise in the morning or set at night.
There is enough trouble at the moment when Cross-Benchers appear to sway a key vote, but this is as nothing compared with what it will be like when the appointed element overturns a majority among elected Members. We are essentially in the realms of speculation here, but it is a reasonable bet that the whole dynamic of the second Chamber—which makes the House of Lords so good as a revising Chamber, with its more measured, independent and objective approach—would be transformed by the election of senators on a party ticket and the party machine had got their hands on it. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, confirmed this when he spoke earlier.
Whatever the deficiencies of the Government's proposals, it ill behoves us simply to stand pat on the status quo. Even the much vaunted expertise of this place—from which its defenders derive its legitimacy—is contested. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, quoted the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, writing in the Guardian. I will quote another passage from that article—so if quotation in the debate is a mark of authority, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, will get the prize today. The noble Lord wrote:
“Most self-satisfied of all is the idea that members of the Lords are all so expert and representative: in fact, most of us are either ex-politicians or ex-experts, and our average age is 69 ... The idea … that an expert embryologist or eminent constitutional academic should be given the automatic right to vote on immigration, education, transport, and every other area of public policy is palpably ludicrous”.
That is a serious argument that requires a robust answer and cannot just be waved away with a rhetorical flourish. I say that it is experience as much as expertise that is the unique selling point of this place and gives it its unique value across the waterfront on matters of public policy.
I remember an economic debate in which the Minister winding up for the Government said how much the debate had benefited from the participation of three former Chancellors, six former Treasury Ministers or spokespersons, four economists and six leaders of business. One could marshal a similar line-up of those who know from doing it how it is done for nearly every debate in this House. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, marshalled another few line-ups of that kind for our inspection. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, says that the draft Bill will create a second Chamber with real democratic legitimacy. However, I very much doubt whether the voice of civil society would get as good a hearing in such a place as it does here at the moment once the party machines had got a grip on a more politicised House.
We should not be complacent or self-satisfied. We all know that there are issues with the House that need addressing as a matter of urgency. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has offered for a good four years now a framework for doing so, and it is a great pity that successive Governments have failed to pick it up—although I noted what the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, said earlier about the previous Government’s wish to pick up the majority of its provisions in their Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. If the proposals had been picked up, we would be a lot further forward. However, it is still not too late and I will certainly support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, when we come to the end of the debate tomorrow night.
I will go further. There may not be a democratic deficit, but as the think tank ResPublica argued, there may be a perceived democratic deficit. To address this, it proposes a House that is one-third elected, one-third appointed from civil society and one-third nominated by political parties. This would have the disadvantages of the hybrid model in which—pace the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham—election and appointment are in conflict. I have alluded to this already. It also has a lot of ground to make up. A ComRes poll of a representative cross-section of 121 Peers—if 121 Peers can ever constitute a representative cross-section—found that 68 per cent were against the proposal, only 20 per cent were in favour and 13 per cent did not know.
My approach to remedying any perceived democratic deficit would be to refresh the system of appointment to this place and render it more broadly based by putting in place a system of nomination from the major departments of civil society—what might be termed “constituencies of expertise” such as the law, medicine, the arts, sport, education, the armed services, business, trade unions, the third sector and so on. It would be a House of Lords of civil society. These constituencies could be treated as electoral colleges that would nominate directly to a reformed House of Lords: or, as I believe happened in Malaysia, they could submit their nominations to a statutory appointments commission that would make the final selection.
All I would stay at this stage is that although the joint scrutiny committee will obviously take the draft Bill as its starting point, there is a wide range of alternative approaches. Along with the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and others, I very much hope that the Joint Committee will take the time necessary to explore all these alternative approaches as thoroughly as possible.
My Lords, I attach my colours to the wall, next to so many of your Lordships’ colours, on the side of the House that is fundamentally against a wholly or partially elected upper Chamber. I think we need a larger wall. The prime reason for doing so, as has been stated by many of your Lordships today, is that conflict would arise between both Houses in the legislative process with the threat to the supremacy of the lower House and related conventions.
However, there are some further significant reasons. I wish to focus attention on the abolition of the role of the Peer, its replacement job description of senator and some practical differences between election and appointment. These changes would be significant and would alter holistically, for the worse, the nature, objectives, functions and effectiveness of this House.
A senator would be elected by a large constituency. Constituents would vote in a senator for reasons beyond the fulfilment of duties in the House of Lords as we know them today. Even if senators were not expected to do so, and even if they stated that laws or conventions did not permit them to do so, they would additionally and rapidly be drawn into regular communication with electors who would seek advice and require answers to problems and concerns in return for their votes.
If senators sought election, it would be strange if they did not present and promote manifestos. It would be strange if they did not make certain promises to secure success over other candidates. Therefore, a senator would be tasked with a substantial workload, including letters, phone calls, requests to speak, and approaches and demands from lobby groups, and with increased media attention on them. They would also become a conduit for constituents who, unhappy on occasion with responses from their MP, would try their luck with their senator. Thus the de facto job title will be senator and deputy MP. It follows that senators would need staff, at some cost. Above all, this workload would be a distraction and a disruption from fulfilling legislative scrutiny, a duty described as “a vital role” for senators in the draft Bill.
We should be wary about making analogies with senators in other countries with different constitutions from ours. However, it is interesting to note that written in to a US senator’s job description, under the heading “primary functions”, is the task of introducing Bills to Congress based on the needs and requests of constituents. Why would our elected senators here not have similar responsibilities placed on them, leading to their inevitable politicisation, with a strong regional or local, rather than national, bias? These duties should clearly remain within the bailiwick of the lower House. Could my noble friend the Minister explain how senators could possibly ignore all such approaches from constituents and pass the buck to the appropriate MP?
If voters are shunned and promises broken, I foresee that our reputation as a House would rapidly plummet in the eyes of the electorate. This would not restore faith in the political class, nor increase voter turnout at elections. As a double whammy, when constituents perceive that senators are not representing their interests as they expect, they will have to wait for up to 15 years before their period of office is up, as the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, pointed out.
The second point about an elected system is, with abolition, how do you replicate in this House the breadth and depth of experience, skills and professional backgrounds universally regarded as an essential ingredient for an effective upper Chamber? The majority of Peers are here because they were approached for their knowledge and expertise. Election means candidates would proffer themselves, initiating and paying for a campaign, and canvassing opinion—in effect stepping into the shoes of a politician.
I ask my noble friend the Minister how likely it is that our preferred candidates will put their hats in the ring to do this. Surely the majority have no desire to promote themselves in a political manner, nor have they experience of doing so. Most candidates for this Chamber will find this process well outside their comfort zone. However, they remain potentially immensely valuable to this House. Therefore, I believe that the optimum knowledge and experience for this House can only be realised if candidates are sought out with no election. Does my noble friend agree that an elected system is weak in that it relies only on those who are willing to put themselves forward as a candidate? It cannot be deemed to be an improvement on the appointments system.
Finally, I believe that the proposed number of 300 senators is much too low to best ensure the full asset value of this House. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that the level should be based on need, not historic attendance figures? The number should be at least 400, as my noble friend Lord Jopling suggested, allowing also for absences and illnesses.
I echo the words of my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood that this draft Bill is produced solely so its proponents can rub their hands in satisfaction and say, “There you are—job done; most of them are now elected”, without having regard to the profound and damaging changes to our parliamentary system.
My Lords, along with many others in your Lordships’ House and beyond, I strongly oppose the proposed restructuring of this second Chamber. Any major constitutional reform should have a broad consensus of acceptance if it is to be sound and stable over the years ahead. We do not seem to be anywhere near that. I speak briefly to place on record my opposition, and to give—maybe by now re-emphasise—four particular reasons why.
It is surely wrong for the two Houses to be constantly at odds about their constitutional arrangements, and to be more focused on debates and discussions of this one topic than on other more immediate and pressing legislation. Indeed, the considerable time spent on this issue following the major upheaval of 1998 serves to underline this point. Far too much time—to no good concluding purpose—has been devoted to debating and studying reform without achieving any confidence that the end of a long tunnel of discussion is reaching a tenable conclusion, let alone one that enjoys a broad consensus of acceptance. A constant preoccupation with the reform—or abolition—of this House denies opportunities for more progressive and desirable work and scrutiny.
My second concern is that it seems naive to presume that the Parliament Acts, specifically designed to limit the legislative power of hereditary and unelected Lords, can be applied without change or demur to a Chamber of democratically elected Members. Sooner rather than later, a second elected Chamber would attempt to repeal or redraw these long-standing arrangements, and probably other past conventions, as no longer being relevant to a Parliament of two elected Houses. As the Joint Committee on Conventions, under the able chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, summarised it,
“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”.
No clause in a “Reform of the Lords” Bill—perhaps “Abolition of the Lords” Bill might be more apt—can bind successive Parliaments in such a manner that the Parliament Acts and existing conventions that give the Commons primacy will survive without challenge. They would be even more unlikely to do so were this Bill outrageously to be enacted by recourse to the Parliament Acts.
My third concern is related to this. With the long, 15-year tenure proposed for membership of the second House, there could be a period of perhaps five years or more when the majority party loyalty in the two Chambers could be at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Take for instance a Government led by party A with a majority in the Commons being roundly beaten by party B after a decade in office. The transfer of government from party A to party B would be immediate, as reflected in their majority in the Commons. But with 15 years of membership in the second Chamber, the expectation must be that following that transfer of government the two Houses would not enjoy the same party balance. Party A might have surrendered power and government to party B in the Commons, but in the second Chamber party A could still command a sizeable majority over party B for five years or more. Given that, would there not be every likelihood of repeated battles and lack of progress over the whole of that Parliament, thus affecting much if not all legislation? A stalemate condition could ensue, which is not what the nation would like or think it reasonable to expect.
Finally, when the country is in difficult financial straits, it seems quite wrong to expect the taxpayers, let alone this House, to accept with equanimity a doubling or trebling or more of the cost of a replacement elected Chamber in perpetuity. Is it not yet another unfortunate example of legislators believing that they need to pay scant heed to the significant increase in the costs of their proposals? No convincing case has been made that the present House of Lords is failing in its responsibilities or not giving good value for money; rather, it is widely held to be working well. I agree with my noble friend Lady Boothroyd, and others: “If it ain't broke, then don’t fix it”. Perhaps this is another issue crying out to figure on a list of government U-turns.
My Lords, in preparing for today’s debate, on Saturday I read the Financial Times and the Leader of the House’s comments that he expected the Bill if it became an Act to be enacted by 2015. Your Lordships will of course remember that 2015 is 800 years after the signing of Magna Carta. It seemed rather ironic that we would be celebrating across the two Houses the one time when the then House of Lords brought the King to his senses and brought him to account. On the one hand we would be celebrating that wonderful event and, on the other hand, the current House of Lords would be sent packing and some new institution put in its place.
Whichever way we look at it, in my judgment, that new institution would be to create a competitor to the House of Commons, thereby destroying the unique democratic accountability of that House. While I am mentioning history, perhaps I may gently point out to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, and the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, who wrote in The House magazine, that it is entirely correct that Cromwell removed the House of Lords. But it is worth pointing out that he reappointed the House of Lords, albeit with some 40 cronies of his following.
Your Lordships will be aware that I usually get up in your Lordships' House to ask what I hope is a difficult Question of our Front Bench. I do not wish to embarrass it from a political point of view, but I try to get it to nail down exactly what a situation is. Two recent examples would be the Question on Somali pirates and, a couple of weeks ago, a Question on the Payments Council and the demise of cheques.
With the permission of your Lordships, I will ask several short questions. I expect the Front Bench not necessarily to answer them this evening, which would be impossible, or necessarily to answer them all tomorrow evening when I shall be in my place. But I say to my noble friends on the Front Bench that the questions I am asking need a clear answer from Her Majesty’s Government. As the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, is sitting in her place and is a member of the new scrutiny committee being appointed, I hope that she will be able to follow the questions that I am going to ask. I will not try to give the answers, so they will be short, sharp questions.
First, how exactly will the proposals maintain the primacy of the House of Commons? That is a key question. Secondly, how will the Government’s aim of elected Members not having constituency responsibilities be delivered, not least when, as I understand it, we are to have an STV system, as proclaimed in the Bill? Thirdly, how will, as claimed in the White Paper on page 9, a different voting system help to maintain the primacy of the House of Commons and ensure that the second Chamber remains complementary to the first?
Fourthly, how will elected Members be accountable, given that they will serve single, non-renewable terms? Fifthly, how much will it cost and will the Government in their forecast costs give a breakdown to your Lordships on how those costs are arrived at, so that for once in our lives we can see what the true cost is estimated to be?
I have two further groups of questions. Who would stand for election for single 15-year terms? What sort of person is likely to stand? What is the profile of the expected Member who will do that 15-year stint? Finally, how will the independent element be maintained in a wholly elected House? How will those appointed Members be able to stand up to the elected 80 per cent majority of the elected Members? Those are the questions I ask and I expect to find answers in the wind-up, in a paper in the Library, in a further White Paper or whatever my noble friends on the Front Bench want to use as a means of answer. I am not making my comments: I am expecting Her Majesty’s Government just to answer those simple, straightforward questions.
I conclude with the observation that, in my judgment, what this country does best is a mixture of tradition, public service and incremental change. As far as I can see, these coalition proposals for the abolition of your Lordships’ House reject national traditions. I submit, as one who so far has voted pretty loyally with Her Majesty’s Government, that surely my Government have better things to do with their time and the money that the public give us to use. Someone at the top should be showing leadership and stop trimming to the lowest common denominator. Just for once, the Government business managers should do a risk analysis, something that is pretty common in the outside world where I still have one interest. When, at the end of the debate, they see the strength of feeling against this draft Bill, as one who follows cricket a great deal, I hope that they will recognise that it is time to draw stumps. Certainly I should make it clear that if the Motion in the name of my noble friend Lady Boothroyd, whom I had the privilege of serving with for five years, is moved, I will support it, as I expect to support every other amendment to do with this Bill if it should appear at some stage in our considerations.
My Lords, I confess that originally I was tempted not to take part in this debate because, even during my relatively short time in your Lordships’ House, this subject has been debated on many occasions. However, as I hold what is clearly a minority view, I am concerned that if I stay silent the minority view is even less likely to be heard. In fact, although it is clear that the majority view in the debate today has been strongly in favour of an appointed House and against an elected one, there have been some powerful speeches the other way. I was particularly taken with the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, who made many of the points that I, too, feel strongly about.
At the last election, all three parties supported reform, so the two parties of the coalition can claim a mandate for their proposals. Furthermore, we have to remember that, in the last Parliament, the House of Commons voted in favour of an elected second Chamber. If we are serious about the primacy of the other place, we need fully to recognise that context and that situation. We also have to consider the problem that at the moment we do not have any formal link with the electorate, yet, in a democratic system, power emanates from the people. I certainly concede that, if we were a purely advisory body, that lack of accountability would be much less of a problem. However, we hold Ministers to account, we amend legislation and, indeed, on occasion we have stopped legislation in its tracks, as happened with the anti-terrorism provisions in the last Parliament.
As well as establishing a link with the electorate, elections would guarantee representation across the UK. Studies by organisations such as the New Local Government Network and others show that there are wide regional disparities in your Lordships’ House, which, despite some welcome recent appointments, still persist. The north of England and the Midlands in particular lose out. At the moment regional representation, such as it is, is haphazard or accidental. I do not feel that that is satisfactory.
Like all Members, I have great respect for the work that the House does. Indeed, I have felt that strongly ever since I was elected as a Member of the European Parliament in 1979. I was deeply impressed by the detailed scrutiny work of the European Union that was carried out in your Lordships’ House and which continues effectively up to the present day. Indeed, that committee work has been a feature of the House of Lords ever since the time of Walter Bagehot, who said in 1867:
“The committees of the Lords (as is well known) do a great deal of work and do it very well”.
Interestingly, Bagehot said of the House of Commons:
“The whole scene is so encumbered with changing business, that it is hard to keep your head in it”.
As a former Member of the other place, I understand all the pressures from constituents and the amount of legislation to be dealt with. For that reason, the scrutiny role and the detailed committee work of your Lordships’ House is extremely valuable. However, I happen to believe, despite what many speakers have said today, that that role can be continued combined with elections.
Most elected second Chambers around the world have as their core role the scrutiny of legislation, yet virtually all those second Chambers have no power to dismiss Governments and I think that none has the power unilaterally to give themselves more powers even if they would like them. We have to bear that in mind. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, reminded us that certain legislation would remain on the statute book whatever changes are introduced to the composition of your Lordships’ House, although I also take the point made by my noble friend Lord Wills that codification is an important aspect of the debate and should not be overlooked. I share the general view that the Government’s proposals so far are inadequate in that respect.
When talking about their fears of gridlock in the future, many noble Lords have given the example of the United States, but I do not find that convincing. The United States has a presidential system and the two Chambers were set up with equal powers under the American constitution. It is not the case that, over time, one House has sought and won greater power vis-à-vis the other. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who is in his place, said a couple of weeks ago that the original idea was not for coequal powers, but, by the time that the American constitution came to be drafted, the Chambers were seen very much as being coequal and providing a check and balance on each other. As things have turned out, the Senate has perhaps become marginally the more powerful Chamber, simply because it has longer terms of office and has acquired a status whereby it is often seen as a launching pad for presidential aspirations in a way that the House of Representatives is not.
Expertise has been mentioned by many people. Of course, like others, I value the contribution of experts, but, given the variety of legislation, noble Lords often deal with business in which they are not expert, as the noble Lord, Lord Low, observed—we all of us find ourselves in that situation. Through co-options on to specialist committees, or by going for the 80 per cent option, it will be possible to harness expertise so that it is not lost to an elected House.
I would make a similar comment about the contribution of the Bishops. In a modern democracy, I do not support a religious group having representation as of right, even if it is the established church. In any case, the church’s authority has derived in the past not so much from having a place in your Lordships’ House as from the authority that it has brought to bear in reports such as Faith in the City, where it drew on its day-to-day experience with communities out there in the country.
I generally support my own party’s position on this subject, although I am not attracted by the proposal for a referendum. I would prefer to give people the permanent power of choosing Members of this place rather than the temporary power of voting in a referendum. I have spoken against referendums so often in debates here that I might be in danger of standing on my head if I went down the route of supporting such a proposal, although I note that it received some support from the other side of the House.
There are obviously problems, but they are not insurmountable. Experience from abroad shows that second Chambers generally live within their powers. They cannot increase them unilaterally and they do not cause gridlock on the whole. They tend to add value to the democratic systems in which they operate. Surely our Parliament, with its long and proud democratic tradition, is capable of creating a democratic, competent and respected second Chamber for the future.
My Lords, I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and the words “dinosaur” and “roadblock to reform” do not appear in my speech. Many compelling arguments have already been put to your Lordships, and I am sure that more such arguments will be advanced during this debate, but there is one with which I should like to deal straightaway. That is the argument put by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, who seemed to say that this place does not suffer a democratic deficit and that, consequently, the proposed reforms are not to the point. She argued that the scale of the House's outreach and its collective wisdom constitute a kind of democratic system. This is to allow a much more flexible definition of democracy than is usual. Democracy is based on direct elections to key institutions. This House is a key institution; it is a legislating body. Without elections, it is simply not democratic.
However, the number and diversity of the arguments already advanced may work to obscure the key question here, which is this: are there areas absolutely central to our national public life where we should act to exclude the most basic principles of democracy? If the answer to this question is yes, as many noble Lords seem to advocate in discussion of reform of this House, then what are sufficient grounds for excluding these basic principles?
We have already heard, and will hear, a large number of well argued grounds advanced in favour of the exclusion of basic democratic principles. We have the issues of the primacy of the Commons, of the size and composition of the House, of the method of election, of the damage of loss of expertise, and of the danger of wrecking a system that has worked and works well. I suppose that there will even be the question of what paid Peers are supposed to do during Recess. There is also the question of orderly transition.
Since this morning, we have had the paper of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, setting out to demonstrate that the proposed reforms would cost £433 million, which I am afraid I have not had the chance to analyse except to be relieved that it does not appear to contain a cost of £250 million for electronic voting machines.
However, these real concerns seem to me not in themselves to present sufficient grounds for overriding basic democratic principles. Arguments over size and composition are surely secondary to arguments over the applicability of the democratic principle of elected representation. The issues of size, composition and length of term can surely be resolved by detailed deliberations over the next nine months or so. The method of election also seems resolvable by looking at what already happens in the devolved nations and in elections to the European Parliament.
I realise that the issue of what paid Peers will do in the Recess is non-trivial in that it will inevitably overlap with the duties and responsibilities of MPs. However, the White Paper allows for regional responsibilities with no direct duplication of Commons constituencies. After all, MEPs already exist alongside MPs, as do AMs, MSPs and MLAs.
Many of your Lordships have advanced the argument that the Government’s proposals would result in what the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, has called “an act of folly of heroic proportions” in the loss of the accumulated wisdom and expertise in appointed Members. But is this a powerful enough argument for overriding the most basic principle of a democratic system? As my noble friend Lord Tyler pointed out, this wisdom is easily available elsewhere and is not then restricted by the essentially capricious and limited nature of appointments. It seems disproportionate to deny the essentials of democracy simply to preserve in the Chamber what is readily accessed outside it.
There is then the argument that says, essentially, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. This might frame the discussion in an unhelpful and misleading way. It seems entirely possible, and even reasonable, to argue that while the House performs well, as it does, it suffers from an obvious and correctable lack of legitimacy. It seems wrong, on the face of it, to oppose democratic change simply out of satisfaction with an undemocratic system and a belief, perhaps, that change necessarily means worse.
There is then the issue of the primacy of the Commons. Would an elected or mostly elected upper House affect the relationship with the Commons? The answer is surely that it would. An elected upper Chamber would have a legitimacy that is clearly lacking today—indeed, that is to my mind the clearest argument for an elected upper House. This legitimacy would strengthen the voice of this House in debate and deliberation.
The question is whether this new relationship would be likely to damage the fundamental operations of our democracy. Would a democratically elected upper Chamber damage the whole democratic apparatus of government, scrutiny, debate and revision? There are two strong reasons, at least, for supposing that it would not. First, there is the genius of an unwritten constitution that allows for flexibility and organic development. There is no necessity now for us to be prescriptive in any detailed sense about the future relationship between the two Houses. This relationship has changed fairly frequently and very fundamentally over the centuries as circumstances have changed. There are strong grounds for allowing adjustments to happen to accommodate changing circumstances.
Secondly, it is certainly within the power of the Commons, if it chooses, to reassert its primacy in whatever Bill is presented to Parliament in a way that makes it unequivocally clear that ultimate authority lies, and continues to lie, with the other place.
What is at issue here is essentially the application of what is surely a fundamental democratic principle—that the people must be able to choose those who legislate on their behalf. Legitimacy is based on representation and consent; neither applies to the House as it is currently constituted. Nearly 400 years ago, Thomas Rainsborough put it well. He said:
“I think it is clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought firstly by his own consent put him under that government”.
It is true, of course, that Rainsborough’s colleagues later went on to abolish the House of Lords. I do not think that we should go that far. Election, I feel strongly, is a better option.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my old friend the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey. We have shared many adventures together over the years. I remember once sharing a private plane with him on the way back from a successful business trip to Germany. He opened a bottle of champagne—in an unpressurised cabin at 10,000 feet. It proved not to be a wise decision. Since those days I have tended to sit a little apart from him, as I am afraid I shall do today.
I hope I will be forgiven for intervening in this debate, particularly after the many very fine contributions that we have heard. As a very new Member of this House, I have so much less experience than almost anyone else here. However, perhaps because of that, my impressions are fresh and may be of some value. When I first arrived here, I thought I had returned to school, with my coat peg, a locker for my books and an older boy to show me around. I quickly discovered that, instead, I had fallen into the finest place of learning that I have ever attended. The wealth of experience here is extraordinary and is so warmly and freely shared. I have made many new friends, discovered new views and tested old assumptions, even with those I would regard as being on a different face of the political cliff. As a result, I have felt personally enriched; but so much more important is that I am certain that my contributions, as limited as they have been, have also been enriched.
I think I understand my duty in this place: it is to listen, to learn what I can, to contribute to the best of my ability—although not too frequently—and to assist the Government to get the best out of their business. My rights as a Peer to inquire are almost without limit yet my right to pursue the conclusions reached are strictly limited. I am unelected and have no right to do any more than to ask the Government to think again. I am oil for the wheel, not a spanner in the works. However, if I were elected, it would be very different. I would have a duty toward those who sent me. I would have rights and powers, given to me by them, that I could not cast easily aside. If that electorate numbered more than half a million, I would regard my duties and my rights as being at least on a par with those in another place.
In my few months here, I have followed the principle that we in this House are servants, not slaves. Occasionally, I have indulged that implied independence in the Division Lobby, to the discomfort of my noble friends on the Front Bench. They may have come to the conclusion that I can be a bit of a pain—but if they think that now, let them wait until I am elected.
On a recent Radio 4 programme I described this White Paper as stonkingly silly, although that is not the sort of language for this place and the sensitive ear of my noble friend the Leader of the House. Instead, I would say that this White Paper lacks the courage of its convictions: 80 per cent here, a dozen bishops there, mixed together with a little afterthought and a whole lot of muddled previous. Nowhere does the White Paper mention the word “abolition”, which is what it proposes. Nowhere does it define the shortcomings of the present arrangements, except that they are not democratic; yet nowhere does it talk about taking the opinion of the people, through a referendum, even though it pretends to act in their name. I am confused, but perhaps it is my extreme innocence and I hope that my noble friends will put me right on this. Last week we agreed to hold referenda on all sorts of matters, but this week one might be forgiven for concluding that the authors of this White Paper regard the appointment of a European public prosecutor as being of considerably greater importance than the abolition of one entire half of Parliament.
This is a dog’s dinner of a White Paper for a pretty scrawny mongrel. There is a suggestion that this White Paper is acting in the public name, but it is only a suggestion. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, has previously described these proposals as a private obsession. I think he is entirely right—and about his insistence on the need for reform, too. To me this is like the work of some latter-day Baron Frankenstein, tucked away in the isolation of his laboratory, who has built this thing out of bits and scraps from whichever corner they can be got; then sewn, stapled and screwed them together to form this monstrous bit of bulk, battling through the AV storm and waiting only for a bolt of parliamentary lightning to bring this monster to life. As the noble Lord, Lord Steel, pointed out, the obsession is with process. No thought has been given to the likely outcome.
The White Paper insists that there is to be no change to the powers of the upper Chamber. I doubt that there is a person in this House who truly believes that. I ask forgiveness of my noble friends on the Front Bench for saying that I do not know what is most likely to embarrass them—the suggestion that secretly they do not agree with the White Paper or that frankly they do, every word of it. An elected upper House will and must be a more powerful upper House, and that power can only be taken from the House of Commons. That fundamental point cannot be ducked, so I hope that my noble friends will be able to provide answers where the White Paper has none. For instance, why is there no mention of a referendum in this White Paper? Why is there not even the slightest hint of what it might all cost? Where is the evidence that the people want the abolition of this House? There are so many more questions, so many of which have already been put. We need specifics, details—not, if I may say, the bucket of whitewash that has been used to give this document its most distinctive colour.
Despite rumours to the contrary, the much quoted coalition agreement does not insist on this Bill. I downloaded it again this afternoon to remind myself. While the agreement did insist on a referendum Bill and stated that it would be whipped, the clause governing the changes to this House simply gives a commitment to establishing a committee to bring forward proposals for reform. It does not anywhere, in any line, specify what should happen to those proposals. There is no commitment to specific changes or to whipping and absolutely no commitment, not even a suggestion or a hint, of using the Parliament Act.
In some respect, it could be argued that we have already fulfilled the requirements of the coalition agreement, but we are not parsimonious nitpickers and we will not shirk our duty. It is our duty as a responsible House to give these proposals the fullest, most careful and unstinting consideration, and I hope that we will do exactly that and ensure that this White Paper gets precisely what it deserves.
My Lords, being here is at times an almost overwhelming privilege, and brings with it a great responsibility to our nation. I was appointed by an Appointments Commission and I am glad to see that some kind of Appointments Commission features in the document that we are debating today.
Since I have been here, I have learnt that there are two fundamental questions with legislation—what is the real problem that it is trying to solve and what are the unintended consequences of whatever is proposed? This proposal seems to abolish this House, not to reform it. It looks set to cost more, adding almost £85 million per annum, on looking at the calculations of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. It seems to risk distorting the quality of in-depth scrutiny that we are known for and on which we pride ourselves. Above all, it fails to address the real deficit in listening to the voice of those affected by legislation, the population of our nation. Why do I say that? Because, at two critical levels, there will be no more openness; more power will go to those with motivations behind the scenes, with neither mandate nor open accountability for their actions and whose decisions are not open to public scrutiny.
First, at grass-roots level, how will those whose names are to go on the ballot paper be selected? The current machinery would simply duplicate political patronage. The parties operate selection processes for prospective parliamentary candidates, but to most of the population the process is completely opaque. How will expertise and ability be assured over patronage, if the functions are to remain unchanged? How would minor parties or independents even stand? I fear they would not in practice stand a hope, so the real power will lie with local selection panels and fundraisers for campaigns.
As for the constituencies themselves, the tables in Schedules 1 and 2 to the Bill are completely blank. The rigor of the Appointments Commission will apply only to appointed Members. Will they be chosen to rebalance, to ensure that women, ethnic minorities, those with disabilities of all sorts and those with special expertise and insight are in the small band of 60 appointees?
That brings me on to the next group, whose power would increase behind the scenes—the unseen and unidentified advisers. These highly influential people are completely hidden from view yet they influence the elected politicians on a daily basis. Is that really democracy in its true meaning of accountability to the population and the ability of the population to participate? Full-time politicians are very reliant on the advice that they are given. Often that advice is properly challenged, tempered and modified only on the Floor of this House. Our deliberations are fully open to challenge by any citizen who wants to question us, and indeed many do.
We are appointed to do a job. Of course things can be improved, but the proposals that we are debating today do not do that. Nowhere is it suggested that this senate will be less whipped; indeed, it is likely to be more subject to the whip than this House is at present. Much legislation comes to us with vast tracts not considered. We scrutinise and amend par excellence. Some amendments—small tweaks—in this House have averted many a major problem. We are relied on to provide impartial advice. As several civil servants have quietly confided in relation to Bills: “We have to do what the Minister wants; we rely on you in the Lords with expertise to amend it to make it work”.
People do not lie awake at night worrying about Lords reform; they lie awake worrying about their finances, about what the future holds for them and their families and about the injustices that they see. They come to us in the Lords with our specific interests or expertise in health, social care, education, policing, the law, international affairs and myriad other areas. It would be invidious to single out any individual Peers or issues; so many have spoken out or questioned their party’s policies. Time and again, ongoing injustices at home and abroad have been exposed.
If this stable House is abolished and replaced as outlined in the Bill, what will happen when the colour of the Government of the day changes and the tension between the two Houses mounts? The other place will not prevail. Human nature is to be seen at work between the devolved Administrations and this Government. Tensions mount, supremacy is challenged and conventions become very strained.
The electorate do not seem to be clamouring to vote more often. The 2009 election of Welsh MEPs had a 30 per cent turnout; the March referendum this year on powers had 35 per cent; and, although the last general election had a 65 per cent turnout, this Assembly election had only 41 per cent, yet that is the Assembly that is now governing Wales.
In the most recent Session, 289 Peers attended the House for over 75 per cent of the sittings. That seems remarkably close to the proposed 300 Members in the document that we are debating today. However, what sanctions are there in the proposed senate to hold Members to account? They will draw a salary, but what if they do not contribute as they should?
The problem seems to be a political mantra that says that abolition of this House must happen and a belief that all voters read all party manifestos in detail and vote on the basis of every paragraph of their content. That well known benchmark of public opinion, the London cabbie, seems to see that the proposal to abolish this House will leave the nation legislatively weaker and financially drained. As public services and social support are increasingly threatened, where is the evidence that people want to abolish the House and replace it with even greater party-political influence?
True reform is an evolutionary process—as functions evolve, so do structures—but a recipe for conflict with the other place seems to be proposed here. No referendum has had the courage specifically to ask the people of this country if this is what they want. The draft Bill seems like a leap of faith into a murky pool, with unknown powers out of sight. Do not forget that many who take such a leap into murky waters break their necks. The Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, warrants support.
My Lords, it is a very great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. This has been a quite remarkable debate. I begin by apologising to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and my noble friend Lord Younger of Leckie, as theirs are the only two speeches that I did not hear. However, I am told that they were both excellent.
In opening the debate, my noble friend used the word “consensus”, as he has done so often. Consensus has been defined as a disparate group of people coming to a high degree of agreement. We have had consensus today because from all parts of the House we have had eloquent pleas for your Lordships’ House. We have had abrupt dismissal of the inadequacies of the White Paper, particularly in the brilliant, scintillating speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. Even those who have given grudging support to the White Paper, such as the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle—I think that only three have given it total support—have dismissed it as an inadequate document.
No system is perfect, and our parliamentary system is not perfect, but it has some remarkable features. In terms of the distribution of power, it is, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter said, close to a unicameral assembly because the real unambiguous power and democratic mandate are held at the other end of the Corridor by the elected House of Commons, and so it should be. As I said in my maiden speech, I believe that there is a great deal to be said for unambiguous holding of the democratic mandate.
Your Lordships’ House has many distinct and distinguished Members. The expertise encompassed in this place has been referred to many times in this debate. I will not repeat what has been said for fear of incurring the sort of wrath that I once heard from a doorkeeper in another place. When the doorkeeper was asked, “Has everything been said?”, he replied, “Yes, but not yet by everybody”. Therefore, I shall not repeat at length the admirable points that have been made about the composition of this place, nor do I want to rehearse—as has been done—the number of reforms that this House has gone through in the 100 years since the Parliament Act 1911. However, we are not debating another stage of House of Lords reform; we are debating abolition of the House of Lords and its replacement by a totally different assembly. It is a disingenuous use of the words “House of Lords” to call this House of Lords reform in the White Paper. It is also disingenuous to refer to it as the House of Lords in the paper when what is being proposed is a senate. We should talk in those unambiguous terms. We would be replaced by a senate. As one who before the end of the previous century was briefly a constitutional affairs spokesman for my party, I am deeply saddened that my party, which should be the prime defender of the constitution, should have got itself into this mess supporting such absurd proposals.
The underlying theme of the White Paper is a reluctant acknowledgment and praising of your Lordships' House for what it does and how it does it and assurances that the senate that would replace it would preserve our merits, our detachment from party domination and our powers. But that could not be. My noble friend accepted that the relationship between the new Chamber and the other place would inevitably be different. Some, such as the President of the Liberal Democrats—I referred to this in an earlier intervention—have said that an elected second Chamber would, if elected on PR, be more legitimate than the other place. Even if the actual powers were no different, as has been said several times, those powers would be used. My noble friend Lord Dobbs, in his extremely entertaining and amusing speech, made that point with real vigour and force. He was right to do so.
One thing that has not been said today is that the White Paper proposes a House with four categories of membership—the elected, the appointed, the Bishops, and the placemen, who would be an unspecified number of Prime Ministerial nominees and be Members only as long as they held office. It is not impossible to imagine a close vote in which the Government of the day were defeated by the 20 per cent or sustained by the placemen. The 20 per cent—the Bishops and the placemen—demolish the logic of the argument that only election confers legitimacy. If the Government concede that illogicality and go for the Deputy Prime Minister’s preferred option of 100 per cent being elected, we would create an expensive second Chamber of paid party politicians with no Cross-Bench element or expertise. If election is then held to be the only legitimacy, where does that leave those in our society who hold high office without election?
It may not be the intention, but the passing of this Bill would isolate the monarchy and make it vulnerable to future Cleggery. Almost as dangerous—this has also been referred to—is that the Bill would separate elections from accountability, because Members of the senate would have a single 15-year term, which would be a deterrent to any man or woman wishing to offer the state some service after a lifetime of achievement. Who at 65 wants to stand for a 15-year term, with all the answerability that a paid salary means they would have?
When a Government are legislating, especially on constitutional matters, they should eschew gimmickry, pseudo-populism and tokenism. This document smacks of all three. Far worse, it threatens that durable, priceless but fragile settlement that is the British constitution. It contains no coherent and well thought-out blueprint for a new settlement. Still less does it respond to public clamour.
Every so often in our history, those in power have an urge to tear down or to tear up, such as when they sacked the monasteries or when they abolished county boroughs. I remind my noble friend the Leader of the House that destruction is the easy bit. Destroying a unique forum for public service, where those who have held high office in government can sit with those who have achieved distinction in their various callings, may be within his power. But does he really want to have the epitaph, “He promised progress and created chaos”?
My Lords, it may come as some very slight relief to the noble Lord the Leader of the House that I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and that I am, in principle, in favour of the objectives of the Bill. Having said that, I also voted yes in the AV referendum and I start every football season thinking that Millwall are going to win the cup.
The Bill has a highly desirable democratic objective, but the way that the Government have brought it forward and the way it has been handled mean that it is unlikely to fly. As with electoral reform, and as with a football club, you need to do some more work before you can succeed in this difficult area of constitutional reform. The central principle of the Bill, which I support, is that those who make laws which bind the people should be chosen by the people. Although we in this House have a secondary role in legislation—that of scrutiny, revising and questioning the Executive rather than proposing legislation—it is a very important role. No other democracy in the world has the basis of appointment that we have to provide for the delivery of legislation that governs the people.
The roles that we perform are important, and it is important that they transit to the new House, as and when we eventually agree to have one. The talk that the Bill is primarily about abolition is wrong. It is about transition of the strengths and expertise of this House, particularly in legislative matters, to a new era. The key is how a second Chamber can effectively influence legislation proposed in the first Chamber by a Government in a parliamentary system where the role of the Executive and the role of the legislature are not clearly differentiated.
I support the principle behind the legislation. Despite this issue having been around for 100 years, and despite the many abortive attempts by the previous Government and previous Governments to resolve the issue, much of the groundwork has not been done. Not a lot of the constitutional groundwork has been done, but it is important to recognise that the political groundwork has not been done either. For a major change of this nature, you need at least one form of consensus, whatever consensus means in this context. There is no consensus between parties; there is no consensus within parties; and there is no consensus between the Houses. To proceed, the Government need to work to create at least one of those dimensions of consensus. We are not yet there. Without that, the Bill will not happen.
The constitutional groundwork also needs to be done, in particular, on the nature of the relationship between the two Houses, as many noble Lords have said. Clause 2, which suggests that there is no change in the relationship, is absurd, as many noble Lords have said. That does not necessarily mean that, with a democratically based Chamber, we will be faced with a constant power struggle. At present, the role of this House in holding the Government to account is different and done in a different way from that in the House of Commons. We need to build on that differentiation, rather than deny it. However, there will be disputes and we will need to have, as the Bill does not have, methods to negotiate and resolve disputes between the two Houses.
The work of this House on scrutiny, revising and committee work has been invaluable, and everyone, from whatever point of view they take in this Chamber, always praises that. It should be extended. It should be extended even in an unreformed House. However, expertise, the ability to question and knowledge of subject are not confined to the kind of elite that we, whether we like it or not, represent. All of us, one way or another, arrived here by patronage. We arrived here after a career somewhere else in which we managed to succeed, or nearly succeed, and were deemed by the great and the good to be worthy of a place in this House. That is not a sufficient basis for a democracy; nor is it a sufficient basis for questioning the Government in a way that they are bound to take account of.
We have a lot of expertise in this place, but you can co-opt expertise. You cannot co-opt democratic legitimacy. Our very elite status means that we are neither representative of the people in a demographic sense nor chosen by them as their representatives. That is the fatal flaw in the status quo. How much we need to democratise is perhaps a matter for query. After all, the proposals before us allow for only 80 per cent of us to be democratically elected. They also have only one wing of full democratic representation. We would be elected but we would not be allowed to be re-elected. We would therefore be representative but not accountable. Perhaps that is sufficient to provide a reflection of the people’s will in this House but not sufficient to be able to challenge the primacy of the first Chamber. That may be deliberate but at no point in the justification for this legislation is it spelt out as being deliberate. It would be a big leap in our democratic base but, whatever the system of election, which also is not yet clear, it would not be quite as effective and absolute a democratic base as occurs in the House of Commons.
Perhaps we need other differentiations, too. For example, in a Chamber whose main role was revision and scrutiny, why would we need Ministers in this House? Why would not all Ministers come from the elected Chamber, which would have the democratic primacy, with Ministers being allowed right of audience in this House? That would get away from the issue of placemen, which has been opposed.
There are other ways in which we could change and more greatly differentiate the role of this House from that of another place. However, the essential point of the Bill—and it is why, despite all my queries and reservations, I strongly support the Government in bringing it forward—is that we should move from what we are now and what we have been at various stages over the past 100 years to a Chamber which is truly and clearly democratically based. We need not do that all in one go. These proposals suggest a transition, with the strengths and expertise of this House being carried forward over a period. The role of this House would not be abolished. The holding of the Executive to account would not be abolished. The ability of this House to act in a less than partisan way because there would never be a single-party majority in the new House would not be abolished. We are therefore not talking about abolition.
Those who run scare stories about abolition ought to stop doing that and think. The proposal that we are looking at and that I hope we can significantly improve but whose principle I strongly support would mean that the strengths of this House were carried forward in a democratically legitimate way. We could therefore say to the people that, when we expressed a view on a law, we would at least have some democratic legitimacy. That is what we lack at present and the Bill at least attempts to give the prospect of that.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, referred to the Liberal Democrats’ murky waters whose depths she could not fathom on the issue of Lords reform. To me, the waters are as a,
Whence the healing stream”,
Noble Lords would expect me to quote a Welsh hymn, I am sure, but I am reminded that in January 1907 Mr Lloyd George, speaking at Caernarfon, declaimed:
“I would say this to my fellow-countrymen. If they find our Liberal Government manoeuvring their artillery into position for leading an attack on the Lords, any Welshman who worries them in attending to anything else until that citadel has been stormed ought to be put into the guard-room”.
The phalanx who guard the citadel today in this House are largely former Members of the other place, enthusiastically supported by the survivors of the hereditary Peers and the Cross-Benchers. These former Members of Parliament, across party, have enjoyed and fulfilled distinguished careers, many in the heights of government, and I respect them for that. It is true that in the past they walked across Central Lobby once a year to the House of Lords for the opening of Parliament, but otherwise they never came near the place and are surprised to find how potent it is when they arrive. Their main motivation for retaining appointment as the way to membership is expressed as a fear for the primacy of the Chamber where they made their mark—they have their misty memories to preserve. My noble friend Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames has no doubt soothed their fears on that score and I will not repeat his compelling arguments. The attitude of former Members of Parliament was encapsulated for me by a comment from a noble friend, an ex-Member of Parliament, obviously with warm memories of his local cinema in his youth. He said to me, “You must realise, Martin, that this place is the second feature”.
However, when did noble Lords ever hear it said of a proposal for a government Bill, “This will never get through the House of Commons”? How often, by contrast, have we heard, “That will never get through the Lords”? While we debate each amendment in a Bill and scrutinise each clause, and while we have been able in opposition or even from these Benches to win changes to legislation and even to defeat the Government, the other place has given up and swathes of legislation are presented to us undebated and undigested. The public perception is that debate in the other place has degenerated into point-scoring with half an eye to personal and party advantage at the next election. It is a potent reason for public disillusion. When in ping-pong we finally defer to the so-called elected House, we are deferring not to the elected Members of the other place at all but to the Government of the day who control it completely. The Whips were, and remain, absolute. Government business must be delivered. The other place is no more than an arm of the Executive.
The noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, referred to these proposals to introduce democracy into this House as a dog’s dinner. I was reminded of the words directed by Mr Lloyd George at the House of Lords, which I suggest should now, after the experience of the past 20 years, be directed to the other place. He said:
“This is the loyal and trusty mastiff which is to watch over our interests, but which runs away at the first snarl of the trade unions … A mastiff? It is”,
“poodle. It fetches and carries for him. It barks for him. It bites anybody that he sets it on to. And we are told that this is … the safeguard of liberty in the country. Talk about mockeries and shams. Was there ever such a sham as that?”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/6/1907; col.1429.]
Today, I might suggest that the mastiff has a tendency to run away at the first snarl of the red top press. That other place, the safeguard of liberty, endorsed, in the grip of the Government, the Iraq War, the control order, the special courts, the indeterminate sentence and all the paraphernalia of an intrusive and watchful state.
When the Members of this House exercise its undoubted powers and influence, they do it in the name of the people, but they do not have the people’s mandate to do so. It is a fundamental principle of democracy—the rule of the demos, the people—that parliamentarians should subject themselves to election. Is “election” an inconvenient word? A former Conservative Home Secretary, leader of his party and a recent Member of this House railed against the judges in January of this year. He said:
“More and more decisions are being made by unelected, unaccountable judges, instead of accountable, elected Members of Parliament who have to answer to the public for what happens”.
The Conservative Benches are currently pushing through elected mayors and elected police commissioners who are to answer to the public for what happens, but they seem—some of them, at least, in this House—to baulk at the idea of elected legislators.
It is argued, and has been argued today, that we will lose all the expertise on the Cross Benches because Cross-Benchers would never stand for election. I am very wary of that argument. There is, of course, expertise enough on the political Benches in this House. We heard today a very funny speech delivered with enormous panache by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, but when she reads it tomorrow she may recognise that it actually denigrated politicians—those who tramp the streets, who talk to people on their doorsteps, who prepare and deliver leaflets to try to explain their policies and purposes and who listen and respond to people’s concerns.
Of course. She is a highly popular Member of this House and a highly respected person. Yet it is easy and populist to attack politicians. It is almost as easy as attacking lawyers. If Cross-Benchers want to serve the people, they can knock on doors with the rest of us. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has said, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, did so with success—far more success than I had in the past.
My Lords, I was gaining expertise in another field at the time. An expertise is a fine thing but everyone on the Cross Benches who has retired from their field of endeavour will recognise that expertise has a limited shelf life and is overtaken by developments and changes. Contemporary expertise should be delivered to Parliament, as it is in congressional committees in the United States, and severely tried and tested under questioning. That is why I support a 100 per cent elected second Chamber of a limited number of senators. I used to walk through the Lobbies with Lord Williams of Mostyn, he and I having similar backgrounds, in support of a 100 per cent elected second Chamber. I agree that Members should serve for one term of 15 years, which would give them independence, but I would include in the Bill a right of recall, which would enable an electorate to sack a Member and hold him accountable for the trust that the public had put in him. I look forward to the findings of the committee next year.
My Lords, whatever the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, may say about the speech of my noble friend Lady Boothroyd, it was one of the finest speeches that I have ever heard in this House. After it, there was really little left to be said; however, I am still going to say it.
What is this compulsion to destroy things which seems to seize even people who should know better? It is just an upmarket version of the compulsion to break things which seizes idle and unemployed youths in no-go areas of cities. Clearly, I am mistaken in expecting the Government to know better, for I see very little difference between their plans for reform of this House and the vandalism of yob culture. Not for nothing has our Parliament been called the mother of Parliaments. It has been the model on which most Commonwealth Parliaments and, indeed, most of the Parliaments of the free world have been based—not that they are all exact copies, any more than children are ever exact copies of their parents. Some are good, some less good, but whatever the merits or otherwise of her offspring this Parliament was the matrix, and what does the coalition want to do? Destroy half of it.
This House was working perfectly well in 1998 when the Labour Government decided to reform it by throwing out most of the hereditary Peers who had served it faithfully for centuries. Nevertheless, it continued to work perfectly well in spite of the numbers being topped up with a flood of the Prime Minister's cronies, some of whom have much to contribute but others rather less. At least the quality of the Cross Benches was maintained, thanks largely to the Appointments Commission. Now, having flooded the House again with far more new Peers than there is room for, the Government want to get rid of everyone and have a mainly elected House. In the process of doing this, they will lose much of the wide experience which this House still contains, and which makes it so valuable.
On top of that, the Government want a House where the strength of each party replicates the strength of the parties in another place. What folly. It will simply become a rubber stamp, which will never be able to do what this House frequently does at present, which is to ask the other place to think again. Of course the Executive do not like this. They want to have everything their own way, without question. I think that is why they are doing it.
This country does not have a written constitution; its government has evolved over many centuries. Nothing is perfect in this world but, unlike so many countries, we have not had a revolution for nearly 400 years, so it cannot be that bad. Along with almost every other aspect of government, this House has evolved, and it would be much better if it were to continue to do so instead of being radically changed.
At present, it is an appointed House. The only trouble is the method of appointment. The party leaders decide who is to be appointed, so they opt for their supporters or people they want to reward or pay off. The noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, whom I am very glad to see in his place, gave a remedy in his Private Member's Bill: an Appointments Commission for the whole House, not just for the Cross Benches. He gave a detailed recipe for it. I do not entirely agree with his recipe—I think it could be improved—but I agree with the concept. That way, the House would evolve, as it always has done, instead of being replaced. If that were not satisfactory, after another 10, 15, 20, 50 or 100 years, it would be possible to change it and have an elected House, if it seemed better to do so. You can replace an appointed House with an elected House, but I do not think you could ever go back again.
In the draft Bill, there is, in my humble opinion, something quite important missing: a new first clause which would say that the name of this House would no longer be the House of Lords but the senate, and the Members would be senators not Peers. Governments love changing the names of organisations, causing endless confusion and unnecessary expense. Here is a golden opportunity for a necessary change.
I am not going to say any more about the Bill itself. That can wait for Second Reading, if it gets one, which I hope it will not. I hope we shall never see it again.
My Lords, I have always been sceptical about the significance of the famous vote when the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for an elected House of Lords. Much was made of that vote subsequently by would-be reformers such as Mr Jack Straw; indeed, it could be said to have formed the bedrock for later reform proposals. However, to me, it always seemed that, whereas the House of Commons might vote for an elected second Chamber when it was a distant prospect, when it was faced with the imminent threat of a rival Chamber with a refreshed democratic legitimacy it would think again. I still tend to think that. If that is right, this Bill will never come before us, for it will have to be introduced in the House of Commons to preserve the possibility of using the Parliament Act and it will fail there. I may be wrong, but I do not think that this Bill will see the light of day, nor do I think it deserves to.
Immensely important players in our democracy have no so-called democratic legitimacy. One thinks of newspaper proprietors and editors, and even of columnists or TV commentators, not to mention judges or civil servants. I see nothing offensive in an appointed revising Chamber. Indeed, for it to be maintained as a revising Chamber, it has to have its legitimacy suppressed. The usefulness of this House has depended on its willingness to play a subordinate role—otherwise it could become a democratic nuisance. There can be too much democracy in a system as well as too little. An appointed House also provides a way for a sample—albeit a somewhat random one—of some of the most successful people of each generation, not exclusively politicians, to continue to make a contribution to the nation's affairs in what my noble friend Lord Cormack well described as a unique forum for public service.
I would like to see the Bill fail and the essence of the present House of Lords survive. Once the Bill has been seen to fail, at whatever stage—but alas, probably not until then—I hope that we may be able to turn to the matter of how to reform the present House, rather than replace it as the Bill sets out to do. I very much agree with the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and in my remaining few minutes I will consider how that sort of reform might be approached.
We have acquired too large a House, and the first priority must be to reduce it. I would agree, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, to the abolition of the hereditary Peers’ by-election. This would shut off one tap that is dripping into the overflowing bath. I am also in favour of introducing a right for Members to resign. However, this would have very little effect on attendance figures, not least because any Peer who attended and voted at all frequently could not expect to receive much encouragement to leave from his party's leaders.
I believe that a more drastic measure is required, and I am drawn to the proposal briefly alluded to in paragraph 57 of House of Lords Paper 83 from the Leader's Group on Members Leaving the House; namely, that the size of the House should be reduced by elections among existing Peers. If this was based on party groups, a reduction could be achieved in a way that would guarantee no effect on the party balance, which cannot be said for most other ways that are being canvassed for reducing the size of the membership. Each party, including the Cross-Benchers, might have to reduce their numbers by 30 or 40 per cent. The precedent—as my noble friend Lord Jopling pointed out—would be the elections in 1999 to produce the 90 surviving hereditaries.
To prevent the numbers once again escalating, there should be a statutory maximum limit on numbers in the House. According to the result of the recent interesting Times survey of Peers, a number around 500 would be likely to find acceptance in your Lordships’ House. With numbers in the House of Commons set to be painfully levered down from a number that is already lower than that of our own membership, our numbers today are unacceptably high and the need to reduce them is urgent. Our excessive numbers are seriously contributing to the strain on our system of self-regulation, and hence to the demand for a Speaker.
In the light of this, I oppose the proposal in the Report of the Leader's Group on Working Practices to create new Select Committees to make better use of the talent and experience currently available in your Lordships’ House. That would create a diversion from the main direction in which we should be travelling, and would create vested interests that would serve as obstacles when we finally got the opportunity to move in that direction. Our working practices should receive minimal change until our numbers have been reduced.
I am sorry that we will have to wait for the improvements that I believe are necessary, but politics must. There must first be one more round of the carousel purporting to pave the way for an elected second Chamber. It has gone round many times. One way or another, this is surely the last.
My Lords, 41 down and 63 still to go. It is hard enough at the tail end of the first day’s debate to manage to find anything fresh to say but I will do my best in the time available to me. It is certainly salutary, looking back on the day’s discussion, to see just how little support this draft Bill has in your Lordships’ House.
After all, it is a Bill that is remarkably short of pretensions and the Leader of the House was remarkably modest in his description of its virtues when he introduced it. It does not seek to claim that it will produce a House that will work better, or one that is more representative of the nation, or one that will cost the taxpayer less to run. There is no suggestion that the Bill has been brought forward because there is a huge public demand for change. Indeed, the reverse is the case: this House is seen as the body which gives the elected House the opportunity to think again—once, twice, possibly three times—and genuinely manages to hold the Executive to account.
Some of my noble friends have argued that the Labour Party has a settled view on the future of this House. Indeed, one of my most senior and distinguished noble friends argued at a private meeting yesterday that the party’s position has changed little since 1911. That is not the case. For example, in 1983, the party manifesto—described as the longest suicide note in history—proposed the outright abolition of this place, with nothing put in its place. More tellingly, in the 1960s, party policy was adamantly to oppose an elected House. I recently unearthed a copy of an official Labour Party publication from November 1968 called Talking Points, devoted to the Wilson Government’s attempt to reform the Lords. It was written at a time when the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and I were members of the Transport House staff. In a section headed “Why not an elected House?” it says:
“It has been suggested that the Lords should be directly or indirectly elected, perhaps by larger constituencies or for longer or shorter periods than the House of Commons. Those who make this criticism totally misunderstand the new role the House of Lords will be playing in our constitution and they are failing to give proper credit to the independence of mind and action that existing life Peers display. The scope for control by the party machines is extremely limited, and even if a Peer is nominated by his party leader, there is no certainty that he will support him for ever”.
You can say that again. Remember, this is 1968. It continues:
“If the upper House is elected, it would inevitably become a rival to the House of Commons, as it would then also possess a mandate from the people. It would be able to claim greater or even equal powers, and in particular to challenge the present control by the Commons of finance”.
My final quotation is:
“An elected House would violate the central principle of the British parliamentary system by which it has been recognised, at least since the beginning of the 19th century, that the Government stands or falls in the House of Commons”.
Those arguments are as valid today as they were 43 years ago. This was a genuine cross-party attempt to reform this place in the late 1960s—based on appointment, not election. The political parties understood that the legitimacy of an assembly can be derived in a number of different ways. Certainly, elections are one route—and a number of noble Lords have made that point tonight—but they are not the only one, and legitimacy would not be achieved if we just became a second-rate shadow of the other place, or consisted of a bunch of placemen and women who got here through being put high up on a party list. I would much rather that an independent statutory appointments commission did that job than unaccountable party apparatchiks.
Central to this whole debate is the relationship between this House and the other place. A number of noble Lords have referred to the comments of the president of the Liberal Democrats during the AV referendum campaign when he was quoted in the Times on 23 April. He said:
“Voting ‘no’ to electoral reform will make the House of Commons subservient to the House of Lords”.
He said that Peers with a new-found legitimacy would refuse to bow down to MPs in battles over policy. I wonder whether the Leader of the House agrees with that. I suspect that he does, which may be one reason why he supports the creation of an elected senate. The only reason why we defer to the will of the Commons now is because we recognise that because it is elected and we are not, it is entitled to the last word.
Finally, I ask your Lordships to consider the relationship between an elected senator and a Member of the House of Commons at constituency level. Since May 2010, the city of Worcester has been represented in the other place by Robin Walker MP, the son of the late and much respected Lord Walker of Worcester. Both Mr Walker and I care greatly for the city and its people, and we do our best for them but in different ways. I have made it clear to him that, as long as he is an elected Member of Parliament and I am an appointed one, I will not get involved in party politics in Worcester. I do not criticise him or his party colleagues locally. However, I have made it clear to him that all those bets would be off the moment I have to seek election as the senator for Worcester. Whether it was me or someone else who occupied that position, that person would be endlessly vying for local media coverage, and interfering in matters which are currently and correctly the domain of the elected MP. In the case of the senator, he or she would not even have to think about the prospect of being re-elected because there is no prospect for re-election under the terms of this draft Bill.
The solution is not to abolish this House as this draft Bill does, but to complete the process of reform begun in 1911, continued in 1949, strengthened in 1958 and 1962, and significantly changed for the better in 1999. I urge the joint scrutiny committee when it gets going with its work to look carefully at the Bill put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and to endorse it. I hope that the Government will in due course come to realise that that is the correct way forward. If the noble Baroness tomorrow night decides to test the opinion of the House on her Motion, I would have no hesitation in supporting her.
That, notwithstanding the Government’s proposals for the House of Lords set out in Cm 8077, which amount to the abolition of the House of Lords, this House calls on Her Majesty’s Government to bring forward proposals for incremental urgent reforms that would improve the functioning of the existing House of Lords.
House adjourned at 9.38 pm.