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House of Lords: Reform

Volume 736: debated on Tuesday 24 April 2012

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of potential risks arising from proposals for reform of the House of Lords.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, the Government have carefully considered their proposals for reform of this House and will continue to do so, particularly in the light of the Joint Committee’s report published yesterday, which supported a mainly elected House. We believe that this House will continue to perform its role as an effective scrutinising and revising Chamber.

My Lords, does characterising House of Lords reform in exchange for House of Commons boundary changes as coalition civility risk an erosion of confidence in democracy, as the people of our country are coming to terms with the spectacle of one party in coalition attempting better to control the House of Commons in exchange for the other party trying to achieve control of a future elected second Chamber, all being pushed through using the Parliament Act in what would amount to a monumental gerrymander?

That is a rather harsh judgment on the Government. It is right that the case for boundary reform and House of Lords reform are judged on their merits. The Government put them through this House for scrutiny separately. They are not interlinked but are part of the Government’s and the coalition’s overall commitment to constitutional reform.

My Lords, the noble Lord has said that the Government will carefully consider the recommendations of the Joint Select Committee. He may have observed that the committee did not achieve exact unanimity in its conclusions. But the one issue on which all members seem to be agreed is that Clause 2 of the Bill will not do. Will the noble Lord say what the Government’s response will be? Will he also respond to the evidence given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in relation to the Parliament Act 1911, in which they say it is very clear that that Act was introduced to govern the relationship between an elected and an unelected House?

My Lords, less than 24 hours after the publication of a carefully considered report, it would be impudent of me to start pronouncing on some of these issues. As to the opinions of the noble Lord and the noble and learned Lord on the 1911 Act, the strength and the powers of the 1911 and 1949 Parliament Acts were recently tested in court.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether the Government have made an assessment of the risks of not proceeding with legislation for the reform of this House? For example, does he appreciate that if each incoming Prime Minister wished to rebalance the party representation in this House, we would soon exceed 1,000 Members? Does he also recognise that the public at the moment are more in favour of abolition of your Lordships’ House—by a very considerable margin—than retaining the all-appointed element?

My Lords, the best thing this House can do for its own reputation is now to deal with the issue of Lords reform, aided and assisted by the report we have just received and by our normal process of debate. I do not think the country will be satisfied with a House of Lords that seems self-confidently smug about its own rectitude—and that groan of noble Lords will, I suspect, only confirm the country’s opinion of that. Let us proceed with dignity and responsibility. If we allow the status quo to develop—which I do not want to see because I love this House of Lords—the House will drift into public contempt because of its lack of reform.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if we move to a situation where a part—perhaps 80 per cent—of this House is elected, we will be moving down the road of a written constitution? Is that his intention?

I have no intention of going down the road to a written constitution. This country has probably for 300 years been extremely successful in adjusting its constitution to the age in which it is there to serve the people. Now, in the 21st century, the time has come for the House of Lords to make a similar adjustment.

Has my noble friend had a chance to read the alternative, unanimous report produced by 12 members of a committee of 25? Will he ensure that all Ministers see it, read it, mark it, learn and inwardly digest it, because it offers a sensible way forward?

I have not yet read that report. Yesterday I was fully engaged in the fruitful debates on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. However, I can assure my noble friend that I have a box by the side of my desk marked “weekend reading” which has in it that report and the main report. I look forward to reading both over the weekend. I cannot compel other Ministers as to their reading but I hope that all Members will take this issue forward with a sense of responsibility and a sense of the dignity of this House.

My Lords, in response to the supplementary question from the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, the Minister said that the AV and boundary legislation requiring a second vote by the House of Commons and passage of the House of Lords Reform Bill were two entirely separate and distinct issues. Does this mean that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, publicly disowns the comments freely made by many of his Lib Dem colleagues that the two of them go together and that without the one there would not be the other?

No. Every time I open my newspaper, there is some new, exciting story about some Minister or somebody in the other place taking a position one way or the other. What I said was that those two Bills had been presented to Parliament quite properly, and debated separately. They stand on their merits. However, over the next few months, we will have to get used to all kinds of scaremongering, rumours and the rest. That is why it is important that we all keep calm—and noble Lords will know how good I am at keeping calm.