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House of Lords: Reform

Volume 739: debated on Monday 8 October 2012

Private Notice Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the Deputy Prime Minister’s Statement on 3 September, what their plans are for reform of the House of Lords.

I thank my noble friend the Leader of the House for his reply. Might I assume from his Answer that the Government have no plans for further reform of your Lordships’ House in this present Parliament?

My Lords, the hard work of many Members of this House and the other place to shape this Bill has of course inched us forward in this great debate, but Lords reform is now a matter for future Parliaments. I can confirm that the coalition will not be able to deliver Lords reform during this Parliament, which in a way seems extraordinary, given that more than 70% of the House of Commons voted in favour of the Bill at Second Reading.

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, for tabling this PNQ but regret the fact that the Leader of the House did not make a full and proper Statement. For the Government to tell this House formally by means of a reply to a Private Notice Question that they have abandoned their legislation on further House of Lords reform is woefully inadequate. If the Lords had been sitting on 3 September, at the same time as the Commons, the Leader would have repeated the Statement.

I welcome the fact that the coalition has finally come to its senses and abandoned what was a bad Bill. I must say that for the Leader, in his piece in today’s House Magazine, to lambast Labour for the Bill’s failure is a bit rich. My party wants reform, but the right reform. Would the Leader agree that it is regrettable that the Deputy Prime Minister appears, in a fit of pique, to have ruled out any reforms to your Lordships’ House before the next election, including the Steel Bill?

Now that the Bill has gone the Government have time on their hands, so what are we going to do? Will the Leader therefore agree to an urgent meeting of the usual channels to examine the Government’s legislative programme strategically, and come up with proposals on planning and handling that will find favour with the whole House and ensure that we could respect the firm convention that this House will normally rise on legislating days by about 10 pm?

My Lords, I think that is a question for which the word “opportunistic” was originally coined. Lords reform was, of course, based almost entirely on Jack Straw’s White Paper from 2008, when the noble Baroness stood at this Dispatch Box. No doubt historians will wish to examine exactly why the Bill fell in another place. My own view is that while the House of Commons was keen on the idea of an elected House, when Members found out what it might mean for them they became less keen. Furthermore, it required a consensus right across the parties in another place and in this House. The Labour Party was not willing to form part of that consensus in a programme Motion, demanding a referendum, the removal of the Cross Benches and the entrenchment of powers. I therefore make no apology for saying that the Labour Party was at least in part to blame for there being no further action on Lords reform.

As to the further legislative programme, Bills will be introduced. However, while there is time currently available in the House for Commons for more legislation, of course we were not expecting the House of Lords Reform Bill until the new year. We expected to be in Committee at least, and perhaps for the Session to continue well into the summer. We will now be able to finish the Session in a normal time. However, I very much welcome any discussions that the noble Baroness would like to have.

My Lords, would my noble friend accept that there are many people in this House who are delighted that the Government came to their senses on this issue? Would he assure the House that he has not ruled out the housekeeping measures which are in the Steel Bill? Will he consult with the noble Lord, Lord Steel, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and others on what sensible, modest housekeeping measures can be brought forward to make this House even more effective than it is at the moment? Will he also use his very considerable influence within his own party to ensure that, at the next general election, the Conservative Party does not fight on a manifesto that has any reference at all to an elected second Chamber?

My Lords, that may or may not be asking too much. Of course I am aware that this House will be very pleased with the news. Ever since the election, in every debate that we have had there has been an overwhelming majority against the proposals in the Bill. As far as the Steel Bill is concerned, this House has passed a Private Member’s Bill in the name of my noble friend Lord Steel. It now languishes in the House of Commons at the back of the Private Member’s Bill queue. It remains to be seen whether a Member of the House of Commons regards it as a priority and decides to pick it up. However, I will just point out that more than over 70% of the House of Commons voted in favour of an elected House. It may be a little difficult to believe that the House of Commons will now move to entrenching an appointed House so soon.

My Lords, I am grateful to the House, and I am sure that the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, for ensuring that we at least have 10 minutes to discuss this issue. Will the noble Lord the Leader of the House accept that reform and election are not synonymous? Will he also accept that two areas of consensus did emerge from the debate on the Government’s Bill? First, the Bill for elections to this House was not deliverable. Secondly, there was an urgent need to make changes in the House. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that I have never seen myself as a modest housekeeper and am more interested in some substantive reforms that are urgent for this House. Despite the pique felt over the withdrawal of the Bill, those remain urgent priorities on which there is widespread agreement. Will the noble Lord accept that and help make some progress on it?

My Lords, there may well be widespread agreement in this House, but I have seen no indication that there is widespread agreement in another place. That agreement is absolutely necessary before a Bill can be passed. I urge the noble Baroness, with all her influence, and those who agree with her to discuss things further with Members of the House of Commons.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Leader of the House agree that whatever may or may not happen in the near future in relation to reform of your Lordships’ House, there is now absolutely no case whatever for continuing the farcical practice of holding by-elections to replace hereditary Peers when one of their number passes away?

My Lords, the by-elections were never supposed to occur because the Labour Party in 2001 promised that it would come forward with proper, elected reform that did not in the event take place. The existence of the by-elections may still be a spur for further reform.

With two-thirds of the House of Commons voting in favour of an elected House, why will the Government not table a Motion for a referendum to be held at the time of the next general election, in the knowledge that when that comes to a vote in the House of Commons the Labour Benches would be required to support it because it is in our election manifesto; and Liberal Democrat MPs, along with Conservative supporters of an elected House, would also feel obliged to? The country would then decide and would lock in Parliament to a yes or no decision.

The Deputy Prime Minister looked at many options, including having discussions with the leader of the Labour Party. However, it was decided that moving forward would not be fruitful.

My Lords, will my noble friend exercise his good offices with the Prime Minister and the commission and ask them to exercise great restraint in the appointment of new Peers until some method is devised to make room for them?

Does the Minister accept that it will be the verdict of history that the proposed reform failed because it was fundamentally and fatally flawed? It created a situation whereby mutual strangulation would have been the order of the day between the two Houses. Will he give an undertaking to the House that any future consideration, which of course must encompass the primacy of the House of Commons, should be on the basis of a written constitution?

My Lords, it will certainly be for historians to take a view on what happened, not only during the past two and a half years but over the past 15 years over which the debate has raged. However, as I said, more than two-thirds of the House of Commons voted in favour of an elected second Chamber. I do not think that the Bill was fatally flawed, but I do think that there will be no further progress until the House of Commons understands the full implications of an elected House being more independent, stronger and able to hold it and the Government to account.