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House of Lords Reform

3.30 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement about the White Paper that the Government are publishing today about reform of the House of Lords. Copies of the White Paper and the Bill are available in the Vote Office.

The White Paper marks another significant and vital step in the Government's overall programme to improve the institutions of this country so that they fulfil their functions in a new century with energy and effectiveness and to create a modern Parliament for a modern Britain. The White Paper makes clear how a revised second Chamber would play an important role in a new constitutional settlement.

The outlines of the Government's proposals on reform of the House of Lords have long been familiar. They are threefold: the removal of the right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords; reformed arrangements for the nomination of life peers; and the establishment of a royal commission to consider longer-term reform.

The White Paper confirms that all 750 hereditary peers will cease to have an automatic right to membership of the House of Lords. It also confirms that hereditary peers will be given the right to vote in parliamentary elections and to stand as candidates for election to this House without having to disclaim their peerages.

There will be no change in the position of life peers, who will remain unable to vote in parliamentary elections and unable to disclaim their titles. There will be no change in the position of either the Law Lords or the Church of England bishops.

The White Paper also confirms the undertaking that the Government have given that if, when the Bill reaches the House of Lords, there is a consensus in favour of an amendment to allow continued transitional membership of that House to some hereditary peers, the Government are minded to support such an amendment. I must make it clear that whether the Government are able to support such an amendment depends a great deal on the extent to which normal conventions relating to the Government's legislative programme are being observed.

The Government have always made it clear that we prefer to proceed by consensus. In that spirit we are prepared to accept the proposal if, indeed, it enables reform to proceed in that way. It is not a concession to be extracted by pitched battle; indeed, pitched battle will jeopardise the proposal.

The White Paper proposes an historic change--a change that has been discussed throughout the 20th century. Today, the Bill to abolish the right of hereditary peers to be Members of Parliament--a reform first suggested in 1911--has finally been introduced by the Government so that a fundamental anachronism can be removed as we begin a new millennium.

The presence of the hereditary peerage has weakened the legitimacy and effectiveness of our second Chamber for two main reasons--because the principle is wrong and because the results are unbalanced. First, with regard to the principle, it is wrong for anyone to have an automatic right to a seat in Parliament solely on the record ofhis forebears. Secondly, with regard to the results,

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the hereditary peerage gives one of the two major political parties in this country a 3:1 built-in majority in the House of Lords over the other. No votes by the electorate at a general election change that--the Conservative majority in that House continues untouched and untouchable.

The hereditary peerage, taken as a whole, is unrepresentative of today's Britain. It is unrepresentative economically, socially and by gender and ethnic origin. Consequently, because of the majority's predominance, the House of Lords suffers disproportionately from a political and social imbalance. That, too, is no longer acceptable.

Once the hereditary peerage is removed, the Government will move to rapid, full-scale reform of the House of Lords. There will be a period of transition, with which the White Paper deals in detail.

There have been many wild--frankly, ridiculous--assertions about the character of the transitional House. The most often reported assertion is that the House will be one created exclusively by this Government, and dependent on patronage by this Prime Minister.

The fact is that approximately 500 life peers will remain. Those life peers were appointed by eight Prime Ministers, over 40 years. Even without a single hereditary peer, there would still be a Conservative majority over the Labour party. None the less, this Government and this Prime Minister intend to reduce the Prime Minister's powers of appointment.

For the first time ever, the Prime Minister has publicly pledged himself not to interfere in the detail of nominations from other party leaders, provided that the nominations have been given a clean bill of health on propriety grounds. Moreover, for the first time ever, the Prime Minister will relinquish entirely his power to make recommendations for Cross-Bench peers. The power will be passed to an independent appointments commission.

The appointments commission will be encouraged to seek nominations from many sources, including members of the public. It will extend the range of interests and types of people represented in the House. The appointments commission will consist of members of the three main political parties and of independent members--who will form the majority, and one of whom will act as chairman.

The Government have always made it clear in our manifesto that no political party should seek to have a majority in the House of Lords. Therefore, far from seeking numbers--as we should be entitled to do without inconsistency with our manifesto--that are 40 per cent. in excess of those of the Conservative party, we plan to move only towards broad parity with the Conservative party.

We shall also ensure a fair representation of all other parties, and of the Cross Benches. The principles of broad parity and proportionate creations for the other political parties and Cross Benches should be maintained throughout the period of the transitional House.

Taken together, the proposals significantly reduce the Prime Minister's powers of patronage compared with those of all his predecessors. The result will be a better House that is more representative than the current one and better equipped to play its part in the constitution.

I should like, finally, to say a little about the longer term. The Government announced, on 14 October, that we would establish a royal commission to consider options

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for longer-term reform. I am now pleased to be able to tell the House that Lord Wakeham has accepted the Prime Minister's invitation to be chairman of the royal commission. It is obviously important also that there is senior representation on the commission from this House. I am therefore pleased to tell the House that my righthon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) also has agreed to serve on the commission. The remaining members will be announced in due course.

The commission's terms of reference, as stated in the White Paper, are:

Those terms of reference are deliberately non-prescriptive. They are intended to stimulate public debate, as well as giving the royal commission its remit.

The Government have not indicated their own preference in the White Paper, but the two final chapters set out a number of issues which the Government think the royal commission will find it useful to address. It might be useful to highlight three points. First, the terms of reference defeat the accusation that the Government's proposals for constitutional reform are piecemeal. Secondly, the terms of reference ask the royal commission to consider the role and functions of the second Chamber as a preliminary to considering its composition. Despite assertions to the contrary, the Government have always felt that wide-ranging reform of composition cannot be decided in isolation.

Thirdly, the royal commission has been given a demanding timetable. That is evidence of the Government's stated wish to maintain the momentum of reform of the second Chamber. We believe that the timetable is achievable; after all, the debate has been taking place for most of this century. There is no need to undertake extensive gathering of evidence before any work can be done on analysis of the issues. Analysis and judgment are the most important requirements. However, I make it clear that the timetable does not provide an excuse for delaying stage one reform until the commission has reported.

The Government believe that we can make no long-term progress until the hereditary peers have gone. We are keen to maintain the momentum of reform, but for momentum to be maintained the process must begin now.

The package of measures announced in the White Paper sets out the Government's approach to this radical reform, which is nevertheless a careful and considered approach, starting with the most immediate and urgent reform of the rights of the hereditary peerage while identifying the path to longer-term reform.

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In May 1997, our manifesto set out in the clearest possible terms our intention to legislate to complete the long-overdue reform to remove the right to sit and vote in our legislature by inheritance. Today, we take the historic first steps to give effect to that pledge.

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