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Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement. I welcome the establishment of a royal commission on this matter, and welcome the choice of Lord Wakeham as the chairman, and the inclusion of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). The independence of the chairman is not at all in doubt: Conservative Members remember him as one of the finest of Lady Thatcher's Chief Whips. We will make our own submission, based on the findings of Lord Mackay's commission, which was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Leader of the Opposition, when we realised--some time before the Government--that a full-scale review of the subject was required.

Let me make it quite clear that we do not question the legitimacy of the Government carrying out their manifesto commitment to remove the voting rights of hereditary peers. We have always said that we welcome reform, if it results in the better governance of the United Kingdom, but we question the wisdom of the Government's approach and their motives. The unnecessarily bullying language of the right hon. Lady does little to assist the debate.

The Government tell us that this is a matter of urgency, and they have set a deadline of December 1999. Why, then, was a royal commission not set up 20 months ago, when the Government took office? We could now be discussing the results of a royal commission and moving to single-stage reform by consensus. We also hear today that, beyond the royal commission, there is to be yet another stage--a Joint Committee of both Houses. Perhaps the right hon. Lady can tell us how long the Government propose that that will last. It was bad enough when we had to say, "No stage one without stage two." We were not counting on stages three and four, and whatever else may follow.

The Government's clear intention seems to be to kick the whole subject into the long grass. We will go into the next general election without knowing what Parliament will look like on the other side of that election. I must congratulate Ministers on protecting themselves from the spectacle of being unable to agree among themselves on the subject, as happened on proportional representation.

Any wise reform would have allowed the royal commission genuinely to examine all the relationships within and outwith Parliament--the relationship with the Executive and with the judiciary; the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament and the balancing of their powers; and our relationship with the new bodies--and how we scrutinise legislation.

The Government's intention, revealed in the White Paper, is not to examine Parliament as a whole, but is tilted towards de facto single-chamber Government. Their methods contradict their stated aims and will bolster the Executive in the House of Commons. It is out with ermine and in with straitjackets.

The combination of the delay and the restrictive terms of reference provide the Government with what they want most: an absence of real scrutiny or an effective

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check on the Executive. Despite their smokescreen, the Government will create a compliant halfway house of yes men, which they hope will last as long as possible. The Prime Minister will give up his right to appoint Cross Benchers--wow! So what?--but who will appoint the appointments commission? Perhaps the right hon. Lady can tell us.

We want a Parliament that keeps the Government in check, and we want Parliament to make our laws, not the Executive, judges or Europe. We want to strengthen the United Kingdom and ensure that power rests with the public, not with politicians. We shall work to make that come about.

In thanking the right hon. Lady for her statement, I should like to make one more comment--I hope that she does not take offence. The statement should have been made by the Prime Minister. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Previous Prime Ministers made statements on reforms of Parliament as a matter of principle. This Prime Minister has neither understanding of, nor interest in, the House of Commons. His silence, more than anything else, tells us about the Government's motives and their contempt for the parliamentary process.

Mrs. Beckett: I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the proposals--I am glad that he was not unhappy with them. If I may begin where he ended, I am afraid that he is straightforwardly wrong. The most recent precedent on this matter was when a White Paper was presented to the House in November 1968--for some mysterious reason, the Conservative party never got round to presenting a statement on these matters while it was in power--and that statement was made by the then Leader of the House, Richard Crossman. There is a string of precedents, none of which, in the latter part of this century at any rate, suggest that a precedent has been set for the Prime Minister to make this statement.

In justice to the hon. Gentleman, it was clear that his remarks were drawn up before he read the statement--and before he realised that what the Conservative party has been spouting about the Government's intentions is complete nonsense. Most of his criticisms of the Government's proposals were clearly unfounded. He asked one serious question, which was about the appointments commission. The appointments commission will be what one might call a "Nolanised" body, which will go through the proper process governing public appointments that is now in train for non-departmental public bodies, following what was thought necessary in the previous Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman said many other things, most of which were either inaccurate or unhelpful, but I would single out one of his remarks as symbolising the nature of his response on behalf of the Conservative party. He said that he suspected the Government's motives and that the Opposition's motives were to keep the Government in check. I am sorry, but what came through with absolute clarity from the hon. Gentleman's comments was that the Opposition's motive is to try to keep a system that gives them a 3:1 majority in the other House.

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Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): May I welcome my right hon. Friend's historic and long-overdue reform and commend her on the second stage? Important as the first stage--the abolition of hereditary peers--is, the second stage, with an independent element that may include references from the public, shows that the Labour party is committed to the sort of radical reform for which this country was famous in previous centuries but not, unfortunately, in the first part of this century.

Mrs. Beckett: I am more than grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to say that this is an important step for this House and this Parliament. As the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, we want something better. Even the transitional House that we propose will be infinitely superior to what we have now.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, may I give an unqualified welcome to the Government's proposals? In a modern democracy, the accident of inheritance should not entitle a person to sit in Parliament. However, a wholly appointed upper House cannot be an attractive, long-term solution. I particularly welcome the Government's indications of speed in moving towards the second stage of reform to establish the House of Lords on a democratic basis.

I also welcome the appointment of Lord Wakeham, not only because of his qualities, but because it shows the Government's continuing commitment to cross-party discussions and participation in the reform ofthe constitution. That is proper and helpful. Do the Government accept that, without diminishing the legislative primacy of the House of Commons, a predominantly elected second Chamber could complement and not displace the role of this House, and could strengthen the effectiveness of Parliament's oversight of the exercise of power by government?

Do the Government also accept that a democratic second Chamber could be the best place to ensure that the special, particular, different interests of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom are properly represented in Westminster?

Mrs. Beckett: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the welcome of his party for the way in which the Government are handling this matter, and for his recognition that we are seeking to do so on as consensual a basis as possible. He tempted me to venture into territory into which I do not intend to venture: that is, to consider what may happen in stage two and what may be discussed in the royal commission. I am not prepared to do that, because we take the view that a discussion of the functions of the second Chamber should preclude discussions of its composition and how that is arrived at.

I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point that a different Chamber would be able to take account of different interests. As he will recognise, that is one of the factors that we have drawn to the royal commission's attention.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): Is my right hon. Friend aware that 350 years ago this year the Commonwealth

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Parliament abolished the House of Lords in a one-clause Bill that said, "The House of Lords shall not sit here or purport to sit anywhere else." Compared with that, the ingenious piece of constitutional modernisation that has been announced today must have tested the ability of philosophers of the third way, spin doctors and focus groups, and of such notable intellectuals as Lord Cranborne and the leader of the Liberal Democrat party. They have produced a scheme whereby, in the short term, hereditary peers will elect each other and will rub shoulders with people's peers, appointed and cleared of cronyism, who will have a job for life.

It is time that the Government made it clear that we are entitled to have an elected Parliament. We have an elected House of Commons, an elected Scottish Parliament, an elected Welsh Assembly, an elected Northern Ireland Assembly and an elected European Parliament. There are no grounds for fiddling with appointment panels to deal with cronyism or whatever. As the proposal that my right hon. Friend has announced was not put to the electorate or to the Labour conference, and was not discussed with Labour Members of Parliament, there must be a free vote at every stage during the passage of the legislation.

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