Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Beckett: I am sorry to have to say that although I had hoped readily to agree with my right hon. Friend on this matter, I cannot do so. He is incorrect: no one will get a job for life, at least not in this legislature. That is the point of our proposals.

In common with the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), my right hon. Friend attempted to lead me into a discussion about what should happen in stage two. I have much respect for my right hon. Friend, especially for his excellent analogy which completely undermined the case made in the past by Conservative Members about the hereditary principle. He said that if one went to the airport and was told that the pilot did not have a licence but his grandfather did, one would not get on the plane. That is an admirably clear and succinct demolition of the hereditary principle.

I must tell my right hon. Friend, however, that if one factor has maintained the existence of the hereditary principle in our legislature throughout this century--certainly for the last 87 years--it is the frequency of the occasions on which all who wished for change became bogged down in the form that such change should take, rather than dealing with first principles first. The Government have every intention of doing that, and I hope and expect that every Labour Member will support us.

Sir Archie Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell): When the Government give evidence to the Wakeham commission, what view will they express on the delicate constitutional balance between the House of Commons and the second Chamber? Will they want the powers of the second Chamber to be increased or decreased relative to those of this House, or left the same--or have the Government not made up their mind? Are they embarking on one stage of constitutional reform without thinking their way to the next?

Mrs. Beckett: With respect, I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that his was yet another intervention bearing all the hallmarks of having been prepared with no prior study of what the Government propose.

20 Jan 1999 : Column 916

The Government, as such, do not intend to give evidence to the commission, although the political parties are free to do so, and perhaps they will. As for the powers of the replacement Chamber, they would be a matter for the commission to consider. The right hon. Gentleman may, however, recall what I said in my statement, which I hope will be welcomed literally on all sides of the House. I said that, according to the Government's view and the remit of the royal commission, the House of Commons will be the pre-eminent Chamber of our legislature.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne): My right hon. Friend is right to deal with the powers as well as the composition of the House of Lords. Is she aware that the more defensible the composition of the House of Lords is, the more it will wish to use the powers that it already has, let alone any increased powers that may be given to it? What proposals has my right hon. Friend to limit its powers during the first stage of the operation, which may last some time?

Mrs. Beckett: We do not propose to change the de facto powers that currently exist, but we have made it plain, as my right hon. Friend recognises--I am grateful to him for his welcome--that the royal commission and, indeed, the House of Commons will have to consider what the balance of power should be. We are clear about the fact that this Chamber must be pre-eminent, and that must underlie all the issues that are considered.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe): Will the right hon. Lady admit that what she has said reveals that the Government embarked on the matter with no policy at all on the second Chamber, still have no policy at all and are trying to make a virtue of the fact? They think that a royal commission might come up with a policy, but not so quickly as to interfere with their legislative timetable for the remainder of the current Parliament.

Will the right hon. Lady turn her attention to what has already been said by her right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) about the position of this Parliament, to which we have all been elected, and the scrutiny to which this Government will be subjected? If I have understood correctly, the Blair Government are likely to remain subject to scrutiny by perhaps 91 hereditary peers--if they do not double-cross my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Cranborne--by certain life peers, who may or may not be peers for life when my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Wakeham has reported, by the Lords spiritual and the Law Lords, and by whatever new people the Prime Minister still intends to appoint to swell the ranks of his supporters in the other place? That is not even equivalent to "no policy"; it is unacceptable.

As the Government are in this situation, will they now introduce a Bill defining the powers of the second Chamber as subordinate to this Chamber, and reflecting what both the right hon. Members for Chesterfield and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) said about the need for the large elected element that we all know it will have to have? Will they allow the lightest whipping, and enable Parliament to decide as rapidly as possible what scrutiny there should be in the second Chamber? The Government propose to establish no sensible scrutiny at all.

Mrs. Beckett: I am afraid that that intervention does not do justice to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's

20 Jan 1999 : Column 917

reputation in the House. Like those of many others, his questions bear all the signs of having been baked in advance. He accused the Government of having no policy at all. That is plainly nonsense. He fell into the same trap as the hon. Member for Woodspring.

The Conservative party does not seem to be able to make up its mind whether the Government are going too fast or too slowly on the matter. When it did not know that we were going to set a term date of a year for the royal commission, it accused us of dragging out that procedure. Incidentally, what a ridiculous accusation Conservative Members made that we were kicking the matter into the long grass. In fact, we are proceeding much more quickly in studying how we proceed towards stage two than most hon. Members had anticipated. It is evident that that was not anticipated by Conservative Members and it makes most of their contributions more than a little irrelevant.

On the issue of new appointments and so on, again, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is stuck in the mindset of the Conservative party in assuming that we would try to distort placements to that House in the way that has been done in the past. I remind him that there will still be 500 Members of another place, which seems an entirely adequate size of House to provide scrutiny.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that the Government proposal is totally unacceptable. I will tell him what is totally unacceptable. What is totally unacceptable is that, in this day and age, the House of Lords should have in it about 1,300 Members, 750 of whom can be there without having done anything worthy of note and give his party a 3:1 majority. We are not going to allow that arrangement to continue.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Lloyd George would have found amusing the enthusiasm of Conservative Front Benchers for reform, after 100 years.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should guard against the second Chamber, or senate, becoming a retirement home for politicians who are no longer active politicians--even those who might be appointed at an early age, but who get jobs for life, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said? Would she be sympathetic to having a fixed term for those appointments, or a retirement age, to prevent that danger?

Mrs. Beckett: I share my hon. Friend's point about the enthusiasm of the Conservative party. Today, it is showing exactly the same enthusiasm for House of Lords reform that it has shown in the past. It would like to talk about it. We have been talking about it for 87 years precisely because the Conservative party has never managed to think of anything that would suit it better than the current arrangement.

My hon. Friend asks me whether we should consider a fixed term of appointment. I make the following comment genuinely, not to curtail debate: there will be plenty of opportunity for debate on that matter and on any alternatives that may come forward in stage two. However, I counsel my right hon. and hon. Friends and, indeed, the House not to get bogged down in what happens in stage two.

Dr. Fox: That gives the game away.

20 Jan 1999 : Column 918

Mrs. Beckett: Yes, it does give the game away as to the tactics of the Conservative party. It has been discussing stage two for 87 years. It is time to get rid of stage one.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): As the right hon. Lady said, the last statement on Lords reform by a Leader of the House was made by Mr. Crossman, so she might care to recall what happened to him and to that statement. She talks about this House being the pre-eminent Chamber and about the recommendations on the role and functions of a second Chamber.

This House can be pre-eminent although considerable powers--much greater powers than the second Chamber has at the moment; powers perhaps to clip the wings of the Prime Minister--may be recommended for that second Chamber. Is the right hon. Lady saying that those powers would be acceptable to the Government if they were recommended? We do not want that to be subject to a wager, although the chairman of the commission is, I believe, chairman of the Tote.

Next Section

IndexHome Page