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5.45 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): I would hate to mislead the hon. Gentleman. I was making the point that the peers are all there as a result of patronage.

Mr. Letwin: Yes. That was my point. They will all be there as a result of patronage.

Mrs. Beckett: No; they are now.

Mr. Letwin: Indeed, but they will all be there as the result of the direct patronage of recent Prime Ministers. A larger proportion of them will be there as a result of the patronage of the present Prime Minister. But there will be rather few of them. There will be many fewer working peers than now, and they will have to do rather a lot. It is by no means clear to us how they will carry out their tasks. I do not believe that it is clear to the Government either. We shall discuss some of the details in subsequent amendments, but it is clear that if the onus of those tasks is placed on a small number of individuals with their relatively slight attendance for a long period, the problem will be aggravated to the point at which the process of legislation will be impeded.

It is not in the Government's interest, let alone in the interests of parliamentary democracy, that the interim House should endure, with its admittedly temporary nature--this is the Government's admitted position--in the sense that it has not been constructed carefully or after due reflection but has simply had part of the previous Chamber removed. It will be a kind of teeth extracted House.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Wisdom teeth extracted.

Mr. Letwin: The Government have an interest in ensuring that such a House with, as my hon. Friend says, its wisdom teeth removed, is not a long-term proposition.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Is the hon. Gentleman not making the point that if the transitional House cannot

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carry out its functions because its Members are too lazy to attend, any idea that it could become the long-term solution is fanciful?

Mr. Grieve: Would that it were.

Mr. Letwin: From a sedentary position, my hon. Friend says exactly what I should have liked to say. I share entirely in the hon. Gentleman's ambition. The House proposed in the Bill will not be capable of doing its job. It is not in the Government's interests, our interests or the interests of Parliament that it should continue for long. We are in agreement. The new clauses and amendments seek merely to ensure that there is a logical consequence--namely, that it is does not do its job at all, under one arrangement, or, if the Government do not accept that, that it does not do its job for longer than a couple of years.

If the Minister replies that two years is not quite long enough, we are reasonable men and women and we shall be happy to concede a longer period. We are trying to be practical. We have a common interest in getting it right. I urge the Minister to think about it. I know that he will not accept the amendments and new clauses tonight. Alas, that is the way in which this place works. We are discussing a serious matter. I hope that the Minister will go back and reflect on whether it would not be in the Government's interests to do something along the lines that we suggest. It would restore the faith of people who elected the Government and convince them that they are a serious Government engaged in serious constitutional change, and that when they say they are creating an interim Chamber, they will, indeed, ensure that it is interim.

Dr. George Turner: The hon. Gentleman possibly does not recognise that many Labour Members do not think that the present House of Lords is doing a good job. I know many Labour Members who believe that simply removing the hereditary peers will make the interim Chamber a better place that is able to do a better job than the existing House. That does not mean that we do not want a second change, but I am convinced that Conservative Members and many others in this country would address the real issue in a different fashion if they were discussing both questions together.

Mr. Letwin: I am genuinely surprised by the hon. Gentleman's intervention. It may be a sincere reflection of his lack of agreement with me about what goes on in the House of Lords. Or perhaps he has spent so much time attending debates in this House that he has not spent much time watching their lordships at work. Anyone who had the privilege to read or hear the recent debate on the White Paper in the House of Lords will know that the quality of debates in that House is very high. It is a House capable of performing its tasks. The interim Chamber will contain many of the same distinguished figures, but it will have about half the number of working peers. The burdens placed on working peers today are immense. The burdens placed on them in the interim House will be twice as great. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has considered what the workings of this country's constitution will be like if there is no limit to that increased burden.

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I think that it was on Second Reading that the President of the Council made what might, in the long run, be her most famous remark. When challenged, she said that nothing could be worse than the present position; that seems to be the doctrine espoused by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk. I fear that, alas, history will prove them wrong. If the interim Chamber continues for long, it might well prove to be even worse. I do not mean that in a political sense, but simply in the sense that the Chamber will not be able to do its business properly.

If the Government deny that proposition, it is open to them to revise their views and to take what I described as route 2--or route 3: they can argue that they do not want a final stage and that they will never have one, but will build a proper House from the interim Chamber; however, that has not been their proposition. Until now, their proposition has been that the interim Chamber will be merely interim. They admit that it will not do its work properly and that they do not like it, but nothing could be worse than the current position; so surely the consequence has to be that the Chamber must be temporary. They seem to have accepted that consequence, except in the Bill. We ask only that the Bill should reflect the Government's intention.

No doubt, many hon. Members will say that I have already laboured my point and I do not want to detain the Committee, but I have one final plea to make. Even if the drafting of the amendments and new clauses, or the numbers included in them, do not suit the Government, I ask them not to put a flag in the ground that they cannot remove. On the contrary, I ask them to take the elegant position that there might be something wrong with the drafting--something that they cannot accept--and to come back with some equivalent that serves roughly the same purpose. If that opportunity is missed, a time will come when the Government, as much as the rest of us, live to regret it.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) for introducing the group of amendments and new clauses. He has provided an important test of the Government's good faith. We now have the opportunity to find out what they think about the forms that we are considering--for example, what does stage 1 mean? Is it genuinely an interim stage that will be defined or curtailed in some way, or is it part of a subterfuge whereby stage 1 will be stretched out into the far future?

I have one small question. It is self-evident that some of the new clauses, even those tabled by my hon. Friends, are contradictory. Therefore, will my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset ask you, Mr. Winterton, that they be voted on separately? They will all have different effects: for example, the Committee must decide whether we want the Act to cease

as new clause 1 states; or whether we want it to cease after 24 months as specified in new clause 2. Setting aside remarkable coincidences--although they are always possible--those two provisions will have different effects. Part of what we are discussing is the relative merits of different approaches and, for that reason, we shall almost certainly want the opportunity to vote on the new clauses

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separately. I leave it to my hon. Friend to make that request to you, Mr. Winterton, as I think that it would need to be he who did so, but I want to put down that marker so that the Committee can do justice to all the issues covered by the group of amendments and new clauses.

Mr. Tyrie: As my right hon. Friend is aware, new clause 18, which I tabled, provides for a period of 36 months. I do not know whether he thinks that that is a sensible time, but the reason I chose it is that if we are to have a year for the work of the royal commission, it is only reasonable and sensible that there should be two years after that during which the necessary legislation can be passed. It is important that those who propose amendments should demonstrate that their proposalswill provide sufficient time to enable sensible stage 2 legislation to be introduced.

Mr. Forth: Indeed. I hope that my hon. Friend will expand those remarks and explain more fully why he believes that three years is the option to be preferred.

At this stage, my own view, for what it is worth--I speak tentatively because I have not yet heard the arguments of my hon. Friend--is that his three years is on the long side. My preference would be for the timetable to be as tight as possible, not because I am unduly suspicious of the Government--although I am--but because I believe that at this stage, we are surely able to set out for ourselves a timetable for the work of the royal commission and the deliberations that will follow that is much more demanding even than my hon. Friend's three years. That is my view, but perhaps my hon. Friend wants to persuade the Committee otherwise.

On new clauses 1 and 2, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset wants us to have the option of a deadline that is either the end of this Parliament or 24 months after the publication of the final report of the Joint Committee of both Houses. That deadline conceals a longer time scale that might approach the three years advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie). We seem to be considering an earliest possible limitation date at the end of this Parliament, followed by either the deadline in new clause 2 or that in new clause 18.

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